The Texts of Taoism
General Introduction

Chapter 1

Three Religions in China

1. In writing the preface to the third volume of these Sacred Books of the East in 1879, I referred to Lâo-dze as 'the acknowledged founder' of the system of Tâoism. Prolonged study and research, however, have brought me to the conclusion that there was a Tâoism earlier than his; and that before he wrote his Tâo Teh King, the principles taught in it had been promulgated, and the ordering of human conduct and government flowing from them inculcated.

For more than a thousand years 'the Three Religions' has been a stereotyped phrase in China, meaning what we call Confucianism, Tâoism, and Buddhism. The phrase itself simply means 'the Three Teachings,' or systems of instruction, leaving the subject-matter of each 'Teaching' to be learned by inquiry. Of the three, Buddhism is of course the most recent, having been introduced into China only in the first century of our Christian era. Both the others were indigenous to the country, and are traceable to a much greater antiquity, so that it is a question to which the earlier origin should be assigned. The years of Confucius's life lay between B.C. 551 and 478; but his own acknowledgment that he was 'a transmitter and not a maker,' and the testimony of his grandson, that 'he handed down the doctrines of Yâo and Shun (B. C. 2300), and elegantly displayed the regulations of Wân and Wû (B. C. 1200), taking them as his model,' are well known.

Peculiarity of the Tâo The King

2. Lâo-dze's birth is said, in the most likely account of it, to have taken place in the third year of king Ting of the Kâu dynasty, (B. C.) 604. He was thus rather more than fifty years older than Confucius. The two men seem to have met more than once, and I am inclined to think that the name of Lâo-dze, as the designation of the other, arose from Confucius's styling him to his disciples 'The Old Philosopher.' They met as Heads of different schools or schemes of thought; but did not touch, so far as we know, on the comparative antiquity of their views. It is a peculiarity of the Tâo Teh King that any historical element in it is of the vaguest nature possible, and in all its chapters there is not a single proper name. Yet there are some references to earlier sages whose words the author was copying out, and to 'sentence-makers' whose maxims he was introducing to illustrate his own sentiments1. In the most distant antiquity he saw a happy society in which his highest ideas of the Tâo were realised, and in the seventeenth chapter he tells us that in the earliest times the people did not know that there were their rulers, and when those rulers were most successful in dealing with them, simply said, 'We are what we are of ourselves.' Evidently, men existed to Lâo-dze at first in a condition of happy innocence,—in what we must call a paradisiacal state, according to his idea of what such a state was likely to be.

When we turn from the treatise of Lâo-dze to the writings of Kwang-dze, the greatest of his followers, we are not left in doubt as to his belief in an early state of paradisiacal Tâoism. Hwang Tî, the first year of whose reign is placed in B.C. 2697, is often introduced as a seeker of the Tâo, and is occasionally condemned as having been one of the first to disturb its rule in men's minds and break up 'the State of Perfect Unity.' He mentions several sovereigns of whom we can hardly find a trace in the records of history as having ruled in the primeval period, and gives us more than one description of the condition of the world during that happy time2.

I do not think that Kwang-dze had any historical evidence for the statements which he makes about those early days, the men who flourished in them, and their ways. His narratives are for the most part fictions, in which the names and incidents are of his own devising. They are no more true as matters of fact than the accounts of the characters in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress are true, with reference to any particular individuals; but as these last are grandly true of myriads of minds in different ages, so may we read in Kwang-dze's stories the thoughts of Tâoistic men beyond the restrictions of place and time. He believed that those thoughts were as old as the men to whom he attributed them. I find in his belief a ground for believing myself that to Tâoism, as well as to Confucianism, we ought to attribute a much earlier origin than the famous men whose names they bear. Perhaps they did not differ so much at first as they came afterwards to do in the hands of Confucius and Lâo-dze, both great thinkers, the one more of a moralist, and the other more of a metaphysician. When and how, if they were ever more akin than they came to be, their divergence took place, are difficult questions on which it may be well to make some remarks after we have tried to set forth the most important principles of Tâoism.

Those principles have to be learned from the treatise of Lâo-dze and the writings of Kwang-dze. We can hardly say that the Tâoism taught in them is the Tâoism now current in China, or that has been current in it for many centuries; but in an inquiry into the nature and origin of religions these are the authorities that must be consulted for Tâoism, and whose evidence must be accepted. The treatise, 'Actions and the Responses to them,' will show one of the phases of it at a much later period.


back 1 The sixth chapter of Lao's treatise, that about 'the Spirit of the Valley,' is referred to in Lieh-dze (I, 1b), as being from Hwang Tî, from which the commentator Tû Tâo-kien (about A, D. 1300) takes occasion to say: 'From which we know that Lâo-dze was accustomed to quote in his treatise passages from earlier records,—as when he refers to the remarks of "some sage," of "some ancient," of "the sentence-makers," and of "some writer on war." In all these cases he is clearly introducing the words of earlier wise men. The case is like that of Confucius when he said, "I am a transmitter and not a maker," &c.' Found in Ziâo Hung, in loc.

back 2 See in Books IX, X, and XII.