Taoism is a general name for a great number of religious and philosophical practices and systems that have been popular in east Asia since 6th century BCE and one could argue that Taoist concepts are at the core of nearly all Chinese religious practices. Taoism began as a philosophy, one of the three major philosophies of the East, and although many of its concepts were taken on faith and became religions, its philosophical impact was tremendous.
Taoism began at about the same time as Confucianism, and although Confucious was said to be a student of Laozi, the two philosophies oppose each other in a number of ways: confucianism stressed rituals, established order, and strict code of ethics, while taoism was individualistic, challenged conventional morality, and called for Laissez-faire politics and even anarchy.
The founding text of Taoism, Tao Te Ching, is a short philosophical text on a large number of topics, full of parables and metaphors to the point that it is understood differently by different readers, and can even be understood differently by the same reader over time, which is in full agreement with the nature of the text. It talks about the universal ineffable concept known as Tao, something that cannot be understood by questioning, but can be experienced by action. The more one acts in harmony with Tao, the less effort is required to achieve the one’s goals, while any kind of force only begets resistance and more force. Taoism also talks about the duality of nature, and treats the opposites as complements, each endlessly destroying and creating the other, expressed in the ubiquitious Taoist symbol of Taijitu (ying-yang).
Action in harmony with Tao is known as wu-wei, effortless action, or “doing without doing”. It is not practicaly unattainable like the buddhist nirvana, but in fact is something many people encounter without trying, it is a state that the mind enters when working on repetitive tasks that require high concentration, such as the ones performed by manual laborers, athletes, martial artists, and musicians. For someone who is acting in the state of wu-wei, as explored by the second great Taoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, there is no right or wrong, and neither death nor life have any effect.
Unlike Confucianism, which required rules and rites to correct the sourness of life, and unlike Buddhism which required great efforts to escape the pains of life, Taoism considered life to be inherently pleasant, seeing sourness and pain as only the result of unnecessary efforts. Over the millennia, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism mixed with each other, interconnecting and influencing each other’s branches and schools, forming both the complex tapestry of Eastern Philosophy and the landscape of Chinese religions.