A philosophy, originally expounded by Lao Tzu to a gatekeeper, that advocates the spiritual realization that the world is composed of opposites, but in order to achieve enlightenment, one must transcend this dichotomy. The Tao itself is all things, and is the infinite source of spiritual strength. Typical criticisms of Taoism include the point that Lao Tzu would often advocate the soft in his writing.

Chaung Tzu’s Taoist philosophy extends the offer of a rich, rewarding existence through a concentration on one’s inner life. Whereas most philosophies immediately set forth a dry, static definition, Taoism does not. This refusal to define embodies an important tenet of the Taoist philosophy- everything is constantly in transformation. Therefore, all attempts at labeling or systematization according to the dictates of man are futile. Immediately, a contrast is drawn between the philosophy of Chaung Tzu and the philosophy of the great Chinese thinker, Confucius. Indeed, Chuang Tzu’s insistence that "the Tao that shines through is not Tao" stands in direct opposition to Confucius’ call to "rectify the names". As a philosophy, Taoism contradicts Confucianism and uses it as an example of all that is wrong with the world. In this paper I will give a brief outline of the main points of Taoism in order to delineate the gap between the philosophy of Chuang Tzu and that of Confucius.

"Master Sung Jung Tzu would burst out laughing. The whole world could prize him and he would work no harder; the whole world could call him wrong, and yet he would persist. He knows what is Inner and what is Outer; he knows the difference between true honor and disgrace. It’s as simple as that. In this world, few can equal him when it comes to instinctively knowing and doing what is right. But despite his proximity to perfection, he has not yet attained the perfection of a tree."

(The Essential Chuang Tzu)

This paragraph serves as an adequate starting point for a discussion of Taoism. Here, Chuang Tzu calls attention to the importance of the inner, spiritual life. First, however, an important distinction is drawn between the Inner and Outer Worlds. The Outer World revolves around a materialistic basis of tangible, man made things with specific functions and uses. According to Taoism, this world of distractions is what enables people to forget or overlook what is truly important in life. Indeed, in this story the Outer World is associated with disgrace. Solutions to these distasteful problems of man are sought after through intense immersion in the Inner World. It is there, in what Chuang Tzu refers to as Heaven, that Truth can be found. However, Master Sung has not yet made it all the way. For him to be fully in touch with the Tao he must achieve the perfection of a tree.

In order to understand what this means it is necessary to explore the problems that Chuang Tzu observes in the Outer World of human society. Taoists maintain that humans are too wrapped up in the "usefulness" of the world and are thereby prevented from fully experiencing life. These material distractions allow man to change his true nature.

"From the time of the Three Dynasties on down, everyone has let things change their nature. Mean men risk their bodies for profit.Knights risk those for fame. Great ministers risk their bodies for the sake of their families, the sage for All-under-heaven. All these may differ in what they do and in the fame or infamy they gain, but in wounding their nature by risking their bodies, they are one."

As man changes their own nature and move further from the Tao they, in turn, prevent other things from following their natural course through life. There is no need to interrupt what will continue at its own pace.

"In All-under-heaven, all things pass into being, none knowing why they live and grow. Likewise all things attain what they attain, and there is no knowing how or whence they get it. In this, the ancient past and the present are not two. Nothing’s been broken off. Nothing is missing."

The only way to achieve this sort of inner peace is by shedding the hindrances placed on our nature by society. Chuang Tzu uses the story of Chef Ting to poetically illustrate this point. Ting, the master chef, has used only one blade in preparing meat for nineteen years. This has only been possible by the extreme care he takes in cutting away what is unnecessary and avoiding all central arteries and tendons. However, he does inevitably hit a rough spot. When this happens he slows, pauses to reflect, then proceeds slowly until satisfied. With this story, Chuang Tzu uses a beautiful metaphor to describe the patience necessary to complete the process. Only when this is accomplished can the Taoist partake of the fasting of heart and mind.

