Three Phases of Classical Daosim
1 Phase: Laozi 老子 (6 Century BCE)
2 Phase: Zhuangzi 莊子 (399?-295?BCE)
3 Phase: Huanglao 黃老 Daoism (4 - 2 Century BCE)
Not much was known about Laozi as a historical figure. The Records of the
Historian of Sima Qian (司馬遷 145-86BC) said Laozi was a curator in the Royal
Archive of Zhou Court; Confucius once paid him a visit to inquire him about li
(rites); after retirement, Laozi, when going abroad, as asked by the barrier
keeper Guan Yin(關尹), wrote a work of about 5000 words.
The term “Laozi” also refers to a group of texts, the two most famous of which
are Wangbi’s (226-249AD) version and Heshang Gong’s (legendarily dated
fl.179-159AD, but more likely in the 3 - 4 Century AD) version. Also there are
two versions of silk texts unearthed in 1973 and 3 groups of bamboo slips
unearthed in 1993.
Laozi’s Philosophy: an outline
1. Laozi’s ontology: Dao, you and wu;
2. Laozi’s philosophy of nature: cosmogenesis, laws of nature; concept of technique,
concept of de;
3. Laozi’s epistemology: how do we know the Dao?
4. Laozi’s political philosophy;
5. Life Praxis: Body, Politics, Heaven.
I. Laozi’s Ontology: The Meaning of “Dao”
Etymologically, dao 道 means “a way to walk on.”
Dao means also “to say,” but the function of saying was in negative sense,
different from Western philosophy.
Philosophically, dao means: First, laws of nature, especially when combined with
“heaven” (tiandao heavenly dao 天道) or “heaven and earth”(tiandi zhidao dao
of heaven and earth 天地之道).
Second, dao means the Origin of all things, that which gave birth to myriad of
Third, dao means the self-manifesting Ultimate Reality.
Dao, the sayable and the Unsayable
The Dao that could be said is not the constant dao; The name that could be
named is not the constant name. You 有 names the origin of heaven and earth;
Wu 無 names the mother of all things. Therefore let there always be non-being
so we may see their marvelous possibilities; let there always be being so we may see their limited realization… The two have the same origin, but after they
are produced, they have different names. They both may be called xuan
(deep/profound). Xuan and xuan again is the door of all marvelous possibilities.”
(ch.1, SB, p.139)
Attributes of the Dao
There seems to be a state of undifferentiated whole, existing before heaven and
earth. Inaudible and invisible, it is independent and boundless, and could act as
mother of heaven and earth. Its name is unknown, therefore I call it dao, If
forced to name it, I would call it great. Great means to depart from all
boundaries. To depart from all boundaries means to be far off. To be far off
means to turn back. Heaven is great. Earth is great. Dao is great and the King (or
Human) is also great. Human models him/herself upon earth; earth models
itself upon heaven. Heaven models itself upon dao; Dao models itself upon
what is of itself. (ch.25, SB.152)
You 有(being) and wu 無(non-being)
You and wu have three levels of meaning.
First, on the ontological level, you means being, the real, the actual, whereas wu
means non-being, the possible, the potential.
Second, on the spiritual level, you means realization and constraint, whereas wu
means transcendence and freedom.
Third, on the ontical level, you means full, presence, whereas wu means void,
Opposites: you vs wu, yin vs yang…
The Dao first manifests itself into wu(non-being) as the realm of possibilities,
and from this, some possibilities were realized as you(beings). All beings are,
structurally, constituted of opposites such as you 有(being) and wu 無
(non-being), yin 陰(feminine, negative, receptive) and yang 陽(masculine,
positive, creative), movement and rest, also “disaster and fortune,” “correct and
deviant,” “good and evil” (ch.58); “beauty and ugliness,” “good and not good,”
“being and non-being,” “difficult and easy,” “long and short,” “high and low,”
“front and back”(2); “the twisted and the upright,” “hollow and full,” “worn-out
and renewed,” “little and much”(22);“heavy and light,” “tranquility and
II. philosophy of nature: Dao and Cosmogenesis
Recently unearthed Hengxian 恆先 (The Constant Precedes…)
The Constant preceded non-being and being. It was simple, quiet and void. To
say it was simple, it was indeed the Great Simple; to say it was quiet, it was
indeed the Great Quiet; to say it was void, it was indeed the Great Void. It was not satisfied with self-enclosure, thus it rose to create the Space. Since there
was Space, there was qi (the original stuff). Since there was qi, there were
beings. Since there were beings, there was beginning. Since there was beginning,
there was passing away…”
Taiyi Shengshui (太一生水) The Great One gave birth to Water
“The Great One gave birth to Water. Water returned to assist the Great One, so
as to form Heaven. Heaven returned to assist the Great One, so as to form earth.
Heaven and earth (again assisted one another) so as to form divinities. Divinities
assisted one another so as to form yin and yang. Yin and yang again assisted
one another so as to form fours seasons. Four seasons assisted one another so
as to form cold and heat. Cold and heat assisted one another so as to form
damp and dry. Damp and dry assisted mutually so as to complete the year and
there halted..”(Guodian Bamboo Slips)
Laws of Nature in Laozi’s eyes
Dao, in self-manifesting as law of nature, is the principle of movement of all
things. On this level, we interpret Dao as Dao-principles (daoli 道理).
The fundamental principle of laws of nature is best synthesized by Laozi’s saying,
“Fan is the movement of Dao.”(Ch. 40) Here, fan 反 means both opposition
and return. From here we can derive three laws of nature:
Three laws of nature
Structural law: all phenomena are constituted of opposing elements, such as
being and non-being, yin and yang, movement and rest, long and short…etc.
Dynamic law: all phenomena move in a way that when one state