12  The Dao



Whereas the Indian philosophers had subjected themselves to the toughest discipline imaginable, the Chinese intellectuals generally took a much more worldly approach. Their prime goal was not a spiritual quest to dissolve the ego, but the search for a perfect system of government that would bring lasting peace to the land.

But what is the optimal form of government? Confucius believed that the key was promoting strong social ties, based on the love that parents have for their children, and teaching people to be virtuous. Mozi, in contrast, preferred a focus on profitability and accomplishment. Yet others, called the Daoists, got sick of the discussion altogether and departed into the forest to escape government coercion, oppressive social conventions, and imposed moral rules, choosing instead to live a life in tune with nature.


The legendary emperors of China

Chinese civilization, called the Middle Country (zhongguo) by the Chinese, was centered around two major rivers called the Yangtze and Huang He (Yellow River). Both rivers produced much fertile land, but were also prone to destructive flooding. The first permanent settlements in China formed around 7000 BC. According to ancient Chinese sources, the first dynasty, known as the Xia Dynasty, formed around 2000 BC. Archeologists have long sought evidence of the existence of this dynasty, but no conclusive evidence has been found thus far. Some historians equate it with the Erlitou culture that existed around this time, but since these communities had not yet developed a script, it is difficult to make the identification.

We do have evidence for the succeeding Shang Dynasty, which started around 1600 BC. Among the most interesting finds from this dynasty are beautiful bronze vessels, jade jewelry, and most importantly, a large body of inscriptions written on oracle bones (see Fig. 233 and Fig. 234). Kings used these bones in an attempt to communicate with their deceased ancestors, who would in turn contact the supreme god Di to ensure good harvest and security. The king would ask a diviner to carve a question to the ancestors on these bones and then would apply a heated metal rod until cracks formed. By studying the patterns in the cracks, the diviners could “read” the answers to their questions.


Fig. 233 – A large bronze sacrificial vessel (875 kg) known as the Houmuwu ding from the Shang Dynasty, Anyang (c. 1300 BC) (Mlogic, CC BY-SA 3.0; National Museum of China)

Fig. 234 – Questions to the gods written on a shell from the Shang Dynasty. (BabelStone, CC BY-SA 3.0; National Museum of China)

Similar to other early civilizations, the Shang also created royal tombs in which they sacrificed both animals and humans to appease both the royal ancestors and the gods. For example, in a tomb in the Shang capital Anyang from 1200 BC, more than 150 people and 12 horses were sacrificed. Another example is the tomb of Lady Hao, also from 1200 BC. Suggestive of a relatively liberal climate for women at the time, we know she was allowed to supervise state rituals and even personally led military campaigns. Her small tomb contained 16 sacrificed human beings.

As time went by—it isn’t clear when this happened—a mythological origin story became widespread, according to which the Xia rulers were preceded by a number of legendary emperors. The word “emperor” here is a bit of a misnomer since these leaders were believed to have ruled over just a small part of modern China. One of them was Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, who was believed to have fought a monster and fixed the courses of the sun, the moon, and the stars. Emperor Shen Nong was said to have invented agriculture. Yu the Great was believed to be the founder of the Xia Dynasty. He came to power when Shun, the last of the legendary emperors, offered him his throne. Shun saw Yu as the “perfect civil servant,” because in his role as minister of public works he had dug canals to control the unruly rivers of China.

Fig. 235 – The legendary Yellow Emperor (2nd century AD) (Li Ung Bin, 1914)

For centuries, these emperors were revered as perfect leaders who ruled with perfect virtue. They were role models for all rulers to come. Ironically, as ideas about good leadership changed, the stories attributed to these emperors changed to fit the narrative of the time. Almost every philosopher would try to convince the public that their philosophy was the one practiced by these great leaders of the past.

The emperors also had a more mystical role to play. As is common in agricultural communities, the Chinese were obsessed with ancestor worship, and the emperors were the supreme ancestors. They were believed to be the spirit guardians of China who controlled the harmony and order of both the state and the universe itself. It was believed their actions even kept the cycle of the seasons going. Chinese kings performed rituals (li) to gain their favor and keep the cosmos in balance.


The Zhou Dynasty

In 1050 BC, the Zhou (pronounced “Joe”), headed by King Wu, attacked and overthrew the Shang. To legitimize their takeover, the Zhou accused the last Shang king Jie of corrupt rule and positioned themselves as the rightful rulers. The Shang kings had believed they ruled by virtue of the mandate of heaven (tianming), but the Zhou claimed the mandate had been revoked by the gods because of their immoral actions and had therefore shifted to the Zhou, giving them the divine right to rule.

While this idea helped them legitimize their rule, it also made them vulnerable, as any calamity could now be interpreted to mean that the Zhou had also lost their mandate. As a result, the Zhou kings had to watch their every move in order not to upset the balance of the universe and cause disaster. In some cases, even the everyday activities of the Zhou kings were constantly recorded to make sure the balance of the universe was not disturbed.

In order to effectively rule their large kingdom, the king divided his land into many small states and appointed his relatives as rulers. They could run their state as they saw fit, as long as they provided military and financial support to the king.

After two centuries, the kinship ties between the local rulers had weakened and the Zhou king ruled in ceremonial capacity only. Real power was now in the hands of the states, who continuously competed through warfare.

Despite the political instability and war, Late Zhou was one of the most innovative eras in all of China’s history. It was during this period that China entered the Iron Age. In particular, the iron plow increased agricultural output, which in turn increased the population. During this time, chariots were also introduced to China through contact with the Indo-European tribes in Central Asia. The turmoil also stimulated the formation of many new influential schools of philosophy, known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. Each school had their own ideas about how to stabilize society. A number of teachers wandered from state to state looking for rulers who would put their ideas into practice.



