1785 image of a Taoist
Taoism (Daoism in pinyin) is a philosophy-turned-religion that preaches living in harmony with nature and simplicity. It began as a philosophical tradition in early China. Its most famous work is the Daodejing, attributed to a person known as Lao-tze (Laozi), who may have existed in the 6th century B.C. It developed into an organized religion by the A.D. 2nd century. Although its practices vary widely, it generally advocates self-discipline and good living as a way to attain immortality, as well as elaborate rituals to purge individuals or communities of evil. Its ideas of harmony with nature underlie many aspects of Chinese culture, from calligraphy and painting to architecture and medicine. For generations, its formal teachings were passed down by Taoist priests as well as lay practitioners.

Taoism is regarded by some as China's oldest indegenous religion. It is regarded as the second most important stream of Chinese thought after Confucianism and developed during the Zhou period (1100 - 221 B.C.) along with Confucianism. Its formulation is attributed to the legendary sage Lao-Tze (Old Master), who is said to predate Confucius, and Zhuangzi (369-286 B.C.). Taoism is derived from the Chinese word Tao ("The Way"), which is pronounced "dao." It is the second most important stream of Chinese thought after Confucianism. Its formulation is attributed to the legendary sage Lao Zi (Old Master), said to predate Confucius. As is true with Confucianism, it isn't really a religion in the Western sense of the word. It is more of a mystical philosophy built on a set of ethical principals for everyday living. Unlike Confucianism, which is a practical philosophy with religious overtones, Taoism is more spiritual, rooted in magic and shamanism and concerned with things like self awareness, transcendentalism, and immortality.

Stevan Harrell wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: ““Daoism is still an active force in China. Beginning from the late Zhou period, Daoism developed both as a philosophy of living in harmony with nature and as a system of esoteric rituals designed to confer personal immortality, cure disease, and superimpose a superior, eternal order of unchanging life on the earthly order of daily and seasonal change, life and death, growth and decay. The priests of this latter tradition were important in the development of science and medicine in imperial China, though their actions seem at odds with the natural harmony practices advocated by the philosophical Daoists. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

Francesco Sisci wrote in the Asia Times, “Tao, originally a small path in the mountains, describes the easiest way to move up and down the difficulties of life. It is a concept central to Chinese thinking and way of acting - to China's own being. The concept is vague but also precise, linked to the idea of water, which takes the shape of the object holding it without changing nature. It is the yielding of a woman. The way is the Chinese cosmic order, the closest thing China has to the god or gods of Judaic or Greek tradition. In the movement to rediscover China through rediscovery of Confucianism, the Tao had to emerge as well." [Source:Francesco Sisci, Asia Times, Asia Editor of La Stampa, September 2, 2010 ]

On what Taoism is, Terry F. Kleeman of the University of Colorado told the New York Times: “The word Taoism is horribly vexed because it has to translate two Chinese terms: “daojiao” and “daojia.” “Daojiao” is the religion Taoism, while “daojia” refers to philosophical works associated with Laozi and Zhuangzi, such as the Daodejing. The two are not really that closely related. Taoist priests don’t carry around copies of the Daodejing, and that work has little to do with what they teach. They teach a set of rules and morality, but you’ll find little morality in the Daodejing. [Source: Ian Johnson, Sinosphere, New York Times, August 8, 2016 +++]

Books: “Taoism” by Jennifer Oldstone-Moore, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). “Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities” by Terry F. Kleeman, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado and a leading scholar of the early texts and history of Taoism. “Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities” is the first work in any Western language on the founding of Taoism as a formal religious movement, rooted in earlier philosophical teachings like the Dao de jing, also known as the Daodejing and sometimes translated as “The Way and Its Power.” The book discusses how Taoism provides an alternative political model to the Confucian-based imperial order, how Taoist texts can help deepen our understanding of early Chinese history and why today’s Communist government seeks to control Taoist practices. +++

Good Websites and Sources on Taoism: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Religion Facts Religion Facts Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Education plato.stanford.edu ; Taoist Texts Chinese Text Project ; Taoism chebucto.ns.ca ; Chad Hansen’s Chinese Philisophy hku.hk/philodep Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de lots of dead links, but maybe helpful


According to the official website of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, there are 8,269 Taoist venues in China. In 1998, government sources reported 600 Daoist temples and an unknown number of adherents in China. [Source: Kou Jie, Global Times January 18, 2016]

According to the World Almanac, there are about 187 million followers of Chinese folk religions including Taoism in the world today. Taoism is fundamentally Chinese in nature. Almost all Taoists live in China or are of Chinese descent. They are a few Taoists in Japan, other Asian countries and places with Chinese communities.

