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Daoism (Taoism) (daotong 道統) is a Chinese religious tradition in the process of being transmitted and adapted to a global context. On the most basic level, “Daoism” refers to an indigenous Chinese religious tradition in which reverence for and veneration of the Dao 道, (Tao), translatable as both the Way and a way, is a matter of ultimate concern. In contrast to adherents of other Chinese religious and cultural traditions, Daoists (Taoists) understand the Dao as Source of all that is, unnamable mystery, all-pervading numinosity, and the cosmological process which is the universe. The Dao is impersonal and simultaneously immanent and transcendent. Broadly understood, the point of a Daoist way of life is to cultivate alignment and attunement with the Dao.


Daoism is a Chinese religious tradition. Daoism is Chinese because it originates in Chinese culture and, in some sense, because it is most clearly understood through the Chinese language and views of being. Daoism is a “religion” because it involves an orientation towards and relationship with the sacred. Daoism is a “tradition” because it is a community of dedicated practitioners connected to each other as a historical and energetic continuum.


At the same time, Daoism is now being transmitted and adapted to a global context. Daoism is no longer simply a Chinese religious tradition. It is now a global religious and cultural phenomenon, existing in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Italy, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, and practiced by people of a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds.


While specialists in Daoist Studies reject the outdated bifurcation of Daoism into so-called “philosophical Daoism” and “religious Daoism” as historically inaccurate and interpretively flawed, there is still no consensus on the most accurate way of understanding the religious tradition which is Daoism. Some identify the origins of Daoism in the Warring States period (480-222 BCE) and the early “inner cultivation lineages,” while others would argue for beginning with the Later Han dynasty (25-220 CE) and the early Tianshi 天師 (Celestial Masters) movement. Still others would have one believe that the indigenous Chinese category, or categories, that we approximate with “Daoism” only began with Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 (365-448) and Lu Xiujing 陸修靜 (406-477) as an indigenous response to the increasing power of Buddhism in Chinese society. The matter is complicated by a number of factors, including competing conceptions of “religion,” inaccurate or selective readings of classical Daoist texts and misconceptions of classical Daoism, the scarcity of research on  “Daoism-between-Daoism” (namely, from 139 BCE to 142 CE ), and a lack of research on continuities and departures among specific Daoists and Daoist communities.  



Map of Warring States “China”


Studied inclusively, Daoism begins with the “inner cultivation lineages” of the Warring States period (480-222 BCE), as documented in the early classics Daode jing 道德經 (Scripture on the Dao and Inner Power), Zhuangzi 莊子 (Book of Master Zhuang), and other related but lesser known texts. This period of Daoist history provided many of the foundational principles, worldviews, practices, and ideals of the later Daoist tradition. Drawing insights from these earlier practitioners and communities as well as Early Han dynasty (202 BCE-9 CE) longevity practitioners, “formula masters” (fangshi 方士), and immortality seekers, Daoism became an organized religious movement in the Later Han dynasty (25-221 CE) with the establishment of Tianshi dao 天師道 (Way of the Celestial Master) by Zhang Daoling 張道陵. This movement branched out into the major schools of early medieval Daoism, namely, Taiqing 太清 (Great Clarity), Shangqing 上清 (Highest Clarity), and Lingbao 靈寶 (Numinous Treasure). The late medieval period included the development of internal alchemy (neidan 內丹) lineages in the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties and the emergence of the Quanzhen 全真 (Complete Perfection) monastic order. This eventually led to the formal establishment of the Longmen 龍門 (Dragon Gate) lineage in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).



Members of the British Taoist Association


Such historical contours compose the Daoist tradition and have established a foundation for the ongoing transmission of Daoism throughout the modern world (beginning in the 1950s and 1960s) and the formation of “global Daoism.”


Further Reading: “Chronology of Daoist History”/Louis Komjathy; Daoism: A Short Introduction/James Miller; Daoism and Chinese Culture/Livia Kohn; Daoism Handbook/Livia Kohn (ed.); Daoist Identity/Livia Kohn and Harold Roth (eds.); Daoism in China/Wang Yi’e; “Models of Daoist Practice and Attainment”/Louis Komjathy; Original Tao/Harold Roth; “Periodization of Daoist History”/Louis Komjathy; Taoism: The Enduring Tradition/Russell Kirkland; “The Dao of America”/Elijah Siegler; The Encyclopedia of Taoism/Fabrizio Pregadio (ed.); “The Taoism of the Western Imagination and the Taoism of China”/Russell Kirkland; The Taoist Canon/Kristofer Schipper and Franciscus Verellen (eds.); “Tracing the Contours of Daoism in North America”/Louis Komjathy.


See also American Daoism, Dao, Daoism (Normative), Daoism (Popular Construction), Philosophical Daoism, and the entries on Daoist.