Taoism And Its Role In Shaping Modern China

The Yin and Yang is a very well known Taoist symbol, appearing in rituals, objects and ceremonies. It depicts white and black as harmonious forces, with the connection between them believed to determine true destinies of living things. Laozi, known as Lao Tzu or ‘old master’, was thought to be the creator of Taoism, born in 601 BC in Chu, China. The Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese book of ideological verses written by Laozi, representing the ‘Tao’, or flow of life which is deemed essential for universal balance. 

Laozi (also known as Lao Tzu) was considered an ancient Chinese philosopher who lived in the 6th century BC. He was thought to be the creator of Taoism, one of the four religious ideologies believed by the Chinese. He was also credited as the author of ‘Tao Te Ching’, a classic Taoist text based upon the latent unity of our universe. Taoist philosophy teaches a way (Tao) of life illustrated as the true and indefinite process of our world. It represents that the natural universe works harmoniously on its own accord, and if someone exerts their will upon the world, they will disturb the existing harmony and oppose the Chi energy and ‘flow of life’. The flow of ‘Chi’ energy is the essential action of any and every living thing, and is synonymous with the Yin Yang symbol, the complementary energies that retain the universal balance of life. The origin and early life of Laozi is highly ambiguous amongst historians, and even after centuries of research, his existence is still widely contested. The most noted sources propose he was born in 601 BC and was given the birth name Er Li. Laozi was an honorific title that he was given, and it translates to ‘old master’. The name Laozi is anglicised in various ways, so Laozi and Lao Tzu are both used. Many historical sources suggest he served as a scholar and worked as an archive attendant for the Royal Court of Zhou. This meant that Laozi would have had access to the famous literature of ancient Chinese civilisation, but instead of being influenced by these texts, Laozi thought beyond the philosophies of past ideas and founded his ideology of Taoism which is still followed and practiced today. 

Szuma, known as Sima Qian, was the author of the ‘Shiji’, a text which included the biography that provided the primary source of information about Laozi. Although recount above is regarded by historians as a fabricated event, it still displays the impact that Laozi could have had on ancient China. Sima Qian, the author of the Shiji was referred to as the father of Chinese historiography for his works. The present day Luiyi County in the Henan province is where Sima Qian recorded Laozi being born. Sima Qian wrote that Laozi rode west across the desert on a water buffalo to reach the Qin state border. Regardless of his historical significance, Laozi’s personal life is still enveloped in secrecy and there are numerous conspiracies associated with his birth, life, and death.

‘Shiji’ is the only reliable source of evidence accessible, a biography written by historian Sima Qian of 145 BC. According to the Shiji, Laozi was born in the present-day Luyi County of Henan Province. He embarked on a journey west, after recognising that the Zhou Dynasty was on the brink of collapse. He voyaged to the Xiangu pass to enter the Qin state, where he was greeted by the protector of the Yinxi pass, who asserted the philosopher to write a book. Upon his request, he began composing two sections of the ‘Tao Te Ching’ or ‘Daodejing’, the book that he is primarily renowned for. The book is a philosophical account comprised of religious scripts about Taoism, portrayed through 81 short verses. Laozi’s ideology was known to have been eminent in Chinese society during the Han dynasty, and despite the philosopher living in the Zhou Dynasty, the Han Dynasty is where Taoism was firmly established and religiously pursued. However, none of the original extracts about Taoist philosophy have any reference to Laozi’s life. Due to little evidence, various speculations and contesting theories about the life and demise of Laozi have emerged throughout the past few decades. 

Many researchers are convinced that the ‘Tao Te Ching’, the religious text written by Laozi, was indeed not written by him alone. Some historians even believe that the philosopher never actually existed in history, and the title Laozi can refer to any enlightened frail man of ancient China who happened to preach philosophy. Taoism has influenced many Chinese forms of creative arts, specifically paintings. Taoism highlights going with the flow of life instead of against it, and focusing on the beauty of nature compared to manmade structures. This image displays the Laozi statue situated at the Taoist temple in Guangzhou, China. This temple is a non-profit organisation to teach worship, respect and promote Taoist education for youth and elders in need of religious guidance. Regardless of whether Laozi was a mythical figure or not, his philosophies have influenced the religions and traditions of China for generations. His brilliance has titled him as ‘the father of Taoism’. 

The Tao Te Ching is an agent of change in itself, as it was the foundation for the widely followed philosophy now known as Taoism. No one can truly understand the essence of Chinese religion and culture without some knowledge of the book’s contents, for it has influenced Chinese life and thought throughout history. The text has modified Chinese beliefs, government, creative arts, cooking and even medicine. The Taoist spirit has contributed to the prosperity of graphic arts and writing, which is well reflected in the best of ancient poetry. In China, limitation and simplicity have been considered the national symbol of pure success and greatness. These ideas have been majorly influenced through Chinese history by many different perceptions of the nature of Tao. 

Taoist thought fixates on continuity, authenticity, longevity, a life free of desires, accepting the natural action of the universe, expressing the essence of spontaneity, neutrality and the complete balance with ‘the way’. The practice of Taoism was embedded in the worship of the earliest Chinese population. Regardless of all the perspectives on his life, Laozi’s philosophical excellence granted him the title of one amongst many Ancient Chinese poets/scholars who assisted in guiding the Middle Kingdom along the ancient Middle Way. Laozi and the Tao Te Ching assisted in shaping modern China and had a permanent impact on the country and its cultural traditions, with his religious guidance still carried out through generations.

16 August 2021
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