When asked how many people believe in Taoism today, Terry F. Kleeman of the University of Colorado told the New York Times: This is a very difficult question, because for centuries Taoism did not have lay members. This is true for Buddhism as well. The only “Buddhists” were Buddhist monks and the only “Taoists” were Taoist priests. Temples were run by committees, and they used monks and priests as needed for certain ceremonies. Today this is a bit different. There are ordinary people who join temples and call themselves lay Buddhists or Taoists. This is a modern invention. They are trying to remake these religions in Christianity’s image, with membership in a churchlike structure. This is not traditionally how it was organized. [Source: Ian Johnson, Sinosphere, New York Times, August 8, 2016]

Religious Taoism

Taoist ceremony

Religious Taoism (Tao-chiao) is made up of many movements and sects and has a large cannon of texts. Some texts focus on cosmic manifestations of yin and yang. Others deal with individual and personal matters, meditation, yoga-like practices and mind-control exercises. Folk religion and Taoism are intimately tied together. Taoism grew out of folk religion and incorporates shamanism, animism and many folk deities and traditions. See Folk Religion

Taoism presents the “other half of the Chinese soul, the darker and more ethereal side of the Chinese binary system of yin and yang. On one side sits the Confucian method and practical mind, and on the other towers the fascination with nature and mysteries harkened in the ancient cryptic verses of Lao-tze, the central figure in Taoism."[Source: Francesco Sisci, Asia Times, Asia Editor of La Stampa, September 2, 2010 /*]

On Taoism as a religion, Kleeman told the New York Times: “Many people, especially in the West, think of Taoism as going with the flow, getting back to nature and so on. Taoism, the religion, really has the same value structure as any other Chinese religion. It is full of very detailed codes of conduct that everyone has to observe. I think of Taoists as Confucians of the other world. Confucians deal with this world. They send petitions and documents to the emperor. Taoists do the same thing, but to the other world. But the structures and bureaucracy are very similar. [Source: Ian Johnson, Sinosphere, New York Times, August 8, 2016]

Early Taoist Thinkers and Schools of Thought

Taoism formally grew out religious ideas that were circulated at the academy of Chi-gate which was very active in the 4th century B.C. Among the thinkers that were active there were Tsou Yen, regarded as the creator of the Chinese “scientific” view of the universe based on yin and yang; Sung Hsing, Yin Wen and Yang Chu, who advocated a philosophy revolving around individual salvation; Mozi, the leader of the Mohism “universal love” school; and Yang Chu, who was so committed to living as long as possible and avoiding trouble he would not “pluck out a single hair even if it might have benefitted the whole world."

The thinking of Yang Chu was particularly influential. He drew on old physical theories, many based on idea of chi (qi, “breath”), regarded as the breath of all life. His aim was to collect “fine parts” associated with chi to prolong life and find happiness and elevated spirituality. A number of methods, including diet and consuming certain herbs, were developed to accumulate these “fine parts."

Around the same time the School of Lao-tze and Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, 369-280 B.C.) were exploring similar ideas. Scholars there developed the theory of Tao: 1) that the fundamental basis of all beings is based on a state of non-being rather than being; 2) that it was possible to avoid death through uniting oneself with the universal nothingness of Tao; and 3) the best way to do this was to empty oneself of desires and live like a hermit.


Lao-tze ( Lao Tze, Laozi, 604 to 517 B.C.) is regarded by some as the founder of Taoism. It is not clear whether he was real person or not. Many think he was real. There are records of a Lao-tze who lived in central China and worked as an astrologer and librarian for a Zhou dynasty emperor at around the same time The Buddha was active. Lao-tze once reportedly met with Confucius and called him egotistical and overly proud. He is said to be the second most widely read poet in the world after Shakespeare.

Lao-tze means "grand old master" or "old philosopher" in Chinese. Many wise sayings’such as "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" — are attributed to him. Paintings of Lao-tze usually depict him as an old man with a long white hair and a long white beard, riding a water buffalo or ox with a scroll in his right hand.

Lao-tze was no pacifist nor some kind of ancient hippy. He was a philosopher of politics and war and like Confucius he lived at a time when war and political chaos were parts of everyday life. He argued politics is about rule, but if the social rule becomes too tyrannical, the domestic order plunges into chaos. On the other hand, order starts falling apart with minimal stress, so the wise ruler intervenes as soon as he sees the first cracks appearing - he does not wait. One warfare he argued that spirituality was more important than the strategic interpretation of yielding to greater force to find the right moment to strike or than the strategic idea that there is not one weapon - one technology, we would say now - to win all battles. One needs to adapt one's army to circumstances, the weather and the terrain. [Source: Asia Times, Francesco Sisci, Asia Editor of La Stampa, September 2, 2010]

Book: Laozi's Biography , a quasi novel by Yu Shicun

Lao-tze's Life and Legend

According to legend, Lao-tze was conceived by a shooting star and was born as a "Wise Old Philosopher" with white hair after being carried in his mother's womb for 81 years. During his life he fought evil, searched for the essence of life and taught a group of followers about Tao, "The Way" of the universe. . In his free time, he watched the moon, listened to water, contemplated the universe and rode a tiger. Many of the stories about him are like those told of Chinese folk deities.

