Taoism (däu´Ĭzəm), refers both to a Chinese system of thought and to one of the four major religions of China (with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Chinese popular religion).
The philosophical system stems largely from the Tao-te-ching, a text traditionally ascribed to Lao Tzu but probably written in the mid-3d cent. BC The Tao, in the broadest sense, is the way the universe functions, the path [Chin. tao=path] taken by natural events. It is characterized by spontaneous creativity and by regular alternations of phenomena (such as day following night) that proceed without effort. Effortless action may be illustrated by the conduct of water, which unresistingly accepts the lowest level and yet wears away the hardest substance. Human beings, following the Tao, must abjure all striving. The ideal state of being, fully attainable only by mystical contemplation, is simplicity and freedom from desire, comparable to that of an infant or an "uncarved block."
Taoist political doctrines reflect this quietistic philosophy: the ruler's duty is to impose a minimum of government, while protecting his people from experiencing material wants or strong passions. The social virtues expounded by Confucius were condemned as symptoms of excessive government and disregard of effortless action. Second only to Lao Tzu as an exponent of philosophical Taoism was Chuang-tzu, who wrote brilliant satirical essays. Taoist ideals greatly influenced Chinese literature, painting, and calligraphy. Later Taoism emphasized the techniques [Chin. te=power] for realizing the effects flowing from the Tao, especially long life and physical immortality.
Religious Taoism appropriated earlier interest and belief in alchemy and the search for the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone. By the 5th cent. AD, Taoism was a fully developed religious system with many features adopted from Mahayana Buddhism, offering emotional religious satisfaction to those who found the largely ethical system of Confucianism inadequate. Taoism developed a large pantheon (probably incorporating many local gods), monastic orders, and lay masters. Heading the commonly worshiped deities is the Jade Emperor. Directly under him, ruling from Mt. Tai, is the Emperor of the Eastern Mountain, who weighs merits and faults and assigns reward and punishment in this and future existences. An ecclesiastical hierarchy was founded in the 8th cent., headed by the T'ien Shih [master of heaven]; he claimed succession from Chang Tao-lin, an alchemist of the 2d cent. who was reputed to have discovered the elixir of immortality after receiving magical power from Lao Tzu.
Throughout its history Taoism has provided the basis for many Chinese secret societies; in the 1950s, after the establishment of the Communist regime, Taoism was officially proscribed. Taoism is still practiced to some degree in modern China, as well as in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao and in communities of Chinese who have emigrated.
Taoist ideas have enjoyed wide circulation in the West in the late 20th cent. and have been the basis of popular books, such as F. Capra's Tao of Physics (1983). See also A. Waley, The Way and Its Power (1935); D. C. Lau, tr., Tao Te Ching (1963); B. Watson, tr., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (1968); M. Kalternmark, Lao Tzu and Taoism (1969); R. M. Smullyan, Tao Is Silent (1977); C.-Y. Chang, Creativity and Taoism (1963, repr. 1982); N. J. Girardot, Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism (1983); J. Lagerway, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History (1987).