The Origins of Daoism

Long before Daoism and Confucianism began, the Chinese had developed religious beliefs, rites and writings.  Chinese folk religion included myths, folktales and ways to communicate with ancestors and deities.  One main element of Chinese folk religion is ancestral reverence- rituals that recognize the spirits of their ancestors and a means to communicate with them hoping the dead will help the living.  Satisfying the needs of the dead is a constant concern of the Chinese.  They believe ancestors deserve attention and care and if not, the hungry ghosts (those who are uncared for) will be a constant source of problems for the living; money, clothing or other material thing are burnt as a way to send it to their dead ancestors.  During celebrations food is prepared for the hungry ghosts so the ghosts won’t eat the food that had been prepared for gods or ancestors.

The early Chinese belief was both a philosophy and a religion.  The Chinese did not believe that there was a difference between heaven and earth; heaven is the Yang and earth is the Yin.   The Dao is the path, course or way of the universe and is influenced by nature.The       Yang and the Yin are forces which are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world – both exist in balance and seek harmony.  Humans, regardless of their sex, may be male or female.  The Yang is the male side of the Dao and exemplifies bright, warm and dry conditions of the Dao where the Yin represents dark, cool and moist conditions of the Dao.  The Yin is opposite of the Dao and in order to have peace in the family, the Yin and the Yang must live in harmony.  Heaven is Yang and contains living ancestors who are both Yin and Yan; it is the same way with the Yin – earth is occupied by both males and females who one day will become ancestors living in heaven

The Yijing (I Ching) is an ancient book of China that helped people decide how to plan their lives in harmony with the universe.  It influenced both Daoism and Confucianism.  It predates recorded history and revolves around the Yin-Yang; there are 64 hexagrams, each hexagram has six lines.  These patterns, when interpreted, offers guidance in choices an individual may have while hoping to maintain a balance between the Yin and the Yang, hoping to avoid upsetting the balance between nature and heaven.  The Yijing was an important component when Daoism and Confucianism were being formed.

The Dao De Jing focuses on the harmony of opposites within the flow of the Dao.  It is central to both the philosophical and religious parts of Daoism.  The title literally means, the way, virtue and great book and was authored by Laozi, who is the creator of Daoism.   In addition to a balance in nature, the Dao De Jing adds an individual’s relationship to society and nature, emphasizing the values of a solitary life vs. organized society, renouncing many of society’s expectations.    The Dao De Jing “…emphasizes that the natural course of things is nest; left undisturbed, the natural course leads to harmony and perfection.  Artificial structures among persons or in societies eventually will bring discord” (Matthews 175).

  The Dao De Jing is poetic and the ideas are singular; the Dao De Jing purposefully encourages contradictory interpretations through use of vague and ambiguous words.  There is no one right way of interpreting it and interpretation may change from day to day, year to year for each individual.  It consists of 81 short chapters divided into two sections:  The first 37 chapters focus on the meaning of Dao and the remaining chapters focus on the power of character.

There are eight points most central to the Dao De Jing:

  •  The nature of the Dao – the order of the universe
  • Changing perspective – we need to disentangle ourselves from beliefs we live by that have been established through words and experience life directly.
  •  Value relativity- all values are only human conventions that we project onto the world. Good and bad are non-natural distinctions that we need to discard if we are to see the world as it really is.
  • Nature and spontaneity- The processes of the Dao may be most clearly seen in the action of the non-human world, Nature. Trees and flowers, birds and beasts do not follow a code of ethics and act spontaneously from instinctual responses. The order of Nature is an image of the action of the Dao. To grasp the perspective of the Dao, human beings need to discard judgment and act on their spontaneous impulses.  The inhabitants of the Natural world are “self-so,” they simply are as they are, without any intention to be so. Human beings live by purposive action, planning and striving. To become Dao like, we need to return to an animal-like responsiveness to simple instincts, and act without plans or effort.  Wuwei is the most central Dao principle that focuses on accomplishing tasks without assertion   If you are in the flow with Dao you can accomplish more than people who assert themselves.
  • The distortion of mind and language- Rather than allow our minds to serve as a responsive mirror of the world, we have used it to develop language and let our thoughts and perceptions be governed by the categories that language creates, such as value judgments.  The person who practices wuwei  quiets the mind and leaves language behind.
  • Selflessness – the practice of wuwei entails a release from pursuits of self-interest and a self-centered standpoint.
  • Power and sagehood- The person who embraces the spontaneity of wuwei and leaves self-interest behind emerges into a new dimension of natural experience, and becomes immune to all the frightening dangers that beset us in ordinary experience.
  • The human influence of the sage – The selfless power of the sage endows him or her with a social prestige that cannot be matched by ordinary people. So magnificent is the presence of the sage that those who come into contact with such a person cannot help but be deeply influenced.
  • The political outcome-  the Daoist sage comes effortlessly to subdue the world; he will necessarily be treated as its king. The rule of such a king will be to discard all human institutions and social patterns that are the product of human intellectual effort and value judgments. The people will be returned to a simple and primitive state close to animal society, and this social environment will itself nurture in the population a stance of wuwei . Ultimately, the world will return to the bliss of ignorance and fulfillment in a stable life of food gathering, food consumption, and procreation, all governed by the seasonal rhythms of Nature and the Dao.  (Dao De Jing 6-7

Since the Dao is the source of all reality, it is not a thing, a being or a substance.  It is not a non-thing or non-being either and is beyond distinction, so it is beyond defining.  It is the underlying natural order of the universe and is nameless.  To define is to distinguish it and it is not to be distinguished as just one thing; it is nameless and can not be defined (Chua 6).


Chinese Folk Religion Overview.  Faithology.  Web.  4 Apr 2013.

Chua Soo Meng, Jude.  “Embodying the Nameless and Formless Dao: Pedagogical Lessons on Affective Education from the Wang Bi Dao de Jing”.  2002.  Web.  5 Apr 2013.

Eno, R.  The Dao De Jing.  Indiana University, Early Chinese Thought.  2010 Fall.  Web. 5 Apr 2013.

Matthews, Warren.  “Religions of China and Japan”.   World Religions.   2010.  Wadsworth : Belmont  Print.

Yi Jing – I Ching – The Book of Changes.  Wengu Chinese Classics and Translations.   Web.  4 Apr 2013.

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