J Russell Kirkland. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.


Taoism is a Chinese religious tradition emphasizing personal transformation and integration with the unseen forces of the universe. The Taoist’s name for their religion is Tao-chiao (“the teachings of the Tao”), a term that goes back to leaders such as Lu Hsiu-ching (406-77), highly educated aristocrats who wove together many diverse traditions and practices to form an inclusive new cultural and religious framework. That framework was designed to preserve all that was good and worthwhile within the indigenous religious heritage of China so that it could survive the challenge of Buddhism, which became prominent in China beginning in the fourth century C.E. The term “Tao,” literally “the way” in Chinese, has been variously understood in Taoism, though it generally refers to the highest dimensions of reality.

Taoism evolved not among superstitious peasants (as modern Confucians taught Westerners to imagine) but rather among China’s most powerful, most cultured, and most educated classes. Taoist writings of all periods—few of which have been translated into modern languages or even read—provide models of personal practice designed for the tastes of scholars, artists, rulers, and intellectuals. Centuries of Taoist leaders produced scholarly and scientific works of every description, developed sophisticated medical techniques, and won the admiration of Chinese scholars and officials, military and civilian functionaries, poets and painters, and respectful emperors.

After its beginnings in the fifth century, Taoism quickly gained acceptance among men and women of all social levels in every region of China, and it was well respected by China’s rulers up through the mid-eighteenth century. The universal respect for Taoism among the Chinese people resulted from the immense range of practices and beliefs for men and women of every taste, every social stratum, and every level of education. Even today within China’s rapidly modernizing society, men and women preserve the living heritage of traditional Taoism, maintaining its temples, traditions, and rich panoply of ancient practices for self-cultivation.

Even so, Taoism is probably the most poorly understood of the world’s major religions, both inside China and around the world. Centuries of Confucian dominance and decades of Communist rule left the people of China and the rest of the modern world with distorted ideas about the tradition. For instance, many Taoist practices, such as ch’i-kung (qigong, the skill of attracting vital energy), are popular among people who are largely ignorant of their Taoist underpinnings, while the men and women who practice Taoism in temples throughout China often keep mum about the vitality of their religion, fearing persecution by Communist authorities. Moreover, decades of Westerners were mistakenly taught that the Chinese themselves distinguish “religious Taoism” from “philosophical Taoism.” In reality, that belief arose not from any difference among various types of Taoists or even among varying types of Taoist thought or practice. Rather, it was the propaganda of a would-be elite in nineteenth and twentieth-century China, who labored to be perceived as “more enlightened” than practitioners of Taoism.


Trying to pinpoint the beginning of Taoism is like trying to identify the beginning of Judaism: One could place it here or there, depending upon exactly how “Taoism” is defined. Writings that have survived from “classical China” (i.e., before 221 B.C.E.)—and archaeological finds of the 1990s—show that by the late fourth century B.C.E. there were people who saw the world in holistic terms. Eventually some of them wrote about practices of self-cultivation that could lead to a kind of spiritual harmony. The earliest such writing seems to have been the long-overlooked Nei-yeh (“Inner Cultivation”), likely a prototype for the well-known Tao te ching. The Nei-yeh teaches one to quiet one’s hsin (heart/mind) by governing thought and emotion; one can thereby preserve one’s ching (vital essence) and attract and retain the elusive forces of life—Tao, ch’i (life-energy), and shen (spirit, or spiritual consciousness). Related ideas found their way into the Tao te ching (also known as the Lao-tzu), which was probably completed c. 285 B.C.E. by an editor at the Chi-hsia academy. It seems to preserve oral traditions of the southern land of Ch’u, repackaging them as a sociopolitical program that could vie with Confucianism and other competing groups.

Yet in “classical China” there were actually no “Taoists,” in the sense of a group of people who knew each other and agreed that they all shared ideas and practices that set them apart from other groups. Such a self-conscious group did not emerge until centuries later (about 500 C.E.). Near the end of the third century B.C.E., Legalists helped Ch’in Shih-huang-ti become the first emperor of a unified China, but his regime was soon overthrown, and the early rulers of the subsequent Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-221 C.E.) often looked to the Tao te ching for guiding principles. “Lao-tzu,” its legendary “author,” was divinized by the Han imperial government, and for centuries thereafter both emperors and religious leaders frequently claimed a spiritual legitimacy bestowed upon them by Lord Lao (Lao-chün).

One movement that made just such a claim sprang from writings that had emerged from the Han court at the end of the first century B.C.E. They culminated in a little-known text called the T’ai-p’ing ching (“Scripture of Grand Tranquillity”). It echoes the Tao te ching by saying that ancient rulers had actualized t’ai-p’ing (grand tranquillity) by practicing wu-wei (nonaction)—a behavioral ideal of trusting to the world’s natural processes instead of to one’s own activity. “Grand tranquillity” was, however, disrupted when later rulers meddled with the world, and as a result, people now need practical advice for reintegrating themselves with the natural order. The T’ai-p’ing ching’s recipes included moral rectitude, meditation practices, medicine, acupuncture, hygienic practices such as breath control, and even music therapy. Notably it portrays some of its teachings as instructions that a t’ien-shih (celestial master) gave to a group of disciples called chen (perfected or realized ones).

Sometime later an obscure healer named Chang Tao-ling claimed a revelation and meng-wei (covenant) from Lord Lao authorizing him to found a new social and religious order. Chang’s followers hailed him as the “Celestial Master” and built a religious organization whose men and women officiants (libationers) offered people of all social backgrounds absolution from inherited sins by means of confession and good works. The result was healing, not physical or spiritual immortality. The title “Celestial Master” was handed down among Chang’s descendants, one of whom presumably produced a text called the Hsiang-erh (“Just Thinking”). Couched as a commentary on the Lao-tzu, it integrated the self-cultivation teachings of the Nei-yeh with the T’ai-p’ing ching’s general worldview, even adding a set of moral precepts. The Hsiang-erh was thus the first text to offer something for everyone.

When northern China fell to non-Chinese invaders in the early fourth century, the “Celestial Master” leaders fled south. The rich indigenous culture of the south included ideas about wai-tan (alchemy)—a process of self-perfection involving the preparation of spiritualized substances called tan (elixirs). As explained in the scriptures of the T’ai-ch’ing (“Great Clarity”) tradition—which apparently interested mostly aristocrats—the successful practitioner would be elevated to a heavenly sphere characterized by “great clarity.” As these various beliefs and practices became known to elements of society that had theretofore been quite distinct from each other—socially, culturally, and geographically—they stimulated even more religious ferment. They would eventually come together to form “Taoism.”

Two new developments were said to have begun as revelations from divine beings and held the interest of an indeterminable segment of the highly educated southern aristocracy. In the 360s, for instance, according to tradition, angelic beings called chen-jen (perfected ones) channeled an array of sacred texts through a human medium, revealing how a practitioner could ascend to their heavenly realm, called Shang-ch’ing (“Supreme Clarity”). A primary element of Shangch’ing practice was visualizational meditation, such as visualizing marriage between the human practitioner and one of the beneficent female “perfected ones.” The Shang-ch’ing revelations also promised that mortals who perfected themselves by these practices would survive the world’s imminent purgation: “the Sage of the Latter Days” (hou-sheng, sometimes translated “the Sage Who Is to Come”) will soon appear, eliminate the negative forces that plague our world, and establish a new world order for the “seed people” who have perfected themselves under the guidance of the “perfected ones.” The influence of these revelations on later centuries of Taoists was fairly limited, largely because the predicted date for the Sage’s arrival passed without the promised felicities.

Consequently, at the end of the fourth century another set of southern aristocrats produced a different set of revelations, called Ling-pao (“Numinous Treasure”). The primary Ling-pao scripture was the Tu-jen ching (“Scripture for the Salvation of Humanity”). It teaches that at the beginning of the world the Tao became personified as a compassionate divine being who has now decided to save humanity by revealing the Tu-jen ching—itself an emanation of the Tao. The practitioner who recites the Tu-jen ching reactualizes the deity’s primordial recitation of its words and thus assimilates himself into the Tao itself. No one knows how many people actually engaged in this practice, but the universalistic values underlying the Ling-pao message—borrowed in part from Mahayana Buddhist ideas—found a lasting place in Taoist tradition.

In the fifth century another southern aristocrat, a Ling-pao master named Lu Hsiu-ching, discussed below under EARLY AND MODERN LEADERS, initiated the effort to consolidate all the unrelated traditions out-lined above into an ecumenical religious tradition that could compete with Buddhism, which had gained great acceptance in China. Lu reformulated earlier ritual practices—some from popular sources, some from imperial ceremonies—into standard liturgical forms. The resulting chiao and chai liturgies are practiced by Taoists today. Lu also shaped the entire later Taoist tradition by proposing a collection of texts that would define the contents and the boundaries of Tao-chiao (“the teachings of the Tao”)—the term that Taoists ever since have used for their own religious traditions. Originally called Santung (“The Three Caverns”), this massive “Library of the Tao” grew century after century, culminating in today’s Tao-tsang, discussed below under SACRED BOOKS.

During the T’ang period (618-907), illustrious emperors took Taoist holy orders from great masters such as Ssu-ma Ch’eng-chen and Li Han-kuang, and imperial princesses entered the Taoist priesthood. The T’ang was also a time when new subtraditions began to emerge; an example is Ch’ing-wei (“Clarified Tenuity”) Taoism, a system of therapeutic rituals founded by a young woman, Tsu Shu, in about 900.

During the Sung dynasty (960-1279) changes in Chinese society led to new challenges for Taoism. In the Northern Sung dynasty—from 960 to 1126—Taoism prospered and continued to enjoy respect throughout society, and the emperor Hui-tsung (reigned 1100-25) supported Taoism as earlier rulers had done. Soon, however, northern China was conquered by various non-Chinese peoples, and by the late thirteenth century Taoism had lost much of its social, political, and cultural prominence. The institutions that had evolved among medieval Taoists survived, but Taoism itself was modified by new “vernacular” traditions: Non-Taoist religious movements, with their own social and cultural constituencies, came to be accepted as part of the Taoist heritage.

