Some Daoists believed that spirits pervaded nature (both the natural world and the internal world within the human body). Theologically, these myriad spirits were simply many manifestations of the one Dao, which could not be represented as an image or a particular thing. As the Daoist pantheon developed, it came to mirror the imperial bureaucracy in heaven and hell. The head of the heavenly bureaucracy was the jade Emperor, who governed spirits assigned to oversee the workings of the natural world and the administration of moral justice.The gods in heaven acted like and were treated like the officials in the world of men; worshipping the gods was a kind of rehearsal ofattitudes toward secular authorities. On the other hand, the demons and ghosts of hell acted like and were treated like the bullies, outlaws, and threatening strangers in the real world; they were bribed by the people and were ritually arrested by the martial forces of the spirit officials.5 The common people, who after all had little influence with their earthly rulers, sought by worshipping spirits to keep troubles at bay and ensure the blessings of health, wealth, and longevity.
The initiated Daoist priest saw the many gods as manifestations of the one Dao. He had been ritually trained to know the names, ranks, and powers of important spirits, and to ritually direct them through meditation and visualization. In his meditations, he harmonized and reunited them into their unity with the one Dao. However, only the educated believers knew anything of the complex theological system of the priest. Thus communal rituals had two levels: (a) a priestly level, which was guided by the priest's meditation and observed by major patrons, who were educated laymen; and (b) a public and dramatic ritual, usually performed by lower ranked Daoist assistants, which was theatrical in form. It conveyed the meaning through visible actions such as climbing sword ladders, or lighting and floating lanterns. The same ritual had a subtle metaphysical-mystical structure for the theologians, and a visible dramatic structure for the lay audience.
Daoism was also an important motif in fiction, theater, and folk tales. Local eccentrics who did not care for wealth and position were often seen as "Daoist" because they spurned Confucian values and rewards. In fiction Daoists were often eccentrics; they also had magical or prophetic powers, which symbolized their spiritual attainment. They healed, restored youth and vitality, predicted the future, or readmen's souls. They were also depicted as the stewards of a system of moral retribution; the Daoist gods in heaven and hell exacted strict punishments for wrongdoing, and would let no sinner off the hook. On the one hand, then, they were non-conformists who embodied different values and life styles; on the other, their strict moral retribution reinforced the values of the society. Daoism was "the other way," but it did not threaten the moral consensus. It was, perhaps, a kind of safety valve to escape the pressures of society, or at least a complementary channel for alternative views and values.