37: The Emergence of Taoism

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Ssu-ma Chien: Confucius meets Lao Tzu

During the Han, we find the first mention of Taoism by Ssu-ma Ch’ien, China’s first great historian. This is where historical Taoism begins. He lumps all those who talk about the Tao as Taoists. As this diverse group of people had no sense of personal identity, they also had no real history.

While Chinese historians don’t address the actual history of Taoism, they do speak of Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching, which is considered to be the founding bible of Taoism, at least traditionally. Let us see what Ssu-ma Ch’ien says about Lao Tzu. In so doing, we will find out a little about early Chinese conceptions of Taoism. Also it will help us to further understand this transitional period in the differentiation of Confucianism and Taoism. 

In his work Records of the Historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien says that Lao Tzu, the traditional founder of Taoism, was a contemporary of Confucius, living in the 6th century BCE. He relates a meeting between the two masters.

“Confucius went to Chou to consult Lao Tzu about rules of propriety. Lao Tzu said, “Those whom you talk about are dead and their bones have decayed. Only their words have remained. When the time is proper, the superior man rides in a carriage, but when it is not, he covers himself up and staggers away. I have heard that a good merchant stores away his treasures as if his store were empty and that a superior man with eminent virtue appears as if he were stupid. Get rid of your air of pride and many desires, your insinuating manners and lustful wishes. None of these is good for you. That is all I have to tell you.”

Confucius left and told his pupils. “I know birds can fly, fish can swim, and animals can run. That which runs can be trapped, that which swims can be netted, and that which flies can be shot. As to the dragon, I don’t know how it rides on the winds and clouds and ascends to heaven. Lao Tzu, whom I saw today, is indeed like a dragon.”’ …

“Today followers of Lao Tzu degrade Confucianism and students of Confucianism also degrade Lao Tzu. ‘People going different ways do not take counsel from one another.’ [from Confucian Analects]”1

The Source of Chinese History

This history was the source for all the histories that followed until the 20th century. It implies that Lao Tzu and Confucius were contemporaries. An underlying idea here is that Lao Tzu and Confucius founded their philosophical schools about the same time. We’ll be back to all the misconceptions this misinformation has generated.

Conflicts between followers of Confucius and Lao Tzu

We also see that there were conflicts between followers of Lao Tzu and Confucius in Ssu-ma’s time. We also see Ssu-ma suggesting, through a Confucian saying, that the two at this point in history are not taking ‘counsel from one another’ because they are going such different ways. The underlying assumption is that they could learn from each other if they were not so focused on their own way to the exclusion of the other. This is all that will be said for now on history.

Lao Tzu: ‘Confucians follow dead men.’

In terms of the social forms of society, we see Lao Tzu chiding Confucius for following the ways of dead men. He is implying that the ceremonies of the past dynasties were good then but are inappropriate now. This points out a crucial dichotomy between Confucianism and Taoism. The Confucians, as we shall see, held onto the forms of the past as a means of warding off social chaos. The Confucians tended to be reactionary in not wanting to change the great traditions of the past. The Taoists, on the other hand, believe in reversing the natural order, ‘stealing a march on heaven’, transcending conditioning.

Confucianism and Taoism complementary

The outsiders

Now that we have seen the factors behind the emergence of the Ju School and ideas of Confucius, we can better understand what the term Taoism means, especially when it first came into popular usage. The ju, i.e. the Confucians, were those who wanted to participate in China’s power establishment in the Han dynasty and later learned the 13 Ju Ching in order to be appointed to a nice government position. The ‘Taoists’ were those who didn’t find meaning in the imperial Chinese power structure and who found the ju ceremonies rigid and out-dated. They were the other – the outsiders.2

Because of this dichotomy, Confucianism and Taoism represent the polarities of Chinese thought. As such they could be considered complementary mindsets.

Personal power first

The Taoists stressed personal power before political power. Taoists ministered to those who had no desire to be involved in the imperial Chinese power structure. Confucius and the Ju School stressed that the virtuous man was involved politically in the transformation of society. Taoists stressed power on personal and local levels rather than on social and imperial levels.

