Daoist Perspectives

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The word Daoism (or Taoism) was coined in the early nineteenth century from the Chinese expression "dao jiao teachings" (tao), which encompasses both the intellectual activities and historical religious movements that shaped the various and changing meanings of the term Dao (or Tao), meaning, literally, "the Way." Modern scholars have claimed that the term specifically refers to Daoist schools or Daoist sects, though some European Daoism scholars contend that this distinction is unnecessary or even misleading. In contemporary academic circles the words religion and philosophy are inevitably applied to Chinese traditions; one must remember, however, that in the Chinese context these two words diverge from their Western usages. Nevertheless, Daoism has suggestive importance as a perspective on science, technology, and ethics.

Daoist philosophy is attributed to Laozi, who, according to the ancient and authoritative Records of History, is believed to have been an elder contemporary of Confucius (551–479 b.c.e.) and the author of the Laozi (Daode jing, or Tao-te-ching), a work roughly 5,000 characters long. This traditional account has been challenged by skeptics, yet the three Guodian bamboo versions of the Laozi unearthed in 1997 prove that the text was extant and prevailing in the fourth century b.c.e. and may have been composed still earlier. Another founding thinker of Daoism was Zhuangzi. He and his followers created the Zhuangzi, a much longer work that is full of thought-provoking fables, stories, anecdotes, and inspiring ideas and arguments.

The religious worship of Laozi, together with the Buddha, is recounted in the official dynastic history in the first century c.e. Daoist religious movements, inspired by and combined with immortality beliefs, traditional medicine, yin–yang theories, Yijing (Classic of change) theories, and prognostication and apocrypha, developed in the following centuries. Regional Daoist religious activities, however, were not recognized by an independent royal court until the fifth century c.e. Because of its origination, Daoist religion had strong associations with folk and royal religious practices and beliefs, such as polytheistic worship, the pursuit of longevity, and the belief in immortality, physical or spiritual. Daoist priests and scholars may simultaneously be believers in Buddhism and practitioners of Confucianism.

A Philosophical Paradox

Daoism is commonly tagged as a sort of irrational mysticism. Actually, Daoist attitudes toward science and technology are mixed and varied. There are statements in the Laozi that seem directed against knowledge and artistry: "Eliminate knowledge, get rid of differentiation, and the people will benefit one hundredfold. Eliminate craftiness, get rid of profit, and there will be no robbers and thieves" (chap. 19, bamboo version). "The more cunning and skill a person possesses, the more vicious things will occur" (chap. 57).

In the Zhuangzi, one can find stories such as this one: Confucius's disciple Zigong while traveling saw an old man working in a garden. Having dug his channels, he made many trips to a well, returning with water in a large jar. This caused him a great expenditure of energy for very small returns. Zigong said to him, "There is a contrivance by means of which a hundred plots of ground may be irrigated in one day. Little effort will thus accomplish much. Would you, Sir, not like to try it?" After hearing Zigong's description of the contrivance based on the lever principle, the farmer's face suddenly changed and he laughed, "I have heard from my master," he said, "that those who have cunning devices use cunning in their affairs, and that those who use cunning in their affairs have cunning hearts. … I already knew all about it, but I would be ashamed to use it" (chap. 19). The farmer presents a typical Daoist criticism of technology and scientific invention. This is nevertheless a moral observation on the side effects of technological inventions, not an overall theory about technology and science.

Actually, the Zhuangzi contains many intriguing fables praising craftsmen who demonstrate fascinating artistry, such as boatmen, a butcher, sword makers, carvers of bell stands, arrow makers, and wheelwrights. A wheelwright once gave a lesson to the Duke Huan about the limitations of communication through the example of his artistry. He said:

If my stroke is too slow, then the tool bites deep but is not steady; if my stroke is too fast, then it is steady but does not go deep. The right pace, neither too slow nor too fast, is the hand responding to the heart. But I cannot tell the skill by words to my son and he cannot learn it from me. Thus, it is that though in my seventieth year, I am still making wheels. The ancient author of the classic you are reading are dead and gone—so then what you are reading, is but the sages' dregs and refuse! (chap. 13)

This fable is not only a paean to the artisan and his artistry but also an ancient version of modern or postmodern theories of hermeneutics and linguistics.

In one chapter, the Zhuangzi raises questions about the natural world and its movements:

How ceaselessly heaven revolves! How constantly earth abides at rest! Do the sun and the moon contend about their respective places? Is there someone presiding over and directing these things? Who binds and connects them together? Who causes and maintains them, without trouble or exertion? … Then how does a cloud become rain, and the rain again form clouds?" (chap. 14)

These questions come from and in turn stimulate curiosity about the natural world, which inspires investigation into scientific and technological mysteries. Daoism considers human beings to be equally part of the natural world and has a strong interest in the ultimate origins of, reasons behind, mechanisms of, and mysteries of the universe, including human lives—especially in comparison with Confucianism and Buddhism.

