1. Calligraphy: Tao of China

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Welcome. Thanks for joining me for this little mental adventure. I’m hoping that you will come away from our experience together feeling both illuminated and transformed. More importantly I hope my words help to put you on your Path.

Before proceeding forth I would like to introduce myself. I am a book. My name is written in Chinese, which isn’t so easy to translate into English. But I’ll give it some rough stabs. My formal title is the Tao of China. That is what most people call me. But this is a bit misleading. I prefer the Path of the Internal State or Method of the Inner Kingdom.

To better understand what I’m all about let’s deconstruct the elements of the calligraphy in my name. This will give you some idea as to the themes we are going to be exploring in the course of our literary journey.

Here are the characters, which make up my name.

Generally in the north of China these symbols are pronounced dào zhóng guó, while in the south of China they are pronounced douh jùng gwok. Throughout China there are a multiplicity of different pronunciations of these same symbols. While these symbols have different pronunciations, they have the same meaning throughout the land. Furthermore with minor variations they have the same meaning or meanings throughout China’s millennia long history. No matter what dialect was used, no matter which time period, these symbols had the same meaning. These are not special symbols. They are just three of some 40,000 symbols that make up the Chinese written language. For reasons that we will explore presently, we will call these Chinese symbols ‘ideograms’.

While these three ideograms mean relatively the same thing to all Chinese, translating them into English, or any other non-East Asian language, is quite another story. Let us translate the three ideograms that make up the title.

Tao = method, path, or way

The meaning of the first ideogram is perhaps most familiar to people of the West. It is the symbol for the Tao. This Chinese word-concept has been popularized in books like the Tao of Pooh, the Tao of Physics, and the Tao of Computers. For Westerners, it is linked with supernatural concepts like Nature, the Buddha, or even God.

However, to see what it means for the Chinese reading this symbol, let us look at a Chinese/English dictionary. The Concise Chinese English Dictionary provides us with these definitions:


         I. (as a noun)             II. (as a verb)         III. (as a classifier)

1) road, way, path.        1) say, speak, talk     1) [anything in the form of a line]

2) line.                            2) think, suppose      2) [of orders or questions]

3) way, method.            3) course of dish

4) doctrine, principle

5) Taoism, Taoist

The simplified dictionary of the book, Read & Write Chinese, provides us with these definitions:

dào: road, method, to say

Note that these definitions make no reference to any divine being or elevated state of consciousness.

Further note that the word, dào, which we commonly spell Tao, can be used as a noun or a verb or a unique part of Chinese speech called a classifier, which we will deal with later. This multiple use of the word, tao, is not because it is a special word. Many Chinese words are used as verb, adjective, noun, or adverb depending on the context in which it is used. Chinese words, as a whole, are multi-purpose, being used in a multiplicity of settings without use of special endings or gender variations.

Also it should be pointed out that these lists of definitions are not really homonyms in the Western sense. While Chinese contains many homonyms, words that sound the same but mean something different, their homonyms have different ideograms. The same ideogram for tao simultaneously means method, purpose, path, and Taoist. The context of the use determines the emphasis but does not eliminate the other meanings. The Chinese are specialists in both/and reasoning rather than the Western either/or mentality. In other words, tao means both path and Taoist, not one or the other. This feature of the Chinese language makes their poetry particularly difficult, if not impossible, to translate into European languages.

Thus the phrase, and the subtitle of our book, ‘Tao of China’, could be translated in a variety of ways. It could be translated as the ‘method’, ‘doctrine’, ‘way’, or ‘path’ of China. It could even be translated as Taoism of China. It will be used in all of these contexts in this work. As the ‘path’ of China, we will follow China along its historical journey and development. As the ‘doctrine’ of China, we will look at the development of the unique philosophies and religions of China. As the ‘method’ of China, we will examine the techniques and tendencies of Chinese culture. As the ‘Taoism’ of China, we will examine the historical development of Taoism in China.

As a verb the Tao of China could be translated as speaking or thinking about China, which we’ll being doing a lot of. As a classifier the Tao of China could be translated loosely as the line of China. We are going to explore her historical line, but we are also going to be drawing lines in the sand. Remembering that most boundaries, if not all, are fractalized. We will be differentiating between different philosophies, geographical areas, social classes, and cultural time periods.

Part of the tao of China concerns her script, i.e. Chinese symbols and calligraphy. In some ways, there would be no China except for her calligraphy. We will discuss this idea in more depth later[i].

Chinese characters are ancient. We have recognizable characters from the Shang dynasty in the 2nd millennium BCE. Hence it is the oldest writing system in the world that is still in use. Simplistically speaking, the earliest Chinese characters were pictures of the object. For instance their symbol for fire looks like a campfire. These characters are called pictograms. To express more complex ideas and concepts, the Chinese also developed symbolic characters, somewhat akin to our scientific language. We will explore many of these in the course of this work. They are called ideograms.