First evidence of Taoism, 3rd century BCE

Incense Burners

What is the first concrete historical evidence of Taoism’s existence? Recall that many of the local religions were associated with Taoism. One of these religions had the Taoist Immortals in their pantheon of gods,. In the third century BCE, during the late Chou dynasty, we find incense burners in the shape of mountains that are inscribed with the names of these Taoist Immortals. This is the first clear physical indication of a Taoist religion3.

The Yellow Emperor and the Old Master

The first clear philosophical evidence of Taoism comes from the same time period. The local religions are associated with mystery cults. These mystery cults speak about a connection between an Old Master and the Yellow Emperor. As we saw previously, the combination of sage and ruler is a common Taoist theme.

“Towards the beginning of the first empire (221 BC), these cosmological visions of the Tao were associated with the “Way of the Yellow Emperor and the Old Master” (Huang-lao chih Tao). This school appears then to have been a Mystery religion with a wide following that inspired many thinkers.”4

According to legend, the Yellow Emperor lived in the first half of the 3rd millennium BCE and brought culture to China. His teacher was the Old Master, supposedly an incarnation of Lao Tzu.5 Because Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching, some common traditions claim that the Tao Te Ching was written before the time of the Yellow Emperor, some time around 3000 BCE. Literary scholarship does not support this claim.

Taoism under the Han dynasty

Beginning Immortality and Alchemy

As mentioned earlier, it was during the Han that Taoism got its name in opposition to Confucianism. Taoism was associated with the supernatural, while the academic Ju School was associated with rationality. In this connection, Taoism was associated with the search for immortality. This was the realm of Chinese alchemy, whose primary focus was vitality that would lead to immortality. As such, their focus was on medicine and potency.

“During the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 221), the tombs contained objects related to the quest for immortality. …In addition, the tombs contained objects related to alchemical research. … The quest for immortality certainly influenced medical research, and contributed especially to its theoretical systemization.”6

As contrasted with India’s unworldly yogis, the Chinese were very much of this world. This is reflected in their desire for immortality. The yearning for immortality comes when life is good. Notice the health consciousness of the good life Californians. Connected with immortality is vitality; nutrition is connected to vitality. Hence the quest for immortality directly led to medical research into health and vitality. In turn, this led to schools of internal and external alchemy. While Chinese alchemy began with the quest for health and the magic pill of immortality, the European alchemists began with the search for wealth. They both ended up with the quest for internal transformation through intense investigation of the natural order of things.

Magic and Taoism

The word ‘Taoism’ was employed to represent Chinese subculture, and as such became associated with alchemy. Alchemy and science are linked, as well as alchemy and magic. Hence the Taoists were both scientists and magicians.

“[During the Han] Taoism was espoused by many in high position, but it degenerated more and more into magic and the search for the elixir of life and for means of transmuting the baser metals into gold.”7

Literary beginnings of Alchemical Taoism

Triplex Unity by Wei Po-yang

During the tolerant Han dynasty, the first classic of Taoist alchemy was written, Triplex Unity by Wei Po-yang. It is unlikely that he would have named himself a follower of Taoist alchemy. It is for others to name the philosophy of a master.

Says Thomas Cleary:

“This manual of spiritual alchemy became a major source book for practitioners of the Complete Reality School of Taoism, which arose approximately 1000 years after the composition of the Triplex Unity. This difficult but intriguing book is still referred to in modern Taoist literature as the ancestor of alchemical treatises and is held in highest esteem.”8

Dangerous information only revealed to the worthy

During the Han, the writings were in highly symbolic language and only intelligible to the initiate. This might have been because the alchemists had dangerous information. They knew about vitamins as well as poisons. Psychologically they knew how to calm someone’s nerves and how to drive someone crazy. Sexually they could retain and augment vitality or they could drain their partner of essence and strength.

Advanced topics aren’t for everybody. Certain topics are only available for those who have shown aptitude and virtue. Taoist masters only reveal the secrets of personal power to the worthy. Personal power is not for the corrupt or ignorant and should be concealed.

