Taoist Philosophy

Taoist philosophy (道家; dàojiā; lit. “school or family of the Tao”) also known as Taology (道學; dàoxué; lit. “learning of the Tao“) refers to the various philosophical currents of Taoism, a tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (Dào; literally: ‘the Way’, also romanized as Dao). The Tao is a mysterious and deep principle that is the source, pattern and substance of the entire universe.

Throughout its history, Taoist philosophy has emphasized concepts like wu wei (effortless action), ziran (“naturalness”), yin and yangCh’i (“life energy”), Wu (non-being), and personal cultivation through meditation and other spiritual practices. Taoism differs from Confucianism in putting more emphasis on physical and spiritual cultivation and less emphasis on political organization.

Since the initial stages of Taoist thought, there have been varying schools of Taoist philosophy and they have drawn from and interacted with other philosophical traditions such as Confucianism and Buddhism. While scholars have sometimes attempted to separate “Taoist philosophy” from “Taoist religion“, there was never really such a separation. Taoist texts and the literati and Taoist priests that wrote and commented on them never made the distinction between “religious” and “philosophical” ideas, particularly those related to metaphysics and ethics.

The major texts of this loose philosophical tradition are traditionally seen as the Tao Te Ching, and the Zhuangzi, though it was only during the Han Dynasty that they were grouped together under the label “Taoist” (Daojia). The I Ching was also later linked to this tradition by scholars like Wang Bi.

The Chinese character for dao

The Chinese character for dao

Early sources

Compared to other philosophical traditions, Taoist philosophy is quite heterogeneous. According to Russell Kirkland, “Taoists did not generally regard themselves as followers of a single religious community that shared a single set of teachings, or practices.” Instead of drawing on a single book or the works of one founding teacher, Taoism developed out a widely diverse set of Chinese beliefs and texts, that over time were gathered together into various synthetic traditions. These texts had some things in common, especially ideas about personal cultivation and integration with what they saw as the deep realities of life.

The first group consciously identifying itself as “Taoist” (dàojiào) appeared and began to collect texts during the fifth century BCE. Their collection of Taoist texts did not initially include classics typically considered to be “Taoist” like the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi. Only after a later expansion of the canon did these texts become included.

Birth places of notable Chinese philosophers from Hundred Schools of Thought in Zhou Dynasty.

Birth places of notable Chinese philosophers from Hundred Schools of Thought in Zhou Dynasty. Philosophers of Mohism are marked by triangles in blue.

The legend of the “person” Laozi was developed during the Han dynasty and has no historical validity. Likewise the labels Taoism and Confucianism were developed during the Han dynasty by scholars to group together various thinkers, and texts of the past and categorize them as “Taoist”, even though they are quite diverse and their authors may never have known of each other. Thus, while there was never a coherent “school” of “classical Taoism” during the pre-Han eras, later self identified Taoists (c. 500 BCE) were influenced by streams of thought, practices and frameworks inherited from the period of the hundred schools of thought (6th century to 221 BCE). According to Russell Kirkland, these independent influences include:

  • Mohism, which might have influenced the Taoist idea of “Great Peace” seen in later works like the Taipingjing
  • Several divergent Confucian schools and their ideas of personal development and Tao.
  • Several “Legalist” theorists, such as Shen Pu-hai, who spoke of Tao and wu wei and Han Fei, whose work explicates some parts of the Tao Te Ching
  • The murky groups who produced the ideas of yin and yang and the “Five Forces” (wu-hsing).
  • Ideas associated with official practitioners of divination and the I-Ching
  • Early versions of independent texts like the Nei-yeh, the Lüshi Chunqiu, the Zhuangzi, and the Tao Te Ching.

Ideas in Taoist “classics”

Bagua diagram from Zhao Huiqian's (趙撝謙) Liushu benyi (六書本義, 1370s).

Bagua diagram from Zhao Huiqian’s (趙撝謙) Liushu benyi (六書本義, 1370s).

The Tao Te Ching (also known as the Laozi, terminus ante quem third century BCE) has traditionally been seen as the central and founding Taoist text, though historically, it is only one of the many different influences on Taoist thought, and at times, a marginal one at that. The Laozi changed and developed over time possibly from a tradition of oral sayings, and is a loose collection of aphorisms on various topics which seek to give the reader wise advice on how to live, govern and also includes some metaphysical speculations. The Laozi commonly mentions the idea of a subtle universal force or cosmic creative power called Tao (literally “way” or “road”), using feminine and maternal imagery to describe it. Tao is the natural spontaneous way that things arise and exist, it is the “organic order” of the universe. The Laozi states that the true Tao cannot be captured by language (cannot be named).

