Taoism is an ancient religion and philosophy that began in China some 2,500 years ago. Tao, also transliterated 'Dao' in English, means literally the Way, and Taoism is simply guidelines for living a good life, in harmony with nature and the universe. Taoism is contemporary and complementary to Confucianism, although Taoism claims to precede Confucius - one can adhere simultaneously to both schools of thought and many do. Religious Taoism posits the existence of numerous supernatural entities, but one can follow the Way without necessarily attributing any belief to the literal existence of ghosts and gods.
The principles of Taoism were first expressed in the Tao Te Ching, often attributed to Lao Tzu, although modern scholars believe it is the work of numerous philosophers over a long period of time. It is perhaps the oldest book in the world. In a series of enigmatic verses, the Tao Te Ching spells out the difficulty of grasping an understanding of the Way: "The way that can be walked is not The Way. The name that can be named is not The Name."
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One of Taoism's primary tenets, which makes it attractive to modern Westerners, is the concept of wu wei, or 'do nothing', interpreted to mean that following the Way means leaving very little human imprint on nature, but leaving things as you find them. Nature maintains a perfect balance, which we disrupt with our acquisitiveness, building, destroying, removing and remaking until nature itself has been subdued.
Taoism recognizes the duality of life, and the yin-yang symbol, commonly thought to represent the male and female principles but really representing the duality of everything, is an important symbol both in Taoism and in eastern thought in general. Taoism also embrace the concept of qi, often spelled ch'i or ki, the universal force or energy that inhabits all things, living and inanimate. Balancing the qi is the focus of the practice of feng shui, in which placement of one's household and its objects can be optimized to create health, wealth and happiness.
Ritual is an important part of religious Taoism, and the rites are specific to particular deities and departed ancestors. However, ritual has a different place in the life of a Taoist than in a contemporary Westerner, in that anyone can, and should, perform their own rituals without the intermediary of a priesthood. Households have home altars and offerings are made by the head of the household, or in fact any person who wishes to. Taoism is currently becoming quite popular in the West, since its principles are often experienced in Tai Chi, Qi Gong and other martial and fitness disciplines imported from China.