In the state of Qin, where customs and manners are still not as corrupted as in the smaller and more ancient states of the central plain, the local people are struck by Lao-tze, a man with white hair but still with the face of a boy, untouched by the passing of time. They talk with him and then are sure that this man can help them to be great. [Source: Asia Times, Francesco Sisci, Asia Editor of La Stampa, September 2, 2010 /*]

Lao-tze's influence was so strong that most officials turned to Lao-tze even without being disappointed by public politics. His Taoist ideas were the kernel of their deepest soul - a private religion and the one thing that gave them balance and connected them to nature, the cycle of life, and thus eternity. /*\

According to one rending the Lao-tze story, Lao-tze parted ways with Confucius, as they have different interests in the world and in their thinking. Lao-tze moves west from the great plains of central China to the borders of the Chinese civilization, and to the state of Qin, because “if the sun rises from the East, people came from the West”, reasons Lao-tze. /*\

rightWolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: According to the general view among the Chinese, Lao Tzu was an older contemporary of Confucius; recent Chinese and Western research (A. Waley; H.H. Dubs) has contested this view and places Lao Tzu in the latter part of the fourth century B.C., or even later. Virtually nothing at all is known about his life; the oldest biography of Lao Tzu, written about 100 B.C., says that he lived as an official at the ruler's court and, one day, became tired of the life of an official and withdrew from the capital to his estate, where he died in old age. This, too, may be legendary, but it fits well into the picture given to us by Lao Tzu's teaching and by the life of his later followers. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“If the date assigned to Lao Tzu by present-day research (the fourth instead of the sixth century B.C.) is correct, he was more or less contemporary with Chuang Tzu, who was probably the most gifted poet among the Chinese philosophers and Taoists. A thin thread extends from them as far as the fourth century A.D.: Huai-nan Tzu, Chung-ch'ang T'ung, Yuan Chi (210-263), Liu Ling (221-300), and T'ao Ch'ien (365-427), are some of the most eminent names of Taoist philosophers. After that the stream of original thought dried up, and we rarely find a new idea among the late Taoists. These gentlemen living on their estates had acquired a new means of expressing their inmost feelings: they wrote poetry and, above all, painted. Their poems and paintings contain in a different outward form what Lao Tzu had tried to express with the inadequate means of the language of his day. Thus Lao Tzu's teaching has had the strongest influence to this day in this field, and has inspired creative work which is among the finest achievements of mankind.

Lao-tze's Death

A few years before his death Lao-tze climbed on a water buffalo and set off in the direction of what is now Tibet. On his journey he stopped at the mountain pass home of a gatekeeper, named Yin His, and in a single night wrote down De Jing ("The Way and its Power"), a short 5000-character synopsis of his beliefs.

After Lao-tze's reported death, miracles and stories of alchemy and divine healing powers were attributed to him. In one episode described in the Writings of Zhuangzi, Lao-tze went into a trance and took off on "cloud chariots...riding upon the wind" and saw "heaven and earth come into being with me together, and with me all things are one." He also saw all opposites blend, all contrasts harmonize and came to understand that "life and death are one, right and wrong are the same" and in response we can "do everything by doing nothing."

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: From the second century A.D., that is to say at least four hundred years after his death, there are legends of his migrating to the far west. Still later narratives tell of his going to Turkestan (where a temple was actually built in his honour in the Medieval period); according to other sources he travelled as far as India or Sogdiana (Samarkand and Bokhara), where according to some accounts he was the teacher or forerunner of Buddha, and according to others of Mani, the founder of Manichaeism. For all this there is not a vestige of documentary evidence. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Lao Tzu's Teaching

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Lao Tzu's teaching is contained in a small book, the Dao de Jing (Tao Tê Ching, the "Book of the World Law and its Power", See Below). The book is written in quite simple language, at times in rhyme, but the sense is so vague that countless versions, differing radically from each other, can be based on it, and just as many translations are possible, all philologically defensible. This vagueness is deliberate. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Baby Lao-Tze

“Lao Tzu's teaching is essentially an effort to bring man's life on earth into harmony with the life and law of the universe (Tao). This was also Confucius's purpose. But while Confucius set out to attain that purpose in a sort of primitive scientific way, by laying down a number of rules of human conduct, Lao Tzu tries to attain his ideal by an intuitive, emotional method. Lao Tzu is always described as a mystic, but perhaps this is not entirely appropriate; it must be borne in mind that in his time the Chinese language, spoken and written, still had great difficulties in the expression of ideas. In reading Lao Tzu's book we feel that he is trying to express something for which the language of his day was inadequate; and what he wanted to express belonged to the emotional, not the intellectual, side of the human character, so that any perfectly clear expression of it in words was entirely impossible. It must be borne in mind that the Chinese language lacks definite word categories like substantive, adjective, adverb, or verb; any word can be used now in one category and now in another, with a few exceptions; thus the understanding of a combination like "white horse" formed a difficult logical problem for the thinker of the fourth century B.C.: did it mean "white" plus "horse"? Or was "white horse" no longer a horse at all but something quite different?

