Taoism, which takes the Tao of Laozi as its highest principle, is an indigenous traditional Chinese religion whose fundamental purpose is to help seekers attain transcendence. Taoism originates from ancestor worship, belief in ghosts and gods, Taoist philosophy, as well as mystical practices.
It is generally believed that Taoist organizations were formally established 1,900 years ago by Celestial Master Zhang Daoling during the reign (AD 126-144) of Emperor Shundi of the Eastern Han Dynasty. However, the original sources of Taoist doctrines can be traced back to the Pre-Qin period (4000-221BC). Thus there is the common reference to the "Three Ancestors" that alludes to the Yellow Emperor, Laozi, and Celestial Master Zhang.
The ideological system of Taoism covers a wide range of content. Generally speaking, it evolved into a religious culture by basing itself on ancient religious beliefs in China around the worship of heaven and ancestors, as well as Taoist theories and beliefs regarding immortality arising during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period. It has also absorbed ethical ideas from Confucianism and folk religious customs.
Taoism takes the Daodejing by Laozi as its primary scripture, respects the Tao, cherishes virtues, attaches great importance to life and harmony, embraces simplicity and truth, discards all worries and desires, values frugality and devalues extravagance, cultivates moral character, believes that good and evil must have their reward, that cultivation can lead to transcendence, and that good deeds lead to divinity. According to Taoism, the invisible Tao gives rise to the Universe and all things in it. Immortals and deities are both incarnations of the Tao and exemplars of the Tao. So Taoists believe both in the Tao and in worshipping deities.
During its long history, Taoism was studied and taught in many schools. Later, there emerged two main schools of Taoism. One is Zhengyi (Orthodox oneness) Taoism, founded by Zhang Daoling, and the other is Quanzhen (Complete Perfection) Taoism founded by Wang Chongyang. All Taoists today belong to either of these schools.
At present, there are more than 50,000 Zhengyi priests and Quanzhen cenobites on the Chinese mainland, and more than 5,000 Taoist temples and monasteries have been officially opened to the public, among which 21 are designated as "Protected Key Taoist monasteries."
Impact of the Daodejing on Chinese Culture
As the founding text of Taoism, the Daodejing is a monument in the history of Chinese culture. The Tao expounded in the Daodejing has become the most sublime idea in the minds of the Chinese people. Over the past millennia, this text has been commented upon by countless people, including emperors, well-known writers, and Buddhists as well as Taoists. People ranging from pre-Qin philosophers to the great Neo-Confucians of the Song and Ming dynasties were all inspired by the philosophical thoughts of the Daodejing. This same text was also important for generations of military thinkers, strategists and commanders. In addition, it was by following the call for calmness and non-action, as expounded in the Daodejing, that the Han Dynasty had its Golden Age during the reign of Emperor Wen and Jing(179BC-141BC) and the Tang Dynasty had its Golden Age of Zhenguan (627-649), both highly praised by historians. The Daodejing greatly influenced the politics, philosophy, military affairs, literature, and art of ancient China, and even deeply affected the national character and spirit of the Chinese people.
Impact of the Daodejing on World Civilization
Since modern times, with increased international exchanges, the Daodejing has spread widely in the world and has become part of the shared spiritual wealth of all mankind. It has stimulated the interest of and inspired many foreign philosophers, scientists, statesmen, and entrepreneurs. Renowned thinkers, including Bertrand Russell, Martin Heidegger, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and Joseph Needham, praised the Daodejing. Former US President Ronald Reagan quoted from the Daodejing in his State of the Union Address: "To govern a great nation requires the same care as to fry a small fish." Because of its abundant ideas for nourishing life, the Daodejing has drawn increasing global attention, and under its guidance, many countries have established organizations to promote these universal values that are so vital in contemporary times.
Editions and Versions of the Daodejing
The earliest edition of the Daodejing that is held today is the Warring States bamboo text, which was unearthed from a tomb of the State of Chu in Guodian, Jingmen, Hubei Province. The next earliest is the silk text of the Western Han Dynasty, which was excavated from a tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province. The most popular editions are those with comments by Heshanggong of the Han Dynasty and by Wang Bi of the Wei Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms period. Other significant editions include one with comments by Yan Zun of the Western Han Dynasty, an ancient copy proofread by Fu Yi of the Tang Dynasty, and a stone inscription of the Tang Dynasty.
As early as the Tang Dynasty, the Daodejing was translated into Sanskrit, and in modern times it was introduced to the West. The earliest version known in the West is a Latin one translated by a Jesuit at the end of the 18th century. In the 19th century, various French, German and English versions were produced. There have been nearly 300 versions of the Daodejing, including dozens of foreign ones.
(China.org.cn April 19, 2007)