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A Short Overview of Daoism

C. E. Couling


The following text is reedited from an article in the Encyclopaedia Sinica, developed by the English missionary Samuel Couling and published in 1917 by the Shanghai firm of Kelly & Walsh. Couling’s goal was to found an encyclopedia for China on the model of Great Britain’s famed Encyclopædia Britannica, starting with articles about China written in English for the benefit of foreigners living in that country. The article on Daoism is signed “C.E.C.,” which the table of abbreviations informs us refers to “Mrs. Couling.”

The article is painfully dated, but (1) it is brief and (2) it has passed out of copyright so that it can be used by anyone free of charge. I have updated the romanization and added Chinese characters and occasional words of clarification. To facilitate on-line use, I have also increased the number of subtitles and paragraph breaks. Insertions and other notes are signed. A number of cross references to other materials on this web site are identified with the word “Link.” In addition, links to brief further discussions are included in the dramatis personae list. To avoid having readers lose their place, external links open in separate windows.


Page Outline

Dramatis Personae

Mythical Emperors


See also Most Ancient China: A Beginner's Guide for College Students

Part I: The History of Daoism

Origins of Daoism

Chinese scholars nave never doubted that Daoism was an indigenous growth, traceable back through Zhuāngzǐ 庄子 and Lièzǐ 列子 to Lǎozǐ 老子 and the Yellow Emperor [Huángdì 黄帝, reign 1a-3], (B.C. 2697). But some foreigners, struck with the disparity between Daoist doctrines and the typical Chinese mind, have sought an extra-Chinese origin for them. They have been ascribed to early Indian influence, Brahmanistic or early-Buddhist, Dào being sometimes identified with Dhârma; some early missionaries believed in a Jewish origin ; while Chaldea has also been credited with handing on mystical doctrines to China, together with astrology and other occult arts.

According to [the ancient historian] Sīmǎ Qiān 司马迁, practically the only authority on the matter, Lǎozǐ 老子, an older contemporary of Confucius (Kōngzǐ 孔子), gave such a new direction to certain ancient teachings that henceforth for centuries they were known as Huáng-Lǎo zhi Dào 黄老之道, i.e. “the doctrine (or craft) of the Yellow Emperor and Lǎozǐ.”

After Zhuāngzǐ 庄子 became famous, the teachings were also known as “the Doctrine of Zhuāngzǐ and Lǎozǐ,” while the use of the term “Daoism” to designate them seems to have come in about the time of Huáinánzǐ 淮南子, (died B.C. 122).

[The text called Huáinán Zǐ, dating to about 140 BC, does not consist of the writings of a single person called Huáinán, but rather of the philosophers (zǐ ) who gathered at the court of the ruler of a feudatory called Huáinán 淮南. Click here for details. — DKJ]

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Lǎozǐ & Confucius.

The age of Lǎozǐ [about 500 BC] was a time of great intellectual activity, which lasted till the accession of Qín Shǐ Huángdì 秦始皇帝 [reign5a-1, 221-209 BC]. The pressing problem which faced all the numerous schools of thought was a political one, viz., how to save the country, which through the weakness of the Emperor and the clashing of the feudal states was in a terrible condition.

As is well known, Confucius, who was an admirer of the reigning house of Zhōu [period 4, 1121-221 BC], believed in one eternally-best social order —“absolutism tempered by ancient precedents”— emphasized the necessity of a strong central government, and glorified [the legendary emperors] Yáo [reign 1a-8], Shùn [reign 1a-9], and other benevolent autocrats of the olden time.

Lǎozǐ however preferred Shāng [period 3, 1765-1122 BC] methods to those of Zhōu [period 4], and considered the simple “way” of the Five Emperors as better still. The Yellow Emperor [reign 1a-3] and Shén Nóng 神农, the Divine Husbandman [reign 1a-2], were superior to Yáo [reign 1a-8] and Shùn [reign 1a-9]. The remedy for the times was not a stronger central government so much as less government of all kinds. Confucius believed in the power of human nature to remain upright if properly taught; Lǎozǐ believed it would keep straight if left to itself. This is his famous doctrine of Wú-wéi 无为, (Inaction, or Non-assertion), which seems to have withheld him from trusting, as Confucius did, in the aid of literature [i.e., of ancient texts —DKJ].