One distinctively Daoist concept is wuwei (nonaction), which is often misunderstood as inactivity or literally doing nothing. But the Huainanzi (142 b.c.e.), a Daoist work of the early Han period, argues that this term does not mean inactivity. Wuwei actually suggests that no personal prejudice interferes with the universal Way and that no desires or obsessions lead the true courses of Daoist techniques astray. To undertake an enterprise one must follow reason, and to realize an achievement one must take account of surrounding conditions to be consistent with the principle of naturalness. For example, if one used fire to dry up a well or led the waters of the Huai River uphill to irrigate a mountain, these would be contrary to the principle of naturalness and be called taking action (youwei, the opposite of wuwei). Nevertheless, such activities as using boats on water or sledges on sand, making fields on high ground, and reserving low ground for a pond constitute Daoist wuwei or nonaction. This interpretation of wuwei, deriving from the Laozi's idea of "assisting the naturalness of the ten thousand things without daring to act," promotes a rational and observant attitude in everyday life, which favors the scientific spirit.

Religious Pursuits

While Daoist thinkers presented reflective and inspiring ideas, religious scholars and priests, in their informal roles as inventors, practitioners, compilers, or distributors, made great practical and academic contributions to the development of science and technology in China. According to the first official 5,305-volume Daoist Canon (completed in 1445), Daoist scholarship and practice pursued knowledge and technology in various fields, such as chemistry, mineralogy, biology, botany, pharmacy, medicine, anatomy, sexology, physics, mathematics, astronomy, and cosmology. Ancient Daoists were not professional scientists or technicians, and their essential concern was attaining longevity and material immortality, rather than science and technology for their own sake. This pursuit makes Daoism distinct among religions and led Daoists to seriously observe and explore the natural world, including the human body and life, from generation to generation. Thus, religious enterprise provided fertile ground for the development of science and technology.

A good example of this confluence is the discovery of gunpowder. Joseph Needham (1981) contends that saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was recognized and isolated at least by the fifth century in China. This first compounding of an explosive mixture arose in the course of exploring the chemical and pharmaceutical properties of a great variety of inorganic and organic substances. It was the hope of realizing longevity and physical immortality that led to this discovery, one of the greatest technical achievements of the medieval Chinese world. One finds the first reference to it in the ninth century, toward the end of the Tang dynasty, in a description of the mixing of charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur. This mention occurs in a Daoist book that strongly recommends not mixing these substances, especially with arsenic, because some alchemists who had done so had the mixture deflagrate, singe their beards, and even burn down the house in which they were working.

The fields of medicine and pharmacology were also directly shaped by the Daoist pursuit of longevity and immortality. Daoist scholars and priests advanced Chinese medical theory and compiled important herbal medicine classics. Tao Hongjing (451–536), a direct descendant of the founder of the Supreme Purity Sect, is the most prominent of these scholars. His eighty works involve astronomy, calendrics, geography, literature, arts, and the arts of war, in addition to medicine and pharmacology. He argued that humans control human destiny, not Heaven. The reason people die early is not because of fate, but because their way of living harms their spirits or bodies. A piece of semifinished pottery is made of earth, yet is different from earth. Still it will dissolve in water before it is fired, even though it has already dried. If it is not fired properly, it will not hold up. If it is fired well and becomes thoroughly strong, it will survive over vast stretches of time. Similarly, people who pursue immortality take drugs and elixirs to make the body strong, breathe in fresh air, and participate in gymnastic exercise.

All these practices complement each other without conflict. If the spirit and the body are refined together, as in a senior immortal, one can ride clouds and drive a dragon; if the spirit and the body become separated, as in a junior immortal, one can leave one's old body and take on a new one. To preserve spirit and body, Daoists emphasized the significance of moderation in desires and emotion. It is impossible for the average person to have no desires or do nothing, but they can keep their minds in a state of harmony and minimize concerns. The "seven kinds of emotion" (anger, anxiety, worry, sorrow, fear, aversion, and astonishment) and the "six desires" (for life and death, and of the eyes, ears, mouth, and nose) are all harmful to the spirit and should be controlled.

Tao Hongjing also argued that the harm caused by bad eating habits is more serious than that of lust, because people eat daily, and he urged restraint in taking food. To be healthy, he claimed, less food is better than being overly full; walking after meals is more helpful than lying down; and physical labor is preferable to an easy life. Most of this early Daoist's advice accords with suggestions from modern doctors and professional medical workers.

Furthermore, Tao Hongjing compiled the Collected Commentaries on Medicinal Herbs, without which the contents of the earliest Chinese medicine classics would have been lost forever. He was the person who created a typology of Chinese medicinal herbs and inorganic substances in the treatment of various diseases and symptoms; this became and remains the foundation of Chinese medical theory.

According to Daoist tradition, the technology of sexual life is related to prolonging youth and vigor, though it was rejected by some later Daoists. Ge Hong (283–364?) once argued that sexual intercourse was necessary to achieve longevity and immortality. Even if one were to take all the famous medicines, Ge claimed, without knowledge of how to store up the essence of life through sexual activity, attaining health, let alone longevity, would be impossible. While people should not give up sex entirely, lest they contract melancholia through inactivity and die prematurely from the many illnesses resulting from depression and celibacy, overindulgence can diminish one's life, and it is only by harmonizing the two extremes that damage can be avoided.

It was further held that foreplay and slow and complete arousal are important for healthy intercourse. Men should pay attention to women's reflexes step by step and delay climax to adjust for the differential in arousal time to ensure the woman's full satisfaction. Some of these theories seem to have been confirmed and adopted by modern sexologists. Kristofer Schipper (1993), a Dutch Daoist scholar, claims that Chinese sex manuals reflect an impressive knowledge of female anatomy and reflexes; they are the only ancient books on this subject that do not present sexuality solely from the male point of view. Indeed, compared to other traditions, Daoism includes much less discrimination against women, perhaps because of Daoists' strong belief in the harmony of yin and yang, which work in all things and processes in the universe.

Modern Resonance

Although Daoism is an indigenous Chinese cultural tradition of some antiquity, modern scientists have found that it resonates with certain aspects of the spirit of modern science and responds to modern social and environmental issues. Raymond J. Barnett (1986) found a surprising degree of similarity between Daoism and biological science in their views on death, reversion (cyclicity of phenomena), the place of humans in the universe, and the complementary interactions of dichotomous systems. The use of the terms yin and yang is similar to the way scientists describe the behavior of subatomic particles: One can say some things about these particles, but only if one realizes that what is said is a statement of statistical probability and that a certain modicum of uncertainty is unavoidable. And in the autonomic nervous system both the sympathetic and parasympathetic subsystems, like the yin and yang, affect most organs. The state of an organ is not a function of one system being totally "off" and the other totally "on." Rather, the health of an organ depends on the balance between the activities of both systems, with each able to change its input and alter the balance.

Similar parallels between Daoist ideas and science are too numerous to be discussed at length, but a few deserve brief mentions. James W. Stines (1985) demonstrated that the philosophy of science of British chemist Michael Polanyi (1891–1976), especially his theory of tacit knowledge, correlated with Daoist intuition. Hideki Yukawa (1907–1981), who in 1949 became the first Japanese physicist to receive a Noble Prize, claimed that his creativeness was greatly inspired by Laozi's and Zhuangzi's philosophical insights. The famous American humanistic psychologist Abraham H. Maslow (1993) found the advantage and complementary role of Daoist objectivity in scientific investigation. Fritjof Capra, in his best-seller The Dao of Physics (2000), revealed the parallel between Daoism (along with other Eastern traditions) and the notion of a basic "quantum interconnectedness" emphasized by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885–1962) and the German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976). Norman J. Girardot and colleagues (2001) discuss broadly and significantly the relationship of Daoism and modern ecological issues. Finally, one should certainly not forget the pioneer researcher Needham, who contended that Daoist thought is basic to Chinese science and technology.


SEE ALSO Acupuncture;Buddhist Perspectives;Confucian Perspectives.


Barnett, Raymond J. (1986). "Taoism and Biological Science." Zygon 21(3): 297–317.

Capra, Fritjof. (2000). The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, 4th edition. Boston: Shambhala.

Chan, Wing-tsit. (1963). "The Natural Way of Lao Tze." In A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. This is a philosophical translation of the Laozi with brief comments.

Girardot, Norman J.; James Miller; and Liu Xiaogan, eds. (2001). Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions. A collection of papers authored by philosophical, religious, literary, and ecological scholars, as well as practitioners of Daoism.

Liu Xiaogan. (1993). "Taoism." In Our Religions, ed. Arvind Sharma. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco. A relatively comprehensive introduction to Daoism from its origination to modern development, including Daoist philosophy and religion, their relationship, and other perspectives.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1993). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Arkana. Maslow presents the concept of "Daoist objectivity" as a development of his earlier concept of "Daoist science" discussed in his The Psychology of Science (Gateway edition, 1966).

Needham, Joseph. (1981). Science in Traditional China: A Comparative Perspective. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.

Needham, Joseph, with Wang Ling. (1956). Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 2: History of Scientific Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. This is an initiative comprehensive study with tremendous materials and references. Needham attributes many Chinese scientific and technological inventions and contributions to Daoist thought and practice.

Schipper, Kristofer. (1993). The Taoist Body, trans. Karen C. Duval. Berkeley: University of California Press. Schipper is not only a leading scholar, but also an ordained Daoist priest. This book is an introduction to aspects of Daoist religion, such as teachings, divinity, alchemy, immortals, ritual, and meditation.

Sivin, Nathan. (1968). Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sivin, Nathan. (1995). Medicine, Philosophy, and Religion in Ancient China: Researches and Reflection. Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Variorum. Sivin strongly contends that many of Needom's Daoist scientists do not belong to Daoist communities.

Stines, James W. (1985). "I Am the Way: Michael Polanyi's Taoism." Zygon 20(1): 59–77.

Watson, Burton. (1968). The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press. A popular and complete translation of the Zhuangzi.

Yukawa, Hideki. (1973). Creativity and Intuition: A Physicist Looks at East and West, trans. John Bester. Tokyo: Kodansha International.