Taoism: the Exploration of Philosophy and Religion
in a Chinese Cultural Context
China History

Research Report
Web Resources

This report will examine Taoism, the philosophy and its religious offspring, and trace its history and development in order to see how this system of thought has shaped Chinese culture.  The premise of this analysis is to show that by understanding the philosophies and religions of a particular culture, one can better understand the position of that culture today.  In order to do this, Taoism's history and tenants will be examined to explain where it stands today.  Also, cultural areas that have been affected by this philosophy will be explored, particularly areas including poetry, art, and religion.  These areas reflect the larger intellectual trends of a nation’s people as well as their outlook on life and thus offer an excellent source for modern understanding of the Chinese people.  Important philosophic figures such as Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, as well as cultural icons such as Li Po and Wang Wei will be discussed. Central to this analysis will be the development of the Tao as it relates to all aspects of Taoist thought and its influence on Chinese culture as a whole. As one will see, the Tao plays a major role in all areas of Taoism, therefore having a huge impact on Chinese culture to this day.

Historical Background

Modern China is a writhing, pulsing, ever-expanding nation that is simultaneously on the brink of socio-political upheaval and world economic domination.  The Communist Party in China is losing its philosophical justification to rule while at the same time economic openness is leading to increased standards of living and greater social mobility. For peoples of the “Western” world, relatively little is known of the people and government that make up this powerful nation to the East.  However, with a population making-up close to one fifth of the world’s population and is spreading its influence throughout Southeast Asia and the world, sooner or later China will need to be given attention.  What is known of China and its culture seems to be made up of cinematic stereotypes and a Western fear of Communism, both of which are extremely narrow sighted understandings.  Although it is true that China and the West developed in extremely different manners, the two are not as different as one might expect and have actually developed in synchrony with each other.  For example, westerners often take for granted that modern thought is strictly a western phenomenon, created by the ancient Greeks and passed down to modern times.  However, Asia, and China in particular, saw an equal explosion of philosophical development around the time of the ancient Greek philosophers and transmitted these ideas to Europe via the Silk Road trade established during the Roman Empire. 

Much as western thought traces its roots to ancient Greece and figures such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, Chinese philosophy bases itself on men like Confucius, Mensius, Lao Tzu, and Chuang Tzu.  The two primary forces that have shaped Chinese culture throughout history are Confucianism and Taoism.  This report will look at Taoism, the philosophy and its religious offspring, and trace its history and development in order to see how this system of thought has shaped Chinese culture.  Particular cultural areas will include poetry, art, and religion.  Why are these important?  To understand a given people one must have an appreciation of where they have come from, what it is that makes them who they are today.  These areas reflect the larger intellectual trends of a nation’s people as well as their outlook on life.  Ignorance of these factors leads to fear, hatred, and calamity.  As it is important to understand oneself, so too is it important to understand those different from oneself.  Through this analysis, one should hopefully gather a new appreciation of Taoism and Chinese culture as a whole, finding the beauty in this diversity.

Research Report

The historical founding of Taoism as a philosophy is difficult to assess.  Owing to this is China’s historical lack of a sense of authorship regarding the development of their written language.  It is interesting to note that in the western tradition, writing developed as a means of telling people what they previously did not know.  In China however, writing was developed as an aid to memory.  Chinese researcher Dr. Arthur Waley points out that the types of documents found of ancient China are descriptions of infrequent rites, ceremonies, and dynastic major events, documents necessarily anonymous.  These works were merely, “the work of scribes, mechanically writing down things that were in danger of being forgotten” (Waley 101).  This is something to keep in mind when dealing with exact dates and names in the research of ancient China.

