The Texts of Taoism
General Introduction

Chapter 3

Meaning of the name Tâo

1. The first translation of the Tâo Teh King into a Western language was executed in Latin by some of the Roman Catholic missionaries, and a copy of it was brought to England by a Mr. Matthew Raper, F. R. S., and presented by him to the Society at a meeting on the 10th January, 1788,—being the gift to him of P. Jos. de Grammont, 'Missionarius Apostolicus, ex-Jesuita.' In this version Tâo is taken in the sense of Ratio, or the Supreme Reason of the Divine Being, the Creator and Governor.

M. Abel Rémusat, the first Professor of Chinese in Paris, does not seem to have been aware of the existence of the above version in London, but his attention was attracted to Lâo's treatise about 1820, and, in 1823, he wrote of the character Tâo, 'Ce mot me semble ne pas pouvoir être bien traduit, si ce n'est par le mot {GREEK lo'gos">dans le triple sens de souverain Être, de raison, et de parole.'

Rémusat's successor in the chair of Chinese, the late Stanislas Julien, published in 1842 a translation of the whole treatise. Having concluded from an examination of it, and the earliest Tâoist writers, such as Kwang-dze, Ho-kwan Dze, and Ho-shang Kung, that the Tâo was devoid of action, of thought, of judgment, and of intelligence, he concluded that it was impossible to understand by it 'the Primordial Reason, or the Sublime Intelligence which created, and which governs the world,' and to this he subjoined the following note:—'Quelque étrange que puisse paraître cette idée de Lâo-dze, elle n'est pas sans exemple dans l'histoire de la philosophie. Le mot nature n'a-t-il pas été employé par certains philosophes, que la religion et la raison condamnent, pour désigner une cause première, également dépourvue de pensée et d'intelligence?' Julien himself did not doubt that Lâo's idea of the character was that it primarily and properly meant 'a way,' and hence he translated the title Tâo Teh King by 'Le Livre de la Voie et de la Vertu,' transferring at the same time the name Tâo to the text of his: version.

The first English writer who endeavoured to give a distinct account of Tâoism was the late Archdeacon Hardwick, while he held the office of Christian Advocate in the University of Cambridge. In his 'Christ and other Masters' (vol. ii, p. 67), when treating of the religions of China, he says,': I feel disposed to argue that the centre of the system founded by Lâo-dze had been awarded to some energy or power resembling the "Nature" of modern speculators. The indefinite expression Tâo was adopted to denominate an abstract cause, of the initial principle of life and order, to which worshippers were able to assign the attributes of immateriality, eternity, immensity, invisibility.'

It was, probably, Julien's reference in his note to the use of the term nature, which suggested to Hardwick his analogy between Lâo-dze's Tâo, and 'the Nature of modern speculation.' Canon Farrar has said, 'We have long personified under the name of Nature the sum total of God's laws as observed in the physical world; and now the notion of Nature as a distinct, living, independent entity seems to be ineradicable alike from our literature and our systems of philosophy1.' But it seems to me that this metaphorical or mythological use of the word nature for the Cause and Ruler of it, implies the previous notion of Him, that is, of God, in the mind. Does not this clearly appear in the words of Seneca?—'Vis illum (h.e. jovem Deum) naturam vocare, non peccabis:—hic est ex quo nata sunt omnia, cujus spiritu vivimus2.'

In his translation of the Works of Kwang-dze in 1881, Mr. Balfour adopted Nature as the ordinary rendering of the Chinese Tâo. He says, 'When the word is translated Way, it means the Way of Nature,—her processes, her methods, and her laws; when translated Reason, it is the same as lî,—the power that works in all created things, producing, preserving, and life-giving,—the intelligent principle of the world; when translated Doctrine, it refers to the True doctrine respecting the laws and mysteries of Nature.' He calls attention also to the point that 'he uses NATURE in the sense of Natura naturans, while the Chinese expression wan wû (= all things) denotes Natura naturata.' But this really comes to the metaphorical use of nature which has been touched upon above. It can claim as its patrons great names like those of Aquinas, Giordano Bruno, and Spinoza, but I have never been able to see that its barbarous phraseology makes it more than a figure of speech3.

The term Nature, however, is so handy, and often fits so appropriately into a version, that if Tâo had ever such a signification I should not hesitate to employ it as freely as Mr. Balfour has done; but as it has not that signification, to try to put a non-natural meaning into it, only perplexes the mind, and obscures the idea of Lâo-dze.

