Taoist Sects

There are no formal sects within Taoism, but scholars have identified two distinctive approaches to the Taoist traditions, labeled "Religious Taoism" and "Philosophical Taoism" and described below.

It should be noted, however, that the assumptions on which this division rests (eg. the difference between philosophy and religion) are foreign to classical Chinese thought, and are unlikely to have been held by individual Taoist thinkers.

Religious Taoism (Daojiao)

Religious Taoism is not a belief-centered religion, and there are no known Taoist creeds. At the same time, certain characteristic beliefs or assumptions can be identified.

One of these is the existence of several classes of supernatural beings, who may enter into relations with human beings. These include gods, ghosts, and ancestral spirits. Gods are--if not invariably benevolent, generally on the side of righteousness. Ghosts are dangerous spirits of the departed who must be appeased through offerings, especially during the Chinese Ghost Festival. Ancestors are also spirits of the departed, but are distinguished from ghosts in that they boast (male-line) descendents who commemorate them through home rituals.

Another fundamental assumption is the efficacy of ritual in maintaining a positive relationship with these beings. Folk Taoism focuses on rituals of sacrifice; elite Taoism emphasizes control over spirits through talismans or "spirit-registers" (fu), on the principle that possession of a spirit's name confers power over that spirit.

Beyond the Chinese folk religion, various rituals, exercises, or substances are said to positively affect one's physical health (even to the point of immortality); align oneself spiritually with cosmic forces; or enable ecstatic spiritual journeys. These concepts seem basic to Taoism in its elite forms.

Philosophical Taoism (Daojia)

Philosophical Taoism does not refer to an actual Taoist school or group of philosophers. Rather, it is a way of reading Taoist texts and interpreting them in philosophical terms.

Philosophical Taoism emphasizes various themes found in the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi such as "nonaction" (wu wei), emptiness, detachment, receptiveness, spontaneity, the strength of softness, the relativism of human values, and the search for a long life. The spirit in which such things are discussed tends to be more playful than doctrinaire, in keeping with the tone of the texts themselves. Taoist commentators have been very impressed by the opening lines of the Dao De Jing, which can be translated:

The way which can be uttered, is not the eternal Way. The name which can be named, is not the eternal Name.

(The original words are

道可道,非常道。 名可名,非常名。

In Chinese, "道" or "Dao", when used as a noun, it means "way" or "path"; but when it is used as a verb, means "to utter" or "to speak it out".

It should also be noted that while the above has become a standard translation, scholars have noted it is grammatically and conceptually problematic. Grammatically, it should be read "a dao can be dao-ed, (but) this is not the constant dao-ing. A name can be named, (but) this is not the constant naming." Conceptually, the character for "constant"(常) is not referring to the "eternality of the Dao." Rather, it is referring to the constant shifting between opposites that dao undertakes, i.e.: high and low, hard and soft, etc. The Mawangdui version of the text confirms both of these points solidly.

Thus, whatever one may say about the Dao, cannot but fall short of reality. Other beliefs which have become integral to philosophical Taoism include the yin and yang (closely related to Dialectical monism) and five elements (五行, wuxing) theories, and the concept of qi. Originally belonging to rival philosophical schools, these motifs entered Taoism by way of Neo-Confucianism. Various cosmic cycles are recognized and studied, with which Taoists have aspired to harmonize themselves.


  1. Based on Wikipedia (2006). Text licensed under GFDL.