For those to whom "Taoism" is the Tao te ching and Chuang-tzu, nothing could seem more foreign to Taoism than bureaucracy. In these two classics, the Way (tao) is everything that bureaucracy is not: it is nonhierarchical, undifferentiated, ineffable, spontaneous. The bureaucratic spirit pertains rather to stuffy Confucians, who foolishly imagine that the way to fulfill human potential is through service in officialdom.
If, however, we turn from ancient literature to the Taoist religion, a different picture emerges. During the second century CE, Taoism appeared as an organized religion--the Way of the Celestial Master, a recognizable social entity with a priesthood, special rituals, registered parishioners, a messianic eschatology, and other features of an institutionalized faith. The Celestial Masters based their organization on procedures used by the state administration. Thus, from the very beginning, the Taoist religion was inseparably linked to bureaucratic forms and usages. This study focuses on several of early Taoism's most bureaucratized aspects--its social organization, healing ritual, and cosmology--and applies its findings to an analysis of Taoism's relationship to popular religious traditions, particularly spirit-mediumism, exorcism, divination, and cults to local deities. Early Taoism's affinity for bureaucracy, the author argues, was a formative influence on the complex relationship between Taoism and popular religion that continued to evolve for centuries thereafter--still shaped by those early medieval patterns.