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Religion Library: Taoism


Written by: Julia Hardy

Taoist symbolism shares some elements with Chinese popular religion.  For instance, immortality is a popular concept strongly associated with Taoism, and is symbolized in a variety of ways.  Cranes symbolize immortality because of their longevity.  Birds in general are a symbol of immortality, because immortals are believed to have the ability to fly.  Pine trees symbolize immortality because they are evergreens.  Peaches are a symbol of immortality because of the belief that the goddess Xiwangmu has an orchard of peaches that convey immortality  to anyone who eats one. 

The gourd is a popular Taoist symbol.  It was used in ancient times to carry herbs and was also used as a mixing and curing container for elixirs.  It is almost always portrayed in the classic shape of a bottle gourd.   The gourd also symbolizes chaos, or huntun, because it is shaped like a womb. 

The cave, like the gourd, is a container for mystery.  Caves are believed to be repositories of special, purified qi.  Adepts meditate in caves, dragons (also a symbol of immorality) live in caves, and the Taoist canon is divided into three main parts called caves or caverns.  The central altar in Taoist ritual is called a cave table.  There are also "caves" within the body, that is, containers of energy, sometimes also known as "cinnabar fields."  Cinnabar is symbolic of immortality primarily because it was an ingredient commonly used in elixirs, and also because of its red color, which means good fortune.

The bagua, or eight trigrams, associated with the Yi Jing (I-Ching) are important to Taoism, as well as to Chinese religion in general.  The trigrams represent the cycles of nature, and include fire, earth, lake, heaven, water, mountain, thunder, and wind.  The bagua are often placed surrounding a taiji symbol, the diagram of yin and yang energies that is so familiar to many westerners.  Yin and yang are also symbolized by the tiger and dragon.

The stars, planets, moon, and sun are important Taoist astronomical symbols inherited from prior Chinese religion.  The Chinese had, from a very early date, a highly developed knowledge of astronomy.  The Great Dipper (Ursa Major) is central to the Taoist tradition.  The Pole Star, the primary star of the Dipper, is the residence of Taiyi.  To return to the One is to return, on one level, to the Pole Star.  It is the place where all things begin and to which all things return.

A flaming pearl signifies the One, the Pole Star, and the original qi, and is worn on a pin at the top of the head to signify full initiation as a Taoist priest.  This symbol is also often found on the roofs of Taoist temples, between two dragons. 


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