Taoism is not generally known as a proselytizing religion these days, but was there ever a time when Taoist missionaries were found?

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    Not just these days, Taosim was never really known as a proselytising religion. For the most part Taoism expanded passively. But yes, you can find some examples of "missionaries" sent out by certain sects. Though typically they were perhaps more akin to the Christians apostles than later run of the mill missionaries.
    – Semaphore
    Jun 18, 2016 at 12:34
  • There is a bit of a contradiction in a missionary for a religion based on things like "A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves"
    – user15620
    Mar 2, 2020 at 18:00
  • @GorttheRobot No contradiction I can see. The only problem would be if he drew attention to himself instead of letting people think they came to him themselves. In any case, the Daodejing isn't really treated as a gospel by all Taoists; the practitioners are usually more into 'practical' concerns like traditional Chinese medicine, getting blessings from this or that god, &c.
    – lly
    Mar 2, 2020 at 18:21

3 Answers 3


Taoism gained much popularity by the end of the Southern Song period.

When the Mongol Empire started invading, they had the habit of massacring the whole population after a city was sacked. Taoist missionary Qiu Chuji visited Genghis Khan and managed to convince him not to commit any more massacres after battle.

  • Was Qiu actually a missionary? or do you just consider him one because he obeyed the khan's summons and was a persuasive advocate for his own beliefs? The linked article doesn't seem to suggest he actually won converts before or after the meeting.
    – lly
    Mar 2, 2020 at 18:18
  • @lly, the missionary in Taoism and confucianism is not as clear as that of christianity. Technically, if someone managed to spread a religion a bit, this someone is a missionary.
    – Yu Zhang
    Mar 2, 2020 at 19:58
  • Sure, but Genghis didn't convert. That story just makes him an apologist for Taoism, hence the request for if there was any more to it.
    – lly
    Mar 3, 2020 at 10:30

Generally speaking, there were very few Taoist missionaries in Chinese history.

The most famous Taoist missionary would be Zhang Jue from the Three Kingdoms era:

From the Chinese wiki: In AD 184, plague spread throughout China. Thousands of people were cured after drinking Zhang's ash water. He sent 8 major missionaries and his followers covered around 2/3 of China. They then became the major army of the Yellow Turban Rebellion. This rebellion led to the end of the Han Dynasty.

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    Source for 2/3 people of China being his believers? Oct 19, 2016 at 2:54
  • It's from the Chinese Wiki Page: zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%BC%B5%E8%A7%92, 追隨的信徒愈來愈多,甚至高達數十萬人,遍及青州、徐州、幽州、冀州、荊州、揚州、兗州、豫州等八州人,皆祀奉張角的名字,幾乎佔了當時全國的三分之二,信徒尊稱「大賢良師」。 And the source of wiki marked as "Book of the later Han". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_the_Later_Han
    – Val
    Oct 19, 2016 at 3:06
  • I think you misread that passage. It means his followers were spread across 2/3 of China's provinces, not that his followers, a mere 數十萬人, represented 2/3 of China's population, which was about 50+ million. Oct 19, 2016 at 3:23
  • @congusbongus Modified my answer, removed "people" to match the original statement more closely. Thank you.
    – Val
    Oct 19, 2016 at 3:48
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    Actually it's very hard to estimate how many believers they got. At that time government failed, plague spread, with severe famine, they seem to be the major helpful organization at that time. They feed people, and they cure the plague. After the rebellion broke out, more than 300k people joined. And all the other believers were considered rebellions also. They may just hide or reject to admit their faith. The real question might be: what was the percentage of believers would sacrifice, even die for their faith?
    – Val
    Oct 19, 2016 at 4:14

Yes, and there still are.

Taoism is generally not known as a proselytizing religion because most Westerners don't read Chinese and the ones who do, especially early on, mythologized and orientalized it. The Confucians had no such qualms and tried to get it banned as a noxious superstition by the Rites Bureau whenever they got the chance. The Chinese Taoist Association isn't as aggressive today because it's run to harmonize its activities with the atheist CCP, but historically China has had plenty of popular religious movements and the only way to pretend they weren't Taoist is to No-True-Scotsman them all. (The English catch-all for these NTS movements and ideas is 'Chinese Folk Religion'.)

Val's answer is right that the plagues, floods, and wars that ended the Han Dynasty seems to have been a fertile time. Zhang Jue and his Yellow Turbans were dramatic and influential but short-lived; Zhang Lu (no relation) and his Celestial Masters following the Way of the Five Pecks of Rice had epiphanies of Laozi, medical miracles, and tried to establish a holy land for their chosen people. Their ideas shaped most subsequent Taoist movements.

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