3: The History of Taoism?

China Page

Previously Chapter 4

This leads into our next introduction. We have met the author, the title, and the main character, China, with her ‘Three Doctrines’. In this section we are going to meet one of these ‘Three Doctrines’, Taoism, by taking a look at her history.  Remember this is just an introduction, we will get to know this interesting character much better in the course of our time travels through Chinese history.

Before getting into details, let us see when Taoism first appears historically - when it first pops above ground - not its antecedents, nor its ideas or concepts, but when it is first differentiated from the rest. In discovering this, we will get a simplified overview of Taoism’s social context.

Historical Ambiguities of Taoism or Nothing official

What do the Chinese say about the history of Taoism? There is no official Chinese history of Taoism. Why? The Chinese people are one of the most historical cultures in the world. They trace their political history back to the beginnings of time. Their first dynasty in a string of continuous dynasties extending to modern times began in 2205 BCE. They have written histories of everything from the Empire down to towns, provinces, the arts, and individuals. But the Chinese literati are silent when it comes to the history of Taoism.

“Chinese official historiography, though exact and abundant, is virtually silent on the subject of Taoism, which stands apart from, or even in opposition to, the cult of the state and its ideology. Indeed, the annalists prefer to ignore Taoism as much as possible. ... No serious study yet exists on the history of Taoism.”[i]

It seems that officially at least Taoism doesn't exist on paper. Why?

Initial Appearance of Taoism - 2nd Century BCE

So if there is no history of Taoism when does it first appear historically? Not its antecedents, nor its ideas or concepts. But when is it first referred to? In discovering this we will get a simplified overview of some of the issues to be dealt with.

The first mention of a Taoist school is found in Chinese historical writings about 100 BCE. Let’s find out how it happened. According to Shipper, a Westerner, who is an ordained Taoist priest:

"Under Emperor Wu (140-86 BCE), Confucianism was established as the state ideology, excluding all other systems. ... [Confucianism] became the doctrine of imperial absolutism, the moral philosophy of the central administration! With this, a deep gulf opened which, despite noticeable variations, was to remain constant throughout Chinese history. On the one hand, there was the state and its administration, the official country, claiming the ‘Confucian’ tradition for its own; on the other was the real country, the local structures being expressed in regional and unofficial forms of religion. It was then that Taoism consciously assumed its own identity and received its present name.” Schipper, p 9

Confucian/Taoist polarity: Religions of state and people

Wait just one minute! Let's not rush off. What exactly is he saying?

Is he saying that Taoism received a name and identity under the influence of Confucianism? Isn’t Taoism its own unique religion? Is he saying that Taoism is associated with local and unofficial forms of religion? We thought Taoism was one religion, not a conglomerate. Is he saying that in the naming of Taoism, to set it apart from Confucianism, that a polarity was set up that has lasted to this day?

The answer is yes to all the questions. Taoism received a name under the impetus of the Confucians. It is an umbrella religion for the myriad indigenous cults that are the polar balance to Confucianism, the religion of the state.

Confucianism of the state: Taoism of the individual

Let’s examine this religious polarity more closely. As we shall see, the Confucian/Taoist polarity is founded in complex geographical issues, but relates simplistically to the polarity between state and individual. In this first century before Christ, Confucianism, always a moral code of the aristocracy, became firmly associated with the state, its administration and social responsibilities. Much of its emphasis was on how to achieve social stability and order. Taoism became associated with the powerless people, local communities and the individual level. Its emphasis came to be on personal power, i.e. vitality, and transformation. While the religion or philosophy of the government was Confucianism, the religion of the common people was Taoism.

Those Taoists or Named by the opposition

Let it be stressed that the Taoists did not call themselves anything in the second century BCE when they were first named. Instead the state historians, in order to set up categories of us and them, called them Taoists.