Meanwhile, Taoist intellectuals repackaged age-old self-cultivation practices to appeal the new gentry class that had supplanted the ancient aristocracy. The prime example of “gentry Taoism” is Ch’üan-chen (“Integrating the Perfections”). It sprang from the teachings of Wang Che, otherwise known as Wang Ch’ung-yang (1113-70). Ch’üan-chen, which was especially popular among women, soon adopted a monastic setting. Its teachings featured a reinterpretation of the Taoist practices of spiritual refinement through meditation known as chin-tan (“Golden Elixir”) or nei-tan (“Inner Alchemy”). This living tradition is now known as “Northern Taoism.”

The history of Taoism over the last thousand years or so remains largely unknown, even to most specialists in Taoist studies. In general, late-imperial Taoism can be described as an amalgam of (1) elements of the common Tao-chiao of T’ang times; (2) new ritual traditions founded before the conquest period (approximately the twelfth through fourteenth centuries), such as Ch’ingwei; and (3) new models for self-cultivation, such as Ch’üan-chen. The ritual traditions of late-imperial times included “literati” participants, but they generally deemphasized self-cultivation (both “Inner Alchemy” and the earlier biospiritual practices) and seldom attempted to integrate Confucian or Neo-Confucian models of religious practice. Eventually, all those ritual traditions—both those that emphasized public liturgies and those more focused on individual ritual activity—blended together under a single rubric: “Southern Taoism.” Its hereditary leaders purported to be descendants of Chang Tao-ling, founder of the ancient “Celestial Master” organization. Their Cheng-i (“Orthodox Unity”) tradition had actually emerged during the conquest period, and their historical “lineage”—like those devised by Ch’an (Zen) Buddhists of the same period and by later “Dragon Gate” Taoists—was largely fabricated.

The turning point for Taoism was the period from 1279 to 1368, when China was ruled by the Mongols. The conqueror Chingghis (widely called Genghis Khan) continued to support the newly established Ch’üan-chen tradition, as his predecessors in northern China—a Manchurian people called the Jurchen—had done. Chingghis even summoned its founder’s most prominent disciple to explain Taoist principles at his court. Chingghi’ss successor, Qubilai (commonly called Khublai Khan), however, decided that his effort to consolidate Mongol control over the Chinese populace would be enhanced by establishing a “religious monopoly.” Qubilai gave the Cheng-i leadership exclusive authority over Taoists throughout the south, and he denied the validity of any ordination given by other Taoist leaders.

The rulers of the ensuing Ming dynasty (1368-1644) were native Chinese, but they continued the Mongol’s recognition of the Cheng-i priesthood and even intermarried with Cheng-i priests. In 1374 the Ming founder praised Cheng-i Taoists while denigrating Ch’üan-chen Taoists and Ch’an Buddhists for “devoting themselves to the cultivation of the person and the improvement of the individual endowment”—activities that did nothing to help the government control people’s lives. Nonetheless, Ch’üan-chen models survived among literati of Ming times, mainly in a new subtradition called Ching-ming (“Pure Illumination”) Taoism, which remains little known even among scholars.

The Manchus—a people descended from the Jurchen—maintained the Ming ruler’s domination of Taoism. Manchu rulers continued official recognition of Cheng-i Taoist leaders, sometimes even summoning them to perform rites at the imperial court. One emperor even named a Cheng-i priest “grand minister” of the nation, as T’ang emperors had earlier done. The harsh emperor known as Ch’ien-lung (reigned 1736-96) banished all Taoists from his court, however, and soon they lost virtually all their political influence. By the time the Western powers won the Opium Wars and took control of China in the mid-nineteenth century, the Manchus no longer bothered to recognize any Taoist.

Yet that is not to say that Taoism itself came to an end. Despite their loss of imperial sanctions, Cheng-i priests continued to perform their liturgies. The literati traditions of Taoist self-cultivation passed from Chingming hands into the Lung-men (“Dragon Gate”) tradition. Like Ching-ming Taoism, “Dragon Gate” Taoism was carefully crafted to pass government muster while preserving the inherited social institutions of Taoism as well as traditional self-cultivation practices. Into the twenty-first century China’s Taoists have preserved their living traditions and practices at temples across China, despite brutal attacks on religious centers of all faiths during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.

Central Doctrines

There have never been any doctrines to which all Taoists were expected to subscribe. Unlike founded religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, Taoism has never looked back to one great person and keyed its beliefs to his life or teachings. Un-like Christians or Muslims, Taoists never fought proponents of other faiths to gain or retain social or political supremacy. Hence, Taoists never felt pressed to reduce their faith to a set of core teachings that could determine whose side a person was truly supporting. Nor has Taoism ever had a priesthood that tried to enforce conformity to certain creedal formulations in order to maintain the faith’s “purity” or to ensure its authority over practitioners. Taoist priests are, at most, ritual intermediaries between humans and the higher powers—never evangelists who labor to shape practitioner’s beliefs or clerics who confirm believer’s conformance to established creeds.

Taoism never based itself upon a premise that its followers consist of those who assent to certain propositions about life, as distinguished from people who do not. The idea that religious faith or practice must logically proceed from a proposition or belief—for instance, that religion begins inside a person’s head and is then expressed in what one does with one’s “external” life—is alien to the realities of Taoism, as indeed it is to the traditions of many indigenous peoples. For those reasons Taoists never engaged in disputation regarding the relative validity of different beliefs or worried that someone’s faith might not be sound. Taoists never feared that their faith would be threatened by leaving matters of “belief” up to practitioners themselves.

Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that any and all beliefs could equally qualify as “Taoist.” By analyzing the teachings and practices of Taoists throughout history, certain themes and principles can be identified that have been shared by most Taoists over the centuries and that have distinguished Taoists from those who embrace other traditions. What is found is that Taoism has always emphasized practice rather than belief and that the kind of practice that it emphasizes has generally been spiritual self-cultivation. Self-cultivation is at the core of what it means to practice Taoism. Modern audiences must be careful to understand such matters on Taoist terms. For example, the very term “self-cultivation” misleads modern audiences to imagine Taoists as romantic individualists who treasure their sovereign “selves.” The Taoist term hsiu-lien (literally, “cultivation and refinement”) actually makes no reference to any “self.” Modern people who narcissistically sanctify their own “self”—imagining it to be threatened by “outside forces” such as society or a Supreme Being—are not embracing Taoist premises. In fact, there is no word in Chinese that even remotely corresponds to a term like “the self.” In Taoism there have never been any beliefs or practices premised upon dualistic assumptions of any description, for example, that the individual is at odds with society; good is in a struggle against evil; spirit is intrinsically alien to nature or matter; or that man is ontologically different from, and inferior to, the divine.

Even traditional Chinese ideas of yin and yang—often mistakenly imagined to be characteristic elements of Taoist belief—assumed those basic realities to be complementary, not antagonistic. Only in modern times did some Chinese writers, Taoist and non-Taoist, begin attributing a positive value to yang and a negative valuation to yin. Some late-imperial intellectuals conceived Taoist practice as leading to an integration of “the two,” as seen in “Inner Alchemy” texts such as the Hsing-ming kuei-chih (“Balanced Instructions about Inner Nature and Life-Realities”) of 1615. All such ideas, however, evolved in multiple (even, to non-Taoist eyes, discordant) ways, as different minds reformulated various inherited ideas.

If it is a mistake to project onto Taoism the dualistic assumptions that underlie some other culture’s ideas, it would also be wrong to think that Taoism is monistic. The notion that “all things are one” is found nowhere in Taoism. Taoist practice is rarely explainable in such terms as “becoming one with Tao” (understood as some static transcendent absolute) or in such terms as transcending “time” or “the material world” to enter “eternity” or “heaven” (understood as a state ontologically different from our current life). Most certainly, no Taoist ever saw his or her practice in such terms as penetrating the “illusion” of the world of multiplicity and perceiving some underlying “unity.”

Indeed, today’s best scholars of Taoism frequently struggle with getting their inherited conceptual terminology to match up with what Taoists seem to be saying and doing. The interpretive categories derived from studying Christianity, Hinduism, Platonism, or Sufism simply do not fit Taoism. Looking back at the ways in which many centuries of Taoists, and their classical predecessors, have explained their understanding of how people should live, it is fair to say that Taoism rests upon a holistic worldview and a transformational ethos.

To understand the historical and theoretical parameters of the Taoist worldview and ethos more fully, it is helpful to examine the meanings of the term “Tao.” Even if an exploration of Tao is confined to ideas found in the Tao te ching and other well-known classical texts such as the Chuang-tzu, a careful analysis yields no coherent results. In the Tao te ching, for instance, the usage of the term leads us to conclude that “Tao” is something simultaneously aware but not personal, neither transcendent nor immanent, unfeeling yet deeply maternal in its loving kindness, beyond human grasp yet easily graspable for anyone trying to wage a war or manage a government. In sum, the various contributors to the Tao te ching incorporated many unrelated concepts and left readers to take their pick.

In Chuang-tzu it is hard to see “Tao” as much more than a rhetorical element used to suggest the condition one experiences when one leaps beyond human valuation and cultural constructs. In the Nei-yeh, on the other hand, “Tao” suggests “realities that one ought to cultivate” and is used interchangeably with terms such as ch’i (life-energy) and shen (spirit)—transient spiritual forces that the successful practitioner learns to attract by proper management of body, mind, heart, and spirit. Those ideas endure among Taoists down to the present day and are found in many different Taoist models of practice. By contrast, the specific associations of “Tao” that one finds in the Tao te ching and Chuang-tzu were mostly ignored by later Taoists or preserved as rhetorical flourishes.

