The ancient Chinese philosophy known as Daoism is a complex cultural phenomena. Inspired by ancient shamanic breathing practices, Daoism is a philosophy that focuses on self-cultivation and finding value and purpose in this life. It developed into a philosophy of nature, a political philosophy, and a religion. While Daoism changed and developed, it maintained its original position as a way of life.

When people recognize that death finalizes life, they develop a philosophy to construct meaning, value, or self-esteem in the face of death. The problem of death is compounded by two closely related concerns, namely, living in harmony with nature and living in harmony with other people. Confucian philosophy emphasizes the manner in which people could live in harmony with each other. Daoist philosophy emphasizes how people could live in harmony with nature.

Daoism as a philosophy has its roots in ancient shamanic practices of south China. Shamans are known for their ecstatic journeys and visions achieved through altered states of consciousness. Over time shamanic practices were transformed into meditation and breath-control techniques that became the basis for self-cultivation practices. These self-cultivation practices form the core of early Daoist philosophy. Daoist cosmology (a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of the universe) and political philosophy developed around these self-cultivation techniques.

Inward Training

For centuries scholars were aware that the composite work known as the Guanzi contained Daoist essays. Roth provides a translation and analysis of the “Inward Training” chapter of the Guanzi, arguing that it is an example of an early Daoist meditation manual. The “Inward Training” chapter discusses the vital essence (jing), the vital energy (qi), and the means by which humans can gain control over these life-giving forces through meditation. For example, the chapter begins:

The vital essence of all things: it is this that brings them to life. It generates the five grains below and becomes the constellated stars above. When flowing amid the heavens and the earth we call it ghostly and numinous. When stored within the chests of human beings, we call them sages.

Therefore the vital energy is: Bright!—as if ascending the heavens; Dark!—as if entering an abyss; Vast!—as if dwelling in an ocean; Lofty!—as if dwelling on a mountain peak. Therefore this vital energy cannot be halted by force, yet can be secured by inner power. Cannot be summoned by speech, yet can be welcomed by the awareness. Reverently hold onto it and do not lose it: This is called “developing inner power.”

All the forms of the mind are naturally infused and filled with it [the vital essence], are naturally generated and developed [because of] it. It is lost inevitably because of sorrow, happiness, joy, anger, desire, and profit-seeking. If you are able to cast off sorrow, happiness, joy, anger, desire, and profit-seeking, your mind will just revert to equanimity. The true condition of the mind is that it finds calmness beneficial and, by it, attains repose. Do not disturb it, do not disrupt it and harmony will naturally develop. (Roth 1999, 46–50)

Daoists seek a natural life lived in harmony with nature free from anxiety and distress. Contentment or equanimity can be achieved if a person is able to get beyond selfishness, greed, and the emotional exchange between being sad versus being happy and being joyful versus being angry. Inward training instructs the reader in breath control, focusing the mind in concentration to lead the practitioner to a mystical experience of union with the dao (the way of nature), also referred to as the one. Sitting in the correct posture, making the mind tranquil, and controlling the breath to contain the vital essence are the means to hold fast to the one. Holding fast to the one is the key for controlling the myriad things and not being controlled by them. When this kind of thinking is applied to the political arena, the Daoist sage ruler uses his grasp of the one to spontaneously and effortlessly set the affairs of the state in order.