Mr. Balfour himself says (p. xviii), 'The primary signification of Tâo is simply "road."' Beyond question this meaning underlies the use of it by the great master of Tâoism and by Kwang-dze4. Let the reader refer to the version of the twenty-fifth chapter of Lâo's treatise, and to the notes subjoined to it. There Tâo appears as the spontaneously operating cause of all movement in the phenomena of the universe; and the nearest the writer can come to a name for it is 'the Great Tâo.' Having established this name, he subsequently uses it repeatedly; see chh. xxxiv and liii. In the third paragraph of his twentieth chapter, Kwang-dze uses a synonymous phrase instead of Lâo's 'Great Tâo,' calling it the 'Great Thû,' about which there can be no dispute, as meaning 'the Great Path,' 'Way,' or 'Course5.' In the last paragraph of his twenty-fifth Book, Kwang-dze again sets forth the metaphorical origin of the name Tâo. 'Tâo,' he says, 'cannot be regarded as having a positive existence; existences cannot be regarded as non-existent. The name Tâo is a metaphor used for the purpose of description. To say that it exercises some causation, or that it does nothing, is speaking of it from the phase of a thing;—how can such language serve as a designation of it in its greatness? If words were sufficient for the purpose, we might in a day's time exhaust the subject of the Tâo. Words not being sufficient, we may talk about it the whole day, and the subject of discourse will only have been a thing. Tâo is the extreme to which things conduct us. Neither speech nor silence is sufficient to convey the notion of it. When we neither speak nor refrain from speech, our speculations about it reach their highest point.'

The Tâo therefore is a phenomenon; not a positive being, but a mode of being. Lâo's idea of it may become plainer as we proceed to other points of his system. In the meantime, the best way of dealing with it in translating is to transfer it to the version, instead of trying to introduce an English equivalent for it.

Usage of the term Thien

2. Next in importance to Tâo is the name Thien, meaning at first the vaulted sky or the open firmament of heaven. In the Confucian Classics, and in the speech of the Chinese people, this name is used metaphorically as it is by our selves for the Supreme Being, with reference especially to His will and rule. So it was that the idea of God arose among the Chinese fathers; so it was that they proceeded to fashion a name for God, calling Him Tî, and Shang Tî, 'the Ruler,' and 'the Supreme Ruler.' The Tâoist fathers found this among their people; but in their idea of the Tâo they had already a Supreme Concept which superseded the necessity of any other. The name Tî for God only occurs once in the Tâo Teh King; in the well-known passage of the fourth chapter, where, speaking of the Tâo, Lâo-dze says, 'I do not know whose Son it is; it might seem to be before God.'

Nor is the name Thien very common. We have the phrase, 'Heaven and Earth,' used for the two great constituents of the kosmos, owing their origin to the Tâo, and also for a sort of binomial power, acting in harmony with the Tâo, covering, protecting, nurturing, and maturing all things. Never once is Thien used in the sense of God, the Supreme Being. In its peculiarly Tâoistic employment, it is more an adjective than a noun. 'The Tâo of Heaven' means the Tâo that is Heavenly, the course that is quiet and undemonstrative, that is free from motive and effort, such as is seen in the processes of nature, grandly proceeding and successful without any striving or crying. The Tâo of man, not dominated by this Tâo, is contrary to it, and shows will, purpose, and effort, till, submitting to it, it becomes 'the Tâo or Way of the Sages,' which in all its action has no striving.

The characteristics both of Heaven and man are dealt with more fully by Kwang than by Lâo. In the conclusion of his eleventh Book, for instance, he says:—'What do we mean by Tâo? There is the Tâo (or Way) of Heaven, and there is the Tâo of man. Acting without action, and yet attracting all honour, is the Way of Heaven. Doing and being embarrassed thereby is the Way of man. The Way of Heaven should play the part of lord; the Way of man, the part of minister. The two are far apart, and should be distinguished from each other.'

In his next Book (par. 2), Kwang-dze tells us what he intends by 'Heaven:'—'Acting without action,—this is what is called Heaven.' Heaven thus takes its law from the Tâo. 'The oldest sages and sovereigns attained to do the same,'—it was for all men to aim at the same achievement. As they were successful, 'vacancy, stillness, placidity, tastelessness, quietude, silence, and non-action' would be found to be their characteristics, and they would go on to the perfection of the Tâo6.

The employment of Thien by the Confucianists, as of Heaven by ourselves, must be distinguished therefore from the Tâoistic use of the name to denote the quiet but mighty influence of the impersonal Tâo; and to translate it by 'God' only obscures the meaning of the Tâoist writers. This has been done by Mr. Giles in his version of Kwang-dze, which is otherwise for the most part so good. Everywhere on his pages there appears the great name 'God;'—a blot on his translation more painful to my eyes and ears than the use of' Nature' for Tâo by Mr. Balfour. I know that Mr. Giles's plan in translating is to use strictly English equivalents for all kinds of Chinese terms7. The plan is good where there are in the two languages such strict equivalents; but in the case before us there is no ground for its application. The exact English equivalent for the Chinese thien is our heaven. The Confucianists often used thien metaphorically for the personal Being whom they denominated Tî (God) and Shang Tî (the Supreme God), and a translator may occasionally, in working on books of Confucian literature, employ our name God for it. But neither Lâo nor Kwang ever attached anything like our idea of God to it; and when one, in working on books of early Tâoist literature, translates thien by God, such a rendering must fail to produce in an English reader a correct apprehension of the meaning.

