A Short History of Daoism

Submitted by James Miller on Sun, 01/01/2012 - 12:04
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Daoism is an organised religious tradition that has been continuously developing and transforming itself through China, Korea and Japan for some two thousand years. Now it has spread around the globe from Sydney to Toronto and includes among its followers people from a whole range of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Day by day, Daoism is truly becoming a world religion, but as it does so, it seems to resist being pinned down in neat categories. Not many people know what Daoism is, and when people do have an understanding of it, often it is quite different from someone else's. One reason for this is that the history of Daoism is one of continuous change rather than a linear progress or development. Daoism has no single founder, such as Jesus or the Buddha, nor does it have a single key message, such as the gospel or the four noble truths. Rather Daoism bears witness to a history of continuous self-invention within a vast diversity of environmental contexts.

In fact the human experience of change or transformation in our bodies and in the world around us lies at the heart of the Daoist experience in much the same way that faith in an eternal, unchanging deity lies at the heart of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic religious system. Whereas Western religionists seek to place their trust in an unchanging and invisible stability that somehow transcends the fleeting experience of time, Daoists recognize and celebrate the profound and mysterious creativity within the very fabric of time and space itself.

The most influential Daoist text, Daode jing (Scripture of the Way and its Power, c. 4th century B.C.E.) names this mysterious creativity "Dao", which can be translated quite straightforwardly as "way" or "path." The first line of the standard version of the text enigmatically warns, however, that "Dao can be spoken of, [but it is] not the constant Dao." No wonder, then, that Daoism has taken a bewildering array of forms within the East Asian cultural context and now across the world.

A History of Daoism in a Nutshell

The history of Daoism can conveniently be divided into four periods: Proto-Daoism (aka "Philosophical Taoism" in an older (mis-)understanding), Classical Daoism, Modern Daoism and Contemporary Daoism. Although these labels suggest a gradual historical development, it does not follow from this that Daoism has been steadily developing in a linear fashion towards some ideal state, nor is it mean to imply that the "classical" period is somehow "better" than the "modern" period or vice-versa.

The first period, Proto-Daoism, covers the time from antiquity up to the 2nd century C.E. The reason why this period is called "proto-Daoism" is that we have no knowledge of any formal Daoist religious organizations at this time. The classic works that were written during this period, the Daode jing, the Zhuangzi in particular, were highly influential upon the flourishing of the classical Daoist tradition. Many textbooks on world religions still take this period as representing the essence of Daoism. This is simply an obtuse and misleading interpretation of the whole history of Daoism.

The second period, that of classical Daoist religion, starts in 142 C.E. when Zhang Daoling established the Way of the Celestial Masters, also known as the Way of Orthodox Unity, the first successful organized Daoist religious system. Daoist priests today claim to be ordained in a lineage that stretches back to this original founder. Two other important movements developed later during this period of classical Daoist religion: the Way of Highest Clarity (Shangqing Daoism) and the Way of Numinous Treasure (Lingbao Daoism). This period, between the 2nd and the 7th centuries can be called the classical period because scholars of Daoism look back to this time (known also as the medieval period of Chinese history) as the era in which many Daoist practices, texts and rituals initially took shape. Also during this period, Buddhism was brought to China by missionaries from India and Tibet. Buddhist ideas and practices were absorbed into Daoism (and vice-versa) but there were also periods of intense rivalry between Daoists and Buddhists. The classical period of Daoism ends with the Tang dynasty (618-906), one of the high-points of Chinese civilisation from the point of view of the development of art and culture. During the Tang dynasty Daoism became fully integrated with the imperial court system particularly under the reign of the Xuanzong Emperor (713-756). During this time Daoism functioned as the official religion of the imperial court and exerted complete supremacy over Buddhism.

The period of modern Daoism begins with the Song Dynasty (960-1279), during which time the boundaries between elite Daoist religion, Buddhism, and local cults begin to be increasingly blurred. Based on the syncretism that began in this period, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate out Daoism as a religious category from the popular Chinese religious culture as it functions on the ground. In terms of elite Daoism, however, the most significant event was the founding of the Way of Complete Perfection (Quanzhen dao) by Wang Zhe (1113-1170). The Way of Complete Perfection is the major monastic form of Daoism that exists to this day alongside the more community-based priesthood of the celestial masters. The Way of Complete Perfection is devoted to the practice of internal alchemy, in which the energies of the body are refined through breathing and other forms of meditation into ever subtler forms, thus promoting longevity and even, in a few rare cases, the possibility of totally transcending the ordinary finitudes of human existence. The Way of Complete Perfection is also marked by its aim to "harmonise the three teachings" of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, and became highly influential under the Mongol Yuan dynasty after Wang Zhe's disciple Qiu Changchun (1148-1227) underook a three-year journey to the court of the Mongol warlord, Chinggis Khan. Despite the rhetoric of harmonization, further acrimonious debates with Buddhists developed at this time, and when the Daoists lost a series of these debates in1281 many Daoist texts were burned. Despite this setback, Daoism flourished during the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the year 1445 saw the compilation of the Daoist Canon (Daozang), a compendium of some 1,500 Daoist texts, under the patronage of the Yongle Emperor. In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Daoist ideas and practices became more entrenched in popular religious culture. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we have better historical evidence of the way popular religion functioned since many popular Daoist morality texts were published and the practice of Daoist-inspired arts such as Taiji quan (Tai Chi) and Qigong (Ch'i-kung) became increasingly widespread.

The fourth period, since 1949, has been a near-total catastrophe for Daoism, particularly during the period of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when many Daoist temples were destroyed and the overt functioning of the religion to all intents and purposes ceased to exist in mainland China. Since 1980 Daoism has begun to be practiced openly again in China and a new generation of Daoists are struggling to rebuild their temples and recover their tradition. On the other hand, through the emigration of many Chinese people across the world, Daoist temples have been established in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere and many popular Daoist practices such as Qigong and Taiji quan (Tai-chi) have taken root in the West. Until recently it was not certain that Daoism had survived this cataclysmic upheaval, but the study and practice of Daoism is beginning to flourish once again in China and throughout the world.

This introduction is excerpted, with permission, from Daoism: A Beginner's Guide by James Miller (Oxford: Oneworld Publications: 2008).