The general founding of Taoism is traced to a sixth century B.C. philosopher named Lao Tzu (most likely born Li Erh) and a collection of works credited to him known as the Tao Te Ching.  Some scholars believe Lao Tzu to be an older contemporary to Confucius, though there are some who believe the Tao Te Ching to be a compilation of poems by various authors collected under the pen name Lao Tzu, or “Old Master” (www.hebucto.ns.ca).  Stories of Lao Tzu’s life are fascinating, if not somewhat far-fetched.  According to legend, Lao Tzu was carried in his mother’s womb for 82 years until a miraculous birth produced an infant who was an old man with a long white beard and haggard face.  However, when he was born he still exhibited the same behavior as an infant of nine months.  Another legend concerning the writing of the Tao Te Ching holds that Lao Tzu was a librarian at an imperial court, when, at eighty years of age, he left the court to travel to what is present day Tibet.  Supposedly Lao Tzu was saddened and disillusioned by the unwillingness of mankind to follow the path of natural goodness.  At the border a guard asked him to record his teachings before he left.  Lao Tzu then composed in three days while sitting at the border what is now the Tao Te Ching (Eastman 219). 

Regardless of these legends, Taoism as developed by Lao Tzu is an individualistic, mystical philosophy highly influenced by nature.  He believed that the natural world existed in perfect order and saw man and his human activities as a blight to this harmony.  Focus was thus turned from “the folly of human pursuits” towards one’s natural self.  An aspect of Taoism often found in the Tao Te Ching is a kind of existential skepticism.  This notion relates to Lao Tzu’s disdain for human endeavors in that one must realize the impermanence of everything in the world.  According to Lao Tzu, one must transcend the accepted conventions of man and think and act for oneself based on one’s natural state (www.hebucto.ns.ca).  Several other tenants explored and taught by Lao Tzu have remained relatively unchanged and deserve particular attention, among them: tao, wu wei, and the yin-yang.

Central to Taoist thought is Lao Tzu’s belief that all straining or striving is not only vain but counterproductive as well.  This leads to the recommendation of wu-wei, or “to do nothing”.  This concept should not be equated with or assumed to imply inaction, rather, “to do nothing” means to follow and shape the flow of events to satisfy the natural order of things rather than by acting through principle. The important element here is spontaneity of one’s actions to meet circumstances independent of social norms (Eastman 223).  This tenant was very appealing to many Chinese rulers and helped to make Taoism a viable option for the philosophical basis behind one’s rule.  Through this type of inaction, Taoists councilors and advisers could purport to have the perfect philosophy with which to council.  Supposedly because a Taoist philosopher naturally wanted nothing, he thus could never fail.  If he could never fail then he always must succeed, and whoever always succeeds is he who is powerful.  This idea of power relates to one’s harnessing of the powers of the natural world, referred to as the tao.

Possibly the most import element to Taoist philosophy is the concept of the Tao, a term that has been translated in several ways but essentially means “the way” or “the path” (Eastman 218).  It is present in all aspects of Taoism and is fundamental to Taoist thought.  For example, the Tao Te Ching roughly means “The Law of Virtue and Its Way” (www.hebucto.ns.ca). Arthur Waley describes the tao as “a road, path, way; and hence, the way in which one does something” (Waley 30).  It is a formless, fathomless source of all things.  To follow the tao one follows the path of simplicity and pureness. The late German Professor Frederic Spiegelberg expands on this definition with a slight tint of the wu-wei concept when he writes, “Tao is, so to speak, the course of nature, or what we might call seasonableness; the agreement of circumstances with the needs of the hour,” (Eastman 219).  The Tao imparts a metaphysical nature to all of creation.  To understand this concept one can turn to an excerpt from the Tao Te Ching. 

    We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
    But it is on the space where there is nothing that the
    Usefulness of the wheel depends.
    We turn clay to make a vessel;
    But it is on the space where there is nothing that the 
    usefulness of the vessel depends (ChapterXI Tao Te Ching) (Waley155).

The Tao is shown here as the emptiness that gives the object its innate character, that which makes the vessel unique.  Spiegelberg compares the Tao in man to that which makes an artist exceptional.  An artist who has harnessed the tao reflects it not in his ability to draw; rather, in his ability to transmit the insights he has received to others.  This ability is usually autonomous of physical communication.  The artist’s persona comes forth through the work to transmit one’s experience (Eastman 224). 

