Daoism and Laozi



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Daoism is one of the main 'religions' of China. [You will often see this is as ‘Tao’, ‘Taoism’ using the older Wade-Giles spelling of Chinese, Dao is the modern pinyin spelling]. dào means roughly the Way and the name reflects its chief principle, finding the correct path through life. However it is more dynamic than just a fixed path, it adapts and changes always seeking an equitable balance. There are three main aspects of Daoism: philosophy; meditative and folk religion. The philosophy is best known in the West through the book of aphorisms called the 'Dao De Jing' Tao Te Ching which can be very roughly translated as the 'Virtuous Way'. The philosophy seeks to find a balance of a person with the world, and is more concerned with self contemplation than with relationships by contrast to Confucianism. The more substantial work, written later is the Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu) with many philosophical thoughts; paradoxes; jokes and riddles. It seeks the virtuous way that people should follow. Politics and purely logical thought are rejected as pointless as they do not lead to harmony and peace.

As Daoism incorporates the contemplative study of nature, it is from the Daoist strand of Chinese philosophy that scientific inquiry developed. Many Daoist scientists made important discoveries; some as alchemists seeking the elixir of Immortal Life who as a by product contributed to chemistry and physics. The Han Emperor Wudi's quest for immortality stimulated the investigation of various legends concerning the Yellow Emperor.

Where Confucianism seeks to put people in their proper place in society, Daoism puts people in the proper place in the world. Lao Zi is the semi-legendary founder of Daoism, from about the same time as Confucius in the Warring States Period (6th century BCE or may be 5th/4th century BCE). The philosophy was refined by Zhuang Zi (399-295BCE).

daoism, people, ceremony
Daoist ceremony at Lingyun Mountain, Nanchong, Sichuan Copyright © Dreamstime see image license
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Folk religion

Daoism was popular during the Tang dynasty, particularly as it promised long life, if not immortality for those that followed its tenets. Development was stimulated by rivalry with Buddhism with which it shares a number of core beliefs. When Buddhism first arrived it was initially said that Laozi must have gone to the west (India) and founded Buddhism. In popular culture Daoism with its pantheon of minor gods and spirits offers a good excuse to hold festivals. For centuries Daoism was considered the religion of the ordinary people while Confucianism was the religion of the ruling elite. The folk religion strand of Daoism has even older roots as it grew out of ancient beliefs in spirits and mediums when sorcerers and mediums possessed the power to appease angry local spirits. Somewhere in the range of thousands of deities will be one who may respond to offerings with the required good luck; money; rain or healing that the petitioner needs. This has echoes with the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods; goddesses and other spirits. Daoism is closely related to Feng Shui, which is concerned with the harmonious arrangement of people within the environment and Taijiquan with the emphasis on strengthening the life force or ‘Qi’. It is in Daoism that people seek the balance between the opposing forces of Yin and Yang.

Daoist Sacred Mountains

Daoists place great store on mountains. Many fine landscape pictures show a lone philosopher gazing from a mountain side musing on the Dao. There are many mountains sacred to Daoists (and also to many Buddhists). The five sacred mountains are Taishan (Dōngyuè) in Shandong; Huashan (Xīyuè) in Shanxi; Southern Hengshan (Nányuè) in Hunan; Northern Hengshan Běiyuè) in Shanxi; Songshan Zhōngyuè in Henan. The five represent the five compass points (center is included). The gret founding emperor Qin Shihuangdi visited all five mountains during his brief reign


In reaction to the coming of Buddhism to China at the end of the Han dynasty, Daoism became more systematic and to counter the Buddhist belief in re-incarnation, the quest for immortality became the goal. During the Jin dynasty some Daoists reached high positions in government and formed a group known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove . Emphasis on introspection and self-knowledge gave Daoists the ability to think independently of the main stream; many Daoist philosophers would live as hermits cut off from civilization. Over the centuries, rebellions were started by Daoists that went on to overthrow the ruling dynasty; movements such as the Yellow Turbans grew from the rejection of worldly values and brought an end to the Han dynasty. During much of Chinese history, particularly when Confucianism was the leading doctrine at the Imperial Court, Daoism was despised by most scholars and treated as pure flummery for the uneducated. Because the study of nature and therefore science was associated with Daoism, periods of official rejection led to the neglect of scientific study. Daoism was the doctrine for the countryside and nature; Confucianism for the city and people. An exiled official sent into the countryside would often turn to Daoism for solace.