The most influential philosopher in Chinese history was Confucius (551–479 BC). The name Confucius is actually a westernized version of “Kong Fuzi,” meaning “Master Kong.” Confucius was born in the state of Lu as part of the shi-class, just a notch higher than the common folk. When his father died soon after his birth, he was raised in poverty by his mother. Although starting out in this lowly position, he slowly worked his way up, first becoming a keeper of granaries and livestock, then a district officer, then minister of works, and finally minister of crime. At some point, the governance of Lu was overthrown by several powerful families, and Confucius exerted considerable effort to try and return power to the legitimate heir. When these attempts failed, he ended up with many powerful enemies. According to one source, this forced Confucius to leave Lu. Another source gives another reason for his departure. The neighboring state of Qi was worried that Lu was becoming too powerful. As a result, Qi sabotaged Lu by sending 100 good horses and 80 beautiful dancing girls to the Duke of Lu. The duke became obsessed with his gift, and as a result, he did not attend to his official duties and rituals for three days. Confucius, fully convinced of the importance of ritual, became disillusioned with the duke and resigned his post.


Fig. 236 – A fresco of Confucius found in a Western Han tomb (1st-2nd century BC). (Du Guodong; Dongping, China)

Fig. 237 – Mencius (13th century) (National Palace Museum, Taiwan)

Whatever the case, Confucius left Lu and began wandering from state to state for 10 to 12 years with a group of disciples, hoping a leader would listen to his teachings and implement his ideas about virtuous government. Unfortunately, his search was in vain, as he was rejected by about 70 different rulers.

At the age of 68, Confucius was finally invited back to his home state by the chief minister of Lu. There he finally received some of the respect he had been seeking. Several government officials treated him as an “elder statesman” and approached him for advice on various occasions. The number of his disciples also grew to about 70.

In the last year of his life, Confucius was burdened by the loss of both his son and his favorite disciple, Yan Hui. His disciples wrote:

When Yan Hui died, the Master wept with uncontrollable emotion. His followers said, “Master, you have gone too far.” The Master said, “Have I? If not for this man, for whom should I show so much sorrow?” [74]

On this sad note, Confucius died of natural causes in his seventies. His teachings were finally written down by his disciples in the form of questions and answers in a work called the Analects, also known as The Sayings of Confucius.



Confucius believed that the violence of his age could be countered by a return to the traditions and morality of the early Zhou Dynasty. As a result, he urged his students to spend time studying the history and literature of Zhou, and even more importantly, to perform its rituals (li). In his view, the rituals, with their music and poetry—if performed correctly and earnestly—could awaken in people a deep moral understanding, which could restore social harmony in China. Or in his own words:

Discipline yourself and turn to li—this leads to kindness [ren]. [75]

According to Confucius, the rituals of his day were in a state of decay. In the Analects, we sometimes hear Confucius complain about seemingly trivial ritual transgressions, for instance about when and where to bow during a ritual or what material ceremonial garbs should be made of. In one instance, he considered a ritual so corrupt he would rather not attend. To the modern reader, these issues might seem trivial, yet Confucius correctly understood the power of ritual to knit a society together.


The joy of learning

An even more important theme in The Analects was Confucius’s love for learning. Confucius spent his whole life learning and putting what he had learned into practice to make the world a better place. The opening line of the Analects reads:

The Master said, “Is it not a pleasure to learn and, when it is timely, to practice what you have learned?”

In particular, he recognized that interactions with others were a great opportunity to learn:

The Master said, “When you meet a worthy person, think how you could become his equal. When you meet an unworthy person, turn inward and examine your own conduct.”

Confucius realized that an effective learner should not be afraid to make mistakes and should be open-minded about constructive criticism. Giving a good example, he encouraged his students to call him out whenever he was wrong:

I have been fortunate. If I make a mistake, others will be sure to let me know.


He even called out students who accepted his teachings without any critical thought. We read:

The Master said, “Yan Hui is no help to me. He is pleased with everything I say.”

Unlike the yogis of India, Confucius was primarily a man of this world. He enjoyed wine and good food. He also had no visions, did not meditate, did not claim to have any esoteric knowledge, and avoided postulating abstract metaphysical theories. A disciple wrote:

The Master stayed away from four things. He did not put forth theories or conjectures; he did not think that he must be right; he would not stubbornly refuse to change his opinion; he was not self-centered.

For instance, Confucius preferred not to speak of heaven. One of his students commented:

We are allowed to hear Master’s view on culture and goodness, but about the way of heaven, he will not tell us anything. [76]

Or, in his own words:

Jilu asked about how to serve the spirits of the dead and the gods. The Master said, “You can’t even serve men properly, how can you serve the spirits?” [74]

That didn’t mean Confucius had no respect for heaven. On the contrary, he was filled with awe when thinking of heaven, but he realized that whatever it was, it could not be described in words:

Heaven does not speak, yet the four seasons run their course by the command of Heaven, the hundred creatures, each after its own kind, are born thereby. Heaven does not speak. [76]


The junzi

The main goal of Confucius’s teachings was to show people how to become a fully developed human being, known as a junzi. Before his time, the word had been reserved for aristocrats, but being a man of the people, he extended the term to apply to anyone who had achieved a high level of ethical and intellectual cultivation. Through hard, dedicated work, he believed that anyone could become a junzi. And he practiced what he preached, for he had both rich and poor disciples, ranging from aristocrats to the sons of criminals. We read:

The Master said, “In teaching there should be no distinction of the classes.” [74]

According to Confucius, a junzi is an ethical man who has cultivated certain virtues. The greatest of these virtues is ren. Ren literally means “two-man,” signifying kindness between people. Ren is about being courteous, respectful, and loyal. Confucius wrote:

As for ren, you yourself desire rank and standing; then help others to get rank and standing. You want to turn your merits into profit; then help others to turn theirs into profit. In fact, the ability to take one’s own feelings as a guide—that is the sort of thing that lies in the direction of ren. [76]

On another occasion, he said:

The master said, “Unwavering [in integrity], resolute [in one’s moral conviction], simple as wood and hesitant to speak—these qualities come close to being ren.” [74]


When encountering matters that involve ren, do not yield even to your teacher.