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The First Emperor

Neither Lǎozǐ nor any of the many schools who claimed to expound Dào edited the ancient literature in their own interests, and Lǎozǐ has never been credited with any other work than the Dàodé Jīng 道德经 of five thousand characters.

For some three or four hundred years, i.e. till the First Emperor [of Qín —Qín Shǐ Huángdì 秦始皇帝, reign 05a-1] ascended the throne, other schools —Hedonists, Legalists, Rigorists, Militarists, Eclectics, etc., with the followers of [the idealist] Mòzǐ 墨子 and [the Confucian] Xúnzǐ 荀子, continued to dispute with the Confucianists, (whose doctrines had been supported and developed by Mèngzǐ 孟子 —Mencius), and with the Daoists proper, (whose beliefs had been expanded by Lièzǐ 列子 and Zhuāngzǐ 庄子).

But with the burning of the books and scholars in 213-214 BC [under the First Emperor of Qín], Confucianism was eclipsed, and an adulterated Daoism triumphed for a space. The new ruler and his chief ministers were under Daoist influence, of the more magical and grosser type, as is seen in the expedition sent to the Fairy Isles of the Eastern sea, and in the sparing of the Yì Jīng 易经 [Book of Changes], the one classical link between the Confucianists and Daoists, on the ground of its being a book on divination.

The First Emperor of Qín, who hated Confucianism, had a number of prominent ministers of Daoist proclivities, and there is record of various flourishing centres of the cult especially in Shāndōng 山东 Province, to this day a Daoist stronghold.

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Daoism in the Hàn Dynasty.

The Qín dynasty fell in B.C. 206, yet under the subsequent early Hàn 汉 Emperors [period 6, 206 BC - AD 220], Lǎozǐ’s doctrine was still favoured. Emperor Hàn Wéndì 汉文帝 [reign 6b-4, 180-157 BC], encouraged the search for the orthodox classics, and wished to restore the Confucian teaching and ceremonial, but his consort was a lover of Daoist teaching who disliked Confucius, and brought up her son and grandson in the same ideas.

It was apparently to please her that the Dàodé Jīng was made a sacred text, and in her son’s reign [Hàn Jǐngdì 汉景帝, reign 6b-5, 157-141 BC] it was decreed a schoolbook for the whole Empire. Her grandson, Hàn Wǔdì 汉武帝 [reign 6b-6, 141-87 BC], though he was an enthusiastic patron of the newly-recovered classics, and instituted the first literary degrees in 136 BC, yet for the greater part of his long reign was also devoted to the magic and wonder-mongery of the Daoists.

After the recovery of the classics and the revival of Confucianism, Daoism tried to adapt itself to the changed conditions. It got up a set of classics in imitation of Confucianism, and it developed systematically the search for the elixir of life, the philosopher’s stone and so forth. The chief agent in hastening this deterioration was ZHĀNG Dàolíng 张道陵 —see Sidebar 1— whose descendants still supply the so-called Daoist popes. He was believed to have attained immortality, and to have bequeathed his secret to his descendants, and many Chinese Emperors favoured Daoism in hopes profiting by the same.

Buddhist Competition. The débacle of Daoism was completed by the coming of Buddhism, from which new rival it began openly to borrow. The Daoists now set up a trinity consisting of Lǎozǐ, Pángǔ 盘古, (the Chinese demiurge [creator god]), and the Pearly [or Jade] Emperor (Yù Huáng 玉皇 —see Sidebar 2). They built temples and monasteries, the monks being at first allowed to marry, but in the tenth century that permission was rescinded. A Heaven and Hell were set up, and, though Dào itself has never been represented by any image, a pantheon as large as that of the Buddhists, and ever-growing, was introduced. After this transformation a long tug-of-war took place between the two religions, sometimes one being favour at court, sometimes the other, and sometimes both in disgrace together.

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Daoism in the Táng Dynasty

For examples, in 555 BC, the first emperor of the Běi Qí 北齐 dynasty [period 10L, 550-577] Emperor Wénxuān Wáng 文宣王 [reign 10L-1, 550-560 BC] commanded the two to discuss their tenets, as he was determined to suppress one. As a result, all the Daoist monks became Buddhist bonzes save four, who suffered martyrdom.

