Daoism is one of the three main philosophies in Asia that’s been present in Asian culture, media, art and history for centuries. Although in terms of the modern day, it’s merged with Confucian and Buddhist beliefs, along with various regional belief systems like Shintoism in Japan, Daoist tendencies are very distinct from Confucianism and Buddhism in theory. In fact, Daoism and Confucianism are typically on either end of the spectrum where Confucianism seeks to provide communal harmony while Daoism seeks to establish individual and personal harmony.
This thing is going to be slightly confusing if you don’t like philosophy and very meta.
A small side-note before we begin, Daoism is typically Anglicized as Tao. That’s the Wade-Giles spelling but modern Chinese pinyin uses Dao because it’s a harder sound in general than T.
Daoism originates around the same time as Confucianism. Some place Laozi, the originator of Daoism as being a contemporary of Confucius. Laozi (master Lao), is also thought to be an amalgamation of various people who worked together and thought up most of the concepts which would imply that Laozi himself didn’t exist or there were more than one of “Laozi”.
Daoism comes from the Chinese character word dào (道) which is typically translated to mean “Way” or “road” or “principle”; however it also holds the secondary meaning “to speak”. That forms the very basis for much of Daoist thought.
The opening lines for the Dao de Jing, which is the book containing Daoist philosophy (Tao te Ching in Wade-Giles) are the keystone of understanding Daoism and they’re so important that they’re translated in different ways.
道可道非常道 (dào kĕ dào fēi cháng dào)
名可名非常名 (míng kĕ míng fēi cháng míng)
Now, some people translate it very literally and others do not, which can mess you up so I’m going to do my best to translate it as best as I can or at least… make it more understandable.
"The Dao that can be dao-ed is not the true dao."
"The Name that can be named is not the true name."
Now that’s a bit rough. Keep in mind that both the verbs “dao” and “ming” can be used as nouns too.
So the first line is sometimes translated “The Way that can be walked is not the true way” or “The Speech that can be spoken is not the true speech”. Both of those are okay and you kind of get it, but my way is only to show you that it’s a play on words. The second line is a lot easier to translate since in English “name” can be a verb or a noun on its own. English doesn’t have a word that means “to speak” and “to go” as well as meaning “speech” and “way.”
In general I tend to go more towards "The Dao that can be spoken is not the true dao" because Dao (uppercase) represents Daoism in general. Chinese just refers to Daoism as Dao, English puts the -ism so you know it’s a concept. Then you have dao (lower case) which is more… the difference between “God” and “god” in English where when you read God you understand it’s seen as the “one true God” and god refers more to a deity that’s regional or pagan and so there’s a distinction we make mentally between them. It’s hard to translate Chinese thought into English because it’s designed to make you think along these lines but doesn’t have capitalization or distinctions like that.
Daoism is very… meta in terms of Chinese culture. In English, we have different words that mean different things that have different connotations but for us it’s because we have Latin and Germanic roots. Chinese has certain characters that are pronounced differently but some words have the same pronunciation which means the context is really important in Chinese. Daoism at times is a commentary on the Chinese language where “the name that can be named is not the true name” meaning something along the lines of ,”Haha, Dao can be a noun or a verb and you have to be smart enough to know the difference.”
Daoism tends to view language and words as “convenient constructs” and language as the “myriad truths” or “1000 headed beast” or refer to language as the 1000 headed mother, something along those lines because words were made for humans to categorize and understand their words but being fixed on the meaning rather than gaining a true understanding of them is what defeats you. So, for instance, the word “dog” has different meanings for people. In Chinese they say “gou”. “Gou” and “Dog” refer to the same animal but people know it differently. Dogs aren’t all the same breed either, but a mastiff and a greyhound are both types of dogs. Likewise, people have the same names - in Chinese it’s much more common than in English because Chinese has so many names and last names but each person is a different person.
