The origins of Taoism and other philosophical schools are intimately related. The authorship of the Daodejing is assigned to Laozi, traditionally thought to be a teacher of Confucius, yet appears to be reacting against Confucian doctrine (suggesting the text comes after Confucianism). Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), the other defining philosopher of Taoism, reacted both to the Confucian-Mohist ethical disputes and to related developments in theory of names (language). There is little evidence of a link between Laozi and Zhuangzi—whose most frequent interactions are with Hui Shi (of the school of names). However, the chapters of the Zhuangzi written after his death include dialogues between Laozi and Confucius that mimic (or inspire?) the style of the Daodejing, suggesting the first association of the two texts dates from around that time. The "history of thought" contained in the Zhuangzi cites Laozi as a prior step (and demotes Hui Shi to a postscript). It includes the Mohists by name and the Confucians by implication and a cluster of other less well known thinkers.
These early Taoist texts reject numerous basic assumptions of Confucianism, embracing instead values based on nature, perspectivalism, and spontaneity. They express skepticism of conventional moralities and Mozi's Utilitarian or Mencius' benevolence based revisions. Since politics was conceived by these traditional schools as a scheme for unifying all "under the sky" in their favored dao, Taoists tend toward anarchism, mistrustful of hierarchical social structures and particularly, governments. (Zhuangzi argues that the proponents of benevolence and morality are usually found at the gates of feudal lords who have stolen their kingdoms.) Although philosophical Taoist appear to be anarchist, it is clearly an over statement. Mitigated Anarchism or libertarianism would better categorise the philosophical Taoists, they tend to believe in the idea that the government should act in a 'non-acting' or 'wu wei' manner. This means that they should only act when necessary and their actions should not be felt directly by the people, nor should they be visible to the people. Chapters 57-81 of the Dao De Ching all deal with government, ruling, and appeasing the people. Taoist thought partly inspired Legalist philosophers, whose theories were used by Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Chinese Empire. The junction point can be found in the work of Hanfeizi, a prominent Legalist thinker who commented on the Tao Te Ching. Hanfeizi used some chapters of the book to justify a structured society based on law and punishment and on the undiscussed power of the Emperor.
The entry of Buddhism into China was via its dialectic with later Taoism which transformed them both. Over the centuries of Chinese interactions, Buddhism gradually found itself transformed from a competitor of Taoism, to a fellow inhabitant of the Chinese cultural ecosystem. Originally seen as a kind of foreign Taoism, its scriptures were translated into Chinese with Taoist vocabulary. Chan Buddhism in particular is inspired by crucial elements of philosophical Taoism, ranging from distrust of scripture, text and language to its more positive view of "this life", practice, skill and the absorption in "every-moment". In the Tang period some Taoist schools incorporated such Buddhist elements as monasteries, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, the celibacy of the clergy, the doctrine of emptiness, and the amassing of a vast collection of scripture into tripartite organisation. However, there are some who argue that Taoism had vegetarianism first. Some Buddhist schools incorporated it later. Also during Tang Dynasty, some Taoist practices and books spread to Tibet and became incorporated in Tibetan Buddhism.
Ideological and political rivals in ancient times, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have inevitably deeply influenced one another, and eventually achieved a kind of modus vivendi in which each has its own particular ecological niche within Chinese society. With time, most Chinese people likewise came to identify to some extent with all three traditions simultaneously. This became institutionalised by the time of the Song Dynasty, when aspects of the three schools were consciously synthesised in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes. The Vinegar Tasters (sometimes called Three Vinegar Tasters) is a popular painting (usually in scroll format) that explained Taoist ideals in relation to the Neo-Confucian school which began in the 10th century and gained prominence in the 12th century. The image depicts Laozi together with The Buddha, and Confucius. In these paintings the three are gathered around a vat of vinegar and the motto associated with the grouping is "the three teachings are one." (However, see The Vinegar Tasters for an alternate interpretation.)
Taoism does not fall strictly under an umbrella or a definition of an organized religion like the Abrahamic traditions, nor could it be studied as the originator or variants of Chinese folk religion, for the simple reason that these were not the tenets or core teachings of Taoism or those in Tao te Ching. Robinet further asserted that the nature of Taoism can be better understood as a psyche, and a way of life rather than a religion, as the adherents do not view Taoism in the manner analysed by historians who were neither Taoist and who did not understand the subject.
Many scholarly works conclude that Taoism is a school of thought with a quest for Immortality. Viewed in this light, Taoism is dissimilar to most other religions who, though they may involve immortality of the soul such as in Hinduism where one's soul joins Brahman, or the spiritual immortality of an Enlightened Buddhist, but physical immortality is present only in Taoism and Christianity. In the latter, when God resurrects the dead, everyone judged to have had faith will live eternally.
There are many symbols and images that are associated with Taoism. Like the "cross" in Christianity, and the "wheel" in Buddhism, Taoism has Laozi, actual Chinese characters, and many other symbols that are often represented or associated with it. The Taijitu ("yin and yang") symbol 太極圖 as well as the Bagua 八卦 ("Eight Trigrams") are associated with Taoist symbolism. While almost all Taoist organizations make use of the yin and yang symbol, one could also call it Confucian, Neo-Confucian or pan-Chinese. The yin and yang make a backwards "S" shape, with yin (black or red) on bottom. One is likely to see this symbol as decorations on Taoist organization flags and logos, temple floors, or stitched into clerical robes. According to Song Dynasty sources, it originated around the 10th century. Previously, yin and yang were symbolized by a tiger and dragon.
- This is one of the places where the surface Dao and the hidden dao is shown. On the surface the picture of the Dao with a Tiger and a dragon is no more than just a picture. But beneath is the one of the way to immortality called "The White Tigress and The Jade Dragon" and it is the pure Female-male energy.
The two major way that are used today are white on top/black at bottom or reverse black on top/white at the bottom. White on top is called Early Heaven and symbolize going back to the basic or keeping the mind and the body young like a child. When it is black on top, it is called Later Heaven and is the way the world normally moves and normally means going to the grave. The five directions as conceived by the ancient Chinese (east, south, west, north, center) each have their own attributes, as follows in the chart below.
|Direction||Element / Phase||/ Symbol||Season||Force|
|Center||Earth||Yellow Dragon||Changing of the seasons||Harmony|
Taoist temples may fly square or triangular flags. They typically feature mystical writing or diagrams and are intended to fulfill various functions including providing guidance for the spirits of the dead, to bring good fortune, increase life span, etc. Other flags and banners may be those of the gods or immortals themselves.
One sometimes sees a zigzag with seven stars, representing the Big Dipper (or the "Bushel", the Chinese equivalent). In the Shang dynasty the Big Dipper was considered a deity, while during the Han dynasty, it was considered a qi path of the circumpolar god, Taiyi. Taoist temples in southern China and Taiwan may often be identified by their roofs, which feature Chinese dragons and phoenixes made from multi-colored ceramic tiles. They also stand for the harmony of yin and yang (with the phoenix being yin). A related symbol is the flaming pearl which may be seen on such roofs between two dragons, as well as on the hairpin of a Celestial Master. But in general, Chinese Taoist architecture has no universal features that distinguish it particularly from other structures.