Pronounced dow'-izm, the term Daoism refers to a movement that developed alongside Confucianism into both a philosophy and a religion, becoming one of the major belief systems in traditional China. The Daode Jing (Tao Te Ching), sometimes called the Laozi (Lao-tzu) after its legendary author, and the Zuangzi (Chuang-tzu) stand as the core texts of Daoism.

Daoist Philosophy

The Daoist movement began during the Eastern Zhou (Chou) dynasty (c. 770–256 B.C.), when religious hermits challenged Confucius's socially responsible dao (tao, prescriptive doctrine, or way). Early Daoist iconoclasts advocated asceticism, hedonism, and egoism as the way. Mature Daoist theory, however, began with the slogan "abandon knowledge, discard self," as advocated by Shen Dao (Shen Tao; c. 4th century B.C.). He argued that there is only one actual dao and that to follow several prescriptive ways is a distraction from this natural, inevitable course of action.

The philosophy of the Laozi (Lao-tzu, c. 4th century B.C.) developed Shen Dao's slogan into a psycholinguistic theory in which doctrines were said to create "contrived" action (wei) by shaping desires (yu, or yü). The process of learning the names (ming) used in the doctrines trained individuals to make distinctions between, for example, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, high and low, and "exists" (yu) and "exists-not" (wu), and thereby shaped desires. To abandon prescriptive knowledge, then, was to abandon names, distinctions, and socially induced tastes or desires. Thus spontaneous behavior, or noncontrived action (wuwei, or wu-wei) resulted.

Shen Dao's original prescription to give up all prescription and Laozi's primitivism (his seeming advocacy of giving up name-motivated, conventionally conditioned action) are both virtually incoherent. To follow such advice is to ignore it. The analytic school, which advocated names in China, made this succinct criticism of early Daoism: to say "all language is perverse" is perverse. In other words, if what is said is acceptable, then it is perverse.

Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu; c. 399–295 B.C.), intimately familiar with the analytic arguments, constructed a more coherent version of Daoist theory. Rather than treating all language as perverse, he allowed that all language use was equally natural — all the disputing theorists were equally "pipes of heaven." Because all language expresses a contextual standpoint, or perspective, from which terms such as this or that (which have no fixed relation to the world) are used, any attempt to judge or rank perspectives itself must be from some perspective. Thus, all ways of dividing the world into "things" remain equal. None is uniquely the doctrine of heaven and nature.

It is not necessary, however, to give up language or to stop following doctrines. Humans naturally advocate and follow doctrines just as fledgling birds naturally tweet and twitter. Zhuangzi advocated openness to all perspectives, suggesting myriad ways to evaluate one's way through life. Flute playing, butchering, and the analysis of names are among the traditional examples given for training responses. Daoist mastery can be achieved through any skill and can be characterized by the mystical sense of having transcended deliberate skill through guidance of the dao. Undiscovered ways may teach techniques of unimaginable power. Although Zhuangzi argued against the preference for life over death, Daoist religion came to strive for a way, among the infinite number of undiscovered ways, that led to long life.

Daoist Religion

Religious Daoism was associated with legalism and the cult of the Yellow Emperor, and it became popular after the suppression and decline of classical thought during the 3rd century B.C. Daoist experimenters in breathing practices and alchemy caught the fancy of superstitious monarchs seeking immortality. These rulers promoted the compilation of such books as the Lie Xi (Lieh Tzu; compiled during the Han dynasty, 202 B.C.–A.D. 220) and the Huai Nan Xi (Huai Nan Tzu; 100 B.C.), which cited fragments of the classical Daoist texts in support of every known occult practice.

Daoist sects based on the supposed dao of any one of thousands of local folk deities or archaic culture heroes (including Laozi and the Yellow Emperor) spread throughout China. Experimentation continued in meditation, sexual practices, hygiene, and travel in search of the secrets of long life. Still tinged with classical anarchist impulses, major sects — such as the Celestial Masters movement, headed by Zhang Daoling (Chang Tao-ling; 2nd century A.D.), and the Yellow Turban movement — often battled the imperial government.

Daoist religion provided a foothold for the introduction of Buddhism and influenced the form of its elaboration in China. Daoists developed a collection of more than 1,400 scriptures known as Daozang (Tao-tsang). Religious Daoism and Buddhism have blended in the minds of most ordinary Chinese believers, found now principally in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In 2004 the number of Daoist adherents worldwide was estimated to be more than 2.7 million.


Further Reading

Chiu, Milton M., The Tao of Chinese Religion (1985).

Girardot, Norman J., Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism (1983).

Hansen, Chad, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation (1992).

Kaltenmark, Max, Lao Tzu and Taoism, trans. by R. Greaves (1969).

Kohn, Livia, Laughing at the Tao: Debates Among Buddhists and Taoists in Medieval China (1994).

Little, Stephen, et al., Taoism and the Arts of China (2000).

Robinet, Isabelle, Taoism: Growth of a Religion, trans. by Phyllis Brooks (1997).

Welch, Holmes H., Taoism: The Parting of the Way (1966).