Deities in Religious Taoism
Traditional Chinese religion is determinedly polytheistic. Its deities arranged into a heavenly civil service that mirrors the bureaucracy of imperial China. Deities may be promoted or demoted. Many are said to have once been virtuous humans. The particular deities worshipped vary somewhat according to geography, and much more according to historical period (though the general pattern of worship is more constant).
There is also something of a disconnect between the set of gods which currently receive popular worship, and those which are the focus of elite Taoist texts and rituals. For example, the Jade Emperor is at the head of the popular pantheon, while the Celestial Masters' altar recognizes the divinized Laozi (Laojun, "Lord Lao") and the Three Pure Ones in that position. Some texts explain that Laozi has sponsored the apotheosis of various other gods.
Deities in Philosophical Taoism
While a number of immortals or other mysterious figures appear in the Zhuangzi, and to a lesser extent in the Dao De Jing (e.g., the "mysterious female" in chapter 6), these have generally not become the objects of cultic worship. Academic commentators on Taoism are rather more likely to focus on the divinity of the Dao itself, which might be fruitfully compared to (and contrasted with) Western conceptions of God. Early texts describe Tao not as equal to "the One," but as a principle underlying both the One and the Many. One revealing phrase used to describe it is huntun (roughly, "chaotic mixture"). In the wake of Wang Bi, philosophical Taoists have tended to describe it as "nothingness," which is the origin of "being." (Cf. the apophatic tendencies of theism, including negative theology.)
- Wikipedia (2006). Text licensed under GFDL.