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Key Ideas:

The Religions of India, China, and Japan









Laozi, depicted as a Taoist god.



Key Ideas:

The Religions of India, China, and Japan



All present-day world religions originated in Asia. The three major monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam originated in the Near East, and Hinduism and Buddhism, both polytheistic religions, find their roots in India. While  Buddhism has also become popular in the Western world today, religions such as Hinduism in India, Confucianism in China, and Shinto in Japan are closely tied to, and have also significantly influenced, the cultures and social structures of their respective countries and regions.


The Religions of China



The folk religion of China, in which ancestor worship and belief in spirits and nature deities played a large role, is strongly represented to this day. Other important religious currents in China, which have mixed with the folk religion, include Taoism, the teachings of Confucius, and Buddhism.

One characteristic of Chinese thought is the belief in the designed and universal harmony of heaven, Earth, and man. The cosmos is considered a well-ordered organism that is governed by a "Supreme Master," who is not always conceived as a personified unity. People were thought to be linked to and able to communicate with the supernatural world at first through shamans or priests, and later through the emperor. He was the recipient of the "Mandate of Heaven" and was political and religious guarantor for cosmic order on Earth.

Taoism developed in the sixth century B.C. and is attributed to 6 Lao-Tzu.

6 Lao-Tzu on his way to the mountains,
from a Chinese bronze group

In his book Too Òå Ching ("The Book of the Way and Its Power"), written in the third or fourth century B.C., he described the Tao, or "'the Way." as the original source of all existence and power possessed by living things.

The T'ai Ch'ai, originally presented as a unity, was split into the opposite forces of 8 yin and yang, through whose interplay creative forces resulted. Taoism propagated a withdrawal from the world of human reality and an immersion in nature. It very soon merged with the idea of the deities in the folk religion, stressed magic elements such as the search for the "elixir of life," and developed its own temples.

8 Plate with yin and yang, symbol of the principle of Tao



Statue of Laozi at a temple in Wuxi, Jiangsu, China


According to legends, Laozi leaves China on his water buffalo.[












(Encyclopaedia Britannica)



Daoist thought permeates Chinese culture, including many aspects not usually considered Daoist. In Chinese religion, the Daoist tradition—often serving as a link between the Confucian tradition and folk tradition—has generally been more popular and spontaneous than the official (Confucian) state cult and less diffuse and shapeless than folk religion.

Daoist philosophy and religion have found their way into all Asian cultures influenced by China, especially those of Vietnam, Japan, and Korea. Various religious practices reminiscent of Daoism in such areas of Chinese cultural influence indicate early contacts with Chinese travelers and immigrants that have yet to be elucidated.

Both Western Sinologists and Chinese scholars themselves have distinguished—since Han times (206 bce–220 ce)—between a Daoist philosophy of the great mystics and their commentators (daojia) and a later Daoist religion (daojiao). This theory—no longer considered valid—was based on the view that the “ancient Daoism” of the mystics antedated the “later Neo-Daoist superstitions” that were misinterpretations of the mystics’ metaphorical images. The mystics, however, should be viewed against the background of the religious practices existing in their own times. Their ecstasies, for example, were closely related to the trances and spirit journeys of the early magicians and shamans (religious personages with healing and psychic transformation powers). Not only are the authors of the Daodejing, the Zhuangzi (book of “Master Chuang”), and the Liezi (book of “Master Lie”) not the actual and central founders of an earlier “pure” Daoism later degraded into superstitious practices but they can even be considered somewhat on the margin of older Daoist traditions. Therefore, because there has been a nearly continuous mutual influence between Daoists of different social classes—philosophers, ascetics, alchemists, and the priests of popular cults—the distinction between philosophical and religious Daoism in this article is made simply for the sake of descriptive convenience.

There is also a tendency among scholars today to draw a less rigid line between what is called Daoist and what is called Confucian. The two traditions share many of the same ideas about man, society, the ruler, heaven, and the universe—ideas that were not created by either school but that stem from a tradition prior to either Confucius or Laozi.

Viewed from this common tradition, orthodox Confucianism limited its field of interest to the creation of a moral and political system that fashioned society and the Chinese empire; whereas Daoism, inside the same worldview, represented more personal and metaphysical preoccupations.

In the case of Buddhism—a third tradition that influenced China—fundamental concepts such as the nonexistence of the individual ego and the illusory nature of the physical world are diametrically opposed to Daoism. In terms of overt individual and collective practices, however, competition between these two religions for influence among the people—a competition in which Confucianism had no need to participate because it had state patronage—resulted in mutual borrowings, numerous superficial similarities, and essentially Chinese developments inside Buddhism, such as the Chan (Japanese Zen) sect. In folk religion, since Song times (960–1279), Daoist and Buddhist elements have coexisted without clear distinctions in the minds of the worshippers.

General characteristics » The great sages and their associated texts » The interpretation of Zhuangzi
Pseudohistorical knowledge of the sage Zhuangzi is even less well defined than that of Laozi. Most of Sima Qian’s brief portrait of the man is transparently drawn from anecdotes in the Zhuangzi itself and as such has no necessary basis in fact. The Zhuangzi, however, is valuable as a monument of Chinese literature and because it contains considerable documentary material, describing numerous speculative trends and spiritual practices of the Warring States period (475–221 bce).

Whereas the Daodejing is addressed to the sage-king, the Zhuangzi is the earliest surviving Chinese text to present a philosophy for private life, a wisdom for the individual. Zhuangzi is said to have preferred the doctrine of Laozi over all others; many of his writings strike the reader as metaphorical illustrations of the terse sayings of the “Old Master.”

Whereas Laozi in his book as well as in his life (in legend) was concerned with Daoist rule, Zhuangzi, some generations later, rejected all participation in society. He compared the servant of state to the well-fed decorated ox being led to sacrifice in the temple and himself to the untended piglet blissfully frolicking in the mire.

Here there is none of the Daodejing’s studied density. The rambling Zhuangzi opens with a sprightly fable, illustrating the incomprehension of small wildfowl of the majestic splendour of a gigantic bird. Other such parables demonstrate the relativity of all values: the sliding scales of size, utility, beauty, and perfection. There is a colloquy between the Lord of the Yellow River and the God of the Eastern Ocean, in which the complacent self-satisfaction of the lesser spirit is shaken by his unexpected meeting with inconceivable vastness. Humble artisans are depicted, who, through the perfect mastery of their craft, exemplify for their social superiors the art of mastering life. Life and death are equated, and the dying are seen to welcome their approaching transformation as a fusion with the Dao. A succession of acquiescent cripples exclaims in rapture on the strange forms in which it has pleased heaven to shape them. Those involved in state ritual are brought onstage only to be mocked, and the propositions of contemporary logic-choppers are drawn into the unending whirl of paradox, spun out to their conclusions, and so abolished. Such are a few aspects of this wild kaleidoscope of unconventional thought, a landmark in Chinese literature. Its concluding chapter is a systematic account of the preeminent thinkers of the time, and the note of mock despair on which it closes typifies the Zhuangzi’s position regarding the more formal, straitlaced ideologies that it parodies.

Among the strange figures that people the pages of Zhuangzi are a very special class of spiritualized being. Dwelling far apart from the turbulent world of men, dining on air and sipping the dew, they share none of the anxieties of ordinary folk and have the smooth, untroubled faces of children. These “supreme persons,” or “perfect persons,” are immune to the effects of the elements, untouched by heat and cold. They possess the power of flight and are described as mounting upward with a fluttering motion. Their effortless existence was the ultimate in autonomy, the natural spontaneity that Zhuangzi ceaselessly applauds. These striking portraits may have been intended to be allegorical, but whatever their original meaning, these Immortals (xian), as they came to be called, were to become the centre of great interest. Purely literary descriptions of their freedom, their breathtaking mobility, and their agelessness were construed as practical objectives by later generations. By a variety of practices, people attempted to attain these qualities in their own persons, and in time Zhuangzi’s unfettered paragons of liberty were to see themselves classified according to kind and degree in a hierarchy of the heavenly hosts (see also Zhuangzi).

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism
Certain concepts of ancient agrarian religion have dominated Chinese thought uninterruptedly from before the formation of the philosophic schools until the first radical break with tradition and the overthrow of dynastic rule at the beginning of the 20th century, and they are thus not specifically Daoist. The most important of these concepts are (1) the continuity between nature and human beings, or the interaction between the world and human society; (2) the rhythm of constant flux and transformation in the universe and the return or reversion of all things to the Dao from which they emerged; and (3) the worship of ancestors, the cult of heaven, and the divine nature of the sovereign.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Concepts of the universe and natural order » Cosmology
What Laozi calls the “constant Dao” in reality is nameless. The name (ming) in ancient Chinese thought implied an evaluation assigning an object its place in a hierarchical universe. The Dao is outside these categories.

It is something formlessly fashioned, that existed before heaven and earth… Its name (ming) we do not know; Dao is the byname that we give it. Were I forced to say to what class of things it belongs I should call it Immense.

Dao is the “imperceptible, indiscernible,” about which nothing can be predicated but that latently contains the forms, entities, and forces of all particular phenomena: “It was from the Nameless that heaven and earth sprang; the Named is the mother that rears the Ten Thousand Things, each after its kind.” The Nameless (wuming) and the Named (youming), Nothing (wu) and Something (you), are interdependent and “grow out of one another.”

Nothing (wu) and Dao are not identical; wu and you are two aspects of the constant Dao: “in its mode of being Unseen, we will see its mysteries; in the mode of the Seen, we will see its boundaries.”

Nothing does not mean “Nothingness” but rather indeterminacy, the absence of perceptible qualities; in Laozi’s view it is superior to Something. It is the Void (that is, empty incipience) that harbours in itself all potentialities and without which even Something lacks its efficacy.