The third concept of the yin-yang offers a visual picture to the essence of Taoism.  The Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu once wrote: “’Heaven and Earth and I live together, and therein all things and I are one,’” (Eastman 248).  The yin-yang is a circle divided into black and white halves by a curving line.  In the white half of the circle is a black dot while in the black half of the circle there is a white dot.  This image is the purest example of Taoism’s belief in interpenetration and interdependence.  Everything in life and the entire world carries within them the seeds of their own antithesis (interpenetration), and because of this are one with everything and thus are one (interdependence).  The tao is the way to find this relationship, yet at the same time is that relationship.  Thus the yin-yang is visually apt because it shows the duality of all creation, while at the same time illustrating the non-duality through its oneness of being.  It is essentially one symbol encompassed by one circle. 

Taoism and Confucianism may be looked upon as the yang and the yin of China.  Generally speaking, Confucianism focuses thought towards community and duty while Taoism thrives in isolation and freedom.  Historian Lin Tung-chi describes this relationship as, “the cool reasonableness of one [Confucianism] offset by the poetical intuitiveness of the other [Taoism]” (Eastman 241).  Alone each philosophy is a viable alternative to the other, but together the two make up the philosophical backbone of China.

The years after Lao Tzu have seen many changes to Taoism but essentially the central premises of this philosophy have been unchanging.  There are a couple figures worth mentioning for their contributions to Taoism.  During the third century B.C. a philosopher named Chuang Tzu expanded on Lao Tzu’s thoughts, adding a transcendental focus on virtue in the nature of things.  His discussions of nature and man’s place within it led to a greater focus on the individual as well. His greatest contribution lies in his contribution of the notion of self-transformation.  For Chuang Tzu life is ever changing and dynamic, constantly in flux with the dualities of the world.  In order to reach the tao, one must transcend these dualities, seeing the world and the occurrences therein for their oneness.  This for Chuang Tzu was the way to the tao and helped shape in the Taoist conception of the yin-yang (www.chebucto.ns.ca) .  Two other philosophers of note are Yang Hsiung and Wang Ch’ung, both from the first centuries B.C. and A.D. These men are known for their work in incorporating certain Confucian principles into Taoism, as well as trying to make Taoism a more respected philosophy. 

Eventually the concepts and beliefs that made up Taoist philosophy came to represent for many an entity very much like God, in the more abstract and philosophical sense of the term.  From this state of being a religion emerged that carries on to this day.  Prior to the founding of a formalized Taoist religion, there existed a wide variety of religious practices in China including folk traditions, ancestor worship, and various other cult-like groups including those who sought immortality.  Many of these immortality seekers held places of high esteem in numerous political courts and were exposed to a wide variety of philosophies and ideas.  Sometime around 100 B.C. Taoist philosophy and immortality seekers became intimately linked, though prior to and even today Taoist following the Taoist philosophy does not necessarily entail being Taoist in the religious sense.  It was at this time that Yang Hsiung and Wang Ch’ung came to the forefront of Taoist philosophy, urging the irrationality of the immortality seekers and the separation between them and Taoists, though to little avail.  The interrelation was so great that immortality seekers eventually were referred to as Taoists (Eskildsen 4-6). 

Taoism as a religion did not take off until the second century A.D. when organized Taoist religious movements emerged, such as the Great Peace School (taiping dao) and the Five Pecks of Rice School (wudoumi dao), also known as the Heavenly Masters School (tianshi dao).  These institutions helped to spread this religion to the peasantry by combining elements of folk religions with immortality concepts.  They even organized armed rebellions during the Han Dynasty, including the famous Yellow Turban rebellion.  Taoism as a religion sought to immortalize both mind and body, though it is unclear if all Taoists believed in the immortality of the flesh.  None-the-less, immortality was sought after in many strange ways, including alchemy, macrobiotics, and fasting techniques that included “air eating”. 

The force that would help to ensure Taoism as a viable religion was the infusion of Buddhist thought during the fourth century A. D.  Historian and Professor Stephen Eskilden points out, as Buddhist influence became greater there seemed to be a greater emphasis on spiritual enlightenment and transcendence rather than physical longevity and immortality.  The influx of Buddhist thought strengthened the philosophical and spiritual basis of the Taoists and new Taoist religious texts emerged to add credibility to the faith.  Many of these texts sound strikingly familiar to Western religious doctrine, with provisions against adultery, idol worshipping, and coveting of possessions.  These texts would influence China much in the same way as the Quran or Bible influenced Western cultures and are still influential today.