“The true Taoist withdraws also from his family. Typical of this is another story, surely apocryphal, from Chuang Tzu (Ch. 3, 3). At the death of Lao Tzu a disciple went to the family and expressed his sympathy quite briefly and formally. The other disciples were astonished, and asked his reason. He said: "Yes, at first I thought that he was our man, but he is not. When I went to grieve, the old men were bewailing him as though they were bewailing a son, and the young wept as though they were mourning a mother. To bind them so closely to himself, he must have spoken words which he should not have spoken, and wept tears which he should not have wept. That, however, is a falling away from the heavenly nature."

Lao Tzu’s Teachings: a Social Philosophy Rather Than a Religion

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Lao Tzu's teaching, like that of Confucius, cannot be described as religion; like Confucius's, it is a sort of social philosophy, but of irrationalistic character. Thus it was quite possible, and later it became the rule, for one and the same person to be both Confucian and Taoist. As an official and as the head of his family, a man would think and act as a Confucian; as a private individual, when he had retired far from the city to live in his country mansion (often modestly described as a cave or a thatched hut), or when he had been dismissed from his post or suffered some other trouble, he would feel and think as a Taoist. In order to live as a Taoist it was necessary, of course, to possess such an estate, to which a man could retire with his servants, and where he could live without himself doing manual work. This difference between the Confucian and the Taoist found a place in the works of many Chinese poets. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“I take the following quotation from an essay by the statesman and poet Ts'ao Chih, of the end of the second century A.D.: "Master Mysticus lived in deep seclusion on a mountain in the wilderness; he had withdrawn as in flight from the world, desiring to purify his spirit and give rest to his heart. He despised official activity, and no longer maintained any relations with the world; he sought quiet and freedom from care, in order in this way to attain everlasting life. He did nothing but send his thoughts wandering between sky and clouds, and consequently there was nothing worldly that could attract and tempt him.

“"When Mr. Rationalist heard of this man, he desired to visit him, in order to persuade him to alter his views. He harnessed four horses, who could quickly traverse the plain, and entered his light fast carriage. He drove through the plain, leaving behind him the ruins of abandoned settlements; he entered the boundless wilderness, and finally reached the dwelling of Master Mysticus. Here there was a waterfall on one side, and on the other were high crags; at the back a stream flowed deep down in its bed, and in front was an odorous wood. The master wore a white doeskin cap and a striped fox-pelt. He came forward from a cave buried in the mountain, leaned against the tall crag, and enjoyed the prospect of wild nature. His ideas floated on the breezes, and he looked as if the wide spaces of the heavens and the countries of the earth were too narrow for him; as if he was going to fly but had not yet left the ground; as if he had already spread his wings but wanted to wait a moment. Mr. Rationalist climbed up with the aid of vine shoots, reached the top of the crag, and stepped up to him, saying very respectfully:

“"'I have heard that a man of nobility does not flee from society, but seeks to gain fame; a man of wisdom does not swim against the current, but seeks to earn repute. You, however, despise the achievements of civilization and culture; you have no regard for the splendour of philanthropy and justice; you squander your powers here in the wilderness and neglect ordered relations between man….'"

Taoist Text

“Frequently Master Mysticus and Mr. Rationalist were united in a single person. Thus, Shih Chung wrote in an essay on himself "In my youth I had great ambition and wanted to stand out above the multitude. Thus it happened that at a little over twenty years of age I was already a court official; I remained in the service for twenty-five years. When I was fifty I had to give up my post because of an unfortunate occurrence…. The older I became, the more I appreciated the freedom I had acquired; and as I loved forest and plain, I retired to my villa. When I built this villa, a long embankment formed the boundary behind it; in front the prospect extended over a clear canal; all around grew countless cypresses, and flowing water meandered round the house. There were pools there, and outlook towers; I bred birds and fishes. In my harem there were always good musicians who played dance tunes. When I went out I enjoyed nature or hunted birds and fished. When I came home, I enjoyed playing the lute or reading; I also liked to concoct an elixir of life and to take breathing exercises,[3] because I did not want to die, but wanted one day to lift myself to the skies, like an immortal genius. Suddenly I was drawn back into the official career, and became once more one of the dignitaries of the Emperor."

