Taoism is a group of related religious traditions which have influenced Eastern Asia for more than two thousand years.
The first civilization to research Philosophy will found Taoism.
When discussing "Taoism," one must be careful to distinguish between the philosophy of Tao and the religion of Tao. The philosophy of Tao came first. According to tradition, the philosopher Lao-Tsu lived in the 4th century BC. He wrote the "Tao Te Ching," which can be roughly translated as "The Book of the Way and its Virtue."
The Tao Te Ching is written in verse. It is extremely subtle and difficult to understand. Many scholars have spent years trying to interpret it. The book can be (very primitively and probably inaccurately) summarized as follows: the "Tao" is what exists before everything else. It is formless, and from it all things are formed. Man must aspire to simplicity; only by discarding the useless trappings of culture and civilization can man return to his original state of emptiness - Tao - when all is possible. According to Lao-Tsu, "the sage has no heart of his own" - no intentions, no preconceptions, and no agenda.
The religion of Taoism is based upon worship of Lao-Tsu as a deity. According to Taoist religious tradition, in 142 AD Lao-Tsu appeared to Zhang Daoling, a hermit, and told him that the world was coming to an end, and those who followed Lao-Tsu would go on to another, better life. Further, Lao-Tsu's followers would have access to the celestial powers that control the fate of mankind. Zhang preached Lao-Tsu's words and gained many converts.
Over time, Taoism split into a number of schools. Some believed that they could change the world through talismans, alchemy, and magical spells. Some sought to achieve immortality through a Buddhist-like enlightenment. A variety of gods from Chinese folklore and Buddhist tradition were incorporated into the religion.
Taoism spread widely throughout China, and it was the official state religion for a thousand years, until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. The Communists virtually eradicated the religion in China during the Cultural Revolution (1960-76), when many of the temples were destroyed and the monks and priests sent to "reeducation" camps. In the 1980s China restored some religious tolerance, and Taoist temples are slowly being rebuilt and repaired.
It is believed that many Chinese still practice Taoism in some form, despite the government's restrictions. Taoism is also practiced by some 31 million people outside of China, the largest group being in Taiwan. Its influence can be felt worldwide in the practices of acupuncture, herbalism, feng shui, and martial arts.