What is the importance of Taoism in China? Why is Confucianism more famous than Taoism at home and abroad?
Religious life in China is very multifaceted. This is due to the fact that over the centuries Chinese religion has come to be defined as a mixture of various belief systems and spiritual constructions. Out of the many religious aspects of China two often stand out as major portions of what it means to practice Chinese religion. These two are Taoism and Confucianism. While both of these religious systems are to be considered part of Chinese religion, they serve different purposes, which leads to one often seeming more important than the other.
Taoism is more of the spiritual side of Chinese religious practices. Taoism is believed to have been founded in the 6th century BCE by the legendary philosopher Lao-Tzu, also known as Laozi. The exact details about this man's life are still unclear to many historians. What is accredited to him is the writing of a spiritual work known as the Tao Te Ching. This work is the foundation for modern day Taoism which focuses primarily on spiritual growth and understanding. The Tao Te Ching itself is the best example of this focus on the spiritual. It is not written like other religious texts such as the Bible, Torah, or Koran. It consists of short chapters meant to instigate deeper philosophical thought in its readers and subsequent practitioners of Taoism. Taoism focuses on spiritual growth and the following of a proper spiritual way or path. This fact can make it more difficult for those outside of the Chinese religious framework to understand it and therefore it might get overshadowed by other aspects of the religious system.
Confucianism on the other hand is a structured set of philosophical beliefs. After it was founded by the scholar Kongfuzi or Confucius, it was soon co-opted by the government as a way to help the political system function. In order to participate in the government at an official level one would have to pass exams. These exams were based upon the teachings of Confucianism. These teachings focused on loyalty, filial piety, and knowing one's place within society. Through the exams as well as the proper relationships described by Confucianism, the government of China structured itself based heavily on Confucianism. Due to this fact the nation of China was often thought of as a Confucian nation and therefore the other aspects of the Chinese religious identity such as Taoism were overshadowed. To properly understand Chinese religion it is necessary to understand it as a mixture of various aspects of different practices and not just one of these systems on its own.
Daoism and Confucianism are often blended and practiced simultaneously in China. Daoism is a rather broad category of religious ideas and practices that one finds throughout Chinese culture. It is historically common for a Daoist priest to also have a Confucian pedigree (formal training in Confucian thought and practice). In fact, these two types of discourse are often seen along with Buddhist practices.
Confucius is so famous because the Chinese social order itself was based off his philosophy. There are five relationships (ruler - subject, husband - wife, father - son, friend - friend, elder brother - younger brother) that created a hierarchical understanding of where one would fit into the patriarchy. So while Confucius is better known due to his influence on the Chinese social stratum, it can be argued that Daoism plays a much more subtle role in shaping the very way that the Chinese people think.
A Chinese philosopher active during the 3rd century BC named Laozi was attributed with the writing of Daoism’s most influential text, the Dao De Jing, “The Way and Its Power,” which states that “the Dao is constant in non-action, yet there is nothing it does not do.” Here Laozi is referring to the pervasive nature of the Dao, or way, as the intention of a personified Heaven that sets the world in motion; from here scholars divide Daoism into Religious and Philosophical Daoism. Philosophical Daoism took a scholastic approach to understanding the Dao through Yin-Yang, the Five Elements (Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, and Earth), and the I-Jing, “The Book of Changes.” It was not until around the 2nd century AD that Daoism turned from philosophy to practice. Religious Daoism concerns itself with rituals and deity worship to maintain the favor of heaven and practicing self-cultivation to transform the individual into an immortal who has mastered the Dao. Daoism remains a key component of Chinese thought to the point where one cannot separate Daoism from the Chinese identity – this is most commonly seen in ancestor worship, local festivals, and other folk practices that have become traditions practiced even today.