Daoism is a difficult and complex subject to subject to a simple definition. If you ask five different people to define it, you are likely to receive five different answers. This difficulty stems from two different but interrelated problems: the difference between Daoism as it is practiced and Daoism as it is studied and the complexity of distinguishing Daoism as it is understood by modern minds from how it was understood historically. In the following, I hope to shed some light on this array of problems. Please note that I use Hanyu Pinyin as my preferred means of Romanization both because this is the system with which I am more familiar, and because I believe it more consistently elicits an accurate pronunciation from the uninitiated. For those of you who are more familiar with Wade-Giles, I have provided the conversions at the end of this writeup. In any case where the Wade-Giles is used on E2, I have tried to pipe the hardlink as appropriate. I hope to add characters shortly, but have been having difficulty with that; if you have hints, please message me.

Practical Daoism vs. Philosophical Daoism

Previous writers on this topic have rightly made the distinction between practical or religious or xian Daoism and philosophical or contemplative Daoism (sometimes also known as Quietism). This mirrors the distinction made in Chinese between Dao jiao, literally "Daoist teaching" which is used for religious Daoism, and Dao jia, which translates to "Daoist house" or "school of thought" and is used for philosophical Daoism. In other words, there is no single word "Daoism" in Chinese, but rather these two terms, Dao jia and Dao jiao which serve to illustrate the important distinction between the contemplative and practical elements in Daoism. Note, however, that while this distinction is fairly consistent in modern writing and discussion of Daoism, it is not always present in treatises contemporary to the spread and preeminence of religious Daoism.

Philosophical Daoism

Philosophical Daoism is the strain of Daoism that is most familiar to most Westerners. This is the Daoism that so many not-quite-well informed people refer to when they say that "Daoism is a philosophy, not a religion" The contemplative strain of Daoism is generally considered to have as its founder the legendary Laozi. Laozi is considered by most scholars to be a historical construction and to have never existed. His work, the Dao De Jing or "Classic of the Way and Virtue" has been shown by recent scholarship to have been written (or more likely, assembled from several disparate sources) several centuries after the historical Laozi (the real person who is used as the basis for the legendary Laozi) died. Note that Dao De Jing has variously been translated as the "Book/Classic of the Way and its Virtue" or the "Classic of the Way of Virtue." I prefer "Classic of the Way and Virtue" because it is more open to differing interpretations and seems truer to the way the book is divided into two sections, one each for "the Way" and "Virtue."

The second great book of philosophical Daoism is the Zhuangzi or Book of Zhuangzi, named after its writer Zhuangzi fares a little better under scrutiny. There is much more certainty that Zhuangzi both existed historically and wrote more than half of the book that bears his name (it is split into the Inner Chapters, most of which he almost certainly wrote, and the Outer Chapters, which are all generally considered additions by his followers). Together, these two classics are called LaoZhuang Daojia. The Dao De Jing is generally considered the less grounded of the two texts, especially as it contains more passages on cosmogony and other intangible subjects. The Zhuangzi operates more through metaphor and is often considered easier to understand and more practical in its philosophy.

There are further trends in philosophical Daoism that followed after the two classics which are usually less familiar to the casual scholar. These included the HuangLao Dao of the Han Dynasty, which centered around the philosophies of the Yellow Emperor or Huangdi (hence the Huang) and of Laozi (hence the Lao) and the writings of The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a group of real scholars from the third century CE who may or may not have actually met. While the writings of both of these schools continue in a more-or-less philosophical vein, they nevertheless can be seen as moving closer to practical Daoism. In particular, the Yellow Emperor was the legendary first emperor of China who was associated with, among other things, immortality.

Religious Daoism

Religious Daoism came to the forefront of Chinese culture following the Jin Dynasty. Although religious Daoism contains some of the same conceptions as philosophical Daoism, it is in many ways a different thing entirely. Religious Daoism originally gained a lot of ground from the quest for immortality. Initially, many Daoist monks were commissioned by emperors or other notables to help them find alchemical formulas that would help ensure them immortality. These formulas often contained metallic compounds with large quantities of mercury and lead as well as sulfur and other noxious or poisonous substances. These were often chosen for their bright colors which were associated under the Five Phases Theory with different phases or elements (fire, earth, metal, water, wood) and different bodily systems. After a number of very important people suffered heavy metal poisoning at the hands of these alchemists, however, this form of alchemy fell out of favor (ultimately leading to today's Traditional Chinese Medicine).