Taoist alchemy was probably as much of an outgrowth of the non-verbal mystery traditions based in shamanism as it was based upon the verbal tradition of the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu. The thrust of alchemy was not peace and quiet as much as ecstatic states of being. In this way, it was also connected to the fertility cults, where ecstasy is found in the midst of creation. This is a bit different from the heavy sense of social responsibility found especially in Confucianism and somewhat in the Tao Te Ching.

Taoist Classics

Taoism and Confucianism tend to be complementary philosophies rather than oppositional religions. For instance, most literate Chinese read the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu, although they were not part of the Confucian classics that were demanded by the university.

Taoist Ching

Note that the ‘Lao Tzu’ is a Ching, or Classic. It is the Classic of the virtue of the Tao. As a classic, it was also widely read by the Chinese intelligentsia of all ages. The Chuang-Tzu was also considered a Taoist classic and was also widely read.

“By the middle of the second century BC, after the unification of China, Tao Te Ching was firmly established at the imperial court as a favorite source book of practical wisdom. The more arcane Chuang-Tzu was transmitted in Taoist circles, … eventually to emerge in the third century AD as a popular classic of deep learning ranked with I Ching and Tao Te Ching. Ever since that time, virtually all literate people in China have read Tao Te Ching and Chuang-tzu.”9

Taoist Ching part of Chinese culture

Because these Taoist Classics were so widely read, their underlying wisdom forms part of a foundation of Chinese culture, just as much as the required Confucian Classics. Note that the Tao Te Ching was used as a ‘source book of practical wisdom’ by the imperial court. It was not used as a way of generating or accumulating personal power or having an exceptional experience.. Taoists tend to look to practices rather than words to achieve these states.

The Continuing Diversity of Taoism

Internal spiritual alchemy and external alchemy were both called Taoist, along with the multitude of local practices. This only reaffirms that Taoism is a catchall term, an umbrella word, to encompass a great diversity. As Cleary says:

“The incongruity of the age-old search for alchemical gold and physical immortality with the widely recognized evidence ancient Taoists give of advanced knowledge of psychological and physical realities only recently rediscovered by modern science has often led to the question of whether there was any real connection between different forms of activity lumped together under the name of Taoism.”10

The First Emperor and Taoism

Let us look at an example of how Taoist thinking was an underlying feature of popular Chinese thought before it was even named. After his book burning, the First Emperor became a recluse. As a recluse, he searched for potions of immortality11 and listened to songs about the ‘pure beings’. The ‘pure beings’ are part of later Taoist mythology. Similarly, the search for immortality is part of the thrust of alchemical Taoism. Although these ideas and concerns are Taoist, Taoism had not even been named yet at the time of the First Emperor. These were Chinese concerns that were separate from the rationalistic Ju School. Taoism becomes a word during the Han Dynasty employed by the Confucians to describe anyone who participates in these indigenous supernatural concerns.


1 Quoting Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s Records of the Historian  in The Way of Lao Tzu  by Chan, tr., The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. 1963, pp. 36-7

2 This is similar to the relation between the hippie culture and the Establishment in the United States. Those that want to belong to the power structure must adhere to a certain unwritten belief and behavior system, which includes suits and ties, American sports and religion, including materialism. Those who find meaning in Eastern religions, alternate forms of dress, and who find no meaning in pop culture, which includes materialism are left out of the power culture.

3 The Taoist Body  by Kristofer Schipper, University of California Press, 1993, p7

4 Schipper, p8

5 We will see that Lao Tzu is similar to Vishnu of the Hindu mythology, in that he incarnates regularly to bring wisdom and salvation to the world. One of his incarnations was the Buddha himself. He even has a similarity to Jesus, in that he ‘comes again’ to bring a new covenant between heaven and earth, and that upon his next return that an Era of Peace will be initiated.

6 Schipper, p. 8

7 EB, V 5, p 521

8 Inner Teachings of Taoism translated by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala, 1986, p. x

9 Cleary, p3

10 Inner Teachings of Taoism, p. xiii

11 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan, p. 65: “The emperor was for ever seeking, through Taoist practitioners, the secret of immortality.”


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