Emptiness realized in the mind of the Daoist who has freed himself from all obstructing notions and distracting passions makes the Dao act through him without obstacle. An essential characteristic that governs the Dao is spontaneity (ziran), the what-is-so-of-itself, the self-so, the unconditioned. The Dao, in turn, governs the cosmos: “The ways of heaven are conditioned by those of the Dao, and the ways of Dao by the Self-so.”

This is the way of the sage who does not intervene but possesses the total power of spontaneous realization that is at work in the cosmos; of proper order in the world, “everyone, throughout the country, says ‘It happened of its own accord’ (ziran).”

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Concepts of the universe and natural order » The microcosm-macrocosm concept
The conception of the cosmos common to all Chinese philosophy is neither materialistic nor animistic (a belief system centring on soul substances); it can be called magical or even alchemical. The universe is viewed as a hierarchically organized organism in which every part reproduces the whole. The human being is a microcosm (small world) corresponding rigorously to this macrocosm (large world); the body reproduces the plan of the cosmos. Between humans and the world there exists a system of correspondences and participations that the ritualists, philosophers, alchemists, and physicians have described but certainly not invented. This originally magical feeling of the integral unity of mankind and the natural order has always characterized the Chinese mentality, and the Daoists especially have elaborated upon it. The five organs of the body and its orifices and the dispositions, features, and passions of humans correspond to the five directions, the five holy mountains, the sections of the sky, the seasons, and the Five Phases (wuxing), which in China are not material but are more like five fundamental phases of any process in space-time. Whoever understands the human experience thus understands the structure of the cosmos. The physiologist knows that blood circulates because rivers carry water and that the body has 360 articulations because the ritual year has 360 days. In religious Daoism the interior of the body is inhabited by the same gods as those of the macrocosm. Adepts often search for their divine teacher in all the holy mountains of China until they finally discover him in one of the “palaces” inside their heads.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Concepts of the universe and natural order » Return to the Dao
The law of the Dao as natural order refers to the continuous reversion of everything to its starting point. Anything that develops extreme qualities will invariably revert to the opposite qualities: “Reversion is the movement of the Dao” (Laozi). Everything issues from the Dao and ineluctably returns to it; Undifferentiated Unity becomes multiplicity in the movement of the Dao. Life and death are contained in this continuing transformation from Nothing into Something and back to Nothing, but the underlying primordial unity is never lost.

For society, any reform means a type of return to the remote past; civilization is considered a degradation of the natural order, and the ideal is the return to an original purity. For the individual, wisdom is to conform to the rhythm of the cosmos. The Daoist mystics, however, not only adapt themselves ritually and physiologically to the alternations of nature but create a void inside themselves that permits them to return to nature’s origin. Laozi, in trance, “wandered freely in the origin of all things.” Thus, in ecstasy he escaped the rhythm of life and death by contemplating the ineluctable return: “Having attained perfect emptiness, holding fast to stillness, I can watch the return of the ever active Ten Thousand Things.” The number 10,000 symbolizes totality.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Concepts of the universe and natural order » Change and transformation
All parts of the cosmos are attuned in a rhythmical pulsation. Nothing is static; all things are subjected to periodical mutations and transformations that represent the Chinese view of creation. Instead of being opposed with a static ideal, change itself is systematized and made intelligible, as in the theory of the Five Phases and in the 64 hexagrams of the Yijing (Book of Changes), which are basic recurrent constellations in the general flux. An unchanging unity (the constant Dao) was seen as underlying the kaleidoscopic plurality.

Zhuangzi’s image for creation was that of the activity of the potter and the bronze caster: “to shape and to transform” (zaohua). These are two phases of the same process: the imperceptible Dao shapes the cosmos continuously out of primordial chaos; the perpetual transformation of the cosmos by the alternations of yin and yang, or complementary energies (seen as night and day or as winter and summer), is nothing but the external aspect of the same Dao. The shaping of the Ten Thousand Things by the Supreme Unity and their transformation by yin and yang are both simultaneous and perpetual. Thus, the sage’s ecstatic union is a “moving together with the Dao; dispersing and concentrating, his appearance has no consistency.” United with the constant Dao, the sage’s outer aspect becomes one of ungraspable change. Because the gods can become perceptible only by adapting to the mode of this changing world, their apparitions are “transformations” (bianhua); and the magician (huaren) is believed to be one who transforms rather than one who conjures out of nothing.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Concepts of human being and society » Wuwei
The power acquired by the Daoist is de, the efficacy of the Dao in the human experience, which is translated as “virtue.” Laozi viewed it, however, as different from Confucian virtue:

Persons of superior virtue are not virtuous, and that is why they have virtue. Persons of inferior [Confucian] virtue never stray from virtue, and that is why they have no virtue.

The “superior virtue” of Daoism is a latent power that never lays claim to its achievements; it is the “mysterious power” (xuande) of Dao present in the heart of the sage—“persons of superior virtue never act (wuwei), and yet there is nothing they leave undone.”

Wuwei is neither an ideal of absolute inaction nor a mere “not-overdoing.” It is actions so well in accordance with things that their authors leave no traces of themselves in their work: “Perfect activity leaves no track behind it; perfect speech is like a jade worker whose tool leaves no mark.” It is the Dao that “never acts, yet there is nothing it does not do.” There is no true achievement without wuwei because every deliberate intervention in the natural course of things will sooner or later turn into the opposite of what was intended and will result in failure.

Those sages who practice wuwei live out of their original nature before it was tampered with by knowledge and restricted by morality; they have reverted to infancy (that is, the undiminished vitality of the newborn state); they have “returned to the state of the Uncarved Block (pu).” Pu is uncut and unpainted wood, simplicity. Society carves this wood into specific shapes for its own use and thus robs the individual piece of its original totality. “Once the uncarved block is carved, it forms utensils (that is, instruments of government); but when the Sages use it, they would be fit to become Chiefs of all Ministers. This is why the great craftsman (ruler) does not carve (rule).”

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Concepts of human being and society » The social ideal of primitivism
Any willful human intervention is believed to be able to ruin the harmony of the natural transformation process. The spontaneous rhythm of the primitive agrarian community and its un-self-conscious symbiosis with nature’s cycles is thus the Daoist ideal of society.

In the ideal society there are no books; the Laozi (Daodejing) itself would not have been written but for the entreaty of Yin Xi, the guardian of the pass, who asked the “Old Master” to write down his thoughts. In the Golden Age, past or future, knotted cords are the only form of records. The people of this age are “dull and unwitting, they have no desire; this is called uncarved simplicity. In uncarved simplicity the people attain their true nature.”

Zhuangzi liked to oppose the heaven-made and the man-made; that is, nature and society. He wanted humans to renounce all artificial “cunning contrivances” that facilitate their work but lead to “cunning hearts” and agitated souls in which the Dao will not dwell. Man should equally renounce all concepts of measure, law, and virtue. “Fashion pecks and bushels for people to measure by and they will steal by peck and bushel.” He blamed not only the culture heroes and inventors praised by the Confucians but also the sages who shaped the rites and rules of society.

That the unwrought substance was blighted in order to fashion implements—this was the crime of the artisan. That the Way (Dao) and its Virtue (de) were destroyed in order to create benevolence and righteousness—this was the fault of the sage.

Even “coveting knowledge” is condemned because it engenders competition and “fight to the death over profit.”

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Concepts of human being and society » Ideas of knowledge and language
Characteristic of Zhuangzi are his ideas of knowledge and language developed under the stimulus of his friend and opponent, the philosopher Hui Shi.

Because, in the Daoist view, all beings and everything are fundamentally one, opposing opinions can arise only when people lose sight of the Whole and regard their partial truths as absolute. They are then like the frog at the bottom of the well who takes the bit of brightness he sees for the whole sky. The closed systems—i.e., the passions and prejudices into which petty minds shut themselves—hide the Dao, the “Supreme Master” who resides inside themselves and is superior to all distinctions.

Thus, Zhuangzi’s authentic persons fully recognize the relativity of notions such as “good and evil” and “true and false.” They are neutral and open to the extent that they offer no active resistance to any would-be opponent, whether it be a person or an idea. “When you argue, there are some things you are failing to see. In the greatest Dao nothing is named; in the greatest disputation, nothing is said.”

The person who wants to know the Dao is told: “Do not meditate, do not cogitate.…Follow no school, follow no way, and then you will attain the Dao”; discard knowledge, forget distinctions, reach no-knowledge. “Forget” indicates that distinctions had to be known first. The original ignorance of the child is distinguished from the no-knowledge of the sage who can “sit in forgetfulness.”

The mystic does not speak because declaring unity, by creating the duality of the speaker and the affirmation, destroys it. Those who speak about the Dao (like Zhuangzi himself) are “wholly wrong. For he who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know.” Zhuangzi was aware of the fact that, in speaking about it, he could do no more than hint at the way toward the all-embracing and intuitive knowledge.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Concepts of human being and society » Identity of life and death
Mystic realization does away with the distinction between the self and the world. This idea also governs Zhuangzi’s attitude toward death. Life and death are but one of the pairs of cyclical phases, such as day and night or summer and winter. “Since life and death are each other’s companions, why worry about them? All things are one.” Life and death are not in opposition but merely two aspects of the same reality, arrested moments out of the flux of the ongoing mutations of everything into everything. Human beings are no exception: “They go back into the great weaving machine: thus all things issue from the Loom and return to the Loom.”

Viewed from the single reality experienced in ecstasy, it is just as difficult to distinguish life from death as it is to distinguish the waking Zhuangzi from the dreaming butterfly. Death is natural, and men ought neither to fear nor to desire it. Zhuangzi’s attitude thus is one of serene acceptance.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Concepts of human being and society » Religious goals of the individual
The Confucian sage (sheng) is viewed as a ruler of antiquity or a great sage who taught humanity how to return to the rites of antiquity. Daoist sagehood, however, is internal (neisheng), although it can become manifest in an external royalty (waiwang) that brings the world back to the Way by means of quietism: variously called “non-intervention” (wuwei), “inner cultivation” (neiye), or “art of the heart and mind” (xinshu).