The Laozi also mentions the concept of wu wei (effortless or non-forceful action), which is illustrated with water analogies (going with the flow of the river instead of against) and “encompasses shrewd tactics—among them “feminine wiles”— which one may utilize to achieve success”. Wu wei is associated with yielding, minimal action and softness. Wu wei is the activity of the ideal sage (sheng ren), who spontaneously and effortlessly express Te (virtue), acting as one with the universal forces of the Tao, resembling children or un-carved wood (pu). They concentrate their internal energies, are humble, pliable and content and move naturally without being restricted by the structures of society and culture. The Laozi also provides advice for rulers, such as never standing out, keeping weapons but not using them, keeping the people simple and ignorant and working in subtle unseen ways instead of forceful ones.It has generally been seen as promoting minimal government.

Like the Tao Te Ching, the lesser known Nei-yeh (literally: “Inner cultivation”) is another short wisdom sayings text but with a different focus. The Nei-yeh is an important early textual source for Taoist personal cultivation of the heartmind (hsiu-hsin), which advocated the cultivation and refinement of ch’i (“life-energy”), ching (“vital essence”), and shen (“spirit”). The Nei-yeh’s idea of a pervasive and unseen “vital force or energy” called ch’i and its relationship to acquiring Te (virtue or inner power) was very influential for later Taoist philosophy. Similarly, important Taoist ideas such as the relationship between a person’s hsing (“inner nature”) and their ming (“life-realities”) can be found in another lesser known text called the Lüshi Chunqiu. In these texts, as well as in the Laozi, a person who acquires Te and has a balanced and tranquil heartmind is called a sheng-jen (“sage”). According to Russell Kirkland:

The “heart/mind” is the ruling agency within an individual’s biospiritual nexus, i.e., in the entire personal complex of body/mind/heart/spirit. The Nei-yeh’s principal teaching is that a person should work constantly to ensure that his/her “heart/mind” is balanced and tranquil—without excessive cogitation or emotion. If one maintains a tranquil “heart/ mind,” one will become a receptor of life’s healthful energies, and will be able to retain them and live a long life.

Another text called the Zhuangzi is also seen as a classic of Taoism though it was also often a marginal work for Chinese Taoists. It contains various ideas such as the idea that society and morality is a relative cultural construct, and that the sage is not bound by such things and lives, in a sense, beyond them. The Zhuangzi’s vision for becoming a sage requires one to empty oneself of conventional social values and cultural ideas and to cultivate wu wei. Some scholars see primitivist ideas in the Zhuangzi, advocating a return to simpler forms of life.

According to Kirkland what these three texts have in common is the idea that “one can live one’s life wisely only if one learns how to live in accord with life’s unseen forces and subtle processes, not on the basis of society’s more prosaic concerns”. These subtle forces include ch’i, Tao, and shen (spirit).

Later Taoists incorporated concepts from the I Ching, like Tian (heaven). According to Livia Kohn, Tian is “a process, an abstract representation of the cycles and patterns of nature, a nonhuman force that interacted closely with the human world in a nonpersonal way.”

Han and Jin Dynasties

The term Daojia (usually translated as “philosophical Taoism”) was coined during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 BCE) by scholars and bibliographers to refer to a grouping of classic texts like the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi. Though there were no self termed “Taoists” during the Han dynasty, ideas which were later important to “Taoists” can be seen in Han texts such as the Huainanzi and the Taipingjing. According to the Taipingjing (Scripture of Grand Tranquility) for example, the ideal ruler maintains an “air” (ch’i) of grand tranquility (t’ai-p’ing) through the practice of wu wei, meditation, longevity practices such as breath control and medicinal practices like acupuncture. There also commentaries written on the classics, the earliest commentary on the Dao De Jing is that of Heshang Gong (the “Riverside Master”).

Another influence to the development of later Taoism was Huáng-Lǎo (literally: “Yellow [Emperor] Old [Master]”), one of the most influential Chinese school of thought in the early Han dynasty (2nd-century BCE). It was a syncretist philosophy which brought together texts and elements from many schools. Huang–Lao philosophy was favored at the Western Han, before the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BCE) who made Confucianism the official state philosophy. These intellectual currents helped inspire several new social movements such as the Way of the Celestial Masters which would later influence Taoist thought.

The fourth century saw major developments such as the rise of new spiritual traditions like the Shangqing (“Supreme Clarity”) and Lingbao (“Numinous Treasure”) with new scriptures and practices such as alchemy and visualization meditations as a way of moral and spiritual refinement. It was the Lingbao school who also developed the ideas of a great cosmic deity as a personification of the Tao and a heavenly order with Mahayana Buddhist influences. The Shangqing school is the beginning of the Taoist tradition known as “inner alchemy” (neidan), a form of physical and spiritual self cultivation.

