Nobody knows whats before Dao actually neither how Dao appeared. But Dao as a term was coined by Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu is often seen as founder of Daoism but it is particularly true only. Lao Tzu actually did systematized different Daoist ideas, principles and values and named them Dao. However even when Dao as term was used large Daoist movement didn’t exist for almost 700 years since Lao Tzu until Way of Celestial Masters was founded. It was first organized Daoist movement. These stories are often mentioned but what about Daoism before Lao Tzu? Daoism actually existed but it wasn’t called like that until Lao Tzu. It can be seen as pre Daoist teaching or part of proto Chinese folk religion.

Most of these initial Daoist concepts were used, broadened and further explained by Lao Tzu. So basically they existed much before Lao Tzu but were not put under term Dao. It is usually spoken today about Lao Tzu and development of Daoism after Lao Tzu and until today. But lets review how pre Daoism looked like.


Beginnings and Sources

It is really hard to search for traces of Daoism as they originate from prehistoric period and are linked to Chinese proto religion. Chinese proto religion actually still exists today in form of Chinese folk religion and Daoism.  In past times before even Xia dynasty people mostly believed in natural forces and worshipped them.

When it comes to peoples beliefs they were mostly related to worshiping nature and living in harmony with nature. Worship of nature, sun, moon, heaven, earth and worship of ancestors was common. They celebrated Lunar New Year too. People believed that nature is source of everything what comes whether its good or bad and in that order they believed that they have to worship it. Many things during that time depended on nature such as harvests and nature could produce good weather, little rain but also cold or too hot weather and storms. Basically such system of beliefs is considered as shamanism. This was mostly developing in areas of Yangtze and Hoanghe rivers where Chinese civilization was born. Together with cultivation of crops, irrigation and pottery  system of beliefs was developing too.  In todays Henan, Hunan, Sichuan and Shandong was found evidence of carvings of various symbols such as heaven, earth, sun, moon and carvings of some legendary beings. Also about 8000 years old jade dragon figure was excavated.

Yi Jing hexagrams,

Oldest written source of proto Daoism is Yi Jing what literally can be translated as Book of Changes. Yi Jing is first Chinese book of divination and one of oldest Chinese classics. There are explained concepts of Yin Yang, balance, harmony, Bagua, worship, static and dynamic in nature and  cycles of changes. Book gives guidance how to use these concepts in worship. It is basis of Chinese proto religion, Daoism and folk religion of Chinese people. Yi Jing contains important ideas which were later used in Dao de jing, Zhuangtzu, Daozang, various other Daoist and folk religion books and in creation of Taiji Quan. It is considered that book dates from 10th century BC according to oldest found versions on bamboo slips and inscriptions on bronze. Legendarily author is regarded as Fu Xi a legendary figure and First Emperor in Chinese mythology. But actually according to legend he lived at least 1000 years earlier than oldest discovered versions of Yi Jing. Other scholars believe that real author of Yi Jing is King Wen of Zhou a father of founder of Zhou dynasty. King Wen of Zhou is seen as great cosmologist and creator of different concepts of Yin Yang than that one by Fu Xi. Yi Jing served as main religious book during Western and Eastern Zhou dynasties or in other words during Spring and Autumn Period and also during Warring States Period.


Already mentioned in other chapters but lets remind basic concepts..

Wuji and Taiji

Wuji represents constant stillness, non changes and statics. Second is Taiji which is translated as supreme ultimate. It is something that  constantly changes, moves, circles and is constantly flexible. Taiji is constant change of day and night, winter and summer, spring and autumn, good and bad, flowing water, rain and sun,  beautiful and ugly, new and old, love and hate…It is considered that Taiji is name for all relative things and that nothing is absolute that there is thin line between all contrary things.  Wuji and Taiji together give a Yin Yang which symbolizes contradictious harmony. Daoists today still believe that all things in nature, in life and in world exist in harmony even when they are contrary to each other and thus make good balance. Simply Yin Yang is also a depiction of concept of growth and waning. Simply both concepts Wuji and Taiji were widely used by Lao Tzu and other new formed Daoist movements. Taiji concept served as basis for establishment Taiji Quan, a major Daoist martial art.

