One Dynasty Falls, Taoism Emerges
In China, 1644, the Ming Dynasty fell and all of China bowed to the Qing Dynasty; a series of emperors who pursued to unlock the Asian continent to the Western world. A modern military, a modern language, and a modern system of trade were all on the agenda of the new regime. Throughout this dynasty, the blame for the failures of the previous state fell onto the shoulders of religion – most notably, Taoism. (Miller, 1-103) The Ming Dynasty advocated for Confucian ideals and texts, leaving Taoism to die a slow and ignored death, and between the 1920’s to 1980’s Westernization was in full force. Temples burned, people crucified, and books annihilated; the fate of the philosophy rested in the mountain people of China who held onto their beliefs through hard times. Segregated from the mass population, these small groups retained the information needed for Taoism to make a comeback.
A Small Taoist History
Divided into four categories, Taoism has been expressed in a multitude of ways. Proto-Taoism, practiced in the time of Antiquity to the 2nd century CE, expressed the start of the philosophical teachings that would endure to become modern day Taoism. It started with Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching; a book that tells a series of stories that promoted philosophical debate among those who read its pages. The Tao Te Ching depicted Lao Tzu’s journey through China, his life lessons, and, ultimately, how to follow the way, but he was not the only preacher of this type of philosophy. Master Zhuang, alive during the same time as Lao Tzu, wrote the Zhuangzi. This text preached similar lessons but did it through the eyes of a holy sage and patron of meditation. These two texts became the largest copied books within China, and, in the modern world, the Tao Te Ching rivals the Bible in publications. (Miller, 1-103)
Classical Taoism, introduced in 142 CE started the philosophy on the road of the Celestial Masters. Up until this point, Taoism was a “way” of teaching and doing things; a philosophy, not a religion. Zhang Ling created an order defined by the teachings of the Tao which formed an administration, the first of its kind, called the Celestial Masters. (History) It used a hereditary system for the passage of power within its ranks and were designed around the ability to call forth certain Celestial Spirits. The more spirits one can call, the higher rank they held among the administration.
The advent of meditation within Taoism marked the switch from Classical to Modern. Modern Toaism, established in 960 CE, still exists today and is widely popular in the Eastern and Western world. Along with meditation, the Song Dynasty worked to combine the teachings of Taoism, Buddism, and Confucianism into a “three pronged harmony,” a design created to bring together the philosophies of China under one roof. (History) Meditation within Modern Taoism is the way to “complete perfection” and requires specific rituals and dedication.
China’s communist takeover in 1949 also, inadvertently, sent Taoism into the world. The strict nature of the government led to a repression within the religious communities of China and Taoists from all over fled to neighboring countries like Taiwan. A significant number of Chinese immigrants can be thanked for the continued growth of Taoism around the world, virtually saving the philosophy from the inner workings of a corrupt government. (Hardy) This is one example of a spike in Taoist communities, and another spike follows with the invention of the internet.
Taoism, A Mass Media Stonewall
A massive ability to call upon information at any moment, anywhere, has been the perfect shield against repression for teachings such as Taoism and other philosophies. With the internet, Taoist groups were able to extend their teachings far and wide, an,d with the Western world in constant war, it was a given that the philosophy would fall into many westerners laps. Taoism, at its roots, teaches the reader how to be at serenity with one’s self, to live in harmony with the world around them, and to have clarity. (Robinson) There is no worship to a deity, there is no denouncement of others; it is about living for and, abstaining to, the flow of the world. World War II, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Somalia, Rwanda were all instances where the faith of humanity fell upon the west and the negative effects of those wars caused a break in faith for many.
War and poverty built from a world of Catholicism shed light onto those who lived within the Western world and due to the inability to solve those issues people migrated to Eastern philosophies. (Robinson) This is due to the simplistic nature of Taoism. After years of constant struggle and difficult situations, the world now sees two-hundred and twenty five million Taoists. A number that rivals Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.
Taoism experienced a high volume of practitioners in early China due to the stickiness of its message. This can be lent to the simplistic nature of its teachings and the ability for people to connect their lives to Lao Tzu, who formulated the Tao Te Ching around his life story. It is said that on his journey he met many people, befriended, taught, and networked his way through China, showing the world that he was a prolific connector. This strong bond that Lao Tzu was able to ingrain into the people he met sent his message out like wild fire which would end up travelling the globe and rival the most established religions. Now, in a world of poverty and grief, the message of Taoism rooted itself among the western world under the context of offering peace; a sorely wanted commodity. Lao Tzu’s ability, in the past, to sway those with his teachings, the simple and sticky message the philosophy teaches, and the powerful context serenity and peace can build are attributing factors in the expansion and preservation of this old and versatile philosophy.
Originally published March 2, 2015.