"The expression Tao-chia  “Taoist School” is found in Ssu-ma Ch'ien [(145-86 BCE) China's first great historian, footnote p.183} in the context of the tradition of the Immortals. Later, the bibliographer Liu Hsiang (77-6 BCE.) classified the Lao Tzu and the Chang Tzu under the rubric Tao-chia. Under the later Han, we begin to find the name Tao chiao, “the teachings of the Tao”. In later Taoism, the two expressions, Tao-chia and Tao-chiao, are used freely one for the other. Only from modern times on have the Confucians used the two expressions to establish an artificial distinction between ‘philosophical Taoism’--for which they use the term Tao-chia, and 'religious Taoism'-- for which they use the term Tao-chiao.” Schipper, p. 245

The two terms: Tao-chia, Taoist school, and Tao-chiao, teachings of the Tao, were used in the first century BCE and the second century CE, respectively, by outsiders to refer to the tradition of the Immortals and the teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. The people who were referred to as Taoists did not call themselves Taoists. Why were they called Taoists?

Whose tao? or The taoless Tao

In classical China, the word ‘tao’ meant something like ‘the method of behavior’.

"All the schools, Confucian, Mohist, Legalist, et cetera, spoke of their tao, their own way and specific doctrine, which was at the center of their system, whereas the school of thought to which the name ‘taoist’ was later given maintained, on the contrary, that the true Tao, the permanent one which eternally endures and survives, is not a tao, that is, not a doctrine or a system.” Schipper,  p185

Hence one could speak of the tao of Confucianism, the tao of the Legalists, the tao of the Mohists. In this context we could say the tao of Christianity is different than the tao of Buddhism. Taoism came to be referred to the method of no method or the tao of no tao. This ideology based upon that lack of tao came to ironically to be called Taoism.

The Taoists, political outsiders

The taoless Tao is hard to control by the government; therefore it is not very politically palatable. Many Emperors were Taoist in orientation and yet adopted Confucianism as the state religion to maintain political control. Hence the Taoists remain outside of the System. ‘Tune in, Turn on, and Drop out' could almost be a Taoist credo. Thus Taoism is almost always politically unacceptable for the political establishment. It allows for too much diversity.

“Relegated to the opposition, Taoism remained out of official favor .... Local leaders ... found in Taoist initiation and worship the consecration that legitimized their power, outside the imperial administration and sometimes in opposition to it.” Schipper, p 9

Thus in these four centuries surrounding the changing of the millennium, Taoism and Confucianism, crystallized as the religions of the people and the government respectively.ii

Confucianism defines Taoism as the others

There were many native religions in China before Confucianism was established as the state religion. However after its ratification by the state, these local traditions assumed a collective identity in opposition to the state religion. Without a religion of the state, one does not speak of the religion of the individual. The nature of polarities is that one can't exist without the other.iii The establishment of Confucianism as the state religion identified Taoism as the others.

Taoism, a religion of the people, not the government

So what are the roots of Taoism, the popular religion of the 'others'?

“Taoism originated in ancient China at the times of the first emergence of philosophical thinking and of the general inquiry into the nature of humanity and the meaning of life. The first great thinkers, Confucius (born in 551 BCE) and Mo Ti (fifth century BCE) were concerned with moral philosophy, but not with individual freedom and destiny. The aristocratic religion, that of the feudal class, considered the human being only in terms of his social role, codified in rituals which themselves expressed the entire feudal order. This order seems to have envisioned an afterlife only for the nobles, the great ancestors. As a Confucian work has it: 'the rites do not extend to the common people.’” Schipper, p6

Although the name Taoism came much later, Taoist thought preceded Confucius. While the first great historical thinkers were concerned with humankind in relation to society, Taoism was concerned with the individual in relation to him or herself. The aristocrats embraced the first, because the Confucian philosophy put them at the top of the moral order. Excluded from participation in the feudal structure, for whatever reason, the populace embraced Taoism. Its focus was the ways and means of fulfilling individual destiny, independent of social status.

Also we see that the Chinese nobles had a religion for themselves, which only really included the common man on the lower rungs. Evidently, as was true elsewhere in the world at the time [iv], China had the classical hierarchical patriarchal religious structure. Confucianism was the name they gave this state religion, although it had only a dubious connection to Confucius, as we shall see.