Whereas worldly ambitions, riches, and (especially) discursive knowledge scatter persons and drain their energies, sages “embrace Unity” or “hold fast to the One” (baoyi); that is, they aspire to union with the Dao in a primordial undivided state underlying consciousness. “Embracing Unity” also means that they maintain the balance of yin and yang within themselves and the union of their spiritual (hun) and vegetative (po) souls, the dispersion of which spells death; Daoists usually believe there are three hun and seven po. The spiritual souls tend to wander (in dreams), and any passion or desire can result in loss of soul. To retain and harmonize one’s souls is important for physical life as well as for the unification of the whole human entity. Cleansed of every distraction, sages create inside themselves a void that in reality is plenitude. Empty of all impurity, they are full of the original energy (yuanqi), which is the principle of life that in the ordinary person decays from the moment of birth on.

Because vital energy and spirituality are not clearly distinguished, old age in itself becomes a proof of sagehood. Aged Daoist sages become sages because they have been able to cultivate themselves throughout a long existence; their longevity in itself is the proof of their sageliness and union with the Dao. Externally they have a healthy, flourishing appearance; inside they contain an ever-flowing source of energy that manifests itself in radiance and in a powerful, beneficial influence on their surroundings, which is the charismatic efficacy (de) of the Dao.

The mystic insight of Zhuangzi made him scorn those who strove for longevity and immortality through physiological practices. Nevertheless, physical immortality was a Daoist goal probably long before and alongside the unfolding of Daoist mysticism. Adepts of immortality have a choice between many methods that are all intended to restore the pure energies possessed at birth by the infant whose perfect vital force Laozi admired. Through these methods, adepts become Immortals (xian) who live 1,000 years in this world if they so choose and, once satiated with life, “ascend to heaven in broad daylight.” This is the final apotheosis of those Daoists who transform their bodies into pure yang energy.

Zhuangzi’s descriptions of the indescribable Dao, as well as of those who have attained union with the Dao, are invariably poetic. Perfect persons have identified their life rhythms so completely with the rhythm of the forces of nature that they have become indistinguishable from them and share their immortality and infinity, which is above the cycle of ordinary life and death. They are “pure spirit. They feel neither the heat of the brushlands afire nor the cold of the waters in flood”; nothing can startle or frighten them. They are not magically invulnerable (as the adepts of physical immortality would have it), but they are “so cautious in shunning and approaching, that nothing can do them injury.”

“Persons like this ride the clouds as their carriages and the sun and moon as their steeds.” The theme of the spiritual wandering (yuanyou), which can be traced back to the shamanistic soul journey, crops up wherever Zhuangzi speaks of the perfect persons.

Those who let themselves be borne away by the unadulterated energies of heaven and earth and can harness the six composite energies to roam through the limitless, whatever need they henceforth depend on?

These wanderings are journeys within oneself; they are roamings through the Infinite in ecstasy. Transcending the ordinary distinctions of things and one with the Dao, “the Perfect Person has no self, the Holy Person has no merit, the Sage has no fame.” They lives inconspicuously in society, and whatever applies to the Dao applies to them.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Concepts of human being and society » Symbolism and mythology
Daoists prefer to convey their ecstatic insights in images and parables. The Dao is low and receiving as a valley, soft and life-giving as water, and it is the “mysterious female,” the source of all life, the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things. Human beings should become weak and yielding as water that overcomes the hard and the strong and always takes the low ground; they should develop their male and female sides but “prefer femininity,” “feed on the mother,” and find within themselves the well that never runs dry. Dao is also the axis, the ridgepole, the pivot, and the empty centre of the hub. The sage is the “useless tree” or the huge gourd too large to be fashioned into implements. A frequent metaphor for the working of the Dao is the incommunicable ability to be skillful at a craft. Skilled artisans do not ponder their actions, but, in union with the dao of their subjects, they do their work reflexively and without conscious intent.

Much ancient Chinese mythology has been preserved by the Daoists, who drew on it to illustrate their views. A chaos (hundun) myth is recorded as a metaphor for the undifferentiated primal unity; the mythical emperors (Huangdi and others) are extolled for wise Daoist rule or blamed for introducing harmful civilization. Dreams of mythical paradises and journeys on clouds and flying dragons are metaphors for the wanderings of the soul, the attainment of the Dao, and the identity of dream and reality.

Daoists have transformed and adapted some ancient myths to their beliefs. Thus, the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu), who was a mountain spirit, pestilence goddess, and tigress, became a high deity—the Fairy Queen of all Immortals.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Early eclectic contributions » The idea of yin and yang
Yin and yang literally mean “dark side” and “sunny side” of a hill. They are mentioned for the first time in the Xice, or “Appended Explanations” (c. 4th century bce), an appendix to the Yijing (Book of Changes): “A succession of yin and yang is called the Dao.” Yin and yang are two complementary, interdependent phases alternating in space and time; they are emblems evoking the harmonious interplay of all pairs of opposites in the cosmos.

First conceived by musicians, astronomers, or diviners and then propagated by a school that came to be named after them, yin and yang became the common stock of all Chinese philosophy. The Daoist treatise Huainanzi (book of “Master Huainan”) describes how the one “Primordial Breath” (yuanqi) split into the light ethereal yang breath, which formed heaven; and the heavier, cruder yin breath, which formed earth. The diversifications and interactions of yin and yang produced the Ten Thousand Things.

The warm breath of yang accumulated to produce fire, the essence of which formed the sun. The cold breath of yin accumulated to produce water, the essence of which became the moon.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Early eclectic contributions » The idea of qi
Yin and yang are often referred to as two “breaths” (qi). Qi means air, breath, or vapour—originally the vapour arising from cooking cereals. It also came to mean a cosmic energy. The Primordial Breath is a name of the chaos (state of Unity) in which the original life force is not yet diversified into the phases that the concepts yin and yang describe.

All persons have a portion of this primordial life force allotted to them at birth, and their task is not to dissipate it through the activity of the senses but to strengthen, control, and increase it in order to live out the full span of their lives.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Early eclectic contributions » The idea of wuxing
Another important set of notions associated with the same school of yinyang are the “Five Phases” (wuxing) or “powers” (wude): water, fire, wood, metal, earth. They are also “breaths” (i.e., active energies), the idea of which enabled the philosophers to construct a coherent system of correspondences and participations linking all phenomena of the macrocosm and the microcosm. Associated with spatial directions, seasons of the year, colours, musical notes, animals, and other aspects of nature, they also correspond, in the human body, to the five inner organs. The Daoist techniques of longevity are grounded in these correspondences. The idea behind such techniques was that of nourishing the inner organs with the essences corresponding to their respective phases and during the season dominated by the latter.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Early eclectic contributions » Yang Zhu and the Liezi
Yang Zhu (c. 400 bce) is representative of the early pre-Daoist recluses, “those who hid themselves” (yinshi), who, in the Analects of Confucius, ridiculed Confucius’s zeal to improve society. Yang Zhu held that each individual should value his own life above all else, despise wealth and power, and not agree to sacrifice even a single hair of his head to benefit the whole world. The scattered sayings of Yang Zhu in pre-Han texts are much less hedonistic than his doctrine as it is presented in the Liezi (book of “Master Lie”).

Liezi was a legendary Daoist master whom Zhuangzi described as being able to “ride the wind and go soaring around with cool and breezy skill.” In many old legends Liezi is the paragon of the spiritual traveler. The text named after him (of uncertain date) presents a philosophy that views natural changes as a pattern that can serve as a model for human activities.

General characteristics » Basic concepts of Daoism » Early eclectic contributions » Guanzi and Huainanzi
In the several Daoist chapters of the Guanzi (book of “Master Guan”), another text of uncertain date, emphasis is placed on “the art of the heart (mind)”; the heart governs the body as the chief governs the state. If the organs and senses submit to it, the heart can achieve a desirelessness and emptiness that make it a pure receptacle of the “heart inside the heart,” a new soul that is the indwelling Dao.

The Huainanzi is a compilation of essays written by different learned magicians (fangshi) at the court of their patron, the prince of Huainan. Although lacking in unity, it is a compendium of the knowledge of the time that had been neglected by the less speculative scholars of the new state Confucianism. The Huainanzi discusses the most elaborate cosmology up to that time, the position of human beings in the macrocosm, the proper ordering of society, and the ideal of personal sagehood.

History » Daoism in the Qin and Han periods (221 bce–220 ce) of the Chinese empire » Esoteric traditions of eastern China
The textual remains of Daoism during the Warring States period were all presumably produced in connection with official patronage; similarly, developments in Daoist thought and practice during the early imperial age principally have to be studied from the vantage point of the court. At the imperial court, representatives of different local traditions met as competitors for official favour, and the court consequently served as the principal meeting place for the exchange of ideas. The historians who recorded the progress of these varying intellectual and religious currents were themselves court officials and often were active participants in the movements they describe. The emperors, anxious to consolidate and expand their power, were a natural focus for wonder workers and specialists in esoteric arts.

A series of such wonder workers from the eastern seaboard visited the courts of the Qin and early Han. They told of islands in the ocean, peopled by immortal beings—which the Zhuangzi had described—and so convincing were their accounts that sizable expeditions were fitted out and sent in search of them. The easterners brought the cults of their own region to the capital, recommending and supervising the worship of astral divinities who would assure the emperor’s health and longevity. One of their number, Li Shaojun, bestowed on the Han emperor Wudi counsels that are a résumé of the spiritual preoccupations of the time. The emperor was to perform sacrifices to the furnace (zao), which would enable him to summon spiritual beings. They in turn would permit him to change cinnabar powder (mercuric sulfide) into gold, from which vessels were to be made, out of which he would eat and drink. This would increase his span of life and permit him to behold the Immortals (xian) who dwell on the Isles of Penglai, in the midst of the sea. Here, for the first time, alchemy joins the complex of activities that were supposed to contribute to the prolongation of life.

