It is said that Laozi, the founding figure of the set of beliefs known as Taoism, lived at the same time as Confucius, and once met him face to face. Being mostly told from the point of view of Laozi’s converts, the stories of their meeting don’t tend to paint Confucius in a terribly flattering light. He is described as a nervous, overly earnest little man, “with a long body and short legs, his back a little humped and his ears set way back,” demanding nuggets of wisdom from Laozi as he might noodles from a roadside stall. The patient Laozi smiles indulgently, and laces his replies with gentle mockery: “Get rid of your pride and your many ambitions, your affectations and your extravagant aims. Your character gains nothing for all these. This is my advice to you.” Confucius goes away chastened, his worldview utterly confounded. “I know how birds can fly, fishes swim, and animals run,” he mutters to himself. “But then there is the dragon — I cannot tell how he mounts on the wind through the clouds and rises to heaven. Today I have seen Laozi, and can compare him only to the dragon.”
Laozi’s Taoism has stood ever since as the necessary counterbalance to Confucianism in the collective soul of China. For Confucianism, with all its pedantic rules for external conduct, can offer little comfort when work and family relationships fall away and one is left to face a dark night of the soul all alone; one craves a deeper, more personal philosophy of existence during such times. The Taoist side of Chinese culture has often been obscured behind the elaborate performances of Confucianism, so much so that many a foreign visitor has failed to even notice it. Nevertheless, it has consistently been there. Observe, for example, how some of the most beloved characters in Chinese literature are sly tricksters and free-spirited outlaws — embodiments of the Taoist worldview, the antithesis of Confucianism’s fussy strictures.
What precisely is Taoism? That can be a difficult question to answer, not least because Taoism is not especially interested in explaining itself; it is possessed of none of Confucianism’s instinct for explication. Even the name is vague: Taoism means simply “The Way.” “He who knows The Way does not speak about it,” said Laozi. “He who speaks about it does not know it. He who knows it will keep his mouth shut and close the portals of his nostrils.”
Laozi — the name means “Old Master” — is a chimerical figure in the annals of China; many modern historians doubt that he ever lived at all. He is said to have been employed for at least part of his life as a librarian in the state of Chu, but he eventually came to reject the sorts of wisdom which could be gleaned from his stacks of books. Instead he gathered around him what we might call followers — he would surely have rejected the label — and lived in harmony with them and with nature, without feeling the need to do any more than that. Near the end of his life, Laozi decided to withdraw from even his like-minded companions’ company, to end his days as a hermit in the countryside, as close to nature as he could possibly come. As he was preparing to leave, he was asked to write down some words of wisdom for posterity. He grudgingly provided about 5000 of them in verse form, in a small book that has become known as the Tao Te Ching, or “Classic of The Way.” And then he left, never to be heard from again.
Notwithstanding his early career as a librarian, Laozi saw little of enduring value in the intellectual life. “Let people revert to the practice of rope-tying [instead of writing],” he said. “Then they will find their food sweet, their clothes beautiful, their houses comfortable, their customs enjoyable.” Perhaps because he saw the very idea of a book of wisdom as so dubious, the Tao Te Ching seems almost deliberately confounding, shot through with apparently contradictory statements, not to mention a rich vein of a wonderful human quality oddly rare in our species’s philosophical and religious texts: the quality of humor. Much of the Tao Te Ching seems consciously crafted to give Confucianism and all of its hierarchical self-righteousness a poke in the eye.
Do not honor the worthy,
and the people will not compete.
Do not value rare treasures,
And the people will not steal.
Do not display what others want,
And the people will not have hearts confused.
When people are hard to govern, it is because they know too much.
Thus those who use knowledge to rule a state
Are a plague on the country.
Those who do not use knowledge to rule the state are the country’s blessing.
Whereas the heroes of Confucianism tend to be emperors, kings, sages, and bureaucrats, those of Taoism tend to be ordinary working men. A favorite parable stars an aged wheelwright named Pian, who comes upon his duke poring over a book of philosophy one day, and asks him why he is reading “the dregs of long-dead men.” The duke angrily replies that Pian should explain why he feels empowered to denigrate the wise men of old, or else expect to face the executioner’s axe. And Pian does explain himself, well enough that the duke can do nothing but pardon him for his offence.
I see things in terms of my own work. When I chisel at a wheel, if I go slow, the chisel slides and does not stay put; if I hurry, it jams and doesn’t move properly. When it is neither too slow nor too fast, I can feel it in my hand and respond to it from my heart. My mouth cannot describe it in words, but there is something there. I cannot teach it to my son, and my son cannot learn it from me. So I have gone on for 70 years, growing old chiseling wheels. The men of old died in possession of what they could not transmit. So it follows that what you are reading is their dregs.
That which is being expressed here is by no means foreign to the Western tradition. The ancient Greeks spoke of a fundamental division of the human experience of the world, into the physis (that which is sensual, intuitive, Dionysian, physical) and the logos (that which is intellectual, methodical, Apollonian, logical). According to some points of view, the life of the closeted scholar of the logos, ringed in by his musty books, pursuing his minutiae at the expense of feeling and simply being in the world of physis, is the most sadly circumscribed life imaginable. Some say the rot began to set in as soon as we began to plant crops and to plan and invent this thing called civilization which has caused us to become unstuck from the real rhythms of life; see, for example, Jean Jacques Rousseau and his cult of the noble savage. Or see a later Taoist text by the eccentric ascetic Wang Zhe, of the early thirteenth century AD: “The [civilized] mind is that mind which will be dragged into all kinds of thoughts, pushed into seeking out beginnings and ends — a totally restless and confused mind.”
