Taoism: A Mystery of Great Influence
China History

Research Report
Web Resources

    Chinese civilization has gone through many phases over the thousands of years of its existence, with one of the more glorious times being the Western Zhou. Political stability and social harmony brought peace to a semi-united China.  With the decline of the Western Zhou came the decline of Chinese society, sparking new ideas on what way of life would lead to more prosperous times.  Daoism was one of these new philosophical ideas.  Although the history of Daoism is filled with mystery, its teachings were able to spark great change in Chinese culture and society, and have continued to influence the modern world with its strong attachment to the importance of nature in each person’s life.  Taoism has proven to be a timeless philosophy appealing to people of all eras and societies.  The two great Daoist teachers, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, looked to help shape their decaying society, and though their teachings were modified over the years they influenced the forming of a religion, created a new art form, and the concept of feng shui, in which people try to focus the energy of their life into their own homes. 
Historical Background

        According to Chinese history, the Western Zhou period began around 1027 B.C. and lasted until 771 B.C.  This was a great period for the Chinese for the emperor cared greatly for his people, and in order to insure their prosperity he set up subordinate rulers to rule the many territories of China.  Society was structured with each person playing his or her own role in society.  One of the most noteworthy people of this time was the Duke of Zhou who was a regent to the emperor and helped create a peaceful and prosperous China.  These times would not continue forever though because, according to historian Conrad Shirokauer, “...Zhou rulers could not prevent fighting among their territories and were even more troubled by the incursions of non-Chinese peoples” (Shirokauer, 25-26). These non-Chinese people eventually forced the emperor to move the capital farther east. 

       The moving of the capital marks the end of the Western Zhou and the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period.  The Eastern Zhou was divided into two periods: the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States.  Society during the Eastern Zhou declined from the way it was during the Western Zhou, leading to instability and hostility.  China became divided and each of the states fought with one another trying to gain total power.  The lack of a strong government and constant warfare led to the development of Chinese philosophy.  Confucius was one of the philosophers that had noticed the decline of Chinese society. 

      Confucius lived towards the end of the Spring and Autumn period, which meant that he did not have to see China during its worst stages.  However, he still noticed the decline of China and tried to become an advisor to a ruler.  His goal was to unite China and bring its society back to a level comparable to that during the Western Zhou.  He never became an advisor so he began to teach the people, hoping to help each person better fulfill their duties to their family, society, and government.  He is only just one philosopher that arose during the Eastern Zhou. 

Research Report

        While historians can determine when the Confucian philosophy arose, it is not so easy to pinpoint the origin of Taoism.  This is largely in part because the history of Lao Tzu, one of the founders and great teachers of Taoism, is somewhat of a mystery.  The legend of Lao Tzu says that he was born in 604 B.C. after,"been conceived some sixty-two years before...he was born. (Welch, 1) It is also said that he lived to be nearly two hundred years old.  It can be determined that Lao Tzu lived during the Eastern Zhou, and like Confucius, watched his society crumble.  It cannot be known to what extent he witnessed this, since the exact years that Lao Tzu lived are a mystery.  It is also unknown as to exactly when he wrote the Tao Te Ching, one of the most important Taoist texts.  It is also important to recognize that Taoism changed significantly over the years and that later forms are substantially different from one another. 

     The two most important early Taoist philosophers were Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu.  They taught that the goal of each person should be to live the Tao, something that cannot be defined by words but can only be experienced.  Lao Tzu stressed the importance of wu-wei in the Tao Te ChingWu-wei has become known in the west to mean inaction.  This was Lao Tzu’s resolution to life and that action does not bring us close to our goals.  Along with inaction comes indifference.  If one has no concept of good or beauty, then that person can have no concept of what is evil or ugly.  He taught that each person needs to uneducate themselves and return to nature, for only then will they gain knowledge.  He argued that all humans have an interdependent relationship with nature.  Everything in the world has ch’i -- an energy force that flows through it.  The ch’i is very important in Taoist thought because it is the power that drives each human being.  While Lao Tzu wrote some of the most important concepts of Taoism, it is not to be mistaken that he was the only founder of the philosophy. 

     Chuang Tzu is the author of the other great Taoist text, the Chuang Tzu.  Herrlee Creel’s interpretation of the Chuang Tzu helps westerners understand the Tao.  He states, “the tao is not merely a substance and a thing.  It is the only substance and the only thing, for it is the totality of all things whatsoever...it is absolutely indivisible.” (Creel 2-3) Along with Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu’s text also deals with the strong ties that each person has with everything surrounding them.  All things of the earth are interrelated like pieces of one giant puzzle.  It is this notion that helps Taoists be able to interact with people within society in a peaceful manner, because they believe that all things that occur, whether good or bad, affect all of the people.  While he stresses the importance of nature, he also teaches that persons should act in accord with their own nature.  With that in mind, Chuang Tzu does not grieve over death because it is a part of human nature.  All enlightened Taoists would accept death for precisely that reason.  Later, towards the end of the Han dynasty, Taoists have a very different approach to death, which will be discussed below.  

