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Taoists

In recent articles, I've described ancient Chinese philosophy represented by Confucius and Mozi. Today it will be Taoism.

Taoism arose among the Chinese as an anti-establishment point-of-view. The founder is believed to have been Laozi, dated to around 550 BCE. By the 300s BCE some who were literate became followers, drawing from his expectations of continued greed and striving for power. These followers scoffed at Confucianist veneration of early Zhou emperors and they saw futility in the Confucian belief in lecturing a king or prince on doing right. Laozi is believed to have written that humanity should discard words such as duty, humanity, benevolence, and righteousness. These words, he claimed, were the flip side of strife, and strife should be avoided. The Taoists believed that profits should be banished, that people should not pursue fame, that one should live modestly, that luxury breeds envy and envy breeds strife.

In the place of Confucian pretense at wisdom, Laozi was interpreted as claiming that one should not try to acquire truth. Knowledge, he was believed to have written, contributes to discontent and unhappiness. Rather than such intellectuality, Laozi's followers believed that people should respond to their impulses. In the 300s BCE a second man of Taoism, Zhuangzi, connected the idea of impulses with submitting to nature: eating when hungry and sleeping when tired. This, Taoists came to believe, left them in "perfect harmony" with their original nature. (The realization that much that was conflict originated with impulse, as with infants fighting over toys or adults fighting over territory, eluded them.) In accord with Laozi's opinions, Zhuangzi described Confucianism's professing values as an artifice. It was a back to nature not unlike that proposed by Rousseau. Taoists insisted that all social organization was ruinous, that more laws created more robbers and thieves, that more government created more greed and ambition. Taoists claimed that the best rulers would be those who converted to Taoism, gave up luxurious living and warfare and just left people alone. Taoists saw military leaders as murderers who built their reputations on the bodies of thousands of innocent people. They claimed that a military hero was to be pitied because he was unaware of his guilt.

The Taoists wanted serenity. Failing at mindless impulse, they gathered up a belief in harmony. He who does not fight, they believed, would live in peace, and he who does not strain after success will suffer no failure. One of their paradoxical expressions claimed that he who does nothing accomplishes everything – the kind of thought that Ludwig Wittgenstein, who didn't believe in paradoxes, would in the 20th century consider shallow and nonsense.

Like other belief systems, Taoism evolved. Taoists believed in destiny, with some able to argue that crying over the death of one's wife demonstrated a lack of understanding of destiny – never mind the old belief in impulse. And nevermind their opposition to attempts at knowledge and wisdom: Some Taoist began searching for longevity or eternal life through proper attitude, ritual exercises or dietary regimes.

Taoism absorbed practices of magic that existed in China's rural communities. Some Taoists adopted gods that were ridiculed by the gentry and the Confucianists. And contrary to Taoism's original belief in inaction, some Taoists actively sought converts – a political act. Taoists became activists for social change and initiated political programs. Taoist priests gathered around them people who believed they were joining a special society concerned with their personal well-being.

Among the Taoist cults was one led by Zhang Daoling, in the province of Sichuan. Zhang Daoling wandered through the countryside promising those who would publicly confess their sins that he would deliver them from illness and misfortune. He claimed that illness was the product of sinful thoughts. Using charms and spells, he acquired a reputation as a healer, and the public confessions that he offered gave peasants the feeling that they were cleansing themselves and joining a community.

The idea of wisdom was rehabilitated. A Taoist named Zhang Jue, who called himself "The Good Doctor of Great Wisdom," offered magical healing, treated all ailments with water and words and called his method of healing the "Way of the Highest Peace." He spoke of the Han emperors as having lost the Mandate of Heaven, and he proclaimed their imminent fall. Within ten years, his movement grew to hundreds of thousands and divided into districts, with each district led by a "deputy doctor." Zhang Jue's movement produced the Yellow Turban rebellion in the year 184 CE (the Common Era, or AD according to Christians). Militarily the Yellow Turbans were disorganized. They believed that their gods had made them invulnerable and that they did not even need weapons – a view not conducive to an efficient military operation. The mysticism that had been a part of the movement's creation had become a part of its destruction. In the first year of the rebellion, Zhang Jue died, and within a year the rebellion was defeated.

Meanwhile, along the Yangzi River near Sichuan, a surviving Taoist cult with its own army had established a theocratic state. The cult's founder, Zhang Lu, performed what were described as miracle healings, and he continued the claim that diseases were punishments for evil deeds and that diseases could be cured by remorse and ceremonial confessions. Zhang Lu's community had communal "friendship" meals, and like Zhang Daoling he had a welfare system for his community and storage for grain and meat. He encouraged equality. His community offered the traveling homeless a place to stay and a meal. And it offered leniency to criminals.

Another Taoist, Zhang Xiu set up another such community nearby. Despite their mutual devotion to Taoism, the communities of Zhang Lu and Zhang Xiu warred against each other. And Zhang Lu, it is said, killed Zhang Xiu. Then along came a formidable army led by a famous general, Cao Cao. With his army, Cao Cao overran Zhang Lu's territory. Zhang Lu surrendered to Cao Cao and was rewarded with a fiefdom.

It is said that Zhang Lu died shortly thereafter – in 217. And it came to be legend that twenty-six years after his death he was seen by many witnesses ascending to heaven. The legend held that when his grave was opened, in the year 259, his body was found wholly intact, meaning that he had died only in the sense that he had detached from his corpse and had entered paradise.

Taoism in the 21st century is described as a tradition that emphasizes living in harmony. Like various others, including Christians and Muslims, Taoists have made their belief system from tradition and innovation. For today's Taoists the term Tao means "way," "path" or "principle." This is a spirituality that has been explained as naturalness, simplicity, spontaneity, compassion, moderation and humility. Involved also are rituals and exercises that aim at aligning oneself with cosmic forces. Innovation has contributed to diversity: there are celibate clergy while clergy of the Zhengyi branch of Taoism are often married and often reside at home.

Perhaps humility contributes to its lack of evangelical zeal. But it survives as an alternative, giving comfort and sense of community to people seeking spirituality. During the first decades of the People's Republic of China, Taoism was suppressed, and during the Cultural Revolution it was persecuted. Since then it has been rehabilitated in China. In China after 1980 many Taoist monasteries and temples were reopened or rebuilt.

In Taiwan, 33 percent of the population identify themselves as Taoists. Singapore, where 74 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese, 8.5 percent identify themselves as Taoist.

For historians today, Taoism's founder, Laozi, remains a legendary figure. That legend has him living in the 500s BCE. According to Wikipedia, "The earliest certain reference to the present figure of Laozi is found in the 1st-century BCE Records of the Grand Historian collected by the historian Sima Qian from earlier accounts." In other words, historians have nothing he has written to examine. Ideas wander and blend over time. Laozi became an object of worship, a god, as happened to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Laozi has been described as taking various incarnations to initiate the faithful in their adopting the Way. He has been described as traveling to India and teaching the Buddha. Among the ideas that Taoism acquired Yin and Yang and the I-Ching, an attempt to explain interconnectivity and interdependency in the natural world. Yin was female: the moon, cold, water, earth, nourishment, sustenance, recessives, autumn, winter, et cetera. Yang was male: the sun, fire, heat, heaven, creation, dominance, spring and summer – a view of the world that would not be useful to scientists.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.