In describing this way of life, Confucius taught one of the first formulations of the golden rule:

Zhonggong asked about ren. The Master said, “When abroad, conduct yourself as if you were receiving an honored guest. When employing the people in your state, deport yourself as if you have been put in charge of a grand sacrifice. Do not impose on others what you do not desire for yourself. In this way, you will not incur any resentment whether your work is in the state or in a hereditary family.”

Just like Jesus, Confucius concluded that the golden rule was the most important principle in life:

Zigong asked, “Is there a single word that can serve as the guide to conduct throughout life?” The Master said, “It is perhaps the word ‘shu.’ Do not impose on others what you yourself do not want others to impose on you.”

Reminiscent of Aristotle, he also considered the pursuit of virtue to be a source of great joy.

Besides ren, he also recommended that people cultivate the virtue of qi, meaning wisdom. For Confucius, this meant both having knowledge and being able to apply it appropriately. An associated virtue was yi, meaning righteousness or the moral disposition to do good, and yung, referring to the courage to do the right thing no matter how high the stakes. The cultivation of these virtues is especially essential to prepare ourselves for tough times, when it is the most difficult, but also the most necessary, to lead a principled life:

The Master said, “Only in the deepest of winter [meaning: the toughest of times] do we realize that the pine and cypress [meaning: the junzi] are the last to shed their leaves.”

Being humble is another virtue. When one of his disciples claimed not to be ready for a government position, Confucius was delighted, as this was just the kind of self-awareness that would make a good ruler. He also didn’t boast about his own achievements. We read:

The Master said, “I am able to work as hard as anyone. But as for being a junzi in practice and conduct, I have not gotten there yet.”

Confucius also refused to call himself a sage, believing there was always more for him to learn:

The Master said, “I dare not call myself a sage [...]. What could be said of me is that I work toward it without ever feeling sated and I am never tired of teaching.”

He also praised self-awareness and humbleness in leaders. We read:

The Master encouraged Qidiao Kai to take office. Qidiao Kai replied, “I am not confident I am ready to take this step.” The Master was pleased.


Xiao Jing

In line with Chinese tradition, Confucius also placed special emphasis on the respectful treatment of parents, elders, and ancestors, a virtue known in China as xiao. Respect for parents was the most important:

When your parents are alive serve them according to li, when they die bury them according to li, and sacrifice to them according to li. [75]

More generally, Confucius called for people to selflessly perform their roles in both society and their families. For society to function properly, he claimed, there should be ren between father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, ruler and ministers, ruler and subjects, and so on. We read:

Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about the way of government. Confucius replied, “Let the ruler be ruler, the minister be minister, the father be father, and the son be son.” [74]

This emphasis on the collective, as opposed to Western individualism, is still an important bedrock of Chinese society.

What is often left out, is that even for Confucius obedience to parents and superiors had its limits. In The Analects, we read that he advised to “gentlydissuade parents in case they engaged in wrongdoing. This idea is worked out to a greater extent in another influential text called the Xiao Jing (The Book of Filial Piety, 4th or 3rd century BC), which is traditionally attributed to Confucius, but was likely of a later date. In this work, Confucius demonstrated how society as a whole can be brought into harmony simply through xiao. And conversely, that a society that rejects xiao is on “the road to great chaos.” According to his theory, xiao between parents and their offspring is natural, and therefore can be taught to children without coercion. On top of this, if a child is brought up respecting his parents, he will likely go into society respecting his superiors. Similarly, a ruler who has learned to love his parents is unlikely to treat his subjects badly. Enlightened kings, we read, “used xiao to govern the world,” and as a result “did not dare neglect even the subjects of small states” and did “not dare to bully the wifeless and the widowed.” Xiao also helped citizens to serve their community as best as they could, as this would lead to a good reputation, which in turn would reflect positively on their parents. And in reverse, “one cultivates one’s character and is careful in one’s conduct because one fears bringing shame to one’s ancestors.” [77]

But then, in a crucial part of the text, a student asked Confucius: “If the son [blindly] obeys the orders of the father, can that be called xiao?” Confucius responded in shock, claiming that all citizens had the duty to criticize their superiors when in error:

What kind of talk is that? […] When a Son of Heaven [an emperor] has seven subordinates who will dispute him, even though he has no virtue, he will not lose [his empire]. With a friend who will dispute him, an officer will not lose his good name. […] With a son who will dispute him, a father will not fall into unrighteousness. So when there is unrighteousness, then the son must not refrain from disputing his father and the subordinate must not refrain from disputing his lord. […] So when there is unrighteousness one must dispute it. How can obeying the father’s orders be considered xiao? [77]


Virtuous rule

Confucius was convinced that a government led by junzi would restore order in China, especially as they would be great role models for their subjects. The junzi would lead by example, causing the subjects to walk in line:

If those above love righteousness, then none of the common people will dare to be disobedient.

