We begin our short discussion of Taoism with the following warning: as all the Taoist writers tell us, it is in the nature of the Tao that it cannot be spoken of. Talking about Taoism in a clear and rational way is, in fact, not to talk about Taoism.

   That aside, Taoism is, along with Confucianism, the most important strain of Chinese thought through the ages. It is almost entirely different from Confucianism, but not contradictory. It ranges over entirely different concerns, so that it is common for individuals, philosophers, Chinese novels or films, etc., to be both Confucianist and Taoist. The Taoist has no concern for affairs of the state, for mundane or quotidian matters of administration, or for elaborate ritual; rather Taoism encourages avoiding public duty in order to search for a vision of the transcendental world of the spirit.


Chinese Philosophy


Mo Tzu

Chinese Glossary

   Taoism is based on the idea that behind all material things and all the change in the world lies one fundamental, universal principle: the Way or Tao. This principle gives rise to all existence and governs everything, all change and all life. Behind the bewildering multiplicity and contradictions of the world lies a single unity, the Tao. The purpose of human life, then, is to live life according to the Tao, which requires passivity, calm, non-striving (wu wei ), humility, and lack of planning, for to plan is to go against the Tao. The text of Lao Tzu is primarily concerned with portraying a model of human life lived by the Tao; later writers will stress more mystical and magical aspects. But Lao Tzu was, like Confucius, Mo Tzu, and Mencius, also concerned with the nature of government; he believed unquestioningly in the idea that a government could also exist in accordance with the Tao. What would such a government look like? It would not wage war, it would not be complex, it would not interfere in people's lives, it would not wallow in luxury and wealth, and, ideally, it would be inactive, serving mainly as a guide rather than as a governor. There were people who tried to translate Lao Tzu into real political action during the Han dynasty; these were, as you might imagine, spectacular failures. 

   Taoism is frequently called in China, "The Teachings of the Yellow Emperor and Lao Tzu," or "The Teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu." Now, Chuang Tzu (369-286 B.C.) was a real person; his teachings come down to us in a short collection of his sayings. The Yellow Emperor is entirely mythical. This Lao Tzu, however, we know nothing about; we cannot say with certainty if he existed and when; on the other hand, we cannot say with certainty that he did not exist. All we know is that we have a very short book, the Lao Tzu (or Tao te ching), whose author is supposed to be Lao Tzu. The book is hard to read (as is Chuang Tzu), for one of the underlying principles of Taoism is that it can not be talked about. Hence, Lao Tzu uses non-discursive writing techniques: contradiction, paradox, mysticism, and metaphor.


Mo Tzu