What is Tao? Taoism in Ancient China

Home » What is Tao? Taoism in Ancient China
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Lao Tzu - a man riding an ox

Later portrait of Lao Tzu

Taoism is a philosophy or way of life. A man named Lao Tzu (or Lao Tsu) may have started it. He lived a little before Confucius and the Buddha, about 600 BC. Tao means the “way” or the “path”. According to the traditional story, Lao Tzu worked as a librarian in the emperor‘s library (this was in the Eastern Zhou dynasty).

Lao Tzu 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. 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 Tzu 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 we call the yin and the yang. People use this picture to show how the yin and the yang are intertwined with each other.

a yin/yang symbol, white with a black dot on one side, and white with a black dot on the other side

Yin/Yang – symbol of Taoism

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 Tzu thought it was wrong for people to fight each other in wars, killing the life force. 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. The rules would break 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
And more about Confucius
More Chinese philosophy

Bibliography and further reading about Taoism:

Chinese Philosophy
Chinese Religion
Ancient China
Quatr.us home

By | 2017-10-14T16:34:24+00:00 June 7th, 2017|China, Philosophy, What|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is Tao? Taoism in Ancient China. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 7, 2017. Web. November 23, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

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.

Leave A Comment