About Daoism

Old DaoistDaoism encompasses a group of philosophical and religious beliefs that have permeated Chinese culture at every level. Daoism is defined by belief in the Dao 道 (referred to as “Tao” in the older Wade-Giles system) means ‘path’ or ‘way’. Dao refers to the formless, limitless aspect of the universe that underlies all of creation. Daoists study and strive to act in harmony with the rhythm of this cosmic force. The Daoist lifestyle incorporates study of classical Daoist philosophy, ritual practices, meditation, and physical exercises.

The school of Daoism that was first practiced at Wudang Mountain, Zheng Yi Dao (正一道 – Orthodox Unity Daoism) was founded in 142 C.E. during the Eastern Han Dynasty. Many of the original Orthodox Unity Daoist practices grew from shamanistic origins, including writing talismans for protection, and using natural herbs and minerals to create health potions. Orthodox Unity Daoists can chose to live in temples, or offer their services while living among the people. Many Orthodox Unity Daoists practice martial arts or medicine. Hundreds of years after the Orthodox Unity School was founded, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Daoist religion, Buddhism, and local folk practices began to mix, and the Complete Perfection school of Daoism (Quanzhen Dao) emerged. Complete Perfection Daoism is the major monastic form of Daoism today. Complete Perfection Daoists are traditionally celibate, live exclusively in monasteries, and practice “internal alchemy” which seeks to refine the body through breathing exercises, meditation, and visualization practices. In the West, sometimes Complete Reality Daoists are referred to as Daoist Monks, and Orthodox Unity Daoists are referred to as Daoist Priests, but the differentiation does not exist in the Chinese language. There are many similarities among the schools of Daoism, and all Daoists embrace the three jewels of the Dao: compassion, moderation, and humility.

Daoist NunDaoism is occasionally seen as being made up of Philosophical Daoism (Daojia 道家) based on the texts Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi (道德经, 庄子) and Religious Taoism (Daojiao 道敎), which describes the Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection schools (and others schools). However, this dichotomy ignores connections between the classical texts and Daoist religious practices, and has been rejected by Daoist scholars and historians around the world. The Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi texts offer incredibly insightful and powerful teachings, however, they too are just a part of a vast Daoist literature. Many people are unaware of the existence of the Daozang (道藏 – the Daoist Canon). The Daoist Canon was originally compiled during the Jin, Tang, and Song Dynasties, but the version surviving today was published during the Ming dynasty. The Ming Daozang includes almost 1500 texts, which discuss Daoist history, philosophy, and practice methods. The painstaking and rewarding work of translating the Daozang into English is slowly opening up a deeper realm of Daoist practice for the rest of the non-Chinese speaking world.

The Daoist Lifestyle

Daoist (Taoist) healing exercisesDaoist clergy follow a variety of paths. Some withdraw from the community to live as hermits or in monasteries. Others live in villages or cities. The work of Daoists in the community is directed towards healing and renewal. In some areas (mostly notably Hong Kong and Taiwan) Daoist priests also work to create amulets and talismans, and perform magic spells and exorcisms. Other specialists, such as diviners and mediums, bridge the human and divine worlds. Working as an intermediary between the mortal and spirit world, Daoist adepts use their skills to protect the people from malignant forces. On sacred mountains around China, Daoist priests train and practice their arts, and Daoist temples run by laypeople can be found in villages throughout China.

The various schools of Daoism also systematize native Chinese health and healing techniques that permeate every aspect of day-to-day life, including meditation and visualization exercises, breathing techniques, sexual practices, and dietary modifications, all of which can be referred to as “yang sheng” (nurturing life). In China, the idea of nurturing life embraces many practices aimed at strengthening the body, mind, and spirit. One of the most important lessons to be learned from self-cultivation is the idea of treating the body before it becomes sick. This corresponds with aspects of modern preventative medicine, such as proper diet and exercise. Each individual person’s body is seen as a small-scale model of the universe, and an inseparable part of the natural world. By purifying the body, it can be brought into harmony with the surrounding natural world, which will lead to a greater level of health. Wudang Daoists dedicate their lives to studying and preserving these valuable arts. It is our hope that students of all cultures and religious can enrich their lives by learning about Daoism and the Daoist sacred arts.

Wudang Mountain


Located in central China, Wudang mountain is revered in the martial arts community and is seen by many as the spiritual and historical home of the internal martial arts. The Chinese say that “China has five sacred mountains, but Wudang surpasses them all”. A distinguished pilgrimage site, Wudang has attracted many prolific martial artists and philosophers throughout history. There are more than 2,000 palaces and temples, making this complex the world’s largest Daoist center. Daoism is the study of the Dao; the Natural Way of the Universe.

Wudang Mountain is a mountain range with 27 peaks, covering over 321 square kilometers. In the years between the 8th and 5th centuries BC, (the “Spring and Autumn Period” 春秋時代), the Chu Kingdom used the Wudang Mountains to fend off the invading Qin army. The mountain’s current name originates from a quote attributed to the Daoist deity named Zhen Wu that describes the defensive role that the mountain served. The quote reads, “fei zhen wu bu zu dang zhi” meaning “only true martial arts can provide resistance.” The words “Wu” and “Dang” were extracted from this quote. Wu means “martial” and Dang “resistance”.