5 Elements or Wu Xing.

Is another pre Daoist concept which involves Wood, Metal, Fire, Earth and Water. Each of these elements has its qualities and some interaction which can be positive or negative. Positive one is- Wood feeds Fire, Fire creates ashes on Earth, Earth has Metals, Metal collects Water and Water supports growth of Wood. Negative one is- Wood creates cracks on Earth, Earth absorbs Water, Water extinguishes Fire, Fire melts Metal and Metal chops Wood. This is how in ancient times harmony between elements and interactions were explained. Such concept is still widely used in Daoism and traditional medicine.

5 ele


It  is very important pre Daoist concept. It is life energy which circulates through our bodies which can be felt and distributed by breathing in and out and with different moves from Qi Gong and Taiji. Qi is considered as strongest force in body which is important for connection between mind and body, physical and psychical well being and self control. Qi is considered as bodily reflection of universe and thus must be in balance on basis of yin yang. Qi is human manifestation of yin and yang in mind and body.  Heaven and Earth and static and dynamic. As you probably already know Qi concept was used since ancient times in Qi Gong breathing and body movement exercises. Controlling and moving Qi is point also of Daoist meditation and Taiji.  Focus on Qi was common during sexual intercourse.

Yin Yang

Yin Yang is definitely core concept in Chinese proto religion as well as in todays Daoism and folk religion of Chinese people. It is often considered as oldest concept of world of Chinese people which dates from prehistoric period. Real origin of this concept is unknown. Simply yin yang can be described as polarity that holds universe in balance and is composed of one static or passive side and one dynamic and active.

According to oldest concepts of  Yin Yang Heaven is seen as dynamic and flexible and Earth as static and rigid and they create perfect balance in nature. They  are considered as supreme contradictory and harmonized poles. Lets just imagine all interactions between Heaven and Earth- rain, snow, sunny weather, day, night, light or dark. It shows us really which pole is active and which passive in this interaction. Nature is seen as manifestation of interaction between Heaven and Earth.  It is believed that humans also exist in this energetic field which are created by these two forces Heaven and Earth.  There are 3 types of life energy qi: 1) Heavenly- present in all cosmic bodies and Heaven, 2) Earthly- in Earth all of its elements, plants and beings, 3) in Humans. Therefore humans should pray and worship these forces in order to regulate these two energies on their own behalf.  Humans should look to find balance within own minds and bodies by navigating qi energy. Between these two supreme poles there is water which mediates and can be both active and passive as we know that water can be in form of river, lake or ice. Mountains are often seen as connections between Heaven and Earth and therefore people in China go there to pray for both energies and for better balance between Heaven and Earth believing it will affect their inner balance of qi energy. That’s reason why mountains are sacred for Chinese people. Another manifestation of Yin Yang is seen in mountains and rivers. Here mountains represent rigidity, static and passivity while rivers present flexibility, dynamic and activity. Therefore mountains and water are seen as perfect example of Yin Yang together with Heaven and Earth.  It is believed that Yin and Yang are everywhere and in everyone.  Yin and Yang is seen as manifestation of Dao or path, what was proposed by Lao Tzu much later.


According to Yi Jing core concept around Yin Yang is Bagua. It includes 8 concepts which present the reality- Wuji is one, Taiji is two, Yin Yang 3 and other are hexagrams of different cycles and concepts which relate to smaller or younger yin and bigger  or old yin( Moon is absolute yin) and  to smaller or younger yang and bigger or older yang(Sun absolute yang).  In total there are 64 hexagrams of changes, cycles, statics and dynamics. Bagua is simply so important that it represents functioning of world, statics, characteristics, dynamics, natural cycles and so on. It is often said as mentioned that from Wuji comes Taiji and from Wuji and Taiji Yin Yang from them comes bigger Yin ( Moon) and lesser Yin and bigger Yang( Sun) and lesser Yang. From them are created 8 trigrams which created 64 hexagrams.