When a king complained about the number of thieves in his state, Confucius countered that a junzi leader had such a positive effect on his subjects, that “even if you were to offer rewards for stealing, people would not do it.” Laws and punishments under such leadership, he claimed, would not be necessary. This, Confucius believed, was how the legendary emperors must have ruled. Their society was in harmony because of their virtuous behavior and as a result, they could rule “without doing anything” (wuwei). We read:

Someone who ruled without even acting (wuwei)—was this not [Emperor] Shun? What did he do? He made himself reverent and took his proper position facing south—that is all. [75]

These exceptional results, however, might take a while. We read:

Only after good men have been in office for a hundred years is there the possibility of winning the war against cruelty and doing away with capital punishment. [74]

To get the right people in power, Confucius advocated for officials to invest time in an educational curriculum based on a true understanding of history, ethics, politics, poetry, art, and music. Similar to the humanist education developed in Renaissance Florence, this was believed to create knowledgeable, moral and socially-engaged citizens who would bring peace to the land. Later generations would believe that Confucius had either written or edited the Five Classics (The Book of Changes, The Book of Documents, The Book of Odes, The Book of Rites, and The Spring and Autumn Annals) just for this purpose. Textual analysis, however, has revealed that these texts were created independently.

Confucius also famously advised rulers to select their ministers and other bureaucrats based not on family ties, but on their merit and virtue. As we will read in the next chapter, this idea would become highly influential throughout both Chinese and, later, Western history. When one of his students asked him about good government, he responded:

Assign your staff to the right positions. Try to overlook minor shortcomings and promote those of outstanding talent.

This method, Confucius claimed, had also been practiced by the legendary Emperor Shun, who made Gao Yao his minister of law:

After Shun had gained possession of the empire, he searched from among the multitude [for someone of worth] and raised Gao Yao to a position at the top, and because he did so, those who were without ren stayed away.

The Analects also quote King Wu, the first king of Zhou, who had done the same when picking his officials:

Even though I have my relatives, it is better to employ humane men.



The most important Confucian besides Confucius himself was Mengzi (pronounced “Mengdze,” c. 380–300 BC), better known as Mencius. In line with Confucius, he believed that the ideal state was a “ren government.” As long as the ruler is motivated by ren, he claimed, the people would accept him, even during times of hardship.

Mencius added a political vision reminiscent of the 18th-century Enlightenment. He claimed that rulers had to rule for the benefit of the people, whom he deemed even more important than sacrifices to the gods. He wrote:

The people are of supreme importance; the altars to the gods of earth and grain come next; last comes the ruler. [78]

If rulers no longer served their people, he claimed, they should be removed. According to Mencius, this had happened to Jie and Di Xin, the last emperors of Xia and Shang:

It was through losing the people that Jie and [Di Xin] lost the Empire, and through losing the people’s heart that they lost the people.

When a king asked Mencius if his ministers should be able to depose him, he bluntly repeated his view:

“If the prince made serious mistakes, they should criticize him, but if repeated criticisms fall on deaf ears, they should depose him.” The king was shocked. “Your majesty should not be surprised by my answer. Since you asked me, I dared not give you anything but the proper answer.”

But how can we know whether the gods have retracted their mandate, allowing the people to replace the king? According to Mencius, this could be done with the heart (hsin), which has the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Mencius claimed this to be an inborn quality, although it could be destroyed by selfish thoughts and deeds. Through the hearts of men, the divine will of heaven could be revealed. In this way, Mencius connected divine decree with human nature. We read:

“Is it true that Yao gave the empire to Shun?” “No,” said Mencius, The emperor cannot give the empire to another.” “In that case, who gave the empire to Shun?” “Heaven gave it to him.” [...] “Does this mean that Heaven gave him detailed and minute instructions?” “No, heaven does not speak but reveals itself through its acts and deeds.” “How does heaven do this?” [...] “Yao recommended Shun to Heaven and heaven accepted him; he presented him to the people and the people accepted him. [...] When he was put in charge of the sacrifices, the hundred gods enjoyed them. This showed that Heaven accepted him. When he was put in charge of affairs, they were kept in order and the people were content. This showed that the people accepted him. [...] The [Book of Documents] says, “Heaven sees with the eyes of its people. Heaven hears with the ears of its people.”



The carpenter Mozi (470–391 BC, meaning “Master Mo”) was another influential wandering philosopher. In an attempt to stop the ongoing warfare of his time, he headed a military brotherhood that could intervene to stop wars and defend cities. Like Confucius, he traveled from state to state to convince rulers to make the right decisions.

In his view, Confucius had been far too idealistic. He especially pushed back against his focus on rituals, which he considered out of touch with reality in a world plagued by constant war and poverty:

Even people with the vigor of youth cannot perform all the ceremonial duties. And even those who have amassed wealth cannot afford music. The Confucianists enhance the beauty of the wicked arts and lead their sovereign astray. Their doctrine cannot meet the needs of the age, nor can their learning educate the people. [79]

When Mozi asked a Confucian philosopher, “What is the reason for performing music?” the philosopher responded, “Music is performed for music’s sake.” Mozi responded in turn, “This is like saying ‘why build houses?’ and answering that houses are built for houses’ sake. [...] Music is without practical use and so should be eliminated.” [79] However harsh his reply, Mozi had a point. The rulers were spending an enormous amount of money on these rituals, while the poor barely had food. What was the true benefit of the rituals, if the majority of the people couldn’t even afford them? In solidarity with the poor, Mozi instead advocated for a life of restraint. He even dressed like the working class. In his view, the legendary emperors must have been content with the bare necessities as well.

