Taoism, a religion of China, was, according to tradition, founded by Lao-tze, a Chinese philosopher, long considered one of the prominent religious leaders from the sixth century B.C.
Information about him is for the most part legendary, however, and the Tao Te Ching (the classic of the Way and of its Power), traditionally ascribed to him, is now believed by many scholars to have originated in the third century B.C. The book is composed in short chapters, written in aphoristic rhymes. Central are the word tao, which means way or path, and the word te (power).
The virtuous man draws power from being absorbed in tao, the ultimate reality within an everchanging world. By non-action and keeping away from human striving, it is possible for man to live in harmony with the principles that underlie and govern the universe. Tao cannot be comprehended by reason and knowledge, but only by inward quiet.
Besides the Tao Te Ching, dating from approximately the same period, there are two other Taoist works, written by Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu.
In the third and fourth centuries theoretical Taoism flourished; in the second century it was religious Taoism that was popular. Religious Taoism dealt with deities and spirits, magic and soothsaying. It was organized with temples, cult, priests, and monasteries and was able to hold its own in the competition with Buddhism that came up at the same time.
After the seventh century A.D., however, Taoist religion declined. Split into numerous sects, which often operate like secret societies, it has become a syncretic folk religion in which some of the old deities and saints live on.