“Thus Lao Tzu's individualist and anarchist doctrine was not suited to form the basis of a general Chinese social order, and its employment in support of dictatorship was certainly not in the spirit of Lao Tzu. Throughout history, however, Taoism remained the philosophic attitude of individuals of the highest circle of society; its real doctrine never became popularly accepted; for the strong feeling for nature that distinguishes the Chinese, and their reluctance to interfere in the sanctified order of nature by technical and other deliberate acts, was not actually a result of Lao Tzu's teaching, but one of the fundamentals from which his ideas started.

Lao Tzu, Confucius and Government

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Confucius's way of bringing human life into harmony with the life of the universe was to be a process of assimilating Man as a social being, Man in his social environment, to Nature, and of so maintaining his activity within the bounds of the community. Lao Tzu pursues another path, the path for those who feel disappointed with life in the community. A Taoist, as a follower of Lao Tzu is called, withdraws from all social life, and carries out none of the rites and ceremonies which a man of the upper class should observe throughout the day. He lives in self-imposed seclusion, in an elaborate primitivity which is often described in moving terms that are almost convincing of actual "primitivity". Far from the city, surrounded by Nature, the Taoist lives his own life, together with a few friends and his servants, entirely according to his nature. His own nature, like everything else, represents for him a part of the Tao, and the task of the individual consists in the most complete adherence to the Tao that is conceivable, as far as possible performing no act that runs counter to the Tao. This is the main element of Lao Tzu's doctrine, the doctrine of wu-wei, "passive achievement". [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Lao Tzu seems to have thought that this doctrine could be applied to the life of the state. He assumed that an ideal life in society was possible if everyone followed his own nature entirely and no artificial restrictions were imposed. Thus he writes: "The more the people are forbidden to do this and that, the poorer will they be. The more sharp weapons the people possess, the more will darkness and bewilderment spread through the land. The more craft and cunning men have, the more useless and pernicious contraptions will they invent. The more laws and edicts are imposed, the more thieves and bandits there will be. 'If I work through Non-action,' says the Sage, 'the people will transform themselves.'"[1] Thus according to Lao Tzu, who takes the existence of a monarchy for granted, the ruler must treat his subjects as follows: "By emptying their hearts of desire and their minds of envy, and by filling their stomachs with what they need; by reducing their ambitions and by strengthening their bones and sinews; by striving to keep them without the knowledge of what is evil and without cravings. Thus are the crafty ones given no scope for tempting interference. For it is by Non-action that the Sage governs, and nothing is really left uncontrolled."[2]

“Lao Tzu did not live to learn that such rule of good government would be followed by only one sort of rulers—dictators; and as a matter of fact the "Legalist theory" which provided the philosophic basis for dictatorship in the third century B.C. was attributable to Lao Tzu. He was not thinking, however, of dictatorship; he was an individualistic anarchist, believing that if there were no active government all men would be happy. Then everyone could attain unity with Nature for himself. Thus we find in Lao Tzu, and later in all other Taoists, a scornful repudiation of all social and official obligations. An answer that became famous was given by the Taoist Chuang Tzu (see below) when it was proposed to confer high office in the state on him (the story may or may not be true, but it is typical of Taoist thought): "I have heard," he replied, "that in Chu there is a tortoise sacred to the gods. It has now been dead for 3,000 years, and the king keeps it in a shrine with silken cloths, and gives it shelter in the halls of a temple. Which do you think that tortoise would prefer—to be dead and have its vestigial bones so honoured, or to be still alive and dragging its tail after it in the mud?" the officials replied: "No doubt it would prefer to be alive and dragging its tail after it in the mud." Then spoke Chuang Tzu: "Begone! I, too, would rather drag my tail after me in the mud!" (Chuang Tzu 17, 10.)


Zhuangzi and his butterfly dream

Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu, “Master Zhuang”) was a late 4th century B.C. Daoist philosopher and is the pivotal figure in Classical Philosophical Daoism. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The Zhuangzi is a compilation of his and others’ writings at the pinnacle of the philosophically subtle Classical period in China (5th–3rd century B.C.). The period was marked by humanist and naturalist reflections on normativity shaped by the metaphor of a dào—a social or a natural path. Traditional orthodoxy understood Zhuangzi as an anti-rational, credulous, follower of a mystical Lao-tze. Centuries later, elements of Zhuangzi's naturalism, helped shape Chan Buddhism (Japanese Zen)—a distinctively Chinese, naturalist blend of Daoism and Buddhism with its emphasis on focused engagement in our everyday ways of life." [Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 17, 2014]