Tao, the ideogram

Let us look at the ideogram for Tao to get a better idea of what an ideogram is and to get a better understanding of the underlying meaning of the word ‘Tao’. This ideogram is so widespread throughout East Asia that martial artists from Korea, Japan, and Taiwan recognize it. Tao is pronounced ‘doe’ in Japan and Korea. Thus Ju-do, Aiki-do, Ken-do, and many other martial arts incorporate this word and symbol in their name.


                =                    +         

Tao                       =          Journey          +          Head

The ideogram  for tao is made up of distinct parts, each of which has an individual meaning of its own. First, the long extended line that surrounds the interior symbols on the bottom and left, represents the concept of journey. This symbol is called a radical or primitive. Radicals are symbols that are regularly used in the formation of more complex ideograms. Because of the inclusion of this radical in the ideogram for Tao, we can guess that the meaning of the ideogram will probably have something to do with the concept of journey, as we already know.

The inner ideogram, the one that is surrounded as a whole by the radical for journey is pronounced shöu. In our Chinese/English Dictionary cited above, shöu is translated as:

                                 I. 1) head;

                                    2) leader, head, chief

                                II. of a song

                               III. first.

Roughly speaking the whole ideogram becomes the beginning of a journey, or the leader of a journey, perhaps even the trailhead. As such starting with the exploration of the word Tao is quite appropriate for this Great Work. The Tao is our trailhead for beginning our extended journey through Chinese history.

The inner ideogram has three parts of its own.

                    =               +          +         

                  Leader =       8 directions     Man                Eye

The bottom represents the eye; the middle two lines is the radical for human or man; while the top two antenna looking protuberances are the radical for the number eight. Many times eight represents the eight directions, the primary directions, forward, backward, left, right, and the four diagonals. Hence the eight directions are representative of everywhere. The leader or head looks everywhere and sees everything. Note that this leader sees, but does not speak. Some interpret the two antennas as the plumes of a general.

In the ideogram for the Tao we have a beginning of a journey, which is led by a head or chieftain, who sees everything. Note that the Tao consists of beginning images, not ending images. We are just starting out on our journey. Hopefully, if we keep our eyes open, we will be able to better understand the many facets of Chinese culture.

A feature of the tao of China concerns these journeys. While the Chinese tend to stay home, probably the most famous journey in Chinese history was one made by a Buddhist monk in the 6th century. He traveled from China through the Himalayas to India in order to obtain Buddhist writings or scripture to bring back to China. A legend grew up around his journey. In the 16th century, a famous Chinese novel was written called Journey to the West, which turns this historical journey into a mythic quest. It contains many typically Chinese elements. Hence we will use this Chinese classic to further illuminate the tao of China.

Before leaving this topic covering the ideogram for Tao, let us add one refinement to its meaning. It has been said that in ancient times the ideogram for the Tao was initially used to designate a mother lode of metallic ore. This ore was discovered by magnetism. Because it only points to the mother lode, it is only the trailhead. Also the magnet that discovers the mother lode only sees, but does not speak. These characteristics are totally in line with the ideogram's pictorial meaning.

Zhöng = Middle

The second ideogram is most commonly translated as middle. In official Chinese, the ideogram is pronounced zhöng[ii]. This ideogram and the word it represents is an incredibly important concept in developing the way of China.

In our Chinese/English Dictionary zhöng is translated as:

      1) center, middle;

      2) in, among;

      3) between two extremes;

      4) medium; or

      5) China.

Notice that the middle is not without tension. Instead it is between two extremes. In the right context, zhöng or middle could even mean China, itself. Just as tao means ‘path’, ‘method’, and ‘Taoism’, simultaneously, zhöng means ‘middle’, ‘between two extremes’, and ‘China’ simultaneously.

The actual ideogram for zhöng is a vertical line through the center of a box.

"It represents a square target, pierced in its center by an arrow."[iii] By extension some other translations of the word include, "To hit the center, to attain."[iv] Hence this symbol does not just represent the center, but instead has the connotation of achieving the center. Attainment of the center is a dominant feature of Taiji practice as well as Taoist and Chinese thought. Remember this is not a passive state, but instead a constant redefinition, and re-attainment of the center.

To further indicate the importance of this concept in Chinese, this ideogram is also used extensively in Chinese calligraphy as a part of other words.

Each ideogram in the Chinese language is monosyllabic. Because of this it is commonly said that all Chinese words are monosyllabic. Indeed this is one feature that differentiates Chinese and Tibetan from other languages. While true in theory and for categorization practically speaking, the Chinese spoken language is made up of so many compound words that it could easily be argued that Chinese has innumerable compound words. Instead of adding more words to create more meanings, they combine two of the monosyllabic characters to create a third word that is related, but has a unique meaning. The whole is unique from the parts.

