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First published Sat Dec 15, 2001; substantive revision Sat May 5, 2007
Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism commonly name the three main pillars of traditional Chinese thought, although it should be obvious that like any “ism,” they are abstractions — what they name are not monolithic but multifaceted traditions with fuzzy boundaries and complex histories and internal divisions. “Daoism,” in particular, needs to be handled with care, for it designates both a philosophical tradition and an organized religion, which in modern Chinese are identified separately as Daojia and Daojiao, respectively.
Philosophical Daoism traces its origins to Laozi (or Lao-tzu, in the “Wade-Giles” system of transliteration), who flourished during the sixth century B.C.E., according to Chinese tradition. According to some modern scholars, however, Laozi is entirely legendary; there was never an historical Laozi. In religious Daoism, Laozi is revered as a supreme deity. The name “Laozi” is best taken to mean “Old (lao) Master (zi),” and Laozi the ancient philosopher is said to have written a short book, which has come to be called simply the Laozi. When the Laozi was recognized as a “classic”(jing) — that is, accorded “canonical” status, so to speak, on account of its profound insight and significance — it acquired a more exalted and hermeneutically instructive title, Daodejing (Tao-te ching), commonly translated as the “Classic of the Way and Virtue.” Its influence on Chinese culture is pervasive, and it reaches beyond China. Next to the Bible, the Daodejing is the most translated work in world literature. It is concerned with the Dao or “Way” and how it finds expression in “virtue” (de), especially through what the text calls “naturalness” (ziran) and “nonaction” (wuwei). These concepts, however, are open to interpretation. While some see them as proof that the Laozi is a deeply “mystical” work, others emphasize their contribution to ethics and/or political philosophy. Interpreting the Laozi demands careful hermeneutic reconstruction, which requires both analytic rigor and an informed historical imagination.