The development of Daoist monks, both in and out of favor with the imperial court, as well as the parallel development of several notable Daoist Cults or sects led to the development of a very synergetic sort of religion. Daoism embraced deities from other religions including the famous Queen Mother of the West or Xiwangmu, whose name may be the result of reading the literal meaning of a transliteration of the name of a Central Asian goddess. Daoism created new legends and deities of its own, including the Eight Daoist Immortals. Perhaps most importantly (and most confusingly), religious Daoism made immortals out of real figures (such as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove) and made Laozi the central god in the pantheon.

Practical Daoism was and is still practiced at temples in China and Taiwan. In the past, it included sexual practices, meditation, dietary practices, devotional chants and many other things that Westerners do not generally associate with Daoism. In modern China and Taiwan (and presumably other places with large ethnic Chinese populations), Daoist Temples are in many ways difficult to distinguish from Buddhist Temples; they both feature everyday people praying to idols of a wide variety of deities and lighting incense. They often feature both monks in special costumes and lay practitioners who help to coordinate activities and often play music at religious holiday celebrations.

Historical Difficulties

Innumerable difficulties arise when we try to consider Daoism within a historical context. Textual difficulties include differences between historical and current texts and the loss of many texts that would be helpful. The term Daoism presents its own historical difficulties, in addition to the differentiation between philosophical and religious Daoism, as discussed above. It is also very hard to determine the practices of everyday Daoists, who, like most Chinese prior to the modern era, were illiterate. Finally it becomes difficult to distinguish Daoism and Daoist themes from Chinese culture more broadly, especially to the extent that Daoism (or at least Dao jiao) sometimes becomes synonymous with "Chinese religion."

Textual Difficulties

Already mentioned is the difficulty of distinguishing between real historical people and their works and the legends and works attributed to them. First and foremost among the individuals subject to this difficulty is Laozi, who was probably based on an actual individual, surnamed Li, an elder contemporary of Confucius (Kongzi or sometimes Kong Fuzi ), but who is unlikely to be the author of all (or any) of the Dao De Jing, and was certainly not a god or the creator of the universe as he was later known. Zhuangzi, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and numerous others likewise fall prey to this problem. Part due to the tendency in Chinese culture to attribute any particularly good idea to a famous historical figure (for example, as late as the 1890s, the writer Kang Youwei was attributing some of his best ideas for reform to Confucius). Another element of Chinese culture is the deification of particularly notable personages as the protectors of the home locality (and when someone is as important as Laozi, of all of China).

Another difficulty of unearthing Daoism is the near impossibility of locating the originals of many texts. Recently, new versions (or actually, older versions) of the Dao De Jing were unearthed in 1973 (Mawangdui Laozi) and 1993 (Guodian Laozi, both named after the villages where they were found) that call into question much of the received text. The Mawangdui text is estimated to be from 200 BCE and is quite similar to the received text in most ways. The Guodian is from before 278 BCE and is has more substantial differences. Some of the characters in the older texts are different than in the received text. Furthermore, the two sections of the Guodian text are in the opposite order. In the received text, the first section is the "Dao" section on "the Way," the second section is the "De" section on "Virtue" (this is also true of the Mawangdui text). In the Guodian Laozi, the "De" section comes first, followed by the "Dao" section, which has caused some scholars to refer to the unearthed text as the "De Dao Jing" as opposed to the received text, which they call the "Dao De Jing". The Guodian text is also missing about two-thirds of the verses of the received text.

There is still substantial debate as to what we can conclude from these recent archeological discoveries. It seems likely to me that they indicate rather strongly that the Dao De Jing was compiled from several different sources, possibly between second and third century BCE, although it is also possible that a complete version existed earlier than the Mawangdui Laozi and the two recovered texts differ due more to location than to time period. These texts have also indicated some errors in transcription of the text between the Mawangdui and the received text. These transcription errors have the effect of making the received text appear generally more philosophical and less practical than the uncovered text.

Daoism and Buddhism

Another interesting quandary raised by historical texts is that Daoism (or dao jia or dao jiao) was not used as a term until the Han Dynasty. Prior to that, the Laozi and the Zhaungzi were generally referred to as laozhuang if they were thought of together at all. Laozi was more commonly connected, especially through his cosmogony, to the Yi Jing or "Book/Classic of Changes" and the Yellow Emperor, known under the name huanglao. It is notable that the use of the term Daoism coincides more or less with the introduction of Buddhism to China and the beginnings of the emergence of religious Daoism (or at least texts of religious Daoism). Many people, including myself, postulate that Daoism was in effect the first Nationalist religion (predating Protestantism by almost fifteen centuries). In other words, a number of different texts, including the Zhuangzi, the Laozi, the Classic of the Yellow Emperor and the Yi Jing, as well as various local religious practices were combined to create a Chinese religion to compete with this foreign religion (as an interesting note, Liang Qichao talked in the 1910s and 1920s about the need for a Chinese religion as part of a syncretic Chinese Nationalism).

