Philosophy of Ancient China: Taoism and Confucianism Complement Each Other

What arose in China is now considered to be a “world religion,” with support in Europe, America, and East Asia. Taoism, which is the English spelling of Daoism, was focused on the literary and philosophical tradition of the Zhou Dynasty until recently. The name “Taoism” refers to a system that is both religious and philosophical. This system promotes ritual mastery of the spirit world and holistic well-being. Laozi, which means the “Old Infant,” is the purported author of the Daodejing. Another important figure is Zhuangzi, “the most significant of China’s early interpreters of [Taoism]” (Ware and Ames 2017). The Daodejing is known as the seminal text of Taoist tradition. Furthermore, many scholars have claimed it as the most translated text in human history. This text has been translated to dates no earlier than the third century which is approximately 500 to 1,000 years after the Sage was believed to have lived (Nadeau 2014).

Legends of how the Daodejing came about began to circulate as early as the fourth century BCE. One legend in particular describes an incredibly wise sage who was born at the age of 81 and was very disdained by the world’s ways. He mounted an ox and traveled to the barbarian ranches of the West. Here, the sage met with Confucius and was asked about the li. Confucius was very impressed by the sage’s responses and described him as a “soaring dragon” (Nadeau 2014). After departing, Laozi decided to share his wisdom in a text of 5,000 characters. This became the Daodejing, also known as “the 5,000 character classic” (Nadeau 2014). The history of Taoism is very interesting, along with its principles. There are three dimensions of Taoism with the yin-yang cosmology as the organizing principle. Furthermore, there are seven major themes of philosophical Taoism which include anti-Confucianism, uselessness, naturalness and spontaneity, non-action, intuition, transmutability, and the “uncarved block.”

The yin-yang cosmology originated with the Book of Changes. Although it was not fully developed until the Song Dynasty, it is the foundational symbol of religious Taoism (Nadeau 2014). Yin-yang is a concept where “opposite forces are seen as interconnected and counterbalancing” (Macias 2018). Yin is typically identified with feminine attributes and represents stillness, regression, and receptivity, whereas yang is identified with masculine attributes and represents activity, aggression, and movement. Taoism and Confucianism are believed to exist in a complementary relationship with Taoism being yin-oriented and Confucianism being yang-oriented. Ultimately, yin-yang is important in Chinese religion as Nadeau describes how “humans should strive to preserve the two forces in equal measure in their social interactions, in the natural environment, and in the physical selves.”

The three dimensions of Taoism include the temporal, the spatial, and the personal. The temporal dimension of Taoism is related to the Huainanzi, a cosmological treatise composed in the Han Dynasty. It states that “the universe came into being not by virtue of the acts of a divine being, but in a thoroughly naturalistic way” (Nadeau 2014). At the beginning of time there was a sea known as hundun, or “chaos.” From this sea a vapor or steam called qi arose. In Taoism, qi is a very important concept. Qi separates into two forces, yangqi and yinqi, as it rises. Yangqi is light and airy. It is also energetic, hot, and forms fire. The heat that comes from the fire creates the sun and stars. On the other hand, yinqi creates a cosmic breath. The yin-inhalations and yang-exhalations are very important for the unfolding of the cosmos. This creates a wave of energy, the Dao of the universe.

The spatial dimension of Taoism relates to fengshui, the art of “wind and water.” Humans strive to understand the impact of their actions on the natural landscape. For example, questions such as “How should a town or city be situated?” or “Which way should my house be facing?” are asked (Nadeau 2014). Ultimately, the goal of fengshui is to not disturb the natural balance or enhance the harmonizing of opposites when constructing on the land. Another aspect of the spatial dimension of Taoism is the “five phases.” Traditionally, this is represented as fire, water, metal, earth, and wood. These elements which are more so thought of as “activities” produce “the ten thousand things” due to their interactions with one another. From this arises a basic Taoist theme that “humans are active participants in yin-yang cosmological balancing, not in a way that violates the basic nature of things, but in a way that harmonizes it” (Nadeau 2014).

The third dimension of Taoism is the personal, which emphasizes the concept of personal identity. This concept views different aspects of personal identity as unified. The self is composed of qi and the body contains ten souls: three yang souls (hun) and seven yin souls (po). Hun is “represented by a vermillion dot centered on a spirit tablet placed on an alter within the home” (Nadeau 2014). The goal of the souls is to disappear into the heavens and then their rebirth. The po stick to the bones and stay with the corpse. These souls are associated with seven emotions and can be found in organs of the body such as the spleen, the gallbladder, the endocrine, and the liver. Furthermore, Taoism supports a healthy attitude towards sexuality. Love-making, which is believed to enhance life both physically and emotionally, is characterized by restraint rather than desire.

Anti-Confucianism, one of the major themes of philosophical Taoism, regards the idea that the goals and values of Confucianism are for the most part completely rejected. Nadeau explains how the Daodejing turns many Confucian values on their head and “instead of being whole, straight, new, famous, and luminous, Laozi says he would prefer to be crooked, bent, hallow, worn, hidden, and receding.” Another theme of Taoism is uselessness or wuyong. This is the concept that things that are considered useless are actually extremely useful. For example, something such as an old tree may seem useless to a carpenter trying to get wood to construct houses or ships. However, if one looks at the tree from a different perspective, he or she can make use of the old tree to take a nap under its shady limbs.

Ziran, or naturalness and spontaneity, advocates a harmonizing of the self with the cosmos and natural world. It is the idea that one should take action in a manner of what comes naturally. A concept that ties into this Taoist theme is the use of fengshui. Another theme of Taoism that is similar to ziran is non-action or wuwei. Non-action is related to the idea of simplicity, stillness, and going with the flow. This theme is found in a Taoist meditative tradition known as taijiquan, which involves slow and peaceful movements. To further understand non-action, one can think of water being one of the strongest things in the world. Water is “soft and yielding” and can flow into the lowest places but also wear down the hardest things such as a rock (Nadeau 2014).

Intuition can be thought of as a new way of thinking rather than a rejection of thinking. It is best described as “knowledge of what the outcome of events will be, where threats are hiding, where possible paths of success are, and [being able to determine] whether or not a person is telling the truth to you” (Joe and Jose 2014). Transmutability, also known as hua, is another Taoist theme. It believes that “the world of Taoist creation is not linear and concrete, but cynical and abstract” (Nadeau 2014). Transmutability regards the idea of the transformation of natures. For example, Zhuangzi didn’t grieve the passing of his wife because he believes that she was transformed into something else.

Lastly, the final theme of Taoism is the “uncarved block,” or pu. This concept sums up Taoist philosophy as a system of thought and values. It emphasizes the idea of being simple, honest, and unadorned. Furthermore, it is the idea that “all of nature was at its most powerful when it was in its original, unchanged, and natural form” ( 2019).

Overall, Taoism is a very interesting tradition with roots dating back to as far as the third century. The Daodejing, which is claimed to be the most translated text in human history, had a special influence on Taoism. The yin-yang cosmology is a vital concept of Taoism along with the three dimensions: the temporal, the spatial, and the personal. Furthermore, there are seven major themes including anti-Confucianism, uselessness, naturalness and spontaneity, non-action, intuition, transmutability, and the “uncarved block.” Keeping these themes in mind is crucial when studying Taoism and many of their principles can be found in the way people live their lives today.