There is Primordial Bagua known as Earlier Heaven. These are its components:

  • Heaven- South, Summer, Father, Creative, Expansive energy
  • Wind- Southwest, Summer, Eldest daughter, Gentle, flexibility,
  • Water- West, Autumn, Middle son, Abyss, River, Moon
  • Mountain- Northwest, Autumn, Youngest son, Still, Immovability
  • Earth- North, Winter, Mother, Receptive, Receptive energy
  • Thunder- Northeast, Winter, Eldest son, Arousing, Excitation,
  • Fire- East, Spring, Middle daughter, clinging, Rapid, Sun
  • Lake- Southeast, Spring, Youngest daughter, Joys, Satisfaction
yin yang
Primordial Bagua

This Bagua is oldest concept of universe in ancient China. It dates approximately from Neolithic period and was widely used during Xia and Shang dynasties.  Traditionally this Primordial Bagua is called  Bagua of Fu Xi as according to legends Fu Xi created this concept. Primordial Bagua represents perfect balance between nature, humans and universe. It is state of pure harmony This Primordial Bagua is still used today in temples, rituals, making talismans, exorcism and in burial ceremonies. Because this Primordial Bagua depicts perfect balance of contradictory forces it is used in prayers, talismans and similar things in order to call it out and bring order and harmony.

By end of Shang dynasty with rise house of Zhou appeared Manifested Bagua or Later Heaven. It is also a Bagua of King Wen who is considered as important author of Yi Jing.  Manifested Bagua is more complicated and is differently positioned and includes animals and colors. It is actually Bagua of constant interaction between elements, humans, beings, phenomena and Heaven and Earth.

manifested bagua yin yang

In this Bagua disbalance and disharmony is also possible. There are constant interactions in this concept of Bagua. Manifested Bagua is used in Feng Shui compassing for construction of buildings, astrology and traditional medicine. So basically both concepts of Bagua are important and present binary existence of universe.

Manifested Bagua chart 1

Manifested bagua 2


As mentioned before Chinese folk beliefs, Daoism and Chan Buddhism have about 1000 deities all together. Not all deities are same today as they were few thousand years ago. Before forming a Way of Celestial Masters in 2nd century CE there were already hundreds of deities. First supernatural beings of Chinese people were spirits which lived everywhere in nature. First deities were animal like and most worshipped being was dragon. Major dragons were 4 Dragons of Cardinal Directions and 4 Seas. It is really hard to determine when first dragons were worshipped but probably they date from Neolithic period of Chinese civilization. There were worshipped gods of rain, sun, moon, earth, heaven and other.  Oldest, most famous and most important deities and legendary figures   in proto Daoism were 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors.

3 Sovereigns are:

  • Fu Xi- is probably most important Chinese deity of past together with Nu Wa. Traditionally is believed that he lived around 3000BC for 200 years. It was believed that he is creator of humans, marriage, hunting and fishery.   It was believed also that he had body of snake and face of human.  Legendarily he lived in Kunlun mountains. He isn’t worshipped today anymore but is considered as legendary hero.
  • Nuwa- is a sister of Fuxi with body of snake and head of human. She assisted Fu Xi in creating humanity from clay. She is also not worshipped today.  Nu Wa is seen as completely equal to Fu Xi from which roots equality of male and female in Daoism.
  • Shen Nong- is a first completely human deity. He is considered to be a first legendary doctor and herbalist. Legendarily Shennong is creator of tea, Chinese medicine and agriculture. Regarded as legendary hero today not worshipped.
Fu Xi,

5 Emperors  are considered as successors of 3 Sovereigns. Yellow Emperor( Huangdi)- Legendarily he lived in 2600ies and 2500ies BC. He is considered as creator of Chinese civilization, inventions, state and Chinese culture. Legendarily Yellow Emperor was sent from Heaven to govern on Earth.  Since his rule Chinese started to use calendar in about 2698BC Chinese started to count time and since that time it is year 4727 in Chinese calendar. Idea of emperor as Son of Heaven comes from this concept.  He is rarely worshipped today, but shrines devoted to him exist. Traditionally his successors were Emperor Zhuanxu, Emperor Shun, Emperor Yao and Emperor Kun. They are considered as legendary figures who ruled Chinese lands until approximately 2100BC when Xia dynasty was established. According to legends all 5 emperors were responsible in establishing governance system, hierarchy, ruled justly and bravely fought wars. Also they cared about harvests of people what was basis for later Mandate of Heaven what was basis for legitimacy of Chinese rulers from Zhou dynasty ( 771BC) until 1912.  It is likely that they were figures who in legendary stories described transition from Neolithic society to feudal one. There is possibility that they really existed maybe not holding this names and tittles but that they were rulers of different clans and tribes between Hoanghe and Yangtze who were establishing statehood and feudal system. They are not usually worshipped but several temples are devoted to them. According to legend Yu the Great a founder of Xia dynasty is their descendant. Bamboo Annals and Records of Grand Historian are primary sources about these legends.

