Important Branches of Taoism

By Jonathan Herman

Part of Taoism For Dummies Cheat Sheet

There have historically been many different types of Taoism, and it’s sometimes hard to keep them all straight or understand how they relate to one another. Here’s a brief summary of the different historical and modern branches of Taoism.

Classical Taoism

Taoism traces its roots to a series of texts written more than 2,000 years ago. You can think of Classical Taoism as developing in two stages:

  • The Lao-Chuang Tradition: This is the general name given to a cluster of authors and their texts from the Hundred Schools Period (6th to the 3rd centuries b.c.e.), which primarily includes Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, but also some others like Lieh Tzu and Yang Chu.

  • Huang-Lao Taoism: This was a short-lived form of Taoism from the early part of the Han Dynasty (2nd century b.c.e. to 2nd century c.e.). It mingled Taoist thought with political philosophy and correlative cosmology (the study of how different elements and dynamic phases resonate and correspond with one another).

Medieval Taoist communities

The first actual communities that can really be called Taoist developed a few hundred years after the Classical Period. Here are the most important ones:

  • The Way of the Celestial Masters: The Way of the Celestial Masters was a communal organization formed in the 2nd century. It was a forerunner to Orthodox Unity Taoism and marked the beginning of the history of Taoism as an actual lived tradition (instead of as a collection of texts).

  • The Great Purity (Ta-ch’ing): This was an early Taoist self-cultivation group. They were among the first practitioners of alchemy (the laboratory preparation of physically and spiritually transformative elixirs). They operated in the 3rd or 4th century.

  • Highest Purity Taoism (Shang-ch’ing): Highest Purity Taoism was an aristocratic self-cultivation group that originated in the 4th century. Practitioners were inspired by years of revelations from Lord Lao.

  • Numinous Treasure Taoism (Ling-pao): Numinous Treasure Taoism was a group emphasizing physical and spiritual cultivation that originated in the late 4th and 5th centuries. They built on earlier revelations, introducing secretive rituals and the use of talismans, texts, and charms that provided protection from or power over spirits.

Contemporary Taoist lineages

Growing out of the medieval Taoist communities and many short-lived sects that developed over the next several years, two main lineages of Taoism developed and continue in China today. Here’s a brief description of them:

  • Orthodox Unity Taoism: Orthodox Unity Taoism is the primarily liturgical branch of Taoism. It traces its line back to the Way of the Celestial Masters, flourishes mainly in Taiwan and southern China, and has priests who marry and have children.

  • Complete Perfection Taoism: Complete Perfection Taoism is the primarily monastic branch of Taoism. It was established more recently, in the 12th century; flourishes mainly in northern China; and has vegetarian, celibate priests living in monasteries and abbeys.