The first Táng dynasty Emperor [Táng Gāozǔ 唐高祖, AD 618-626, reign 12a-1] prohibited both Daoism and Buddhism, secularized all priests, and ordered books, images, and temples to be destroyed, though this edict was withdrawn after three years.

In 741 the Táng Emperor, Táng Xuánzōng 唐玄宗 [reign 12a-9, AD 712-756], authorized the opening of colleges for the special study of the Daoist philosophers, and instituted examinations, similar to the Confucian ones, in connection with them. It was this emperor who gave Lǎozǐ’s work the name of Dàodé Jīng 道德经 and wrote a commentary upon it, and even ordered that it should be substituted for the [Confucian Canon texts:] Analects [Lúnyǔ 论语] and the Zhōu Ritual [Zhǒu Lǐ 周礼] in the provincial examinations or the degree of jǔrén (举人). In 753, however, the Yì Jīng 易经 replaced it.

Emperor Táng Wǔzōng 唐武宗 [reign 12a-18, AD 841-847] was a Daoist devotee who became dumb through taking Daoist elixirs, with the result that his successor Táng Xuānzōng 唐宣宗 [reign 12a-19, AD 846-859] banished Daoism from the court, and brought back Buddhism, which had been proscribed.

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Daoism in the Sòng Dynasty & After

These confusing transitions end with the advent of Wáng Ānshí 王安石 AD 1021-1086] , the social reformer, and the Sòng [period 15] philosophers, especially the great [founder of “Neo-Confucianism”] Zhū Fǔzǐ 朱夫子 [= Zhū Xǐ 朱熹].

The third Sòng dynasty Emperor [Sòng Zhēnzōng 宋真宗, reign 15b-3, AD 997-1022] had been completely obsessed by the Daoists, who provided him with “letters from heaven” and so forth, though he was not unfriendly either to Buddhism or Confucianism. But [his successor] Emperor Sòng Rénzōng 宋仁宗 [reign 15b-4, AD 1022-1063] gave orders that no more building or repairing of temples was to go on, and [the famous neo-Confucian philosopher] Zhū Xǐ 朱熹, who was well acquainted with both Daoism and Buddhism, used all his influence to discredit them both, and succeeded.

From that time on, the two have been content to dwell side by side, borrowing and lending ideas and methods of working on the credulity of the multitude.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to infer that all Daoist monks are unworthy; both sides of Daoism naturally lead to seclusion from the world and ascetic practices in the case of serious devotees. The nobler Daoism —quietist, transcendental and mystical— has never wholly perished. Not only is Zhuāngzǐ 庄子, its noblest exponent, widely read for his style and beauty, but a small number of the elect —chiefly disappointed officials and the like— keep up the old Daoist tradition, as for example in the Láoshān 崂山 monasteries in Shāndōng 山东 Province. Daoist monasteries are, however, few when compared with those of Buddhism and are gradually becoming fewer.

Yet the influence of Daoism on China has been very great; many of the secret sects are more or less imbued with Daoist influence; and the Boxer movement of 1900 with its hypnotism and the invulnerability of those possessed of charms is the latest instance of its power.

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Part II: Daoist Doctrines

The word dào has been in use in China from the earliest times with the meaning of a road or way. Long before Lǎozǐ, the ancients used it metaphorically; the course of nature was dào; the ruler’s proper way of ruling, and the people’s obedience to the ruler, were dào; the teaching of these things was dào, and as ethical and political ideas grew, the connotation of dào grew also.

It is not certain how far the idea had been developed by the time of Confucius (Kǒngzǐ 孔子), but it was as well known to him as to Lǎozǐ. Dào and its correlative (the virtue which results from the cultivation of Dào) occurred in the ancient Yì Jīng 易经 and Lǐ Jì 礼记, and Guǎnzǐ 管子 (= GUǍN Zhòng 管仲 = GUǍN Yíwú 管夷吾 — see Sidebar 3) had perhaps already written a famous treatise on them, though the extant work bearing his name is, at least in its present form, certainly not genuine.

Dào was the common starting-point of all the schools of thought which arose at that time. The differences were those of interpretation. Wherever Lǎozǐ got his ideas from, in his mind Dào not only includes the course of nature and the right way of conducting human affairs, but is identified with the Absolute itself.

