China Glossary: Tao

China Glossary

T'ien Ming
   The ancient Chinese worshipped many gods of many kinds, from natural forces to the spirits of ancestors. In the Shang period (1766-1154 B.C.), oracle bones mention a god, Shang-ti, that ruled over all other divinities as well as over human affairs. This deity eventually evolved into the concept of T'ien, or "Heaven," which, as an abstract and impersonal concept, became synonymous with Shang-ti. For the ancient Chinese, Heaven ruled the physical universe through ming, or "destiny," which was beyond human understanding and control, and ruled the moral universe, the universe of human behavior, through T'ien ming, or "The Mandate of Heaven."


Chinese Philosophy
   This "Mandate of Heaven" was based on the idea that Heaven was primarily concerned with the well-being of humans and human society; in order to bring about this well-being, Heaven instituted government and authority. Heaven gave its mandate to a family or individual to rule over other human beings with justice and fairness; rulers were to make the welfare of their people their principal concern. When rulers or a dynasty failed to rule in this manner, Heaven would remove its mandate from that ruler and bestow it on another. By Confucius' time, the T'ien ming had extended to include all human beings and their responsibilities obligations for the people around them and related to them. Each person is responsible for the welfare of those that have been put into their keeping, so that the T'ien ming functioned at all levels of society. For the ancient Chinese, these two ways in which Heaven governed the cosmos—ming , which is order in the physical world and T'ien ming , which is order in the moral or social world—together made up the Tao, or Way of Heaven.

   No concept is as crucial to understanding the Chinese world view as this concept of the Tao, nor is there any concept which evolved quite as dramatically as this one did. As various Chinese schools developed alternative ways of looking at the world, this concept was adapted to these changed world views.


China Reader
Lao Tzu

Chinese Philosophy



   The philosophy of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu focussed entirely on this concept of the Tao, hence the name of the philosophy they founded: Taoism. For these two foundational Taoists, the Tao becomes the unitary principle and source of all there is, replacing T'ien as the source and governor of the universe. All things in the world are ultimately part of this single Tao; all contradictions and opposites are resolved in the Tao. The Tao, then, is the sum total of everything yet is still only a single thing. This, you may recognize, is similar to Parmenides' solution to the problem of the One and the Many. For the Taoists, anything viewed apart from this unitary principle, that is, anything viewed as having reality in and of itself apart from its place in the entirety of the universe, is fundamentally an illusion. Nothing has any meaning, value, or reality apart from its relation to the Tao. This Tao is unknowable and unspeakable; all human knowledge is knowledge of individual things and their relations, so no human knowledge can encompass the whole of everything as as single thing.


China Glossary
Wu hsing

Yin / Yang

Chinese Politics

The Han Synthesis

General Glossary

The One and the Many
   During the early Han dynasty (207 B.C.-9 A.D.), philosophers attempted to synthesize all the diverse strains of Chinese philosophy into a single system that could be applied to all aspects of human endeavor: physics, metaphysics, medicine, government, ethics, and so on. The result of this labor was the Han Synthesis. The view of the universe adopted in the Han speculated that the unitary principle of the universe was the Tao, which was divided into the cyclical alternation between two opposite forces of change, yin and yang. Each of these forces represented opposites of the other; under yang is arrayed maleness, creation, Heaven, cold, dominance, etc., while under yin is arrayed femaleness, completion, earth, heat, submission, etc. Notice that Heaven has become a principle that is subordinate to yang, which is a principle that is subordinate to the Tao. These two forces, yin and yang, bring about change through the Five Material Agents, or wu-hsing . These five material agents, wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, each produce one another cyclically and overcome one another cyclically. All change in the universe, whether it be physical, astronomical, historical, governmental, ethical, or whatever, can be explained by the orderly progression of yin and yang and the five material agents. These cycles when ordered across the whole of the universe make up the Tao.


Chinese Philosophy
   This Han concept of Tao would eventually become the Neo-Confucian "Great Ultimate," or the "Great First Thing." and Tao would come to mean the "moral law of the universe," that is, the Neo-Confucian equivalent of T'ien ming