In most Taoist formulations, as in most other East Asian usages, the term “Tao” (literally “the way”) was not a philosophical concept but rather a term for “personal practices that follow wise and ancient principles.” In classical China, even in the teachings of Confucius himself, “Tao” was a term of common discourse meaning something like “our teachings about how we should live our lives” or “what we do in order to live most meaningfully.” Such associations endure in certain Japanese terms that contain the character “do” (the Japanese pronunciation of “tao”), such as aikido (the “way” of harmonious ch’i), a form of martial art, and chado (the “way” of tea), the traditions associated with the tea ceremony. That fact shows that by T’ang times (618-907)—when Japan adopted many elements of Chinese culture, though not Taoism itself—the term “Tao” suggested something like “an admirable complex of traditional practices.” In all those contexts, as in Taoist tradition, the practices are not just activities related to certain ideas but rather means by which people embed themselves in, and manifest anew, cherished principles.

In Taoism those principles pertain to subtle realities that link the living practitioner to other practitioners of past and present, to other living things (human and nonhuman), and to the interconnected matrix of time, space, consciousness, life, spirit, and society within which all life’s activities take place. From Chuang-tzu through the Shang-ch’ing revelations and T’ang Taoism into the present, Taoists frequently refer to religious practice as hsiu chen (cultivating reality) and to a person whose practice has reached its culmination as a chen jen (realized person). Nearly synonymous is the term hsiu tao (cultivating Tao), which became a standard summation of the practice of Ch’üan-chen Taoism and which endures in “Northern Taoism” today.

In sum, Taoists have always understood themselves as people who learn, and engage in, practices of spiritual transformation within a holistically interlinked universe. Taoists, however, have never devoted time or effort to pinning down the precise terms in which one should conceptualize such matters.

Moral Code of Conduct

Most twentieth-century writers mistakenly insisted that China’s Taoists, unlike Confucians, ignored moral issues and formulated no moral teachings. In reality, Taoists always agreed with Confucians about the need for living a moral life and about the importance of moral conduct in society. While Confucians grounded their moral principles in the traditional Chinese social order, however, Taoists grounded theirs in holistic realities. That is, Taoists sought to integrate themselves not just with other humans but also with life’s deeper realities.

In general, the principle of Taoist morality is that one should practice self-restraint while working to cultivate and refine oneself, for in that way one brings benefits to others as well as to oneself. The Tao te ching called this principle shan (goodness) and argued that it corresponds to wholesome natural principles seen in the environment (for example, in water) and the characteristics of an imperceptible force called Tao.

In the Tao te ching that modern readers know, there is no suggestion that the practitioner should follow any specific code of behavior. In fact, many later Taoists continued to understand “goodness” as a general element of personal self-cultivation. By about the third century, however, Taoists had begun reading the Tao te ching as an expression of the wisdom of Lord Lao (Laochün), a divine being whom the emperors of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-221 C.E.) had begun venerating. Taoists thus began reading the Tao te ching as explaining Lord Lao’s expectations regarding moral conduct. A fragmentary commentary from that period, the Hsiangerh (“Just Thinking”), advocates biospiritual cultivation, yet it once also included 36 moral precepts. Nine of them promote virtues tagged to the Tao te ching (for example, stillness and clarity), while the others proscribed negative behaviors that had been obliquely criticized in the Tao te ching and the T’ai-p’ing ching.

By the fourth century Taoists had become familiar with the monastic precepts of Chinese Buddhists, which inspired them to particularize their own moral ordinances further in order to be more competitive with the Buddhist’s model. The eventual result was The 180 Precepts of Lord Lao, which scholars wholly ignored until the closing years of the twentieth century. No one knows when the 180 Precepts were first compiled. The scholar aristocrat Ko Hung seems to have been familiar with some such precepts, and when later aristocrats such as Lu Hsiu-ching wove together Taoist traditions in the fourth and fifth centuries, they considered the Precepts essential for living the Taoist life. The Tao-tsang contains several versions of the Precepts, showing that they had remained important to centuries of Taoists.

Overall, the Precepts require that a person govern his behavior and restrain all thoughtless and self-indulgent impulses. By doing so, the person ensures that he does no harm to others or to the world in which we live. In format the 180 Precepts follow the Hsiang-erh’s briefer list: They first explain what “you should not” do (140 precepts) and then outline what “you ought to” do (the remaining 40). The dicta gave specific standards concerning what is right and wrong regarding common aspects of everyday life. For instance, they require proper restraint in eating and drinking and respectful behavior toward women, servants, family members, teachers, disciples, and the general public. The Precepts also forbid abuse of animals, both wild and domestic; one ought not even frighten birds or beasts, much less cage them. Proper respect for nature is also required by prohibitions against improperly felling trees, draining rivers and marshes, or even picking flowers. Generally, a person should avoid activities that might harm anyone or anything and should assuredly take no part in the killing of anyone, even the unborn.

The audience of Lord Lao’s Precepts apparently consisted of men. (Precepts intended specifically for women appeared in a now-lost text called the “Pure Precepts of Grand Yin.”) Research has shown that the people expected to follow the 180 Precepts were laymen, not clerics. Nevertheless, it is hard to say how fully Taoists of any era may have believed in such itemized codes of morality. By medieval times Taoist writers seldom mentioned Lord Lao’s Precepts. In monastic institutions, however, detailed codes of behavior endured into the twentieth century.

One might be tempted to construe the 180 Precepts as “the Taoist Ten Commandments,” but their role was different from that of the Decalogue in Jewish or Christian tradition. Lord Lao was never viewed as “the One True God” by Taoists of any stripe, nor was “obeying the will of Lord Lao” ever part of any “Taoist catechism.”

Some scholars believe that the “Celestial Master” community of late antiquity paralleled that of the Hebrews in the so-called wilderness period—a closed community that conceived its distinctive identity in terms of a covenant handed down by a deity who simply “chose” them. Surviving texts show that the early “Celestial Masters” expressly distinguished themselves from followers of other “cults” in the surrounding society. After the sixth century, however, most Taoist leaders were highly cultured aristocrats who had no worries about differentiating their religion from superstitious cults (as the earlier “Celestial Masters” had struggled to do). Thus, Lord Lao’s Precepts faded into the back-ground, and their underlying principles simply became taken for granted as general moral expectations. With-out a theology of sin or a worldview assuming a fight between good and evil, Taoists were usually confident that any serious practitioner of their faith would seldom need more than occasional reminders that the spiritual life must rest upon a solid foundation of good character and moral conduct. Such reminders restated the common Taoist virtues—such as stillness, purity, and self-restraint—and trusted the practitioner to cultivate them as he or she worked toward spiritual perfection.

Sacred Books

Unlike Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Taoists have never understood their religion as the faithful practice of teachings found in a clearly defined set of writings. Certain “Taoist ideas” did originate in classical texts like the Nei-yeh and the Tao te ching, but research has not yet revealed any “religious community” devoted to following their teachings. In that sense, the first “Taoist scripture” may have been the T’ai-p’ing ching (“Scripture of Grand Tranquility”)—a massive work of late antiquity. In another sense, the first “scripture” could be said to have been the Tu-jen ching (late fourth century; “Scripture for Human Salvation”), which presents itself as a verbalization of Tao itself.

History shows that some Taoist writings that had been influential in early periods eventually lost their impact. For instance, neither “Northern Taoists” nor “Southern Taoists” today make much use of ancient texts such as the T’ai-p’ing ching or Tu-jen ching. Likewise, the writings of subtraditions such as T’ai-ch’ing and Shang-ch’ing are read today only by scattered practitioners at Taoist temples and by a few dozen scholars around the world. On the other hand, the beliefs and practices presented in ancient texts on self-cultivation—particularly the Nei-yeh—were preserved over the centuries, because they were continually repackaged in new writings that appealed to ever-changing audiences. For instance, the Nei-yeh’s promotion of “biospiritual cultivation” reappeared in works as disparate as the “philosophical” Huai-nan-tzu (second century B.C.E.); the early “Celestial Master” Tao te ching commentary called the Hsiang-erh (second century C.E.); a still-used guide to Taoist practice called the T’ien-yin-tzu (c. 700 C.E.); and even a late-imperial novel, Ch’i-chen chuan (“Seven Taoist Masters”). So a true understanding of Taoist practice requires not just the study of one basic “scripture” but rather careful study of centuries of such largely unknown texts, which were produced by men and women of different social classes and spiritual aspirations and which were honored and read but never “canonized” in quite the sense that the Bible was.

In the fifth century Lu Hsiu-ching hoped to create a sense of Taoist identity, so he compiled a list of writings that expressed ideas that would appeal to other likeminded aristocrats. The actual gathering of those writings (sixth century) resulted in a collection called “The Three Caverns” (San-tung), which stressed texts of the Ling-pao and Shang-ch’ing subtraditions. Soon fu (supplements) were added, including such writings as the Tao te ching and T’ai-p’ing ching, texts on ritual alchemy, and texts from the “Celestial Master” movement. “The Three Caverns” continued to grow, incorporating writings by and about Taoists of every description, partly because centuries of emperors wished to honor the Taoist community. For instance, the T’ang emperor Hsüantsung (reigned 713-56) commissioned the first systematic assemblage of Taoist writings. Such imperial sponsorship was vital before printing was invented (in the tenth century), for Taoist manuscripts—theretofore copied by hand—otherwise easily perished. In the twelfth century the Sung emperor Hui-tsung ordered the engraving of a new and larger “Library of Tao,” and the subsequent Jurchen rulers did likewise. The result was the most massive collection of Taoist writings in history, completed in 1244 under the auspices of the new Ch’üan-chen movement. Later Mongol rulers, how-ever, were less tolerant, and in 1258 Qubilai (commonly called Khubilai Khan) ordered all Taoist writings except the Tao te ching to be burned. Many survived, but today’s library of Taoist literature, called the Tao-tsang, is far smaller than that of Jurchen times, despite its inclusion of materials composed in the intervening years.

Today’s Tao-tsang consists of 1120 separate works totaling 5,305 volumes. They include all of the Taoist writings that could be found in the year 1445, from the Tao te ching and Chuang-tzu to the texts of all later segments of Taoism. Late-imperial Confucians despised Taoism, however, so the “Library of Tao” was ignored both by centuries of Chinese scholars and by their Western disciples. Nonetheless, it was preserved by Taoists at such centers as the White Cloud Abbey in Beijing. A lithographic edition (1926) gradually found its way into some major libraries.