Christine Gross-Loh wrote in The Atlantic, Zhuangzi “taught that we should train ourselves to become “spontaneous” through daily living, rather than closing ourselves off through what we think of as rational decision-making. In the same way that one deliberately practices the piano in order to eventually play it effortlessly, through our everyday activities we train ourselves to become more open to experiences and phenomena so that eventually the right responses and decisions come spontaneously, without angst, from the heart-mind. [Source: Christine Gross-Loh, The Atlantic, October 8, 2013 /*]

Chow Chung-yan wrote in the South China Morning Post, “While Confucius emphasises social virtues, harmonious order and hierarchy, Zhuangzi's works are far more existential and transcendental. His thinking is individual rather than collective, and his poetic writings have inspired generations of writers. In many ways, Zhuangzi is an artist philosopher in the same vein as Friedrich Nietzsche, deemed eccentric by the mainstream but loved by writers and artists. For millennia, Confucius was an honoured and revered sage, his teachings publicly embraced by emperors - who might not necessarily believe in them. Many rulers read Laozi for his ideas on the subtle interplay of opposite forces, although few would endorse his teachings in public. Zhuangzi's stress on individualism and transcendental freedom, however, made him a spiritual haven for intellectuals looking to escape omnipresent collectivism. [Source: Chow Chung-yan, South China Morning Post, December 30, 2012]

Zhuangzi wrote: "Where there is impossibility, there is possibility; and where there is possibility, there is impossibility. It is because there is right, that there is wrong; it is because there is wrong, there is right. Thereupon the self is also the other; the other is also the self."

Buddhism, Taosim and Confucianism

Buddhism developed in China through its interaction with other Chinese religions, particularly Taoism. Within Buddhism there was a great deal of flexibility in what was required of followers and it was not necessary for followers to dispense with their beliefs in other religions. Many Chinese followed Buddhism and Taoism at the same time. Even so Buddhism and Taoism were rivals. The Six Dynasties Period overlapped with the Age of Faith (A.D. 3rd to 7th centuries A.D.), a period when Taoists and Buddhists fought for dominance in China.

Confucius, Lao-tze and Biddhist Arhat

In some ways Taoism and Buddhism were similar. They both promised followers salvation, stressed detachment and incorporated many superstitions. But in other ways they were very different. Taoism, for example, aspired to make a person physically immortal in their own bodies while Buddhism regarded the human body as a temporary vessel that would ultimately be discarded. Buddhism was able to win many coverts from Taoism by placing a strong emphasis on moral conduct and analytical thinking criticizing the foggy cosmology and superstitious and ritualistic nature of Taoism.

Confucianism, China's oldest and most influential system of thought, is named after its founder, Confucius (Kong Qiu, 551-479 B.C.). Although sometimes characterized as a religion Confucianism is more of a social and political philosophy than a religion. Some have called it code of conduct for gentlemen and way of life that has had a strong influence on Chinese thought, relationships and family rituals. Confucianism stresses harmony of relationships that are hierarchical yet provide benefits to both superior and inferior, a thought deemed useful and advantageous to Chinese authoritarian rulers of all times for its careful preservation of the class system.

Taoism is some ways developed as a response to Confucianism. These two schools of thought are central to Chinese culture and history. The focus of Taoism is the individual in nature rather than the individual in society. It holds that the goal of life for each individual is to find one's own personal adjustment to the rhythm of the natural (and supernatural) world, to follow the Way (dao) of the universe. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian moralism, Taoism served many of its adherents as a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar on duty as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse. [Source: The Library of Congress; Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

With competition from Taoism and Buddhism — beliefs that promised some kind of life after death — Confucianism became more like a religion under the Neo-Confucian leader Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi, A.D. 1130-1200). In an effort to win converts from Taoism and Buddhism, Zhu developed a more mystical form of Confucianism in which followers were encouraged to seek “all things under heaven beginning with known principals “and strive “to reach the uppermost." He told his followers, “After sufficient labor...the day will come when all things suddenly become clear and intelligible." Important concepts in Neo-Confucian thought were the idea of “breath “(the material from which all things condensed and dissolved) and yin and yang.

Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in Time, “A century ago, a broad spectrum of Chinese intellectuals criticized Confucianism for holding China back, and as recently as the 1970s, communist leaders were denouncing Confucius. China, moreover, has never been an exclusively Confucian nation. There have always been other indigenous, competing creeds. Taoism, for example, has provided an antiauthoritarian counterpoint to hierarchical models of politics for millennia. [Source: Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Time, January 1 2011]

Saniiao (the Three Teachings): Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Most anthologies of Chinese religion are organized by the logic of the sanjiao (literally “three teachings”) of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Historical precedent and popular parlance attest to the importance of this threefold division for understanding Chinese culture. One of the earliest references to the trinitarian idea is attributed to Li Shiqian, a prominent scholar of the sixth century, who wrote that “Buddhism is the sun, Daoism the moon, and Confucianism the five planets.” [Li’s formulation is quoted in Beishi, Li Yanshou (seventh century), Bona ed. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), p. 1234. Translation from Chinese by Stephen F. Teiser, Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/]