History » Daoism in the Qin and Han periods (221 bce–220 ce) of the Chinese empire » The Huang-Lao tradition
Also originating in the eastern coastal region (Shandong), alongside these same thaumaturgic (wonder-working) tendencies, was the learned tradition of the Huang-Lao masters, devotees of the legendary “Yellow Emperor” (Huangdi) and Laozi. The information on the life of Laozi transmitted by Sima Qian probably derives directly from their teaching. They venerated Laozi as a sage whose instructions, contained in his cryptic book, describe the perfect art of government. The Yellow Emperor, with whose reign Sima Qian’s universal history opens, was depicted as a ruler of the Golden Age who achieved his success because he applied his teachers’ precepts to government. The Yellow Emperor also was the patron of technology; and the classic works of many arcane arts, including alchemy, medicine, sexual techniques, cooking, and dietetics, were all placed under his aegis. Unlike Laozi, the Yellow Emperor is always the disciple, an unremitting seeker of knowledge, and the Huang-Lao masters’ ideal of the perfect ruler.

From the court of the King of Qi (in present-day Shandong province) where they were already expounding the Laozi in the 3rd century bce, the teachings of the Huang-Lao masters soon spread throughout learned and official circles in the capital. Many early Han statesmen became their disciples and attempted to practice government by inaction (wuwei); among them were also scholars who cultivated esoteric arts. Although their doctrine lost its direct political relevance during the reign of the emperor Wudi (reigned 141–87 bce), their ensemble of teachings concerning both ideal government and practices for prolonging life continued to evoke considerable interest and is perhaps the earliest truly Daoist movement of which there is clear historical evidence.

History » Daoism in the Qin and Han periods (221 bce–220 ce) of the Chinese empire » Revolutionary messianism
Among the less welcome visitors at the Han court had been a certain Gan Zhongke. At the end of the 1st century bce, he presented to the emperor a “Classic of the Great Peace” (Taipingjing) that he claimed had been revealed to him by a spirit, who had come to him with the order to renew the Han dynasty. His temerity cost him his life, but the prophetic note of dynastic renewal became stronger during the interregnum of Wang Mang (9–23 ce); and other works—bearing the same title—continued to appear. At this time, promoters of a primitivistic and utopian Taiping (“Great Peace”) ideology continued to support the imperial Liu (Han) family, claiming that they would be restored to power through the aid of the Li clan. A century and a half later, however, as the power of the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 ce) declined, the populace no longer hoped for a renewal of Han rule.

The great Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in the east in 184 ce. Its leader, Zhang Jue, declared that the “blue heaven” was to be replaced by a “yellow heaven”; and his followers wore yellow turbans in token of this expectation. Worshipping a “Huanglao jun,” the movement gained a vast number of adherents throughout eastern China. Though they were eventually defeated by the imperial forces, the tendency toward messianic revolt continued to manifest itself at frequent intervals. A great many charismatic leaders came from the Li family, and certain of them claimed to be the god Laozi returned to earth; a sage of western China, Li Hong, who had actually lived during the 1st century bce, became the favourite recurrent figure of later would-be messiahs. Such revolutionary religious movements, which included Daoist ideological elements, remained a persistent feature of medieval Chinese history. The last recorded Li Hong was executed in 1112. These sporadic popular manifestations of revolutionary messianism, though, did not represent the activities of the formal Daoist organization and must be distinguished from the organized religious Daoism that also appeared at the end of the Later Han period.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The emergence of a "Daocracy" » The Way of the Celestial Masters
The protagonist of the Classic of the Great Peace is a celestial master. When another important religious movement began in China’s far west about the same time as the group in the northeast arose, in the second half of the 2nd century ce, the same title was given to its founder, Zhang Daoling. It is with this Way of the Celestial Masters (Tianshidao) that the history of organized religious Daoism may be said to begin, in that there has been an unbroken continuity from that time down to the present day, as the movement soon spread to all of China.

In 142 ce, in the mountains of the province of Sichuan, Zhang is said to have received a revelation from Taishang Laojun (“Lord Lao the Most High”). The deified Laozi bestowed on Zhang his “orthodox and sole doctrine of the authority of the covenant” (zhengyi mengweifa), meant as a definitive replacement for the religious practices of the people, which are described as having lapsed into demonism and degeneracy.

The new dispensation at first was probably intended as a substitute for the effete rule of the Han central administration. Zhang is said in time to have ascended on high and to have received the title of tianshi, and by the latter part of the 2nd century, under the leadership of his descendants, the Tianshidao constituted an independent religio-political organization with authority throughout the region, a “Daocracy” (rule of Dao), in which temporal and spiritual powers converged. For ceremonial and administrative purposes, the realm was divided into 24 (later 28 and 36) units, or parishes (zhi). The focal point of each was the oratory, or “chamber of purity” (jingshi), which served as the centre for communication with the powers on high. Here the jiqiu (“libationer”), the priestly functionary of the nuclear community, officiated. Each household contributed a tax of five pecks of rice to the administration, whence came the other common name of the movement, the Way of the Five Pecks of Rice (Wudoumidao).

The ritual activities of the libationer seem principally to have been directed toward the cure of disease by prescribed ceremonial means. Believed to be a punishment for evil deeds, whether committed by the sufferer himself or by an ancestor, illness was in fact a sentence pronounced by the Three Officials (Sanguan), judges and custodians of the dead. The sentence was carried out by the spectral hordes of the Six Heavens (liutian), a posthumous dwelling place of all unhallowed mortals. Against such judicial severity, only formal appeal to higher authority might avail. Using the rising flame and smoke of the incense burner in the centre of the oratory to transmit the message borne by spirits exteriorized from within his own body, the libationer submitted petitions (zhang) to the appropriate bureau of the three Daoist heavens (santian). The Daoist canon contains long lists of the “officials and generals” (guanjiang), each specializing in a different sort of complaint, who would respectively pronounce on the appeal and marshal the celestial forces against the offending demons.

The officiant came to dispose of a large selection of bureaucratic stock drafts: memorials, plaints, and appeals, all of which were modeled on secular administrative usage. Also effective were written talismans (fu); drawn by the libationer, these would be burned and the ashes, mixed with water, swallowed by the demons’ victim. The libationer also functioned as a moral preceptor, instructing the faithful in the sect’s own highly allegorical interpretation of the Laozi, which they considered to be the revealed work of Lord Lao the Most High. Their fundamental concern with right actions and good works as being most in the spirit of the Dao and consequently ensuring immunity from disease is also shown by their construction of way stations in which provisions and shelter were placed for the convenience and use of travelers, as well as in the numerous injunctions to charity and forbearance recorded in the written codes of the movement.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The emergence of a "Daocracy" » Communal ceremonies
Both the nuclear communities and the “Daocratic” realm as a whole were bound together by a ritual cycle, of which only fragmentary indications remain. Among the most important ceremonial occasions were the communal feasts (chu) offered at certain specific times throughout the year (during the first, seventh, and 10th months) as well as on other important occasions, such as initiation into the hierarchy, advancement in rank or function, or the consecration of an oratory. These feasts were of varying degrees of elaborateness, depending on the circumstances. The common essential element, however, was the sharing of certain foods, in prescribed quantities, among masters and disciples. This was envisaged as a communion with the Dao, at once attesting the close compact with the celestial powers enjoyed by the members of the parish and reinforcing their own sense of cohesion as a group.