It was in the later fifth century that an aristocratic scholar called Lu Xiujing (406-477) drew on all these disparate influences to shape and produce a common set of beliefs, texts and practices for what he called “the teachings of the Tao” (Tao-chiao). In the north, another influential figure, Kou Qianzhi (365–448), reformed the celestial master school, producing a new ethical code.


Xuanxue (lit. “mysterious” or “deep” learning, sometimes called Neo-Taoism) was an important school of thought from the third to sixth century BCE. Xuanxue philosophers combined elements of Confucianism and Taoism to reinterpret the Yijing, Daodejing, and Zhuangzi. Influential Xuanxue scholars include Wang Bi (226-249), He Yan (d. 249), Xiang Xiu (223?-300, part of the famous intellectual group known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove), Guo Xiang (d. 312), and Pei Wei (267-300).

Thinkers like He Yan and Wang Bi are set forth the theory that everything, including yin and yang and the virtue of the sage, “have their roots” in wu (nothingness, negativity, not-being). What He Yan seems to mean by wu can be variously described as formlessness and undifferentiated wholeness. Wu is property-less and yet full and fecund.

Wang Bi’s commentary has traditionally been the most influential philosophical commentary on the Laozi. Like He Yan, Wang Bi focuses on the concept of Wu (non-being, nothingness) as the nature of the Tao and underlying ground of existence. Wang Bi’s view of Wu is that it is indeed not being as a necessary basis of being. For being to be possible, there must be not-being, and as the Laozi states, “Dao gives birth to [sheng] one” and “all things in the world are born of something (you); something is born of nothing (wu)”. Wang Bi’s account focuses on this foundational aspect of not-being. According to Livia Kohn, for Wang Bi “nonbeing is at the root of all and needs to be activated in a return to emptiness and spontaneity, achieved through the practice of nonaction, a decrease in desires and growth of humility and tranquility”. Another critical concept for Xuanxue philosopher is ziran (lit. “self-so”, naturalness, spontaneity).

Guo Xiang is also another influential Xuanxue thinker. In his commentary to the Zhuangzi, he rejected that wu was the source of the generation of beings, instead arguing for spontaneous “self-production” (zi sheng) and “self-transformation” (zi hua or du hua):

“Because wu [by definition] is not being, it cannot produce being. Prior to the coming to be of being, it cannot produce other beings. In that case, then, who or what brought about the birth of being? [The answer can only be that] beings are spontaneously self-generated”

Another key figure, Taoist alchemist Ge Hong (c. 283–343) was an aristocrat and government official during the Jin Dynasty who wrote the classic known as the Baopuzi (“Master Embracing Simplicity”), a key Taoist philosophical work of this period. This text includes Confucian teachings and also spiritual practices meant to aid in attaining immortality and a heavenly state called “great clarity”, which had great influence on later Taoism.

A later Xuanxue thinker, Zhang Zhan (ca. 330–400), is known particularly for his commentary on the Liezi. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589), Xuanxue reached the height of influence as it was admitted into the official curriculum of the imperial academy.

Tang dynasty

Sima Chengzhen.

Sima Chengzhen.

By Tang dynasty times (618–907 BCE), a common sense of a “Taoist identity” had developed (which Tang leaders called Tao-chiao, “teachings of the Tao”), partly by the efforts of systematizers like Lu Xiujing and also due to the need to compete against Buddhism for imperial patronage. This synthetic system is sometimes called the Three Caverns. They collected the first Taoist canon, often called the San-tung (“The Three Arcana”), which did not originally include the Tao Te Ching.  Taoism also gained official status in China during the Tang Dynasty, whose emperors claimed Laozi as their relative. The Gaozong Emperor even added the Tao Te Ching to the list of classics (jing, 經) to be studied for the imperial examinations. This was the height of Taoist influence in Chinese history.

Sima Chengzhen (647—735) is an important intellectual figure of this period. He is especially known for blending Taoist, and Buddhist theories and forms of mental cultivation in the Taoist meditation text called the Zuowanglun. He also served as an adviser to the Tang government. He was later retroactively appropriated as a patriarch of the Quanzhen school.

Another key Taoist writer and thinker of this period is Du Guangting (850—933), he produced an influential commentary on the Tao Te Ching as well as numerous expositions of other scriptures and histories. Likewise, Taoist master Ch’eng Hsüan-ying (fl. 631-652) wrote an influential commentaries on the Laozi and Zhuangzi.