With all parts of the world working together, another key concept of Taoism arises- the yin and yang. The yin and yang is the symbol used to demonstrate the attraction of opposites in Taoism.  The two pieces fit together to form a whole and help balance one another.  Two examples of opposites that the yin and yang represent are: fire and water; man and woman.  This is used to describe all things in nature as well as human action.  No two people have the exact same perspective on anything, and it is opposite perspectives that balance the world.  It is a very appropriate symbol to be identified with all forms of Taoism, because the yin/yang symbol and the world are both puzzles and if any of the pieces are missing neither can have a whole.

      While the yin/yang symbol can be associated with all forms of Taoism, it is appropriate to note the differences of these forms.  Over time followers of Taoism began to focus on the different aspects of the philosophy leading to three major sects: philosophical, organic, and religious.  Philosophical Taoism is the sect that most relates to the teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu.  Taoists that became hermits would more than likely fall into this class.  The goal is to obtain knowledge by reverting back to nature in order to live the fullest life.  This is how they believe they can experience the Tao.  This is also working with the notion to conserve their te (power) and use it to its fullest advantage while wasting none.  The concept of wu-wei is very important for these philosophical Taoists because inaction will deter them from wasting their te.

      The use of te is what most separates philosophical Taoists from organic Taoists.  Organic Taoists do not try to just use their te effectively and efficiently, but rather they try to maximize it in order to gain immortality.  These Taoists are also the ones who search for medical herbs in order to prolong life.  This is a significantly different from the philosophical Taoists approach to death, for it has been noted that Chuang Tzu’s teachings lead the people to accept death as a part of their nature.  According to theologian Huston Smith, this search for immortality is not for selfish reasons, but rather, “Their ubiquitous social concern led them to press the possibility that the ch'í... could be transmitted psychically to the community to enhance its vitality and harmonize its affairs” (Smith, 202). 

     Organic and philosophical Taoism may have their differences but they both relate to the individual.  Religious Taoism, however, pertains to groups, and was greatly influenced by the practices of Buddhism.  Taoism became institutionalized around the 200 A.D. (Smith, 205).  Just like other religions, Taoism now had incorporated gods, clergy, and temples to help Taoists practice their beliefs.  Smith states that these Taoist schools were, “crammed with rituals that, if exactly performed, have magical effects” (Smith, p. 205).  While this is great change to society, Taoism affected China in more ways than just being another religion for the people.

Historical Significance
Later in Chinese history, Taoism had become so popular that it affected the arts and the cultured gentlemen.  Painters and poets began to not focus on mere images or ideas, but on the essence of what was being painted or written.  The nature of the art was more important than the quality of the art.  The gentlemen began to discuss the essence of all things in what is known as “pure talk,” an often witty conversational pastime of the Tang Dynasty.  The focus on the essence of things strongly helped the Chinese to appreciate nature once again. 

    The Taoist understanding of nature and the Tao has reached people much farther than just those in the country it was founded.  Taoism has had a great impact on the modern western world, surviving the test of time and different cultures, proving that its teachings are worthy to be heard.  This can be seen through the popular practice known as feng shui.  Katina Jones, a feng shui teacher, has written that the practice, “ relates to the positive flow of energy through your indoor, outdoor, and spiritual surroundings” (Jones, 2). Large groups have been formed such as the Feng Shui Society which tries to help sere and educate people of their practice.  Most every person in the western world cannot be considered a Taoist, but the teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are still being used to this day. 


Creel, Herrlee G. What is Taoism? Chicago: The University of ChicagoPress,1970.

Greaves, Roger (translator). Lao Tzu and Taoism.  Stanford: Stanford University Press,1969.

Jones, Katina Z.  The Everything Feng Shui Book.  Avon, Ma:  Adams Media Corporation, 2002.

Schirokauer, Conrad.  A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations.  New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1989.

Smith, Huston.  World Religions.  San Francisco:  Harper San Francisco, 1986.

Welch, Holmes.  Taoism: The Parting of the Way.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

Web Resources

    Contains information about the practice of feng shui as well as journals and special events.

    Provides information about Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and the philosophy of Taoism.

    Contains articles about the practice of feng shui by Jenny Liu-daughter of a feng shui master.

    Database for infomation about Taoism.

    Homepage for the Feng Shui Guild, an organization which teached the practice of feng shui.

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