Modern Taoism is generally carried on by two schools of Taoists: priestly and monastic.  The priestly sect focuses on ritual behavior of a group or person while the monastic sect focuses on self-cultivation and self-denial.  During the Cultural Revolution of Maoist 1960s a concerted government effort was made to eliminate Taoism as a religion from China altogether, but fortunately the effort did not succeed and thanks to tolerant policies implemented in the 1980s Taoism is strengthening itself in China once again (Eskildsen 155).

One is now left to question where this can be reflected in Chinese culture.  The answer to this question is simple: Taoism manifests itself throughout Chinese culture still does to this day.  Chinese development of natural sciences, psychology, mathematics, and astronomy all have been greatly impacted by Taoism.  Taoist philosophies of infinite space and vapor condensation led to important astronomical discoveries and the theory that beyond the celestial sphere (the sky) is infinite space. Taoist use of paradoxes in their teachings helped to develop advanced mathematical theories and psychological principles.  Perhaps of greater interest though, is a more aesthetically pleasing side of culture, that of the arts.  Chinese poetry and art are exceptionally unique, different from anything seen in Western traditions.  Its uniqueness then is that which needs examination

In 1952 Jacquest Maritain gave a lecture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. explaining the inner principles of Chinese artistry.  Among these principles Maritain expounded was the idea that the harmony found in Chinese art was conceived as “a sort of interpenetration between Nature and Man” (Chang  8).  This interpenetration allows the art to become spiritualized.  In other words, when an artist reveals the reality concealed in things, he sets it free, which in turn liberates and purifies the artist.  As historian Chang Chung-yaun states, “This invisible process, fundamental to Chinese art, is the action of tao… at the root of their [the artists] creative activity there is a common experience, without parallel in logical reasoning, by means of which objectivity and subjectivity are ‘obscurely grasped together’” (Chang  8).  Art should express the tao by transcending the distinction between object and subject, allowing for an intuitive, immediate awareness of the tao to come forth.  Artistry should lead to an ultimate conclusion that man shares in the universe and discovers a harmonious unity that reflects the tao itself.  The following Chinese verse may help to understand this relationship.

    The wild geese fly across the long sky above
    Their image is reflected upon the chilly water below.
    The geese do not mean to cast their image on the water;
    Nor does the water mean to hold the image of the geese (Chang 57)

In the poem above, there is no intention in the relationship of the geese to the water below, but it is in this moment that their beauty is most purely reflected.  Chang puts it quite succinctly when he writes, “Our minds are simply God’s [the tao’s] mirror, reflecting the ‘here-now’ of creation” (Chang 57).

In Chinese painting one can see this relationship in the subject matter, the line, and what is not seen in the painting.  The line and stroke of the painting often is simple, though highly stylized.  The subject of the work is not meant to be expressed through the line but through an “inner-brush” from within the painting.  The simplicity of the work spontaneously excites a wholeness of spirit that makes the work beautiful.  Chang writes that what the painter produces is “absolute reality of objects… through the free play of intuition” (Chang 94) leading to an unfolding of the mystery of our hearts.  The viewer, therefore, becomes one with the painting, oneself, and the world in an almost existential encounter with reality.  To describe the style of this type of painting might best be described as the method of no-method.  Expanded, this can be understood by the following: “In this spontaneous reflection one’s potentialities are set free and great creativity is achieved without artificial effort” (Chang 203).  This style of art does not take place in conscious thought through logical reasoning, but through an inner experience unfolded on the canvas.