Newcomers to the Chinese philosophical tradition often struggle to separate Taoism from Buddhism, another antidote to Confucianism’s strictures that reached the country somewhat later, during the second century AD. And indeed, some of their precepts can sound quite similar. Yet their surface similarities mask a great difference: like most codified religions, Buddhism is at bottom a religion of the logos, whose ultimate goal is to escape from the prison of physis to the non-being of Nirvana. Taoism, on the other hand, is a religion — yes, we can go so far as to use the word — of physis. Some Taoists believe that an individual who attains complete oneness with the physical world can become immortal. But, tellingly, he doesn’t ascend to any idealized heaven; he continues to live right here among the rest of us.
Here, then, we come to the core tenets of Taoism, to whatever extent it contains such things. A more complete name for it might be “The Way of Nature.” It emphasizes doing and being rather than thinking, living in the world rather than forever trying to escape it or to reason away its mysteries (an activity which often stems from the same escapist impulse). Real understanding — real peace of mind — can arise only from this spirit of simply being in the world, unencumbered by intellectual abstractions. The athlete running down the track with the wind in his face and his blood pumping in his ears is closer to grace than a thousand scholars poring over tomes of alleged ancient wisdom. Taoism is the way of love and sex, of music and dance, of combat and tragedy, a way which cannot be expressed in a philosophical tract, which can be captured only through the ineffability of art, and then only fleetingly and incompletely. It is how the Chinese get their groove on. “I would like to talk about it,” says the Taoist, “but there are no words.”
Still, there is perhaps a reason that the Greeks held the physis and logos to be philosophical equals, both equally necessary to the proverbial well-lived life. Taoism arguably encompasses only a portion of the manifold aspects of a complete life, just like Confucianism. Small wonder then that China, a country unusually comfortable with the notion of opposites that exist in paradoxical harmony, has taken to them both as another of its many yins and yangs. An old Chinese proverb says that every person is a Confucianist during times of happiness and success, a Taoist during times of sadness and failure. Another states that a man is a Confucianist when he goes to work each day, but a Taoist when he returns home and picks up his fishing pole.
The greatest recent proponent of Taoist philosophy by my lights never actually called himself a Taoist. Lin Yutang, who lived from 1895 to 1976, was a rare example of a writer equally fluent and accomplished in two languages, in his case Chinese and English. In his 1935 book My Country and My People, an attempt to explain Chinese culture to the Western world, he emphasized the epicurean joys of Taoism over abstruse Confucian philosophizing, whilst also bringing to the fore Taoism’s appealingly “roguish” spirit of good humor.
There is no profounder collection of a concentrated roguish philosophy of life than that contained in the 5000 words of Laozi’s Tao Te Ching. Taoism, in theory and practice, means a certain roguish nonchalance, a confounded and devastating skepticism, a mocking laughter at the futility of all human interference and the failure of all human institutions, laws, government and marriage, and a certain disbelief in idealism, not so much because of lack of energy as because of a lack of faith. It is a philosophy which counteracts the positivism of Confucius, and serves as a safety valve for the imperfections of a Confucian society. For the Confucian outlook on life is positive, while the Taoist outlook is negative, and out of the alchemy of these two strange elements emerges the immortal thing we call Chinese character.
Hence all Chinese are Confucianists when successful, and Taoists when they are failures. The Confucianist in us builds and strives, while the Taoist in us watches and smiles. Therefore when a Chinese scholar is in office he moralizes, and when he is out of office he versifies, and usually it is good Taoist poetry. That explains why almost all Chinese scholars write poetry, and why in almost all collected works of Chinese writers, poetry occupies the better and greater half.
For Taoism, like morphia, is strangely benumbing and therefore strangely soothing. It relieves Chinese headaches and heartaches. Its romanticism, its poetry, and its worship of nature serve the Chinese as handsomely in times of trouble and discord as Confucianism serves them in times of peace and national integration. In that way it provides a safe retreat for the Chinese heart and a balm for the Chinese soul when the flesh is submitted to trials and tribulations. The poetry of Taoism alone has made the rigorous life on the Confucian pattern endurable, and its romanticism has saved Chinese literature from becoming a mere collection of eulogies on the imperial virtues and a rehash of moral exhortations. All good Chinese literature, all Chinese literature that is worthwhile, that is readable, and that pleases the human mind and soothes the human heart is essentially imbued with this Taoist spirit. Taoism and Confucianism are the negative and positive poles of Chinese thought which make life possible in China.
The Chinese are by nature greater Taoists than they are by culture Confucianists…
It is in the nature of any history such as this one to focus on the collective at the expense of the individual’s experience, just as Confucianism does. But as we continue our journey down through China’s many centuries, it would be good to keep in mind that the roguish spirit of Laozi was always there as well, winking at the Chinese people from the sidelines, putting the lie to all of the high-flown rhetoric of their leaders. Now as ever, Taoism serves as the necessary counterpoint to their and our obsession with politics and mass movements and wars, reflecting truths that are more personal, more soulful, and perhaps more profound than any mere political or even ethical philosophy can encompass. Ideologies and empires have come and gone in China, but The Way of the Old Master abides.
Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. Pledge any amount you like on Patreon.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)
One Comment for "Chapter 5: The Way of the Old Master"
That is a stunningly concise and beautifully written chapter, Jimmy! It feels on point and accurate, yet playfully aware of the elusiveness of its subject. It’s difficult enough to describe Taoism as it is and I think you’ve done a stellar job. Also, I was happy to see the great Lin Yutang referenced and quoted!