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Cultures that Practiced It

Some Chinese practiced Daoism, from around 500 B.C.E. onward.

Nuts and Bolts

The Dao (also spelled Tao) is defined as the way of nature, the way of the cosmos. Founded by Lao-tzu, a legendary Chinese philosopher, this belief system is based on an elusive concept regarding an eternal principle governing all the workings of the world. The Dao is passive and yielding; it accomplishes everything yet does nothing. One image used to demonstrate this is of a pot on the potter’s wheel: The opening in the pot is nothing, yet the pot would not be a pot without it. Daoists sometimes also use the image of water, soft and yielding, yet capable of wearing away stone. From this comes the idea that humans should tailor their behavior to the passive and yielding nature of the Dao. Thus, ambition and activism only bring chaos to the world. Within Daoism is the doctrine of wuwei, disengagement from worldly affairs, a simple life in harmony with nature. Daoism isn’t completely passive, however. Daoist priests often used magic that was intended to influence the spirits.

Broader Impact

Daoists advocated the formation of small, self-sufficient communities and served as a counter-balance to Confucian activism. And as an advocate of harmony with nature, Daoism promoted scientific discoveries. Daoists became great astronomers, chemists, and botanists.

Daoism’s impact, though, is greater than its philosophy. It’s notable because it coexisted with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Legalism in China. One of the things to remember about Daoism, therefore, is that it added to the complexity of China, which in turn added to the uniqueness of China and other Eastern civilizations as separate and distinct from the Western world.

Contrast Them: Daoism and Confucianism

Though Daoism and Confucianism shared a core belief in the Dao, or “the Way,” they diverged in how each understood how the Dao manifested itself in the world. While Confucianism is concerned with creating an orderly society, Daoism is concerned with helping people live in harmony with nature and find internal peace. Confucianism encourages active relationships and a very active government as a fundamentally good force in the world; Daoism encourages a simple, passive existence, and little government interference with this pursuit. Despite these differences, many Chinese found them compatible, hence practiced both simultaneously. They used Confucianism to guide them in their relationships and Daoism to guide them in their private meditations.

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