Daoist Organizations/Practices

What follows is an excerpt from Livia Kohn’s book Daoism and Chinese Culture (division headings added for ease of reading) .  As with anything, I highly encourage people to find their path for themselves and to explore everything that comes across there path.  That being said, this is not meant to be the end discussion on Daoism (Taoism) but an interesting perspective that seems to fit the bill (personal opinion).  Also, while these are convenient sub-divions/paths/outlooks, I venture to say that most if not all people will find themselves as a mixture of outlooks. 

Within the Daoist tradition, one can distinguish three types of organization and practice: literati, communal, and self-cultivation.


Literati Daoists are members of the educated elite who focus on Daoist ideas as expressed by the ancient thinkers, commonly known as daojia or “Daoist school” after an early bibliographical classification.

They use these concepts to create meaning in their world and hope to exert some influence on the political and social situation of their time, contributing to greater universal harmony, known as the state of Great Peace (taiping).

The lineage and legitimation of such literati Daoists comes from the devotion and dedication to the classical texts, which they interpret in commentaries and essays, and whose metaphors they employ in stories and poetry.

They may live a life of leisure or be active in society as local officials, poets and writers, or teachers at academies, but in all cases their self-identity derives from ideas centered on Dao.

Literati Daoists have been part of the tradition since its inception, and the ancient thinkers Laozi and Zhuangzi may well be considered their first example.

But they also appear among commentators to the texts, patriarchs of religious schools, thinkers of Confucian or Buddhist background, and academics today.


Communal Daoists, too, are found in many different positions and come from all levels of society.

They are members of organized Daoist groups that follow daojiao or the ‘Daoist teaching’.

They have priestly hierarchies, formal initiations, regular rituals, and prayers to the gods.

Some communal Daoists organisations are tightly controlled fraternities with secret rites and limited contact to the outside world.

Others are part of ordinary society, centred on neighbourhood temples and concerned with the affairs of ordinary life-weddings and funerals, protection and exorcism.

Their expression tends to be in liturgies, prayer hymns, and moral rules. Historically, they have been documented from the second century C.E. onward and shown a high degree of continuity over the millennia.

While specific rites and organizational patterns changed, there is a distinct line from the early millenarian movements to the Celestial Masters today, and one can see a clear link between the ritual of medieval China and contemporary liturgies, both lay and monastic.


The third group of Daoists focus on self-cultivation and are known as practitioners of yangsheng or “nurturing life.” They, too, come from all walks of life, but rather than communal rites, their main concern is the attainment of personal health, longevity, peace of mind, and spiritual immortality-either in mystical oneness with Dao or through visions of and interaction with the gods.

They tend to pay little attention to political involvement, and their organisation depends strongly on the master-disciple relationship.

Their groups can be small and esoteric, with only a few active followers (as certain Taiji lineages), large and extensive with leanings toward organized religion (as the contemporary Falun dafa), or vague and diffuse with numerous people practicing a variety of different techniques (as in modern Qigong).

Again, historical continuity is strong. The earliest examples of self-cultivation groups are found before the Common Era, tentatively among the followers of Laozi and Zhuangzi and quite evidently among the magical-practitioners and their lineages.

These groups, moreover, gave rise to religious schools, beginning with a few dedicated immortality seekers and growing into leading Daoist organizations.

Interconnected from the beginning, these three types of Daoism-literati, communal, and self-cultivation-although distinct in their abstract description, are not mutually exclusive in practice.

On the contrary, as contemporary practitioners often emphasize, to be a complete Daoist one must follow all three paths: studying worldview and being socially responsible, performing rituals and praying to the gods, and undertaking self-cultivation for health and spiritual advancement.

 Kohn, L. (2001). Daoism and chinese culture. Cambridge, MA: Three Pines Press.


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