Daoist Responses to the Warring States
Three Solutions to the Collapse of the Sociopolitical Order
Map of the Warring States period with Daoist figures Laozi and Zhuangzi
Icon with the Chinese character for the Way (Dao)
Laozi and Confucius with Yin/Yang Symbol
A Yin to Confucius’ Yang
Next to Confucianism, the most important and influential native philosophy of the Chinese has undoubtedly been Daoism. In many ways the doctrines of Confucianism and Daoism complement each other, running side by side like two powerful streams through all later Chinese thought and literature. To the solemn gravity and burden of social responsibility of Confucianism, Daoism opposes a flight from respectability and the conventional duties of society; in place of the Confucian concern for things worldly and human, it holds out a vision of other, transcendental worlds of the spirit. As the two streams of thought developed in later times, Confucianism has often been understood to represent the mind of the Chinese scholar in his office or study, concerned with matters of family and society, while Daoism represents the same individual in a private chamber or mountain retreat, often seeking surcease from the cares of official life. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 77)
Laozi Riding an Ox
The name Laozi simply means “the old master.” Who the philosopher known as Laozi was, when he lived, and what his connection was with the text that has come down to us, are questions that have been debated for centuries. There have also been lively controversies about when the text was compiled and whether it actually appeared any earlier than the third century B.C.E. Contemporary scholars are generally inclined to agree that the book known as the Laozi or Daodejing was likely the work of more than one author, writing over a period of time, and that it contains different textual strata. Still, the compiler or compilers of the work seem to have had a rather consistent integrative vision and despite — or perhaps because of — its brevity the document that has come down to us is one of the most provocative and inspired works in all Chinese literature. (SCT, 78)
Daodejing, Chapter 1 (Chinese)
The Cosmological Foundation
Daodejing, Chapter 1

A way that can be way’d is not the Constant Way;
          A name that can be named is not the Constant Name.          
The nameless is the beginning of Heaven and Earth;
The named is the mother of all things.
Taiji (yin-yang symbol)
Thus be constantly without desire
in order to observe
its subtlety,
Yet constantly have desire
in order to observe its manifestation.
Taiji (yin-yang symbol)
These two arise together,
But differ in name.
Their unity is therefore called a mystery.
A mystery on top of a mystery —
The gateway of all subtleties!
(Translated by Brian Hoffert; cf. Daodejing Selections)

Zhuangzi with the Chinese character "Dao" (the Way)
Animated butterfly image
In Zhuang Zhou — or Zhuangzi — we encounter a true intellectual and spiritual genius, one of the most philosophically challenging and verbally adept contributors to the early Chinese tradition and also one of its wittiest and most intriguing personalities. Zhuangzi probes philosophical depths in ways that are often unsettling and even unnerving; simultaneously he achieves literary heights that are literally breathtaking. While the Daodejing offers its sententious wisdom in the form of a kind of gnomic poetry, the text that bears Zhuangzi’s name is a linguistically flamboyant tour de force, opening with a dazzling flight of the spirit and closing, thirty-three chapters later, with a comprehensive and remarkably sober survey of the world of thought in the late Warring States period. In between there are conversations, often highly fanciful, between real or, more often, imaginary people, along with anecdotes, parables, meditations, and poems. The characters that inhabit the pages of the Zhuangzi include craftsmen, cripples, a slyly reconstructed Confucius, and a talking tree — among a host of others. (SCT, 95)
Yin Yang Symbol with Dragon
Cook Ding Cutting Up an Ox
The Secret of Caring for Life
Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his kneezip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous! said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Chinese character for "spirit"Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And nownow I go at it by spirit (shen) and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

CleaverA good cook changes his knife once a yearbecause he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room more than enough for the blade to play about in. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!” (The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 50-51; cf. Zhuangzi, Chapter 3)

Yin Yang Symbol with Dragon
Zhuangzi and the Butterfly
The Butterfly Dream
Animated butterflyOnce, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know that he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn't know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (Zhuangzi: Basic Writings, 44 [Zhuangzi, Chapter 2])
Zhuangzi Fishing
Free & Easy Fishing
Oogway with ButterflyOnce Zhuang Zi was fishing in the Pu River when the king of Chu sent two of his ministers to announce that he wished to entrust to Zhuang Zi the care of his entire domain.

