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READ: Daoism

The Dao, meaning “the way,” is an ancient Chinese belief system which emphasizes harmony with the natural, balanced order of the universe.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What, according to the article, is the core concept of Daoism?
  2. Daoism and Confucianism seem to have emerged about the same time. How did they differ?
  3. Confucianism became very important in governance and highly adopted among the powerful in this era. What about Daoism?
  4. Confucianism tended to have a gender hierarchy in which men were more respected and powerful. How did Daoism treat gender, according to this article?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. How do you think a community (such as China) could hold both the Daoist and the Confucian belief systems at the same time? What might that tell you about that society in this era?
  2. What do you think a state would look like if it adopted Daoism as its governing belief system?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Daoism

Painting shows a man, standing, turning back to look at a gust of smoke
Eman M. Elshaikh
The Dao, meaning “the way,” is an ancient Chinese belief system which emphasizes harmony with the natural, balanced order of the universe.

The Daoist way

Belief systems tend to come with rules and prescribed (approved) practices. These include rituals, dietary restrictions, and laws. Daoism, sometimes called Taoism, is somewhat different because it seems to avoid strict systems of rules and laws. One of China's indigenous belief systems, Daoism is centered on the practice of wu wei, which means inaction. That might sound like Daoists believe in doing nothing, but that's not quite right. Instead, it means that a person should do nothing that conflicts with the Dao. So what is the Dao?
The Dao, which means "the way," is the natural order of the universe. Daoists strive to be in harmony with this natural order. Rather than following particular rules, Daoists cultivate a sense of naturalness, called ziran. By being in tune with this, they believe they can avoid violence, suffering, and struggle.
Picture shows a manuscript covered in language symbols, written in black ink, on a piece of brown silk
A part of a Taoist manuscript, ink on silk, 2th century BCE, Han Dynasty. Public domain.
The sixth-century Daoist text, the Dao De Jing, sometimes translated as "the Way and Its Power," describes the central philosophy of Daoism as:
"Being and non-being create each other. Difficult and easy support each other. Long and short define each other. High and low depend on each other. Before and after follow each other. Therefore, the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn't possess, acts but doesn't expect. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever."
This text, which emphasizes the balance between opposites and the importance of yielding to the natural order, is usually attributed to the Chinese sage (scholar) Laozi. But historians aren't really sure when—or if—he existed. Laozi literally means "the elder," and not much is known about this legendary figure. Some think he lived at the same time as Confucius, while others date him to the later Warring States Period. Paintings from different points in Chinese history depict the two thinkers meeting.
A detailed scene shows two elderly men, seated, meeting outside. One man is much older than the other, his hair white. Others stand on either side of the two seated men.
A painting depicting Laozi meeting Confucius from the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368 CE). By Shih K’ang, public domain.
Whether or not Laozi and Confucius ever actually did meet, these belief systems have important points of contact. In fact, the term "dao" is also used in Confucian thought, where it refers to an ethical way of living. But the Daoist and Confucian communities disagree about how that works. Daoists consider a Confucian emphasis on strict rules to be somewhat misguided. The Daoist community believes that nature, not people, ultimately controls how things change. Therefore, humans and their rules are less important. They also see the Confucianist emphasis on culture and civilized society as unnecessary and rather unnatural. One powerful Daoist symbol is the image of a piece of uncarved wood. Where other symbols might show human ingenuity—like a cross or a star—the uncarved wood represents purity, simplicity, and nature—free of dishonesty and human intervention.
A somewhat-faded painting depicts the meeting of two men, with two others behind them.
A Western Han (202 BCE—9 CE) fresco depicting Confucius and Laozi, from a tomb of Dongping County, Shandong province, China. By Xinhua News, public domain.

Daoism and society

Although Daoism is not focused on action or rituals, Daoists do employ a number of practices, some of which are communal, and influence the ways communities as well as individuals act. These include both passive and active meditation practices, as well as certain forms of martial arts.
Daoists have historically had a variety of relationships to political power, but, in general, Daoists stayed away from matters of government, preferring to live naturally and simply. Similarly, wealth, status, and fame were all no-nos. Instead, Daoists promoted a lifestyle of small, self-sufficient communities in harmony with nature. This meant retreating from many aspects of Chinese culture and society, including language and education. Another excerpt from the Dao De Jing says that:
"Though they had boats and carriages, they should have no occasion to ride in them; though they had buff coats and sharp weapons, they should have no occasion to use them.
I would make the people return to the use of knotted cords (instead of written characters).
They should think their (coarse) food sweet; their (plain) clothes beautiful; their (poor) dwellings places of rest; and their common (simple) ways sources of enjoyment."
This emphasis on simplicity also had important social effects. Both Confucianists and Daoists believed that the family unit was incredibly important. But unlike Confucianists, Daoists did not create a sharp divide between genders. Daoist women were permitted to be spiritual figures and teachers. In fact, the Dao De Jing places a positive emphasis on things that are often associated—fairly or unfairly—with femininity and women, like fertility, softness, and submission. The ancient principle of yin and yang, or the idea that all things exist as entwined, complementary (harmonious) opposites, also symbolizes the masculine and the feminine. The feminine yin, is valued in Daoist belief systems as a necessary and natural aspect of the universe. Indeed, because Daoists emphasize naturalness and inaction, a more yielding, non-dominating yin is seen as beneficial.
An octagonal ceiling features several symbols in bright colors, surrounding a yin and yang, which is in the center. Leading up to the ceiling are brick walls.
A decorative ceiling depicting Daoist symbols, including yin and yang. By Kunwi, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Despite the tensions between the Confucianism and Daoism, both influenced Chinese society in significant ways. In fact, some regarded these two belief systems as in a kind of yin and yang balance together, where Confucianism guided public life and Daoism influenced the personal realm. The combination of belief systems like Confucianism and Daoism, along with Buddhism, have influenced Chinese cultures for centuries and continue to play a role in Chinese communities today.
Author bio
Eman M. Elshaikh holds an MA in social sciences from and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago, where she also teaches writing. She is a writer and researcher, and has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the US and in the Middle East. Eman was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP world history.

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