Taoism For Dummies
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Taoism encompasses a wide range of beliefs, practices, and cultural traditions, and its history has often followed a “Way” of complicated twists and turns. Here’s a brief timeline that lays out the basic periods of Taoist history.

Dates What Happened in Taoist History
6th to 2nd centuries B.C.E. The Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, Nei-yeh, Huai Nan Tzu, and Ma-wang-tui manuscripts were composed. This is known as the Classical Period.
2nd century B.C.E. to 2nd century C.E. Lao Tzu was deified. Cults of individuals searching for immortality and a holistic philosophical system called correlative cosmology emerged.
2nd to 6th centuries Taoist communities, “new age” movements, and physical-spiritual cultivation groups formed. The Way of the Celestial Masters, the first actual Taoist community, began. Cultivation groups called the Highest Purity and Numinous Treasure received revelations of sacred scriptures. The practice of Taoist alchemy (laboratory preparation of physically or spiritually transformative elixirs) began. Classification of Taoist texts into a three-part canon started.
6th to 11th centuries A distinct Taoist identity formed. The Taoist Canon was compiled. A standing pantheon (officially recognized group of deities) emerged. The term tao-chiao (“teachings of the Tao”) came into widespread use. Internal alchemy (a form of physical-spiritual cultivation that applied alchemical practices metaphorically) developed.
11th to 14th centuries The following new (mostly short-lived) Taoist sects appeared: The Perfect Great Way, the Teaching of the Great Unity, the Way of Pure Brightness, the Correct Method of the Celestial Heart, the Spiritual Firmament, and the Way of Complete Perfection. These sects produced new scriptures, moral lessons, ritual forms, healing arts, and/or monastic practices, many of which survive to this day.
14th to 20th centuries Taoism was distilled into the Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection lineages, the two major sects of Taoism that survive today. The Ming Canon, the last official collection of Taoist sacred texts, was compiled. Gymnastic and physical cultivation techniques like t’ai-chi ch’üan and ch’i-kung were developed.
20th to 21st centuries Taoism was disrupted by a series of political events (including the Communist Revolution in 1949 and the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s) and then reestablished in China. Taoism also spread to Western countries.

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Jonathan Herman, PhD, is the Director of Undergraduate Studies and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he teaches courses in Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Shinto, world religions, comparative mysticism, and critical theory in the study of religion. He has written extensively on various aspects of Taoism, Chinese religion, and modern religious issues.

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