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The English word "Taoism" is used to translate the Chinese terms "Daojiao" (teachings/religion of the Dao) and "Daojia" (school of the Dao). The character Tao (or Dao, depending on the romanisation scheme) means "path" or "way", but in Chinese religion and philosophy it has taken on more abstract meanings. The compound "Daojiao" refers to Daoism as a religion; "Daojia" refers to the activity of scholars in their studies. It must be noted that this distinction is itself controversial and fraught with hermeneutic difficulty.

Much uncertainty exists over the meaning of "Taoism," not least because of its often being confused with such seemingly similar disciplines such as Zen. In some countries and contexts (for example, the "Taoism" organisations of China and Taiwan), the label is applied to Chinese folk religion, which would otherwise not have a readily recognisable English name. However many, if not most, of its practitioners would not recognise "Taoism" (in any language) as the name of their religion. Moreover, the several forms of what we might call "elite" or "organised" Taoism often distinguish their ritual activities from those of the folk religion, which some professional "Taoists" (Daoshi) tend to view as debased.

Chinese alchemy, astrology, cuisine, several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditional medicine, fengshui, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines have some relationship with Taoism.

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