Much more notorious was the rite known as the Union of Breaths (heqi), a communal sexual ritual said to have been celebrated at each new moon. Later Buddhist sources described this as a riotous orgy of outrageous and disgusting license. Several cryptic manuals of instruction for the priest in charge of these proceedings are preserved in the canon; and they depict, however, scenarios of a highly stylized erotic choreography of cosmic significance. Like the communal feasts, these rites might be interpreted as a concentrated and idealized adaptation of older, more diffuse agrarian religious customs. This suggests a pattern of the integration of local practices that has remained characteristic of Daoism throughout its history.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The emergence of a "Daocracy" » Official recognition of the Daoist organization
In 215 ce, the celestial master Zhang Lu, grandson of Zhang Daoling, submitted to the authority of the Han general Cao Cao, who six years later founded the Wei dynasty in the north. This resulted in official recognition of the sect by the dynasty; the celestial masters in turn expressed their spiritual approbation of the Wei’s mandate to replace the Han. Under these conditions a formal definition of the relations of organized Daoism to the secular powers developed. In contrast to the popular messianic movements, Laozi’s manifestation to Zhang Daoling was considered to be definitive; the god was not incarnate in them but rather designated Zhang and his successors as his representatives on earth. Under a worthy dynasty, which governed by virtue of the Dao, the role of the celestial masters was that of acting as intermediaries for celestial confirmation and support. Only when a responsible ruler was lacking were the celestial masters to take over the temporal guidance of the people and hold the supreme power in trust for a new incumbent. Abetted by this flexible ideology of compromise, the sect made constant progress at the courts of the Wei and Western Jin dynasties until, by the end of the 3rd century, it counted among its adherents many of the most powerful families in North China.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The literature of Daoist esoterism » The scholiasts
The most famous of the many commentaries on Daodejing was written by Wang Bi (226–249 ce). He is regarded as a founder of the school of Dark Learning (xuanxue), a highly conservative philosophical movement that enjoyed a certain vogue among the cultured elite of the 3rd and 4th centuries. The Zhuangzi was not long afterward annotated by Guo Xiang (died 312), in whose work the fundamental Confucian bias is even more prominent. The writings of these men have in recent years sometimes been called “neo-Daoism,” but nothing could be more misleading. Their primary aim was to harmonize Daodejing and Zhuangzi with their own conception of a practical life devoted to affairs of state. As administrators confronted with the challenge of Daoist thought, they preferred not to take its message at face value. Interpretative commentaries continued to be written on the classics of speculative Daoism in which the aid of the most diverse philosophies was called upon, not excluding Buddhism. Like the work of the 3rd and 4th century scholiasts, these represent the ideas of a tiny minority, the members of the scholar-official class. Though excursions into ever more refined scholasticism continued to be a diversion for them, the real creative vitality of Daoism was to be found elsewhere.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The literature of Daoist esoterism » Lives of the Immortals
By the Han period, the careers of those free spirits described in Zhuangzi were the subject of universal interest. The earliest systematic collection of biographical notices on these legendary figures is the Lives of the Immortals (Liexuanzhuan) of the early 2nd century ce. Such collections were a genre of the time. Brief sketches were provided for 72 figures: the same symbolic number as was found in contemporary collections of the “Lives” of the disciples of Confucius, eminent scholar-officials, and famous women. Thus Immortals came to be classified as yet another category in the highly stylized gallery of ancient worthies. Each notice is followed by a short hymn of praise. This was the standard form of inscriptions on stone; its employment in hagiographic literature may have influenced the later development of the chantefable in alternating passages of prose and verse. The text appears to reflect a growing number of local cults dedicated to individual Immortals, while the many plants mentioned suggest the extent of the use of herbal compounds as a means to transcendence.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The literature of Daoist esoterism » Inscriptions
These literary notices are supplemented by epigraphic evidence, inscriptions on stone or bronze. The simplest of these are bronze mirrors depicting the plumed figures of airborne Immortals and bearing short rhyming texts of a general nature. Longer and more explicit are the texts of inscriptions on stone: tablets dedicated to the cult of a particular Immortal. They open with their subject’s vital statistics, list his latter-day manifestations, and commemorate offerings made in his honour. But all of this is only by way of preface to the core of the inscription, in which his merits are celebrated in verse. Such was the eloquent votive tablet erected in honour of Wang Ziqiao, a perennial favourite among the Immortals (165 ce). Another, dedicated to Laozi in the same year, describes the supposed author of the Daodejing as a god, to whom worship had been paid by the then reigning emperor.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The literature of Daoist esoterism » Texts on the cult of Laozi
One of the most complex and interesting phenomena in Chinese religious history is Laozi’s advancement from sage to god. A scroll found in the walled-up desert library at Dunhuang, the Book of the Transformations of Laozi (Laozi bianhuajing), shows him in cosmic perspective, omnipresent and omnipotent, the origin of all life. His human manifestations are listed, followed by his successive roles in legendary history, as the sage counsellor of emperors. Next, five of his more recent appearances are mentioned, dated 132–155 ce, and localized in west China, where a temple is said to have been dedicated to him in 185. Then the god speaks, to describe his own powers. He recommends to his votaries the recitation of “my book in 5,000 words” (the Daodejing) and enjoins a meditation on his own divine attributes as they appear within the adept’s body. Finally, he calls upon the faithful to join him, now, when he is about to strike at the tottering rule of the Han dynasty. Evidently the product of a messianic group in west China at the end of the 2nd century, this valuable fragment of only 95 lines is written in a strangely disfigured Chinese, in part a reflection of its popular milieu. But it still shows more clearly than many longer and better preserved texts the essential cohesion of the several aspects of esoteric Daoism: hagiography, recitation of scriptures, and visionary meditation, all of which are here given additional temporal unity by the messianic context.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The Southern tradition
The political partition of China into three parts following the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 ce, the so-called period of the Three Kingdoms, had its spiritual counterpart in certain well-defined regional religious differences. Against the independent dynasties in the north and west stood the empire of Wu, south of the Yangtze River.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The Southern tradition » Developments in alchemical and other traditions
A region exposed comparatively lately to Chinese influence, this southeastern area had long been famous for its aboriginal sorcerers and dancing mediums. In the course of Chinese colonization, separate learned spiritual traditions developed alongside the ecstatic practices of the populace. To the court of the emperors of Wu came savants and wonder workers representing a variety of traditions that were to acquire lasting influence.

Among these personages was a certain Ge Xuan (3rd century ce), who was said to have been initiated into an ancient alchemical tradition. His great-nephew Ge Hong in the next century became one of the most celebrated writers on the various technical means for attaining immortality. In his major work, the Baopuzi (“He Who Holds to Simplicity”), Ge Hong expounded the alchemical formulas received and transmitted by Ge Xuan. In so doing, he took care to distinguish the divinely inspired “gold elixir” (jindan), or “liquefied gold” (jinyi)—i.e., preparations of true edible, or potable, gold, the consumption of which leads to immortality (aurifaction)—from the mere counterfeiting of the precious substance, with intention to deceive (aurifiction). These alchemical methods have been designated as belonging to the Taiqing (“Great Purity”) tradition, from the name of the heaven of the Immortals to which the elixirs were said to elevate their consumer. The chapters of alchemy in the Baopuzi are among the earliest documents to describe the art in detail.

Ge Hong enumerated an extensive selection of material substances and practical operations to which he attributed varying degrees of relative efficacy in the prolongation of life. Dietetics (grain and alcohol avoidance); ingestion of solar, lunar, and astral exhalations and their cycling within the body; gymnastics; and conservation of vital fluids through proper sexual techniques were all necessary and fundamental. The usefulness of written talismans and the performance of good works were also not denied. Above all, it was essential that all disease be eliminated from the body before undertaking more positive, specialized practices for achieving immortality. Herbs and plants were useful not only against disease, but in many cases (particularly in that of mushrooms) their use resulted in definite lengthening of life. For a definitive transformation into an Immortal (xian), with all the powers and prerogatives that implied, however, an alchemical elixir must be compounded and consumed. Ge Hong admitted, however, that he himself had never succeeded in making one. After a strenuous life in civil and military service, in the course of which he managed to write voluminously on many subjects, this great eclectic scholar is said to have undertaken a long journey to China’s colonial dominions in Vietnam in quest of the pure cinnabar found there. He stopped at Luofoushan, near Guangzhou (Canton), however, where he died.

The Baopuzi was nearly finished in 317, when Luoyang, capital of the Western Jin dynasty, fell to the Xiongnu. This event set off a considerable emigration to the unsubdued region south of the Yangtze River. The imperial household was followed in its flight by numerous high-ranking dependents and their spiritual ministers. During this period the Way of the Celestial Masters, established at the court of Luoyang since the early 3rd century, apparently first penetrated in force to the Southeast. While the secular, military menace remained in the North, and factional struggles raged among the emigrants, the Way of the Celestial Masters waged unremitting war against the indigenous sects and cults of demons of the Southeast. Many of the old established families, settled in the region since the end of the Han dynasty, turned away from local traditions to become members of the Daoist faith of their new political superiors. At first these converts were content to entrust the direction of their spiritual lives to the libationers of the movement, though these religious specialists were generally men of lower social standing than themselves. Among the second and third generation of converts from the old aristocracy of Wu, however, new and original impulses, which were to have most profound effects upon the development of Daoism as a whole, began to occur.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The Southern tradition » The Maoshan Revelations
The most brilliant synthesis of the Way of the Celestial Masters with the indigenous traditions of the Southeast occurred in the 4th century ce in a family closely related to Ge Hong. Xu Mi, an official at the imperial court, and his youngest son, Xu Hui, were the principal beneficiaries of an extensive new Daoist revelation. A visionary in the Xus’ service, Yang Xi, was honoured with the visits of a group of perfected Immortals (zhenren) from the heaven of Shangqing (“Supreme Purity”), an improvement on the Taiqing heaven and the ordinary Immortals (xian) that peopled it. In the course of his visions, which lasted from 364 to 370 ce, Yang received a whole new scriptural and hagiographic literature, in addition to much practical information from the “perfected” (zhen) on how it was to be understood and employed. Like the Ge family, the Xus belonged to the old aristocracy of Wu, who had been displaced from prominence by the arrival of the great families of the North, to whose Daoist beliefs they had been converted. The perfected assured them that the present unjust order was soon to end and that the rule of men on earth was to be replaced by a universal Daoist imperium. The present (i.e., the 4th century) was a time of trials, given over to the reign of the demonic Six Heavens, and marked by war, disease, and the worship of false gods. The sole mission of the demonic forces, however, was to cleanse the earth of evildoers, a task that would be completed by an overwhelming cataclysm of fire and flood. At that time the Good would take refuge deep in the earth, in the luminous caverns of the perfected beneath such sacred mountains as Maoshan (in Jiangsu province), the immediate focus of spiritual interest for the Xus. There they would complete the study of immortality already begun in their lifetimes, so as to be ready for the descent from heaven of the new universal ruler, Lord Li Hong, the “sage who is to come” (housheng). This was prophesied for the year 392. Yang and the Xus would get high office in the heaven of Shangqing and rule over a newly constituted earth peopled by the elect (zhongmin).

Yang Xi’s prodigious genius gave great consistency and consummate literary form to his comprehensive synthesis of many spiritual traditions. Popular messianism was adapted to provide an encompassing framework and temporal cogency. Yang and his patrons, however, were also thoroughly familiar with Buddhist thought. In addition to integrating Buddhist concepts into their Daoist system, the perfected also dictated a “Daoicized” version of large portions of an early Buddhist compilation, the Sutra in Forty-two Sections (Sishierzhangjing). Buddhist notions of predestination and reincarnation were subtly blended with native Chinese beliefs in hereditary character traits and the clan as a single unit involving mutual responsibility on the part of all its members, living and dead. Furthermore, building upon the Way of the Celestial Masters, the Maoshan revelations envisaged some reform of the practices of the parent sect. Its sexual rites in particular were stigmatized as inferior practices, more conducive to perdition than to salvation. In place of this, a spiritualized union with a celestial partner was apparently realized by Yang Xi and promised to his patrons. Other rituals of the Celestial Masters were allowed to continue in use among the Maoshan adepts but were relegated to a subordinate position. Thus, the movement did not reject but rather incorporated and transcended the older tradition.

