Daoism: A Closer Look at the Development of China’s Indigenous Religion

Daoism, also referred to as Taoism, is a Chinese indigenous religion whose philosophical tradition, cosmology, and principles have contributed to the evolution of Chinese culture and religiosity. We have looked briefly at Daoism as a religion, but in this article we turn to observing some of its developments as it first emerged in China and began to interact with other worldviews. Generally, we are looking at the period from the sixth century BCE up to the twentieth century CE.

Daoism is the religion founded by the legendary Lao-tze (or Laozi) whose beliefs were included in the Dao De Jing, also referred to as the Tao Te Ching. The Dao De Jing is attributed to Lao-tze but it developed over time through the hands of several writers up until the third century BCE. Only in the second century CE was Daoism founded as a religious system by Chang Tao Ling (d. 156 CE). Previously Chinese religion consisted of a diffusely localized worldview drawing on various aspects of state religion, Buddhism, and Daoism (Daoism here referring more to the development of its intellectual tradition prior to its establishment as a religion). Earlier Daoism came to include a strong practical dimension emphasizing rituals, meditation, breath-control, as well as monastic communities of priests and ascetic practices.

Is Daoism a Philosophy or Religion?

Is Daoism a religion or a philosophy? It has been claimed that Daoism first emerged as a philosophy and was later turned into a religion in the form of Neo-Daoist superstition. But as scholar Horst Helle maintains, research from the past few decades has shown convincingly that “the ancient Daoist texts can only be understood against the background of religious practices that were current during the lifetime of Lao-tze and the other authors of the classical texts of Daoism” (1). These scriptures contain traces of the ecstatic states of sages, travels into the beyond, and experiences produced under conditions of trance. These are hardly different from the revelatory nature of shamanic religious practices we find across the world. Helle maintains that it is therefore,

“[E]rroneous to present Daoism as if its founders had been sober philosophers, and as if their doctrines have later been used, or abused, for superstitious religious purposes. Since that has become understood to be unacceptable it would instead seem appropriate to link Daoism to very ancient sources of revelation, and to credit Lao-tze and his followers with having been the first ones to convert their mystical experiences into lasting texts” (2).

Daoism and Other Religions

Daoism sat side-by-side with China’s other historic religions in various ways. For one, it coupled with folk beliefs to form a complex and intricate web of faith. Daoism became closely connected to folk beliefs since the Song (r. 960-1279 CE) and Yuan (r. 1279-1368 CE) dynasties as part of the same network of faith. It was attractive to common people because of its spontaneous emotional disposition when seen alongside the Confucian rituals of the past imperial culture.

The similarities between Daoism and Confucianism have sometimes made it challenging for sinologists to tell them apart. Through active dialogue between the two traditions, both came to share a likeness on matters of cosmology, their image of humans, on society, rulership, and on heaven. Proponents of both traditions were also the co-creators of religious ritual. But there were important differences too. A major difference came in Daoism’s emphasizing practices like meditation, the ethic of acting through not acting (wu wei), and passivity. This differed substantially to Confucian practices that were typically conventional, pragmatic, and active. Confucianism has always been concerned with social institutions in the family, community, and state as being essential to human flourishing and moral excellence. Daoism came more to emphasis living in harmony with the Dao and the practice of we wei by avoiding taking action that is not in accord with nature. The Confucian philosophers did, however, have much respect for the author/s of the classic Daoist texts because the philosophy presented within them were recognized as being part of a learned tradition. But the Confucians took issue with the more religious aspects of Daoism, especially as it was practiced in people’s homes and in the small temples of the villages. For example, Zhuangzi’s (d. 286 BCE) doctrine that people should cultivate serenity was seen by the Confucian thinkers as being subversive.

Daoism found itself challenged when a wave of missionaries from India entered China to spread Buddhism as a religious alternative. It was in the first century CE that Buddhism began to establish itself in China and introduce foreign concepts such as reincarnation and samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). And whereas Buddhism opened itself more widely to whoever showed interest, the Daoists made heavy demands on their members on matters of intelligence, education, and knowledge of ancient texts. Both traditions were also in constant competition for new members drawn from among the illiterate majority of Chinese people. Buddhism attempted to do so by presenting itself as more enlightened and rational. Buddhists also often depicted Daoist priests as evil magicians using power to spread fear. The Buddhists often pointed to Daoists rituals and knowledge of plants and minerals as proof of this. In contrast to the Buddhist notion of reincarnation, the Daoists maintained that death could be totally avoided though immortality gained within this world. The Daoists later incorporated Buddhist rituals but Buddhism found itself incapable of ever replacing Daoism fully.

