Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo


Taoism is the second of the three state religions ( San-kiao ) of China.

This religion is derived from the philosophical doctrines of Lao-tze. "Lao-tze's Taoism", says Legge (Religions of China, 229), "is the exhibition of a way or method of living which men should cultivate as the highest and purest development of their nature ". According to De Groot (Religious System of China, IV, p. 66): "Taoism, as the word indicates, is the Religion of the Tao, a term meaning Path or Way, but denoting in this peculiar case the way, course or movement of the Universe, her processes and methods. In other words, Taoism is the Religion of Heaven and Earth, of the Cosmos, of the World or Nature in the broadest sense of these words. Hence we may call it Naturism ".

Lao-tze, the equivalent to "the Old or Venerable Philosopher " (if taken as a title of respect), or to "Old Boy" (if literally translated), was born in the third year of Ting Wang, Prince of Chou, i.e. in 604, at K'io-jin, in the Kingdom of Ts'u, today Ho-nan Province. The legend given by Ko Hung in his "Record of Spirits and Immortals" (written in the fourth century A.D.), says that "he was not born till his mother had carried him in her womb seventy-two years or, according to some accounts, eighty-one years". "No wonder", adds Legge (1. c., pp. 203-4) "that the child should have had white hair, — an 'old boy' of about fourscore years!" This date of 604, in accordance with historical tradition, is not given by Sze-ma Ts'ien in the biography which he devoted to the philosopher in his "She-ki" (Historical Memoirs); if this date be accepted, it is difficult to admit of the authenticity of the meeting between Lao-tze and Confucius, 500 B.C. ; if the latter was then fifty-one years old according to Chwang-tze, Lao-tze was then one hundred and four years old.

The family name of Lao-tze was Li, his name Eul (meaning "Ear"), his honorary title Pe-yang, and his posthumous name Tan (meaning "Flat-eared"). He was one of the "Sze", recorders, historiographers, keepers of the archives of Lo, the Court of the princes of the Chou dynasty. Foreseeing the decay of this dynasty, he gave up his office, and undertook a journey; at the Han-kou Pass, Ho-nan Province, the watchman, Yin Hi, begged him to write his thoughts for his own instruction before he retired from the world; consequently, Lao-tze wrote his work in two parts in the Tao and the Te, and having entrusted it to Yin Hi, he disappeared; the time of the death of the philosopher is not known. Lao-tze had a son Called Tsung who was a general of the Kingdom of Wei and who obtained the grant of land at Twan-kan. His son named Chu had himself a child Kung; Hia, grandson of Kung, was an official under Emperor Hiao-wen-ti, of the Han dynasty. Kiai, son of Hia, became a minister of K'iang, King of kiao-si, and, owing to this circumstance, settled with his family in the Kingdom of Ts'i.

This story is too matter of fact and lacks the marvellous legend which should surround the person of the chief of a new religion. Legend was provided for. Ko Hung, already mentioned, had placed the legend of Lao-tze at the beginning of the "Shon-sion-ch'-wan" (Records of Spirits and Immortals), and he says: "His mother carried him after the emotion she felt in seeing a large shooting star. He received from Heaven the vital breath; as he was born in a house whose proprietor was called Li (Pear tree), so he was named Li". Some authors say that Lao-tze was born before heaven and earth. According to others, he possessed a pure soul emanated from heaven, He belonged to the Class of spirits and gods.