Another interesting note is that one version of the legend of Laozi has him travel to India after he leaves China, thereby inspiring Siddhartha to create Buddhism. This had the effect of making Buddhism Chinese in origin and therefore acceptable to Chinese. An affect of this was to make Buddhism and Daoism combined in much of Chinese folk religion and to inspire a great deal of exchange of ideas between the two. Many scholars think that Chinese (i.e. Daoist) martial arts and meditation were derived from, or at least heavily influenced by Indian yogic practices. And on the other side of things, Zen Buddhism originated in China as Chan Buddhism before being taken to Japan by a Chinese monk ("Zen" is the Japanese pronunciation of "Chan").

Everyday Daoism

Perhaps the biggest problem with any historical consideration of Daoism is that we have few or no materials recording the everyday practice of Daoism. For almost the entire span of Chinese history, the overwhelming majority of the population has been illiterate. This means that any texts we recover on Daoism, even on the practice of Daoism, are written by elites, which is sure to bias the texts in favor of literary, contemplative elements over everyday practices. Even in more recent documents of various Daoist cults, we can be fairly sure that the material was recorded by leaders and therefore leaves out much of the way Daoism was practiced by everyday followers, as well as the way it was practiced by ordinary Chinese people who were not members of these societies. So while we can read interesting descriptions about Daoist meditation, Daoist sexual practices and Daoist deities, these still indicate, at best, the prevailing attitudes and practices of the elite.

More information can be drawn, perhaps, by looking at the everyday devotional practices of modern Daoists. This, however, has substantial drawbacks as well. Any student of history knows that practices evolve substantially over time and in ways that are not always predictable. It is posited, for example, that early sexual practices had some orgiastic elements that were removed from later devotions as part of an increasingly conservative trend in Daoism as it was adopted by the imperial court. This makes sense logically and has support in various texts, but we do not have video tapes of these occurrences, and even if we did, we have know way of knowing what is staged and what is genuine. Therefore, while we can assume that Daoist practice in, for example, the Han Dynasty had something in common with the modern religion, determining the specifics of what and when is much harder.

Daoist Themes

Because Daoism has been, from its origin, a religion compiled from many aspects of Chinese culture, and because of the pervasiveness of both Daoist philosophy and these other cultural tropes, Daoist themes are quite prevalent in Chinese literature to the point where it becomes difficult to say what is Daoist and what is not. Examples abound: the poet Li Bai is not generally thought of as Daoist, per say, but his work contains Daoist themes; Traditional Chinese Medicine draws a lot of inspiration and ideas from early Daoist alchemy and cosmogony, but cannot be said to be purely Daoist; at a farther extreme, in the movie The Drunken Master (Jui Kuen, the Jackie Chan classic from 1978, not The Legend of Drunken Master Jui Kuen II, his inferior but more common 1994 sequel) Jackie learns eight drunken styles of kung fu based on a drunken version of the Eight Daoist Immortals (translated as the "drunken eight genii" in the subtitled version I've seen). Daoist themes include:

  1. The oneness of everything
  2. Interdependence of opposites (Yin and Yang, suggested by 1)
  3. Non-action
  4. The strength of flexibility
  5. Removal from society (as a part of 3)
  6. Wine and inebriation
  7. Immortality and immortals (xian)
  8. Mountains (especially as a location for 7 and 9)
  9. Flight
  10. Water (an example of 4)

Pinyin - Wade-Giles Reference

Dao = Tao.
Dao De Jing = Tao Te Ching.
Daojia = Tao-Chia
Daojiao = Tao-Chiao
Daoism/Daoist = Taoism/Taoist.
De = Te.
Guodian = Kuo-Tien
Huangdi = Hwang-Ti.
Huanglao = Hwang-Lao.
Kang Youwei = K'ang Yu-wei
Laozi = Lao Tsu, Lao Tzu.
Laozhuang = Lao-Chuang
Liang Qichao = Liang Ch'i-Ch'ao.
Mawangdui = Ma-Wang-Tui
Yi Jing = I Ching.
Xian = Hsien.
Xiwangmu = Hsi-Wang-Mu.
Zhuangzi = Chuang Tsu, Chuang Tzu.

This is to the best of my knowledge of Wade-Giles, please alert me to any mistakes you find. All others are the same in both Romanizations.


Most of this material comes from my lecture notes from "Daoist Themes in Chinese Literature," a course at Swarthmore College by taught Professor Alan Berkowitz.

I did fact-checking at these sites:
and especially
which is a great resource for anyone interested in contemporary Daoism.

Thanks also to Glowing Fish for clarifying the translation of "jia" (in "Dao jia") as "more 'house' than 'family'...'A school of thought' in this context."