Indeed the meanings of these compound words, made up of two or more single syllable words, are not easily discernible from their components. These two syllable words are similar to our compound words such as cupboard, where the parts are related but separate from the full meaning of the word. China has an uncountable number of these two syllable compound words.

These compound words are so important that they are always included in the better dictionaries. They are listed under the first word of the combined ideogram. The more important words have more compound words associated with them. Some Chinese characters are called pictograms, others ideograms, and some phonograms. Using the same root, we will call these compound words, bigrams.

Zhöng is important enough to form many compound words, bigrams. These combinations further refine its meaning. For instance, zhöng combined with the ideogram for gòng, translated as ‘share in common’, means the Communist Party, zhöng gòng. Hence the Communist Party translated literally means something like ‘balanced sharing’.

The concept of the middle between two opposites dominates Chinese thought. Indeed taiji, part of the Tao of China, which we shall explore, is the middle between the opposites of yin and yang. Zhöng when combined with dìng, means ‘obtain the center’ or ‘central equilibrium’. Central equilibrium is probably the most important of the thirteen elements of Taiji. Zhöng when combined with the ideogram for heart, xin, means ‘one’s center’. As Master Ni says, “Always guard one’s center – guard the center.”

When we combine the ideogram for Tao with that of the Middle, this combination could be translated as ‘the method or process of attaining the center’. This will certainly be a part of this work: methods for attaining the center physically and mentally.

Middle Kingdom = China

For the purposes of this introduction the most important compound word associated with zhöng is when it is combined with the ideogram for kingdom, gúo. These two ideograms together mean the Middle Kingdom, which is commonly translated as China. Middle Kingdom is the bigram, zhöng gúo. There is no other middle kingdom but China, and it does not really refer to the middle of the kingdom. The ideogram for gúo is also the third ideogram of the title. Roughly speaking, the title of this book could be translated as Tao of China.

The Chinese call their country, zhöng-gúo. Gúo is the ideogram representing the concept of country, kingdom, or any other political entity. Hence China is the ‘middle’ gúo, while the United States is the ‘beautiful’ gúo, Great Britain is the ‘talented’ gúo, France the ‘legal’ gúo, Germany the ‘moral’ gúo and Thailand, the ‘peaceful’ gúo. This is the Chinese name for these countries. They have no other proper name. Although we say China, the Chinese refer to their country as the Middle Kingdom.

The Chinese do not refer to their country as China or to themselves as Chinese or anything remotely like it. The Oxford English Chinese dictionary doesn’t even have a listing for China or Chinese in the English to Chinese section. The traditional Chinese normally refer to their country as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and to themselves as the ‘children of Han’, an early dynasty. The central Chinese government has called itself the Middle Kingdom, for over three thousand years, since the Shang dynasty ruled China in the 2nd millennium BC. The Communist government, while breaking many traditions, still refers to themselves as the Middle Kingdom.

Gúo = Kingdom

The ideogram for gúo or country reveals much about the Chinese notion of country.

Around the outside of the ideogram is a square. This is the radical that symbolizes enclosure. We also have this type of radical in the ideograms for jail, garden, and cause. Symbolically a wall surrounds our ’country’, presumably to protect it from attack. As we shall see many ancient Chinese cities and communities protected themselves with great earthen walls. The Great Wall of China was the ultimate manifestation of this concept. We shall explore this concept throughout our journey. In the course of this work, we will explore why and when the Chinese put up these walls to protect themselves.

Inside the square, our city walls, we have a few different elements. One of them is the ideogram for gë.

is defined as ‘dagger-axe, an ancient weapon’. Further this same ideogram is called the ‘sword’ radical. It is a common radical, used in many ideograms including the one we are analyzing, gúo. We get the distinct idea that the gúo, i.e. country, is founded and/or maintained by military force.

Notice that the ideogram looks like a martial artist perhaps with a sword, club or ax in his hand ready to strike or defend. Indeed many books call it a derivation of a halberd, a multiple use weapon including a spiked club. Part of the tao of China concerns the martial arts, which frequently include weapons. Note that this martial figure is inside the wall. While the wall can represent an external wall it can also represent the internal wall, the skin of the body. The swordsman is within. In this context we will be also be exploring the internal martial arts as part of the way of China. Specifically we will focus upon the historical and developmental roots of the Wu Tang tradition, which includes Tai Chi Chuan and sword work.

Before proceeding outward, let us continue sinking inward. The ideogram for sword can further be broken down into its component parts. Take the stroke out which goes from upper right to lower left and we have the ideogram for a type of arrow, which had a string on it so that it could be retrieved.

