CHINAKNOWLEDGE - a universal guide for China studies | About
Encoding: Unicode (UTF-8) [Location: HOME > Thought and philosophy > Daoism]

Chinese Thought and Philosophy
Philosophical Daoism

Daoism is one of the most imporant ancient philosophies of China. The term Daoism (daojiao 道教) refers to both philosophy and religion, yet the word Daoists (daojia 道家) is rather used in a narrow sense, referring to thinkers of the Eastern Zhou 東周 (770-221 BCE) and Han periods. The most important concept of the Daoists is dao 道 the "Way" which is the basic principle of the whole universe. The most important Daoist thinkers of the Eastern Zhou period are Guan Yin 關尹 (Guanyinzi 關尹子), Zhuang Zhou 莊周 (Zhuangzi 莊子), Peng Meng 彭蒙 and Tian Pian 田駢 (Tianzi 田子). The most important writings are the classical books Laozi 老子 (Laozi daode jing 老子道德經 or Daodejing 道德經), authorship of which is attributed to the "Old Master" Li Dan 李耽, and the Zhuangzi 莊子. Some chapters in the books Guanzi 管子 (Xinshu 心術, Baixin 白心, Neiye 内業) and Hanfeizi 韓非子 (Jie Lao 解老, Yu Lao 喻老) have a Daoist background. There are also the Han period book Huainanzi 淮南子, compiled under the patronage of Prince An of Huainan, and the book Liezi 列子 from the Jin period 晉 (265-420), written by Lie Yukou 列禦寇. In 1973 some lost books were discovered in the tomb library of Mawangdui 馬王堆 near Changsha 長沙, Hunan, the "Four Books of the Yellow Emperor" (Huangdi sijing 黃帝四經).
Although Daoism as a religion uses quite similar concepts than these philosophical treatises, the philosophy has always been separated from Daoist religion for reasons of practicality. The watershed between philosophy and religion is mainly fixed in the 5th century, when the "philosophy" of the upper class found its counterpart in the "religion" of the masses. When this religion again was adopted by the upper class of the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589), the seemingly clear borderline between philosophy and religion was again blurred.
One of the earliest definition of Daoism can be found in Sima Tan's 司馬談 description of the six philosophical schools (Lun liujia yaozhi 論六家要旨), of which, by the way, that of the Yin-Yang thinkers 陰陽 has also the tendency of practicality in the form of divination, astrology and prognostication based on astronomical observation. Sima Tan says that the Daoists believed that the base or "Way" (dao) of the universe is the void (xuwu 虛無) that is surprisingly able to influence everything that happens on hearth and in the cosm. Even the hardest and strongest matters and affairs are determined by the weak and soft (rouruo 柔弱) power of the Way. The soft furthermore prevails over the hard and the strong (yi ruo sheng qiang, yi rou ke gang 以弱勝强、以柔克剛。). In the sphere of politics, the powerful softness of the Way is expressed in the method of ruling by non-action (wuwei 無爲). A different interpretation of the meaning of the Way and the voidness by various thinkers led to the develpment of two main schools, namely the "philosophical" school of Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi, and the Huang-Lao school 黄老 that was more concerned with the adaption of the Way in government. The Huang-Lao school was very influential during the late Warring States 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) and the Han periods.
The Way is not only the metaphysical background of all things, but is the force by which the "ten thousand things" came into being. The book Laozi says that the Dao produced the one (matter), the one produced the two (Yin and Yang), the two produced the three (Heaven, Earth and Man), and the three produced the ten thousand things (Dao sheng yi, yi sheng er, er sheng san, san sheng wan wu 道生一,一生二,二生三,三生万物。). The dao is impartially included in all things that came into being, and its force and influence is extended to everywhere, without restriction. It has no shape and no extension, it is "void". The Laozi therefore begins with the word "A Way that can be described is not the (true) eternal Way." (Dao ke dao fei chang dao 道可道,非常道。), and the Zhuangzi says that "The Way can not be heard. If it can be heard, it is not (the true Way)." (Dao bu ke wen, wen er fei ye 道不可聞,聞而非也。). All human words are insufficient to describe the Way, so that it must be said that "it is not the Nothing" (wu wu 無無).
For Laozi the most important force of the Way was its influence on the constant change of things. Nothing will be stable for ever, but the whole nature as well as human will are subject to a permanent change and a new creation (zaohua 造化). Zhuangzi expands this theorem to the assumption that this constant change results in a thorough uncertainty of designations because all ten thousand things are one and the same (wan wu yi qi 萬物一齊). The human heart has therefore not to cling to persons or objects. The difference between death and live is irrelevant. It is even not certain whether individual perceptions are objective or are rather the result of a relative standpoint. Men so feel what fish think, and the border between dream and real life is not clear. The Daoist in search for the dao had therefore only to act in accordance with nature (ziran 自然), because the dao was to be found in all things. In his search for the Way the Daoist was wanding around not only physically, but also in his mind, surpassing the limits of nature and able to "ride on the clouds" and "traveling thousand miles a day". This belief was very popular in Southern China and was reflected in the shamanic impressions in the "Southern Poetry" Chuci 楚辭, as well as in the later belief in immortality and supernatural forces of Daoist masters.
In the field of politics, this meant that an activist policy was to be avoided. In a radical sense, cultural acheivements were to be discarded to go back to nature. According to Laozi, the best society was that of a small village where no changes took place over thousands of generations. The teachings of the Huang-Lao school were very popular in the early Former Han period, under the emperors Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) and Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141). The Huang-Lao school came into being in the Jixia Academy 稷下 in the state of Qi 齊 and was influenced by other philosophies, as Confucianism, legalism, Mohism, and Yin-Yang thought. In the philosophical field, it was believed that the matter of which all things are made are a kind of "essence" (jing 精) of the natural energy (qi 氣), which is nothing else than the Way. All objects consist of the same matter that was formed by the influence of Yin and Yang.
In many aspects, Daoism is familiar to Buddhism: The only possibility for man to acheive his true position in the world is by giving up knowledge, desire and asking for reasons, making himself free from feelings and reflections.
Daoism was not a direct competitor to Confucianism, the state-sponsered philosophy, but was willingly adoped by scholars that were, because of their status as state officials, more inclined to Confucianism. Daoism was therefore an important supplement to cover aspects of life and the universe that Confucianism did not care for. During the Han period, Huang-Lao Daoism provided a metaphysical guideline for a government style, as an alternative to an over-regulated and hyper-activist state as under the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE). After the downfall of the Han, Daoist thought was popular among unemployed scholars and literati as a source for the "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學) that flourished under the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Jin dynasties. It was expecially during the Song period 宋 (960-1279) that Daoist thought made important contributions to the development of Neo-Confucianism. During the Song period Daoism was also received as an imperially protected religion and philosophy. The ancient masters and there writings were canonized, and Laozi became officially one of the highest deities in the Daoist pantheon, as Taishang Laojun 太上老君.

Source: Xu Kangsheng 許抗生 (1989). "Daojia 道家", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhexue 哲学, vol. 1, p. 131. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
July 27, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail