Bending towards the way of the Tao — how the Taoism of Zhuang and Laozi influenced the polity of Song Dynasty

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Next to Confucianism, the most important philosophy of the Chinese has undoubtedly been that of Taoism.” (DeBarry, Chan & Bloom, p.48) Taoism is a more elusive philosophy than the more concrete, ancestor-focused and rule bound philosophy of Confucius, as analyzed in the philosopher’s famous “Analects.” Instead of dictating right from wrong, Taoism emphasizes the ideal of so-called pure talk, stressing that people should only talk about the good side of everything, to create a sense of positive energy and harmony between the spirit and the universe. Rather than judgment, placing value upon the material world is de-emphasized, in Taoism and simplicity, austerity, and equilibrium rather than accruing wealth or determining the value of others the world is stressed above all else.

For most of early Chinese history, Taoism was often “the philosophy and consolation of the gentleman in retirement, of the political failure.” (DeBarry, Chan & Bloom, p.50) It was a religious philosophy distanced from the political administration of China, rather than embraced by the rulers of the empire, unlike Confucianism or even Buddhism. Taoism was a religion of “seclusion and cultivation,” that seemed alien to the demands of the workaday world, much less the ways of rulers. (DeBarry, Chan & Bloom, p.50) Taoism stood in marked contrast to Confucianism’s advocacy of n rigidly hierarchical to life that seemed to ideally suit the ways of an emperor operating under a mandate of heaven. However, the epoch of Taoism would come in the form of the Song Dynasty, which many historians consider the first modern era of Chinese history. For the first time, the leadership and the emerging commercial classes embraced the spirit of the Tao to an imperial level, because of the economic and social changes gripping China at the time.

The Song Dynasty was an era marked by increased economic growth, commercialization, urbanization, and above all the spread of literacy. For the first time, a new elite emerged with “new tastes in art and tea…Government by officials largely selected through examinations also gave the political system a modern look, but, after the failure of an ambitious attempt at centralization, government remained limited in its reach. Local elite families, once firmly established, dominated local affairs and supplied most of the examination candidates.” (“The Song Dynasty in China,” Asian Topics in World History, 2004) In short, China developed its first middle class, and this middle class found a democratic religious voice in Taoism, because the Way was open to all, regardless of birth or place in a social or ancestral hierarchy.

Through cultivating a higher mind, and by carefully viewing preparations of tea and other simple pleasures of life with the right attentiveness to perfection, the elevated spiritual mindset of Buddhism and the rigorous self-perfectionism advocated by Confucianism was fell out of favor in all of society, instead the force of the Tao became the ruling doctrine. The spiritual forefather of Taoism Zhuang and Laozi stressed that it was best to accomplish all things by seeking the path of least resistance, even for a leader of the people.

Freedom, rather than constraint was the rule of the day. This period was also marked by increased commercial freedom, which lead to a wide spread of ideas. “In this respect, twelfth-century Chinese cities differed markedly from earlier cities, which had been subject to strict government controls,” while before “officials had carefully monitored markets, which opened only at noon, closed at sunset, and occupied designated sections of the city, always within the city wall,” suddenly during the twelfth century, markets began to burgeon “outside city walls, where they stayed open all day and night without government interference.” (Hansen, 1996) Unlike previous capitals the Song capitals did not have walls, and embraced the street life of commerce, merchants, and the ordinary people. Thus Tao of the flow of energy was thus even expressed architecturally, as a lack of constraint between people, boundaries, nature and urban life, and social traffic, all characterized the Song capital.

The spread of commercialism lead to the creation of new wealth, and in some families, the ‘birth’ of the ideal of childhood innocence, where before children were forced to labor. “The Song appears to have been the age of the discovery of childhood as a distinct phase of human life,” as suggested in its literature and art. (“Social Changes: Family and the Status of Women,” Asian Topics in World History, 2004.) The childlike ideal embraced by Taoism, in its simplicity and reverence for the natural thus was also befitting of the economic developments of Song Dynasty, and was also reflected in the literature of the period which stressed sparseness, conciseness, and elegance of verse and prose.

A wider spread of money throughout different social classes lead to the cultivation of literacy in the emerging middle classes, as did the greater dissemination of texts through cheaper printing techniques. The ordinary masses had more access to learning through hand-copied manuscripts, and more sons could study for examinations to enter the ranks of the bureaucrats, a class once reserved for the elites to administer the empire. In these new social classes, a new interest in philosophy was born, such as understanding what was meant the ideal of the Tao. What was so extraordinary about the social phenomenon of printing, however, was that both the rulers and the ruled viewed it so positively, perhaps because the increased accessibility of the examination process made the barriers between the classes more permeable than ever before, and a new infusion of talent revivified the ruling classes. However, the greater accessibility of learning was not extended to women. Interestingly, this period saw a constraining of women’s social position rather than an expansion. Foot binding and other artificial, decorative, and restraining fashions became the norm, and infiltrated a wider array of social classes, along with the new wealth. Seeking beauty in the world also extended to seeing the female body as an object of art, rather than seeing women as souls for cultivation and education. (“Social Changes: Family and the Status of Women,” Asian Topics in World History, 2004.)

Taoism and Confucianism emerged as competing, rather than complementary philosophies during this period. Both Taoism and Confucianism attempted to offer a totalizing philosophy through which to understand the mechanisms of the natural and man-made world. Confucianism stressed cultivating the self and perfecting the self in relation to one’s ancestors, the emperor, and the community, and the benefits of society and rule rather than existing in harmony with the natural world. The Tao stressed the need to find harmony with nature, and bend to the wisdom and ways of nature.

Confucianism validated the social hierarchy of the previous age, for deferring to one’s superiors was part and parcel of its philosophy, unlike that of Taoism. In Taoism, the pursuit of its highest ideals of simple perfection was not limited to the few, nor was its highest manifestations limited to the elites, whereby in Confucianism mastering the social requirements one’s lower place was the highest ideal for the poor. In Taoism, even a simple, middle class person could find a kind of perfection in flower arranging, or cultivating the perfect cup of tea.

Not all religious philosophers of the period viewed the interjection of Taoism into wider and imperial culture in a positive light. For example, one Song era essayist named Han Yu argued that Buddhism and Taoism were foreign religions because they were too egalitarian “and did not observe the proper relation between senior and junior persons, and thereby destroyed the social order.” (Theobold, “Neo-Confucianism,” 2000) In his denouncing the way of the Tao, Han wrote that humanity and righteousness should be the proper guides to creating a society under the reign of a heavenly gaze, “unlike the Way of Daoism and Buddhism where everybody is seeking his own salvation.” (Theobold, “Neo-Confucianism,” 2000) Han saw the Tao as validating selfishness, and creating a dangerous societal fluidity that was destabilizing. Just as the newly democratic influences of commerce and the new wealth had upset the social order, Taoism gave such flexibility a religious guise that was profoundly upsetting to the Neo-Confucian advocates of the 12th century.

In essence, Neo-Confucians Han believed that the increasing democratization of society was collapsing the differences between right and wrong, and really, human natures should be divided into three classes: good, bad, and middle classes, and “the middle nature can move to both sides, being formed by humanity, rites, trust, righteousness and knowledge,” but that this could only come through force of will, not by bending to nature. (Theobold, “Neo-Confucianism,” 2000) Yet despite this condemnation of Taoism as too democratic, many Song emperors of period advocated the philosophy, and encouraged its exhibition all popular activities, such as woodblock illustration and poetry. In all of the literary manifestations cultivated by the political elites Taoism’ highlighted rituals and activities were manifest, as the Tao itself at “the same time underwent substantial changes in topics and methods. As a popular religion it became more and more widespread and accepted by the imperial court as important factor in social life and the people’s mentality.” (Theobold, “Daoism,” 2000)

During this time, most critical to its populist embrace, Daoism developed a substantial pantheon of deities that made the religion even more comprehensible and accessible, even to the semi-literate while its more abstract concepts still earned “imperial respect,” although “it never again existed as an imperial cult but flourished as the religion of the masses” after the Song Dynasty. (DeBarry, Chan & Bloom, p.258) One of the reasons for Daoism’s collapse as an imperial cult amongst later emperors might be the fact that Chinese historians saw the veneration of the “passive” Taoist religion as one factor in the downfall of Northern Song “and the numerous registers and incantations did not prove to be an effective weapon against intruders.” (Theobold, “Daoism, 2000)

The central objective of Taoism may be said to be a long and serene life,” rather than to rule effectively. (DeBarry, Chan & Bloom, p.256) However, even though Taoism fell out of favor as the religion of the emperors, its influence continued to permeate Chinese society, even after the Song Dynasty collapsed. The democratic inroads that justified the participation of the emerging middle class in state administration ensured that the philosophy of the Tao was felt, if not officially, then implicitly in state administration. The Tao continued to permeate popular literature and culture, and encouraged the cultivated expression of beauty and stylization in art and dress. Confucianism and the Tao would remain in debate and dialogue forever more.

Works Cited

DeBarry, William, Wing Tsit Chan, & Irene Bloom. Sources of Chinese

Tradition. Volume One. Columbia University Press, 1960.

Hansen, Valerie. “The Beijing Qingming Scroll and Its Significance for the Study of Chinese History.” Journal of Sung-Yuan Studies. 1996. Reprinted by Asian Topics in World History. [28 Nov 2006] http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/song/readings/urban_life.htm

The Song Dynasty in China.” Asian Topics in World History. 2004. [28 Nov 2006] http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/song/

Social Changes: Family and the Status of Women.” Asian Topics in World History.

2004. [28 Nov 2006] http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/song/social/family/family.htm

Theobold, Ulrich. “Chinese Philosophy: Neo-Confucianism.” 2000. [28 Nov 2006] http://www.chinaknowledge.de/Literature/Classics/neoconfucianism.html

Theobold, Ulrich. “Daoism.” 2000. [28 Nov 2006] http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Song/song-religion.html#daoism