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Religion Library: Taoism

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Julia Hardy

Taoism is also integral to Chinese popular culture, which has extracted elements from the tradition to create popular stories and visual arts.  For example, literature written for a popular audience reflects a fascination with deities, immortals, and the world of the supernatural.  In many novels, the hero or heroine is a deity who has been banished to or reborn in the human world.  After a lifetime of practicing self-cultivation techniques, accumulating merit by saving others, and vanquishing demonic forces, the protagonist is able to return to heaven or immortality.  It is not at all unusual to see Taoist deities or immortals as characters in movies, in paintings on restaurant walls, or represented by small statues providing protection and good fortune to homes and businesses.

There are some elements of Taoism in Japanese religious tradition, but they are scattered throughout popular culture and within esoteric religions such as Shugendo, rather than taking the form of organized Taoist religious groups. 

The transmission of Taoism to Korea was more formal. On several occasions in the early 7th century, Tang emperors sent priests to teach Taoist ritual to Korean rulers. During the late Tang, monks from Korea traveled to China to study Taoism. During the Koryo dynasty (918-1392), Taoism became a part of official religious practice. Rituals were conducted by the rulers, Taoist centers were created, and Taoism was ranked equally with Buddhism. The following dynasty ended this relationship, and the last Taoist temple in Korea was destroyed in the Japanese invasion of Korea in the late 19th century. Elements of Taoism can still be found in the Korean "new religions" that developed in the 19th century and survived the Japanese invasion.

Most of the spread of Taoism has occurred within immigrant communities.  After the Communist takeover in 1949, the Chinese Nationalist government and many Chinese people fled to Taiwan, and Taoism, particularly Zhengyi Taoism, continues to thrive there.  There are active Taoist groups in Singapore and Malaysia, and, to a lesser extent, in Hong Kong.  In any country where there are a significant number of Chinese immigrants, there will be Taoist priests and practices, often mixed together with Buddhism and popular religion. 


Study Questions:
1.    How did alchemy contribute to the spread of Taoism?
2.    Why were Taoist rituals and texts instrumental to the rise of Taoism?
3.    What can be said about the relationship between political oppression and the spread of Taoism?


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