On Esoteric Taoism

To read part 1: On Taoism, click here.

Taoist qigong is the most famous technique for achieving health and immortality. Dozens of manuals on breathing techniques were written, and many interesting breathing exercises were developed and studied. Retaining breath was a popular method, because the idea of keeping breath in the body, as opposed to losing it, was the source of life. Many of the texts examine breathing circulation through various parts of the body, like the heart, stomach and lower abdomen, or dantien. Gymnastic exercises were created to aid the flow of the breath, which often had to be performed at certain times of the day and facing certain directions. Exercise aided the breath to pass evenly through the body, balancing the yin and the yang, but it was also used as time to reflect on Taoist teachings. The burning of incense and prayer sometimes preceeded the breathing and physical exercises, thus creating a harmony between mind, spirit and body.

 The more conservative Taoist practitioners approached health and longevity in a  scientific way, much as today’s physiologists research the positive effects of qigong and taijiquan on the body.  Their emphasis was on health and healing.The breathing exercises and internal forms of exercise that developed  with Taoism formed a continuum that led to Zhang Sanfeng and Wang Zongyue’s works hundreds of years later later at Wudang mountain. 

Alchemy and the Occult

On the other end of the spectrum, the search for immortality also took on occult forms. Alchemy and magic were two of the major esoteric practices through which some Taoist sages believed they could produce the Pill of Immortality. Tortoises and cranes, butterflies and cicadas were only a few ingredients used to make the magic elixir, but gold and cinnabar were the most popular. Alchemists sought to turn base metals into gold, paralleling the metaphor of immortality. If the body could be turned to gold, as it were, and purified, then it would never rust, deteriorate or die. 

Sexual techniques for gaining immortality were also popular among certain esoteric Taoist sects, and from the Han Dynasty onwards books and manuals on sexual practices contributed to the Taoist canon. As opposed to Christian concepts of sexual purity through abstinence, the Taoist  belief was that sexuality is part of  nature and the universe; however, the emission of semen drained the vital life power from men, so sex must be engaged without ejaculation. This of course ran against Confucian ideals of family, only one of the reasons that the Taoist sexual practices were considered disreputable; by the time the Mongols invaded in the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368 C.E.) Taoist texts on sexual practices were officially suppressed. 


Taoism’s esoteric schools of alchemy, magic, superstition and sexology  led to official disapproval in the Chinese court, and it also attracted criticism from the intellectual elite. The Six Dynasties Period which followed the Han Dynasty gave rise to a rejuvenation of philosophical Taoism, sometimes referred to as Neo-Taoism. Rather than a church, this was an intellectual movement among the upper classes. Organized groups came together to form discussions known as ch’ing-t’an, or “purity debates” – untouched by the mundane world. They read the Tao Te Ching, the Chuang Tzu and the  I Ching, or the  Book of Changes. The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove included several poets in its group, and other scholars began investigations into science and the physical nature of the universe.

The Tao Te Ching is both a literary and a philosophical classic. Probably written in the third or second century B.C.E., by a man or several men known only as Lao Tzu, the book explores the nature of the universe, the search for truth, and the essence of human nature in eighty-one stanzas. Metaphysical in imagery and idea, the text seeks to open the way to transformative experience. As Jacob Needleman has written, the Tao Te Ching “helps us to see how the fundamental forces of the cosmos itself are mirrored in our own, individual, inner structure. And it invites us to try and live in direct relationship to all these forces. To see and truly live fully: this is what it means to be authentically human.”

The Tao Te Ching works on metaphorical and symbolic levels as a philosophical treatise. Verse seventy-six, for example, uses paradox to redefine, rather than define, the ideas of weakness and strength:

A man is born gentle and weak

At his death he is hard and stiff.

Green plants are tender and filled with sap.

At their death they are withered and dry.

Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.

The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.

A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall.

The soft and weak will overcome.

Taoism began to decline after the Six Dynasties period due to a number of factors.  The magic and superstition of popular religious Taoism began to alienate the educated upper class intellectuals who preferred the philosophical Taoist tradition. Many people who had sought religious order and faith were also turning to Buddhism, which was developing rapidly through China. Yet, Taoism remains an integral, essential part of Chinese character, with strong influences on art and poetry and popular belief. Taoist priests continued to teach men and women to strive for transcendence, and even Emperors were not immune to the great promise of immortality.

“Amid the complex demands of Confucian society with its elaborate ritual prescriptions, Taoist philosophy provided a welcome refuge where the individual could call his soul his own.”

William H. McNeill

Recommended resources–

Classical China, ed. William H. McNeill

The Eight Immortals of Taoism, ed. Kwok Man Ho

Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu, trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane EnglishChuang Tzu, trans. Martin Palmer

Sign up for more!

Leave a Reply