Most Daoists have argued that the meaningful past is the period that proceeded, chronologically and metaphysically, the past in which the legendary sages of Confucianism lived. In the Daoist golden age the empire had not yet been reclaimed out of chaos. Society lacked distinctions based on class, and human beings lived happily in what resembled primitive, small-scale agricultural collectives. The lines between different nation-states, between different occupations, even between humans and animals were not clearly drawn. The world knew nothing of the Confucian state, which depended on the carving up of an undifferentiated whole into social ranks, the imposition of artificially ritualized modes of behavior, and a campaign for conservative values like loyalty, obeying one's parents, and moderation..
For Daoists the philosophical equivalent to the pre-imperial primordial is a state of chaotic wholeness, sometimes called _hundun_, roughly translated as ``chaos.'' In that state, imagined as an uncarved block or as the beginning of life in the womb, nothing is lacking. Everything exists, everything is possible: before a stone is carved there is no limit to the designs that may be cut, and before the fetus develops the embryo can, in an organic worldview, develop into male or female. There is not yet any division into parts, any name to distinguish one thing from another. Prior to birth there is no distinction, from the Daoist standpoint, between life and death. Once birth happens--once the stone is cut--however, the world descends into a state of imperfection. Rather than a mythological sin on the part of the first human beings or an ontological separation of God from humanity, the Daoist version of the Fall involves division into parts, the assigning of names, and the leveling of judgments injurious to life. _The Classic on the Way and Its Power_ (_Dao de jing_) describes how the original whole, the _dao_ (here meaning the ``Way'' above all other ways), was broken up: ``The Dao gave birth to the One, the One gave birth to the Two, the Two gave birth to the Three, and the Three gave birth to the Ten Thousand Things.''<6> That decline-through-differentiation also offers the model for regaining wholeness. The spirit may be restored by reversing the process of aging, by reverting from multiplicity to the One. By understanding the road or path (the same word, dao, in another sense) that the great Dao followed in its decline, one can return to the root and endure forever.
The most prominent early writings associated with Daoism are two texts, _The Classic on the Way and Its Power,_ attributed to a mythological figure named Lao Dan or Laozi who is presumed to have lived during the sixth century B.C.E., and the _Zhuangzi_, named for its putative author, Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi (ca. 370-301 B.C.E.).
``Daoism'' is also invoked as the name for religious movements that began to develop in the late second century C.E.; Chinese usage typically refers to their texts as Daojiao, ``Teachings of the Dao'' or ``Religion of the Dao.''
Daoist and imperial interests often intersected. The founder of the Tang dynasty (618-907), Li Yuan (lived 566-635, reigned 618-626, known as Gaozu), for instance, claimed to be a descendant of Laozi's. Later governments continued to extend official support to the Daoist church, and vice-versa. Many accounts portray the twelfth century as a particularly innovative period: it saw the development of sects named ``Supreme Unity'' (Taiyi), ``Perfect and Great Dao'' (Zhenda dao), and ``Complete Perfection'' (Quanzhen). In the early part of the fifteenth century, the forty-third Celestial Master took charge of compiling and editing Daoist ritual texts, resulting in the promulgation of a Daoist canon that contemporary Daoists still consider authoritative.