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The History of Taoism

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Taoism or Daoism is a Chinese philosophy and folk religion of people primarily in the rural areas of China. The primarily idea and focus of Taoism is the Tao (way, path), which is important to be followed, not taking any action that is contrary to nature and finding the place in the natural order of things. Taoism has had a big impact on Chinese civilization and, surprisingly, on science. Researching the natural world, to help humankind, a number of important discoveries were made. For example, the search for the “elixir of immortality” led to the invention of gunpowder and improved Chinese medicine in the effort to align human life with cosmic energy, the magnetic compass was discovered, and other contributions that had an impact on Chinese culture and the world.

Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one, a painting in the litang style portraying three men laughing by a river stream, 12th century, Song dynasty.

The roots of Taoism can be traced to Lao-tzu and his text Tao Te Ching (the Classic of the Way and its’ Power), dated to the 6th century BC, however, the teachings in the text are older. This includes divination, the theory of the complementary forces of yin and yang, the “Five Phases” and the notion of cb’i, the vital matter or life energy. Lao-Tzu believed in the harmony of all things and that people could live easily together if they only considered each other’s feelings and recognized that their self-interest was not always in the best interests of others. Lao-Tzu became irritated by the corrupt government. He realized that he can’t change people’s behavior and decided to go into exile. As he was leaving China through the western pass, the gatekeeper Yin Hsi, stopped him and asked him to write a book for him before he left. Lao-Tzu agreed and wrote the Tao-Te-Ching. The Tao-Te-Ching is a book of poetry that explains how to live in peace with the world. Other philosophical texts are the Cbuang-tzu (4th century BC), Huai-nan-tzu (2nd century BC), and Lieb-tzu (3-4th century AD).

At the end of the Han dynasty, the first schools of religious Taoism were opened. By the 3rd century BC, individuals that had knowledge of techniques for achieving fang-sbib (immortality) were hired by imperial courts. By the beginning of the Common Era, Lao-tzu had been elevated to the status of “Tai-shang Leo-chun” or “Most High Lord Leo”. The chaos at the end of the Hun Dynasty inspired messianic hopes, by groups claiming revelation from Lao-tzu. One of these groups was the Yellow Turbans. They preached the coming of a golden age. They rebelled in eastern China in 184 AD but they were crushed immediately. The same year a new group was established, the “Way of the Celestial Masters”, in Szechwan. Founder and Celestial Master (leader) of the group was Chang Tao-ling. In 215 CE, the celestial master Zhang Lu accepted the authority of the Han general Cao Cao, who six years later founded the Wei dynasty, which resulted in official recognition of the group by the dynasty. The role of the celestial masters was to give celestial confirmation and support. Encouraged by this ideology of compromise, the group made constant progress at the courts of the Wei and Western Jin dynasties, and by the end of the 3rd century, many of the most powerful families in North China joined the group.

Taoism’s most spectacular success was at the time of the Tang Dynasty. The dynasty’s founder, Li Yuan, claimed to be descended from Lao-tzu. This became part of the ideology of the dynasty, and the emperor was commonly referred to as the sage (sheng). During the Song (960-1279) and the Yuan (1206-1368) periods, Taoism was threatened by foreign invasions and Buddhism, which was mostly accepted by the Mongol rules in China.

Even though Taoism became a state religion a number of times, the majority of people still preferred Confucianism and Buddhism. Taoism is still practiced by people in China and it is recognized as a world religion.

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