The essential Taoist philosophical and mystical beliefs can be found in the Tao-te Ching (Classic of the Way and Its Power), a composite text dating from about the 3rd century BC and attributed to the historical figure Lao-tzu, and in the Chuang-tzu, a book of parables and allegories also dating from the 3rd century BC but attributed to the philosopher Chuang-tzu. Whereas Confucianism urged the individual to conform to the standards of an ideal social system, Taoism maintained that the individual should ignore the dictates of society and seek only to conform with the underlying pattern of the universe, the Tao ("way"), which can neither be described in words nor conceived in thought. To be in accord with Tao, one has to "do nothing" (wu-wei)that is, nothing strained, artificial, or unnatural. Through spontaneous compliance with the impulses of one's own essential nature and by emptying oneself of all doctrines and knowledge, one achieves unity with the Tao and derives from it a mystical power (Tô). This power enables one to transcend all mundane distinctions, even the distinction of life and death. At the sociopolitical level, the Taoists called for a return to primitive agrarian life.
Unsuited to the development of an explicit political theory, Taoism exerted its greatest influence on Chinese aesthetics, hygiene, and religion. Alongside the philosophical and mystical Taoism discussed above, Taoism also developed on a popular level as a cult in which immortality was sought through magic and the use of various elixirs. Experimentation in alchemy gave way to the development, between the 3rd and 6th centuries, of various hygiene cults that sought to prolong life. These developed into a general hygiene system, still practiced, that stresses regular breathing and concentration to prevent disease and promote longevity.
About the 2nd century AD, popular Taoist religious organizations concerned with faith healing began to appear. Subsequently, under the influence of Buddhism, Taoist religious groups adopted institutional monasticism and a concern for spiritual afterlife rather than bodily immortality. The basic organization of these groups was the local parish, which supported a Taoist priest with its contributions. Taoism was recognized as the official religion of China for several brief periods. Various Taoist sects eventually developed, and in 1019 the leader of one of these was given an extensive tract of land in Jiangxi (Kiangsi) Province. The successors of this patriarch maintained control over this tract and nominal supremacy over local Taoist clergy until 1927, when they were ousted by the Chinese Communists. In contemporary China, religious Taoism has tended to merge with popular Buddhism and other religions.