1. Taoism is a philosophy which originated in China, probably around 500 to 300 BCE. It is also called Daoism. The word Tao can be roughly translated to mean ‘path’ or ‘way’. Tao is based on the concept of unity and complementary forces.
2. Taoism came to be practised as a religion from 142 CE, with the revelation of Tao by Lao Tzu (Laozi) to Chang Tao-ling (Zhang Daoling). Chang became the founder of the Taoist school of thought, and took the title of First Celestial Master. This became a hereditary position, and the current Celestial Master lives in Taiwan.
3. The principles and beliefs of Tao are expounded in a book named Tao Te Ching or Daode jing. The authorship is attributed to Lao Tzu, but it is likely that it has been added to by various unknown sources. Along with the guiding principles from this book, local customs and beliefs were incorporated into the religious practices of Tao.
4. Under the Tang dynasty, Taoism flourished as a religion, and Taoists have been involved in Chinese politics at various times in the history of China. In later years, Confucianism became more popular, with its stress on good citizenship. After 1949, Tao was banned by the Communist leadership. It has been revived in recent years, and there are now many Tao practitioners and temples.
5. Though Tao does not define a divine being that could be termed a god, it promotes the concept of the One, a force that represents the essence or energy of life, with the true nature of all things being in perfect harmony with Tao. Taoists texts, however, make mention of deities, which have been incorporated from local or foreign cultures like Buddhism. These ‘gods’ do not have names, but play particular roles which are denoted by their titles. Scholars have observed that the pantheon is organised in the same manner as the bureaucracy of Imperial China. This indicates the close connection between the administration and religious culture.
6. The symbols of Yin and Yang represent complementary forces which are termed opposites, but in Tao they do not work against each other. They are, instead, inter-dependent, such as light and darkness. This balance promotes the harmony with Tao.
7. Ch’i or Qi is the essence of a being. This vital energy connects a being to other beings and the cosmos.
8. Te is a concept which may be translated to mean integrity, but the focus is on being true to one’s own nature and being honest with oneself.
9. Tzu Jan is the natural state of things. According to Tao, everything exists in harmony, but interference causes disruption. Tzu Jan is the ideal condition, if not interfered with.
10. Followers of Taoism should determine all their actions in the context of Tao. They have to reflect on what goes best with the natural order of things, and do only as much as necessary, but no more than that. The Taoist disciple does not take action unless events necessitate it. He or she should not let emotions or personal desires decide a course of action.
11. These exhortations seem to suggest that Taoists should be detached and inactive. There are, however, many behavioural guidelines which suggest that people are expected to actively engage with their communities, and even provide leadership. There are rules regarding morality such as prohibiting killing, stealing, lying and sexual misconduct. Social interactions are informed by the appropriate ways of bowing, eating and washing. It is believed that physical activities like meditation, martial arts and yoga foster spiritual growth. Followers are expected to work towards becoming good people, living harmoniously with each other, their families, their religious group, the state and the whole universe.
12. As many of the practices in Taoism are not documented, but are passed on by oral tradition, a true understanding can be achieved by becoming a student of a Taoist master.