The religions of China are rooted in
ancient religious concepts. The Chinese people recognized many gods and
spirits. The good spirits were known as Shen and the evil spirits were
called Kwei. The common people performed sacrifices and rituals. They
believed the universe was composed of the negative force of nature, Yin,
and the positive force of nature, Yang. Filial piety and ancestor worship
were practiced. They predicted the future by divination through the
methodology of I Ching. Following the eleventh century the Chou rulers for
political reasons promoted a belief in Shang Ti, the one supreme God who
controlled the destiny of men and rulers.
The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the
sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic
foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different
ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.
Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star;
carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown
wise old man. It is said that he was the keeper of the royal archives but
tired of the artificial court life and retired. Lao-tzu traveled west into
the mountains and sought to leave the country at the Hankao Pass. The
guard at the gate recognized the wise old man and refused to allow him to
leave until he had committed to writing the sum of his wisdom. He retired
for three days and returned with a slim manuscript entitled Tao Te Ching
(The Way and Its Power). After leaving he was never seen again.
Except for the Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Chin is the most
influential book in Chinese literature. It has been the object of at least
a thousand commentaries and has been translated into English more than
forty times. The book was probably developed over the centuries and
evolved into its present form around the fourth century B. C.
The chief religious teaching of the Tao Te Ching is concerning one eternal
Supreme Being: "Original, primeval, the Ultimate... sustaining source of
all things ... an All-Father ... Makes its knower fearless, invulnerable,
immortal." The ethical ideal of the Tao Te Ching is to recompense injury
with kindness and achieve a quiet, restful, humble simplicity in living.
The teachings of early Taoism center around the following themes:
1. The basic unity behind the universe is a mysterious and undefineable
force called the Tao. Tao produces all things and all things go back to
their common origin and blend into one. Absolute truth and absolute good
2. Life is the greatest of all possessions. The chief aim of human
existence is to attain fullness of life by attunement with the Tao. When
man seeks his own plan rather than the eternal plan of the great Tao, he
precipates ills, suffering, and evil.
3. Live in primitive simplicity. Leave all things take their natural
course. Education, wealth, power, and family ties are worthless
impediments to living. The sage can know the whole world without going out
of his door. The further one travels, the less one knows. The Tao is
characterized by its quietude of power, its production without possession,
action without self-assertion, development without domination. "Aim at
extreme disinterestedness and maintain the utmost possible calm ... There
is no guilt greater than to sanction ambition ... Only quiet noniving
is successful." Kindness, sincerity, and humility should be cultivated.
4. Pomp and glory are to be despised. The tree which stands higher than
its neighbors is the first to be felled by the woodsman. The weak and
humble overcome the strong and proud. The highest goodness is like water,
it seeks the lower levels; therefore it is near to Tao. The least
government is the best government. Weapons are instruments of ill omen; he
who has Tao will have nothing to do with them.
This early Taoism was more a philosophy than a religion. it was concerned
about the quality of life and had little interest in the heavens, gods,
rituals, or life after death. During the fourth and third centuries B.C.,
in addition to Taoism, three major schools of thought struggled for
dominance in China.- The Confucians believed in an idealized feudal system
characterized by social propriety. The Legalists were tough-minded
realists who believed human nature is wicked and lazy and must be ruled
with a strong hand. The Mohists taught the values of the traditional
religions, especially that men should love one another. They were
pacifists who recognized the necessity of self defense.
Later Taosim became a religion of the masses and deteriorated into
polytheism, demonology, witchcraft, magic, and occultism. It borrowed from
Mahayana Buddhism and its teaching of an afterlife with heavens, hells,
and judgment and developed a monasticism after the Buddhist pattern. The
upper classes and intellectuals of twentieth century China continued
reading the classics of philosophical Taoism but regarded the religion as
only fit for the ignorant masses. The current Chinese government look upon
it, and all forms of religion, as superstition.
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