Peculiar usage of Thien in Kwang-dze

There is also in Kwang-dze a peculiar usage of the name Thien. He applies it to the Beings whom he introduces as Masters of the Tâo, generally with mystical appellations in order to set forth his own views. Two instances from Book XI will suffice in illustration of this. In par. 4, Hwang-Tî does reverence to his instructor Kwang Khäng-dze8, saying, 'In Kwang Khäng-dze we have an example of what is called Heaven,' which Mr. Giles renders 'Kwang Khäng Dze is surely God.' In par. 5, again, the mystical Yûn-kiang is made to say to the equally fabulous and mystical Hung-mung, 'O Heaven, have you forgotten me?' and, farther on, 'O Heaven, you have conferred on me (the knowledge of) your operation, and revealed to me the mystery of it;' in both which passages Mr. Giles renders thien by 'your Holiness.'

Mr. Giles's own ideal of the meaning of the name 'God' as the equivalent of Thien

But Mr. Giles seems to agree with me that the old Tâoists had no idea of a personal God, when they wrote of Thien or Heaven. On his sixty- eighth page, near the beginning of Book VI, we meet with the following sentence, having every appearance of being translated from the Chinese text:—'God is a principle which exists by virtue of its own intrinsicality, and operates without self-manifestation.' By an inadvertence he has introduced his own definition of 'God' as if it were Kwang-dze's; and though I can find no characters in the text of which I can suppose that he intends it to be the translation, it is valuable as helping us to understand the meaning to be attached to the Great Name in his volume.

The relation of the Tâo to Tî

I have referred above (p. 16) to the only passage in Lâo's treatise, where he uses the name Tî or God in its highest sense, saying that 'the Tâo might seem to have been before Him.' He might well say so, for in his first chapter be describes the Tâo, '(conceived of as) having no name, as the Originator of heaven and earth, and (conceived of as) having a name, as the Mother of all things.' The reader will also find the same predicates of the Tâo at greater length in his fifty-first chapter.

The character Tî is also of rare occurrence in Kwang-dze, excepting as applied to the five ancient Tîs. In Bk. III, par. 4, and in one other place, we find it indicating the Supreme Being, but the usage is ascribed to the ancients. In Bk. XV, par, 3, in a description of the human SPIRIT, its name is said to be 'Thung Tî,' which Mr. Giles renders 'Of God;' Mr. Balfour, 'One with God;' while my own version is 'The Divinity in Man.' In Bk. XII, par. 6, we have the expression 'the place of God;' in Mr. Giles, 'the kingdom of God;' in Mr. Balfour, 'the home of God.' In this and the former instance, the character seems to be used with the ancient meaning which had entered into the folklore of the people. But in Bk. VI, par. 7, there is a passage which shows clearly the relative position of Tâo and Tî in the Tâoistic system; and having called attention to it, I will go on to other points. Let the reader mark well the following predicates of the Tâo:—'Before there were heaven and earth, from of old, there It was, securely existing. From It came the mysterious existence of spirits; from It the mysterious existence of Tî (God). It produced heaven, It produced earth9.' This says more than the utterance of Lâo,—that 'the Tâo seemed to be before God;'—does it not say that Tâo was before God, and that He was what He is by virtue of Its operation?

No idea of Creation proper in Tâoism.

3. Among the various personal names given to the Tâo are those of Zâo Hwâ, 'Maker and Transformer,' and Zâo Wû Kê, 'Maker of things.'

Instances of both these names are found in Bk. VI, parr. 9, 10. 'Creator' and 'God' have both been employed for them; but there is no idea of Creation in Tâoism.

Again and again Kwang-dze entertains the question of how it was at the first beginning of things. Different views are stated. In Bk. II, par. 4, he says:—'Among the men of old their knowledge reached the extreme point. What was that extreme point?

'Some held that at first there was not anything. This is the extreme point,—the utmost limit to which nothing can be added.

'A second class held that there was something, but without any responsive recognition of it (on the part of man).

'A third class held that there was such recognition, but there had not begun to be any expression of different opinions about it. It was through the definite expression of different opinions about it that there ensued injury to the (doctrine of the) Tâo10.'

The first of these three views was that which Kwang-dze himself preferred. The most condensed expression of it is given in Bk. XII, par. 8:—'In the Grand Beginning of all things there was nothing in all the vacancy of space; there was nothing that could be named11. It was in this state that there arose the first existence; the first existence, but still without bodily shape. From this things could be produced, (receiving) what we call their several characters. That which had no bodily shape was divided, and then without intermission there was what we call the process of conferring. (The two processes) continued to operate, and things were produced. As they were completed, there appeared the distinguishing lines of each, which we call the bodily shape. That shape was the body preserving in it the spirit, and each had its peculiar manifestation which we call its nature.'