Zhuang Zi held his fishing pole and, without turning his head said: “I have heard that Chu possesses a sacred tortoise which has been dead for three thousand years and which the king keeps wrapped up in a box and stored in his ancestral empire. Is this tortoise better off dead and with its bones venerated, or would it be better off alive with its tail dragging in the mud?”

“It would be better off alive and dragging its tail in the mud,” the two ministers replied.

“Then go away!” said Zhuang Zi “and I will drag my tail in the mud!” (MOF, 37 [Zhuangzi, Chapter 17])

Yin Yang Symbol with Dragon
Daoist Sage: Lu Dongbin
Zhuangzi’s Sage
Fixing the World without Fixing the World
Chien Wu said to Lien Shu, “I was listening to Chieh Y’s talk  big and nothing to back it up, going on and on without turning around. I was completely dumbfounded at his words  no more end than the Milky Way, wild and wide of the mark, never coming near human affairs!”

“What were his words like?” asked Lien Shu.

“He said that there is a Holy Man living on faraway Ku-she Mountain, with skin like ice or snow, and gentle and shy like a young girl. He doesn’t eat the five grains, but sucks the wind, drinks the dew, climbs up on the clouds and mist, rides a flying dragon, and wanders beyond the four seas. By concentrating his spirit, he can protect creatures from sickness and plague and make the harvest plentiful. I thought this was all insane and refused to believe it.”

Gushe Mountain
“You would!” said Lien Shu. “We can’t expect a blind man to appreciate beautiful patterns or a deaf man to listen to bells and drums. And blindness and deafness are not confined to the body alone  the understanding has them too, as your words just now have shown. This man, with this virtue of his, is about to embrace the ten thousand things and roll them into one. Though the age calls for reform, why should he wear himself out over the affairs of the world? There is nothing that can harm this man. Though flood waters pile up to the sky, he will not drown. Though a great drought melts metal and stone and scorches the earth and hills, he will not be burned. From his dust and leavings alone you could mold a Yao or a Shun! Why should he consent to bother about mere things?” (The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 33-4 [Zhuangzi, Chapter 1])
Yin Yang Symbol with Dragon
Daoist Sage Xu You
Emperor YaoYao wanted to cede the empire to Hs Yu. “When the sun and moon have already come out,” he said, “it’s a waste of light to go on burning the torches, isn’t it? When the seasonal rains are falling, it’s a waste of water to go on irrigating the fields. If you took the throne, the world would be well ordered. I go on occupying it, but all I can see are my failings.  I beg to turn over the world to you.”

Hsu Y said, “You govern the world [but] the world is already well governed. Now if I take your place, will I be doing it for a name? But name is only the guest of reality will I be doing it so I can play the part of a guest? ... Go home and forget the matter, my lord. I have no use for the rulership of the world! Though the cook may not run his kitchen properly, the priest and the impersonator of the dead at the sacrifice do not leap over the wine casks and sacrificial stands and go take his place.” (The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 32-3 [Zhuangzi, Chapter 1]; word change in square brackets)

Laozi Enthroned
Sociopolitical Solution #2
Laozi & the Advantage of “Doing Nothing”

Wuwei: Non-Purposive ActionThe concept of wuwei, “nonaction,” serves to explain naturalness in practice. Like “nonbeing,” “nonaction” is awkward, and some translators prefer “non-assertive action,” “non-coercive action” or “effortless action”; but it identifies wuwei as a technical term. For this reason, I prefer “nonaction,” or better still, retaining wuwei in its transliterated form and explaining what it means in the Laozi.

Wuwei does not mean total inaction. Later Daoists often emphasize the close connection between wuwei and techniques of spiritual cultivation — the practice of “sitting in forgetfulness” (zuowang) and “fasting of the mind” (xinzhai) discussed in the Zhuangzi are singled out as prime examples in this regard. In the Laozi, while meditation and other forms of spiritual practice may be envisaged, the concept of wuwei seems to be used more broadly as a contrast against any form of action characterized by self-serving desire (e.g., chs. 3, 37).