Daoism kind of laughs at you and says you have so many different words for the same thing so you can understand them better but you don’t. In essence, what it’s saying is that if you read the whole Dao De Jing, you’ll have an understanding of what Daoism means but if it isn’t personal or if it has no meaning for you or how you perceive it, then it means nothing. The Dao that can be spoken or told to you isn’t the true dao because “ming”/names and words are all different and what you put into a word is what you get out of it. So Daoism’s great text opens with it saying “if you’re looking to understand Daoism this is only going to get you so far because it has to mean something to you for you to have some kind of special meaning in it”. Which makes Daoism a very… Pocahontas-y type of religion “you can own the Earth and still all you’ll own is earth until you can paint with all the colors of the wind” - and that probably makes more sense to us than Dao and dao because Earth is the planet but earth is soil. So just go with that.
Daoism is a very nature-driven philosophy, both in terms of flowers and trees and such but also pathos, the way of things, how things are related and their intrinsic natures. It also tends to be more of a pacifist religion, letting things take care of themselves rather than imposing order on someone or something. This is a bit hard to explain but it’s a concept known as wu-wei which is translated as “don’t act, feel” or “acting without intention”. In practice, wu-wei works along the parameters of “don’t force things” or “go with the flow”. In general it’s applied to an individual but wu-wei had political or military applications.
In terms of the military, wu-wei is very similar to the Hindu belief of dharma which is behaving according to one’s role. Wu-wei says that you should act without trying to act, like breathing. Wu-wei is often compared to water because water adjusts its shape and form depending on circumstances. Basically, if you have a problem, let things flow and don’t force them. In practice it ends up being something like, the more people try to force something, the more something goes in the opposite direction. For example, if someone tries to keep something hidden, there’s a better chance it will get revealed like a scandal or a rumor. Sometimes a celebrity will publicly come out and talk about a scandal or personal problems in order to keep the rumors from circulating.
It also works in other ways like the Prohibition Era of the U.S. in the 1920s. When the government banned alcohol, it didn’t stop people from drinking alcohol, it just made them produce it and drink it in secret. That led to smuggling and the rise of some criminal syndicates. You could also liken it to the “abstinence only” policy of some schools when it comes to sex education where it doesn’t stop people from having sex, it ends up making it unsafe because it has a “forbidden fruit” quality to it and if they do, they don’t always know how to do it safely.
Wu-wei was typically used more along those lines in the past because it’s a criticism of the nature of Confucianism to judge people and to put a moral value on things. Confucianism works on the idea of a hierarchy and the idea became “if you want to control how people behave, attach shame to it so they’ll know what’s expected of them”. Daoism rejects that notion.
Daoist thought believes something along the lines of “if you put a value judgement on behavior or people, it doesn’t improve a person’s morality, it just teaches them to lie”. And in a way, that’s very true. Confucianism worked on a meritocracy but Daoism would posit the notion that telling people they have to use deference with their higher ups doesn’t make them respect authority, it teaches them to go along to get along. Having deference doesn’t make you more likely to respect authority, it just teaches you that that person has power that you don’t. If you’re taught to respect a teacher, it doesn’t mean you like the teacher, it means you know better than to yell at them.
By putting a moral judgement on something, you make people do it in secret or you make people lie about it. It also encourages people to cheat and lie. If you live in a society that’s very Confucian that prizes intelligence in a meritocracy, it encourages a person to believe that if they aren’t smart they should cheat to get to where they want to be.
And this leads into Daoism’s concept of yin and yang with false dichotomies.
Confucian philosophy tends to see things in dichotomies or opposites - good and evil, black and white. Daoism rejects notions of these opposites and instead says that things are both good AND bad, black AND white.
This is commonly known as the yin-yang theory, pictured above. The idea is that all forces in nature have their opposite but are on a spectrum. Yin represents the elements of female, dark, cold etc. while Yang represents the elements of male, bright, warm etc. In the yin-yang theory it says that our world is made up of opposites but they’re connected on a spectrum. And in practical thought it makes sense.