What would actually help the poor, he claimed, was profitability and accomplishment. Instead of the slow self-cultivation that Confucius recommended, he insisted on the effectiveness of the fear of punishment and desire for rewards. Clearly, Mozi was a pragmatist.

While Confucius trusted in the inborn goodness of mankind, Mozi believed that most men are by their nature egotistical and that the only way for them to act with kindness is to realize that our own well-being is dependent on the welfare of society. Only in this way can we convince the majority to have concern for everybody (jian ai). In his own practical words:

Now among all the current calamities of the world, which are the greatest? I say that attacks on small states by large ones, disturbances of small houses by large ones, oppression of the weak by the strong, misuse of the few by the many, deception of the simple by the cunning, and disdain toward the humble by the honored; these are the misfortunes of the world.

[...] When we come to think about the causes of all these calamities, how have they arisen? Have they arisen out of love of others and benefiting others? We must reply that they have not. Rather we should say that they have arisen out of hate of others and injuring others. If we classify those in the world who hate others and injure others, shall we call them discriminating or all-embracing? We must say that they are discriminating. So, then, is not mutual discrimination the cause of the major calamities of the world? Therefore, the principle of discrimination is wrong. But whoever criticizes others must have something to substitute for what he criticizes. Therefore, I say: “Substitute all-embracing for discrimination.” [79]



Despite attempts by Confucius, Mozi, and others to restore order to society, the land continued to be plagued by war, oppression, and poverty. In response, a group of sensitive Chinese men called Daoists refused to be a part of society any longer and instead retreated to the forest to live a quiet life in tune with nature.

The Daoists equated nature with harmony and contrasted it with the artificial construct of the state, which they regarded as destructive. Society, they believed, forced individuals to commit acts against their own nature, leading to unnecessary suffering. As a result, any attempt to contribute to society, let alone reform it, was deemed useless. According to an apocryphal story that circulated at the time, some Daoists had personally mocked Confucius for his pointless attempts to change society.

Instead of putting their trust in society, the Daoists believed in the Dao (“the Way”), which they considered to be the unknowable source of all things. The Dao governed the actions of individuals, society as a whole, and even the natural world. Even celestial objects were believed to move according to the Dao. Since the Dao is a force of nature, it functions without consideration for morality. Its actions are neither good nor evil. Instead, the Dao creates and destroys indiscriminately. It makes the plants sprout during springtime, but when autumn comes, “no leaf is spared because of its beauty, no flower because of its fragrance.”

Since the world is full of opposites, this must also be true of the Dao, which was believed to be made up of the opposing forces yin and yang. The words “yin” and “yang” have a long history, tracing back to the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty. At that point, yang was associated with sunlight during the day, while yin referred to the lack of sunlight at night. In time, these terms came to attain a deeper, more philosophical meaning. Yang came to represent masculinity, active participation, light, hotness, dryness, the good, and the positive. Yin came to represent femininity, passivity, darkness, coldness, wetness, evil, and the negative. In men yang dominates and in women yin, yet both are present in each. Yin and yang cannot be separated, and their interaction causes the variety of things we see in the world. Together, as yin-yang, they represented the interplay of opposites in the world. Their balance ensured both the harmony in the cosmos and also the health of the body.

The energy associated with the flow of the Dao was called qi. The qi of the human body, according to the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (c. 1st century BC), flowed in channels known as meridians. Inserting needles in so-called acupuncture points on the body was believed to unblock its flow.

Qi was believed to manifest itself in our actions when we do not resist change but rather move effortlessly with it. According to the Daoists, society itself, through its laws and customs, often impedes the free flow of qi. Even rituals do, since they are scripted. Instead, life should be spontaneous and sincere. Actions should not be forced by institutions and morals (ming-chiao), but should instead happen “so on their own” (ziran).


Fig. 238 – The first diagram to include a symbol for yin-yang, by Zhou Dunyi (1017 – 1073). The diagram represents the stages of creation from unity to duality (yin and yang), to the five elements (water, fire, earth, wood, and metal) and finally to the “ten-thousands things”

Fig. 239 – The first recognizable yin-yang symbol (14th century) (Liushu Benyi)

An illustrative story comes from the hermit philosopher Zhuangzi. One day, Zhuangzi met a hunchback, who was quickly catching cicadas with a sticky pole and never missed a single one. When Zhuangzi inquired how this was possible, the hunchback said that after lots of practice, he was able to let his hands move by themselves. He let qi, the energy of the universe, take over. Conscious deliberation and planning at this stage would only be a distraction. Similarly, the Daoists should not analyze too much and instead do what comes naturally. In this way, the practitioner becomes one with the Dao—the divine rhythm of the universe. These ideas have also proved useful in martial arts. Instead of winning a fight by sheer force, the martial artist often uses the energy and speed of the attacker to guide him to the ground without spending much energy.

Moving with the flow of the Dao required an accepting and detached attitude of mind. The following story illustrates this point. When a poor farmer lost his horse, his neighbor told him this was the worst thing that could possibly happen to him. Without a horse, he could not plow the field effectively. The poor farmer, however, replied only with the words, “We’ll see.” The next day, his horse came back, followed by ten wild horses. His neighbor now told him how lucky he was. Again, the farmer only responded with, “We’ll see.” The next day, his son fell from his horse and broke his hip. Now his neighbor was extremely worried again, but the farmer again said, “We’ll see.” The next day, the emperor asked for the farmer’s son to fight in the army, but he couldn’t join with a broken hip. In this way, the Daoists were expected not to jump to conclusions too quickly and instead harmonize with the flow of events.