“Li likens the three traditions to significant heavenly bodies, suggesting that although they remain separate, they also coexist as equally indispensable phenomena of the natural world. Other opinions stress the essential unity of the three religious systems. One popular proverb opens by listing the symbols that distinguish the religions from each other, but closes with the assertion that they are fundamentally the same: “The three teachings — the gold and cinnabar of Daoism, the relics of Buddhist figures, as well as the Confucian virtues of humanity and righteousness — are basically one tradition.” [The proverb, originally appearing in the sixteenth-century novel Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi), is quoted in Clifford H. Plopper, Chinese Religion Seen through the Proverb (Shanghai: The China Press, 1926), p. 16.]

“The three teachings are a powerful and inescapable part of Chinese religion. Whether they are eventually accepted, rejected, or reformulated, the terms of the past can only be understood by examining how they came to assume their current status. And because Chinese religion has for so long been dominated by the idea of the three teachings, it is essential to understand where those traditions come from, who constructed them and how, as well as what forms of religious life (such as those that fall under the category of “popular religion”) are omitted or denied by constructing such a picture in the first place.

“It must also be noted that the focus on the three teachings privileges the varieties of Chinese religious life that have been maintained largely through the support of literate and often powerful representatives, and the debate over the unity of the three teachings, even when it is resolved in favor of toleration or harmony — a move toward the one rather than the three — drowns out voices that talk about Chinese religion as neither one nor three. Another problem with the model of the three teachings is that it equalizes what are in fact three radically incommensurable things. Confucianism often functioned as a political ideology and a system of values; Daoism has been compared, inconsistently, to both an outlook on life and a system of gods and magic; and Buddhism offered, according to some analysts, a proper soteriology, an array of techniques and deities enabling one to achieve salvation in the other world. Calling all three traditions by the same unproblematic term, “teaching,” perpetuates confusion about how the realms of life that we tend to take for granted (like politics, ethics, ritual, religion) were in fact configured differently in traditional China.”

Dao de jing

The most important Taoist text is the “Dao de jing” (“Tao te Ching”, “The Way and Its Power”), a 5000-character synopsis of Taoist beliefs reportedly written by Lao-tzu shortly before he died. This short book was divided into eighty-one chapters in the traditional edition ad was the inspiration for a primarily philosophical form of Taoism. It is very different from the Confucian "Analects".


According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ The Daodejing (“The Classic of the Way and Its Power”) is a compilation reflecting a particular strain of thought from around 300 B.C. It is traditionally attributed to a mysterious character known as Lao-tze (“the old master”). There is no evidence that such a person existed at all. As best as we can tell, the text was written by several authors over a period of time roughly around the third century B.C. The Daodejing has been tremendously popular. It exists in several different versions and became one of the bases of both the philosophy of Daoism and the related but distinct Daoist religion. Like the Confucian Analects, the Mencius, the Han Feizi, and others, the Daodejing is the product of that period in Chinese history when the kings of the Zhou dynasty had lost all real authority and their kingdom had disintegrated into a coterie of feudal states that squabbled and fought with one another in evershifting arrangements of alliances and enmities.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Fang-fu Ruan wrote in the “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Lao-tzu's Tao-te Ching is so important for China that it has been argued that Chinese civilization and the Chinese character would have been utterly different if the book had never been written. No one can hope to understand Chinese philosophy, religion, government, art, medicine, sexology — or even cooking — without an appreciation of the philosophy taught in this little book. It is said that where Confucianism emphasizes social order and an active life, Taoism concentrates on individual life and tranquility. [Source: Fang-fu Ruan, “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds., sexarchive.info

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The “Dao de jing” (often called the “Lao-tze”) as we have it today appears to be a composite text which reached something like its final form during the third century B.C., but much of which existed perhaps a century earlier. Its author is said to have been a man named Laozi, or the “Old Master.” Despite the fact that we have a great deal of very specific biographical information about Laozi, including accounts of how Confucius studied with him, it is very unlikely that there ever was any one person known by such a name or title who authored the book we now possess. Instead, the power of the book itself has attracted a collection of legends which coalesced into the image of the Old Master, an elusive and transcendent sage of the greatest mystery. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“The text takes its name from two key concepts within it. In Confucianism, the “Dao” (or the “Way”) refers to the teachings and institutions of sages from the past. In the “Dao de jing” it refers to a cosmic force governing all Nature. The essence of this force cannot be captured in words; in fact, human language, with its narrow definitions, hides rather than reveals the Truth of the universe..therefore, Daoism tends to see speech as the enemy of knowledge. Because the word “dao” also means “to speak,” Daoists sometimes refer to the Dao as a Word beyond the realm of human words.

