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Religion Library: Taoism


Written by: Julia Hardy

The Taoist religion emerged in China only after a long process of religious change lasting from the end of the Shang dynasty (1700-1027 B.C.E.) until more than a hundred years into the Common Era. The religion of the Shang had been centered on a relationship between an earthly ruler and his ancestors, and particularly his counterpart in the divine bureaucracy, the celestial emperor Shangdi.  This relationship was maintained through divination and blood sacrifice. It lost its hold when that dynasty was overthrown, and the subsequent Zhou dynasty equivalent was never as dominating.

The latter half of the Zhou dynasty, known as the Eastern Zhou (770-221 B.C.E.), brought economic and social changes as well.  The region became more urban; agriculture expanded and forests were destroyed to create more fields for cultivation; the population increased markedly as well.  Merchant and artisan classes began to rival the old feudal aristocracies.  Literacy increased among the upper classes, as did the number of people who received some type of education, and by the end of the Zhou a sizeable body of literature had developed.  

Religion and politics continued to be intertwined, as they had been in the Shang.  The Shang had believed that the ruler's position was ordained by a divine bureaucracy of ancestors, headed by one supreme ancestor.  As the counterpart of that divine ruler, the earthly ruler's supreme charismatic potency, or de, enabled him to control the affairs of state, assisted by male relatives.

As the social and political situation changed, and family relationships ceased to be the only means of determining who leaders would be, advanced schooling developed as a means of preparing the sons of the upper classes for positions in government.  This type of education was both intellectual and moral.  The term "Tao" in Chinese means, among other things, "way" or "path," and refers to a way to live and behave, and, particularly in this period, it also refers to a way to rule over or lead others. 

During the latter centuries of the Eastern Zhou there was an intensive cultural debate about "the way" or Tao.  This debate was sometimes called baijia zhengming, or "the hundred schools contend," because so many different schools of thought engaged in it.   The most prominent discourses of the "hundred schools" had a profound impact on subsequent Chinese political, social, and religious thought.  Among these discourses were the teachings of Confucius (Kongzi) (551-479 B.C.E.), Mozi (c. 480-390 B.C.E.), Mencius (Mengzi) (4th century B.C.E.), Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi (4th century B.C.E.), Xunzi (3rd century B.C.E.), and Han Feizi (c. 280-233 B.C.E.).   Some of these teachers recorded their own ideas in writing, while others' teachings were recorded posthumously by students.  


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