Though the perfected inveighed against the popular cults, even elements of these were absorbed and transformed. There is some evidence that, before Yang’s inspired writings, Lord Mao himself, the august perfected Immortal who gave his name to the mountain, was no more than a local minor god worshipped by an exorcistic priestess in the shadow of Maoshan. Among the more learned traditions, alchemy received particular attention, being adopted for the first time into the context of organized religious Daoism. The perfected revealed the highly elaborate formulas of several of the elixirs that served them as food and drink. For all their extravagance, they were intended as real chemical preparations and described as being deadly poisonous to mortals. By preparing and ingesting one of them, the younger Xu probably willingly ended his earthly existence in order to take up the post that had been offered him in the unseen world and to make ready for the coming of the new era.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The Southern tradition » The Lingbao scriptures and liturgies
Another member of the Ge family was responsible for the second great Daoist scriptural tradition. Ge Chaofu began composing the Lingbaojing (“Classic of the Sacred Jewel”) c. 397 ce. He claimed that they had been first revealed to his own ancestor, the famous Ge Xuan, early in the 3rd century. In these works the Dao is personified in a series of “celestial worthies” (tianzun), its primordial and uncreated manifestations. These in turn were worshipped by means of a group of liturgies, which, during the 5th century, became supreme in Daoist practice, completely absorbing the older, simpler rites of the Way of the Celestial Masters. As each celestial worthy represented a different aspect of the Dao, so each ceremony of worship had a particular purpose, which it attempted to realize by distinct means. The rites as a whole were called jai (“retreat”), from the preliminary abstinence obligatory on all participants. They lasted a day and a night or for a fixed period of three, five, or seven days; the number of persons taking part was also specified, centring on a sacerdotal unit of six officiants. One’s own salvation was inseparable from that of his ancestors; the Huanglujai (“Retreat of the Yellow Register”) was directed toward the salvation of the dead. Jinlujai (“Retreat of the Golden Register”), on the other hand, was intended to promote auspicious influences on the living. The Tutanjai (“Mud and Soot Retreat, or Retreat of Misery”) was a ceremony of collective contrition, with the purpose of fending off disease, the punishment of sin, by prior confession; in Chinese civil law, confession resulted in an automatic reduction or suspension of sentence. These and other rituals were accomplished for the most part in the open, within a specially delimited sacred area, or altar (tan), the outdoor complement of the oratory. The chanted liturgy, innumerable lamps, and clouds of billowing incense combined to produce in the participants a cathartic experience that assured these ceremonies a central place in all subsequent Daoist practices.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » The Southern tradition » The great Southern masters
Though Daoism never became the exclusive state religion in the South, its most eminent representatives founded powerful organizations that received considerable official support. Lu Xiujing in the 5th century epitomized the Lingbao tradition, the liturgies of which he codified. His establishment at the great Buddho-Daoist centre, Lushan (in Jiangxi province), carried out ceremonies and provided auspicious portents in favour of the Liu-Song dynasty (420–479), in whose rulers Daoists complacently agreed to recognize the fulfillment of the old messianic prophesies and the legitimate continuation of the Han dynasty. Lu was frequently invited to the capital (present-day Nanjing), where the Chongxuguan (Abbey) was founded for him and served as the focal point of the Lingbao movement.

Like Lu, who was a member of the old aristocracy of Wu, Tao Hongjing of the 5th and 6th centuries enjoyed even greater renown as the most eminent Daoist master of his time. He spent years in searching out the manuscript legacy of Yang Xi and the Xus, and in 492 retired to Maoshan, where he edited and annotated the revealed texts and attempted to re-create their practices in their original setting. Tao’s fame as a poet, calligrapher, and natural philosopher has persisted throughout Chinese history; he is perhaps best known as the founder of critical pharmacology. Tao was an intimate friend of the great 6th-century Liang dynasty emperor Wudi, and his Maoshan establishment was able to survive the proscription of all other Daoist sects in 504. Though whole Daoist families lived under Tao’s spiritual rule at Maoshan, he himself stressed the need for celibacy and full-time commitment to the work of the Dao. Tao appears to have effected a working synthesis of the public rites of the Lingbao liturgies with the private and individual practices enjoined in the Maoshan revelations. This dual practice was to remain a feature of all subsequent Daoist sects. Tao’s primary interest, however, was in the scriptures of the perfected of Shangqing; and this is reflected in the revelations vouchsafed by these same spiritual agents to a 19-year-old disciple of Tao’s, Zhou Ziliang, in 515–516. These revelations show a pronounced Buddhist influence, and Tao was himself reputed to be a master of Buddhist as well as Daoist doctrine. His writings evidence a complete familiarity with Buddhist literature, and it is reported that both Buddhist monks and Daoist priests officiated at his burial rites.

History » Development of the Daoist religion from the 2nd to the 6th century » State Daoism in the North
Under the foreign rulers of North China, independent developments likewise were in progress. In 415, one Kou Qianzhi received a revelation from Laojun himself. According to this new dispensation, Kou was designated celestial master and ordered to undertake a total reformation of Daoism. Not only were all popular messianic movements claiming to represent Laojun unsparingly condemned but Kou’s mission was particularly aimed at the elimination of abuses from the Way of the Celestial Masters itself. Sexual rites and the taxes contributed to the support of the priesthood were the principal targets of the god’s denunciations; “What have such matters to do with the pure Dao?” he irately demanded. The proposed reform was far more radical than that foreseen in the Maoshan revelations of the Southeast, and Kou was given concrete temporal power of a sort that the Xus had not envisaged. Political and economic factors favoured the acceptance of his message at court; Emperor Taiwudi (5th century) of the Northern Wei dynasty put Kou in charge of religious affairs within his dominions and proclaimed Daoism the official religion of the empire. The emperor considered himself to reign as the terrestrial deputy of the deified Laozi, as is indicated by the name of one of the periods of his reign: Taiping Zhenjun (“Perfect Lord of the Great Peace”). The dominant position of Daoism under the Northern Wei, however, apparently did not long survive Kou Qianzhi’s death in 448.

History » Daoism under the Tang, Song, and later dynasties » Daoism under the Tang dynasty (618–907)
China’s reunification under the Tang marked the beginning of Daoism’s most spectacular success. The dynasty’s founder, Li Yuan, claimed to be descended from Laozi; as his power increased, even the influential Maoshan Daoists came to accept him as the long-deferred fulfillment of messianic prophecy. This notion was built into the dynasty’s state ideology, and the emperor was commonly referred to as the sage (sheng). Prospective candidates for the civil service were examined in either the Lingbao “Classic of Salvation” (Durenjing) or the Maoshan “Classic of the Yellow Court” (Huangtingjing). Under a series of celebrated patriarchs, the Maoshan organization dominated the religious life of the age. One of the greatest of the line, Sima Chengzhen, initiated innumerable government officials and eminent men of letters and served as spiritual master to emperors. The personnel of the Maoshan revelations even entered into the formal framework of state religion. When Sima Chengzhen pointed out that the sacred peaks of the imperial cult were in reality under the superintendence of the perfected of Shangqing, officially sponsored shrines were erected to them there; and their propitiation was incorporated into the traditional rites.

The wide diffusion of Daoism throughout the vast Tang empire is reflected by the sizable proportion of Daoist texts discovered in the walled-up caves at Dunhuang (in Gansu province). This town in the far west of China was the gateway to Central Asia; and here Daoists came into contact not only with Buddhists of many different doctrinal persuasions but also with Nestorian Christians and Manichaeans. Copies of the Laozi were sent to the king of Tibet, and the book was translated into Sanskrit at the request of the ruler of Kashmir. It also reached Japan in the 7th century, as did texts of religious Daoism; reports of Daoism’s dominance on the continent may still be read in the diaries of Japanese Buddhist pilgrims. The geographic extension of the religion at this time was also represented, in the legendary sphere, by the systematic elaboration of its sacred mountains and the traditions attaching to each of them. They are described by the great hagiographer, Du Guangting, at the end of the Tang dynasty. In addition to the great “cavern-heavens” (dongtian), 10 holy mountains known to the original Maoshan revelations, he lists 36 lesser cavern heavens and 72 sanctuaries (fudi). Situated throughout the length and breadth of the empire, they are fitting spiritual guideposts across the dominions of the Tang, which saw itself as an essentially Daocratic realm.

History » Daoism under the Tang, Song, and later dynasties » Daoism under the Song and Yuan dynasties » Internal developments
The Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1206–1368) periods witnessed a great religious effervescence, stimulated in part, under the Song, by the menace of foreign invasion and, during the Yuan, by Tantric (esoteric, or occultic) Buddhism that was in vogue among the new Mongol rulers of China. During the preceding centuries the Way of the Celestial Masters, centred at Longhushan (Dragon-Tiger Mountain, Jiangxi), had been eclipsed by the prestige of Maoshan. At the end of the Northern Song period, the 30th celestial master, Zhang Jixian, was four times summoned to court by the Song emperor Huizong, who hoped for spiritual support for his threatened reign. Zhang Jixian was credited with a renovation of the ancient sect, thereafter called the Way of Orthodox Unity (Zhengyidao), and with the introduction of the influential rites of the “five thunders” (wulei) into Daoist liturgy.

After the retreat of the Song government south of the Yangtze River (1126), a number of new Daoist sects were founded in the occupied North and soon attained impressive dimensions. Among them were the Taiyi (“Supreme Unity”) sect, founded c. 1140 by Xiao Baozhen; the Zhendadao (“Perfect and Great Dao”) sect of Liu Deren (1142); and the Quanzhen (“Perfect Realization”) sect, founded in 1163 by Wang Chongyang (Wang Zhe). This last sect came to the favourable attention of the Mongols, who had taken over in the North, and its second patriarch, Qiu Changqun, was invited into Central Asia to preach to Genghis Khan. The sect enjoyed great popularity, and its establishments of celibate monks continued to be active into the 20th century, with the famous White Cloud Monastery (Boyunguan) at Beijing as headquarters. In the South, Maoshan continued to prosper, while the Gezao sect flourished at the mountain of that name, in Jiangxi province. This was said to be the spot where the 3rd-century Immortal Ge Xuan had ascended to heaven; the sect looked to him as its founder, and it transmitted the Lingbao scriptures, which he was believed to have been the first to receive.

