Religious Taoism appropriated earlier interest and belief in alchemy and the search for the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone. By the 5th cent. A.D., Taoism was a fully developed religious system with many features adopted from Mahayana Buddhism, offering emotional religious satisfaction to those who found the largely ethical system of Confucianism inadequate. Taoism developed a large pantheon (probably incorporating many local gods), monastic orders, and lay masters. Heading the commonly worshiped deities is the Jade Emperor. Directly under him, ruling from Mt. Tai, is the Emperor of the Eastern Mountain, who weighs merits and faults and assigns reward and punishment in this and future existences. An ecclesiastical hierarchy was founded in the 8th cent., headed by the T'ien Shih [master of heaven]; he claimed succession from Chang Tao-lin, an alchemist of the 2d cent. who was reputed to have discovered the elixir of immortality after receiving magical power from Lao Tzu.
Throughout its history Taoism has provided the basis for many Chinese secret societies; in the 1950s, after the establishment of the Communist regime, Taoism was officially proscribed. Taoism is still practiced to some degree in modern China, as well as in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao and in communities of Chinese who have emigrated.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.