Daoism says that we understand our world THROUGH opposites but that shouldn’t mean that one is BETTER or WORSE than something else. Take day and night. We know that day exists because we know of its opposite, night, and vice versa. In more basic terms, we know that day and night are different because the things are brighter during the day and darker at night. If the sun were in one singular place and everything was bright all the time, we’d have no concept of what night was.
The same can be said of good and evil; when you say “he’s a good student” you know what a “good student” is because you have in your mind what a “bad student” does. And a good student doesn’t do what a bad student does. Through that thinking, our understanding of good and evil is only possible because we have differing ideas. In Christianity, there’s God and Satan and those who are evil are more like Satan than God and vice versa.
But Daoism takes night and day and says they aren’t in two different categories, they’re on a spectrum. Day can’t exist without night and night can’t exist without day. For that reason, yin and yang are seen as equal but swirled a bit to indicate movement. It’s more similar to the idea of Fortune turning its wheel where what was once rich now is poor, but they come back around. And because yin can’t exist without its counterpart, there’s a bit of yang in yin and a bit of yin in yang.
It might be easier to think of it in terms of man and woman. Now, biologically a male is different from a female but they depend on each other as complementary forces. By that I mean, men can’t exist without a woman having given birth to them. And the only reason we know that women are capable of giving birth is because there were men.
Now, keep in mind this is Ancient China, so it doesn’t take into account transgender or modern things like artificial insemination but the thought still holds that our idea of what a woman is exists because we have an idea of what a man is. In physical terms a woman is born with a vagina and a man with a penis. In terms of attitude, that’s a bit murky because like yin and yang, a man can act in a way that we consider “feminine” and a woman can act in a way that’s considered “masculine” but it doesn’t change how that person considers themselves. And I say “masculine” and “feminine” in quotation marks because Daoists would say “there is no masculine or feminine, there are only people and people put a value judgement on what is what.”
Simply put, male and female (and yin and yang) are EQUAL and COMPLEMENTARY forces. They’re not necessarily opposite, though they are opposing. They are connected in a fundamental way. So while a man is different from a woman in terms of physiology, it doesn’t mean one is “more good” or “more worthy” than the other. Man and Woman simply exist, IT IS SOCIETY (in traditional Daoist thought that would be Confucianism, with its hierarchical values, which tend to be more geared towards patriarchy) WHO PUTS A VALUE JUDGEMENT ON SEXES.
Daoism is more in line with feminism in its true sense where Man and Woman are two equals, built differently, yes, but the extent to which Man and Woman are “superior” or “inferior” depends on the societal values and what “qualities” are associated with Man and Woman - and more, putting a value judgement on which qualities are more desirable.
Typically, values associated with masculinity were prized not just in Confucianism but in history in general which causes gender gaps and a stratification of the genders. Daoism is not in favor of that because it endorses false dichotomies of what is considered “worthy” and “unworthy”. And we can see that pretty clearly today if not in the difference between how men and women are treated, then by how homosexuals are treated. Homosexual men are stereotypically considered “feminine” while lesbians are stereotypically considered “masculine”; so homophobia is directly rooted in the issues of feminism, meaning, the reason homosexuals are discriminated against is society has a clear idea of how men and women should behave.
Confucianism describes society as a whole saying this is how a person SHOULD behave but Daoism is more about the individual and says AN INDIVIDUAL feels this way or this way or this way because of different elements that they’re made up of. In their most extreme settings, Confucianism would be “cog in the machine”, people fulfilling their function. Daoism stresses the individual and their personal feelings so the extreme edge of Daoism is hermitage and solitude. Daoism specifically stresses solitude which can read as anarchism.
