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Taoism (däuˈĭzəm), refers both to a Chinese system of thought and to one of the four major religions of China (with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Chinese popular religion).

Philosophical Taoism

The philosophical system stems largely from the Tao-te-ching, a text traditionally ascribed to Lao Tzu but probably written in the mid-3d cent. B.C. The Tao, in the broadest sense, is the way the universe functions, the path [Chin. tao=path] taken by natural events. It is characterized by spontaneous creativity and by regular alternations of phenomena (such as day following night) that proceed without effort. Effortless action may be illustrated by the conduct of water, which unresistingly accepts the lowest level and yet wears away the hardest substance. Human beings, following the Tao, must abjure all striving. The ideal state of being, fully attainable only by mystical contemplation, is simplicity and freedom from desire, comparable to that of an infant or an “uncarved block.”

Taoist political doctrines reflect this quietistic philosophy: the ruler's duty is to impose a minimum of government, while protecting his people from experiencing material wants or strong passions. The social virtues expounded by Confucius were condemned as symptoms of excessive government and disregard of effortless action. Second only to Lao Tzu as an exponent of philosophical Taoism was Chuang-tzu, who wrote brilliant satirical essays. Taoist ideals greatly influenced Chinese literature, painting, and calligraphy. Later Taoism emphasized the techniques [Chin. te=power] for realizing the effects flowing from the Tao, especially long life and physical immortality.

Religious Taoism

Religious Taoism appropriated earlier interest and belief in alchemy and the search for the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone. By the 5th cent. A.D., Taoism was a fully developed religious system with many features adopted from Mahayana Buddhism, offering emotional religious satisfaction to those who found the largely ethical system of Confucianism inadequate. Taoism developed a large pantheon (probably incorporating many local gods), monastic orders, and lay masters. Heading the commonly worshiped deities is the Jade Emperor. Directly under him, ruling from Mt. Tai, is the Emperor of the Eastern Mountain, who weighs merits and faults and assigns reward and punishment in this and future existences. An ecclesiastical hierarchy was founded in the 8th cent., headed by the T'ien Shih [master of heaven]; he claimed succession from Chang Tao-lin, an alchemist of the 2d cent. who was reputed to have discovered the elixir of immortality after receiving magical power from Lao Tzu.

Throughout its history Taoism has provided the basis for many Chinese secret societies; in the 1950s, after the establishment of the Communist regime, Taoism was officially proscribed. Taoism is still practiced to some degree in modern China, as well as in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau and in communities of Chinese who have emigrated.


Taoist ideas have enjoyed wide circulation in the West in the late 20th cent. and have been the basis of popular books, such as F. Capra's Tao of Physics (1983). See also A. Waley, The Way and Its Power (1935); D. C. Lau, tr., Tao Te Ching (1963); B. Watson, tr., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (1968); M. Kalternmark, Lao Tzu and Taoism (1969); R. M. Smullyan, Tao Is Silent (1977); C.-Y. Chang, Creativity and Taoism (1963, repr. 1982); N. J. Girardot, Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism (1983); J. Lagerway, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History (1987).

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the ancient Chinese philosophical and religious tradition (literally ‘the school of the way’) nominally based on the thinking of the legendary thinker Lao-tzu. Taoism is a theory which advocates an acceptance of the forces of nature and the importance of living in harmony with these. Whereas WEBER regarded CONFUCANISM as the philosophy of the ruling class, he regarded Taoist cults as popular religious forms in which the needs of the masses were accommodated.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) One of the basic tendencies of ancient Chinese philosophy, represented primarily by the treatises of Lao-tsu (called in ancient times the Tao Tê Ching) and Chuang-tzu. At the present time, most scholars have come to the conclusion that Chuang-tzu’s treatise appeared about 300 B.C. and Lao-tzu’s appeared at approximately the same time. In connection with this, the dating of the rise of Taoism has been moved forward from the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. to the fourth and third centuries B.C.

At the center of the teachings expounded in Chuang-tzu’s treatise, in the form of parables of a polemical nature that are directed against Confucianism and Mohism, is the theme of the opposition of nature to society and a call for man to shake off the fetters of obligation and duty and return to the simple, natural life close to nature and embodying tao. This concept appears as the mysterious wholeness of universal life, present in everything but not exhausted in any single thing, incapable of being known by reason or expressed in words. Disillusionment with the possibility of political and social action, anarchic individualism, mysticism, and irrationalism are all characteristic of the philosophy of Chuang-tzu, but the idea, presented in the treatise, on the desirability of the total destruction of culture, marked the beginning of the Taoist tradition. This tradition has more than once in the course of Chinese history given ideological shape to peasant revolutionism. At the same time, the exaltation of nature and the call for attentive observation of its processes promoted, on the one hand, the appearance in China of the initial scientific accomplishments that made possible a series of inventions (in particular, the invention of paper) and encouraged technological progress; on the other hand, it subsequently played a large role in the development of Chinese painting (especially, landscape painting). In the treatise by Lao-tsu the concept of tao acquires the meaning of not only the essence but also the original cause of the universe. Instead of the absolute rejection of politics and moral philosophy found in Chuang-tzu’s writings, there is a call to inaction (wu wei), signifying on the moral plane withdrawal, compliance, and the renunciation of desire and struggle and on the political plane the advocacy of nonintervention of the government in the life of the people.

(2) One of the Chinese religions. Taoism arose in the second century A.D. and used the treatise by Lao-tsu as its basic canonical work. In the second century, Chang Tao-ling founded, apparently under the influence of Buddhism, the Taoist religious organization, with whose help an insurgent government was created during the uprising of the Yellow Bandages (184). In the early fifth century, Kou Chien-chih elaborated on the Taoist theology and ritual, which made possible the proclamation of Taoism as the state religion. Taoism enjoyed special protection during the T’ang era, when Lao-tsu, Chuang-tzu, and other Taoist thinkers were canonized by imperial edict and Taoist temples were erected throughout the country. After the tenth century, Taoism lost the support of the state power and was preserved until the middle of the 20th century mainly as a syncretic, popular religion that had absorbed elements of Confucianism and Buddhism.

The basic aim of the adherents of Taoism is the achievement of long life, for which a whole series of practices are used, beginning with specific diets and ending with various physical exercises. Taoist magi and doctors engaged in the search for the elixir of immortality significantly furthered the development of Chinese alchemy.


Ian Khin-shun. Drevnekitaiskii filosof Lao-tzu i ego uchenie. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950.
Ateisty, materialisty, dialektiki Drevnego Kitaia. Introduction, translation, and commentary by L. D. Pozdneeva. Moscow, 1967.
Rubin, V. A. “Chelovek v drevnekitaiskoi mysli.” Narody Azii i Afriki, 1968, no. 6.
Fung Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy, vols. 1–2. Princeton, 1952–53.
Maspero, H. Melanges posthumes sur les religions et l’histoire de la Chine, vol. 2. Paris, 1950.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. the philosophy of Lao Zi, the Chinese philosopher (?604--?531 bc), that advocates a simple honest life and noninterference with the course of natural events
2. a popular Chinese system of religion and philosophy claiming to be teachings of Lao Zi but also incorporating pantheism and sorcery
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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