The Taoists trace their original founder to the Yellow Emperor, and even to the Divine Farmer. They consider all the hermit philosophers under the Five Ti Rulers as of their school. Lu Shang, the prime minister of the first Chou emperor and the founder of the Ch’i state, who is commonly known as Chiang T’ai Kung, was also a Taoist sage. The extant teachings of these ancient sages is very ambiguous.
The real beginnings of Taoism begins with Laotzu, the Old Master. According to Su-ma-Ch’ien, the historian, who lived at the beginning of the First Century B. c., Laotzu was the official historian and custodian of the secret archives of the Cheu state. He was an older contemporary of Confucius and records a visit which Confucius paid him. He also tells of Laotzu’s passing the guard at the frontier and writing the book.
History tells us that there were two more early Taoists in the Chou Dynasty. Lao Lai Tsu, a native of the Ch’u state, wrote a book of fifteen chapters which has been lost. Another Taoist named Lao Tan, who was also a historian of the imperial house, lived in the same state. These three Taoist sages who lived 200 or more years apart, according to history, are commonly believed to be the same man, who by his wisdom had attained longevity. Because of this some modernist scholars question the very existence of Lao-tzu and ascribe everything to the Loa Tan, but the simpler and more probable solution of the confusion is to accept the historicity of all three, but to give the credit for the original writing to Laotzu and consider the others as able disciples and possibly editors. The book in its present form might not have been written until the Third Century at about the time of Lao Tan for it was engraved on stone tablets soon after that time. It might even contain some of the verses by Lao Tan without detracting from the larger credit that belongs to Laotzu. There are a number of legends that have gathered about the name of Laotzu but which only serve to throw doubt upon his existence.
The Chinese character for Tao is difficult to translate. It is made up of two characters: shau, meaning to lead, or the head; and hsing, meaning to walk, or a trail. Tao, therefore, would carry the meaning of ‘that which leads us to walk on trails.’ From this comes the meaning, The Way, or The Path, and a second meaning, Law or Method. There is a third meaning, also, the Word, or to talk. Tao is one of the oldest and commonest words used in ancient Chinese literature. It was used long before the beginning of Taoist philosophy. The same word is also used in Confucian works and just as frequently. But it was the Taoists who generalized it and mystified it and brought it to mean, instead of a practical method for the conduct of life, the abstract and natural course of things, and the pure nature of the universe and of life.
Laotzu’s conception of Tao is something formless, nameless, invisible, unspeakable. It exists from before the creation and will exist till after the dissolution of all things. It has neither beginning nor end; it never changes but witnesses and withstands all changes. Tao is the mother of all substances and is the motive of all movements. It is the only and the absolute law of the universe. Laotzu’s conception of teh is, that it is the virtue of Tao, the original nature of Tao, and should, therefore, be practiced by all human beings. By following this primeval law and by living in a state harmonious with it, one would be following the true Way of life, which is teh. His view of the universe is expressed by the term, Tsu-jan, which means, ‘by itself, so’, that is, it is pure naturalism. Everything is what it is because of its own nature as it follows its natural course. Because of an endless chain of causes and effects and conditions it can not be otherwise. He did not believe in a personal God, nor even in supreme intelligence, nor in any final purpose. The universe is simply an ever flowing current. It moves by a certain force, in a certain direction, according to a certain formula, but with no fixed aim. His view of life is expressed by the term, wu-wei, which means, doing nothing, or inaction. The best thing one can do in life is to do nothing, or as near nothing as possible. One should reflect stimulating and responsive calls but must not go beyond this limit, nor take any part of the action from which he could be spared.
Laotzu was not an atheist but his conception of God and heaven is nothing more than nature. He is not an anarchist but his conception of government is to think according to people’s thought and to treat them as little children. He was strongly opposed to war and to the resort to force in any form be it expressed by law or religious rites or social custom. He is the chief representative of the negative and passive phase of Chinese philosophy.
Next to Laotzu comes Chuangtsu who lived about a hundred years later. His given name was Chou, his surname was Nan Wha. He was a native of the Meng district now a part of Anhui. He was at one time an actuary of the Ch’i Yuan. Requested by the king of Ch’u to become a minister of state, he declined and retired to write a book of fifty-three chapters of which since the Han Dynasty only thirty-three survive. The book was canonized by the T’ang emperors and named, Nan-wha Chen Ching. It is the second most important of the Taoist classics. It is divided into three parts of which the first part, consisting of seven chapters, is the most important. One will find in it more profound ideas and more elaborate discussions than in Laotzu.
There are three other classics of importance. The Lieh Tsu, by Lieh Yu-kou of the Cheng state; Wen Tsu, by Chi-jan of the Yueh state; and Ken-sang Tsu, by a scholar of the Lu state. These are the five classics of Taoism. As to their authenticity there is some question. Wen-Tsu is the oldest and it contains more quotations from Laotzu than the others. These books, and others written before the Eastern Han Dynasty and before the beginnings of Taoism as a religion, are suitable as sources for the study of the philosophy of Taoism.
Taoists, and especially Laotzu and Chuangtsu, are exponents of ancient philosophy and are very passive and non-resistant. They have always been the most radical leaders of thought against the state religion based upon the teachings of Confucius, against any military supported government and against any social order built up on conventions. They have always advocated free thinking and free teaching and, in the early days, after the passing of the feudal age, opened a new era of Chinese civilization. All schools of philosophy of their day and thereafter, and this includes the Confucian, came under their influence. No philosopher however different his philosophy ever disputed the Taoist philosophy or its teachers. On the contrary, they all proclaimed in some measure to be derived from ancient Taoist teachings. Aside from the Taoist religion, the ancient Taoist teachings have had a very strong and permanent hold on Chinese life and thought both personal and collective. Taoist elements of thought lie at the basis of Chinese characteristics of patience, reserve, egotism, peacefulness, and contentment. Whether these characteristics are virtues or not, it is in these qualities that the Chinese characteristics and the Taoist teachings are identical. Though both Taoism and Confucianism have taught the same principles of Tao and teh with similar definitions in many respects, the Confucianists compared with the Taoists have taught a more positive and active presentation of them. The Confucianists emphasize human activities in forming civilization, while the Taoists advise merely a return to nature and an obedience to her laws. It is therefore the Confucian scholars of later days who have criticized Taoism as being a one-sided philosophy that is good only for retirement and is bad for government. Some Taoists have replied to this by saying that nature itself is evolution and is never at a standstill, and that their course is wiser because it falls in with nature instead of foolishly trying to change or expedite the natural process of things.
Laotzu’s idea of a return to nature is, however, somewhat different from that. Laotzu advocates passivity because it is the safest position in which to undergo natural evolution; he advocates simplicity because it is the best attitude of mind to understand compliance. He depicts the cultivation of Tao and teh first in one’s person, then in his family, then in his town, then in his state, and then in the whole world, which is the same order that Confucius taught in his Great Learning. Laotzu often discusses about government and state affairs. He uses the term ‘the perfect Sage’ frequently and by it generally refers to the ruler. By reviewing the glorious achievements of the early Han emperors who reigned according to Laotzu’s understanding of the principle of Tao, we are convinced that the Taoist philosophy, though a negative philosophy, is not alone a philosophy for hermits.