The Daoists also created various forms of meditation to generate and control qi. Just as in India, these practices were based on introspection, concentration, and controlled breathing. Since the practice often involved unlearning the artificial ideas of society, it was called “returning to the state of the uncarved block” or “sitting with a blank mind.” There were also differences with the Indian approach. Whereas in India, the point of meditation was to quiet the waters of the mind, the emphasis in China was often on letting the waters ripple and spontaneously move with the flow. The Daoists would fully enjoy change and transformation while simultaneously having faith in the underlying unity of the Dao.

Fig. 240 – Poet on a Mountaintop by Shen Zhou (15th century AD) (Nelson-Atkins Museum, Unites States)


Fig. 241 – A depiction of Laozi riding an ox by Zhang Lu (15th century AD) (National Palace Museum, Taiwan)

Fig. 242A silk scroll from his book the Dao De Jing (2nd century BC) (Mawangdui Silk Manuscript)

One of the most famous books of Daoism is traditionally attributed to a man named Laozi (pronounced “Laodze”), meaning “Old Master.” The title of his book is the Dao De Jing, which can be roughly translated as “the book (jing) of the power (de) of the Way (Dao).” The work is mystical in nature and full of cryptic, ambiguous, paradoxical, and even contradictory language. It describes the Dao as the indescribable source behind the motion of every object in existence. Yet, the Dao does all this completely out of sight, or in the words of Laozi—“the Dao does nothing, yet accomplishes everything.” Resistance to the Dao is useless, since “whatever is against Dao will soon be destroyed.” The first lines of the text read:

The Dao that can be told of is not the eternal Dao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth. [80]

Since the Dao cannot be put into words, Laozi purposefully referred to it with words that describe absence, such as the “Void,” the “Valley,” and “Emptiness.” We read:

The thirty spokes of the wheel share one hub, but it is where there is nothing [the hole for the axle] that the efficacy of the cart lies. [81]

Similarly, he compared the Dao to the space inside an empty bowl. This space is invisible, yet it can be used without exhaustion. It is the non-being of the bowl, the empty space, that gives it its function. In the same way, the unseen Dao supports the world. Yet, paradoxically, most people are afraid of the void and would rather fill their heads with thoughts.

Despite the abstract language, Laozi had the same practical goal in mind as most of his contemporary philosophers: how to ideally rule a state. According to Laozi, it was human striving and ambition that had brought the world into chaos. Instead, rulers should allow problems to solve themselves. To describe this, he borrowed the Confucian concept wuwei (“doing nothing” or “not forcing anything”), which would cause “the empire to be at peace of its own accord.”

Instead of recommending leaders to be strong and socially engaged, he advised them to retreat to the background and make themselves humble. Instead of plotting and scheming, he believed they should have no fixed opinions. Tyrants, according to Laozi, were just digging their own grave. By trying to force subjects to do things they don’t want to, they immediately breed resistance. Instead, the ruler should relax his body and free his mind from obstructions, finding in himself an inner stillness.

To Laozi, mankind was by nature good, but civilization had introduced all kinds of unnatural pressures into people’s lives. Society coerces people with laws, which often have the opposite effect of what they are intended to accomplish. Or in his own words:

The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.

Laozi even objected to morality, including even xiao:

The only reason people speak so much of filial piety is because of the lack of respect for parents.

Paradoxically, he added:

After the “power” (de) was lost, then came kindness (ren). After kindness was lost, then came morality (yi). After morality was lost, then came ritual (li). Ritual is the mere shell of loyalty […] and is indeed the first step towards brawling.

Centuries later, the Chinese Zen master Nanquan (c. 749–835 AD) would express the same idea when he asked a king: “How do you plan to govern the people?” The ruler responded, “With wisdom and compassion,” from which the Zen master paradoxically concluded:

In that case, every one of them will suffer.

Laozi also claimed that society gave people the feeling they were incomplete, while our natural state is one of balance. As a result, Laozi remarked: “When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”

Instead of the society of his day, Laozi envisioned a world of tiny, self-sufficient communities where people lived in a harmonious manner, without the desire to conquer their neighbors. The Dao De Jing describes what life would be like in this utopian society:

Let there be a little country without many people. Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred, and never use them. Let them be mindful of death and disinclined to long journeys. They’d have ships and carriages, but no place to go. They’d have armor and weapons, but no parades. Instead of writing, they might go back to using knotted cords. They’d enjoy eating, take pleasure in clothes, be happy with their houses, devoted to their customs. The next little country might be so close the people could hear cocks crowing and dogs barking there, but they’d get old and die without ever having been there.

This philosophy of life shows great overlap with the ideas of the Romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who also believed that most of our problems arose when we traded our simple life in nature with city life and allowed ourselves to be ruled over by governments. His idealization of primitive life has often been summarized with the term “noble savage” in the West.



My personal favorite Daoist is a hermit named Zhuangzi (pronounced “Dwuangdze,” 4th century BC), whose teachings are written in a book bearing his name (although we now know various chapters were added later by unknown authors). Zhuangzi spent most of his life outdoors and had few personal possessions. For years, he lived in a slum, earning his living by weaving sandals. It is said that he once visited a king while dressed in worn and patched clothes. Yet, surprisingly, this hermit was also an important philosopher.