The chief work of Lao-tze, in fact the only one which has been ascribed to him with some probability, is the "Tao-teh-king". In the "China Review" (March-April, 1886), Dr. Herbert A. Giles wrote a sensational article, "The Remains of Lao Tzu", to show by various arguments that the "Tao-teh-king" is a spurious work and that its now spurious portions have been mostly mistranslated. It was the starting-point of a controversy in which Dr. Chalmers, Dr. Legge, Dr. Edkins, and some other sinologues took part. The authenticity of the work has been admitted by most of them. Wylie says (Notes on Chinese Literature, new ed., p. 216): "The only work which is known to be truly the production of Lao Keun is the 'Taòu tih king', which has maintained its reputation and secured a popularity to a certain extent among reading men generally of every denomination." Legge writes (Religions of China, p. 203): "No other writing has come down to us from the pencil of Lâo-tsze, its author", and (Brit. Quart. Rev., July, 1883, p. 9): "We know that Lao Tzu wrote the 'Tao Tê Ching'", and (p. 11): "The 'Tao Tê Ching' is a genuine relic of one of the most original minds of the Chinese race, putting his thoughts on record 2400 years ago." The German E. Faber (China Rev., XIII, 241) says that "there is little room left for doubts regarding the authenticity of our Canon."

Besides the "Tao-teh-king" a good many works treat of Taoism: the "Yin-fu-king-kiai" which professes to be an exposition of the oldest Taoist record in existence ; "Ts'ing-tsing-king" (The Book of Purity and Rest); the "T'ai-hsi-king" (Respiration of the Embryo); the "T'ai-shang-Kan-ying-pien" (Tractate of Actions and their Retributions).

The chief Taoist philosophers are: Tsou-yuen (400 B. C. ), author of a work on the influences of the five ruling elements, influenced by Buddhist doctrines; Kweiku-tze (380 B. C. ), a mystic, astrologer, and fortune-teller; Ho-kwan-tze (325-298 B.C. ), an orthodox Confucianist when writing on jurisprudence, a Taoist in other writings; Chwang-tze (330 B. C. ), the author of the "Nan-hua" classic, the adversary to Mencius, and according to Eitel "the most original thinker China ever produced"; Shi-tze (280 B. C. ), a Taoist writer, influenced by the heterodox philosopher, Yang-chu (450 B. C. ), the Apostle of Selfishness; the statesman Han-feitze (250 B. C. ); Liu-ngan or Hwai-nan-tze (died 112 B. C. ), a cosmogonist. But the first disciples of Lao-tze were Kang-sang-tze (570-543 B. C. ), the first expositor of Taoism as a distinct system, the sceptic Li-tze (500 B. C. ), and Wen-tze (500 B. C. ). The historian Sze-ma-ts'ien speaking of Chwang-tze says: "He wrote with a view to asperse the Confucian school and to glorify the mysteries of Lao Tze. . . His teachings are like an overwhelming flood, which spreads at its own sweet will. Consequently, from rulers and ministers downwards, none could apply them to any definite use." Giles (Chinese Literature, 60) concludes from this passage: "Here we have the key to the triumph of the Tao of Confucius over the Tao of Lao Tze. The latter was idealistic, the former a practical system for every-day use."

As De Groot observes (l. s. c., IV, 67): "Taoism being fundamentally a religion of the Cosmos and its subdivisions, old Chinese Cosmogony is its Theogony. It conceives the Universe as one large organism of powers and influences, a living machine, the core of which is the Great Ultimate Principle or T'ai-kih , comprising the two cosmic Breaths or Souls, known as the Yang and the Yin , of which, respectively, Heaven and Earth are the chief depositories. These two souls produce the four seasons, and the phenomena of Nature represented by the lineal figures called kwa ". In fact the Yang and the Yin produce by the power of their co-operation all that exists, man included. Ancient Chinese philosophy attributes to man two souls :