"Don’t listen with your ear; listen with your heart and mind. Then stop listening with your heart and mind and listen with your ch’i, the very energy of your being. Hearing stops with the ear. Heart and mind stop with words and symbols. The ch’i is empty. Being so, it is able to attend upon all phenomena. Tao comes to roost in emptiness. This emptiness is the fasting of the mind."

When the Taoist is able to master himself and has concentrated his focus on the emptiness of the ch’i he has achieved the state of the tree. One who is in touch with the Tao has, in essence, lost himself and learned the use of uselessness. What is useless to society, the Outer World, is useful in the sense that it is following the course set forth by nature. This is the perfection that the tree attains so effortlessly.

"Now you have this huge tree. You think it’s terrible that no one can cut it for use. Why not let it be a tree?- in the Village of No-Thing, where the wilds spread out in every direction toward No-Place. Sit beneath it and master the art of nondoing. Wander freely, easily into dreams beneath it. Forget the ax- nothing can harm it. Nothing can possibly be of use. Where’s the problem?"

Confucianism, to Chuang Tzu, embodies all that is opposite of the Tao. Throughout his writings he uses a character called Confucius to warn people away from the dangers of the Outer World. Chuang Tzu puts Confucius on trial for attempting to form the minds of men without properly knowing himself.

"Oh, be done! Be done with drawing people on by the power of your virtue! It’s dangerous, very dangerous to mark the Way in the dust so as to set people running. False light! There is no injury in my way of going. My tracks run crooked, but they don’t hurt my feet. The mountain is self-plundering, the fat fuels its own fire. Cinnamon is edible, so they cut it down. The lacquer tree is useful, so they hack at it. Everyone knows the use of usefulness; nobody understands the usefulness of the useless."

The Madman of Ch’u warns Confucius of the dangerous road he is traveling, but this does not make a difference in the stubborn man’s path. Indeed, since Confucius does not know himself his teaching is invalid. According to the Taoist, any definite claim of knowledge is a sure sign of one who has been led astray.

"The one who doesn’t know is right," the Yellow Emperor replied. "The one who forgot is pretty close. You and I aren’t even close because we know."

Chuang Tzu’s final attack on Confucius comes through the story of the Old Fisherman. In several long passages he accuses Confucius of creating false mechanisms and principles to help people when he cannot even help himself. (156) The focus on ritual found in Confucius’ teachings is an empty devotion to customs created by contemporaries. As we all know, truth cannot be found in the Outer World. The noble value of truth lies inside; it comes from Heaven. This blistering attack causes the doctrines of Confucianism to crumble. However, Chuang Tzu’s best criticism of Confucius comes in the form of a quiet, somber parable.

"There once was a man who feared his own shadow and who hated his footprints and tried to escape from them. The more he lifted his feet, the more tracks he made. As fast as he could go, his shadow remained with him. Thinking he was still going too slow, he streaked like an arrow until all his strength was spent, and he died. He didn’t realize that sitting in the shade of a tree would do away with his shadow, and living quietly would leave his traces to fade away. Stupid. Extremely stupid."

This final refutation of Confucius returns the student of Taoism to the tree. Here is where the simple strength and beauty of Chuang Tzu’s teachings lie. It is not in the passionate preaching of Confucius that truth is found, but in the calm quiet created when one is in tune with his surroundings and nature is allowed to flow around him. If only we were able to extract ourselves from the uselessness of the useful much good could be accomplished.

I did a school project on world religions last year, and I chose Taoism to study. I don't really remember why, but I remember that prior to doing to the project I had known pretty much nothing about it, other than that it was either Chinese or Japanese.

Anyway, if there's one thing I learned about it during all the research I did, it was that it is by nature an extremely non-static religion. By comparison, most Judao-Christian religions have remained essentially the same, in practice, for centuries. As for Taoism, I was hard pressed to find two reference sources that actually said the same thing. Most of them, of course, identified the founder as the legendary Lao Tzu - old master. The fact that his name is more of a phrase than a word leads me personally to suspect that he might have gone by something else, and when the book was written the name was changed, perhaps to protect the original philosopher, as he lived in a particularly violent and opressive time in Chinese history.