Post Tang

The Song dynasty (960–1279) era saw the foundation of the Quanzhen (Complete perfection or Integrating perfection) school of Taoism during the 12th century among followers of Wang Chongyang (1113–1170), a scholar who wrote various collections of poetry and texts on living a Taoist life who taught that “spiritural immortality” (shen-hsien) can be attained within this life by entering seclusion, cultivating one’s internal spiritual realities (hsing), and harmonizing them with the realities of one’s external life (ming).” The Quanzhen school was syncretic, combining elements from Buddhism (such as monasticism) and Confucianism with past Taoist traditions. Neidan, a form of internal alchemy, became a major emphasis of the Quanzhen sect. Wang Chongyang taught that the “three teachings” (Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism), “when investigated, prove to be but one school.” He taught that, by mental training and asceticism through which one reaches a state of no-mind (Wu Xin 無心) and no-thoughts, attached to nothing, one can recover the primordial, deathless “Radiant Spirit” or “Real Nature” (yangshen/zhenxing).

According to Stephen Eskildsen, Wang Chongyang appears to have been familiar with and influenced by Mahayana Buddhist texts like the Diamond sutra as well as Chan texts, however:

Wang Zhe did not abide by the thoroughgoing negation and non-assertion of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. Fond as he was of borrowing Buddhist language to preach detachment from this provisional, fleeting world of samsara, Wang Zhe ardently believed in the eternal, universal Real Nature/Radiant Spirit that is the ground and wellspring of consciousness (spirit [shen], Nature [xing]), and vitality (qi, Life [ming]) within all living beings. This to him was not “empty” (lacking inherent existence); it was fully Real (zhen).

One Quanzhen master, Qiu Chuji, became a teacher of Genghis Khan before the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty. Originally from Shanxi and Shandong, the sect established its main center in Beijing’s Baiyunguan (“White Cloud Monastery”). Several Song emperors, most notably Huizong, were active in promoting Taoism, collecting Taoist texts and publishing editions of the Daozang.

Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one, a painting in the litang style portraying three men laughing by a river stream, 12th century, Song dynasty.

Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one, a painting in the litang style portraying three men laughing by a river stream, 12th century, Song dynasty.

The Yuan and Ming government meanwhile often attempted to control and regulate Taoism. Taoism suffered a significant setback during the reign of Khubilai Khan when many copies of the Daozang were ordered burned in 1281. This destruction gave Taoism a chance to renew itself. Chinese Taoists during the 12-14th centuries engaged in a revaluation of their tradition, dubbed by some a “reformation”, which focused on individual cultivation.

During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the state promoted the notion that “the Three Teachings (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism) are one”, an idea which was over time became popular consensus. The current Taoist textual canon, called the Daozang, was compiled during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Moreover, during the Ming dynasty, Taoist ideas also influenced Neo-Confucian thinkers like Wang Yangming and Zhan Ruoshui.

Qing dynasty and modern China

The late Ming and early Qing dynasty saw the rise of the Longmen (Dragon Gate 龍門) school of Taoism, founded by Wang Kunyang (d. 1680) which reinvigorated the Quanzhen tradition. Longmen Taoist writers such as Liu Yiming (1734–1821) also simplified Taoist “Inner Alchemy” practices making more accessible to the public by removing much of the esoteric symbolism of medieval texts. It was Min Yide (1758-1836) though that became the most influential figure of the Longmen lineage, as he was the main compiler of the Longmen Daozang xubian and doctrine. It was Min Yide who also made the famous text known as The Secret of the Golden Flower along with its emphasis on internal alchemy, the central doctrinal scripture of the Longmen tradition.

The fall of the Ming Dynasty was blamed by some Chinese literati on Taoist influences and therefore they sought to return to a pure form of Han Confucianism during a movement called Hanxue, or “Han Learning” which excluded Taoism. The study and practice of Taoist philosophy saw a steep decline in the more tumultuous times of the later Qing dynasty. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Taoism had declined considerably, and only one complete copy of the Daozang still remained, at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing.

Taoism continued to decline during the Nationalist government rule, who saw religions as parasitic and reactionary and confiscated temples. Taoist decline was accelerated after the rise of the Communist Party of China. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, many Taoist temples and sites were damaged and taoist clergy were sent to labor camps.

Persecution of Taoists stopped in 1979, and many Taoists began reviving their traditions. Subsequently, many temples and monasteries have been repaired and reopened. Taoism is one of five religions recognized by the PRC, which regulates its activities through the China Taoist Association.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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