The term “”de”” refers to a type of charismatic virtue or earned social leverage that individuals were thought sometimes to possess. An early use of the word denoted the prestige of a patrician whose wealth and accomplishments had created in others a sense of awe or genuine debt, such that they served him willingly. Confucians used the term to denote the sort of inner moral virtue that they believed spontaneously attracted people and led them towards ethical improvement. In certain religious contexts, “de” referred to mysterious powers that individuals might possess, and various types of self-cultivation schools referred to accomplishments engendered by their training regimens as “de”. /+/

Dao de jing on the Dao

Passage from the Dao de Jing at Changchun Temple

According to the Dao de jing: A Dao that may be spoken is not the enduring Dao. A name that may be named is not an enduring name. No names – this is the beginning of Heaven and earth. Having names – this is the mother of the things of the world. Make freedom from desire your constant norm; thereby you will see what is subtle. Make having desires your constant norm; thereby you will see what is manifest. These two arise from the same source but have different names. Together they may be termed ‘the mysterious’. Mystery and more mystery: the gate of all that is subtle.” (ch. 1) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “The first sentence is the most famous pun in Chinese. The word “dao” possesses a variety of early meanings, and among them are the verb meaning “to speak,” and two nominal meanings: “a teaching,” and “the transcendent order of the universe.” The initial six characters of the “Dao de jing” include three “dao”s (in Chinese it reads: “Dao “ke”dao “fei chang”dao”). They may be taken to mean, respectively, “teaching,” “to speak,” and “transcendent order.”“/+/

Another passage from the the Dao de jing reads: “The Dao is empty yet you may draw upon it; you will never be filled. It is an abyss, like the ancestor of all things. Blunt the point, Undo the tangle, Soften the glare, Join the dust. Dim, it seems almost to exist. I know not whose child it may be. It seems the forerunner of the Lord.” (ch. 4) According to Dr. Eno: “There is a thing formed from confusion and born before heaven and earth. Silent, solitary, alone and unchanging. It revolves everywhere and is never in danger. It can be the mother of all under heaven. I do not know its name, but I style it “the Dao.”“ /+/

The Dao de jing reads: ““If forced to give it a name, I call it “the Great.” The Great I call “Receding.” Receding I call “Distant.” Distant I call “Reversing.” Thus the Dao is great, heaven is great, earth is great, and the king is great as well. Within the realm there are four great ones, and the king sits as one among them. Men emulate earth; earth emulates heaven; heaven emulates the Dao; the Dao emulates spontaneity.” (ch. 25) According to Dr. Eno: “The term “spontaneity” translates a key Daoist term which at root means “self-so,” signifying that something is a certain way by virtue of its own properties or spontaneous action. The term comes to mean “Nature,” in the Western sense of that part of the universe that governs itself without interference by man. The relation between man and Nature, or man and spontaneity, is a central issue for Daoism.” /+/

“The Dao is ever non-acting, yet nothing is undone. If a lord or king can preserve this the things of the world will of themselves be transformed. Transformed, should desire arise, I will press it down with the uncarved block of namelessness. The uncarved block of namelessness – surely then they shall be without desire. Without desire and thus still, so will all under heaven be spontaneously settled. (ch. 37) [The uncarved block is a key symbol in the text. It is paired with “undyed cloth,” and contrasted to pattern (“wen”) and Li] /+/

Chapter 48 of Dao de jing

“Reversal is the motion of the Dao. Weakness is the method of the Dao. The things of the world are born from being, and being is born of nothing. (ch. 40)...The Dao of Heaven is like the stretching of a bow: the high is brought down and the low is raised up; it takes from what has abundance and supplies what is wanting. The Dao of Heaven takes from what has abundance and supplies what is wanting, but the Dao of man is not thus. It takes from what is wanting in order to supply what has abundance. Who can serve Heaven by means of abundance? Only one who possesses the Dao. Hence the sage acts but relies on nothing. His task accomplished, he does not take the credit: he does not wish to manifest his worth. (ch. 77) /+/

“The Dao gives birth to one; one gives birth to two; two gives birth to three; three gives birth to the ten thousand things. /The ten thousand things bear Yin on their backs and embrace the Yang. They exhaust their “qi” in harmony. People detest being orphaned or widowed or unemployed, yet these are the terms kings and lords use to refer to themselves. One may detract from a thing and it is enhanced thereby, or enhance it and so detract from it.” (ch. 42). Dr Eno notes: The “Dao de jing” does not focus on the concept of “qi”, but it is mentioned often enough to assure us that if there was a regimen of self-cultivation that lay behind the origin of this text, it probably involved training of the bodily “qi”, although likely through methods very different from those we see in the “Mencius”.” /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, All Posters com, and Columbia University

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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