Jade Emperor

Parallel with 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors there was developing legend of Jade Emperor. He is oldest still worshipped deity of Chinese people. He is often not related much to 3 Sovereigns but is separate legend. In some stories he is creator of people by clay in others he is human manifestation of universe and ruler of cosmos, Heaven and Earth. Unlike  5 Emperors Jade Emperor governs on Heaven in heavenly palace and is coordinating rain, sun, spring, summer, winter, thunder and responsible for holding balance between Heaven and Earth.  He legendarily created time and Chinese zodiac and taught Yellow Emperor to apply it on Earth. After Lao Tzu he is regarded as manifestation of Dao. Daoists during Warring States Period and Han dynasty widely worshipped him. Jade Emperor reincarnated into Yuanshi Tianzun one of Three Purities which were defined during Han dynasty. Jade Emperor is still widely worshipped independently or as reincarnation in shape of Yuanshi Tianzun. He was since legendary stories more considered as superhuman and divine as he was ruler in Heaven and 5 Emperors on Earth and thus that can be reason why was venerated by Daoists and worshipped till today. 5 Emperors were considered as ordinary rulers and part of history in past while Jade Emperor as powerful deity for strength and good luck.

Queen Mother of the West or Xiwangmu

Is one of oldest Chinese humanlike deities.  She is regarded as goddess of life and immortality.  Queen Mother was regarded as deity living in peach orchards in paradise on western Kunlun mountains.  According to legend prior to her humanlike appearance she was spirit of mountain who looked like half leopard half human.  Queen Mother of the West was cultivating garden of peace with rare plants and flowers and sacred peach trees. Peach tree is symbol of immortality. In legends she was teacher of Yu the Great a founder of Xia dynasty. Also some accounts say that King Mu of Zhou dynasty met with her. During Warring States Period  and Han dynasty Daoist movements frequently worshipped her. In systematization  of pantheon by Way of Celestial Masters she was regarded as  one of core Daoist deities. Today she is still worshipped. Queen Mother of the West attributes were incorporated in Guanyin a goddess which was venerated later. Guanyin is often seen as incarnation of Queen Mother of the West. During Shang dynasty existed female pre Daoist deity known as Cihang Zhenren. Some Daoists consider Guanyin as incarnation of Cihang Zhenren too.




Before Way of Celestial Masters only smaller and disunited Daoist sects existed. Prior to them were independent shamans called as Wu in ancient China. They practiced communication with spirits and deities and worshipped them. Also they practiced meditation and fortune telling. Some sects lived isolated life in mountains and practiced meditation, qi gong and searched for balance with nature.  Other sects lived in towns and villages and practiced prayers and worships, rituals, consecrating objects, guiding people in rituals, creating talismans, traditional medicine, fortune telling and astrology. But also they practiced retreats to nature where they meditated and did qi gong exercises. In rituals music from drums and bells, fire and smoke of incense were present.  Tea and fruits were given to deities as gifts. Together with all this sacrifice of humans and animals was performed as gift to deities. Human sacrifice of prisoners and slaves was common during Xia and Shang dynasties. First King of Zhou dynast abolished human sacrifice as he considered it too cruel and allowed only animal sacrifice. Also since Zhou dynasty priests from capital city participated in annual Worship of Heaven with emperor. Ancestral worship was common as well.

dao chant
Daoist chanting has  roots much before official Daoism,


cover photo source-


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