History » Daoism under the Tang, Song, and later dynasties » Daoism under the Song and Yuan dynasties » Literary developments
As early as c. 570, the need for a comprehensive collection of information on all the schools had resulted in the first great Daoist encyclopaedia. Like other such works in China, it was made up of extracts from sundry books, classified by subject matter. The compilation of similar reference works flourished during the Song and Yuan periods. The most important is the Seven Slips from the Bookbag of the Clouds (Yunjiqiqian; c. 1022), made just after the first printing of the Daoist Canon in about 1016. It is a canon in miniature and contains many important works in their entirety. Hagiography continued to thrive. In addition to many local and sectarian compilations, there were huge general collections, containing the lives of both legendary and historical figures, such as the immense Comprehensive Mirror of the Immortals (Zhenxiantongjian; early 12th century). Sectarian historiography also developed; of particular interest are the extensive monographs devoted to the great mountain centres of Daoism. The Treatise on Maoshan (Maoshanzhi; 1329) is among the most monumental. It includes lives of the saints and patriarchs, notes on topography and history, and a valuable selection from 1,000 years of literary testimony and inscriptions on the mountain and its Daoism. The new Daoist movements, which took northern China by storm in the 12th and 13th centuries, also furnish their own very copious literature: biographies of their masters and collections of their sayings. Among them is the famous account of the travels (1220–24) of a patriarch of the Quanzhen sect into Central Asia in response to the summons of Genghis Khan. Short moral tracts for missionary purposes were yet another popular genre, and, finally, there are innumerable inscriptions from all periods that provide important data on Daoist establishments and their patrons over the centuries.

History » Daoism under the Tang, Song, and later dynasties » Daoism under the Song and Yuan dynasties » Alchemical developments
While learned specialists continued to refine alchemical theory, the period witnessed increasing interest in internal alchemy (neidan), in which the language of the laboratory was used to describe operations realized within the body. This, in a sense, was nothing new. Alchemical metaphors had very early been applied to physiology; Ge Hong, for example, called semen the “yin elixir.” By Song times, however, the systematic interiorization and sublimation of alchemy had become so widespread that all earlier texts of operative, external alchemy (waidan) were henceforth supposed to have really been written about neidan, and the attempt to compound a tangible chemical elixir was thought to have been no more than a hoax. Liturgy also provided its own sublimation of the older art: the liandu (“salvation by smelting”) funeral service was developed at this time, in which an “elixir of immortality” was compounded of written talismans and offered to the deceased.

History » Daoism under the Tang, Song, and later dynasties » Daoism under the Song and Yuan dynasties » Syncretism
With such prestigious examples as Chan Buddhism (emphasizing intuitive meditation) and neo-Confucianism (emphasizing knowledge and reason) before them, Daoists did not long delay in constructing interesting syntheses of their own and other beliefs. Confucianism now joined Buddhism as a fertile source of inspiration. The revelations of Xu Sun, supposed to have lived in the 4th century ce, to one He Zhengong in 1131 inspired the “Pure and Luminous Way of Loyalty and Filial Obedience” (Jingmingzhongxiaodao). This sect preached the Confucian cardinal virtues as being essential for salvation, and consequently won a considerable following in conservative intellectual and official circles. Another highly popular syncretistic movement of Daoist origin was that of the Three Religions (sanjiao). Its composite moral teachings are represented by popular tracts, the so-called “books on goodness” (shanshu), which have been in extremely wide circulation since the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

History » Daoism under the Tang, Song, and later dynasties » Developments outside the official current » Communal folk Daoism (shenjiao)
Popular, or folk, religion is not a separate religious tradition but the wholly unorganized undercurrent of Chinese religious culture from the earliest times, shared by all strata of society. The Chinese have no single name for it; it may be called the religion of the gods, or spirits (shenjiao). The deities of the popular pantheon come from all traditions. What the deities have in common is that in shenjiao they are all gods intimately involved in everyday life as givers of blessings or bringers of calamities. Every object or activity of daily life has its presiding spirit that has to be consulted and feasted or appeased and driven off, especially at all special occasions in the life of the family or the community. The person primarily involved in the practice of shenjiao in modern times is the fashi (magician). For the orthodox Daoist priests the shenjiao rites are the “little rites”; the jiao rituals, the exclusive function of the Daoist priests, are the “great rites.” Both kinds of priests—the orthodox and the magicians—operate on different occasions in the same temples and are consulted for the family rites of burial, birth, marriage, house construction, and business affairs.

Major exorcism rites (e.g., purification of haunted houses and treatment of the sick or mentally deranged) are performed by the orthodox Daoist priests, who, being ordained into the ranks of the shen, have power over the demons with whom they are on an equal footing. The fashi priest’s specific function is the manipulation of possessed mediums (specially gifted lay persons). The medium puts himself into a trance in which he becomes the mouthpiece of a deity (or a deceased relative) giving medical, personal, or business advice that is interpreted by the fashi. Professional mediums attached to a temple or a private cult lacerate themselves in trances. This is considered to be a vicarious atonement for the community during the great feasts. A different form of mediumistic communication among lay people is automatic writing, either with a brush on paper or with a stick on sand.

History » Daoism under the Tang, Song, and later dynasties » Developments outside the official current » Secret societies
Politically dissident messianic movements have existed and developed separately from the established Daoist church from the very beginning (2nd century ce). Their leaders were priest-shamans, similar to the modern fashi priests of folk Daoism. Their followers were the semiliterate or illiterate classes socially below the tradition of orthodox Daoism, and their organization was similar to that of the syncretistic religions and of modern secret societies. Although the secret societies have had no organizational contact with the Daoist tradition for centuries, their religious beliefs, practices, and symbols contain some Daoist elements, such as initiation rites, worship of Daoist deities, mediumism, and the use of charms and amulets for invulnerability. These influences reached them either directly or through popular religion.

Influence » Daoism and Chinese culture » Daoist contributions to Chinese science
Daoist physiological techniques have, in themselves, no devotional character. They have the same preoccupations as physicians: to preserve health and to prolong physical life. Medicine developed independently from about the 1st century ce, but many Daoist faith healers and hygienists added to medical knowledge.

The earliest surviving medical book, the Huangdineijing, or “The Yellow Emperor’s Esoteric Classic” (3rd century bce?), presents itself as the teachings of a legendary Celestial Master addressed to the Yellow Emperor.

Experiments with minerals, plants, and animal substances, inspired to some extent by Daoist dietetics and by the search for the elixir of life, resulted in the 52 chapters of pharmacopoeia called Bencaogangmu, or “Great Pharmacopoeia” (16th century).

This interest in science is considered a reflection of the Daoist emphasis on direct observation and experience of the nature of things, as opposed to Confucian reliance on the authority of tradition. Zhuangzi declared that tradition tells what was good for a bygone age but not what is good for the present.

The Daoist secret of efficacy is to follow the nature of things; this does not imply scientific experimentation but rather a sensitivity and skill obtained by “minute concentration on the Dao running through natural objects of all kinds.” This knowledge and skill cannot be handed down but is that which the men of old took with them when they died (Zhuangzi). The image for it is the skill of the artisan admired by the Daoists in their numerous parables on wheelwrights, meatcutters, sword makers, carvers, animal tamers, and musicians.

Though extolling the intuitive comprehension and skillful handling of matter, the Daoists did not observe nature in the Western sense and rejected technology out of their aversion to the artificial. Any new idea or discovery in China was phrased as “what the old masters really meant.” This ideology of rediscovery makes it hard to study the evolution of scientific thought. Some progress over the ages (for example, in alchemy) can be seen, but the Daoist contribution to Chinese science might be smaller than it has been assumed.

Influence » Daoism and Chinese culture » Daoist imagery
Daoist literature manifests such richness and variety that scholars tend naturally to seek the symbolic modes of expression that served as points of unity within its historical diversity. No image is more fundamental to all phases of Daoism than that of the child. Daodejing praises the infant’s closeness to the Dao in its freedom from outside impressions, and Zhuangzi describes the spiritual beings nurtured on primal substances, air and dew, as having the faces of children. Thus many of the spirits, both indwelling and celestial, in the esoteric system are described as resembling newborn babes, while the Immortals who appear in visions, though hundreds of years old, are at most adolescent in appearance. Other persistent images are those of mountain and cavern. Present in the older texts, they are carried over, with particular connotations, into the later works. The mountain as a meeting place of heaven and earth, gods and men, and master and disciple (as already in Zhuangzi), takes on a vast downward extension. Beneath the mountains are the great “cavern-heavens” (dongtian) of esoteric Daoism, a hierarchy staffed by numerous Immortals. Thus, for example, while Maoshan is only some 400 metres (1,300 feet) high to the gaze of the profane, the initiate knows that its luminous grottoes plunge thousands of metres into the earth. And light is everywhere in Daoist revelation: spirits and paradises alike gleam with brilliance unknown in the world of men.