English Renderings. Many [English] equivalents have been suggested for Dào: Logos, God, Reason, Nature, the Way, Providence, the Absolute, etc., but none is quite satisfactory. E.g. in St. John’s Gospel Logos is rendered [into Chinese] by Dào, though, as Balfour points out, the Logos was conceived in Alexandria as an emanation from God, while in Daoism the Divine emanates from Dào. An obscure passage in the Dàodé Jīng says, “Dào appears to have been before God,” and Zhuāngzǐ says, “It is Dào which makes God a spirit.”

The word nature, if taken as including, first the nature of God, second, Nature in the physical sense, and third, the nature of man, is perhaps as good an equivalent as any other. Lǎozǐ seems unconscious that he uses Dào in two senses, i.e., as a substance from which the creation is developed, as well as the formative energy in creation.

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Appreciating Daoist Thought

Terse and vague as are the teachings of Lǎozǐ which have come down to us, they include much that is noble and valuable, and the sage’s chief ideas and aims are not obscure.

If the book which bears the name of Lièzĭ 列子 —see Sidebar 4— really in the main represents his ideas, he greatly improved the metaphysical side of Lǎozǐ’s teaching, especially with regard to cosmogony. Along with much valuable matter, the book contains a number of wild stories about “gemmy food” and other marvels, showing that the Master’s teaching was already becoming adulterated. See sidebar.

Zhuāngzǐ 庄子, the noblest of the Daoists, is concerned to maintain the pure doctrines as against both Lièzĭ 列子 and the Confucianists, whose apparent materialism wounds his idealistic spirit. The ethics of Lǎozǐ he accepted without alteration, but he developed the system of Lǎozǐ into a complete philosophy. He is a true mystic, and preaches that absorption in the Dào is man’s true goal. Yet he is not a pantheist, for he does not regard the human spirit as annihilated by this process, but as thereby filled to its true fullness and raised to ineffable bliss. Zhuāngzǐ’s ideas are elevated, his style is exquisite, and the text of his book is in the main as he wrote it. He is read by all scholarly Chinese with delight, and it is to his teaching that the sincerest Daoists turn most for support and edification.

The book known as Guān Yǐnzǐ 关尹子 [“Master Yǐn of the Pass” is said to have inspired the writing of the Dàodé Jīng], though fathered on [the legendary] Yǐn Xǐ 尹喜, [who is said to been a portal guard and to have induced Lǎozǐ to author the work as he passed through the gates of Luóyáng 洛阳, the Zhōu dynasty capital.] It is probably the work of a writer of the Sòng dynasty, who may be regarded as the last of the great Daoist thinkers. It shows throughout the influence of Mahayana Buddhism.

Huáinánzǐ 淮南子, whose book is one of the standard Daoist works, was an exoteric writer. [Sample: Link —DKJ]

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Inner and Outer Daoism

The later Daoists divide their teaching into Inner and Outer, i.e., the mystic, dealing with the cultivation of the inner nature, and the magical, dealing with outward actions and ceremonies, Inner and Outer together being designed to confer corporeal immortality on a being spiritually fitted for it. The mystic side is substantially the doctrines of Lǎozǐ and Zhuāngzǐ as outlined above. With regard to the magical side, Lǎozǐ is not responsible for the turn given to his teaching, for no encouragement for occultism is given in the Daodé Jīng. The wild stories of Lǎozǐ’s immortally are admittedly a later imitation of Buddhist wonders.

But from earliest times there had been Wū-ists (q.v.) [ = ancient shaman —DKJ] and exorcists in China, custodians of the secrets of the arts of healing and divination. Medicine especially had gone hand in hand with Dào doctrines. The Chinese Hippocrates, Biǎn Què 扁鹊, supposed to have been the physician of the Yellow Emperor, was a “Daoist.” From curing diseases to preventing them was an easy step, and from thence to go on to a hope of sublimating the body so as to escape death altogether, was not unnatural in primitive times. “The elixir of life and the genii originated as medical ideas.” Thus the ancient medical works of China are said to throw considerable light on obscure points in Daoism.