The coinciding facts pretty much stop there, though. Some website's I've visited claim that there are Taoist deities, not the conscious, vengeful ones of Judao-Christian religions, but symbolic ones for the various forces of nature. I've seen sites claim that all manner of things have significance to the Taoist religion, including statuaries, floral arrangements, and running water.

I've seen information saying that Tao is the lifeforce that flows through everything. When a friend of mine saw that, he said something similar to "Hey, George Lucas ripped that off for Star Wars!"

Anyway, I think the very nature of the religion is esoteric, so why would any devout follower of it want it to be strictly enforced? That would be un-Taoist. So I think, really, Taoism encourages you to find your own answers. Your own answers would be true for your questions.

Achieve results but never glory in them. That's the line I remember most from the Tao te Ching. I really should get my own copy of it. Taoism is much more fun that vanilla atheism.

Daoism is a difficult and complex subject to subject to a simple definition. If you ask five different people to define it, you are likely to receive five different answers. This difficulty stems from two different but interrelated problems: the difference between Daoism as it is practiced and Daoism as it is studied and the complexity of distinguishing Daoism as it is understood by modern minds from how it was understood historically. In the following, I hope to shed some light on this array of problems. Please note that I use Hanyu Pinyin as my preferred means of Romanization both because this is the system with which I am more familiar, and because I believe it more consistently elicits an accurate pronunciation from the uninitiated. For those of you who are more familiar with Wade-Giles, I have provided the conversions at the end of this writeup. In any case where the Wade-Giles is used on E2, I have tried to pipe the hardlink as appropriate. I hope to add characters shortly, but have been having difficulty with that; if you have hints, please message me.

Practical Daoism vs. Philosophical Daoism

Previous writers on this topic have rightly made the distinction between practical or religious or xian Daoism and philosophical or contemplative Daoism (sometimes also known as Quietism). This mirrors the distinction made in Chinese between Dao jiao, literally "Daoist teaching" which is used for religious Daoism, and Dao jia, which translates to "Daoist house" or "school of thought" and is used for philosophical Daoism. In other words, there is no single word "Daoism" in Chinese, but rather these two terms, Dao jia and Dao jiao which serve to illustrate the important distinction between the contemplative and practical elements in Daoism. Note, however, that while this distinction is fairly consistent in modern writing and discussion of Daoism, it is not always present in treatises contemporary to the spread and preeminence of religious Daoism.

Philosophical Daoism

Philosophical Daoism is the strain of Daoism that is most familiar to most Westerners. This is the Daoism that so many not-quite-well informed people refer to when they say that "Daoism is a philosophy, not a religion" The contemplative strain of Daoism is generally considered to have as its founder the legendary Laozi. Laozi is considered by most scholars to be a historical construction and to have never existed. His work, the Dao De Jing or "Classic of the Way and Virtue" has been shown by recent scholarship to have been written (or more likely, assembled from several disparate sources) several centuries after the historical Laozi (the real person who is used as the basis for the legendary Laozi) died. Note that Dao De Jing has variously been translated as the "Book/Classic of the Way and its Virtue" or the "Classic of the Way of Virtue." I prefer "Classic of the Way and Virtue" because it is more open to differing interpretations and seems truer to the way the book is divided into two sections, one each for "the Way" and "Virtue."

The second great book of philosophical Daoism is the Zhuangzi or Book of Zhuangzi, named after its writer Zhuangzi fares a little better under scrutiny. There is much more certainty that Zhuangzi both existed historically and wrote more than half of the book that bears his name (it is split into the Inner Chapters, most of which he almost certainly wrote, and the Outer Chapters, which are all generally considered additions by his followers). Together, these two classics are called LaoZhuang Daojia. The Dao De Jing is generally considered the less grounded of the two texts, especially as it contains more passages on cosmogony and other intangible subjects. The Zhuangzi operates more through metaphor and is often considered easier to understand and more practical in its philosophy.

