Taoism (also spelled Daoism; see below) refers to a variety of related philosophical and religious traditions that have influenced Eastern Asia for more than two millennia, and have had a notable influence on the western world particularly since the 19th century. The word 道, Tao (or Dao, depending on the romanization scheme), roughly translates as, "path" or "way" (of life), although in Chinese folk religion and philosophy it carries more abstract meanings. Taoist propriety and ethics emphasize the Three Jewels of the Tao: compassion, moderation, and humility, while Taoist thought generally focuses on nature, the relationship between humanity and the cosmos (天人相应), health and longevity, and wu wei (action through inaction), which is thought to produce harmony with the Universe. The fundamentals of this belief lies within the Xiuzhen Tu.
Reverence for ancestor spirits and immortals is also common in popular Taoism. Organized Taoism distinguishes its ritual activity from that of the folk religion, which some professional Taoists (Daoshi) view as debased. Chinese alchemy (including Neidan), astrology, cuisine, Zen Buddhism, several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditional medicine, feng shui, immortality, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines have been intertwined with Taoism throughout history.
In English, the words "Daoism" and "Taoism" are the subject of an ongoing controversy over the preferred romanization. The root Chinese word 道 "way, path" is romanized tao in the older Wade–Giles system and dào in the modern Pinyin system. In linguistic terminology, English Taoism/Daoism is a calque formed from the Chinese loanword tao/dao 道 "way; route; principle" and the native suffix -ism. The sometimes heated arguments over Taoism vs. Daoism involve sinology, phonemes, loanwords, and politics – not to mention whether Taoism should be or /ˈdaʊ.ɪzəm/.
Daoism is consistently , but English speakers disagree whether Taoism should be or English pronunciation: /ˈtaʊ.ɪzəm/. In theory, both Wade-Giles tao and Pinyin dao are articulated identically, as are Taoism and Daoism. An investment book titled The Tao Jones Averages illustrates this /daʊ/ pronunciation's widespread familiarity. In speech, Tao and Taoism are often pronounced /ˈtaʊ/ and ˈtaʊ.ɪzəm/, reading the Chinese unaspirated lenis ("weak") /t/ as the English voiceless stop consonant /t/. Lexicography shows American and British English differences in pronouncing Taoism. A study of major English dictionaries published in Great Britain and the United States found the most common Taoism glosses were /taʊ.ɪzəm/ in British sources and /daʊ.ɪzəm, taʊ.ɪzəm/ in American ones.
There is debate over how, and whether, Taoism should be subdivided. Livia Kohn divided it into the following three categories:
This distinction is complicated by hermeneutic (interpretive) difficulties in the categorization of Taoist schools, sects and movements. Some scholars believe that there is no distinction between Daojia and Daojiao. According to Kirkland, "most scholars who have seriously studied Taoism, both in Asia and the West, have finally abandoned the simplistic dichotomy of Tao-chia and Tao-chiao, 'philosophical Taoism' and 'religious Taoism.'"
Hansen states that the identification of "Taoism" as such first occurred in the early Han Dynasty when dao-jia was identified as a single school. The writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi were linked together under this single tradition during the Han Dynasty, but notably not before. It is unlikely that Zhuangzi was familiar with the text of the Daodejing. Additionally, Graham states that Zhuangzi would not have identified himself as a Taoist, a classification that did not arise until well after his death.
Taoism does not fall strictly under an umbrella or a definition of an organized religion like the Abrahamic traditions, nor can it purely be studied as the originator or a variant of Chinese folk religion, as much of the traditional religion is outside of the tenets and core teachings of Taoism. Robinet asserts that Taoism is better understood as a way of life than as a religion, and that its adherents do not approach or view Taoism the way non-Taoist historians have done. Henri Maspero noted that many scholarly works frame Taoism as a school of thought focused on the quest for immortality.
Taoism has never been a unified religion, but has rather consisted of numerous teachings based on various revelations. Therefore, different branches of Taoism often have very distinct beliefs mainly concerning nature. Nevertheless, there are certain core beliefs that nearly all the sects share.