  • The shen , or immaterial soul, emanates from the ethereal, celestial part of the Cosmos, and consists of yang substance. When operating actively in the living human body, it is called k'i or 'breath', and kwun ; when separated from it after death, it lives as a refulgent spirit, styled ming .
  • The kwei , the material, substantial soul, emanates from the terrestrial part of the Universe, and is formed of yin substance. In living man it operates under the name of p'oh and on his death it returns to the Earth" (De Groot, IV, p. 5).
  • Thus the kwei is buried with the man and the shen lingers about the tomb. Marking the distinction between the two souls, there existed in the legendary period, according to the "Li-ki", a sacrificial worship to each soul separately: the hwun or k'i returns to heaven, the p'oh returns to earth. These two souls are composite; in fact all the viscera have a particular shen . "There are medical authors who ascribe to man an indefinite number of souls or soul-parts, or, as they express. it, a hundred shen . Those souls, they say, shift in the body according to the age of the owner; so, e.g. when he is 25, 31, 68 or 74, and older they dwell in his forehead, so that it is then very dangerous to have boils or ulcers there, because effusion of the blood would entail death. At other times of life they nestle under the feet or in other parts and limbs, and only in the 21st, 38th, 41st, and 50th years of life they are distributed equally through the body, so that open abscesses, wherever they appear, do not heal then at all. Such pathologic nonsense regulates, of course, medical practice to a high degree" (De Groot, IV, p. 75). The liver, the lungs, and the kidneys correspond to the spring, to the autumn, to the winter, as well as to the east, the west, and the north. The soul may be extracted from a living man ; the body may still live when left by the soul, for instance during sleep; the soul of a dead man may be reborn into other bodies. Ghosts may enter into relation with the living, not only in dreams, but they may take revenge on their enemies.

    At the head of the Taoist Pantheon is a trinity of persons :

  • Yuen-shi-t'ien-tsun , "the honoured one of heaven, first in time ", residing in "the jade-stone region", who created the three worlds;
  • Ling-pan-t'ien-tsun , "the honored one of heaven who is valued and powerful", residing in the "upper pure region", collector of the sacred books, calculator of the succession of time, and the regulator of the two principles yin and yang ;
  • Lao-tze himself, who exposed to mankind the doctrines uttered by the first person in the trinity and collected in the form of books by the second.
  • Next come: Yuh-hwang-ta-ti , "the great jade-stone emperor", who governs the physical universe ; Hen-t'u-hwang-ti-k'i , "Spirit of imperial earth, ruler of the soil"; the star gods, whose lord ( sing-chu ) resides in a star near the pole; T'ien-hwang-ta-ti , who lives in the pole star, etc.; Liu-tsu , the "father of thunder". "While he discourses on doctrine, his foot rests on nine beautiful birds. He has under him thirty-six generals, t'ien tsiang " (Edkins, "Journ. North China Br. Roy. Asiat. Soc.," III, Dec., 1859, p. 311); the sun and moon; the San-yuen or San-kwan , "the three rulers" who preside over three departments of physical nature, heaven, earth, and water; Hiuen-kien-shang-ti , "high emperor of the dark heaven ", who is described as the model of the true ascetic. He has transformed himself eighty-two times to become the instructor of men in the three national religions (Edkins, l. c., p. 312). A number of personages were worshiped under the name of tsu , patriarchs. Confucius himself has a place assigned him among the deities of this religion, and he is addressed as "the honoured one of heaven who causes literature to flourish and the world to prosper" (Edkins). Some men have been worshiped as gods after their death: Kwan-ti, the god of war ; Hu-tsu, a physician; a medical divinity, Ko-tsu Sa-tsu ; etc.