Influence » Daoism and Chinese culture » Influence on secular literature
Already during the Warring States period and the early Han, Daoism had made its appearance in the works of the other schools. Both direct quotations and patent imitations were frequent, and citations from Daodejing and Zhuangzi abound throughout later Chinese literature, as do reminiscences of both their style and their content. Esoteric Daoist writings, too, held great fascination for men of letters. Their response might vary from a mere mention of the most celebrated Immortals to whole works inspired directly by specific Daoist texts and practices. Many a poet recorded his search, real or metaphorical, for Immortals or transcendent herbs or described his attempts at compounding an elixir. A certain number of technical terms became touchstones of poetic diction. The revealed literature of Maoshan came to have the greatest effect on secular writings. As works of great literary refinement, the Lives of the Perfected directly inspired a very famous tale, the Intimate Life of Emperor Wu of Han (Han Wudi neizhuan; late 6th century), which in highly polished terms describes the visit to the emperor of a goddess, the Queen Mother of the West. This work, in turn, made a decisive contribution to the development of Tang romantic fiction. Literary accounts of fantastic marvels also drew heavily on the wonders of Maoshan hagiography and topography. The Maoshan influence on Tang poetry was no less important. Precise references to the literature of the sect abound in the poems of the time, while many of the greatest poets, such as Li Bai, were formally initiated into the Maoshan organization. As awareness of these influences increases, scholars are faced with the intriguing question of the possible religious origins of whole genres of Chinese literature (see also Chinese Literature).

Influence » Daoism and Chinese culture » Influence on the visual arts
A number of early Chinese books of spiritual interest claim to have been inspired by pictures seen on the walls of local temples. A similar tradition attaches to the Lives of the Immortals, which is said to derive from a pictorial work called Portraits of the Immortals. As has been noted, the Immortals were depicted on Han mirrors. Other illustrative materials were in close relation to the earliest esoteric Daoist literature. Graphic guides existed from early times to aid in the identification of sacred minerals and plants, particularly mushrooms. A later specimen of such a work is to be found in the Daoist Canon. This practical aspect of Daoist influence resulted in the exceptionally high technical level of botanical and mineralogical drawing that China soon attained. In calligraphy, too, Daoists soon set the highest standard. One of the greatest of all calligraphers, Wang Xizhi (c. 303–361), was an adherent of the Way of the Celestial Master, and one of his most renowned works was a transcription of the Book of the Yellow Court. The efficacy of talismans, in particular, depended on the precision of the strokes from which they were created. Figure painting was another field in which Daoists excelled. China’s celebrated painter Gu Kaizhi, a practicing Daoist, left an essay containing directions for painting a scene in the life of the first Celestial Master, Zhang Daoling. Many works on Daoist themes, famous in their time but now lost, have been attributed to other great early masters. Of these, some may have been painted for use in ritual, and religious paintings of the Daoist pantheon are still produced today. The Daoist scriptures, with their instructions for visualization of the spiritual hierarchy, including details of apparel and accoutrements, are ready-made painter’s manuals. Finally, the language of speculative Daoism was pressed into service as the basic vocabulary of Chinese aesthetics. Consequently, many secular artists attempted to express their own conceptions of the “natural spontaneity” of Zhuangzi and Laozi’s “spirit of the valley.” Here Daoism found still wider imaginative extension, and the efforts of these painters are embodied in those magnificent landscapes that have come to be thought of as most characteristically Chinese.

Influence » Daoism and other religions » Confucianism and Buddhism
Confucianism is concerned with human society and the social responsibilities of its members; Daoism emphasizes nature and what is natural and spontaneous in the human experience. The two traditions, “within society” and “beyond society,” balance and complement each other. This classic definition is generally correct concerning orthodox Han Confucianism; it neglects some aspects of Confucian thought, such as the speculations on the Yijing, that are considered to be among the Confucian Classics and the prophetic occult (chanwei) commentaries to the classics. As far as Daoism is concerned, this definition neglects the social thought of the Daoist philosophers and the political aspects of Daoist religion. Chinese Buddhism has been viewed not as a Sinicized Indian religion but as flowers on the tree of Chinese religions that blossomed under Indian stimulus and that basically maintained their Chinese character.

The first mention of Buddhism in China (65 ce) occurs in a Daoist context, at the court of a member of the imperial family known for his devotion to the doctrines of Huang-Lao. The Indian religion was at first regarded as a foreign variety of Daoism; the particular Buddhist texts chosen to be translated during the Han period reveal the Daoist preoccupation of the earliest converts with rules of conduct and techniques of meditation. Early translators employed Daoist expressions as equivalents for Buddhist technical terms. Thus, the Buddha, in achieving enlightenment (bodhi), was described as having “obtained the Dao”; the Buddhist saints (arhat) become perfected Immortals (zhenren); and “non-action” (wuwei) was used to render nirvana (the Buddhist state of bliss). A joint sacrifice to Laozi and the Buddha was performed by the Han emperor in 166 ce. During this period occurred the first reference to the notion that Laozi, after vanishing into the west, became the Buddha. This theory enjoyed a long and varied history. It claimed that Buddhism was a debased form of Daoism, designed by Laozi as a curb on the violent natures and vicious habits of the “western barbarians,” and as such was entirely unsuitable for Chinese consumption. A variant theory even suggested that, by imposing celibacy on Buddhist monks, Laozi intended the foreigners’ extinction. In approximately 300 ce, the Daoist scholar Wang Fou composed a “Classic of the Conversion of the Barbarians” (Huahujing), which was altered and expanded in subsequent centuries to encompass new developments in the continuing debate. Although there is no evidence that the earliest Daoist organization, literature, or ceremonies were in any way indebted to Buddhism, by the 4th century there was a distinct Buddhist influence upon the literary form of Daoist scriptures and the philosophical expression of the most eminent Daoist masters.

The process of interaction, however, was a mutual one, Daoism participating in the widening of thought because of the influence of a foreign religion and Buddhism undergoing a partial “Daoicization” as part of its adaptation to Chinese conditions. The Buddhist contribution is particularly noticeable in the developing conceptions of the afterlife; Buddhist ideas of purgatory had a most striking effect not only on Daoism but especially on Chinese popular religion. On a more profound level the ultimate synthesis of Daoism and Buddhism was realized in the Chan (Japanese Zen) tradition (from the 7th century on), into which the paradoxes of the ancient Daoist mystics were integrated. Likewise, the goal of illumination in a single lifetime, rather than at the end of an indefinite succession of future existences, was analogous to the religious Daoist’s objective of immortality as the culmination of his present life.

Chan Buddhism deeply influenced neo-Confucianism, the renaissance of Confucian philosophy in Song times (960–1279), which in Chinese is called “Learning of the Way” (daoxue). In this movement Confucianism acquired a universal dimension beyond a concern for society. Neo-Confucian thought often seems as Daoist as the so-called neo-Daoist philosophy and literature seem Confucian.

As early as the Tang dynasty, there are traces of the syncretism of the “Three Religions” (sanjiao), which became a popular movement in Song and Ming China. A mixture of Confucian ethics, the Daoist system of merits, and the Buddhist concept of reincarnation produced such “books on goodness” (shanshu) as the Ganyingpian (“Tract on Actions and Retributions”). The school of the “Three Religions” was rejected by most Confucians and Buddhists but received wide support in Daoist circles. Many Daoist masters of those periods transmitted neidan and other techniques of inner cultivation to their disciples while at the same time preaching the moralism of the “Three Religions” to outsiders.

Influence » Daoism and other religions » Other Asian religions
The affinities of Daoism with other Asian religions are numerous. If one distinguishes between universal religions of salvation, such as Buddhism and Islam, and the older, more culture-bound religions, such as Japanese Shintō and Hinduism, Daoism undoubtedly belongs to the second category.

The fact that no record of Shintō antedates the introduction of Chinese script makes it difficult to distinguish between Daoist affinities and influences on Shintō features—such as the cult of holy mountains, the representation of the human soul as a bird, bird dances, the representation of the world of the dead as a paradisiac country of immortality—and the concept of the vital force (tama, in objects as well as in man). Like Daoism, Shintō is the religion of the village community.

There was never an attempt to implant a Daoist religion officially in Japan, but a random choice of Daoist beliefs and customs have, at various ages, been adopted and transformed at the Japanese court, in the temples, and among the people. Records from the early 7th century contain traces of Daoism, which was appreciated chiefly for its magical claims. The “masters of yin and yang” (ommyō-ji), a caste of diviners learned in the Yijing, Chinese astrology, and occult sciences who assumed importance at court in the Heian period (8th–12th century), probably were responsible for the introduction of Daoist practices, such as the Keng-shen (Japanese Kōshin) vigil and the observance of directional taboos (katatagae). In the 8th century, disputations were held at court over Buddhism and the philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi. The Baopuzi was known, and Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, reported (in 797) on Daoist physiological practices and beliefs in Immortals. Buddhist (Shingon and Tendai) ascetics, wandering healers, and mountain hermits known as yamabushi probably came closest to Daoism in their techniques for prolonging life (abstinence from grains, etc.) and their magical arts (exorcisms, sword dance) and objects (mirrors, charms), which must have reached them through the Tantric elements in Shingon. Daoist mysticism lives on in that it has influenced the two Chinese Zen schools of Linji (Rinzai) and Zaodong (Sōtō), introduced in the 12th and 13th centuries and still active in Japan. Popular Daoist moral tracts were printed and widely diffused in the Tokugawa period. Modern Japanese scholarship on Daoism (Dōkyō) ranks very high in the world.

Influence » Daoism in modern times
The principal refuge of Daoism in the 20th century was on Taiwan. Its establishment on the island is doubtless contemporary with the great emigration from the opposite mainland province of Fujian in the 17th and 18th centuries. The religion, however, has received new impetus since the 63rd celestial master, Zhang Enbu, took refuge there in 1949. On Taiwan, Daoism may still be observed in its traditional setting, distinct from the manifestations of popular religion that surround it. Hereditary Daoist priests (Taiwanese saigong), called “blackheads” (wutou) from their headgear, are clearly set off from the exorcists (fashi) or “redheads” (hongtou) of the ecstatic cults. Their lengthy rites are still held, now known under the term jiao (“offering”), rather than the medieval jai (“retreat”). The liturgy chanted, in expanded Song form, still embodies elements that can be traced back to Zhang Daoling’s sect. The religion has enjoyed a renaissance since the 1960s, with great activity being carried on in temple building and restoration.

Anna K. Seidel
Michel Strickmann

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)




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