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Daoism: Yesterday and Today


I once had a discussion with my Chinese professor about the influences of Confucianism and Daoism (Taoism) in the worldview of Chinese people. “You have to understand,” he told me, “that we are Confucian when things are going well, when we have position and authority, and when life is hard for us and we are ‘down and out,’ we are Daoists.”

I thought of that conversation recently when I read the excellent piece in The New York Times by Ian Johnson titled "Reconstruction Taoism’s Transformation in China.” The article is an interview with Terry F. Kleeman, a leading scholar of Daoism, and author of a new book Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities.

In an interview, Professor Kleeman discussed how Taoism provided an alternative political model to the Confucian-based imperial order, how Taoist texts can help deepen our understanding of early Chinese history and why today’s Communist government seeks to control Taoist practices.

Professor Kleeman’s first point is that giving a definition to Daoism is difficult:

The word Taoism is horribly vexed because it has to translate two Chinese terms: “daojiao” and “daojia.” “Daojiao” is the religion Taoism, while “daojia” refers to philosophical works associated with Laozi and Zhuangzi, such as the Daodejing.

The two are not really that closely related. Taoist priests don’t carry around copies of the Daodejing, and that work has little to do with what they teach. They teach a set of rules and morality, but you’ll find little morality in the Daodejing.

It’s a fascinating interview; as they say, read the whole thing.

Image credit: Mount Qingcheng by Mondo79 via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio