Taoism For Dummies
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You may be familiar with Taoism the way your parents were familiar with the music you and your friends listened to when you were a kid — you have a passing knowledge, but wouldn't be able to win any trivia competitions. A lot of what you know about Taoism may be a little fuzzy. To understand Taoism completely is a lifelong journey, but you’d do well to know a little bit about the history of Taoism and its important branches. Taoism wouldn’t be Taoism without the contributions of key figures over time. Knowing who those people were gives you a greater appreciation of what Taoism is today.

A timeline of Taoist history

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.

Important branches of Taoism

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.

Key Taoists in history

The origin of Taoism reaches back as far as prehistoric China, and has had a strong influence over Chinese culture throughout its history. The following people shaped Taoism over time, making it what it is today:

  • Lao Tzu: Lao Tzu is the traditional “founder” of Taoism and the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching. He lived in the 5th century b.c.e.

  • Chuang Tzu: Chuang Tzu was the author of several chapters of a text that bears his name. He lived in the 4th century b.c.e.

  • Liu An: Liu An was the sponsor of a Han Dynasty text called the Huai Nan Tzu. He lived in the 2nd century b.c.e.

  • Chang Tao-ling: Chang Tao-ling was the founder of the Way of the Celestial Masters, which was the first actual Taoist community. He is still revered by all Taoists as the first Celestial Master, the Heavenly mandated spiritual leader of the community. He lived in the 2nd century c.e.

  • K’ou-Ch’ien-chih: K’ou-Ch’ien-chih was the leader of a Taoist theocracy and the reviver of the Celestial Masters tradition. He lived from the 4th to 5th centuries.

  • T’ao Hung-ching: T’ao Hung-ching compiled the Highest Clarity scriptures, which are some of the most important revealed texts in the Taoist Canon. He also founded a Taoist temple on Mount Mao. He lived from the 5th to 6th centuries.

  • Ssu-ma Ch’eng-chen: Ssu-ma Ch’eng-chen wrote the Treatise on Sitting and Forgetting, which teaches techniques of meditation and “unlearning.” He lived from the 7th to 8th centuries.

  • Lü Tung-pin: Lü Tung-pin was a legendary poet and alchemist. He was the best known among the Eight Immortals, an octet of mythic Taoist adepts who are revered in the Complete Perfection lineage of Taoism. He lived around the 9th century.

  • Chang Po-tuan: Chang Po-tuan was the pioneer of internal alchemy, a form of physical-spiritual cultivation that applied alchemical practices metaphorically. He lived in the 12th century.

  • Wang Ch’ung-yang: Wang Ch’ung-yang was the founder of the Complete Perfection Taoist lineage, one of the two main sects of Taoism in China today. He lived in the 12th century.

  • Chang San-feng: Chang San-feng was a legendary Taoist immortal, someone who Taoists believe became adept at advanced cultivation techniques and became an immortal spirit in Heaven after his death. He is traditionally identified as the founder of t’ai-chi ch’üan, a set of stylized martial arts thought to promote physical and spiritual health. He lived in the 15th century.

  • Ch’en Wang-t’ing: Ch’en Wang-t’ing was the first known practitioner of t’ai-chi ch’üan. He lived in the 17th century.

  • Chang En-p’u: Chang En-p’u was the 63rd Celestial Master (the officially recognized spiritual leader) of Orthodox Unity Taoism. He fled to Taiwan to escape communist rule. He lived from 1904 to 1969.

  • Chang Tao-ch’en: Chang Tao-ch’en is the current, 64th Celestial Master of Orthodox Unity Taoism, though several other people (all surnamed Chang) claim to be the rightful heir to the title. He was born around 1967.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

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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