Yet few of its contents have been studied by scholars, and fewer still have been translated into any modern language—not even modern Chinese. Hence, most Taoist texts remain inaccessible to all but the most expertly trained scholars, and even they must travel to a major library to find it. Though many persist in calling the Tao-tsang the “Taoist canon,” it should be thought of not as a sacred “canon” but rather as an ever-expanding library of materials in which Taoists have found value. There has never actually been a definitive collection of “canonical” scriptures that Taoists—of any period—have honored to the exclusion of “noncanonical” works, nor has there been any boundary between “sacred scripture” and other cherished texts.

Sacred Symbols

Given the nature of Taoist values, there has never been a central symbol, in the sense of a visual representation believed to convey a transcendent truth. The well-known yin-yang symbol is actually a common element of Chinese culture, not a symbol specific to Taoism, and it has held little importance for most Taoists throughout history. Instead, Taoist “symbolism” consists of an array of varied images that obliquely suggest the effectiveness of spiritual practice. An example is the crane, whose red crown is understood as representing cinnabar, a symbol of spiritual perfection.

Early and Modern Leaders

For two generations scholars associated the beginnings of the religious institutions of Taoism with a shadowy figure of Han times (206 B.C.E.-221 C.E.) named Chang Tao-ling. Hitherto unstudied texts, mostly from the Tao-tsang, led those scholars to believe that Chang was a major historical figure. Those writings suggested that he had founded the “Celestial Master” (T’ien-shih) organization, which the modern Cheng-i priests of Taiwan (the only region of China accessible to foreigners from the 1950s to the 1980s) claimed to have maintained. Scholars eager to redeem the reputation of living Taoist traditions—dismissed by earlier audiences as popular superstition—were excited by the apparent discovery that today’s Cheng-i liturgists maintained practices that went back nearly two millennia to a figure who could even be likened to Moses. Texts of uncertain date report that in 142 C.E. Chang received a revelation from Lord Lao, who recognized Chang as the “Celestial Master” promised in the T’ai-p’ing ching and established a meng-wei (covenant) with Chang to take over from the failing Han emperors. Today scholars are unsure whether Chang was even a historical person, and they debate the historical impact of the traditions associated with his name.

Despite the early-fourth-century migration of the “Celestial Master” leadership to the south, Taoists in the north did not abandon their religion. One site where Taoism flourished was the Lou-kuan Abbey. It had been established near the spot where people of that era said that “Lao-tzu” had “departed to the west,” so many Lou-kuan texts feature teachings of Lord Lao, a divine being who periodically descends to earth to impart his wisdom. A major Lou-kuan text was the Hsi-sheng ching (“Scripture of Western Ascension”), which features practices of self-cultivation from classical times, updated for contemporary tastes.

According to most scholars, the most influential figure of this era was an aristocrat named K’ou Ch’ienchih (365-448). K’ou tried to restore the “Celestial Master” community in the north. He reported that he had received a revelation from Lord Lao in 415, primarily in the form of the “Precepts of the New Code” for the Taoist community. It is unclear whether anyone at the time accepted K’ou’s claims, but by 424 he had befriended a Confucian official at the court of the Wei dynasty (386-534/35), founded by a people called the Toba who were influenced by Chinese culture. Together K’ou and his ally made themselves important by granting the Wei emperor the title of “Perfected Ruler of Grand Tranquillity,” and later Wei emperors were ceremonially inducted into Taoist holy orders. The Toba rulers ordered that K’ou’s “Precepts of the New Code” be put into effect throughout the countryside. Some have therefore said that the Toba adopted Taoism as a state religion, but it is unclear whether their decrees really affected many people’s lives. After K’ou died, state patronage ceased, and other Taoist (and Buddhist) traditions gained more impetus. K’ou is thus a notable figure, though he was not really an heir to Chang Taoling’s “Celestial Master” organization, and his historical effect may have been less important than was once thought.

For centuries Taoist leaders allied themselves with the rulers who were then in power. Such was true of the pivotal master Lu Hsiu-ching (406-77). Until the 1980s few had ever heard of Lu. At that time scholars began realizing that Lu Hsiu-ching had played a crucial role in stimulating a sense of common identity, and even common institutions, among people who had previously followed quite distinct traditions. Lu is best remembered for having conceptualized the first great Taoist “canon”—a forerunner of today’s Tao-tsang (“Library of Tao”). Lu also helped codify and spread new models for Taoist liturgies, such as the chiao, and he instituted a religious establishment that once again legitimized the rulers of his day (the Liu-Sung dynasty, 420-79). Taoist leaders such as Lu and his eventual successor, T’ao Hung-ching (456-536), recognized those emperors (and their successors) both as fulfillers of earlier messianic prophesies and as the legitimate successors of the powerful rulers of Han times (206 B.C.E.-221 C.E.). Leaders such as Lu and T’ao established a model that would help centuries of later Taoist aristocrats secure government blessings and spread Taoist teachings and practices more fully throughout society.

The T’ang period (618-907) was when China was at its most powerful; its civilization overflowed into neighboring lands, from Tibet to Japan. It was also the time when Taoism was at its height. The many great leaders of T’ang Taoism belonged not to the tradition of the “Celestial Masters” (then all but extinct) but rather to the aristocratic traditions that such figures as Lu Hsiu-ching and T’ao Hung-ching had built up during the fifth and sixth centuries. A representative T’ang leader was Li Han-kuang (683-769), disciple and successor to the great Ssu-ma Ch’eng-chen. Like Ssu-ma, Li was a skilled calligrapher and accomplished scholar; he compiled a pharmacological guide as well as writings about Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. Li was also responsible for preserving the texts of the “Supreme Clarity” revelations and for rebuilding the religious center at Mount Mao, an active Taoist center today. Because of Li’s aristocratic lineage, scholarly attainments, and position as Ssu-ma’s spiritual heir, the great emperor Hsüan-tsung persistently summoned him to the court and even accepted formal religious orders in a ceremonial transmission from Li.

The living Ch’üan-chen tradition, commonly called “Northern Taoism,” arose from the life of Wang Che (1113-70, also known as Wang Ch’ung-yang). Wang was a scholar and poet from a well-to-do family and the presumed author of a clear guide to living the Taoist life, known as “The Fifteen Articles.” They teach that a person can achieve “spiritual immortality” within this life by cultivating one’s internal spiritual realities (hsing) and harmonizing them with the realities of one’s external life (ming). Wang’s seven renowned disciples included a woman, Sun Pu-erh (1119-82), who couched some of her teachings in the form of poetry and presumably helped stir the great interest in Ch’üan-chen Taoism among Chinese women. Another disciple of Wang was Ch’iu Ch’u-chi (1148-1227, also known as Ch’iu Ch’ang-ch’un), who taught Taoism to several rulers, even the Mongol general Chingghis (widely called Genghis Khan).

By Ming times (1368-1644) the leading form of Taoism among scholars was called Ching-ming (“Pure Illumination”). Like most other Taoist traditions of that day, it traced its origins back to a legendary figure of early medieval times. By the twelfth century Chingming Taoism had combined self-cultivation with talismanic rituals and ethical teachings. Soon after the Mongol conquest a man named Liu Yü (1257-1308) reformulated the movement, teaching that ritual activity helped stimulate the virtues of loyalty and filial devotion, which in turn facilitated the stilling of the heart/mind. Over the next few centuries Confucian scholars were drawn into the practice of Ching-ming Taoism, which was finally absorbed into the “Dragon Gate” tradition of “Northern Taoism.” Like Ching-ming Taoism, the Lung-men (“Dragon Gate”) tradition was designed to preserve Taoist institutions within society so that Taoist self-cultivation practices could survive the oppressive social and political environment of lateimperial times.

“Dragon Gate” Taoism originated among disciples of Wu Shou-yang (1552-1641), who reputedly had received divine certification linking him and his teachings back to the early Ch’üan-chen leader Ch’iu Ch’u-chi. Eventually his “Dragon Gate” credentials were passed to a young man named Wang Ch’ang-yüeh, who established the “Dragon Gate” tradition at the White Cloud Abbey in Beijing in 1656. Wang thus established the form in which “Northern Taoism” would endure to the present day. “Dragon Gate” Taoism integrated ethical teachings that would suit all social classes with both the meditative tradition of “Inner Alchemy” and the priestly institutions that went back to Lu Hsiu-ching. By modern times its practitioners increasingly identified their tradition as a continuation of the Ch’üan-chen movement. Consequently, the achievements of “Dragon Gate” leaders such as Wang Ch’ang-yüeh are generally overlooked, though today’s “Northern Taoism” owes much to them.

In China today it is difficult to identify any great Taoist leaders. That is not because of a shortage of conscientious men and women practicing Taoism at China’s temples but rather because of the restrictive society in which they live. As a result, Taoist leaders—whether from the White Cloud Abbey, Mao-shan, or any of Taoism’s other living centers—are not in a position to achieve acclaim among the populace of China or a conspicuous position in government, academia, or the media.

Major Theologians and Authors

Taoism has had few “theologians”—people concerned with intellectual analysis or articulation of doctrinal principles. For more than 2,000 years it has had writers who explained their own views and values but who frequently did so anonymously. Moreover, many of their writings have long been lost, and of those that survive, few have yet to receive much attention from scholars or the public. A few of the Taoist writers whose works are known to today’s scholars illustrate the range of Taoist ideas and activities.

The most renowned and well-studied Taoist thinker is Chuang Chou, the presumed author of the “inner chapters” of a classical text known as the Chuang-tzu. The Chuang-tzu is one of the most colorful and compelling works of world literature, and the writers who took part in compiling it—from perhaps 430 to 130 B.C.E.—were as witty as they were profound. The actual text that has been handed down to us, however, is really the work of a “commentator” of the third century C.E. named Kuo Hsiang. Kuo inherited 52 chapters of material bearing Chuang’s name, threw away the parts that he confessed himself too dense to understand, and left 33 chapters that “made some sense” to him.

