道 Dao/Taoism

*There are TWO kinds of Dao, or commonly known to foreigners as Taoism. One as a philosophy, the other a religion. Unless clearly specified, any reference in the following article means the former.

A Taoist Going Extreme

Kane: Hey ya!
Kane: Nice weather, isn’t it?
Kane: What’s the problem with you, man? You deaf?
Taoist: Shhhhh!
Kane: Huh?
Taoist: Fuck off will you? By talking with you I’m having a clear purpose thus walking away from the Dao. Oh shit what I’m I doing…


Taoism started off as a philosophy school in Pre-Qin era. Later, due to unknown reason, it was blended with a lot of other stuff into a religion of the same name. In Chinese they are told apart by variation of names, with 道家 (The School of Dao) referring to the former and 道教 (The Religion of Dao) the latter. Although their name sound similar, the theory and belief are fundamentally different. Our Taoism in discussion here is rather against the idea of religion by nature. More on this soon.

The year when Taoism was first established is unclear. Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism, lived from 600 B.C. all the way through 470 B.C., and maybe even longer. That’s a loooong life ain’t it? The philosophy itself was (probably) the first serious attempt made by Chinese in order to explain how the cosmos works. It’s a view of life and the universe instead of anything trying to solve any mundane problem. Thus Taoism tends to leave an impression of being intriguing, wise, thoughts-provoking but utterly impractical.

Lao Zi himself laid the foundation of the whole system with his one and only book Tao Te Ching (道德经, “The Tome of Tao and Its Virtue”). His philosophy system was way too broad and dynamic to be taught in a mentor-to-apprentice fashion, in fact he never had any apprentice through his life. Later Taoists learned their stuff from the book left by Lao Zi. Since Tao Te Ching was all about fundamental things, this is like acquiring a piece of jolly good land with nothing but random weed growing on it. Here creativity kicked in, adding bits of original ideas here and there. As a result, the thoughts of key Taoists tend to be remarkably different, as if starting from the same spot and going every direction possible.

Core Values

As previously mentioned, Taoism is more of a world view than anything else. It tries to explain the way the cosmos (and everything inside) works. Some essential points of the philosophy are:

  • 道 (Dao4, or Tao to foreigners, meaning “The Way”), a.k.a. 大道 (Da4 Dao4, “The Ultimate Way”) refers to the fundamental rules behind everything. It applies to the universe, galaxies, planets, nations, all the way down to every individual, every blade of grass, and even single atom. Taoists never said the atom part, but I think if nuclear technology was initiated at that time, they would give it a mention.
  • Dao is indescribable, untouchable, unchangeable, and unpredictable. It does nothing but exists in an abstract way, very close to the void state where the universe came from. Everything runs in the tracks defined by it without knowing, much like fishes not knowing what is “water”.
  • Dao is a system in dynamic balance. You can try whatever you want to spin away from it, but ultimately you always get back to it by dying. Acting against Dao only gets things postponed or completely messed up. The wise will try to synchronize his behaviors to the Dao instead of to deny it.
  • Everything existing will perish some day, only Dao itself is constant.
  • Everything exists in contradiction. For example, light expels darkness but casts shadows at the same time. Facets of the contradiction may increase or decrease over time, but it’s always balanced out in the end, because Dao is a dynamic balance.
  • Contradictions are created by the limited mind of human. The minute you define “good”, you get the concept of “evil” like buy-one-get-one-free deal. In the same way, WE created sadness from happiness, short from tall, poor from rich, etc. Such prejudice prevented people from seeing the true nature of things, which is just “things”. A stone is just a stone by itself, only become a “black” or “white” stone by the work of human minds.
  • Any action out of thorough consideration or with a clear initiative is supposed to be *against* the Dao. Because the Dao decides everything already and it runs on its own unpredictable accord. By default, the natural movement of every single existence is a reflection of the Dao already. Any attempt to reach out for your own desire is stepping off the track.
  • The “negative” parts of contradictions aren’t necessarily bad. Let’s say “existence” is positive and “non-existence” is negative, then take a house as an example, the whole “existence” (house itself) is useful all thanks to the “non-existence” in the middle (space), or else it’s just a pile of solid bricks, and sure you can’t live in it.
  • The same way, “bad” isn’t necessarily bad and vice versa. You lost a horse but it might just come back someday with a whole family. On the other hand the big pile of cash you found by the sidewalk might be lost fund of mafia. Happy or sad for temporary gain or loss? Not worth it.
  • Thus The most important thing in the world is to treat things *indifferently*. By keeping an indifferent heart one could cruise through life in peace. And an indifferent view ensures one can’t be obsessed by any objective, so he is more on the track of Dao.

Key Figures

1. Lao Zi (老子, Lao3 Zi3), 600 B.C. – (at least) 470 B.C.

Lao Zi was a librarian of the emperor. This book thing is like nuclear reactor. You hang around long enough, it mutates you into something *more advanced*, like a Bookman in much the same way with the Spiderman. Back in Zhou Dynasty books were extremely hard to come by. Actually it was centuries before the first thing that works remotely like paper got invented. Lao Zi happened to be such a wise man guarding the reactor. Thus not surprisingly he got changed into a… well, Taoman…?

It was Lao Zi who first  raised the idea of Dao, and then a whole system around it. Most of Lao Zi’s thoughts were about explaining basic ideas to those who cared to ask, as well as “how to lead a life in good synchronization with the Dao”. Due to the nature of Taoism, it’s very hard to be related to politics. However, Lao Zi did a little effort down that track nonetheless. Basically the whole point made by Lao Zi consists of the core values of Taoism, because the man invented the whole business. Aside from those, he also tapped into politics:

  • A good emperor should do nothing but sitting magnificently on the throne regarding his underlings. To fit the course of Dao, he must let his people run their own life in whatever way they see fit.
  • An ideal model of a country is like: small territory, few people, they live together, maybe close, but seldom interact with each other. Because every time you fool around someone, you are keeping yourself as well as that buddy from the synchronization with Dao.