Such was the genesis of things; the formation of heaven and earth and all that in them is, under the guidance of the Tâo. It was an evolution and not a creation. How the Tâo itself came,—I do not say into existence, but into operation,—neither Lâo nor Kwang ever thought of saying anything about. We have seen that it is nothing material12. It acted spontaneously of itself. Its sudden appearance in the field of non-existence, Producer, Transformer, Beautifier, surpasses my comprehension. To Lâo it seemed to be before God. I am compelled to accept the existence of God, as the ultimate Fact, bowing before it with reverence, and not attempting to explain it, the one mystery, the sole mystery of the universe.

Man is composed of body and spirit

4. 'The bodily shape was the body preserving in it the spirit, and each had its peculiar manifestation which we call its nature.' So it is said in the passage quoted above from Kwang-dze's twelfth Book, and the language shows how Tâoism, in a loose and indefinite way, considered man to be composed of body and spirit, associated together, yet not necessarily dependent on each other. Little is found bearing on this tenet in the Tâo Teh King. The concluding sentence of ch. 33, 'He who dies and yet does not perish, has longevity,' is of doubtful acceptation. More pertinent is the description of life as 'a coming forth,' and of death as 'an entering13;' but Kwang-dze expounds more fully, though after all unsatisfactorily, the teaching of their system on the subject.

At the conclusion of his third Book, writing of the death of Lâo-dze, he says, 'When the master came, it was at the proper time; when he went away, it was the simple sequence (of his coming). Quiet acquiescence in what happens at its proper time, and quietly submitting (to its sequence), afford no occasion for grief or for joy. The ancients described (death) as the loosening of the cord on which God suspended (the life). What we can point to are the faggots that have been consumed; but the fire is transmitted elsewhere, and we know not that it is over and ended.'

It is, however, in connexion with the death of his own wife, as related in the eighteenth Book, that his views most fully—I do not say 'clearly'—appear. We are told that when that event took place, his friend Hui-dze went to condole with him, and found him squatted on the ground, drumming on the vessel (of ice), and singing. His friend said to him, 'When a wife has lived with her husband, brought up children, and then dies in her old age, not to wail for her is enough. When you go on to drum on the vessel and sing, is it not an excessive (and strange) demonstration?' Kwang-dze replied, 'It is not so. When she first died, was it possible for me to be singular, and not affected by the event? But I reflected on the commencement of her being, when she had not yet been born to life. Not only had she no life, but she had no bodily form. Not only had she no bodily form, but she had no breath. Suddenly in this chaotic condition there ensued a change, and there was breath; another change, and there was the bodily form; a further change, and she was born to life; a change now again, and she is dead. The relation between those changes is like the procession of the four seasons,—spring, autumn, winter, and summer. There she lies with her face up, sleeping in the Great Chamber14; and if I were to fall sobbing and going on to wail for her, I should think I did not understand what was appointed for all. I therefore restrained myself.'

The next paragraph of the same Book contains another story about two ancient men, both deformed, who, when looking at the graves on Kwän-lun, begin to feel in their own frames the symptoms of approaching dissolution. One says to the other, 'Do you dread it?' and gets the reply, 'No. Why should I dread it? Life is a borrowed thing. The living frame thus borrowed is but so much dust. Life and death are like day and night.'

In every birth, it would thus appear, there is, somehow, a repetition of what it is said, as we have seen, took place at 'the Grand Beginning of all things,' when out of the primal nothingness, the Tâo somehow appeared, and there was developed through its operation the world of things,—material things and the material body of man, which enshrines or enshrouds an immaterial spirit. This returns to the Tâo that gave it, and may be regarded indeed as that Tâo operating in the body during the time of life, and in due time receives a new embodiment.

In these notions of Tâoism there was a preparation for the appreciation by its followers of the Buddhistic system when it came to be introduced into the country, and which forms a close connexion between the two at the present day, Tâoism itself constantly becoming less definite and influential on the minds of the Chinese people. The Book which tells us of the death of Kwang-dze's wife concludes with a narrative about Lieh-dze and an old bleached skull15, and to this is appended a passage about the metamorphoses of things, ending with the statement that 'the panther produces the horse, and the horse the man, who then again enters into the great machinery (of evolution), from which all things come forth (at birth) and into which they re-enter (at death).' Such representations need not be characterised.

