Taoism, an indigenous traditional Chinese religion, dates back to some 1,800 year’s ago when Master Zhang Taoling of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220AD) formerly organized a religious Taoist group. In the long years of its evolution, Taoism had profound influence politically, economically, culturally and ideologically in ancient Chinese society and it is still functioning today.
During the Eastern Han Dynasty, Zhang Taoling went and settled on Singing Crane Mountain (Mount Heming). He claimed that he had been imparted the “Mighty Commonwealth of the Orthodox Oneness (Zhengyi Meng Wei) by Supreme Master Lao Zi and he began producing and circulating books advocating Tao. His teachings centered on the summoning of deities, magic incantation and subduing of ghosts, as well as breathing exercises.
During the Wei Kingdom Period (220-265 DC), Celestial Master Taoism which was created by Zhang Taoling was suppressed and it declined. However, as Zhang Lu and his disciples moved north from Hanzhong, Celestial Master Taoism began to be revived in the regions where Supreme Peace Taoism had once been practiced. It then spread throughout of the country.
During the Western Jin period (265-316 AD) and the Eastern Jin (317-420 AD), some powerful families and scholars started to believe in Taoism. Taoism, which had started from the grass roots level, now penetrated the upper class and eventually became an integral part of the spiritual life of the ruling class.
As more and more scholars turned to Taoism, the Taoist educational level was thus enhanced. As a result, a vast body of Taoist scriptures was created to challenge Buddhism from India.
As the Taoist scriptures spread, three new Taoist sects came into being-namely, the High Purity (Shangqing), the Numinous Treasure (Lingbao) and the Three August Ones (Sanhuang ) sects.
In 589 AD, the Sui Dynasty (581–618) unified China. Different schools of Taoism then began a process of integration. The Maoshan School, which had evolved from the High Purity sect, became the dominant school in the south of the country and began to spread to the north. As both Buddhism and Taoism were practiced during the Sui Dynasty, Taoism developed rapidly, which paved the way for this religion to reach its zenith during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD).
Li Yuan, founder of the Tang Dynasty, made much use of public belief in Taoism in the struggle to overthrow the Sui Dynasty. When he assumed the throne, he announced that Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism was his ancestor (Lao Zi’s family name being Li and his given name Er). Except for Wu Zetian (the only Empress in Chinese history), all the Tang Emperors venerated Taoism.
The most influential development of Taoism during the Five Dynasty period (907-960AD) on later Taoism was the rise of the so-called inner alchemy created by Zhongli Quan and Lu Dongbin..
More schools of Taoism came into being during the period of the Song, Jin and Yuan dynasties (960-1368 AD). Taoism entered a new phase of development.
During the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD), the Maoshan school was still in a dominant position, and its lineage was very clear. The main new schools that appeared in this period were the Heavenly Heart (Tianxin) and Divine Heaven (Shenxiao) sects.
During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279AD), Taoism was dominated by the sects collectively known as the Talisman of the Three Mountains (Mount Longhu, Maoshan and Gezao).
Furthermore, new sects, such as Shenxiao, Donghua and Qingwei were also active during this period.
Apart from a variety of old and new Talisman sects, there were also the Pure Brightness sect and the Southern Line Golden Elixir sect during the Southern Song Dynasty.
The Supreme Oneness (Taiyi), Great Tao (DaTao) and Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) doctrines ultimately became the Main forms of Taoism during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 AD). The Supreme Oneness doctrine lasted for about 200 years and eventually, by the end of the Yuan Dynasty, it had been incorporated into the Orthodox Oneness (Zhengyi) tradition. The Great Tao doctrine declined toward the end of the Yuan and was also incorporated into the Orthodox Oneness tradition. In the Yuan Dynasty, the Complete Perfection and Orthodox Oneness traditions became the two major Taoist schools.
After the founding of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor, adopted a policy to both make use of and control religion in order to safeguard his rule as the country’s sole dominant power. As a result, Taoism began to decline.
Comparatively speaking, the Ming rulers favored the Orthodox Oneness tradition more than the Complete Perfection tradition. The former enjoyed a higher political status than the later. Zhu Yuanzhang believed that the sole purpose of the meditation practiced by the Complete Perfection sect was the meditation itself whereas the Orthodox Oneness tradition upheld human relationship and stressed social customs, which had played an important role in social stability. For this reason, he supported the Orthodox Oneness tradition.
The rulers of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) believed in Tibetan Buddhism. They had little knowledge of Taoism and therefore did not support nor even restrict the development of Taoism. The early Qing emperors followed Ming rulers and adopted a policy of protecting Taoism because of the need to win over the Han Chinese. But from Qianlong’s reign onwards, Qing rulers began to impose strict control over Taoism, leading to its decreased political influence and stagnant organizational development.
During the century between the first Opium War (1840-1842) and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China underwent a period of political chaos and the Chinese people suffered greatly from war and lived in great poverty.
Taoist structures in renowned mountains fell into disrepair and many Taoists left their temples. As a result, Taoism became more closely tied to ordinary people’s daily lives. Early during the Republic of China, in order to become established in modern society, Taoists tried to imitate the practice in Western countries by forming a national organization to protect their own interests. In 1912, a nationwide organization known as the Central Taoist Association was established in the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, with the Complete Perfection tradition as its backbone. At the same time, Zhang Yuanxu, the 62nd Celestial Master, set up the Taoist Federation of the Republic of China in Shanghai, with the Orthodox Oneness tradition as its backbone. Both organizations were rather loosely organized and no activities of great significance were recorded.
After China adopted its reform and opening-up policy in 1979, Chinese Taoists resumed the Complete Perfection tradition’s initiation ceremony and the Orthodox Oneness tradition’s talisman transmission rules.
Large-scale religious activities were also held, such as the Great Ritual Offering of All-Embracing Heaven. China’s Taoist community has established the China Taoist College and the Shanghai Taoist College to train large number of young and middle-aged priests; established academic institutions such as the China Taoist Culture Research Institute and convened several forums on Taoist culture; founded journals such as Chinese Taoism, Shanghai Taoism, Shaanxi Taoism and Fujian Taoism and published a number of books on Taoism.
Some 1,500 Taoist monasteries have been approved by governments at the county level and above for Taoists to carry out religious activities.
There are about 20,000 resident Taoists of the Complete Perfection tradition and tens of thousands of Taoist priests of the Orthodox Oneness tradition in addition to countless numbers of Taoist followers throughout the whole country. The ancient religion has now entered the 21st century with a brand-new look.