Taoism And The Taoist Arts

Background & History



Main Concepts
- Yin and Yang
- The 5 Elements
- Wu Wei / nothingness
- Chi - the vital energy

Background & History:
- History of Taoism
- Main characters & texts
- Religious Taoism
- Modern Interpretations

The Taoist Arts:
Martial Arts
T'ai Chi
Medicine / Diet

- UK


Chinese Health Arts Blog

A Brief History Of Taoism

Self conscious Taoism seems to have emerged about 300 BC but its roots stretch back much further in time - many thousands of years, in fact. As a growing philosophy Taoism was influenced by a number of strands of thought which were popular in China long before this time such as Ancestor Worship and Shamanism, and later Buddhism and Confucianism.

The common folk of ancient China held a strong belief in spirits and magic, and would have relied on shamans or holy-men to interpret and influence the unseen world; Carvings on bone and metal show that Ancestor Worship was common in China as long ago as the 11th century BC. Later, Buddhism arrived from India bringing with it a host of Gods, and as Confucianism began to emerge complex rituals were added to the mix.

These strands were constantly intermingling as China developed, and even today they are all followed to a greater or lesser extent. And all the while the more enlightened Chinese were training themselves with meditation and physical exercise such as martial arts, all of which looked to, and in turn influenced, the emerging philosophy that we now know as Taoism.

Eventually Taoism became a religion. This was a natural progression from the philosophy that had already developed, especially considering the popularity of the Buddhist Pantheon, and for some time Taoism was the State Religion of China. But this site is interested in the philosophy of Taoism, which stands separately from the religion, and has its basis today in the texts left over from ancient times. For more on Taoist religion, click here

Main Texts and Characters of Taoism

The Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching (pron. Dow De Jing) is the main source of Taoist wisdom available to the Westerner. In my mind it is the first place a student of the Tao should begin. Unlike many other Taoist books it is lacking in humour or stories, and is often seen as difficult by Western Scholars. Succinct and direct, it can look superficial, but a great depth is hidden behind the brevity.

A book of only 5000 characters in Chinese, it consists of a number of 'stand alone' chapters which each contain a separate message. Said to be written by Lao Tzu, its true authorship remains unknown. Lao Tzu is an honorary title meaning 'old master'- a title that would have been applied to many Chinese throughout history. The wise sayings contained within its pages may well have been verbally transmitted through the generations, to eventually be recorded together as a book of wisdom in Lao Tzu's name.

But the history of the book is not important except to scholars, and this is not a book for scholars. The title is hard to translate, but is usually given as 'Classic on the Way and Its Power' or 'Classic on the Way and Virtue'. Neither is satisfactory, and increasing it is simply called 'Tao Te Ching'. It teaches a philosophy of life in which one is 'in-tune' with Tao, or 'way of nature', and is intrinsically a book of active philosophy - a book for living, not for study.

Writings Of Chuang Tzu

Chang Tzu (Master Chuang) shares the same beliefs about Taoism as Lao Tzu but he expresses them in a very different way. The writings of Chang Tzu (often simply called 'The Chang Tzu') are stories that illustrate Taoist principles, often in a humorous way. The stories show how to apply the principles of the Tao Te Ching in everyday life, and thus the 2 books complement each other perfectly.

I Ching

The I Ching (pron. Ee Jing, meaning 'book of changes') is probably the best known of the three Taoist classics, and claimed by many to be the oldest book in existance. It is a detailed manual of the changes of the Tao, describing the manifold movements of yin and yang.

It uses the system of trigrams - figures composed of 3 lines which are either yin (broken) or yang (solid), giving 8 possible combinations. These 8 can be combined in pairs to give 64 possible hexagrams, each representing a phase of change or evolution.

Each hexagram is accompanied by ancient texts, and commentaries on those texts. The I Ching contains great depth and detailed study of the hexagrams can give great insight into the workings of the Tao and the movements of yin and yang. Most commonly, the I Ching is used as an oracle to divine information about a certain situation.

As nothing in the universe exists on its own, and everything is linked to every other thing, it is possible to use a book such as the I Ching to shed light on a problem on question by randomly generating one of the 64 hexagrams to indicate the nature of the situation in question.

A Few Words On Choosing Translations

These three classic texts of Taoism are all available in a number of English translations, and a quick glance at a few will reveal that they can differ from each other a great deal. This is due at least in part to the way the Chinese language works - its pictographic script will often not translate easily, and many of the concepts familiar to the Chinese are foreign to outsiders.

Some of the passages refer to Chinese stories or use unfamiliar phrases, for example, 'the ten thousand things' refers to all things in existence and the words 'spirit', 'virtue' (te) and 'heaven' do not have the same meanings as they do in our own culture.

Nevertheless, a number of excellent translations are available. I recommend looking for translations by Taoists where possible - the Tao Te Ching in particular has been translated many times by Western academics who, though they may well have studied Taoism, do not fully understand its principles.

As I have said, the only way to fully understand Taoism is to live it, so a translation by a Taoist will often have a depth of meaning lacking in other translations.

"It is very hard to find any of the spirit of Taoism in the lifeless writing of the humourless Academic Mortician, whose bleached out Scholarly Dissertations contain no more of the character of Taoist wisdom than does the typical wax museum."
~ From 'The Tao Of Pooh', Benjamin Hoff

But the best way to choose a translation is to browse through a few copies (if you can find them) and see which appeals to you most. Do not necessarily go on recommendations - what appeals to one may not do so to another. Go with your gut feeling. One copy may 'speak' to you more than any other - if so, go with that one.

Take a look at these, and other Taoist related books, in the Taoist Bookshop

yin yang

Background and History pt 2 >>

About this site

/ Background & History 1 / Background & History 2
Main concepts 1 / Main concepts 2 / Meditation / Martial Arts
T'ai Chi / Herbalism / Medicine / Bookshop / Contact