Where philosophers like Confucius and Mozi had claimed to understand what needed to happen for society to function properly, Zhuangzi observed that any interference by politicians and Confucian sages usually made things worse:

In the world today, the victims of the death penalty lie heaped together, […] the sufferers of punishment are never out of each other’s sight. And now come the Confucianists and Moists, waving their arms, striding into the very midst of the chained-up men. Ah, that they should go this far, that they should be so brazen, so lacking in any sense of shame! Who can convince me that sagely wisdom is not in fact the wedge that fastens the cangue [a wooden board fastened around the neck as punishment], that benevolence (ren) and righteousness (yi) are not in fact the loop and lock of these chains? [82]

To illustrate his point, he told a story of horses who functioned perfectly in their natural habitat, but were quickly driven to death after they had been captured by Po Lo, who ironically claimed to be good with horses. Once captured, Po Lo “proceeded to singe them, shave them, pare them, brand them, bind them with martingale and crupper, tie them up in stable and stall. […] He goes on to starve them, make them go thirsty, race them, prance them, pull them into line, force them to run side-by-side, in front of them the worry of bit and rein, behind them the terror of whip and crop—until they all died.” [82]

“The same fault,” he then claimed, “is committed by the men who handle the affairs of the world!” Instead, human beings should admit they are in no position to understand how to change society. They should halt their endless bickering over different social theories and let the whole discussion go, which would immediately make everyone happier. Instead of following the conventions of ren, all that was needed was to follow the Dao and humans would automatically do good. As a result, Zhuangzi recommended doing exactly the opposite of his contemporaries. Instead of collecting knowledge, a true sage should learn to forget one thing after another until finally forgetting himself and merging with the Way. By making himself empty, he could channel the Way without resistance. These principles, according to Zhuangzi, would lead to a utopian society:

In an age of Perfect Virtue the gait of men is slow and ambling; their gaze is steady and mild. In such an age, mountains have no paths or trails, lakes no boats or bridges. […] In this age of Perfect Virtue men live the same as birds and beasts. […] Who then knows anything about junzi or petty man? Dull and unwitting, men have no wisdom; thus their Virtue does not depart from them. Dull and unwitting, they have no desire; this is called uncarved simplicity. In uncarved simplicity the people attain their true nature. [82]

A sage, such as Confucius, would only disrupt this perfect state of nature:

Then along comes the sage, huffing and puffing after benevolence (ren), reaching on tiptoe for righteousness (yi), and the world for the first time has doubts; mooning and mouthing over his music, snipping and stitching away at his rites, and the world for the first time is divided.

[…] The Way and its Virtue were destroyed in order to create benevolence and righteousness—this was the fault of the sage. When horses live on the plain they eat grass and drink from the streams. Pleased, they twine their necks together and rub; angry, they turn back-to-back and kick. This is all horses know how to do. But if you pile poles and yokes on them and line them up in crossbars and shafts, then they will learn to snap the crossbars, break the yoke, rip the carriage top, champ the bit, and chew the reins. Thus horses learn how to commit the worst kinds of mischief. This is the crime of Po Lo.

He made a similar point in his controversial chat with Robber Zhi, who made the case that Confucian sages were a greater menace for the world than thieves:

Until the sage is dead, great thieves will never cease to appear, and if you pile on more sages in hopes of bringing the world to order, you will only be piling up more profit for Robber Zhi. [82]

Or even more harshly, “cudgel and cane the sages and let the thieves and bandits go their way; then the world will be at last well ordered!”

Zhuangzi’s opposition to social reform led him to leave the social world altogether. It didn’t take long, however, before he noticed that his views had been too naive. One day, he trespassed into a game reserve to catch a bird. He spotted a large magpie, yet he made too much noise and expected the bird to fly away. Somehow, however, the bird did not fly off. For a moment, Zhuangzi didn’t understand why, but then he noticed that the bird was focused on catching a cicada. Happy about this, Zhuangzi picked up his crossbow, not noticing that the gamekeeper was standing right behind him, who angrily chased him from his land. At that moment, Zhuangzi suddenly realized that humans are part of a destructive chain of predators and prey. This was a problem that could not be avoided, even by retreating to the forest.

His experience in the forest depressed him for months. How could one come to terms with this reality of nature? When pondering what had happened, he began to see the world as in constant flux. Everything, including ourselves, is in the constant process of becoming something else. We are always trying to keep things as they are, but this is pointless. The moment Zhuangzi accepted this fact of life, he lost his fear of change and even his fear of death. Both death and life and sorrow and joy naturally succeed each other like day and night. Nature both creates and destroys; therefore, questioning this is completely futile. Instead, he began to see himself as part of the Dao. Our lives will end, but the endless stream of the Dao will continue unchanged.

Zhuangzi often brought these views into practice. It is said that when his wife died, the logician Huizi (370–310 BC) came to his house to join him in the rites of mourning. To Huizi’s shock, he found Zhuangzi sitting on the ground, singing and drumming on an inverted bowl. Huizi told him:

She lived with you, brought up your children, and grew old along with you. That you should not mourn for her is bad enough; but to let your friends find you drumming and singing, that is really going too far!

Zhuangzi replied:

You misjudge me. When she died, I was in despair, as any man well might be. But soon, pondering on what had happened, I told myself that in death no strange new fate befalls us. In the beginning we lack not life only, but form; not form only, but spirit. We are blend in the one great featureless, indistinguishable mass. Then a time came when the mass evolved spirit, spirit evolved form, form evolved life. And now life in its turn has evolved death. For not nature only but man’s being has its seasons, its sequence of spring and autumn, summer and winter. If someone is tired and has gone to lie down, we do not pursue him with shouting and bawling. She whom I have lost has lain down to sleep for a while in the Great Inner Room. To break in upon her rest with the noise of lamentation would but show that I knew nothing of nature’s Sovereign Law. [83]


Fig. 243 – Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly, by Lu Zhi (1550 AD). The scene is based on the following quote by Zhuangzi: “Once I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awoke, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco)

Zhuangzi taught himself to delight in change, even in the case of death. In his book, he wrote of a Daoist who visited a dying friend. To the Daoist’s disgust, he found the friend’s wife and children crying at his bedside. He said to them:

Out of the way! Shoo! Don’t pester change in the making!