Virtually nothing is known of the historical life of Chuang himself, except that he lived in the second half of the fourth century B.C.E. At the end of the twentieth century many scholars believed that internal references to “Chuang Chou” within the text itself can be accepted as autobiographical confessions. In reality, the Chuangtzu consists of tales and parables whose characters include not just Chuang himself but Confucius, unknown beings, and even birds and insects—all of whom simply appear to express and debate ideas from the minds of the Chuang-tzu’s contributors.

For the most part, those contributors urge readers to question the utility of rational thought as a reliable guide to life, to see “common-sense” ideas as cultural constructs bearing no clear relationship to truth, and to “leap into the boundless” instead of trying to figure out life and make it work as we wish it to. Yet as fascinating as those ideas may be, nothing in the text tells the reader how to do those things or what to do about real-life problems. Though Chinese and Western writers often tried to explain the Chuang-tzu and the Tao te ching together—as the “primary texts” of “classical Taoism”—the two works have little in common and were clearly not composed by people whose ideas about life were the same.

Until the 1970s it was widely, though inaccurately, believed that a primary “theoretical” work of “religious Taoism” was the Pao-p’u-tzu [“(The Writings of) the Master who Embraces Simplicity”]. The Pao-p’u-tzu was written by Ko Hung (283-343), an aristocrat of the early fourth century to whom are attributed various other Taoist writings, including the Shen-hsien chuan (“Accounts of Divine Transcendents”). In some senses Ko was indeed a key figure, though less for his thought, or for his effect on people of his day, as for the fact that he collected (or at least reported) all manner of data that were later accepted as “Taoist.” For scholars today the writings attributed to Ko are thus a treasury of early-medieval “Taoism,” particularly in regard to the tradition of ritual alchemy called T’ai-ch’ing. Yet in Ko’s day Taoism had not yet coalesced, and if twentieth-century scholars were correct in thinking of the “Celestial Masters” as Taoism’s main tradition, Ko clearly lived and worked on its fringes. Nor did Ko think that classical texts such as Chuang-tzu or Lao-tzu held the answers to life.

Far from having been an “alchemist,” as most once believed, Ko was a Confucian official who held minor military and clerical posts before retiring to Mount Luo-fu near the south coast. The so-called “Outer Chapters” of his Pao-p’u-tzu express the interests and values of the Confucians of his day so thoroughly that the only scholar ever to translate them calls Ko “a conservative defender of common sense.” Ko was also proud to own various writings on alchemy and ritual, some of which had been bequeathed to him by his own ancestors. The “inner chapters” of his Pao-p’u-tzu maintain that the ritual methods described in those writings could elevate a person to a deathless state. Such an outspoken advocate of “immortality” struck later generations of Confucians—and the Western scholars whom they mentored—as so bizarrely “un-Chinese” (and contrary to modern beliefs) that caricatures of his ideas were long cited to show how stupid the Taoists of imperial times supposedly were. In reality, Ko was simply an eclectic aristocrat who might best be called a maverick Confucian. By maintaining that a pursuit of immortality—a goal to which both the Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu,unlike “Celestial Master” texts, often allude—was a fitting goal for upstanding “gentlemen” like himself, Ko attempted to integrate the divergent beliefs and traditions that gave his own life meaning and value.

Arguably the single most influential Taoist of all time was Ssu-ma Ch’eng-chen (646-735). He was the greatest Taoist leader of an age when Taoism was a major force among the Chinese elite. Ssu-ma was descended from relatives of the rulers of the Chin dynasty (266-420), and his father and grandfather had both held government posts. An associate of renowned poets such as Li Po, Ssu-ma was not only an accomplished poet but also a musical composer and a distinguished painter and calligrapher. For centuries Chinese annals of history’s greatest artists all celebrated Ssu-ma Ch’engchen. It is thus no surprise that when he died, Ssu-ma’s life was commemorated in eulogies by government officials and even by the emperor Hsüan-tsung himself. Ssuma had been a frequent guest at the court of several emperors, and he was remembered as a sagely counselor who helped give their reign legitimacy. His disciples include Li Han-kuang, discussed above under EARLY AND MODERN LEADERS, and Chiao Ching-chen, a lien-shih (refined mistress) who was also acclaimed by the land’s most eminent poets.

Of more lasting importance was Ssu-ma’s work copying, collating, and composing Taoist texts. His expertise on the Tao te ching, for instance, was so great that the emperor commissioned him to write it out in three styles of script so that “the correct text” could be engraved in stone. He also edited T’ao Hung-ching’s “Secret Directives for Ascent to Perfection” and himself wrote the now-lost “Esoteric Instructions for Cultivating Perfection.” Some writings attributed to Ssu-ma are probably not in fact his work, but scholars today acknowledge him as the author of such important works as the Fu-ch’i ching-i lun (“On the Essential Meaning of the Absorption of Life-Energy [Ch’i]”) and the Tso-wang lun (“On ‘Sitting in Forgetfulnes’s”]—a meditation text known in the West as “Seven Steps to the Tao.” The teachings in that work were influenced by those of the Taoist physician Sun Ssu-miao in his T’sun-shen lien-ch’i ming (“Visualization of Spirit and Refinement of Ch’i”). Ssu-ma hails the unknown “Master of Heavenly Seclusion,” T’ien-yin-tzu, whose brief introduction to the Taoist life Ssu-ma edited.

Ssu-ma taught that the path to spiritual transcendence (shen-hsien) requires a lifestyle of moderate self-discipline and practices designed to “cultivate and refine” both one’s body and one’s spiritual energies. Like other Taoist aristocrats of his day, Ssu-ma offered a model of Taoist practice intended to appeal to scholars and officials who had limited knowledge of earlier Taoism and who thus might appreciate clear, simple guide-lines. Those models reappeared in the lives and teachings of centuries of “literati Taoists,” including Wang Ch’ung-yang, Liu Yü, and Wang Ch’ang-yüeh, discussed above under EARLY AND MODERN LEADERS.

From today’s perspective the most important Taoist of T’ang times may have been Tu Kuang-t’ing (850-933). Besides writing poetry and short stories that people continue to read, the court official Tu also composed numerous little-known religious works of great historical importance. He wrote commentaries on Taoist scriptures and classical texts, instructions for performing liturgies, and a number of historical and biographical collections that tell us much about the Taoists of medieval times. One, called the Li-tai ch’ung-tao chi (“Records of Reverence for Taoism over the Ages”), tells how centuries of rulers sponsored Taoists and their institutions. Another, the Yung-ch’eng chi-hsien lu (“Records of the Assembled Transcendents of the Walled City”), assembled biographies of great Taoist women and female “transcendents.” Few of Tu’s writings, however, have yet been studied or fully translated.

Around Tu Kuang-t’ing’s time some Taoist writers began using the terminology of earlier alchemical traditions to express—and sometimes camouflage—their ideas about spiritual refinement through meditation. Those ideas—known among Taoists as chin-tan (“the Golden Elixir”)—have become more generally known as nei-tan (“Inner Alchemy”). That ongoing tradition of meditative practices remains poorly understood in the West, though it has been the central tradition of Taoist self-cultivation practices for the last thousand years.

“Inner Alchemy” actually refers to “purifying the heart/mind” in order to achieve tranquillity and to harmonize oneself with the primordial Tao. In the Wu-chen p’ien (“Folios On Awakening to Reality”) of Chang Potuan (eleventh century) and in Chung-ho chi (“On Centered Harmony”) by Li Tao-ch’un (thirteenth century), “Inner Alchemy” practices are couched in such cryptic symbols as “uniting the dragon and the tiger.” As literacy increased among the expanding “gentry” class, writers of Ming (1368-1644) and Ch’ing (1644-1911) times increasingly recast “Inner Alchemy” in clearer, more accessible terms. One good example is the anonymous Hsing-ming kuei-chih (“Balanced Instructions about Inner Nature and Life-Realities”), published in 1615.

Though these facts are still largely unknown to modern audiences, scholars of the Ch’ing (Manchu) period continued to write about “mind-cultivation,” drawing upon those older traditions. Some, such as Min I-te (1758-1836), became regarded as leaders of the “Drag-on Gate” tradition. Another was a scholar named Liu I-ming (1734-1821). One of Liu’s writings was the Wu-tao lu (“Record of Awakening to Tao”), whose title recalls the Wu-chen ko (“Song of Awakening to Tao”) by Wang Ch’ung-yang, the founder of “Northern Taoism.” Liu’s numerous writings on self-perfection have survived, but they have seldom been studied or properly translated. When future scholars bring such writings to the attention of readers around the world, the enduring Taoist tradition of self-cultivation will become better appreciated.

Organizational Structure

Most people who learned about Taoism from twentieth-century representations would assume that Taoism could, by its nature, have no organization at all. Of course, Taoism has never had a hierarchy like that which the emperor Constantine imposed upon Roman Christians in the early fourth century. For many centuries there have been Taoist priests, male and female alike, but they have never supervised the religious lives of all believers in a parish, nor have they reported to a bishop who reports to a pope. For that reason, today’s scholars of Taoism are often reluctant to use any terminology drawn from Christian traditions when trying to explain Taoist institutions. The truth is that centuries of Taoists did attempt to organize their practitioners to some degree, sometimes following successful Buddhist models. Because Taoist’s historical challenges, however, were different from those that Christians or Buddhists faced, Taoists could usually flourish with only a limited organizational structure, and they have never attempted any actual unification.