Taoism, an outgrowth of prehistoric shamanism

The religion of the common people was Taoism. And Taoism is directly linked with prehistoric shamanism. [v]

“[Shamanism] should be seen as being the substratum of Taoism; it is at certain times its rival and, in modern China, its inseparable complement. In every period Taoism has been defined in relation to shamanism.” Schipper, p 6

Thus, not only is Taoism defined by its opposition to Confucianism, it is also defined as a complement to ancient shamanism. So far Taoism has not defined itself. The image we are getting is of a religious polarity in China, beginning in prehistoric times. The feudal lords participated in a moral philosophy, eventually called Confucianism, designed to preserve the status quo, with them at the top of the hierarchy. The common people were excluded from this bureaucratic philosophy, but participated in shamanistic religious practices.

These shamanistic practices are further divided into the civilized Taoist and less civilized shamanistic rites. Taoism is seen as a civilized extension of shamanism. As a Taoist priest, Schiffer calls Taoism the 'higher religion' of the two. But we see in his description that the two are tightly intermixed, perhaps inseparable. Indeed, as we shall see, the 'higher religion' is something created by the literati, missing entirely the focus of Taoist shamanism on the common man.

Eventually the varied indigenous religious practices including shamanism were co-opted by the Taoist religious structure. Taoism in its tolerance included the religious ceremonies of the common folk, while simultaneously reaching beyond them. The rites and ceremonies were used as symbols to point the Way, as are rites and ceremonies everywhere. While the people participated in the form, the Taoist priests understood the function as well. Hence many times, Taoists led the shamanistic rituals of the common folk.

"In Taoism, the rites and myths of popular shamanism become Mystery cults and give rise to liturgy and theology. Chuang Tzu uses the ancient myths only to reach beyond them.” Schipper, p8

It seems that Taoists use the prehistoric practices as a springboard to the next level. Rather than denying the ancient practices, they use and improve upon them. The Taoists simultaneously practiced the ancient rites and transcended them.

History of Taoism is history of Chinese populace

We can now answer our first question: Why is there no classic Chinese history of Taoism? Although Taoism was first named in the 2nd century BCE, the roots of its thought seem to precede the idea of the Chinese state or Empire. Taoism really had no beginning. It always was. Taoism did not begin and grow. It was in no way a homogeneous group of thoughts. Taoism didn't even name itself, but was named by the state as a catchall term to include all the shamanistic religious practices. In some ways the term Taoist used by the Chinese government would be similar to the use of the word pagan by a Christian. It is an almost generic term used to refer to a great diversity of religious practices. Even then Taoism was not equated with shamanism, but was considered its evolution.

Hence Chinese historians write about the history of the Chinese state not about indigenous religion. In like manner, American historians study the Presidents and the Civil War but do not write about native Indian religions except as they effect the development of the state. The Catholic historians do not study the ancient native religions that they supplanted. Instead, if anything, they try to eradicate their history. In a similar way, the state historians of China ignored the native religions as inconsequential to the state.

In many ways the history of Taoism is the history of the Chinese populace. While the history of Taoism is linked to the development of the Chinese subculture, orthodox Chinese history is concerned only with the history of China as a state, an Empire. Hence the emphasis is on the rulers and advisors who had a lasting impact upon the formation and development of China, the political organization. [vi]

Ambiguous Chinese are both Confucian & Taoist

In our discussion of Taoism’s history, we see that Taoism is defined in opposition to Confucianism. As we shall see, the Taoist/Confucian polarity defined Chinese thought before their differentiation in the 2nd century BCE and has continued to define Chinese thought ever since. Therefore in this paper, we will try to focus upon the polar balance between the two, rather than just looking at Taoism independently.