With lighthearted humor, he spoke to his dying friend:

It’s amazing, the maker of things. What will it make of you next? Where will it send you? Will it make you into a rat’s liver? Will it make you into a bug’s arm?

His friend responded by accepting his fate with great love for the Way:

A child, obeying his father and mother, goes wherever he is told, east or west, south or north. And the yin and yang of creative change, how much more are they to a human than father and mother! Now that they have brought me to the verge of death, if I should refuse to obey them, how perverse I would be. [84]

Critics of Daoism

No matter how inspiring and cheerful these ideas were, the Daoists were met with much criticism for their rejection of social reform. One critic wrote:

They walk apart from the crowd, priding themselves on being different from other men. [...] They preach the doctrine of Quietism, but their exposition of it is couched in baffling and mysterious terms [...]. I believe that man’s duty in life is to serve his prince and to nourish his parents, neither of which can be done by Quietness. I further believe that it is man’s duty, in all that he teaches, to promote loyalty, good faith, and the Legal Constitution. This cannot be done in terms that are vague and mysterious. The doctrine of the Quietists is a false one, likely to lead the people astray. [85]

A Daoist, however, would point to the pointlessness of social intervention and the endless problems of society at the time.

Another critic stated:

A ruler should not listen to those who believe in people having opinions of their own and in the importance of the individual. Such teachings cause people to withdraw to quiet places and hide away in caves or on mountains, there to rail at the prevailing government, sneer at those in authority, belittle the importance of rank and salary, and despise all who hold official posts. [85]

And in fact, the Daoist critique was that in the Confucian system, the individual only has value to the extent he contributes to the artificial rules of society. In contrast, the Daoists claimed that each individual is complete in himself when he acts in accordance with the Dao. Yangzi (440–360 BC) was a strong proponent of this view. He considered contributing to society immoral and therefore decided to retreat. Instead of ren or concern for everybody (jian ai), he believed in “every man for himself” and “do what comes naturally.” To the Confucianists, this seemed monstrously selfish. The Confucianist Mencius even wrote that if Yangzi “could benefit the empire by pulling out a single hair, he would not do so.” [86] Although (hopefully) an exaggeration, this was exactly Yangzi’s point. He was not willing to subjugate himself to the state. The 3rd century AD text Liezi put the following words into Yanzi’s mouth: “When no man hurts one hair and no man benefits, the world will be at peace.” This, however, should not be read as rampant individualism, as we sometimes see it in the West. The goal was to become one with nature, not to indulge in egotism.


Daoist anarchists

Some Daoists even envisioned anarchist utopias. Similar to the Greek “anarchos,” the Chinese used the term “wujun” for anarchy, both meaning “without a king.” One of these anarchists was Ruan Ji (210–263 AD), a member of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove. In an attempt to escape the corruption of society these seven eccentric men gathered in a small bamboo forest, where they drank excessive amounts of alcohol, made witty remarks and put downs, and created great works of art, music, and poetry. The poet-sage Liu Ling (221–300 AD), to name one of these men, was most famous for his poem called In Praise of the Virtue of Wine, in which he portrayed himself as happily detached from the troubles of the world. He was said to have been followed at all times by a servant, who served him wine and carried a shovel to bury him in case he would finally drop dead from excessive drinking. Liu Ling was also known to walk around naked in his house. When a visitor protested, he would say, “I take the whole universe as my house and my own room as my clothing. Why, then, do you enter here into my trousers?”

But now back to Ruan Ji. He wrote a poem called Biography of the Master Great Man, about a mythological figure as old as creation itself who received a letter from a Confucian junzi who criticized him for his unconventional ways. In his reply, Great Man spoke of a utopian community without a ruler or other officials, where “all beings were peaceful […] and all affairs were well ordered.” But then, with good intentions, class differences were introduced, which turned the perfect society into violent chaos. As a result, Great Man had become an anarchist:

When rulers are set up, tyranny arises; when officials are established, thieves are born. You idly ordain rites and laws only to bind the lowly common people. [82]

Another anarchist, named Bao Jingyan (3rd century AD), took the next step by attributing malice to the ruling class. In his view, the Confucian hierarchies in society were merely a pretext for oppression. Hierarchies, he claimed, make people strive for reputation, which results in inequality between the rich and the poor, which in turn leads to thievery, and finally even violence and war. Instead, he claimed, people should share resources together in a harmonious community.

As a final example, we mention the poem Peach Blossom Spring by Tao Qian (326–397 AD). The work tells of a fisherman who lost his way and found a tunnel at the end of which lay a hidden land where people lived who had fled the harsh Qin Dynasty. There, the people lived “carefree and happy” without a government and without rites to teach the people morality. When the fisherman left, he was asked not to reveal their hidden land, but when he left the cave, he carefully memorized the route he took, and once home, asked the governor for a team of men to return. But no matter how hard they tried, they could not find the land, as it could not be found through conscious effort, but only through “original simplicity” (pu).

Surprisingly, none of these “philosophical Daoists called for a revolution to overthrow the ruling powers. Instead, these Daoists tended to support small parallel communities (or kept their interest merely theoretical). This was, however, not the case for the “religious Daoists, who coordinated violent peasant rebellions, as we will see in the next chapter.