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In the Chinese language the word tao means “way,” indicating a way of thought or life. There have been several such ways in China’s long history, including Confucianism and Buddhism. In about the 6th century BC, under the influence of the ideas credited to a man named Lao-tzu and the peoples exhauststion with the constant war-like state of China, Taoism became “the way”. Like Confucianism, it has influenced every aspect of Chinese culture. A lot could be said of the diverse tradition we call Taoism. Taoism was understood and practiced in many ways, each reflecting the historical, social, or personal situation of its believers. While this diversity may confuse and puzzle the outside observer, it accounts for the flexibility of Taoism in China. Taoism was adaptable, evolving to fill spiritual gaps created by the problems of life.
Taoism can also be called “the other way,” for during its entire history, it has coexisted alongside the Confucian tradition, which served as the ethical and religious basis of the institutions and arrangements of the Chinese empire. Taoism, while not radically revolutionary, offered a range of alternatives to the Confucian way of life and point of view. These alternatives, however, were not mutually exclusive. For the vast majority of Chinese, there was no question of choosing between Confucianism and Taoism. Except for a few Confucians and a few Taoists, the Chinese man or woman practiced both — either at different phases of life or as different sides of personality and taste.
Classical Taoist philosophy, formulated by Lao-Tzu (the Old Master, 5th century B.C.?), the anonymous editor of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and its Power), and Zhuangzi (3rd century B.C.), was a reinterpretation and development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination. Laozi and Zhuangzi, living at a time of social disorder and great religious skepticism, developed the notion of the Dao (Tao — way, or path) as the origin of all creation and the force — unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestations — that lies behind the functionings and changes of the natural world. They saw in Dao and nature the basis of a spiritual approach to living. This, they believed, was the answer to the cultural crisis in China.
What is the basis of a stable, unified, and enduring social order? The order and harmony of nature, they said, was far more stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human learning. Healthy human life could flourish only in accord with Dao — nature, simplicity, a free-and-easy approach to life. The early Taoists taught the art of living and surviving by conforming with the natural way of things; they called their approach to action wuwei ( no-action), action modeled on nature. Their sages were wise, but not in the way the Confucian teacher was wise — learned and a moral model. Zhuangzi’s sages were often artisans — butchers or woodcarvers. The lowly artisans understood the secret of art and the art of living. To be skillful and creative, they had to have inner spiritual concentration and put aside concern with externals, such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Almost everything, like life, followed the creative path of nature, not the values of human society.
Throughout Chinese history, people weary of social activism and aware of the fragility of human achievements would retire from the world and turn to nature and share Lao-Tzu views on life. ?Lao-Tzu advocated compassionate love towards others, and shared Mo-Tzu?s views on war: war is acceptable only to protect the people from barbarian invasions.?(Schroeder, Class Notes.) They would retreat to a countryside or mountain setting to commune with natural beauty. They would compose or recite poetry about nature, or paint a picture of the scene, attempting to capture the creative forces at the center of nature’s vitality. They might share their outing with friends or more rarely — a spouse, drinking a bit of wine, and enjoying the autumn leaves or the moon.
There are many Chinese utopian writings which often bore a Taoist stamp. One such writing byTao Qian’s (T’ao Ch’ien, 372?-427? A.D.) called “Peach Blossom Spring” told the story of a fisherman who discovered by chance an idyllic community of Chinese who centuries earlier had fled the Warring States of China, and had since lived in perfect simplicity, harmony, and peace, obliviously unaware of the turmoil of history beyond their grove. Although these utopians urged him to stay, the fisherman left to share his discovery with friends and a officials. He could never find his way back. He did not understand that this ideal world was to be found not by following an external path, but a spiritual path; it was a state of mind, an attitude, that comprised the utopia.3
Taoist ideas and images not only inspired in the Chinese a love of nature and an occasional retreat to it from the cares of the world to rest and heal, it also inspired an intense affirmation of life: physical life — health, well-being, vitality, longevity, and even immortality. Lao-Tzu had brought back the ancient nature worship and mysterious arts, and together with this came the tradition of ways of using knowledge of the Dao to enhance and prolong life. Some Taoists searched for “isles of the immortals,” or for herbs or chemical compounds that could ensure immortality. More often, Taoists were interested in health and vitality; they experimented with herbal medicine and pharmacology, greatly advancing these arts; they developed principles of natural cooking and other healthy diets; they developed systems of gymnastics and massage to keep the body strong and youthful. Taoists were supporters both of magic and of science; they were the element of Chinese culture most interested in the study of and experiments with nature.
To this day we have kept alive some practical arts, such as the use of traditional herbal medicines, which have longstanding links with Taoism.
Cyril Birch, Anthology of Chinese Literature, Vol. 1, New York: Grove Press, 1965, pp. 167-168.
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