The Tâo as promotive of longevity

5. Kû Hsî, 'the prince of Literature,' described the main object of Tâoism to be 'the preservation of the breath of life;' and Liû Mî, probably of our thirteenth century16, in his 'Dispassionate Comparison of the Three Religions,' declares that 'its chief achievement is the prolongation of longevity.' Such is the account of Tâoism ordinarily given by Confucian and Buddhist writers, but our authorities, Lâo and Kwang, hardly bear out this representation of it as true of their time. There are chapters of the Tâo Teh King which presuppose a peculiar management of the breath, but the treatise is singularly free from anything to justify what Mr. Balfour well calls 'the antics of the Kung-fû, or system of mystic and recondite calisthenics17.' Lâo insists, however, on the Tâo as conducive to long life, and in Kwang-dze we have references to it as a discipline of longevity, though even he mentions rather with disapproval 'those who kept blowing and breathing with open mouth, inhaling and exhaling the breath, expelling the old and taking in new; passing their time like the (dormant) bear, and stretching and twisting (their necks) like birds.' He says that 'all this simply shows their desire for longevity, and is what the scholars who manage the breath, and men who nourish the body and wish to live as long as Phäng-zû, are fond of doing18.' My own opinion is that the methods of the Tâo were first cultivated for the sake of the longevity which they were thought to promote, and that Lâo, discountenancing such a use of them, endeavoured to give the doctrine a higher character; and this view is favoured by passages in Kwang-dze. In the seventh paragraph, for instance, of his Book VI, speaking of parties who had obtained the Tâo, he begins with a prehistoric sovereign, who 'got it and by it adjusted heaven and earth.' Among his other instances is Phäng-zû, who got it in the time of Shun, and lived on to the time of the five leading princes of Kâu,—a longevity of more than 1800 years, greater than that ascribed to Methuselah! In the paragraph that follows there appears a Nü Yü, who is addressed by another famous Tâoist in the words, 'You are old, Sir, while your complexion is like that of a child;—how is it so?' and the reply is, 'I became acquainted with the Tâo.'

I will adduce only one more passage of Kwang. In his eleventh Book, and the fourth paragraph, he tells us of interviews between Hwang-Tî, in the nineteenth year of his reign, which would be 13. C. 2679, and his instructor Kwang Khäng-dze. The Tâoist sage is not readily prevailed on to unfold the treasures of his knowledge to the sovereign, but at last his reluctance is overcome, and he says to him, 'Come, and I will tell you about the Perfect Tâo. Its essence is surrounded with the deepest obscurity; its highest reach is in darkness and silence. There is nothing to be seen, nothing to be heard. When it holds the spirit in its arms in stillness, then the bodily form will of itself become correct. You must be still, you must be pure; not subjecting your body to toil, not agitating your vital force:—then you may live for long. When your eyes see nothing, your ears hear nothing, and your mind knows nothing, your spirit will keep your body, and the body will live long. Watch over what is within you; shut up the avenues that connect you with what is external;—much knowledge is pernicious. I will proceed with you to the summit of the Grand Brilliance, where we come to the bright and expanding (element); I will enter with you the gate of the dark and depressing element. There heaven and earth have their Controllers; there the Yin and Yang have their Repositories. Watch over and keep your body, and all things will of themselves give it vigour. I maintain the (original) unity (of these elements). In this way I have cultivated myself for 1200 years, and my bodily form knows no decay.' Add 1200 to 2679, and we obtain 3879 as the year B.C. of Kwang Khäng-dze's birth!

Startling results of the Tâo

6. Lâo-dze describes some other and kindred results of cultivating the Tâo in terms which are sufficiently startling, and which it is difficult to accept. In his fiftieth chapter he says, 'He who is skilful in managing his life travels on land without having to shun rhinoceros or tiger, and enters a host without having to avoid buff coat or sharp weapon. The rhinoceros finds no place in him into which to thrust its horn, nor the tiger a place in which to fix its claws, nor the weapon a place to admit its point. And for what reason? Because there is in him no place of death.' To the same effect he says in his fifty-fifth chapter, 'He who has in himself abundantly the attributes (of the Tâo) is like an infant. Poisonous insects will not sting him; fierce beasts will not seize him; birds of prey will not strike him.'

Such assertions startle us by their contrariety to our observation and experience, but so does most of the teaching of Tâoism. What can seem more absurd than the declaration that 'the Tâo does nothing, and so there is nothing that it does not do?' And yet this is one of the fundamental axioms of the system. The thirty-seventh chapter, which enunciates it, goes on to say, 'If princes and kings were able to maintain (the Tâo), all things would of themselves be transformed by them.' This principle, if we can call it so, is generalised in the fortieth, one of the shortest chapters, and partly in rhyme:—

The movement of the Tâo
  By contraries proceeds;
And weakness marks the course
  Of Tâo's mighty deeds.

All things under heaven sprang from it as existing (and named); that existence sprang from it as non-existent (and not named).'

