'Dao' or Tao translates as 'the path' or 'the way'. Daoists believe that there is a power that surrounds and flows through the living and non-living, which regulates natural processes, creates balance in the Universe, and exemplifies the harmony of opposites. The Daoist philosophy is highly important for the understanding of Chinese art since shapes, colors and decorations are very often made to harmonize with this. Among the motifs are several symbols for "long life" such as the crane, pine tree, deer and the lingzhi fungus closely related to clouds and the ruyi scepter head.
Lao Zi (Lao-Tse) or the "Old Master" is believed to have lived 604-531 BC and to be the founder of Daoism. He was a contemporary of Confucius and his quest was to find a way to avoid the constant feudal warfare and conflicts that made society chaotic during his lifetime. His ongoing search caused him to author the "Book of the Way and its Power" Daode jing (Tao-te-Ching). In answer to the question "What is the nature of the natural world-" Lao Zi replied that it is the visible manifestation of the Dao, the Way that contains within itself the matter and form of every physical phenomenon. The central teaching of Daoism is that one must live in intuitive harmony with the Dao. It was not until the Han dynasty that the teachings of Lao Zi were incorporated into a religious movement in which elaborate rituals and sacred writings were developed. Daoism became the third great religion of China, the other two being Buddhism and Confucianism.
Historians now think that Daode jing was compiled by a group of scholars in the third century BC and that "Laozi" was developed to provide an author for the book. The text is actually a compilation of various writings collected over the course of generations. It may have assumed its current form by the third or fourth century BC. The Classic of the Way and Its Power includes poetic passages, sayings, fragments of political texts, and passages intended for recitation. It served as the foundation for both philosophical and religious Daoism. During the Han dynasty, "Laozi" was in either case deified and remains one of the most important deities in religious Daoism.
When the Qing dynasty ended in 1911 the state support for Daoism also ended, and a great deal of the heritage surrounding the religion was destroyed during the years of warlordism that consumed the country of China. In 1949 with the Communists victory Taoist monks were forced into manual labor and temples were confiscated by the government. By 1960 the number of Daoist monks had been reduced from several million to about fifty thousand. The Cultural Revolution that started in 1966 and lasted ten years destroyed much of what remained.