Polarity Transcended or Chinese both Taoist and Confucian

While we’ve set up these polar distinctions between Taoism and Confucianism, the reality is that most Chinese follow both Taoist and Confucian precepts. Due to the ‘either-or’ mentality prevalent in the West[vii] , Westerners have difficulty thinking in terms of ‘both-and’. In the West, one belongs to one religion or another, not two religions. The Chinese, on the other hand, didn’t belong to religions. Instead they followed the precepts of any religion or philosophy that they felt was most useful. The Buddhist pagoda on Tuesday, Taoist temple on Thursday, and the Christian church on Sunday would have been entirely acceptable. There is always room for one more in the Chinese pantheon: both-and = all-inclusive. The Western religions are either-or = exclusive. Hence most Chinese in earlier times, especially the intelligentsia, balance Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist thought depending upon circumstance. There are no absolutes as there are in the Western world.

The question, “Which religion do you belong to?” is actually confusing to the inclusive Chinese populace. The Chinese might not understand the question; it is so far from their cultural context. Hence the artificial distinctions that I’ve set up are more for elucidation than to accurately reflect a complex reality. I impossibly attempt to reproduce a wondrous non-verbal reality with these pathetic black and white scribbles upon the page. Ah well, what else is there to do anyway?

In China, things are rarely as they seem.

As is evident from our discussion thus far, Chinese culture is rarely as it seems, at least from the Western perspective. We’ve already seen this phenomenon frequently. The Tao is nothing mystical, just a method or path. China has no name, and is simply called the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese tend to belong to three religions not just one. One of these religions, Taoism, did not name itself and instead is a catchall term for all the indigenous religions. We will see that neither did Lao Tzu, the traditional founder of Taoism, form a religion called Taoism, nor did Confucius found the philosophy called Confucianism. Further, Taoism, while including many prehistoric shamanistic cults and practices, attempts to transcend its superstitions.[viii]

In this discussion we have suggested that Taoism represented the subculture of the Chinese people as separate from the aristocratic culture of imperial China. This raises more than a few questions. What did this subculture consist of? What were these shamanistic traditions that are such a part of Taoism? Why was there a split? What is the nature of Taoism's opposite, i.e. the aristocratic culture?

This humble chapter certainly doesn’t know the answers to these questions. However if your interest has been piqued enough to continue reading, I’m sure the answer to these questions could be found in the following pages.

[i]The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper, University of California Press, 1993, p.5

In this paper, we will try to stay close to the sources rather than trying to be too original. Staying close to the source will prevent a rampant imagination from getting too out of control. In the Chinese style, we will carefully examine a venerated source and comment upon it. Our first venerated source will be The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper. Schipper is an ordained Taoist priest and a Western scholar. He has written extensively on Taoism. Most histories of Taoism are written by outsiders, if at all. This is the history of Taoism written by an ordained Taoist priest albeit Western academic.

[ii] It is a hard situation to imagine in our multi-cultural United States. We have to imagine that on subtle levels that there is one set of values that drives those who crave political power and another that drives those that don’t. If we look to Scottish history, we see many times that there is one religion of the nobility and another of the peasantry. The normal dichotomy is between the hierarchical system and the egalitarian system. Those that wish to get ahead must worship the hierarchy and its religion in order to succeed. Those that just want peace in order to develop personally, normally lean towards egalitarian systems. In China this polarity was crystallized in the philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism.

[iii]As an European example of something defining the other: before the many invaders of the British Isles, the north was populated by warring tribes called Picts with no national identity. After the invasions of Romans, Angles and Celts, the Picts were forced into a national identity to defend themselves.

[iv]This stratified religious structure existed in all the Aryan states of the day. In Scandinavia they had three different sets of gods depending upon your social status. In India, they had the caste system and the untouchables.

[v]Shamanism evokes the image of a medicine man, when actually many of the shamans were medicine women instead. Because of this we shall many times use the word shawoman instead, to indicate the true roots of this class of prehistoric religions, which we shall soon examine.

[vi]Lest we think we are superior, in the west we have only recently began looking beyond the history of leaders and the countries they ruled to look at the lives of the common people and especially the women, whose perspective is regularly ignored.

[vii]I’m just as guilty as any. It was far into my paper before I realized that the polarity was transcended by the Chinese.

[viii] In terms of the ambiguity of China and historical research one historian made the comment: “The more precise the date attributed to an event the less likely it is to be true and the greater its significance.”


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