Ho-shang Kung, or whoever gave their names to the chapters of the Tâo Teh King, styles this fortieth chapter 'Dispensing with the use (of means).' If the wish to use means arise in the mind, the nature of the Tâo as 'the Nameless Simplicity' has been vitiated; and this nature is celebrated in lines like those just quoted

'Simplicity without a name
Is free from all external aim.
With no desire, at rest and still,
All things go right, as of their will.'

I do not cull any passages from Kwang-dze to illustrate these points. In his eleventh Book his subject is Government by 'Let-a-be and the exercise of Forbearance.'

The paradisiacal state

7. This Tâo ruled men at first, and then the world was in a paradisiacal state. Neither of our authorities tells us how long this condition lasted, but as Lâo observes in his eighteenth chapter, 'the Tâo ceased to be observed.' Kwang-dze, however, gives us more than one description of what he considered the paradisiacal state was. He calls it 'the age of Perfect Virtue.' In the thirteenth paragraph of his twelfth Book he says, 'In this age, they attached no value to wisdom, nor employed men of ability. Superiors were (but) as the higher branches of a tree; and the people were like the deer of the wild. They were upright and correct, without knowing that to be so was Righteousness; they loved one another, without knowing that to do so was Benevolence; they were honest and leal-hearted, without knowing that it was Loyalty; they fulfilled their engagements, without knowing that to do so was Good Faith; in their movements they employed the services of one another, without thinking that they were conferring or receiving any gift. Therefore their actions left no trace, and there was no record of their affairs.'

Again, in the fourth paragraph of his tenth Book, addressing an imaginary interlocutor, he says, 'Are you, Sir, unacquainted with the age of Perfect Virtue?' He then gives the names of twelve sovereigns who ruled in it, of the greater number of whom we have no other means of knowing anything, and goes on:—'In their times the people used knotted cords in carrying on their business. They thought their (simple) food pleasant, and their (plain) clothing beautiful. They were happy in their (simple) manners, and felt at rest in their (poor) dwellings. (The people of) neighbouring states might be able to descry one another; the voices of their cocks and dogs might be heard from one to the other; they might not die till they were old; and yet all their life they would have no communication together. In those times perfect good order prevailed.'

One other description of the primeval state is still more interesting. It is in the second paragraph of Bk. IX: 'The people had their regular and constant nature:—they wove and made themselves clothes; they tilled the ground and got food. This was their common faculty. They were all one in this, and did not form themselves into separate classes; so were they constituted and left to their natural tendencies. Therefore in the age of Perfect Virtue men walked along with slow and grave step, and with their looks steadily directed forwards. On the hills there were no footpaths nor excavated passages; on the lakes there were no boats nor dams. All creatures lived in companies, and their places of settlement were made near to one another. Birds and beasts multiplied to flocks and herds; the grass and trees grew luxuriant and long. The birds and beasts might be led about without feeling the constraint; the nest of the magpie might be climbed to, and peeped into. Yes, in the age of Perfect Virtue, men lived in common with birds and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as forming one family;—how could they know among themselves the distinctions of superior men and small men? Equally without knowledge, they did not leave the path of their natural virtue; equally free from desires, they were in the state of pure simplicity. In that pure simplicity, their nature was what it ought to be.'

Such were the earliest Chinese of whom Kwang-dze could venture to give any account. If ever their ancestors had been in a ruder or savage condition, it must have been at a much antecedent time. These had long passed out of such a state; they were tillers of the ground, and acquainted with the use of the loom. They lived in happy relations with one another, and in kindly harmony with the tribes of inferior creatures. But there is not the slightest allusion to any sentiment of piety as animating them individually, or to any ceremony of religion as observed by them in common. This surely is a remarkable feature in their condition. I call attention to it, but I do not dwell upon it.

The decay of the Tâo before the growth of knowledge

8. But by the time of Lâo and Kwang the cultivation of the Tâo had fallen into disuse. The simplicity of life which it demanded, with its freedom from all disturbing speculation and action, was no longer to be found in individuals or in government. It was the general decay of manners and of social order which unsettled the mind of Lâo, made him resign his position as a curator of the Royal Library, and determine to withdraw from China and hide himself among the rude peoples beyond it. The cause of the deterioration of the Tâo and of all the evils of the nation was attributed to the ever-growing pursuit of knowledge, and of what we call the arts of culture. It had commenced very long before;—in the time of Hwang-Tî, Kwang says in one place19; and in another he carries it still higher to Sui-zän and Fu-hsî20. There had been indeed, all along the line of history, a groping for the rules of life, as indicated by the constitution of man's nature. The results were embodied in the ancient literature which was the lifelong study of Confucius. He had gathered up that literature; he recognised the nature of man as the gift of Heaven or God. The monitions of God as given in the convictions of man's mind supplied him with a Tâo or Path of duty very different from the Tâo or Mysterious Way of Lâo. All this was gall and wormwood to the dreaming librarian or brooding recluse, and made him say, 'If we could renounce our sageness and discard our wisdom, it would be better for the people a hundredfold. If we could renounce our benevolence and discard our righteousness, the people would again become filial and kindly. If we could renounce our artful contrivances and discard our (scheming for) gain, there would be no thieves nor robbers21.'

