What is Tao? - Taoism in Ancient Chinese Philosophy
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What is Taoism?

Lao Tsu
Later portrait of Lao Tsu

April 2017 - Taoism is a philosophy or way of life that may have been started by a man named Lao Tsu (or Lao Tzu) who lived a little before Confucius, about 600 BC. Tao means the "way" or the "path". According to the traditional story, Lao Tsu worked as a librarian in the emperor's library (this was in the Eastern Zhou dynasty).

Lao Tsu believed that the way to happiness was for people to learn to "go with the flow." Instead of trying to get things done the hard way, people should take the time to figure out the natural, or easy way to do things, and then everything would get done more simply. Instead of working all night on a math problem you don't understand, for example, you might ask a friend to explain it, or just wait for the teacher to explain it in class the next day. This idea is called "wu-wei", which means "doing by not doing".

Lao Tsu also thought that everything alive in the universe (plants, animals, people) shared in a universal life-force. There were two sides to the life-force, which are called the yin and the yang. People use this picture to show how the yin and the yang are intertwined with each other.

The yin (the dark side) is the side of women, the moon, things that are still like ponds, and completion and death. The yang (the light side) is the side of men, the sun, things that move like rivers, dragons, and creation and birth. Everyone has some yin and some yang in them, and Taoism says that it is important to keep them balanced. Chinese doctors believed that a lot of illnesses were caused by too much yin or too much yang.

Because everything has this life force in it, Lao Tsu thought it was wrong for people to fight each other in wars, killing the life force, and people should be sad when they had to fight, instead of celebrating their victories. (You might contrast this idea with the Hindu idea of dharma.)

He also thought it was wrong for governments (or anybody else) to make a lot of rules and laws about how people should behave. This would only make people act the same way all the time, and sometimes they would go against the Tao, breaking the principle of wu wei. So Taoism was against anything with rules, like special food diets. He thought people should make their own decisions in each situation.

Lao Tzu (or someone else pretending to be Lao Tzu) wrote down his ideas in a book called the Tao Te Ching, which has been copied over and over and which you can read online at this site.

Learn by doing: making a Chinese scroll
More about Zen Buddhism
More about Confucius
More Chinese philosophy

Bibliography and further reading about Taoism:

Chinese Philosophy
Chinese Religion
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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