Throughout his life Lao Zi never had any apprentice. That fits the Taoism value very well: if you try to teach your stuff to someone else, both you and him are having a clear initiative, which is against the Dao. It’s said the all-famous Confucius once had a talk with him but was shocked by his vast wisdom. However, we still are not sure if that Lao Zi is this one we are talking about here.

Lao Zi spent all his life in a mostly indifferent attitude, and at the age of 130 (470 B.C.) he chose to leave the country for some reason. Documents say he rode his cattle through the border post into the great land of unknown. Later some said he ventured to India and started Buddhism there. This idea was really offensive to Buddhists, and the the war between Buddhism and Taoism (the religion) went on for about a thousand years, finally ended with Taoism being the loser. Even later someone else said he went to the west and founded Christianity. I know some of you guys must be really angry about this but hey, that’s nothing but chit-chat, don’t be so serious.

Almost the whole Taoism religion system considered Lao Zi a most important god. Ironically, according to the philosophical Taoism, nothing lasts forever, and there shouldn’t be any god.

2. Guan Yin Zi (关尹子, Guan1 Yin3 Zi3) ? B.C.-? B.C.

Let’s explain the long name first. “Guan” indicates his job as a border guard, “Yin” is his family name, and “Zi” is nothing but a symbol of utmost respect in ancient Chinese language. Don’t worry, you will see plenty of Zi along this series. For the ease of reference let’s just call him Mr. GYZ here.

His most important to Taoism was the aforementioned Tao Te Ching. Yes he didn’t write it. But hey, he was a border guard, OK? Who else passed through the post? Of course it’s Lao Zi! The story just went as Lao Zi got greeted by Mr. GYZ the guard, and the dialogue went more or less like this:

GYZ: G’day sensei! Where you are going?
Lao Zi: Well, not sure. Just out there, maybe somewhere else later.
GYZ: You coming back?
Lao Zi: Ah, maybe not I think.
GYZ: What about the Dao theory of yours? If you are not coming back, won’t it go unsung? What a waste!
Lao Zi: Then so it is.
GYZ: Say, why don’t you summarize it into a book, so others could learn from it?
Lao Zi: Hmmm, OK. Bring me a brush and a bamboo scroll.

And so it is. If Mr. GYZ doesn’t show up, China might just lose one of its most precious cultural jewels. To some degree you can say GYZ was the only apprentice of Lao Zi.

Old documents said GYZ wrote a full book of nine chapters, but sadly it didn’t survive the cruel flow of time. Certain branches of Taoism (religion) honored him as a founding god.

3. Zhuang Zi (庄子, Zhuang1 Zi3), 369 B.C. – 286 B.C.

Zhuang Zi is generally considered the next towering figure in philosophical Taoism system after Lao Zi. This guy basically took all of Lao Zi’s legacy, adding his own contribution, and brought it to a new high. Born and lived through the “Warring Nations” era, the life of Zhuang Zi was largely poor, and threatened by wars. From this background, the thought of him tend to be more pessimistic and sometimes cynical. Some of his points are:

  • The “negative” part in contradictions isn’t only “not bad”, but also “good". Like in such a chaotic time with everyone trying to kill everyone, being a valueless, useless, poor, pathetic low life keeps one from getting killed. Similar applies to other subjects.
  • Life is tough. So it’s even more important to keep an indifferent attitude. Only by doing so can you get out of the misery and achieve spiritual happiness.
  • No worship on moral saints. Once you define a saint you are also marking many people as “evildoer”. That won’t make the world any better.
  • The ideal model for a country is one that doesn’t value talent, skill or wealth. Once the favor tilt toward ones possess them, the others will be jealous and try to fight for grace. That draws the start of chaos. Harmony could only achieved by making everyone more or less equal.

Aside from that, Zhuang Zi was also a writer. His booked were imbued with beautiful writing style and wild imagination, generally considered a milestone of romantic literature.

Again the irony. A true successor of Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi was also honored as a founding god of certain Taoism (religion) branch.

Development and Influences

  • Throughout the entire East Zhou Dynasty and much of Qin Dynasty, Taoism was a really small school. Because Dao isn’t supposed to be deliverable by language or whatsoever, there’s no point trying to spread it.
  • However, because the philosophy is so massively applicable, it could blend into just about anything.
  • The first a couple of emperors of Han Dynasty were followers of Dao. They picked the “sit on the throne and do nothing” strategy, which enabled the country to recover from long-lasting warfare fairly fast.
  • Not long after the initial introduction, Buddhism had a fusion with Taoism, giving birth to a very special branch which is now commonly known as Zen (禅宗).
  • Around the latter half of Han Dynasty, Taoism was mixed with the Recipe Art (方术, to be covered in later chapters) and a big dose of folklore, becoming a religion. The religion worships a large (almost infinite) collection of gods, and seek the path to achieving godhood as a mortal. The philosophy and religion are completely different things.
  • After the birth of the religion, the original philosophy school just faded out of mainstream.
  • Due to the unrivaled blending ability, philosophical Taoism dissolved into just about everything along the history, establishing itself as a fundamental part of Chinese culture. It’s safe to say every Chinese, ancient or modern, has a small Taoist tucked away in subconscious. It partly defined the way Chinese see destiny, life, and social interaction.