There are further trends in philosophical Daoism that followed after the two classics which are usually less familiar to the casual scholar. These included the HuangLao Dao of the Han Dynasty, which centered around the philosophies of the Yellow Emperor or Huangdi (hence the Huang) and of Laozi (hence the Lao) and the writings of The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a group of real scholars from the third century CE who may or may not have actually met. While the writings of both of these schools continue in a more-or-less philosophical vein, they nevertheless can be seen as moving closer to practical Daoism. In particular, the Yellow Emperor was the legendary first emperor of China who was associated with, among other things, immortality.

Religious Daoism

Religious Daoism came to the forefront of Chinese culture following the Jin Dynasty. Although religious Daoism contains some of the same conceptions as philosophical Daoism, it is in many ways a different thing entirely. Religious Daoism originally gained a lot of ground from the quest for immortality. Initially, many Daoist monks were commissioned by emperors or other notables to help them find alchemical formulas that would help ensure them immortality. These formulas often contained metallic compounds with large quantities of mercury and lead as well as sulfur and other noxious or poisonous substances. These were often chosen for their bright colors which were associated under the Five Phases Theory with different phases or elements (fire, earth, metal, water, wood) and different bodily systems. After a number of very important people suffered heavy metal poisoning at the hands of these alchemists, however, this form of alchemy fell out of favor (ultimately leading to today's Traditional Chinese Medicine).

The development of Daoist monks, both in and out of favor with the imperial court, as well as the parallel development of several notable Daoist Cults or sects led to the development of a very synergetic sort of religion. Daoism embraced deities from other religions including the famous Queen Mother of the West or Xiwangmu, whose name may be the result of reading the literal meaning of a transliteration of the name of a Central Asian goddess. Daoism created new legends and deities of its own, including the Eight Daoist Immortals. Perhaps most importantly (and most confusingly), religious Daoism made immortals out of real figures (such as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove) and made Laozi the central god in the pantheon.

Practical Daoism was and is still practiced at temples in China and Taiwan. In the past, it included sexual practices, meditation, dietary practices, devotional chants and many other things that Westerners do not generally associate with Daoism. In modern China and Taiwan (and presumably other places with large ethnic Chinese populations), Daoist Temples are in many ways difficult to distinguish from Buddhist Temples; they both feature everyday people praying to idols of a wide variety of deities and lighting incense. They often feature both monks in special costumes and lay practitioners who help to coordinate activities and often play music at religious holiday celebrations.

Historical Difficulties

Innumerable difficulties arise when we try to consider Daoism within a historical context. Textual difficulties include differences between historical and current texts and the loss of many texts that would be helpful. The term Daoism presents its own historical difficulties, in addition to the differentiation between philosophical and religious Daoism, as discussed above. It is also very hard to determine the practices of everyday Daoists, who, like most Chinese prior to the modern era, were illiterate. Finally it becomes difficult to distinguish Daoism and Daoist themes from Chinese culture more broadly, especially to the extent that Daoism (or at least Dao jiao) sometimes becomes synonymous with "Chinese religion."

Textual Difficulties

Already mentioned is the difficulty of distinguishing between real historical people and their works and the legends and works attributed to them. First and foremost among the individuals subject to this difficulty is Laozi, who was probably based on an actual individual, surnamed Li, an elder contemporary of Confucius (Kongzi or sometimes Kong Fuzi ), but who is unlikely to be the author of all (or any) of the Dao De Jing, and was certainly not a god or the creator of the universe as he was later known. Zhuangzi, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and numerous others likewise fall prey to this problem. Part due to the tendency in Chinese culture to attribute any particularly good idea to a famous historical figure (for example, as late as the 1890s, the writer Kang Youwei was attributing some of his best ideas for reform to Confucius). Another element of Chinese culture is the deification of particularly notable personages as the protectors of the home locality (and when someone is as important as Laozi, of all of China).

