23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Taoism is the Chinese concept of Tao or “the way of things” that combines the foundations of religion and philosophy.

Taoism has come a long way. In the past, it was highly valued as a doctrine of immortality but persecuted as a source of superstition. However, Taoist philosophy is still popular in China and other Asian countries.

The emergence of taoism

It is believed that officially the Taoist philosophy originated in the 2nd century, but there is a lot of evidence of its existence as far back at the 5th – 3rd centuries BC. The main sources of Taoism are:

  • shamanism and mysticism in the state of the Chu and other Chinese lands
  • the doctrine of eternal life
  • magical rites during the state of Qi
  • the ideological tradition of the northern Chinese

The first Taoist treatises originated at the same time as Confucianism in the 5th century BC, and the Yellow Emperor Huangdi is traditionally considered to be the founder of Taoism. But the most reliable information is that philosopher Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, a fundamental work about the path of all things, was the founder of Taoism. This book is the starting point that marked the beginning of the development of Tao teaching. The second most crucial treatise is Zhuangzi which is a parable book about Taoist mysticism and metaphysics.


In the early 2nd century AD, the personality of Lao Tzu was elevated to an idol and a system of divine and demonic beings emerged. Divination and rituals of banishing evil spirits lie in the centre of Taoism.

The system of spiritual leaders of the teachings include the following:

  • Shangdi, who united the God of heaven, the Supreme Creator and the father of emperors
  • Lao Tzu—the master of Taoism
  • Pangu—the first person on Earth and the creator of the world

The first schools that spread Taoism as a religion appeared as a result of the formation of provinces and small theocratic states. Their rulers supported Taoism and spread the doctrine even after the fall of their power. Thus, there appeared The Way of the Celestial Masters, the philosophy of which reached northern China.

In Chinese and other literature, it is said that Taoism borrowed Buddhist ideas and vice versa, giving it a unique character. The teaching is similar to the Indian concept of the faceless Absolute, the spread of which led to the creation of the world. However, there is no direct confirmation of the influences.

By the 5th century AD, the canon of Daozang had been formed, which included more than 250 texts. The set of provisions resembled a Buddhist canon. Now there are about 1,488 works in Daozang.

Taoism is not an official religion but a movement of representatives of ordinary people, hermits and ascetics. The school of celestial mentors eventually transformed under the influence of other Taoist movements and ideological schism. In the 12th century, Taoism was represented by two schools in the north and south of China.

In the 17th and 19th centuries, Chinese Taoism and its treatises began to be exterminated as a philosophy that deprives followers of the ability to fight, and undermines the moral foundations of society and the state. It was not until the 1970s, under the rule of Deng Xiaoping, that the authority of Taoism was restored. Today, the Chinese Taoist Association operates successfully in China.

The essence and the main categories of taoism

The doctrine of the great concept of Taoism (“tao”—the law of being) occupies a significant place in the philosophy of Lao Tzu. It is characterised by:

  • universality
  • unity
  • limitlessness
  • self-reliance
  • continuous movement
  • anonymity
  • shapelessness
  • inaccessibility for human senses

No one created Tao, but it is the creator of all life on Earth. It gives names and forms to all things in the world and it is believed that someday everything should go back to Tao. A person has to understand Tao and connect with it to achieve perpetual happiness.

Taoism also uses other inherent categories:

  1. De is the moral that Tao confers. Virtue is associated with the rejection of all kinds of efforts and lies in the great spiritual power that Heaven gives the emperor to pass on to his people.
  2. Wu Wei, which is a person’s understanding of the purposefulness of his/her actions, which are consistent with the natural scenario of life. Action contrary to Tao is a pointless waste of energy that leads to defeat.
  3. Pu is the natural power of objects, whose energy is not touched by nature, or the simplicity of the soul (Pu).

From the moment of birth, a human is imbued with the energy of Qi, which is given by the father and mother. Throughout his/her life, the body continues to fill with external Qi and convert it into internal energy through breathing, training and eating the right foods. All things, phenomena and actions are imbued with Tao.

There are two levels, namely man-microcosm and universum-macrocosm which exist forever. Death is the separation of the spirit from the flesh and its dissolution in the macrocosm.

Therefore, the purpose of the human soul is to achieve a merger with Tao. This is possible only in a contemplative way of life according to the principles of Taoism, as well as meditations, breathing, and gymnastic practices.

Difference between confucianism and buddhism

Confucianism and Taoism have been opposed to each other for centuries, since the philosophy of the former is to serve the state and society, and the meaning of the latter is contemplation and physical passivity with constant spiritual content. Some Confucians rejected Taoism as a manifestation of paganism. Supporters of the Tao doctrine, on the other hand, insisted on its resemblance to logos.

Taoism and Buddhism have more in common. The first Lingbao School was founded amid the study of Buddhist scriptures: 

  • the idea of relocation of souls in five worlds
  • cosmological ideas
  • knowledge of karma and retribution in future lives
  • meditative techniques—these were borrowed from the ancient Indian teachings

Tao adherents do not apply the tradition of achieving eternal life and improving the meaning of immortality. In their opinion, after death, celestial beings go into other worlds—the islands of the immortal, the land of happiness, and others.

Taoism teaches you to achieve a good and happy life by contemplation. Therefore, blessed is the one who delves into the depths of his/her soul and seeks to hear him/herself through meditation. This is the only way to understand the reason for being and return to one’s roots, to something eternal.