The vertical stroke with the hook was the bow being pulled back, while the somewhat horizontal stroke was the arrow itself. The little dash represents the spirit of intentionality, i.e. the man firing the weapon. With this symbolism in mind, the line that is added to turn it from arrow into sword, is the sword itself, pointing downwards, from right to left. Hence our ideogram for an ancient weapon is actually a pictogram of a mighty warrior who fires arrows and uses his sword to vanquish his enemy or protect his estate.

The rest of the interior ideogram contains a square above a line.

A line when used at the bottom of an ideogram represents the earth, while the little square many times represents the mouth or nourishment. This pictogram suggests the notion of the earth providing nourishment. The downward slant to the bottom line suggests a plow or hoe. Hence the overall image of the two together is of a farmer, i.e. someone who tills the earth, someone from the agricultural peasantry.

Our warrior dominates and protects the agricultural peasantry

When our mighty warrior, the one with ready sword and drawn bow, loaded with an arrow, is added to the picture, it looks like he is either dominating and/or protecting this farmer. Indeed, as we shall see, this has been significant aspect of Chinese political history. From very early on, a military aristocracy has dominated and protected an agricultural peasantry. This was the form of government in China until the mid-20th century when the Communist Party took over. Further it could easily be argued that even the Communist government is really no different from the preceding imperial government.

yü, which means post or center

In the more traditional interpretation of the interior ideogram, the little square, instead of representing the mouth, instead represents the capital, the home, the inner body, residing on the land. The weapons are necessary to protect this center, with no borders. [v]

This is the ideogram for the word, , which means post or center. The ideogram for has no defined borders although its center is well defined. When borders are added, the ideogram is called gúo. It has well defined borders in addition to the capital. Its inner and outer centers are well defined. This is the difference between a country and a city in the philosophy of Chinese ideograms.

huò, indeterminate human, ‘either .... or’

Another meaning for the inner part of gúo's ideogram is the word, huò. The whole ideogram inside the enclosure is the ideogram, huò. It means an indeterminate or unnamed person.[vi] As an extension it is also defined as:


  I. perhaps, maybe, probably.

  II. or, either ... or.


Let's call it the ‘either ... or’ ideogram. In the context of the symbols, either we talk it out (the little square could be the ‘mouth symbol’), or we fight it out (the ‘sword symbol’). Hence to maintain a country it is necessary to balance negotiation and warfare. As we shall see in the course of this quest, there is another interpretation. A strong army is necessary to protect the farmers who are providing nourishment for the country.

The Path to the Inner Kingdom

In summary, my name, Tao of China, is based upon three Chinese ideograms, dào zhöng gúo, literally Tao Middle Kingdom. This phrase can be translated myriad ways. On the external level the three ideograms that constitute the title of this literary work could be translated ‘the tao of China’. On the internal level they could be translated Trailhead of the Inner Kingdom, or the Kingdom Within. On the surface this work will deal with the tao, i.e. the method, of China, while internally it is about the path to the inner kingdom.

Both External knowledge and internal techniques

On the external level, we are going to look at the methods and way of China. On the internal level we are going to explore techniques for attaining the center crucial spot in the midst of our inner kingdom. Simultaneously we will be examining China’s ways by tracing the historical development of China as a political entity and also discovering internal techniques for personal transformation. On our journey through Chinese history we will regularly bounce against Journey to the West, the Chinese novel, to set up its historical context and in so doing come to a more complete knowledge of China. In a preliminary fashion, we’ve introduced a few of her ‘methods’, which we will examine in the course of this work: her calligraphy, the internal martial arts, and her political system and philosophies.

Must extract and refine Mother Lode for oneself

Just as the Tao marker only indicated where the mother lode was, this book only points to the mother lode. Each individual must exert the will to dig out the ore and then extract the treasures for themselves. There is an abundance of information within these pages. Sink to your own heart's center, in order to separate out crucial from extraneous. Meditate upon the Void. When the Yang Returns, jump aboard and hold on for dear life. If you fall off, as you surely will, meditate again, preparing yourself for the Return of the Yang. Let's go.


(For an interesting sidelight see: Fractal perspective: huò turns to gúo within huò turns to gúo)

[i]In order to avoid being too pedantic, we will discuss calligraphic issues as they arise.

[ii]The umlaut is used to represent a straight line, which means that the word is pronounced flat with no rising and falling intonation. For the Chinese there are 5 basic intonations of which flat is one. The intonation changes the meaning of the word, not just its expression.

[iii]Chinese Characters, Dr. L. Wieger, S. J. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, translated into the English by L. Davrout, S. J., 1965, 1st published 1915, p. 260

[iv]Chinese Characters, p. 260

[v]Chinese Characters, p.177

[vi]Chinese Characters, p 177


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