Tao (pronounced “Dow”) can be roughly translated into English as a path, or the way. It refers to a power which envelopes, surrounds, and flows through all things, living and non-living. The Tao regulates natural processes and nourishes balance in the Universe. It embodies the harmony of opposites- for example, there would be no love without hate, no light without dark, no male without female.
The founder of Taoism is believed by many to be Lao-Tse (604-531 BCE), a contemporary of Confucius. He was searching for a way that would avoid the constant feudal warfare and other conflicts that disrupted society during his lifetime.
Taoism started as a combination of psychology and philosophy but evolved into a religious faith in 440 CE when it was adopted as a state religion. At that time Lao-Tse became popularly venerated as a deity.
Taoism, along with Buddhism and Confucianism, became one of the three great religions of China. With the end of the Ch’ing Dynasty in 1911, state support for Taoism ended. Much of the Taoist heritage was destroyed during the next period of warlordism.
After the Communist victory in 1949, religious freedom was severely restricted. The new government put monks to manual labor, confiscated temples, and plundered treasures. Several million monks were reduced to fewer than 50,000 by 1960. During the Cultural Revolution, much of the remaining Taoist heritage was destroyed.
Some religious tolerance has been restored under Deng Xiao-ping from 1982 to the present time.
One of the most well-known symbols of Taoism is the Yin Yang. This symbol represents the balance of harmony in the universe, which is the core belief of Taoism. When Yin and Yang are equally present, all is calm. When one outweighs the other, there is confusion and disarray.
The most traditional view of the Yin Yang is that Yin represents aspects of the feminine-soft, cool, calm, introspective and healing and that Yang represents aspects of the masculine- hard, hot, energetic, moving, and aggressive.
Taoism currently has about 20 million followers and is primarily centered in Taiwan. About 30,000 Taoists live in North America and 2,000 in Canada. Taoism has had a significant impact on North American culture in areas of acupuncture, herbalism, holistic medicine, meditation, and martial arts.