It is useful to recall the late Zhou context, where disorder marched on every front. The Laozi, one assumes, is not indifferent to the forces of disintegration tearing the country asunder, although the remedy it proposes is subject to interpretation. The problems of political decline are traced to excessive desire, a violation of ziran. Naturalness encompasses basic human needs, of course, but these are to be distinguished from desire that fuels and inflates self-gratification, which knows no end. Nonaction entails at the personal level simplicity and quietude, which naturally follow from having few desires. At the political level, the Laozi condemns aggressive measures such as war (ch. 30), cruel punishment (ch. 74), and heavy taxation (ch. 75), which reflect but the ruler’s own desire for wealth and power. If the ruler could rid himself of desire, the Laozi boldly declares, the world would be at peace of its own accord (chs. 37, 57). (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Yin Yang Symbol with Dragon
Tiger Learping Gorge
Overcoming Through Softness
What is softest in the world
Overcomes what is hardest in the world.
No-thing penetrates where there is no space.
Thus I know that in doing nothing [wuwei] there is advantage.
The wordless teaching and the advantage of doing nothing
there are few in the world who understand them.
(SCT, 89 [DDJ, 43]; cf. D.C. Lau)
Yin Yang Symbol with Dragon
Self-Emptying Meditation
Winning the Empire Through Decreasing
Devotion to learning means increasing day by day;
Devotion to the Way means decreasing day by day.
Decreasing and decreasing still more, one arrives at doing nothing [wuwei],
And in doing nothing, nothing remains undone.
If one would take control of all-under-Heaven one should always refrain from activity;
One who is engaged in activity is unworthy to control all-under-Heaven.
(SCT, 89-90 [DDJ, 48]; cf. D.C. Lau)
Yin Yang Symbol with Dragon
Uncarved Wood
Eliminating Desire Through the Uncarved Wood
The Way is constant: by doing nothing [wuwei], nothing is left undone.
If lords and kings can hold on to it, all things will, of themselves, be transformed.
If, as they are transformed, desires arise, I suppress them by means of the nameless uncarved wood.
From the nameless uncarved wood comes absence of desire,
Carved Wood
Through not desiring one becomes tranquil,
And the empire, of itself, becomes settled.
(SCT, 87 [DDJ, 37]; cf. D.C. Lau)

Icon with the Chinese character for the Way (Dao)
Primitivist Landscape Painting
Sociopolitical Solution #3
The “Primitivist” Perspective
The “primitivist” in classical Chinese philosophy advocated a utopia of simple peasants following their ancient ways, unfamiliar with luxury and high culture and untroubled by war, taxes, government interference, and Confucian meddling an archaic, peaceful, happy society which the primitivist portrayed as superior to the society of his day. The primitivist equally opposed the Confucian busybodies trying to improve the commonfolk with high-minded quotations from the Shi Jing, and the gluttonous rulers extorting taxes to support the splendor of their courts and to pay for useless wars. (Primitivism in the Daodejing)
The Tao of Pooh
Embracing Uncarved Wood
Do away with sageliness, discard knowledge,
And the people will benefit a hundredfold.
Do away with humaneness, discard rightness,
And the people will once more be filial and loving,
Dispense with cleverness, discard profit,
And there will be no more bandits and thieves.
These three, to be regarded as ornaments, are insufficient.
Therefore let the people have something to cling to:
Uncarved Wood
Manifest plainness,
Embrace uncarved wood,
Diminish selfishness,
Reduce desires.
(SCT, 84-5 [DDJ, 19]; cf. D.C. Lau)
Kung Fu Panda: Empty Mind, Full Belly
Empty Mind, Full Belly
Do not exalt the worthy, and the people will not compete.
Do not value goods that are hard to come by, and the people will not steal.
Do not display objects of desire, and the people’s minds will not be disturbed.
Therefore the ordering of the sage
empties their minds,
fills their bellies, weakens their ambitions, strengthens their bones.
He always causes the people to be without knowledge, without desire,
And causes the wise ones [i.e. “those who know”] not to dare to act.
He does nothing (wuwei), and there is nothing that is not brought to order.
(SCT, 80-1 [DDJ, 3]; cf. D.C. Lau)
Yin Yang Symbol with Dragon
Primitivist Village
The Ideal State
Let the state be small and the people be few.
There may be ten or even a hundred times as many implements,
But they should not be used.
Let the people, regarding death as a weighty matter, not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, none shall ride in them.
Though they have armor and weapons, none shall display them.
Let the people return once more to the use of knotted ropes.
Let them savor their food and find beauty in their clothing,
peace in their dwellings, and joy in their customs.
Though neighboring states are within sight of one another,
And the sound of cocks and dogs is audible from one to the other,
People will reach old age and death and yet not visit one another.
(SCT, 94 [DDJ, 80]; cf. D.C. Lau)
Yijing Dude