Later on, the Daoist religion became formally acknowledged, the Emperor confirmed a Daoist leader as the official authority of the religion - he was called the 兲师 Tiān shī 'Master of Heaven'. This official position lasted from the 4th to the 20th century in south western China. It was Daoists who resisted the building of dams; railways and any constructions that affected the environment, disrupting the natural feng shui. However the belief was not for the benefit of the environment and wildlife on its own, only so far as the environment would fit human purposes. So there is no Daoist objection to destroying nature reserves per se, only if the destruction would adversely affect people.

In recent years Daoism has had a resurgence. Westerners have taken to reading and appreciating the Dao De Jing. The Daoist wish to live in harmony with nature has widespread appeal now that environmentalism has become mainstream. Many people turn to Feng Shui practitioners to arrange and design their homes and gardens; for example the veteran cricketer Geoffrey Boycott is a firm believer in Feng shui .

Lao Zi [604 BCE - 531 BCE] or Lao Tzu WG

Fujian , laozi, deity
Large statue of Laozi, founder of Daoism, Fujian

Lao Zi is considered the founder of Daoism. Unlike Confucius details of his life are very sketchy; often based on myths and legends. His name just means ‘Old (or Venerable) Master’.

He is believed to be the author of the Daoist classic ‘Dao De Jing’, but this is contested by many experts. The text has been assessed as being written no later than the 2nd century BCE but could be based on a far older text. Lao Zi probably lived in the sixth or possibly the fourth century BCE. According to one tradition he was born in Henan 604BCE into a distinguished family. He may have served as an archivist at the Imperial capital at Luoyang before returning as a hermit to his native village.

Tradition has it that Confucius visited Lao Zi for instruction but this story is likely to have been invented to advocate the superiority of Daoism by an imagined encounter. Buddhism has some overlapping core values and beliefs with Daoism, so when Buddhism arrived in China the Daoists hit back by suggesting that Lao Zi had fled from China and founded Buddhism in India. He is often portrayed as an old man seated on a water buffalo while on a journey to the West. Legends have grown up about his life over the intervening 2,600 years. Some say he was conceived by a beam of light and that he was born already with white hair. Appropriately,then Lao Zi is associated with longevity and immortality.

Later Daoists have attributed their own works to him, partly as a homage and also to promote their writings; it is therefore very difficult to disentangle Laozi's personal contribution to Daoism. This is not altogether surprising considering the length of intervening time.

Zhuangzi [369 BCE - 286 BCE] or Chuang Tzu WG

Zhuangzi, philosopher
Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly (or a butterfly dreaming of Zhuangzi). Image from this page . Image available under a Creative Commons license .

Just as Mengzi (Mencius) promoted the Confucian philosophy of Kongzi (Confucius) it was Zhuangzi who refined and promoted the Daoist philosophic tradition of Laozi.

He is also known by his family name of Zhuang Zhou (Chuang Chou WG) (the 'zi' means master and is an honorific). Details of his life are fragmentary, the great historian Sima Qian could only vaguely suggest where he was born in Anhui or Henan and describe a few key moments in his life. He was known as a very erudite and persuasive speaker; but he turned down an official position at court, choosing instead to live modestly. However, he did not live the ascetic lonely life of a hermit, he married and had a family. He is famous for teaching of the relativism of all things and the unattainability of absolute truth. It was Zhuangzi who postulated that while he was dreaming that he was a butterfly, he might actually have been a butterfly dreaming himself a man .

Over the centuries many tales have woven around him. Some Daoists consider him a god and have given the planet Jupiter as his realm.

His main work is the ‘The book of Zhuangzi’; which is considered a masterpiece of Chinese literature. It is a much longer and insightful book than the Dao De Jing. It is set out as a series of stories that recount riddles and paradoxes. They are intended to give pause for thought and contemplation, a mission they have most ably served through the centuries. Over the first few centuries other tales were added to the book by various authors as an anonymous homage. As they are written in his style it has proven impossible to tease out exact authorship. The text stabilized under the editorship of Guo Xiang who died 312CE.

Lucky Bats

Lucky Bats


Bats are commonly used in handicrafts, paintings and artwork to give a wish for good luck. This is because 'bat' and 'good luck' sound the same in Chinese.

Doing Nothing

Although Daoism introduces a fair amount of mysticism it did not seek to stop adherents contemplating and describing nature. Many of China's early scientists followed the Daoist tradition. He describes the action of 'wuwei ' that generates action through inaction. This key Daoist rationale teaches us not to expend useless effort by opposing the inevitable but instead ‘go with the flow’. Its basis is reinforced by analogy in nature where there is no point in resisting the natural order of things: reeds bend with the wind and even stones are worn away by water. Solitary contemplation is one of the key aims of the Daoist practitioner and many followers went to live out their lives as hermits on remote mountains.

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Citation information for this page : Chinasage, 'Daoism and Laozi', last updated 23 Oct 2017, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/daoism.htm.

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