    One may well ask how the pure abstract doctrine of Lao-tze was turned into a medley of alchemical researches, a practice of witchcraft, with the addition of Buddhist superstitions, which constitute today what is called Tao-kiao , the religion or the teaching of Tao. This was the work of a legendary being, Chang Tao-ling, a descendant of the eighth generation of Chang Leang, a celebrated advisor of Liu-pang, founder of the Han dynasty. He was born in the tenth year of the Emperor Kwang Wu-ti ( A. D. 34) in a cottage of a small village of the Che-kiang Province, at the foot of the T'ien-mu-Shan, in the Hang-chou Prefecture. At an early age Chang studied the works of Lao-tze to which he added researches of alchemy, a science aiming at "prolonging life beyond the limits assigned by nature ". He found the drug of immortality, and by order of Lao-tze he destroyed the six great demons of the province; Lao-tze gave him also two books, two swords, one male, one female, a seal Called Tu-kung , etc. Chang gave his swords and books to his son Heng, bidding him to continue his pontificate from generation to generation. At noon on the seventh day of the first moon of the second year Yung-shou of the Han Emperor Heng ( A. D. 157), Tao-ling ascended the Cloudy Mountain ( Yun-shan ) with his wife and two disciples, and with them disappeared into heaven. Chang Heng, son of Chang Tao-ling, continued his father's tradition both in spiritual and alchemical researches, and Chang Lu the grandson, played an important part in the Yellow Cap Rebellion at the beginning of the Han dynasty. During the fifth century A. D. , when the Wei dynasty was ruling in Northern China, a certain K'iu Kien-che tried to substitute himself to the Chang family and received in 423 from the emperor the title of T'ien-shi , "Preceptor of Heaven ", which formerly belonged to Tao-ling. In 748 the T'ang Emperor Hiuen-Tsung conferred this title upon the heirs of the latter, and a grant of a large property near Lung-hu Shan was made to them in 1016 by the Sung Emperor Chen-Tsung. Heredity in the charge of high priest of the cult was secured to the descendants of Chang by the transmigration of the soul of Tao-ling's successor, at the time of his demise, to the body of a junior member of the family, whose selection is indicated by a supernatural phenomenon.

    To-day, at the head of the Taoist hierarchy is the Cheng-i-sze-kiao-chen-jen , "Heir to the founder of the Taoist sect "; this title was conferred by the Ming dynasty upon Chang Cheng-shang, descendant from Chang Tao-ling of the thirty-ninth generation. This title "belongs, by an hereditary privilege, to the firstborn descending in a direct line from Chang Tao-ling. He lives upon the Lung-hu Mountain, in the Kiang-si Province. His office consists in using his magical art to frighten demons away, to baffle diabolical influence, and to refrain the evil-doing souls of the dead. He names the new Ch'eng-hwang , 'tutelary deities of the cities', and for a fee, he gives to Taoists titles permitting them to celebrate the ceremonies with more solemnity " (P. Hoang, "Mélanges sur l'Administration", 34). In the capital of the empire the Taoist priesthood includes: two Tao-lu-sze , superiors, a title corresponding with that of the Buddhists, seng-lu-sze ; two Cheng-i , Taoists of right simplicity; two Yen-fa , ritual Taoists; two Che-ling , Taoists of great excellence, thaumaturgus; and two Che-i , Taoists of great probity, an inferior class of priests. In the provinces at the head of the priesthood are: Tao-ki-sze Ton-ki , superior of the Taoists of a fu (prefectute), and Tao-ki-sze Fou Ton-ki , vice-superior of the Taoists of a fu ; Tao-cheng , superior of the Taoists of a chou or a t'ing; Tao-hwei , superior of the Taoists of a hien . The superiors are appointed by the governors-general ( tsung-tu ), or by the governors ( fu-t'ai ), on the presentation of the prefect of sub-prefect of the chou, t'ing , or hien .

    More Encyclopedia

    The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

    Catholic Encyclopedia

    Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

    No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

    Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

    Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


    Newsletter Sign Up icon

    Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

    Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

    the FEED
    by Catholic Online

    • Daily Reading for Monday, August 29th, 2016 HD Video
    • The economic problem that could destroy America TODAY HD Video
    • St. Monica: Mother of Augustine, Model of the Virtuous Mother
    • You'll never believe what Obama did in Hawaii!
    • Daily Readings for Saturday, August 27, 2016
    • St. Monica: Saint of the Day for Saturday, August 27, 2016
    • St Augustine on a Personal Relationship with Jesus

    Daily Readings

    Reading 1, First Corinthians 1:26-31
    26 Consider, brothers, how you were called; not many of you are wise by ... Read More

    Psalm, Psalms 33:12-13, 18-19, 20-21
    12 How blessed the nation whose God is Yahweh, the people he has chosen ... Read More

    Gospel, Matthew 25:14-30
    14 'It is like a man about to go abroad who summoned his servants and ... Read More

    Saint of the Day

    Saint of the Day for August 27th, 2016 Image

    St. Monica
    August 27: Saint Monica, also known as Monica of Hippo, is ... Read More