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The Geography of Taoism

The Essentials of the Faith

Founded: Taoism was founded in sixth century CE by the philosopher Li Uhr, commonly known as Lao Tze. Lao Tze is an honorific title meaning either "Old Boy" or "Old Philosopher". Little trustworthy is written about the life of Lao Tze, but the story is told how as Lao Tze was leaving public life as an old man, he was stopped at the city gate and begged to leave behind his wisdom. Lao Tze stopped long enough to write a document of 5,000 characters, now known as the Tao-Te Ching, and departed never to be heard from again (Ballou, pp. 533-535).

Adherents: Taoism is distributed throughout the world, but in very small numbers in areas where Chinese thought has not had influence. It is presently predominant in China and Taiwan. Yet, exact numbers are not known because a clear distinction between the practitioners of Taoism and Confucianism does not entirely exist.

Distribution: The figures of distribution listed below are for all traditional Chinese religionists, including local deities, ancestor veneration, Confucian ethics, Taoists, divination, as well as some Buddhist elements, are given as follows from Markham, pp. 356-357:

Area Adherents Population Percentage
Latin America73,0000.0%
Northern America122,0000.0%

Major Teachings: Taoism is the belief in the natural order of things. Ch'i, which means breath, is central to Taoism. Cosmic energy is derived from Ch'i, and is from which yin and yang spring. Ch'i was split into the light, yang breath forming heaven, and into the dark yin breath, forming Earth. The yin and yang, therefore, are a part of one another and are constantly striving for a balance.

Scriptures and Significant Writings: The primary text of Taoism is the Tao-Te Ching, the collection of wisdom from Lao Tze. Also important is the Lieh-tzu, a collection of stories and philosophical musings, and the Chuang-tzu.

Symbols: The symbol most universally recognized for Taoism is the circle divided into black and white, representing yin and yang. Within the yin and the yang is a little spot of the opposite, demonstrating that they are in reality a part of the other. This symbol is portrayed on the button representing Taoism on this website and is shown here.

Major Divisions: There are various sects and divisions within Taoism. The most prominent is the Heavenly (or Celestial) Masters sect, founded in West China in the second century CE. It was founded by Chang Tao-ling who supposedly possessed healing powers. The sect advocated faith healing through the confession of sin. The Mao-shan (Mount Mao) sect, founded in the fourth century, introduced rituals involving both external and internal alchemy, mediumistic practice, and visionary communication with divinities (having been mortals who through diligent practice achieved immortality).

The Details about Taoism

Taoism is a philosophy that is deeply embedded into the traditions and history of China. It is difficult to distinguish between what is Taoist and what is Confucian because they both have many of the same ideas about man, society, rulers, Heaven, and the universe. Confucianism deals with the practical and the earthly while Taoism deals with the esoteric and the heavenly. Both beliefs stem from traditional Chinese ideas that were not delegated to one religion. Therefore, it is difficult to place the origins of Taoism. Yet, it is believed to have been present in China as far back as 500 or 600 BCE.

Lao Tze is the principal figure in Taoism. The author of the Tao-Te Ching, Lao Tze was the first to take Taoistic principles and put them in writing. The Tao-Te Ching is the basis of many other works in Taoism. Interpretations of the parables within the work are diverse. Therefore, many different sects have developed. Yet, there are some inherent principles that remain throughout the changes of Taoism.

Most of the Tao-Te Ching deals with the interaction of yin and yang and their influences upon nature. Yin represents the female and is serene and without motive. Yang represents the masculine aspects of the universe, which are hot, dry, and active. The ideal balance is to able to retain the characteristics of both. The nature of paradox illustrates this balance of yin and yang. Tao represents "the way" or "the path" or possibly even "God". Te means virtue. Thus, the title of the Tao-Te Ching might be rendered "The Canon of the Way of Virtue" (Ballou, p. 535).

The highest motive is to be like water:
water is essential to all life,
yet it does not demand a fee
or proclaim its importance.
Rather, it flows humbly to the lowest level,
and in so doing it is much like Tao....

Nothing in the world is weaker
or more yielding than water;
yet nothing is its equal in wearing away
the hard and the strong.
There is nothing quite like it.

Thus, the weak can overpower the strong;
the flexible can overcome the rigid.
The whole world can perceive this,
but does not put it into practice.

-- The Tao-Te Ching,
sutras 8 and 78, pp. 16, 17.

In addition to Ch'i, yin, and yang, there are other characteristics of Taoism that are just as important. According to Wu Wei, one should not work against the natural order of things. This does not mean complete inaction, rather it means that whatever action one does, it is so perfect in harmony with the natural order, that there is no trace of the action. Nothing can be achieved unless Wu Wei is incorporated. For this reason, every time the natural order is deliberately intervened upon, the exact opposite of what was trying to be accomplished will result. Failure, therefore, is the only result of nonconformity to the Wu Wei.

Taoists do not concern themselves with society. Taoism is a very individual philosophy in that Taoists are expected to value their own life above all else. They should not worry about wealth and power. These are not the concerns of people. There is no need to sacrifice oneself for the good of society. Everyone is responsible for their own Ch'i.

Taoism looks upon death as a natural occurrence that one should not fear or dread. Yet, as the philosophy evolved into different sects, there are some who seek immortality. These believe that, even though death is natural, it can be avoided by practicing Taoism so completely that the energy of the soul is released and the person becomes pure cosmic energy. This is directly connected to the Ch'i which each person is filled with at birth. To strive against the natural order depletes the Ch'i; yet through practicing Wu Wei, it can actually be retained.

Because Taoism is very concerned with the health of the spirit, the body, which directly reflects that health, is a primary concern. If one is unhealthy, it could be from an imbalance in the Ch'i. Medicine and different ceremonies were adapted to help balance the Ch'i. Through this belief, the herbal remedies associated with Chinese medicine originated.

Taoism, in it's involvement in maintaining the balance of the natural order, is preoccupied with repairing that balance. Through medicine and meditation, this balance is maintained. Therefore, many of the Taoistic ceremonies center around this need. The Mao Shan sect believed that those with special powers could be used as a medium to dispense a cure for illnesses. The spirit that was within them could speak through the medium and prescribe the correct medication or course to take to heal someone.

The Geography of Taoism

The organization of space, both spiritually and physically, is very important in Taoism. In fact, an art of household design, based on Taoist principles, exists called Feng-shui.

Space continued to interact with Taoism as the various sects developed. For example, the Mao-shan sect hold the Mao Shan mountains in Kaing-su province as sacred because of their belief in a massive period of cleansing of the earth with fire and flood. The good will take refuge deep within the earth, in caverns of the perfected beneath the mountains of Mao Shan.


Ballou, Robert O., (Editor), The Viking Portable Library World Library. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.

MacHovec, Frank J., (Translator), The Book of Tao. White Plains, NY: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 1962.

Markham, Ian S., (Editor), A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

O'Brian, Joanne, and Mark Palmer, The State of Religion Atlas. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Links for More Information

Anne Morken's Taoism Page
Pooh-Wei Corner
Su Tzu's Chinese Philosophy Page (lots of Taoist texts!)
Taoism Depot
Taoism Information Page
Taoism and the Philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan
Taoist Resource Center
Tao-Te Ching by Lao Tzu
The Temple of the Immortal Spirit
Thigpen's Taoism Page

Version 1.0 dated 1.15.98
This background graphic was created by George N. Sharik especially for use on this webpage

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