Death and the Afterlife

Historic Chinese belief regarding death and heaven was a hodgepodge of various strands. The belief in the immortality of one’s dead ancestors who live on eternally was particularly central to Chinese concepts of death. Folk religion maintained heaven to be the domain for deceased dignitaries such as emperors, noble ancestors, and worthies. It also posited that the dead loved ones of the common people rested peacefully in the underworld. Notions of hell only arrived in China with Buddhist missionaries from India. Daoist notions of death also came to have a significant influence on the common people. Importantly, it proposed that one could follow a path that would prevent the separation of body and soul, which essentially promised that people could attain everlasting life without having to die. Daoists could bypass physical death and ascend to heaven; this, the Daoists believed, required one to be as healthy as possible and for the body to be alive and integrated into the cosmos. Daoist religious activities also came to have the purpose of delivering the deceased of one’s own clan from the shadows of the underworld into heaven. But the concept of heaven/s in historic China differed from what most Westerners believe it to be. According to Helle, Chinese visions of heaven are not “to be understood as founded on the dualism of good and evil” (3). Heaven was believed to also be the location of bad people in the same way Earth is home to both good and bad people. Those in heaven do not have any “particular level of goodness, rather what they shared was merely immortality, for better or for worse.”

Human Responsibility

The Chinese believed in the manifestation of good and of evil in the cosmos and that it is the responsibility of humans to provoke or induce developments regarding them. This normally required the use of ritual and a Daoist priest to ensure the continued proper ordering of things. This evidences a certain potency and responsibility to the human being. For the Daoist, responsibility lies with the person himself or herself. One’s own situation depends not on the gods or on saints and ancestors, but on one’s own actions and beliefs. People are the masters of their fate and if they fail they have only themselves to blame. This human-centered perspective makes Daoism a far more humanistic religion than others in which the gods or God are afforded a significant role in human affairs. This responsibility also empowers the individual. Empowerment comes in the accomplishment of things without having to act in the first place (wu wei). To use one example, it was believed that a person merely being present at a specific location is sufficient to manifest conducive weather conditions for a good harvest. The person’s presence was believed to increase the fertility of the soil and therefore make the land produce a generous yield. There is something sacred about the individual in such a scenario: if the person’s own energies in his body are harmonized, it causes the energies of nature to be balanced in efficiency and harmony too. The Dao De Jing also teaches that there is an underlying principle pervading the universe called the Dao, or the Way. It is the person’s responsibility to conform to the Way, but because nature is spontaneous and changing, this requires that human beings are themselves able to change.

Yin and Yang

One cannot ignore the role that yin and yang has played in Chinese religious and philosophical thought. Yin and yang are understood to be the active and passive, and male and female polarities that cannot exist without each other. They were also integral to creation; for example, Daoists believe that darkness, before it was hit by the first spark of light, was negative, chaos, and female. This Daoists call this yin. However, only after light, identified as the male principle (yang), appears can one have knowledge that darkness exists. Light rose up into the sky and darkness settled below the Earth, which caused the creation of heaven and Earth. Human beings, with the potency that they have been endowed, are responsible for what happens to the cosmic balance. They are to maintain equilibrium and harmony and to restore these if required. But if they fail, perhaps by following after things like power and lust, the waters of chaos will swallow up the Earth. There are strong differences to this notion when compared to other religions: whereas a number of other religions posit punishment from the gods or a God on human beings for their sinful and immoral acts, Daoism posits that nature will punish human beings for their transgressions.

Daoism and Scientific Developments

Interesting scientific developments have also been constitutive of Daoism’s history. Such developments were caused by experimenting with various minerals and substances to invent new medicines for immortality. Perhaps one of history’s greatest ironies is that rather than discovering the elixir for immortality, Daoist alchemists under the Tang (r. 618-906 CE) discovered, by pure chance, gunpowder. Gunpowder was used to first treat skin disease and later came to aid the Chinese in warfare. It was particularly used in missile-like bamboo tubes soldiers filled with gunpowder. It was also used in firecrackers.

Daoism in the Twentieth Century CE

The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which followed a series of political upheavals and social movements including the fall of the Qing Dynasty (r. 1644-1912), shaped Daoist practice in the country. There was the suppression of Daoist temples and only elements deemed appropriate by the state under its standard for a “legal” religion became the core of modern Daoism. There has also been a revival of Daoist temples in recent years. Even though the communist People’s Republic was often hostile to religion, the influence of Daoism (and Confucianism) in Chinese culture has remained strong.


  1. Helle, Horst. 2017. “Daoism: China’s Native Religion.” In China: Promise or Threat?: A Comparison of Cultures. Brill. p. 72.
  2. Helle, Horst. 2017. Ibid. p. 73.
  3. Helle, Horst. 2017. Ibid. p. 76.

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