It was an age of political and social change and turmoil as the Zhou (Chou) dynasty was breaking down, which led thinking men to develop philosophies to explain, accommodate to, or change the state of affairs.
Two out of these philosophies, Daoism and Confucianism, would endure as dominant and complementary ways of life for the Chinese for more than two millennia.
While all schools of philosophy were seeking the way, or dao, one among them would appropriate the
word for its teachings. While Confucians sought to return society to the golden age of antiquity through moral reform and study, others sought escape to a simple life, living as recluses and being content with nonaction; their philosophy is called Daoism.
It is difficult to find reliable information about early Daoism. However, scholars accept two books as the earliest works on Daoism: the Laozi or the Daodejing (Tao-te Ching), which translates as the “Canon of the Way and Virtue,” and the Zhuangzi.
The Laozi’s purported author was a man called Laozi, which means the Old Master; he supposedly was a senior contemporary of Confucius and had worked as archivist at the royal court. There is no proof that Laozi existed, and the short, cryptic book of about 5,000 words attributed to him seems to be a composite work that is no older than the fourth century b.c.e.
It teaches that the mystic Dao is the source of all being, which must be intuitively understood by leading a passively yielding life. It is a terse and enigmatic work susceptible to many interpretations. Its political philosophy teaches the sage ruler not to interfere in the lives of the people, give up warfare and luxuries, and passively guide the people to lives of innocence and harmony with the Dao. Modern laissez-faire ideals find similarities with Daoism.
Zhuangzi, which means Master Zhuang, lived around 369–286 b.c.e. Very little is known about him, and the book that bears his name is witty, full of paradoxes and imagery. The message of the book is a plea for the freedom of the individual and his liberation from egotism so that he can come to understand the underlying unity of the Dao and thus achieve happiness that is beyond death.
Even though Daoists taught nonaction and passivity, they were nevertheless human enough to preach their view in competition with other philosophical views. One can hardly imagine a country governed by the laissez-faire Daoist philosophy.
Nevertheless, when Confucianism became China’s official philosophy after c. 100 b.c.e., Daoism continued to hold its attraction because of its imaginativeness and perhaps as an antidote to the serious-minded ideals taught by Confucius.
Daoist philosophy has been a leavening agent in Chinese life, a consolation for those who suffered failures and a relief to the many duties that circumscribed life. In this way Confucian and Daoist philosophies supplemented and complemented each other.
Neo-Daoism is a movement that began in the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 c.e.). One part of this movement undertook to harmonize Daoist teachings with Confucian social and moral ideals that made it possible for a Confucian official to be both a conscientious public servant and at the same to maintain a degree of detachment from the world.
The Daoist notion that rulers should rule passively and follow the advice of ministers appealed to Confucian officials. It became widely accepted practice during the Han dynasty that ministers should initiate policy and that emperors should not act before seeking the advice of his ministers.
When China fell to disunity for four centuries after the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 c.e., northern China came under the rule of non-Chinese nomads who had little understanding or use for Confucian doctrines. In this prevailing atmosphere two new movements took root. One was the popularization of Buddhism, introduced to China during the Han dynasty, at the beginning of the Common Era.
Buddhism did not gain widespread popularity under the Han, but its doctrines became widely appealing during the era of division. Similarly the intellectual energies that were absorbed by Confucian studies during the Han dynasties found outlet in the writing of commentaries on the Laozi and Zhuangzi during the era of division when Confucianism fell largely out of favor.
The study developed into a many-sided movement that investigated metaphysics, aesthetics, and religion. In the process these Daoist scholars also reinterpreted their philosophy in terms of the social and moral philosophy of Confucianism.
Some Neo-Daoists reacted to the disorder of the post-Han period by becoming hedonists and rejecting all social obligations and restraints. Their most famous example was a group during the third century c.e. that called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, who explained their flouting of all social conventions as the only way of preserving their moral integrity.
One of these seven famously had a servant follow him with a jug of wine and a shovel wherever he went so that he could have a drink whenever he felt thirsty and so that a hole could be dug to bury him wherever he dropped dead.
They have been called romantic for their antics and their revolt against a decadent society. Other romantic Daoists who lived as recluses in mountain retreats have used nature’s inspiration to create landscape paintings that became the most respected genre of Chinese art and to write nature-inspired poetry.
Religious Daoism is also called popular Daoism. It is also called the School of Huang-Lao, after Huangdi (Huang-ti) the Yellow Emperor (the legendary founder of the Chinese nation) and Laozi. Whereas the Laozi and the Zhuangzi taught some adherents to live simply and in tranquillity, and others to reject the trammels of conventional behavior, another movement led by followers of the occult was also under way.
The result was the coalescing of many ancient folk superstitions and cults. Their goals were a long life, terrestrial immortality, and ultimately celestial immortality, reached through divination and magic, breathing and other yoga-like exercises, and living a moral life.
Daoist sorcerers and shamans used the Laozi and Zhuangzi as texts, searching for occult meaning in vague and suggestive phrases. They also consulted the Yi Jing (I Ching), or Book of Changes, an ancient text that began as a diviner’s handbook and had acquired obscure commentaries for their guidance.
Alchemy involved the search of substances and concoction of drugs that could improve health and prolong life, and also the turning of base materials into gold. Daoist experiments resulted in advances in chemistry, mineralogy, and pharmaceuticals and resulted in the invention of the compass, gunpowder, and porcelain. However, the questionable motives of the experiments made them less than reputable academically.
There were many subgroups among religious Daoists. One cult was called the Way of Five Bushels of Rice because its founder, a man called Zhang Ling (Chang Ling), who lived in the second century c.e., demanded five bushels of rice from his followers. They called him Heavenly Teacher, and he passed his title to his descendants to modern times.
The merit system taught adherents to think good thoughts and perform good deeds in order to prolong life and attain immortality and explained illness, death, and misfortune as punishments for ones’ own sins and those of one’s forebears; heaven or hell were everyone’s ultimate destination.
Popular Daoism learned from Buddhism in building temples, rituals, festivals, and instituting orders of monks and nuns. It has a large pantheon consisting of deities, historical heroes, immortals, spirits, and sacred spots. It enjoyed imperial patronage beginning in the Han dynasty, as rulers sought long life, immortality, and communion with the spirits.
Tang (T’ang) dynasty rulers also patronized religious Daoists, even as many were devout Buddhists, because the imperial house was surnamed Li and Daoists had long since given Laozi a surname, also Li, thus giving the ruling house an illustrious ancestor. The same elements that made religious Daoism favored by rulers also made it popular with the people of China.