Laozi and Zhuangzi

Master Lao (Laozi) and Master Zhuang (Zhuangzi) were two Daoist writers who have texts named after them. Their texts are the foundation of Daoist philosophy. Lan Dan or Laozi (sixth century BCE, also dated to the fourth century BCE) is usually considered to be the founder of Daoism, although scholars debate the historical authenticity of Laozi’s life. The text of eighty-one chapters that bears his name as its title is divided into two sections: the “Classic of the Way” and the “Classic of Its Power.” Hence it is also known as the Classic of the Way and Its Power (Daodejing) (known by other names, as well, such as the Book of the Way and Its Virtue). The Laozi is written in a terse poetic style that leaves it open to various interpretations. It was apparently written by Daoist practitioners who served as ministers at court and who sought to give advice to other ministers and rulers. As a philosophical work the Laozi serves as part meditation guide and part political handbook. It also develops a dao- centered cosmology. The Laozi describes the dao as the ultimate reality and the source from which all things arise. The dao existed before the god on high. It generates the myriad things but does not control them. Thus, ministers and rulers are advised to follow the course and example of the dao, allowing the people to develop naturally without controlling them. The Laozi, like the “Inner Training” chapter, provides guidance on meditation, closing off the orifices of the body, focusing the mind, grasping the one, and controlling the breath. By teaching the dao and the way of nature, the Laozi advises the wise ruler who wants to bring peace and harmony to the masses without micromanaging the affairs of state by emulating the forces of nature. As chapter 78 of the Laozi advises:

There is nothing in the world softer and weaker than water, but for attacking the solid and strong, there is nothing better. Nothing can substitute for it. That the weak can overcome the strong and the soft can overcome the solid, everyone in the world knows this, but none can put it into practice. Therefore the sage has said, “To receive the dirt of a country is to be the lord of its altars of soil and grain. To bear the suffering of a country is to be the king of the world.” Truth sounds contradictory. (Ivanhoe 2002, 81)

Chapter 80 of the Laozi describes a simple agrarian community as the ideal:

Ah! For a small country with few people! Though there are many contrivances, the people have no use for them. The people weigh death heavily, and won’t consider distant travel. Boats and chariots, weapons and armor they have, but there is no reason to display them. Let the people return to tying knots for keeping records. Make sure they consider their food sweet, their clothes beautiful, their homes peaceful, and their customs delightful. Although the neighboring countries are so close you can hear their chickens and dogs, nevertheless, the people grow old and die without traveling between them.

These passages serve to show how the ruler’s self-cultivation allows him to bring peace and order to his state.

Zhuang Zhou (c. 370–301 BCE) is believed to be the author of the first seven or inner chapters of the text that bears his
name, the Zhuangzi. According to his biography in the historian Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (c. 99–98 BCE), Zhuang served as a minor official in Meng in the state of Song, overseeing the lacquer garden. He declined the invitation of King Wei of Chu (reigned 339–329 BCE) to serve as prime minister. The text consists of short narrative stories, anecdotes, descriptions, aphorisms, and dialogues.

One of those stories provides some insight into Zhuangzi and his philosophy, relating how one day he is hunting in the forest when a large and odd bird swoops by, almost hitting him. Intrigued by the bird he follows it. When the bird alights on a branch, he takes aim to shoot it. Then he notices that the bird is about to catch a preying mantis, which is about to eat a cicada. Seeing himself in the interconnected web of life and death, he runs from the forest. His disciple observes that Zhuangzi is depressed for a few days and asks him why. Zhuangzi notes that he had not been seeing things clearly and had forgotten about what could happen to him. This story may relate the basis of Zhuangzi’s conversion to Daoism. Through it we gain insight into how people look at the world in their habitual and complacent manner, wrongly believing that they are in control and disconnected from the interrelatedness with other creatures in the web of life and death.

One theme of the Zhuangzi is that life is in a constant state of flux. Transformation and the ultimate transformation of death are inevitable. According to Zhuangzi, people misuse their bodies and especially their hearts. They distress their bodies in physical labor, and they put unnecessary emotional stress on the heart both as a physical organ and as the symbolic seat of thought and feeling by worrying and fretting about social expectations and conventions. The Zhuangzi contains descriptions of Daoist masters who are able to enter into deep levels of meditation, who can practice various types of deep breathing exercises and forms of concentration or “fasting the heart” (chapter 4), by which they can merge with the cosmic way.