Another difficulty of unearthing Daoism is the near impossibility of locating the originals of many texts. Recently, new versions (or actually, older versions) of the Dao De Jing were unearthed in 1973 (Mawangdui Laozi) and 1993 (Guodian Laozi, both named after the villages where they were found) that call into question much of the received text. The Mawangdui text is estimated to be from 200 BCE and is quite similar to the received text in most ways. The Guodian is from before 278 BCE and is has more substantial differences. Some of the characters in the older texts are different than in the received text. Furthermore, the two sections of the Guodian text are in the opposite order. In the received text, the first section is the "Dao" section on "the Way," the second section is the "De" section on "Virtue" (this is also true of the Mawangdui text). In the Guodian Laozi, the "De" section comes first, followed by the "Dao" section, which has caused some scholars to refer to the unearthed text as the "De Dao Jing" as opposed to the received text, which they call the "Dao De Jing". The Guodian text is also missing about two-thirds of the verses of the received text.

There is still substantial debate as to what we can conclude from these recent archeological discoveries. It seems likely to me that they indicate rather strongly that the Dao De Jing was compiled from several different sources, possibly between second and third century BCE, although it is also possible that a complete version existed earlier than the Mawangdui Laozi and the two recovered texts differ due more to location than to time period. These texts have also indicated some errors in transcription of the text between the Mawangdui and the received text. These transcription errors have the effect of making the received text appear generally more philosophical and less practical than the uncovered text.

Daoism and Buddhism

Another interesting quandary raised by historical texts is that Daoism (or dao jia or dao jiao) was not used as a term until the Han Dynasty. Prior to that, the Laozi and the Zhaungzi were generally referred to as laozhuang if they were thought of together at all. Laozi was more commonly connected, especially through his cosmogony, to the Yi Jing or "Book/Classic of Changes" and the Yellow Emperor, known under the name huanglao. It is notable that the use of the term Daoism coincides more or less with the introduction of Buddhism to China and the beginnings of the emergence of religious Daoism (or at least texts of religious Daoism). Many people, including myself, postulate that Daoism was in effect the first Nationalist religion (predating Protestantism by almost fifteen centuries). In other words, a number of different texts, including the Zhuangzi, the Laozi, the Classic of the Yellow Emperor and the Yi Jing, as well as various local religious practices were combined to create a Chinese religion to compete with this foreign religion (as an interesting note, Liang Qichao talked in the 1910s and 1920s about the need for a Chinese religion as part of a syncretic Chinese Nationalism).

Another interesting note is that one version of the legend of Laozi has him travel to India after he leaves China, thereby inspiring Siddhartha to create Buddhism. This had the effect of making Buddhism Chinese in origin and therefore acceptable to Chinese. An affect of this was to make Buddhism and Daoism combined in much of Chinese folk religion and to inspire a great deal of exchange of ideas between the two. Many scholars think that Chinese (i.e. Daoist) martial arts and meditation were derived from, or at least heavily influenced by Indian yogic practices. And on the other side of things, Zen Buddhism originated in China as Chan Buddhism before being taken to Japan by a Chinese monk ("Zen" is the Japanese pronunciation of "Chan").

Everyday Daoism

Perhaps the biggest problem with any historical consideration of Daoism is that we have few or no materials recording the everyday practice of Daoism. For almost the entire span of Chinese history, the overwhelming majority of the population has been illiterate. This means that any texts we recover on Daoism, even on the practice of Daoism, are written by elites, which is sure to bias the texts in favor of literary, contemplative elements over everyday practices. Even in more recent documents of various Daoist cults, we can be fairly sure that the material was recorded by leaders and therefore leaves out much of the way Daoism was practiced by everyday followers, as well as the way it was practiced by ordinary Chinese people who were not members of these societies. So while we can read interesting descriptions about Daoist meditation, Daoist sexual practices and Daoist deities, these still indicate, at best, the prevailing attitudes and practices of the elite.

