What is Tao? Taoism in Ancient China

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Lao Tzu - a painting of a man riding an ox. What is Tao?

What is tao? A Later portrait of Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu: What is Tao?

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).

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Wu-wei: Go with the flow

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”. So what is Tao? following the windings of the path – not striking out across country on your own.

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Yin and Yang in Taoist philosophy

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.

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Taoism and peace

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.)

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The Tao of government

Lao Tzu 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.

So what is Tao? Did you find out by reading this article? Let us know in the comments.

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Bibliography and further reading about Taoism:

Chinese Philosophy
Chinese Religion
Ancient China
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By |2018-11-23T13:43:22+00:00June 7th, 2017|China, Philosophy, What|15 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is Tao? Taoism in Ancient China. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 7, 2017. Web. December 16, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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 Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. Wilburforce November 20, 2018 at 10:36 pm - Reply

    The West keeps romanticizing Chinese culture, but others see Chinese philosophy with no linkage to either Zoroastrian or Buddhist faith.

    • Karen Carr November 23, 2018 at 11:59 am

      (Sorry I had to delete most of your post because it’s our policy not to post comments that make negative generalizations about groups of people.)

      China has a long and successful tradition; their lack of interest in our copyright laws may be related to our lack of interest in their laws, which you can read about here: https://quatr.us/china/opium-wars-history-china-1800s.htm

  2. codie November 5, 2018 at 3:49 pm - Reply

    this is a good site and i love it

    • Karen Carr November 5, 2018 at 3:53 pm

      Thanks, Codie!

  3. Jane English September 18, 2018 at 6:23 am - Reply

     I write to you asking for your help in reaching some of the over a million people who have the edition of Tao Te Ching that I created with my husband Gia-fu Feng back in 1972. 

    I want to let them know about my new book, A Rainbow of TAO that I have chosen to publish independently through my own imprint, Earth Heart.

    If you could mention this on your website or in a newsletter I would be most appreciative

    Thank you

    Jane English

    • Karen Carr September 18, 2018 at 6:33 am

      Sure! Hey people – check this out. What do you think?

  4. Jahleel June 14, 2018 at 4:30 pm - Reply

    Pls add more info

    • Karen Carr June 14, 2018 at 10:00 pm

      Please ask a question! Otherwise I don’t know what to add in order to help you.

  5. jahleel June 14, 2018 at 9:14 am - Reply

    This is very useful thxs

  6. joe March 22, 2018 at 4:57 pm - Reply


  7. karma March 16, 2018 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    🙂 thx

  8. whon dude March 7, 2018 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    hi this is a really good site

    • Karen Carr March 7, 2018 at 11:01 pm


  9. richard December 7, 2017 at 3:51 pm - Reply

    i like this thank you

    • Karen Carr December 8, 2017 at 10:59 am

      Thank you!

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