In poetry much of the same holds true.  The famous Li Po’ writes in one of his poems: 

        You ask me why I stay in these blue mountains.
        I smile but I do not answer.
        My mind is at ease!
        Peach blossoms and flowing streams pass without a trace.
        How different from the mundane world! (Chang 173)

Li Po describes his actions and some occurrences around him, but he never attempts t describe the inner sensation that makes him smile.  Though he never describes this feeling one is left with the sense of sweet innocence and pure joy.  The inner awareness of Li Po is unexplainable, and yet is tangible to the reader through a unity or oneness that is explainable only as the tao.  Another example of this relationship, though slightly different, is found in the poetry of Wang Wei.  He writes:

        In quiescence I hear the cinnamon blossoms fall.
        When the night has come, the Spring mountains are silent.
        Suddenly the moon appears from behind the clouds
            And startles the young birds;
        By the mountain stream they chirp and chirp (Chang 177) 

In the above poem there is a quality of self-sustaining reality.  Logical conceptualization of the events described offers a shallow glimpse of a beautiful nature scene, but the reader and the poem are brought together fully through the “spiritual rhythm flowing back and forth between the objective reality of the picture and the subjective reality of the beholder” (177).  The simplicity of the description allows the viewer to share in the experience of the author once again reinforcing the oneness so prominent in Taoist art.

Historical Significance

Having looked at the history and elements that make up a major part of Chinese culture one can finally turn attention to the China of today.  The twentieth century, when viewed from this Taoist point of view, can be seen as a balance in the Chinese world between Confucian structuring of society and the Taoist focus on the individual.  Most of the twentieth century illustrates the domination of Confucian behavior and ideology on Chinese life as seen in the rise of Communism and the focus on the community.  Today, China seems to be shifting towards a self-based society similar to that of the Western world.  However, this analysis should prove that this shift to a “Western” society is not in fact simply western, but intrinsically Chinese as well. 

Perhaps this relationship between the East and the West may be seen in the East’s conception of  Taoist freedom as it hits the core of Chinese society.  Lin Tung-chi explains that, “Taoist freedom is the freedom of a pre-social or an asocial being, while the libertarian freedom of the West is the freedom of a socially conscious man,” (Eastman 242).  The expansion of Chinese civil rights and economic freedoms are certainly linked with the advantages gained by contact with the West, but to suggest that this desire for freedom is simply imported from the West is narrow sighted.  The freedom sought after in China is necessarily the Chinese concept of freedom that has been displayed throughout its history. 

The Taoist philosophy and religion, and the subsequent influence they have had on Chinese culture, offer insight to understanding China of the twenty first century.  By appreciating and understanding these developments in light of one’s own history one can draw comparisons to find similarities and differences that hopefully will form the basis for mutual respect and peace.  As in typical Taoist fashion, the unity of man is once again echoed.  The West and East may be different in many respects, but together here on Earth essentially only one remains. 


Chang Chung-yuan. Creativity and Taoism. New York: Harper & Row. 1970. 

Eskildsen, Stephen. Asceticism in Early Taoist Religion.  New York: State University of 
New York Press. 1998.

Giradot, N.J. Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape.  Cambridge, 
Mass.: Harvard University Press. 2001.

Lin Tung-chi. "The Chinese Mind: Its Taoist Substratum". Ed. Roger Eastman. The Way of 
Religions. 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999. Pgs 240-246.

Smith, Huston. "Tao Now: An Ecological Statement". Ed. Roger Eastman. The Way of 
Religions. 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999. Pgs 246-256.

Spiegelberg, Frederic. "Living Religions in the World". Ed. Roger Eastman. The Way of 
Religions. 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999. Pgs 218-233.

Waley, Arthur. The Way and its Power. New York: Grove Press. 1958.

Web Resources

http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/Philosophy/Taichi/taoism.html : accessed 11/7/02 through 
             This site contains a look at Taoism in general, particularly focusing attention on Neo-Taoism and the Taoist faith.

              This site offers an excellent overview of Taoism regarding its role in modernity, martial arts, and even in relation to other philosophies and religions.

              Lao Tzu is described at length in this site, though relatively limited in subject matter this is an interesting site to visit.

              I had to throw this website on the list simply because it supposedly is the Catholic Church's description of Taoism.  The information is very accurate and unbiased, but for some reason I found this amusing.

             This is an incredible site to research Taoism, it even allows for you to communicate with other people viewing this site in Chinese or English.  Art, philosophy, religion, and links to related topics are all easily available from this site.

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Joseph A. Camilli