More information can be drawn, perhaps, by looking at the everyday devotional practices of modern Daoists. This, however, has substantial drawbacks as well. Any student of history knows that practices evolve substantially over time and in ways that are not always predictable. It is posited, for example, that early sexual practices had some orgiastic elements that were removed from later devotions as part of an increasingly conservative trend in Daoism as it was adopted by the imperial court. This makes sense logically and has support in various texts, but we do not have video tapes of these occurrences, and even if we did, we have know way of knowing what is staged and what is genuine. Therefore, while we can assume that Daoist practice in, for example, the Han Dynasty had something in common with the modern religion, determining the specifics of what and when is much harder.

Daoist Themes

Because Daoism has been, from its origin, a religion compiled from many aspects of Chinese culture, and because of the pervasiveness of both Daoist philosophy and these other cultural tropes, Daoist themes are quite prevalent in Chinese literature to the point where it becomes difficult to say what is Daoist and what is not. Examples abound: the poet Li Bai is not generally thought of as Daoist, per say, but his work contains Daoist themes; Traditional Chinese Medicine draws a lot of inspiration and ideas from early Daoist alchemy and cosmogony, but cannot be said to be purely Daoist; at a farther extreme, in the movie The Drunken Master (Jui Kuen, the Jackie Chan classic from 1978, not The Legend of Drunken Master Jui Kuen II, his inferior but more common 1994 sequel) Jackie learns eight drunken styles of kung fu based on a drunken version of the Eight Daoist Immortals (translated as the "drunken eight genii" in the subtitled version I've seen). Daoist themes include:

  1. The oneness of everything
  2. Interdependence of opposites (Yin and Yang, suggested by 1)
  3. Non-action
  4. The strength of flexibility
  5. Removal from society (as a part of 3)
  6. Wine and inebriation
  7. Immortality and immortals (xian)
  8. Mountains (especially as a location for 7 and 9)
  9. Flight
  10. Water (an example of 4)

Pinyin - Wade-Giles Reference

Dao = Tao.
Dao De Jing = Tao Te Ching.
Daojia = Tao-Chia
Daojiao = Tao-Chiao
Daoism/Daoist = Taoism/Taoist.
De = Te.
Guodian = Kuo-Tien
Huangdi = Hwang-Ti.
Huanglao = Hwang-Lao.
Kang Youwei = K'ang Yu-wei
Laozi = Lao Tsu, Lao Tzu.
Laozhuang = Lao-Chuang
Liang Qichao = Liang Ch'i-Ch'ao.
Mawangdui = Ma-Wang-Tui
Yi Jing = I Ching.
Xian = Hsien.
Xiwangmu = Hsi-Wang-Mu.
Zhuangzi = Chuang Tsu, Chuang Tzu.

This is to the best of my knowledge of Wade-Giles, please alert me to any mistakes you find. All others are the same in both Romanizations.


Most of this material comes from my lecture notes from "Daoist Themes in Chinese Literature," a course at Swarthmore College by taught Professor Alan Berkowitz.

I did fact-checking at these sites:
and especially
which is a great resource for anyone interested in contemporary Daoism.

Thanks also to Glowing Fish for clarifying the translation of "jia" (in "Dao jia") as "more 'house' than 'family'...'A school of thought' in this context."

I think any philosophical Taoist knows that there’s really no such thing as a Taoist, so if we call ourselves that, it’s with an inward smirk. Am I a Taoist? It’s an easy thing to tell people who are asking you but don’t really care past the realm of semi-philosophical small talk (in which case I also add “humanist” and “absurdist”). But I don’t take it to heart. I don’t identify as anything, not a Taoist, not an American, not even a man, but we have to carry these labels around like a passport so we can move about society and interact with the world. It does us no good to renounce this life to a point that we can no longer communicate with it. Enlightenment is the ability to walk in all worlds at once. Anything’s possible, maybe you can transcend the physical realm and live as an interdimensional being of light. Hell, maybe colorless green ideas sleep furiously. There was a time I’ve considered giving into madness and living entirely in my head (and sometimes I suspect that’s still an option), but that’s taking the easy way out, and I’ve still got things in this life I need to take care of.

Ta"o*ism (?), n.

One of the popular religions of China, sanctioned by the state.

-- Ta"o*ist, a. & n.


© Webster 1913.

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