We can laugh at this. Tâoism was wrong in its opposition to the increase of knowledge. Man exists under a law of progress. In pursuing it there are demanded discretion and justice. Moral ends must rule over material ends, and advance in virtue be ranked higher than advance in science. So have good and evil, truth and error, to fight out the battle on the field of the world, and in all the range of time; but there is no standing still for the individual or for society. Even Confucius taught his countrymen to set too high a value on the examples of antiquity. The school of Lâo-dze fixing themselves in an unknown region beyond antiquity,—a prehistoric time between 'the Grand Beginning of all things' out of nothing, and the unknown commencement of societies of men,—has made no advance but rather retrograded, and is represented by the still more degenerate Tâoism of the present day.

There is a short parabolic story of Kwang-dze, intended to represent the antagonism between Tâoism and knowledge, which has always struck me as curious. The last paragraph of his seventh Book is this:—'The Ruler (or god Tî) of the Southern Ocean was Shû (that is, Heedless); the Ruler of the Northern Ocean was Hû (that is, Hasty); and the Ruler of the Centre was Hwun-tun (that is, Chaos). Shû and Hû were continually meeting in the land of Hwun-tun, who treated them very well. They consulted together how they might repay his kindness, and said, "Men have all seven orifices for the purposes of seeing, hearing, eating, and breathing, while this (poor) Ruler alone has not one. Let us try and make them for him." Accordingly they dug one orifice in him every day; and at the end of seven days Chaos died.'

So it was that Chaos passed away before Light. So did the nameless Simplicity of the Tâo disappear before Knowledge. But it was better that the Chaos should give place to the Kosmos. 'Heedless' and 'Hasty' did a good deed.

The practical lessons of Lâo-dze

9. I have thus set forth eight characteristics of the Tâoistic system, having respect mostly to what is peculiar and mystical in it. I will now conclude my exhibition of it by bringing together under one head the practical lessons of its author for men individually, and for the administration of government. The praise of whatever excellence these possess belongs to Lâo himself: Kwang-dze devotes himself mainly to the illustration of the abstruse and difficult points.


First, it does not surprise us that in his rules for individual man, Lâo should place Humility in the foremost place. A favourite illustration with him of the Tâo is water. In his eighth chapter he says:—'The highest excellence is like that of water. The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying, without striving to the contrary, the low ground which all men dislike. Hence (its way) is near to that of the Tâo.' To the same effect in the seventy-eighth chapter:—'There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet for attacking things that are firm and strong there is nothing that can take precedence of it. Every one in the world knows that the soft overcomes the hard, and the weak the strong; but no one is able to carry it out in practice.'

Lao's three Jewels

In his sixty-seventh chapter Lâo associates with Humility two other virtues, and calls them his three Precious Things or Jewels. They are Gentleness, Economy, and Shrinking from taking precedence of others. 'With that Gentleness,' he says, 'I can be bold; with that Economy I can be liberal; Shrinking from taking precedence of others, I can become a vessel of the highest honour.'

Rendering good for evil

And in his sixty-third chapter, he rises to a still loftier height of morality. He says, '(It is the way of the Tâo) to act without (thinking of) acting, to conduct affairs without (feeling) the trouble of them; to taste without discerning any flavour, to consider the small as great, and the few as many, and to recompense injury with kindness.'

Here is the grand Christian precept, 'Render to no man evil for evil. If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink. Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.' We know that the maxim made some noise in its author's lifetime; that the disciples of Confucius consulted him about it, and that he was unable to receive it22. It comes in with less important matters by virtue of the Tâoistic 'rule of contraries.' I have been surprised to find what little reference to it I have met with in the course of my Chinese reading. I do not think that Kwang-dze takes notice of it to illustrate it after his fashion. There, however, it is in the Tâo Teh King. The fruit of it has yet to be developed.

Second, Lâo laid down the same rule for the policy of the state as for the life of the individual. He says in his sixty-first chapter, 'What makes a state great is its being like a low-lying, down-flowing stream;—it becomes the centre to which tend all (the small states) under heaven.' He then uses an illustration which will produce a smile:—'Take the case of all females. The female always overcomes the male by her stillness. Stillness may be considered (a sort of) abasement.' Resuming his subject, he adds, 'Thus it is that a great state, by condescending to small states, gains them for itself; and that small states, by abasing themselves to a great state, win it over to them. In the one case the abasement tends to gaining adherents; in the other case, to procuring favour. The great state only wishes to unite men together and nourish them; a small state only wishes to be received by, and to serve, the other. Each gets what it desires, but the great state must learn to abase itself.'

