Differing interpretations of works by philosophers like Lao-Tzu led to divisions in Taoism.
Differing interpretations of works by philosophers like Lao-Tzu led to divisions in Taoism.

Taoism, which is the native religion of China, emphasizes finding and preserving natural harmony and understanding the true nature of the world. The major division in Taoist thought and belief is between the northern and southern schools of the religion, and though other sects existed throughout history, few exist unchanged in the modern period.

Southern Taoism

Southern Taoism is the the form practiced by the majority of Chinese adherents, especially in the south of China and the island nation of Taiwan. This sect dates back to the 11th century when followers branched off from traditional Cheng-i Taoism. In addition to studying Taoist scripture, Southern Taoist practices include several rituals intended to restore harmony to the world, such as rites that unite a community with the cosmos, heal the injured and sick, and exorcise evil spirits.

Northern Taoism

According to the BBC, Northern Taoism was largely unknown to foreign observers until China opened to international travel in the 1980s. As the name would suggest, practitioners live in the north and distance themselves from the liturgical practices of Southern Taoism. Followers believe in studying Taoist scripture to cultivate their own knowledge and become a more disciplined person. Wang Chu'ung-yang founded this division in the 12th century and the modern headquarters of this division are located in Beijing.

Other Divisions

Although no longer practiced widely in China, sects like Shen hsiao, and T'ai i Taoism grew out of different scriptural interpretations. The former emphasized the divinity of the Sung Emperor's court, while the latter taught followers to help the disadvantaged and centered on the practice of ritual healing. On the other hand, some divisions represent different divisions in practice that don't necessarily conform to the beliefs of a single Taoist sect. For example, Communal Taoists live in closed communities where they practice ancient Taoist rites of prayer and worship.

Philosophical Taoists

For many Taoists, the belief system is not associated with an overarching faith or spirituality. These Taoists approach Taoism as a philosophical system rather than a religion. Taoist notions such as preserving harmony, self-cultivation and the relationship between the physical world and immaterial one, all lend themselves to intellectual study and discourse without the necessity of religious belief. The term Lao-Zhuang Philosophy differentiates nonreligious Taoism from the sacred and cosmological beliefs of religious or Huang-Lao Taoism.