Every Imperial Dynasty recognized the sacred site in its own way. The oldest building on Wudang Mountain, the Five Dragon Temple was built under Emperor Li Shimin in the 7th century Tang Dynasty. However, most of the construction happened later, during the Ming Dynasty (14th – 17th centuries). During the Ming Dynasty, Wudang became the imperial temple, and (with over 20,000 Daoist monks on the mountain) it was officially recognized as the heart of Daoism in China. Work on the Forbidden City in Beijing had just been completed, and legend tells that the 300,000 laborers marched on the Emperor’s command from Beijing to Wudang, where they worked over the next ten years. They constructed 33 building complexes and over 70 kilometers of roads connecting them. The area of the buildings combines to over 248 miles, double the size of the Forbidden City.

While Wudang Mountain flourished in ancient China, it has not moved through history unscathed. The past hundred years have brought about major changes in China, and taken Wudang Mountain through many major transformations. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) Daoism and martial arts were considered subversive, many martial artists left Wudang Mountain, and had to practice in secret or face imprisonment and re-education. In more recent times, China has become a more progressive market-driven society, and the government is supporting the traditional martial arts, and working hard to preserve cultural resources.

In 1984, the Wudang Taoist Association was formally established. In order to recover the Wudang Martial Arts, the Association tracked down the old Wudang martial masters who had scattered during the Cultural Revolution, and invited them back to teach, bringing about a martial arts renaissance. There are now about a dozen martial arts schools on the mountain and in the surrounding town. Now is the time for the outside world to learn about the Wudang arts.


Music & Chanting

The Role of Ritual Music

It’s 5 o’clock in the morning, the hour of day called “Breaking the Quiet”.  As the sun rises and the people in the temple wake up, the sound of a drum calls them to the main altar where they begin their morning ritual.  They chant sacred texts and prayers for peace accompanied by flutes and drums, cymbals and strings.  The sounds prepare them for the day, calming the heart and purifying the mind.  Later, as the sun sets the drum calls them to the altar again where they begin evening chanting.  By beginning and ending the day with sacred music, the Daoists are following a tradition with over 800 years of history.

Expression of spiritual beliefs through music is a central part of Daoist culture.  Every Daoist ritual has accompanying music, and Daoist priests and nuns learn scripture by chanting it along with musical accompaniment.  Ritual music helps to coordinate intricate rituals.  In many rituals, several Daoist ritual masters (法師 fashi) recite scripture, draw talismans, follow sacred stepping patterns, and form ritual hand gestures.  Ritual music coordinates the different ceremonial actions the Daoist masters, providing a pace for their actions.

Daoist ritual music also serves to inspire followers, to bring a sense of peace and harmony and is seen as a way to speak to the gods.  Reciting scripture is also considered a form of qigong practice because the style of breathing used helps to clear the lungs of impurities.


Daoist ritual music has had a number of diverse influences.  Originally, there was the ancient shaman (巫 wu) who called the spirits to them through singing and dance.  Regional varieties of folk music have also influenced Daoist ritual music, and Daoist music has left an impression upon these local music styles.  One example of this is the music played by the Dongjing (洞经) played by the Naxi (纳西) minority from Yunnan Province, which shows a striking similarity to traditional Daoist ritual music.

The music of the imperial court and Buddhist chanting influenced Daoist ritual music as well.  The Daoist ritual music tradition is formally recognized as having originated in the Northern Wei Dynasty with Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 (365-488) who founded the Northern Celestial Masters school of Daoism.  It is said that Kou Qianzhi, as part of his reformation, begin the practice of chanting scripture as a ritual practice.


The use of musical instruments varies from temple to temple. The Complete Perfection school of Daoism (全真道 quanzhen dao) originally used mainly percussion instruments. The Orthodox Unity school of Daoism (正一道 zhengyi dao) uses wind instruments including the flute, the horn, the sheng (a reed pipe). Stringed and plucked instruments include the erhu, the pipa, the Chinese dulcimer, and the three-stringed san xian. Instruments include large drums, bells, wooden blocks, and metal bowls. It is a Daoist belief that musical instruments (法器 faqi) manifest magic power during rituals. In most temples, musical instruments are placed on the shelves of the ritual altars (法壇 fatan) between rituals. In modern time, although there are some differences in music from temple to temple, the styles played by the two schools of Daoism are the same. This is in part because of the Daoist tradition called Cloud Wandering (云游 – yun you) where a Daoist will travel from temple to temple to further their studies, which exposed individual temples to the ritual music being used in other parts of the county. The most common style of Daoist music today is the style called “Ten Directions Tone” (十方韵 – shi fang yun). Originally from the Complete Perfection lineage, this system of Daoist music has become the standard style of ritual music in China. The style of music from Wudang Mountain is known as the “Wudang Tone” (武当韵 – wudang yun). Because Wudang served as  an imperial temple for many dynasties, the mountain’s music shows a strong resemblance to the music of the imperial court.

Traditionally, Daoist music is classified into vocal music sung or recited by the human voice and instrumental music performed with ritual instruments. Vocal music is classified as Yin Tones (陰韻) and Yang Tones (陽韻). Chanting (誦經 songjing) includes both solo chanting and choral chanting. These chants are categorized as either eulogie (頌 song), Odes (贊 zan), Hymns (偈 ji), or Pacing the Void (步虛 buxu). If a ritual requires the recitation of several passages of different scriptures, it may include a variety of chants, with and without accompaniment. Instrumental music is classified into Solemn Tunes (正曲 zheng qu), Playful Tunes (耍曲 shua qu), and Tunes for ritual Implements (法器牌子 faqi paizi).