'All very well in theory,' some one will exclaim, 'but, the world has not seen it yet reduced to practice.' So it is. The fact is deplorable. No one saw the misery arising from it, and exposed its unreasonableness more unsparingly, than Kwang-dze. But it was all in vain in his time, as it has been in all the centuries that have since rolled their course. Philosophy, philanthropy, and religion have still to toil on, 'faint, yet pursuing,' believing that the time will yet come when humility and love shall secure the reign of peace and good will among the nations of men.

While enjoining humility, Lâo protested against war. In his thirty-first chapter he says, 'Arms, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen; hateful, it may be said, to all creatures. They who have the Tâo do not like to employ them.' Perhaps in his sixty-ninth chapter he allows defensive war, but he adds, 'There is no calamity greater than that of lightly engaging in war. To do that is near losing the gentleness which is so precious. Thus it is that when weapons are (actually) crossed, he who deplores the (situation) conquers.'

There are some other points in the practical lessons of Tâoism to which I should like to call the attention of the reader, but I must refer him for them to the chapters of the Tâo Teh King, and the Books of Kwang-dze. Its salient features have been set forth somewhat fully. Notwithstanding the scorn poured so freely on Confucius by Kwang-dze and other Tâoist writers, he proved in the course of time too strong for Lâo as the teacher of their people. The entrance of Buddhism, moreover, into the country in our first century, was very injurious to Tâoism, which still exists, but is only the shadow of its former self. It is tolerated by the government, but not patronised as it was when emperors and empresses seemed to think more of it than of Confucianism. It is by the spread of knowledge, which it has always opposed, that its overthrow and disappearance will be brought about ere long.


back 1 Language and Languages, pp. 184, 185.

back 2 Natur. Quaest. lib. II, cap. xlv.

back 3 Martineau's 'Types of Ethical Theory,' I, p. 286, and his whole 'Conjectural History of Spinoza's Thought.'

back 4 ### is equivalent to the Greek h` o`do's, the way. Where this name for the Christian system occurs in our Revised Version of the New Testament in the Acts of the Apostles, the literal rendering is adhered to, Way being printed with a capital W. See Acts ix. 2; xix. 9, 23; xxii. 4; xxiv. 14, 22.

back 5 ###. The Khang-hsî dictionary defines thû by lû, road or way. Medhurst gives 'road.' Unfortunately, both Morrison and Williams overlooked this definition of the character. Giles has also a note in loc., showing how this synonym settles the original meaning of Tâo in the sense of 'road.'

back 6 The Tâo Teh King, Ch. 25, and Kwang-dze, XIII, par. 1.

back 7 See 'Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio,' vol. i, p. i, note 2.

back 8 Kwang Khäng-dze heads the list of characters in Ko Hung's 'History of Spirit-like Immortals (###),' written in our fourth century. 'He was,' it is said, 'an Immortal of old, who lives on the hill of M'ung-thung in a grotto of rocks.'

back 9 For this sentence we find in Mr. Balfour:—'Spirits of the dead, receiving It, become divine; the very gods themselves owe their divinity to its influence; and by it both Heaven and Earth were produced.' The version of it by Mr. Giles is too condensed:—'Spiritual beings drew their spirituality therefrom, while the universe became what we see it now.'

back 10 Compare also Bk. XXII, parr. 7, 8, and XXIII, par. 10.

back 11 Mr. Balfour had given for this sentence:—'In the beginning of all things there was not even nothing. There were no names; these arose afterwards.' In his critique on Mr. Balfour's version in 1882, Mr. Giles proposed:—'At the beginning of all things there was nothing; but this nothing had no name.' He now in his own version gives for it, 'At the beginning of the beginning, even nothing did not exist. Then came the period of the nameless;'—an improvement, certainly, on the other; but which can hardly be accepted as the correct version of the text.

back 12 The Tâo Teh King, ch. 14; et al.

back 13 Ch. 60.

back 14 That is, between heaven and earth.

back 15 Quoted in the Amplification of the Sixteen Precepts or Maxims of the second emperor of the present dynasty by his son. The words are from Dr. Milne's version of 'the Sacred Edict,' p. 137.

back 16 In his Index to the Tripitaka, Mr. Bunyio Nanjio (P. 359) assigns Liû Mî and his work to the Yüan dynasty. In a copy of the work in my possession they are assigned to that of Sung. The author, no doubt, lived under both dynasties,—from the Sung into the Yüan.

back 17 See note on p, 187 of his Kwang-dze.

back 18 See Bk. XV, par. 1.

back 19 Bk. XI, par. 5.

back 20 Bk. XVI, par. 2.

back 21 Tâo Teh King, ch. 19.

back 22 Confucian Analects, XIV, 36.