In Chinese, the term Tao, or Dao, which means "way," can refer to phenomena as disparate as the proper mode of conduct in society to an abstract, transcendent order to the universe. Similarly, the Western term Taoism (or Daoism ) refers to a number of distinct phenomena in China, all related in some sense to this concept of Tao. One of the more popular usages is as a reference to several philosophical works of the Warring States and early Han periods, especially the Zhuangzi ( Chuang-tzu ) and Laozi ( Lao-tzu, also known as the Daodejing ( Tao-te ching ), or Classic of the Way and Its Power ). The Chuang-tzu welcomes death as merely one more stage in a process of ongoing transformation that affects all and is directed by the Tao. It speaks of death as a returning home that humankind resists out of ignorance and sees the individual living on after death dissolved in the many creatures of the earth. The famous parable of the author dreaming that he was a butterfly, then waking to wonder if he were now a butterfly dreaming of being a human, is a metaphor for this sense that temporal life is but an illusion and death an awakening.
The Laozi, on the other hand, speaks of death as an inauspicious event to be avoided and mentions self-cultivation techniques intended to prolong physical life. This viewpoint is much closer than the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) to mainstream ancient Chinese thought on death. Life does go on in a shadowy, subterranean realm, but it is not joyful, and much effort was expended from an early period to forestall its arrival. By the third century B.C.E. , there were programs of exercise, diet, sexual practices, and meditation intended to nourish the life force while alive as well as jade burial suits and tomb guardians intended to preserve the deceased in the other realm. Alchemy, the belief that the human form could be made eternal through the ingestion of various mineral-based elixirs, developed through the Warring States era, Han Dynasty, and about fifth century B.C.E. to sixth century C.E. Practitioners were initially adepts of the occult arts without a clear sectarian identity, but eventually these practices would make their way into the ritual canon of religious Daoism.
The Confucian view of death, by contrast, forsakes all hope for extraordinary longevity and focuses on the secure installation of the dead in the other world, where they would be administered by a bureaucracy that mirrored that of the living and supplied with the necessities of continued life through ancestral sacrifice. The dead were recalled and, some argue, kept alive by meditative visualizations in which the dead person was called into the consciousness as if still alive. The Confucians also promoted a metaphorical interpretation of sacrifice that elided the question of personal survival
Religious Taoism arose in the second century C.E. , proclaiming a new pantheon of pure deities and a new, morality-based set of practices. The early Taoist church foresaw an imminent apocalypse in which the evil would perish and the faithful "seed people" would survive to repopulate a utopian world of Great Peace. Until then, ordained Taoists received celestial ranks that carried over into the world of the dead, assuring them a favored position of power and responsibility in the other world. Their offices might be in the cavern-heavens hidden within the world's sacred mountains or in one of the many celestial heavens. Nonbelievers went to a profane world of the dead, where they were subject to a variety of dangers, including lawsuits from those they had wronged in either realm. Living Taoist priests could intervene on their behalf, using their authority as celestial officials to have suits dismissed and punishments curtailed.
Popular conceptions of the afterlife came to focus on existence in hells where retribution was exacted for sins during life. Taoists, like Buddhists, developed ritual methods to save the deceased from these torments, submitting written petitions to celestial officials but also employing ritualized violence to force their way into the hells in order to lead the deceased out. Major Taoist rituals of renewal ( jiao ) typically end with a Rite of Universal Salvation intended to save the dispossessed souls.
Twenty-first-century priests of the Taoist church survive in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and diasporic Chinese communities and have been reestablished in China. There are some movements in the West that claim this mantle as well, but most do not maintain traditional ritual practice. The philosophical works of the Warring States era, on the other hand, enjoy a wide following in the West, though the disparity in the teachings of the Laozi and the Zhuangzi are seldom appreciated. The dominant Chinese approach to death remains that of Chinese popular religion, which eclectically mixes the beliefs of Buddhism and religious Taoism with traditional Chinese views of death, the afterlife, and the soul.
Kohn, Livia, ed. The Taoist Handbook. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2000.
Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.
TERRY F. KLEEMAN