Now that you have a better understanding of my title, Tao of China, I’m going to introduce you to China, our main character. The culture of China is so broad and deep that one must approach it gradually so as to not be overwhelmed. Seeing as how this is our first meeting, we are going to get some general impressions first.
China comes after the word ‘Tao’ in our title. China is never simple. In the west, we think of China as somewhere east. It is easy. It is that big country which occupies the middle of eastern Asia. In actuality China’s borders have been constantly changing ever since the beginning of her existence as a political entity. Indeed in the 20th century her borders have seen radical fluctuations, although they have been relatively permanent since the middle of the century.
Historically the Chinese have thought in terms of spheres of influence rather than borders. Sometimes they’ve pictured their country in terms of concentric circles with the capital at the center, similar to our ideogram for gúo. The inner circle might represent the king’s residence or grounds, like the Forbidden City in the middle of Beijing, the northern capital of China. The second circle might represent the city within the walls. The third might represent the territory directly under the influence of the capital, while the fourth circle might represent those border areas that are just nominally part of the country. The fifth circle would include those countries paying tribute to the capital. Beyond the fifth circle are the barbarians, not even civilized enough to be considered part of the system.
This is one reason that China considers itself the Middle Kingdom. The palace of the Chinese Emperor with the capital city surrounding it is at the center of the civilized world in their global conception. In the minds of the Chinese Communists, they were not conquering neighboring countries, they were just expanding their sphere of influence. In general the sphere of influence of the Chinese government has depended upon the strength of their leaders and the central government rather than any traditional boundaries. Under this mindset, China becomes this amorphous East Asian geo-political entity with no fixed boundaries.
In order to know Chinese culture, we also need to understand the religions that are its underpinnings. Chinese religion, until recent times, has been characterized by the ‘Three Doctrines’ - Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Just as it is essential to know something about the Bible and its religions to have any understanding of European and Mediterranean history, it is also essential to have some understanding of the ‘Three Doctrines’ to have any understanding of China. In some ways, the interplay of these ‘Three Doctrines’ or religions determines the One, which is Chinese culture itself. In actuality China is even more than the ‘Three Doctrines’.
Of the ‘Three Doctrines’, Taoism and Confucianism are uniquely Chinese while Buddhism is an import from India, which has been ‘sinofied’. Traditionally the founders of the three religions, i.e. Confucius, Lao Tse and Buddha, all lived during the same time period, the sixth century BCE. None of the three religions, however, had a church or temple in China until 200 CE, over 700 years later. While the founders each supposedly lived in sixth century BCE, the roots of each doctrine were entrenched deeply in prehistoric times. We will see that the ‘three founders’ were steps along the way, representing trends of thought rather than the beginning of a way of thought. Each of the three ways of thought grew from specific geographical roots in prehistoric times. Each has aligned itself with one against the other during different historical time periods. Buddhism and Confucianism are essentially patriarchal manifestations, while Taoism is aligned with the ‘mysterious feminine’.
As mentioned, Tao of China can also be translated Taoism, or Taoists, of China. Taoism is another part of the tao of China. While Buddhism and Confucianism are also part of the three, we will focus a little more heavily upon Taoism. While we will examine this complex phenomenon called Chinese culture through the window of Taoism, the three doctrines are so interlocked that to study one is study them all. As we will discover Taoism is so deeply embedded in the thought and culture of the Chinese populace, that to study its history we must study the history of the Chinese people.
As Master Ni said: “Chinese thought is the umbrella. Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are under it.” Part of the umbrella, which partakes of each of the Three Doctrines are alchemy and the martial arts. They are separate from but part of the trio of philosophies that are integral to Chinese culture. In this discussion, we will be exploring the connections between these diverse schools of thought.