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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

Taoism

Taoism

Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy and religion that instructs believers on how to exist in harmony with the universe.

Grades

5 - 8

Subjects

Anthropology, Religion, Social Studies, Storytelling, World History

Image

Mount Laojun

Mount Laojun in Luoyan, Henan Province, China is a sacred site for Taoists. Hundreds of Taoists embark on pilgrimages every year along with tourists from around the world to see this spectacular site.

Photograph by HelloRF Zcool / Shutterstock

Taoism (also spelled Daoism) is a religion and a philosophy from ancient China that has influenced folk and national belief. Taoism has been connected to the philosopher Lao Tzu, who around 500 B.C.E. wrote the main book of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching. Taoism holds that humans and animals should live in balance with the Tao, or the universe. Taoists believe in spiritual immortality, where the spirit of the body joins the universe after death.

The Tao Te Ching, or “The Way and Its Power,” is a collection of poetry and sayings from around the third and fourth centuries B.C.E. that guides Taoist thought and actions. While the author is traditionally believed to be the philosopher Lao Tzu, there is little evidence that Lao Tzu existed at all. Rather, the Tao Te Ching is a gathering of earlier sayings from many authors. This book was given an origin with the philosopher Lao Tzu for cultural and political reasons. Lao Tzu is sometimes understood as the image of the Tao, or a god, and given legendary status.

The Tao (or Dao) is hard to define but is sometimes understood as the way of the universe. Taoism teaches that all living creatures ought to live in a state of harmony with the universe, and the energy found in it. Ch’i, or qi, is the energy present in and guiding everything in the universe. The Tao Te Ching and other Taoist books provide guides for behavior and spiritual ways of living in harmony with this energy. However, Taoists do not believe in this energy as a god. Rather, there are gods as part of the Taoist beliefs, often introduced from the various cultures found in the region known now as China. These gods are part of the Tao, like all living things. Taoism has temples, monasteries, and priests who make offerings, meditate, and perform other rituals for their communities.

One of the main ideas of Taoism is the belief in balancing forces, or yin and yang. These ideas represent matching pairs, such as light and dark, hot and cold, action and inaction, which work together toward a universal whole. Yin and yang show that everything in the universe is connected and that nothing makes sense by itself.

Taoism became well-known in the eighth century C.E. as the religion of the Tang dynasty. In the following centuries, it existed alongside Buddhism and Confucianism (another philosophical religion). However, during the Communist takeover in 1959, Taoism, Confucianism, and other religions were banned. This caused a decline in the practice of Taoism in China. Many modern Taoists live in Taiwan, although recent reforms in China have increased the number of Chinese Taoists.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
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National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
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Clint Parks,
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André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
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Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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