Zhuangzi’s teachings are designed to stimulate people to see things differently, to reframe their perspectives or make a paradigm shift so they see things the way they really are. When people have a proper understanding of the world and their place in it, then they can free themselves from the burdens of social conventions and bad habits that cause them stress and shorten life. Zhuangzi’s philosophy is designed to make people challenge their basic assumptions about themselves, others, and the world. Coupled with breathing exercises and meditation, the renewed outlook on life allows people to cut loose (jie) from binding restrictions, opening them to clarity or enlightenment.

Toward the end of the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) Daoism began to take on more of a political focus, resulting in the development of a political Daoism.

Huang-Lao Daoism

Some legalist-minded philosophers such as Shen Dao (flourished 350–275 BCE) and later Han Fei (d. 233 BCE) saw an affinity between Daoist cosmological ideas and the art of rulership. A political movement began that drew from both legalism (strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code) and Daoism; a political form of Daoism arose that was based on the teachings of the legendary Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) and Laozi that became known as “Huang-Lao.” One copy of the Laozi that was excavated from the tomb of a minor official at Mawangdui in 1973 has four essays attached to it. Because those four essays contain dialogues with the Yellow Emperor, some scholars consider them to be the lost Four Classics of the Yellow Emperor. In keeping with the eclectic character of political philosophy at the end of the Warring States period, these four essays present composite and amalgamated theories of rulership. They exhibit a family resemblance to the Laozi. For example, the Laozi emphasizes being like water, being flexible and practicing female characteristics, and staying behind to take the lead. The Four Classics display similar concerns. The “Sixteen Classics” section of the Four Classics proposes that those who take the lead have bad luck and that those who stay behind have good luck. The text proposes that if people adhere to the feminine model, they can act first and have good luck. If they adhere to the masculine model and stay behind, they will have bad luck.

Other texts from the end of the Warring States period and the early Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) employ the eclectic, amalgamated political philosophy that has been labeled “Huang-Lao,” such as the Lüshi chunqiu (c. 241 BCE) and the Huainanzi (c. 122 BCE). Daoist and yin/yang ideas were also borrowed by the early Han Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu (flourished 179–104 BCE). Under Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (reigned 141–87 BCE), Dong Zhongshu help make an eclectic and practical form of Confucianism the state ideology. During Emperor Wu’s reign the Laozi was chanted in court ritual. After philosophical Daoism had been absorbed into Han Confucianism, toward the end of the Han dynasty a minor official, Zhang Ling, claimed to have received revelations from the deified Lord Lao in 142 CE. Zhang’s teachings are called the “Sworn Oath of the Orthodox One,” and he began a liturgical tradition of the Celestial Masters that continues to this day. This tradition expanded on the sparse moral teaching found in the Laozi, making morality an important factor in a person’s ability to merge with the dao, attaining physical immortality.

Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove

After the Han dynasty collapsed the geographical area of China was fragmented and ruled by fourteen minor dynasties, beginning with the Wei dynasty (220–265 CE) and ending with the Northern Zhou (557–581 CE). During this period of political fragmentation philosophical Daoism experienced a revival. As the aristocratic families and the scholar-officials came into or fell out of favor with the ruling family, people’s livelihoods and even their lives were constantly in jeopardy. Especially when scholars fell out of favor with the court, they often turned to Daoist teachings and self-cultivation practices to both occupy their time and to find a way to cope with political changes or disasters and to avoid being executed. Like the Warring States period, the Three Kingdoms period (220–265 CE) and the North and South Dynasties (220–589 CE) were a time of cultural creativity and philosophical development. Buddhism was taking root in China. The uniquely Chinese sect of Buddhism known as “Chan”—or in Japanese “Zen”—Buddhism developed under the influence of the Zhuangzi. In large part the iconoclastic and shock-effect teaching style of the Zen masters is drawn from Zhuangzi’s philosophy. Whereas the Zen monks sought enlightenment in the monastery, and the Daoist priests performed elaborate esoteric rituals, the Daoist philosophers entertained themselves with pure conversations (qingtian) and profound metaphysical studies (xuanxue) while engaging in heavy drinking in their favorite bamboo groves. Inspired by Zhuangzi’s mystical union with nature, seven philosophers known as the “seven worthies of the bamboo grove” rejected the trappings of society and removed themselves from the fetters of politics. One worthy, Liu Ling (d. 265 CE), was noted for his love of wine. His poem, entitled “In Praise of the Power of Wine,” draws images and expressions from the
Two other worthies, Xiang Xiu (d. 300 CE) and Guo Xiang (d. 312 CE), wrote commentaries on the Zhuangzi. Guo Xiang further developed Zhuangzi’s philosophy. He especially expanded the concepts of spontaneous nature (ziran) and unperceivable existence (wu) and getting beyond the purposive mind (wuxin) and acting without purposive action (wei wuwei). Wang Bi (226–249 CE) was a Confucian scholar by training, but his commentary on the Laozi has left a lasting impression on the way people read that text. Wang Bi helped readers understand the significance of spontaneous nature and the concepts of emptiness (xu) and unperceivable existence (wu). He Yan (d. 249 CE) was also a Confucian by training and, like Wang Bi, celebrated Confucius, not Laozi, as the sage. He Yan helped develop the notion that the dao is beyond language and nameless. Ruan Ji (210–263 CE) promoted the Daoist concept of nature mysticism, becoming one with nature. He argued that people are held back by social conventions, especially passing value judgments on others and themselves. The last member of the seven worthies was Xi Kang (223–262 CE). Like Ruan Ji he advocated cutting loose from the fetters of social convention, especially the distinctions of right and wrong, wealth and poverty, and noble and humble status in society.

During the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) Daoism received imperial patronage. The Laozi and the Zhuangzi, along with the Confucian classics, were accepted as official texts for the civil service examination. Religious Daoism and Daoist alchemical practices were popular. A Tang text and diagram called the “Diagram of the Great Ultimate” (Taiji tu) was developed as an alchemical document. This text was transmitted through a series of Daoist masters until it was given to Zhou Dunyi (1012–1073). Zhou Dunyi was considered to be the father of Song dynasty (960–1279) neo-Confucianism by the neo-Confucian synthesizer Zhu Xi (1130–1200). Both Zhou and Zhu wrote commentaries on the “Diagram of the Great Ultimate.” In this way important Daoist philosophical ideas influenced the subsequent development of neo-Confucianism. Daoism continued to offer inspiration and solace to disenfranchised scholar-officials during the final dynasties. Today Daoism continues to inspire philosophers around the globe. Aside from popular books on topics such as the dao of cooking or the dao of pleasure, scholars continue to seek inspiration from Daoism to develop theories of linguistic meaning, environmental ethics, political theory, cosmology, and astrophysics. Daoism is a philosophy of change, and it has continued to change itself and survive.

Further Reading

Graham, A. C. (1989). Chuang-Tzu: The inner chapters. London: Unwin Paperbacks.

Graham, A. C. (1989). Disputers of the tao. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Hsiao, K. C. (1979). A history of Chinese political thought (F. W. Mote, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ivanhoe, P. J. (2002). The daodejing of Laozi. New York: Seven Bridges Press.

Michael, T. (2005). The pristine dao: Metaphysics in early Daoist discourse. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Moeller, H. G. (2004). Daoism explained: From the dream of the butterfly to the fishnet allegory. Chicago: Open Court.

Moeller, H. G. (2006). The philosophy of the daodejing. New York: Columbia University Press.

Roth, H. D. (1999). Original tao: Inward training (nei-yeh) and the foundations of Taoist mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ryden, E. (1997). The Yellow Emperor’s four canons: A literary study and edition of the text from Mawangdui. Taipei, Taiwan: Guangji Press.

Source: Sellmann, James D.. (2009). Daoism—Philosophy. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 566–570. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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