In general principle, Daoism doesn’t work practically when dealing with the makeup of society. By that I mean, Daoism would work better if people weren’t naturally drawn to other people. Daoism focuses on the individual but people tend to form natural hierarchies depending on how a person acts or what they want so what happens is people live in hierarchies aka Confucianism. If everyone followed Daoism in its extreme, it would mean people living by themselves or in very small family units rather than there being a society at all. In practice, people get depressed when they aren’t around people at all.
So if you really are struggling, Daoism tends to be “hippies” where “the man is keeping us down” while Confucianism is “the man” who tries to keep society together, but in doing so, societies tend to form in hierarchies.
Some further notes on Daoism: Daoism tends to exist today in a much more manifest way in terms of medicine. Many herbalists or those who study Asian medicine like acupuncture or Chinese medicine have some kind of Daoist training. The basic principles work in medicine where an illness or a disorder is caused by an imbalance of some kind. In some cases, they tend to form around the principles of yin and yang, like if you injure the left side of your brain, it’s your right side of the body that tends to work wrong. Also if you have a fever, which is typically considered “yang” with fire, you might also have chills which seems more like a “yin” thing.
Daoism also has a lot to do with the elements themselves; Chinese having five elements - Fire, Wood, Earth, Metal, Water. They tend to go by color and represent a certain attribute or part of the body.
Daoism has the distinction of being very pro-women, which is a big thing for ancient civilizations in general. For Daoism, that’s kind of a no-brainer, though. If the philosophy states that men are not intrinsically better than women, why would it make sense to treat women as if they were inferior? So, Daoism had very many women who were shamans or medical practitioners which is different than Confucianism or Buddhism. Confucianism isn’t a religion but it is very central in bureaucracy and public servants etc. but women were considered below men and thus didn’t have the opportunity to receive education or hold public office like a man. Buddhism had taught that women had to be reincarnated as a man at least once to pass onto Nirvana and so while women could be nuns, they weren’t typically the public faces of Buddhism which would be the Buddhist monks and priests. Daoism in its essence believed in feminist tendencies before feminism was a thing.
In terms of practice, Daoism is a quasi-religion. By that I mean, Daoism’s philosophies are common, much like Confucianism but in terms of worship it depends where you are. Daoism does have temples but Daoism merges with Buddhism and other regional religions, most commonly Shintoism in Japan. Daoism does have yin-yang practitioners which is known as onmyoudou in Japan. In general, Daoist priests, shamans and the onmyouji are more or less known for divination or cleansing places and people of evil spirits. The equivalent would be having a priest in the Christian tradition but then having a fortuneteller or a voodoo priest. It isn’t quite the same, but it’s the only readily available example I can think of.
A lot of the time, Daoist religion is more or less rooted in superstition so it bleeds into what people think is lucky or unlucky. Daoism does have some deities but most are based on the Chinese pantheon of gods, but regional deities influence regional Daoists which is very common in religion. For instance, in Christianity, some place more importance on saints than others. That’s very common in traditions that have bled with Daoism where someone may pray to a regional deity or even a bodhisattva and then also believe in regional deities.
Daoism is hard to nail down in its practices because it’s bled into regional cultures so much. For instance, when it’s New Year’s (a holiday or ritual which is very popular for Confucians), you might visit a shrine which might worship the Buddha or a bodhisattva but you might also find good luck charms, trinkets or talismans that are Daoist in nature.
Another example is the Chinese zodiac, which tends to be Confucian in its way of dividing things and talking about the New Year. But Buddhist tradition also has links to the animals and the legend of the Zodiac involves the Buddha or the Jade Emperor depending on what version you hear. But everyone’s Zodiac is divided depending on when you were born. So if someone was born between such and such a month in the Year of the Dragon, they might be considered a Fire Dragon, a Water Dragon, a Wood Dragon, a Metal Dragon or an Earth Dragon which is Daoist and says if you’re a Fire Dragon you act in a way that’s different from the other Dragons.
So it’s very complicated and generally most of Asia has some kind of mix of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism embedded into society.