Before the second or third century C.E., there was no “Taoist community” to be organized. The followers of Chang Tao-ling’s “Celestial Master” tradition assigned specific roles to its local leaders, the chi-chiu (libationers). Those forerunners of the later Taoist clergy could be male or female, Chinese or “barbarian,” and they were ranked according to their level of religious attainment. The organization’s headman claimed descent from Chang himself. The organization clearly died out in medieval times, but in the early modern era a band of Taoists surnamed Chang, based at Dragon-and-Tiger Mountain (Lung-hu shan), claimed to continue the old “Celestial Master” lineage. Until the mid-nineteenth century emperors nominally recognized the Cheng-i leaders, but Western reports that Cheng-i leaders were Taoist “popes” had no basis in fact. Even leading scholars of Taoism have inadvertently perpetuated some confusion about the role of Taoist leaders in relation to the religious community and its institutions. Some continue to believe that the Cheng-i liturgists of “Southern Taoism” truly continue institutions put in place by Chang Tao-ling. In other words, they see modern Cheng-i authorities as veritable papal successors to Chang himself. Since about the year 2000, other scholars have increased that confusion by labeling certain ill-defined traditions of early-medieval times the “Southern Celestial Masters” and the “Northern Celestial Masters.” Most of those traditions seem to have little to do with either the earlier organization of Chang Tao-ling or the modern Cheng-i tradition.

Originally the term t’ien-shih (celestial master) simply meant an especially insightful teacher. Such “celestial masters” appear as characters in both the Chuang-tzu and the T’ai-p’ing ching but clearly not as historical figures related to Chang Tao-ling. In early medieval times the title “celestial master” was claimed by, or applied to, a wide variety of historical individuals—all apparently male—in various contexts. Few of them were named Chang, and none had any clear connection to the earlier followers of Chang Tao-ling. Chang’s descendants appear in early-medieval sources, but there is no evidence that any of them claimed the title t’ien-shih, much less that anyone in that day regarded them as “apostolic” leaders.

Even less “papal” was the only person surnamed Chang to be mentioned as a t’ien-shih in regard to T’ang times (618-907), when Taoism was at its zenith. That man, Chang Kao, first appears in a text written in about 1300, which claims that the emperor Hsüan-tsung gave him the title of “Celestial Master in the Han Lineage.” Taken at face value, that report would appear to bolster the idea of an “apostolic lineage” of leaders named Chang. Historical analysis has conclusively demonstrated, however, that no such event is mentioned in any historical or religious sources prior to the year 1300. The abundant sources of the period in question—including the detailed chronicles of the eminent Taoist historian Tu Kuang-t’ing—nowhere mention “Chang Kao” and nowhere mention any other person receiving such a title from a T’ang emperor.

T’ang sources do call quite a few historical Taoists “celestial masters” but in ways that show that in those days t’ien-shih was a general honorific term that could be casually applied to any memorable Taoist. The “celestial masters” of T’ang times thus included Ssu-ma Ch’engchen and his successor, Li Han-kuang; the aforementioned historian Tu Kuang-t’ing; a famous poet named Wu Yün; and even the wonder-worker Yeh Fa-shan (who was thought to have miraculous powers). Clearly none of those men were “popes.” In T’ang times, in fact, the highest Taoist title may have been lien-shih (refined master/mistress), a title sometimes applied to venerable women as well as men. Lien-shih was apparently also an honorific term, not an ecclesiastical office that gave one person authority over other’s religious lives.

By the twelfth century followers of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism had concocted a story designed to legitimize one particular set of teachers as heirs to an apostolic lineage that was traceable back to the historical Buddha (15 centuries earlier). That lineage was entirely fabricated, as is clear from the fact that no such beliefs can be found among the earliest Ch’an Buddhists—not even in writings by or about their earliest Chinese “patriarchs.” Yet the story proved effective in stimulating interest in Buddhism (even among modern Westerners), and two contemporary groups of Taoists fabricated analogous stories of an “apostolic succession.” One group was based at a mountain called Mao-shan, where certain historical Taoists, such as Li Han-kuang, had earlier practiced. That group wrote up “historical records” designed to show that the recipients of the Shang-ch’ing revelations in the fourth century had founded a lineage of tsung-shih (“Grand Masters”), which had run through such historical figures as Ssu-ma Ch’eng-chen before culminating in the leaders of Mao-shan in that day. The competing group was composed of the Taoists of Lunghu shan, who purported to be descendants of Chang Tao-ling.

The reason that modern people, including most scholars of Taoism, have often talked about the “Celestial Masters” of Lung-hu shan but never about the “Grand Masters” of Mao-shan is simply that centuries of emperors gave political precedence to the Taoists of Lung-hu shan, thereby disempowering the Taoist leaders of Mao-shan and other centers. Imperial recognition of the Cheng-i lineage ended only in the mid-nineteenth century, at precisely the time that Western powers wrested real control of China away from the Manchus. Nevertheless, even that recognition never gave Cheng-i leaders any actual power; they could never do anything more than control the distribution of ordination certificates. So it would be a serious mistake to imagine them ever to have been “Taoist popes.”

Likewise, the roles of Taoist “priests” must not be misconstrued. Scholarly explanations of the Taoist priesthood have often been confused and misleading. One problem is that few such scholars have ever had extensive personal contacts with living Taoist priests. Because of historical and political factors Taoist priests have been displaced for generations from China’s government, academic institutions, and public media. Even in China today most Taoist priests have little contact with the educated public or the outside world. People trying to understand the roles and functions of Christian or Buddhist priests have generally been able to meet, observe, and learn from priests. Students of Taoism have had few such opportunities and were further misled by twentieth-century scholars who frequently confused literary images with historical data and who even anachronistically conflated social data from contemporary Taiwan with data from ancient and medieval texts. Moreover, some such scholars used terms such as “Taoist priest” or “Taoist master” as an indiscriminate translation for a range of unrelated Chinese terms, making it difficult for today’s readers to get an accurate idea of Taoist priests through the ages.

In ancient times tao-shih, or “priest,” was a vague literary term for idealized characters or a reference to people with unusual abilities. The actual institutions of the early “Celestial Master” organization remain poorly known, but they called their officiants chi-chiu (libationers), not tao-shih. Some scholars now argue that libationers were never really clergy, just leading lay participants.

The term tao-shih originated among the aristocratic Tao-chiao of early medieval times, when Taoist leaders such as K’ou Ch’ien-chih and Lu Hsiu-ching began trying to organize Taoist traditions to seem more competitive with Buddhist institutions. For a century or two, writers produced texts intended to particularize the ranks and duties of Taoist clerics. Those texts never agreed with each other, but they generally distinguished the tao-shih from lower-order functionaries such as fa-shih (ritual masters). Notably, however, such texts never designated separate orders for women priests.

From T’ang times on, Taoists used the word tao-shih as the standard designation for any person recognized by the Taoist community as having mastered a specific body of sacred knowledge and the ritual skills necessary to put that knowledge into effect for the sake of the community. The title also distinguished Taoist religious specialists from those of Buddhism as well as from those of nonrecognized traditions.

Throughout history the social status of tao-shih has generally remained high. In medieval times male tao-shih were often highly educated scholars, physicians, poets, and government officials. Leaders such as Ssu-ma Ch’eng-chen were members of China’s high aristocracy, with social standing to match their ancient bloodline and scholarly attainments. Modern misconceptions (which remain common both in China and in the West) that Taoist practitioners in imperial times were mostly ignorant peasants—and thus not deserving respect—are an item of propaganda from a narrow circle of Confucian elitists who became Western scholars’ “native guides” to Chinese civilization.

The medieval texts purporting to standardize the Taoist priesthood seem to have carried no weight in real life. Taoists remained so disinterested in formalizing their clerical institutions that T’ang emperors even tried to set clerical standards for them. Government supervision of the Taoist clergy has lingered to the present day, though no secular or religious authority ever had either the power or the will to impose a regulated ecclesiastical hierarchy upon Taoist practitioners. Consequently, later Taoists were free to reorganize as they saw fit, and occasional twentieth-century scholars likened early-modern movements such as Ch’üan-chen to those of the Protestant reformers in Christianity. But such analogies are misleading, for those Taoists were not rebelling against any powerful hierarchy, and they were not united by common scriptures or creeds.

After losing imperial recognition in the nineteenth century, Cheng-i priests maintained their institutions and practices until the Communist revolution in the twentieth century, which drove their leaders to Taiwan. In mainland China today, virtually all Taoist abbeys or temples (kuan) are recognized as preserving Ch’üan-chen traditions, often called “Northern Taoism.” Beijing’s White Cloud Abbey (Po-yün kuan) has received official recognition as the country’s principal Taoist center, and a loose coalition called the Chinese Taoist Association is headquartered there. With government blessings and modest funding, that association publishes Taoist books and magazines and holds classes for youths who aspire to the priesthood. Under the auspices of the Taoist Association, representatives from China’s other temples sometimes gather to converse and provide each other with moral support. Yet the authority of each temple remains autonomous, and no attempt has been made—either by the government or by temple leaders—to standardize Taoist teachings and practices or to unify China’s Taoists into a truly coherent organization.

Taoist traditions are also maintained among the various branches of the Chinese diaspora in other modern nations. In each such setting local autonomy remains the rule. National Taoist associations, paralleling the one based in Beijing, have been formed in such lands. For instance, the Hong Kong Taoist Association sponsors a Taoist college in addition to hosting scholarly conferences and publishing Taoist books and periodicals. By the 1990s national associations outside China began trying to establish greater communication and cooperation, though those efforts remained hampered by distance, a lack of financial resources, and lingering political tensions. An umbrella group called the International Taoist Association has been formed to combat those problems and to promote the ongoing vitality of Taoist traditions throughout the world.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

Taoism has never had houses of worship comparable to Christian churches or Muslim mosques. For 2,000 years, however, Taoists have set up special places for their spiritual practices. In medieval times Taoists began establishingkuan (temples, or abbeys), where male and female practitioners could go to immerse themselves in Taoist practice. Over time Taoists borrowed ideas from Buddhist institutions and added temple activities such as preserving old writings, housing traveling dignitaries, and providing a supplemental site for imperial ceremonies.

