Taoist or Daoist teachings can be called one of the most important ethical, philosophical and religious traditions of China. It as a long history of development, that consists of rises and falls. Taoism developed withing the historical context and adapted to the reality. Its development reflects the main issues of different epochs and refers to broader historical issues of the time. The working people had no real possibilities to change their lives throughout history, that is why the ideas of submission to the destiny, naturalness and wisdom were popular among them. The intellectuals and the governmental officials had the possibility to change their country, that is why they lived according to the ideas of Confucius and persecuted Taoists. The history of the Taoism shows that these teachings are not only the part of the religious diversity of China, but also the reflection of the inner social differences within the country.
It is difficult to state whether Taoism is the religion or the philosophy. Its main principles show that it is the combination of both philosophical and religious aspects, that aim at providing a thorough understanding of the life and the world around. According to this teaching, a person should live in the absolute harmony with Dao or Tao, which is translated as the principle or the path (Ebrey, 172). This concept can also be found in the other religious and philosophical practices of the Chinese origin. Though, there are also other important concepts that form the Taoist world view. Among them the most important notions are shengren, or sage, ziran, or naturalness, zhenren, or realized person, and wuwei, or effortless action (Ebrey, 173). They form the contemplative life perspective that alienates people who practice Taoism from the society and does not allow them to participate in reforms, thus making those people useless for the government and the country. For this reason the Taoist teachings were excluded from the official education in different periods of Chinese history.
The difference from the other teachings is that in Taoism this notion is considered to be the force that determines the existence of everything in the material world and the source of their existence. Despite the fact that certain communities in Asia consider Taoism to be the religious practice, it does not suppose worshiping the gods of any kind. However, there are examples when the notion of Tao is worshiped. A peculiar issue is that the Taoists do not categorize their teaching neither as the philosophy, not as the religion. They concentrate on the improvement of the physical and the moral sides of people with the help of exercises, diet, meditation, understanding of the nature of things and and ethical issues (Ebrey, 180-182).
Taoism became a stable and a complete teaching only in the 2nd century, but numerous reports asset that Taoism appeared much earlier. At least the elements of the teaching were actively used in the Middle Ages in the 5th – 3rd centuries B.C. (Kohn, 27-28). The Taoists mystical and shamanic cults originate mainly from the kingdom of Chu and other barbarian states in Southern China. For example, the doctrine of immortality and magical practices developed in the kingdom of Qi. Taosit teachings also feature the main aspects of the philosophical tradition of Northern China (Kohn, 36).
The first philosophical works that are related to Taoism date by the 5th century B.C. and refer to the period of the Warring States. They appear almost simultaneously with the teachings of Confucius. The legendary Yellow Emperor Huangdi is traditionally considered to e the founder of the Taoist teachings (Kohn, 42). Though, the majority of scholars think that the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi was the founder of this spiritual practice. He is the author of the main literary source of the Taoism, Daodejing (3rd century B.C.) (Ebrey, 185). This work was the nucleus around which was formed the teachings of Taoism. Another famous early text of the Taoist tradition is the Zhuangzi (4th -3rd century B.C.), authored by Zhuang Zhou. However, the Taoists also actively transmitted their beliefs and wisdom in the oral form from the teacher to the disciple, which makes the process of understanding of all components of Taoism difficult (Ebrey, 186).
Taoism has never been the official religion in China. It was popular among ordinary people, peasants and craftsmen, and was actively practiced by hermits and monks throughout history. However, such proximity to the ordinary Chinese people influenced the social and the cultural development of the country greatly. The writers, the scholars and the politicians used the new ideas that has the Taoist origins. Taoism was the ideological background and the moving power of numerous peasant revolts and uprisings in China, with the overthrow of dynasties (Slingerland, 72-73). In the 2nd century one of the Taoist secret groups managed to prepare the Yellow Turbans Rebellion, a grand uprising of peasants and slaves against feudal oppression which resulted in the end of the Han dynasty. The rebellion continued for 21 years and asserted the importance of the Taoist teachings in the social life of China (Slingerland, 82).
Despite the popularity of Taoism among the Chinese people throughout history, the ruling class never appraised it and preferred to live according to the doctrines of Confucius. Such difference in the choice of religion, philosophy and world view in general between different social classes emphasizes the cultural gap between the ruling elite of the Chinese state and ordinary people throughout history (Slingerland, 101-103).
It is necessary to investigate into the similarities and differences of the two teachings in order to understand the two ways in which the Chinese society developed for many centuries. Both Confucianism and Taoism focus on the cultivation of the personality, thus paying more attention to the practical implications of their teachings than on the abstractions about the life in general. However, the Taoist traditional teachings are controversial to Confucianism in many key aspects.
The first distinction is the views of Taoism on the problem of human discriminations and the categorized thinking that people usually apply to everything. The division in aesthetics on ugly and beautiful, or in morality on bad or good often leads to misunderstanding of the situation, wrong conclusions and as the result various existential problems (Kohn, 152). According to the Taoist teachings a person should not structure his/her life on the basis of distinctions that are imposed by humans, and thus are prejudged and might be wrong. The restrictions of human mind do not allow people to follow their dao, that is why they should be considered as the diseases. Even though when the problems in the reality appear the wisest thing for the Taoist is not to fight with them, but to wait until the situation will return to the normal conditions (Kohn, 156).
The positions of Confucius and his disciples is opposed to the ideas of the Taoists. According to Confucianism, a person has powers and moral obligations to change the world for the better. It is the philosophy of active involvement in the reality. The Taoists often used the imagery of the natural wood in their philosophy. This image can also be used in the comparison of the two schools of thought: the Taoists try to become a tree, a natural piece of wood, while Confucians make all possible attempts to become a wooden sculpture with structured decorations and particular shape (Kohn, 162).
In fact, these major ideas reflected the lives and the viewpoints of the Chinese working class and intellectual ruling elite. The only thing that the workers and the peasants could do was to be humble and submissive to the destiny, which corresponds to the Taoist teaching. The ideas of Confucianism did not meet their reality, because they had no power to influence their lives (Kohn, 168). The lives of the ruling elite were the opposite, and thus the ideas of Confucius were perfect for it. Those people were to decide the direction in which the country was moving, and the ideas of Confucius simply turned their possibilities into their moral obligations. When the times of revolutions started in China, the ideas of Confucianism became more appropriate for the Communist party, because all citizens have to work hard and make everything possible to change their country and wellbeing (Kohn, 193).
It is possible to assume that Taoism used to be the religion and the life philosophy of the working people in China throughout its history, while the ruling class preferred the ideas of Confucius. Taoism, which is based primarily on the concept of non-action, used to be traditionally in opposition to Confucianism throughout history, because Confucianism sees the duty of every person in serving the society and the state. The relative rehabilitation of Taoism began only since the official declaration of the cultural reforms of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 (Kohn, 194). Nowadays, it is possible to find the Taoist philosophical tradition and style in the modern Chinese prose and poetry of the philosophical genre. It is possible to assume that despite the long period of being out of law in China the importance of the Taoist teachings on the social and the cultural development is difficult to estimate.