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A Taoist temple in Shaanxi province.
Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
Preach to the choir
Icon religion.svg
Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith

Taoism or Daoism (Chinese: 道教 daojiao or 道家 daojia), an ancient religious and philosophical tradition, originated in China. Beginning with the eponymous Tao ("the Way"), it serves up vague concepts, glittering generalities, and invisible inversions of glittering generalities—people who don't know any Chinese love to translate this stuff their own way. Taoist truth-making easily switches gears, now spinning out grandly elusive hints of the fundamental way of the cosmos, then shifting down to personal advice about flexibly adapting oneself to cosmic ways and human society, either by deliberate action and by studious non-action, called wu-wei (無爲). Iconographically, it is often represented as a union of opposites represented by yin (陰) and yang (陽). Traditionally, yin is dark, female, and receptive, while yang is light, masculine, and active. Daoists hold that this is not an essential duality, but rather two mutually constituting and intricately linked parts of a whole, both of which are at all times present in all things and may only achieve temporary preponderance.[note 1] The mythical sage, Lao Tzu wrote the seminal Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing), about two and a half millennia ago. Other classics of Taoism include the Chuang-Tzu (Zhuangzi,[1] named after its author[2]) and the Tao Tsang (Daozang).[3]

Uses and abuses[edit]

Taoism has a high potential for woo abuse, especially by those who don't really know much about the religion, and by martial artists. Many of these can be found in books with the title "The Tao of..." There are a few good ones out there, like Bruce Lee's Tao of Jeet Kune Do, but most resemble Fritjof Capra's 1975 book The Tao of Physics, which has been criticized in its efforts to link mystical philosophy and quantum mechanics[4] and for its use of outdated physics.[5]

Philosophical vs. religious Taoism?[edit]

Popularizers draw a distinction between philosophical and religious Taoism. Philosophical Taoism, called 道家 daojia, treats the Tao Te Ching as a guide to help one's actions conform with the way of nature. Religious Taoism, called 道教 daojiao, focusses on obtaining physical immortality and avoiding evil spirits. In reality, this distinction is completely fictional and merely serves as a method for fans of the Tao Te Ching or the Zhuangzi to separate out the ideas they find most palatable, and to discard the rest as superstition. Russel Kirkland states: "[M]ost scholars who have seriously studied Taoism, both in Asia and in the West, have finally abandoned the simplistic dichotomy of tao-chia and tao-chiao - 'philosophical Taoism' and 'religious Taoism.'"[6] Nonetheless, most popular interpretations and high-school summaries of Taoism make this division into "philosophical Taoism" (which provides a way to understand the world and which is fully compatible with other religious traditions) and "religious Taoism" (which includes elements of ancestor-worship, animism, and alchemy).

Taoist XianWikipedia (not to be confused with the X-Men or with Xians), have super powersWikipedia, like the SiddhiWikipedias of Hinduism. According to Victor H. Mair:

They are immune to heat and cold, untouched by the elements, and can fly, mounting upward with a fluttering motion. They dwell apart from the chaotic world of man, subsist on air and dew, are not anxious like ordinary people, and have the smooth skin and innocent faces of children. The transcendents live an effortless existence that is best described as spontaneous. They recall the ancient Indian ascetics and holy men known as ṛṣi who possessed similar traits."Do You Believe That? The term refers to both supernatural humans and to animals dwelling in the sacred mountains.[7]

In the 20th century, scholars drew attention to another text, the Nei-yehWikipedia (literally: Inward training),[8] which dated to roughly the same period of the Laozi and Zhuangzi texts. The Nei-yeh comprises a manual for personal betterment, largely through meditative practices, and much of the more obscure language in the foundational texts can now be deciphered as references to this work. This discovery has further destabilized the belief that there is any real separation between philosophical and religious Taoism, effectively disproving the contention that philosophical Taoism does not partake in or advocate monastic-type practices.[9]


Historically, the most common name used in English has been Taoism, which comes from the Wade-Giles transliteration of Chinese. Most academics now prefer the term Daoism, from the newer, and now official, pinyin transliteration. Some people are capable of arguing endlessly about which name is more correct — which quickly descends into arcane discussions of differences between Chinese and English phonology,[note 2] the relative merits of Wade-Giles vs. pinyin,[note 3] etc.


  1. In case you're wondering: yes, these ideas are vague, unfamiliar, intriguing and seemingly profound enough to be an excellent material for appropriation by Western woo-meisters. But in China, they coexist very well with a pragmatic and science-affirming worldview, and at the very least the people believing them rarely set out to murder infidels in the most brutal manner possible.
  2. Expect hairs to be split - though dao would be agreed on by any Westerner schooled in Mandarin as a more appropriate Romanization, and pinyin itself was developed by a Chinese-born investment banker educated in the United States and fluent in English, it is unlikely that any Western-born adherent of these ideas is actually familiar with the language.
  3. This discussion is greatly complicated by cross-strait politics


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Zhuangzi (book).
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Zhuang Zhou.
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Tao Tsang.
  4. "At the heart of the matter is Mr. Capra's methodology—his use of what seem to me to be accidental similarities of language as if these were somehow evidence of deeply rooted connections." - Jeremy Bernstein (Steven Institute of Technology) (1982) Science Observed, New York: Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-07340-9, p.333-340
  5. "The bootstrap philosophy, despite its complete failure as a physical theory, lives on as part of an embarrassing New Age cult, with its followers refusing to acknowledge what has happened." Peter Woit, Columbia University, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law
  6. Kirkland, Russell. 2004. Taoism: the Enduring Tradition, New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415263214, page 2.
  7. Victor H. Mair, Wandering on the Way: early Taoist tales and parables of Chuang Tzu. (New York: Bantam. 1994), 376.
  8. LaFargue, Michael (1994). Tao and Method: A Reasoned Approach to the Tao Te Ching. SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press. p. 579. ISBN 9781438409863. Retrieved 9 January 2024. "The Nei Yeh is introduced and translated in Rickett 1965: 151-68 [...]" 
  9. Kirkland, Russel. "A Quest for the Foundation of Taoist Mysticism" Studies in Central & East Asian Religions. 2001/2002. Vol 12/13, 224.