Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Religious and philosophical tradition of China founded on the philosophy of mystic Lao Tzu (or Tze), a contemporary of Confucius (although some doubt exists regarding his historicity, the name simply meaning Old One or Old Master). A central concept of Taoism is the Tao , or the Way, which involves a state of acceptance or accommodation to the world.

Lao Tzu suggested that aggressive action brings about reaction according to the yin-yang principle; hence gentle noninterference or keeping within the natural Tao or rhythms is recommended. Such habits as correct hygiene and proper cultivation of the Tao are required for adaptation of one's vital rhythms to those of the universe. The concepts of yin and yang represent the fundamental duality of the Tao or natural order. This duality is expressed in such pairs of characteristics or themes as masculine and feminine, hot and cold, shady and luminous, and heaven and earth. Taoism was first organized as a religious movement in northern Szechwan province in the second century C.E. with the advent of the Way of the Celestial Masters (T'ien-shih Tao). This movement was led by the first and most famous celestial master, Chang Tao-lin, considered by many to be the founder of Taoism as a religion. Taoist thought and practice over the centuries has influenced neighboring philosophical and religious traditions. Notably, Taoist thought exercised considerable influence on early Shinto beliefs, when strong Chinese influence began in Japan in the seventh century. Ch'an, a variety of Buddhism with strong Taoist elements, became the Zen Buddhist tradition in Japan. Strands of Taoist thought are to be found in the two Chinese Zen schools of Lin-chi (Rinzai) and Ts'ao-tung (Soto) introduced to Japan in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

As Max Weber (1951) points out, Taoism as a religion traditionally has been associated with Chinese peasants—in contrast to Confucianism, which has traditionally been more of a religion or philosophy of cultured intellectuals. Taoism over the centuries acquired elements of traditional Chinese "superstitions" and other traditional beliefs that did not originate with Lao Tzu. Popular aspects of Taoism in the United States include Tai Chi Chuan, a movement discipline asso- ciated with Taoism led by Master Lee that is similar to some forms of Yoga; the Tao te Ching (Book of Changes); and a number of books (e.g., The Tao of Pooh and The Tao of Physics ) popularizing aspects of Taoist philosophical thought. In the twentieth century, the principal refuge of Taoism has been Taiwan. This resulted largely from emigration from Fukien province on the Mainland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and from the exodus of the 63rd celestial master, Chang En-pu, to Taiwan in 1949.

Western social scientific interest in Taoism goes back not only to Weber (1951) but also to Marcel Mauss (1973 [1934]), who discusses Taoism in reference to socially taught ways of movement, breathing, and aspects of body awareness. More recent social scientific research has analyzed the structure of consciousness produced by Taoism (Freiberg 1975), local Taoist practices in the People's Republic of China (Dean 1993), and moral accountability in new religious movements and quasi-religions in the United States (Bird 1979).

Edward F. Breschel


F. Bird, "The Pursuit of Innocence," Sociological Analysis 40(1979):335-346

K. Dean, Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of South-East China (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993)

J. W. Freiberg, "The Taoist Mind," Sociological Analysis 36(1975):304-322

M. Mauss, "Techniques of the Body," Economy and Society 2(1973 [1934]):70-88

M. Weber, The Religion of China (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1951).

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