Today kuan across China are generally identified with the Ch’üan-chen tradition (“Northern Taoism”). During the 1960s reign of terror called the Cultural Revolution, most Chinese temples of all religions were forced to close, and their clerics and other practitioners were harshly persecuted. By the 1990s many kuan had been not only reopened but also partially restored, especially near tourist sites. Both at those well-known “temples” and at smaller sites further from the centers of modern life, Taoist men and women continue to practice self-cultivation and perform ceremonies to produce blessings for themselves and for all living things.

What is Sacred?

Because of the diversity of Taoist traditions, understandings of what is sacred vary. Given the holistic perspective common to most of Taoism, a conceptual dichotomy of sacred and profane is hard to uphold. In fact, the classical text Chuang-tzu—identified by later Taoists as a “scripture”—includes an episode in which Chuang Chou intentionally shocks a philosopher-friend: Chuang answers the question “where is Tao?” by declaring that it is even in bodily waste. His intention was to ridicule the very question and to demonstrate the foolishness of imagining “Tao” as some-how apart from elements of our everyday world.

From other perspectives it is clear that all models of Taoist practice are based on an assumption that spiritual practice elevates a person’s personal reality, lifting him or her out of a mundane state into a more fully chen (real) state. In that sense, one could say that Taoists believe in turning away from a “profane” life (understood as confusion and futility) and ascending to a “sacred” state (understood as reassimilation to the subtle realities of life).

In addition, Taoists have sometimes identified certain natural substances as somehow pointing to, or even leading to, such states of spiritual realization. For instance, ingesting a certain plant called ling-chih (efficacious fungus) has long been thought to help facilitate one’s efforts at spiritual refinement. Individuals, however, are always free either to accept or to ignore such ideas, so in Taoism nothing is “sacred” in the sense of being normative for all Taoist’s religious practice.

Holidays and Festivals

The Taoist life has seldom been anchored to segments of the temporal year. Taoism has never had a “Sabbath,” a common liturgical calendar, or holy seasons comparable to Easter and Christmas among Christians or Ramadan among Muslims. Generally, Taoists have observed the holidays and festivals common in the surrounding society, sometimes adding specifically Taoist ceremonies to the observance of such occasions. In early medieval times some Taoists suggested the observance of new holy days, but such observances never became standard. In general, laity continue to observe most of the holidays common to Chinese society and may also take part in additional activities at Taoist temples. Hence, specifically Taoist days of religious observance are generally limited to clerics who live and work full time at Taoist temples.

Mode of Dress

Taoists have no distinctive items of apparel. The clerics of “Northern Taoism” favor simple cotton apparel in solid, muted colors, with formal robes for ceremonial occasions. The priests of “Southern Taoism” attract attention to their liturgical rites by wearing highly ornate silk robes, richly embroidered with images of heavenly bodies and animals such as fish and dragons, signifying the priest’s role as unifier of all spheres of existence.

Dietary Practices

No uniform dietary practices are expected of all Taoists. Historically, most Taoists accepted the general ideal that one should avoid foods that hinder self-refinement and should favor foods more conducive to spiritual practice. In medieval literature beneficial foods were so idealized that the perfect diet consisted solely of intangible life-essences, such as ch’i (vital energy) or even the emanations from stars. Few, however, have ever taken such idealizations literally. Under Buddhist influence some Taoists began avoiding meat and other “stimulating” foods such as onions; earlier, the prime food to avoid was any kind of grain. Generally, Taoists have tended to regard rice and vegetables as wholesome, but there have never been dietary requirements for laypeople.


Evidence suggests that Taoists have never engaged in worship services comparable to those of Christians or Muslims. The idea that the believers in a local community should gather on a regular basis to pray, sing, hear a sermon, and forge or renew a relationship to a higher being is generally alien to Taoism. There has never been a Taoist “Sabbath” or a standard liturgical year.

Analogies for Taoist rites must be sought not in Christian or Muslim worship services but rather among the varied ritual traditions found in Hinduism, Shinto, and Native American cultures. In those settings we might profitably distinguish social ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals; liturgical rites, designed to integrate the community; and rites of passage, by which an individual moves from one stage of life to another.

There have never been Taoist weddings per se. Many Taoists have considered celibacy to be fundamental, as explained below under SOCIAL ASPECTS. Those who embraced marriage usually followed the wedding procedures common to Chinese social tradition, as they did in regard to funeral rites. Taoists developed various liturgies called chai, some of which sought to establish beatitude for deceased ancestors. Those rites were performed long after the demise of the ancestors in question, and they constituted a recommendation to the higher powers that the deceased should be accorded due recognition upon their arrival on the higher plane of existence.

Other chai liturgies had different purposes. One aimed to forestall natural disasters and to reintegrate the sociopolitical order with the cosmos, while another aimed to avert disease by expiating moral transgressions through communal confession. A more extended liturgy is the chiao, a sequence of events over several days that renews the local community by reintegrating it with the heavenly order. Under Lu Hsiu-ching these liturgies combined ritual frameworks from the imperial court with those of the local village and unified them through the actions of tao-shih (Taoist priests). Both “Northern Taoism” and “Southern Taoism” continue such liturgical traditions.

Rites of Passage

Taoists have no standard rites of passage keyed to boy’s or girl’s natural growth and maturation. Rather, Taoists tend to integrate their own rites—generally intended to signify an individual’s spiritual development—with the generic rites of passage common throughout Chinese society.

Taoism is not a religion into which a person is born, nor is it one into which a child’s parents ritually induct him or her. There is thus no rite intended to confirm an infant as a member of the religion. Nor are there puberty rites that are specifically linked to Taoist religious identity. Rather, Chinese social traditions—disrupted by modernity—preserved ancient rites of ascendance (called “capping”), which have generally been regarded as Confucian, though they were never really tied to any doctrinal or scriptural authority. Boys and girls alike had the choice, from puberty onward, to move beyond such rites—which simply confirmed a person in standard social roles—and to enter a specifically Buddhist or Taoist community. In early medieval times it was not uncommon for boys or girls to take that step in early adolescence. There has never been any regulation in this area, and entry into the religious community remains elective for any person at any age.


There has seldom been any formal membership in Taoism. The texts of “classical Taoism” were generally produced by isolated individuals or anonymous groups, and in neither case is there evidence of a community with a defined membership.

From the late second century the “Celestial Master” organization seems to have had a fluid membership, open to people of all origins, including non-Chinese peoples from neighboring regions, whom the Chinese commonly regarded as “barbarians.” Its participants understood themselves to be followers of a meng-wei, a special covenant between Chang Tao-ling and Lord Lao, and they renounced participation in the “cults” practiced among the surrounding populace. Those who accepted the authority of the “Celestial Masters” could thus be called members of a distinct religious organization, though it did not survive beyond the seventh century.

The more aristocratic traditions of that period (including T’ai-ch’ing, Shang-ch’ing, and Ling-pao) had no comparable organization, though they did share a sense that their practices were superior to those of other traditions. It was only after the fifth century that a common Taoist tradition came into being; its follower’s sense of identity rested mainly in being different from Buddhists. Other than among the “Celestial Master” leaders, there is little evidence that Taoists who had children raised them as Taoists. Instead, boys and girls would choose to become Taoists during adolescence or adulthood. Such remains the case today.

Taoism has never been evangelical. Taoists have always accepted any who wish to practice their tradition, but they have never attempted to convert followers of other traditions. Participation in Taoism has remained primarily a matter of personal interest within a society that has never assumed that individuals must have a single, exclusive religious affiliation.

Today the Taoists of China live in a highly regulated society. The government tolerates traditional religious institutions, but with no true freedom of religion, China’s Taoists have little presence in the public media. Taoists have made no outreach to foreigners, and other than a few Western scholars who have been ordained as Cheng-i priests in Taiwan, only native Chinese practice Taoism at China’s temples. Even Chinese emigrants to the West have generally not solicited the participation of non-Chinese, though in the late twentieth century a few emigrant Taoists began to accept Western participants into their small religious communities.

Religious Tolerance

In premodern China intolerance was rarely a feature of any religious tradition. In the twentieth century there was a common misconception that Taoism arose as a reaction against Confucianism. There is no validity whatsoever to such ideas. Confucians and Taoists generally lived in harmony, sharing many common beliefs and values and deeply respecting each other and each other’s traditions and practices. Such was demonstrably the case up to the twelfth century, when rulers began turning the teachings of “Ch’eng/Chu” Confucians—widely called Neo-Confucianism—into a sociopolitical orthodoxy. Today’s scholarship makes clear that Neo-Confucianism never really became the monolithic, all-powerful cultural force that twentieth-century audiences believed. Taoism flourished, even among so-called Confucian literati, well into modern times.

It is true that early-medieval Taoists first conceived their tradition in contradistinction to Buddhism, but they never understood the two traditions as standing in contradiction. Taoists were seldom hostile toward Buddhists or contemptuous of their teachings and practices. Rather, Taoists simply felt that Buddhism was not “who we are.” During two brief periods emperors forced Buddhist and Taoist leaders to stage public debates. Though records show contempt for Taoism among some Buddhists, most show Taoists expressing respect and understanding for Buddhists and their beliefs. There were a few anomalous political acts by emperors who tried to curtail Buddhist’s or Taoist’s social, economic, and political power. But even those acts—often exaggerated in modern accounts—were seldom motivated by religious factors. Despite modern claims that there were persecutions here and there, there was nothing comparable to what occasionally happened during the dark days of European religious wars. There were never, for example, Chinese people—Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian—burned at the stake, nor were there interred bodies exhumed and defiled. China has never had a religious war.

Modern accounts seldom acknowledge that centuries of Chinese rulers, intellectuals, and ordinary men and women happily endorsed the mutual validity of “the Three Teachings” (san-chiao): Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. To them that term suggested a pleasant diversity, never conflict or contradiction. The modern misconception that Neo-Confucians ran late-imperial society conceals the reality that even Confucian intellectuals, and most emperors, usually agreed that “the Three Teachings are one” (san-chiao wei i).