The successors of these early doctors and wizards fastened on a few obscure sayings scattered through Lǎozǐ’s teaching to justify their practices and their hopes. Even in Zhuāngzǐ, and much more in Lièzǐ 列子, marvellous and miraculous doings of eminent Daoists are related, and by the time of Huáinánzǐ 淮南子 in the second century B.C., occult researches for elixirs of life and means of transmuting baser metals into gold had been systematically superimposed on the mystic teachings of the Daoists. The Hàn Emperor Wǔ Dì 汉武帝 was especially superstitious in these matters, and the hopes of favour at court gave an immense stimulus to this side of the cult. From the time of Zhāng Dàolíng 张道陵 these beliefs and practices have sunk lower and lower, and though occasionally sincerely followed with the hope of obtaining personal immortality, they are mainly used as a means of supporting the poorer sort of Daoist monks.

Among the many things capable of aiding the body to become immortal are plants or parts of plants, especially the seeds and the resin of the evergreen pine and cypress, various fruits, fungi, and flowers. In the non-animate world cinnabar, gold, jade, and other substances are also thought capable of bestowing immortality. Long and rhythmic breathing, accompanied by certain kinds of posturing and gymnastics, is also practised in order to fill the body with the vital ether of the universe.

Part III: Daoist Literature

The most comprehensive collection of Daoist writings is the Daoist Thesaurus (Dàozàng QuánShū 道藏全书), an abridged edition of which runs (according to Faber) to eighty quarto volumes. This however includes a number of non-Laozian works, claimed by Daoists as their own, e.g. Mòzǐ 墨子.

Moreover, Bān Gù 班固 (AD 32–92), the author of the [“History of the Hàn”] Hàn Shū 汉书, claims that the first “Daoist” writer was Yī Yǐn 伊尹, the famous Prime Minister of Tāng , founder of the Shāng dynasty [reign 3a-1, 1765-1760? BC]; he considers Wén Wáng’s 文王 advisers, Lǚ Shàng 吕尚 (or Tái gōng 太公), and Yùxióng 鬻熊 as Daoist authors, and also GUǍN Zhòng 管仲 —see earlier sidebar— who was made Premier of the [Eastern Zhōu 东周 dynasty, period 4c, 770-256 BC] Qí state in B.C. 685.

It is evident that “Dào doctrine” was for centuries a vague term including a number of schools, of which Lǎozǐ’s was the one which at last succeeded in absorbing the rest, becoming greatly modified itself in the process. In pre-Qín times, Daoism perhaps covered everything anti-Zhōu.

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Canonical Writings

Daoist canonical writings alone number some hundreds; the exact figure is unknown. After the recovery of the classics and the consequent revival of Confucianism, the Daoists, realizing the advantage of a written standard, set up a canon of their own. Their doctrines being known as Inner (nèi ) and Outer (wài ), they elaborated a double set of canonical works, each part having five “jīng” [“scriptures”] and four “books” (shū ). The names of these twenty-six works are given by Faber in the China Review, vol. xiii. [A brief survey of the Daoist canon is available on this web site. Link. —DKJ]

They include the Dàodé Jīng 道德经, but not the works of Zhuāngzǐ, Lièzĭ 列子, or Guān Yǐnzǐ 关尹子, which were not called jīng till the Táng dynasty [period 12], the earlier meaning of jīng being rather that of a standard textbook, than including any idea of sacredness or revelation. Neither do the twenty-six include the Yì Jīng 易经, although that book is expressly claimed by Daoists as their own.

In addition to these works, the students of the mystical side are advised to study the Dào Shū Quánjí 道书全集 [“Complete Collection of Daoist Books”] and the students of the magical side Zhūpǐn Jīngchàn 诸品经忏 [“Comprehensive Commentaries, Scriptures, and Prayers”], certain ritualistic manuals including incantations and instruction in occult matters.

Outside the canon there are numerous writings, and new tracts even yet occasionally appear in the name of this or that god. Generally speaking, the newer a Daoist book is, the fuller is it of gross superstitions and idolatry.

While higher Buddhist literature, none of it of Chinese growth, has greatly influenced Daoist writings, it is only the inferior China-born popular Buddhist books which show the reaction of Daoism.

The writings of the magical side of Daoism are not of high ethical value, but have filled Chinese lighter literature with wonderful stories and poetical imagery. Nearly every beauty-spot in the land has its legend of some Daoist saint, genius, or fairy. [For examples on this web site, click here. DKJ]


The Historical Basis of Taoism, China Review, xiii, pp. 231-247.
Religions of Ancient China, Remains of Lao-tzû, etc.
China and Religion; Studies in Chinese Religion, etc.
Lao-tzû, a Study in Chinese Philosophy.

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