There has also never been any discord within Taoism. During the mid-twentieth century some scholars called elements of post-Han Taoism “sects” and even tried to distinguish “sectarian Taoism” from a supposed “philosophical school.” It is now known that those depictions have no validity. Taoism has been a kaleidoscope of ever-changing traditions and movements, and at no time did any of them denounce each other. Taoism is distinctive precisely for its persistently nonsectarian heritage.

Social Justice

Most people believe that Taoists have never cared about issues of social justice. Indeed, few Taoist traditions have ever been organized in ways that produce conspicuous examples of social advocacy, and it is hard to find any in “Southern Taoism” at all. Meanwhile, in mainland China Taoists remain guarded about taking social positions that might disturb political authorities.

Unlike religions that feel a sense of mission to convert their religious ideals into social action, Taoists have generally been skeptical of activism, preferring subtle—indeed, often secret—modes of benefiting others. Taoists believe that their liturgical rites, and even their self-cultivation, can and do indirectly transform the conditions under which all people live. That belief is grounded firmly upon the ancient Tao te ching: it cautions us to be like Tao itself, which “never presumes to act” (pu kan wei). Rather than presuming that we must go out and act to “make the world right,” the Taoist faith—holistic, not humanistic—maintains that the world will naturally become and remain perfect but only if humans refrain from interventional activity.

A concept such as “rights” is hard to find in Taoism, for such concepts presume a world in which good must struggle lest evil prevail—presumptions no Taoist would accept. Nonetheless, some of the largely unexplored texts in the Tao-tsang show that, throughout history, Taoists were a leading voice against social abuses such as female infanticide. The ancient T’ai-p’ing ching makes clear that such injustices violate the integrity of life.

Because Chinese religions have usually been restricted by governments that fear social activism, modern Taoists have generally avoided taking positions that might provoke greater government oppression. Yet in Taoist terms, such restraint illustrates neither callousness nor cowardice but rather an abiding faith in the power of Tao to right life’s wrongs by itself, with no need for premeditated human action.

Social Aspects

According to twentieth-century misconceptions, it was China’s Confucians—never Taoists—who valued the family. In reality, Taoists accepted the value of all existing social and political institutions, though many chose to live as exceptions to the prevailing rules.

Prior to the third century C.E., writers of “Taoist” texts seldom said anything about marriage or the family. From the third century to early modern times, Taoist movements fully recognized men and women of every station, regardless of marital status. The history of Taoism is replete with figures who married and had children—or who entered the religious life after having raised a family—and few Taoists felt pressed to develop any doctrinal guidelines regarding such matters.

Under Buddhist influence early modern Taoists evolved away from medieval Taoist’s acceptance of marriage. “Northern Taoism” has historically intimated that spiritual practice is best undertaken by celibates. In “Southern Taoism,” meanwhile, marriage has always been expected of clerics, and the Cheng-i “lineage” has traditionally been represented as an actual biological succession within the Chang clan. “Northern Taoists,” however, like Ch’an (Zen) Buddhists, have always claimed a lineage that was spiritual, never biological.

For the laity, decisions about marriage and family matters have always been left up to individuals. Such decisions have seldom been mentioned in connection with Taoist doctrine or moral teachings. Though celibacy became a common ideal for most Taoists, other lifestyle decisions were not criticized or deprecated, and Taoists seldom posed as arbiters of family values for people outside of their tradition.

Controversial Issues

The social, political, and historical influences on Taoism are such that there have seldom been religious authorities taking a public stance on issues that are today commonly considered controversial. Statements about divorce, abortion, or birth control are practically unknown among today’s Taoists.

Such was not always the case. The early “Celestial Master” movement articulated principled positions on many social issues. The T’ai-p’ing ching, for instance, denounced the common practice of female infanticide—a position encountered virtually nowhere else in Chinese civilization until the twentieth century. The 180 Precepts of Lord Lao explicitly command respect for all life; they forbid not only slavery but also “the use of herbal medicine to perform abortions.”

One issue that is often controversial in Western religions has never been controversial in Taoism: the role of women. In traditional Chinese society the roles and expectations for women were, in general, highly limiting. The religious life, however, was not governed by those expectations, for women’s secular roles as wives and mothers did not carry over into religious settings. More-over, whereas Confucians took pride in maintaining social tradition, Taoists took pride in rising above the ordinary. Consequently, Taoists of most traditions welcomed women and men on comparable terms.

The primary office in the early “Celestial Master” organization—the libationer—was reportedly open to women and men alike, and some women libationers, such as Wei Hua-t’sun (251-344), remained well known for centuries. Ritual functions could be performed by women as well as men, and ranks and titles were parallel. Beginners were tao-nan ortao-nü (Taoist men or Taoist women); intermediate-level practitioners were nan-kuan or nü-kuan (capped men or capped women); and advanced participants were tao-fu or tao-mu (Taoist father or Taoist mother).

After Lu Hsiu-ching began consolidating Taoism, women clerics held the same title as men, tao-shih, (priest or priestess), though female tao-shih, such as Huang Ling-wei (c. 640-721), were fewer in number. In 739 there were 550 abbeys for women compared with 1137 for men. Priests of each gender were frequently ordained during puberty, and the procedures for women’s ordination differed only in that certain ritual actions proceeded from right to left instead of left to right. In the eighth and ninth centuries at least a dozen imperial princesses underwent such ordination. The performance of the great liturgies—chiao and chai—were sometimes reserved for male officiants, however.

Prominent women abounded in later Taoism. One early-modern movement, Ch’ing-wei (“Clarified Tenuity”), was reportedly founded by a young woman, Tsu Shu (flourished c. 900). Tradition says that her teachings were transmitted through a line of female leaders until the twelfth century, when men became included. By then lay practitioners of Taoism had become more common among the gentry, as illustrated by T’sao Wen-i (flourished 1119-25), a woman poet who wrote commentaries on earlier Taoist texts and who was honored at the Sung court. Meanwhile, the early Ch’üanchen movement was so popular among women that 20 to 40 percent of its clergy were female.

After Mongol times Chinese society became increasingly oppressive, and women Taoists became less prominent. Women never had any meaningful role in the liturgical Cheng-i tradition, and in “Southern Taoism” women are effectively marginalized. In mainland China today, however, women priests participate in “Northern Taoist” temples alongside men, and some hold local leadership positions.

Cultural Impact

Of all the aspects of Taoism, the ones that remain least appreciated are those in which Taoists have expressed themselves in media other than the written word. Twentieth-century Sinologists—like the Confucian scholars who mentored them—relied almost exclusively upon written texts when collecting and assessing data. Few scholars of Chinese religion have tried to integrate the study of concrete, visible artifacts—much less musical traditions—into their understanding of Taoism. At the end of the twentieth century art historians such as Stephen Little began finding unrecognized works of Taoist art buried away in the archives of great museums. In China, meanwhile, the delicate position of Taoism has inhibited active exploration of Taoist art, architecture, and music.

Taoist religious music—vocal and instrumental—goes back at least to K’ou Ch’ien-chih in the fifth century. On imperial order T’ang Taoists such as Ssu-ma Ch’eng-chen and Ho Chih-chang composed now-lost musical works, and the Ming emperor known as Yung-lo (reigned 1402-24) himself composed pieces of Taoist music and had them assembled into an anthology. The influence of Taoist music on the broader musical heritage of China remains unstudied, however.

In “Northern Taoism” today most music is vocal and conforms to historical patterns linked to the chai rituals that go back to medieval times. In “Southern Taoism” music is mostly instrumental and is more flavored by local styles and folk elements.

Because scholars are generally obsessed with reading texts, it is surprising that the extensive Taoist influences on Chinese literature have been little studied. All surveys of Chinese literature hail the elegant prose of the Chuang-tzu. Taoism, however, also played an influential role in the development of later Chinese prose and verse alike. Renowned poets such as Li Po (701-62) were deeply steeped in medieval Taoist ideas and practices, and priests such as Ssu-ma Ch’eng-chen and Wu Yün were among the most accomplished poets of their times. Scholars have not studied the Taoist dimensions of later Chinese poetry.

Another T’ang Taoist, the chronicler Tu Kuangt’ing, was a pioneer of the Chinese short story. Literary tales called ch’uan-ch’i often reflect themes from Chuangtzu, such as the idea that our usual frames of reference are really just conventions and that the world in which we truly live is much more wondrous than we imagine. Imperial collections such as the T’ai-p’ing kuang-chi (“Expansive Records of the Reign of Grand Tranquillity”), completed in 978 by order of a founder of the Sung dynasty, preserve hundreds of stories. These, like Chuang-tzu, were intended to expand people’s perceptions of reality by opening their eyes to wonders and marvels that show that the cosmos consists of multiple interlinked dimensions. Many collections of ch’uan-ch’i, the most well known of which is P’u Sung-ling’s Liao-chai chih-I (1679; “Strange Stories from Make-Do Studio”), kept Taoist ideas and images in the minds of later Chinese readers.

The extensive Taoist influence on the traditional Chinese novel remains only partly appreciated. The sixteenth-century novel Hsi-yu chi (“The Journey to the West,” also known as “Monkey”) is partly an extended Taoist allegory. Other late-imperial novels, such as the Feng-shen yen-i (“The Creation of the Gods”) and Tung-yu chi (“Journey to the East”), introduced self-cultivation traditions of “Inner Alchemy” to thousands of readers who would never have direct involvement with Taoist teachers or practitioners. Also well known is the late-Ming Ch’i-chen chuan (“Accounts of the Seven Perfected Ones,” otherwise called “Seven Taoist Masters”). It turns the historical lives of Wang Ch’ung-yang (founder of “Northern Taoism”) and his primary disciples into a primer of Ch’üan-chen self-cultivation practices, and it is an illustration of the results of Taoist practice: Through dedication, sacrifice, and meditative discipline, the novel’s characters overcome their personal failings and demonstrate the process of moral and spiritual maturation that constitutes the Taoist life.

Since the late twentieth century many such elements have also been transformed into components of Chinese movies, particularly in Taiwan. But by the turn of the millennium movies from mainland China also began to expand into these areas, and such popular fare as the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tantalized Western audiences with stories influenced by Taoist values and practices.