Taoism: The Story of the Way

By Schipper, Kristofer | Humanities, November/December 2000 | Go to article overview

Taoism: The Story of the Way


Schipper, Kristofer, Humanities


Opening November 4 at the Art Institute of Chicago is a new NEH-supported ehxibition on Taoism, a belief system that has premeated Chinese culture for more than two thousand years. The exhibition showcases 130 works relating to Chinese Taoism, including sculpture, painting, and calligraphy, accompanied by presentations of Tai Chi, ritual calligraphy, and performances of the Tao Te Ching. The following recounting of the ledgend of Laozi os adapted from the catalog Taoism and the Arts of China.

According to Chinese tradition, the Tao existed before the world was born out of primordial chaos. The Tao brought forth the world, and all beings naturally belong to the Tao. At its most fundamental level, Taoism does not refer to a god or a founding figure, but to a universal principle. Nonetheless, the story of Taoism is inextricably linked to the figure called Laozi (Lao-Tsu), the sage who first revealed the Way.

There have been many discussions about when and where Laozi lived, and even whether he was a historical figure at all. Laozi is said to have been seen in this world at a time corresponding to the sixth century B.C. Laozi is reputed to have been born in Hu, in Anhui province. A later 'legend of his birth tells us that Laozi's mother was a virgin who conceived him spontaneously, through the radiance of the Pole Star in the center of the sky. She carried her child in her womb for eighty-one years (a cosmic period of nine times nine) before he was born through her left armpit while she was leaning against a plum tree.

At birth, the baby was of course already old, hence the name "Old Child," in addition to "Master Lao," or "Old Master." After giving birth, Laozi's mother died. In fact this was a phenomenon of transubstantiation, because mother and son were one and the same person. Alone in the world the Old Child chose the plum tree, which had lent support to his mother, as his ancestor, and took its name, Li, as his family name.

Laozi is said to have been at one time the scholar in charge of the calendar and archives at the court of the Chou dynasty (c. 1050-256 B.C.). Confucius (551-479 B.C.) wanted to see the Old Master to question him about ritual, because Confucius believed that ritual decorum was the key to good governance. He thought that as long as everyone kept to his status and rank in society and acted according to the established custom, all would be in order. The story of the meeting has many versions, but the main idea is always the same: Laozi did not agree with Confucius's ideas, and told his noble visitor that naturalness, personal freedom, and happiness were more important than trying to conform to traditional standards.

After having lived in this world for a long time, the Old Master decided to retire in the far-off mountains of the western regions. When he crossed the mountain pass that marked the end of the world of men, he was halted by the guardian, who asked him for his teachings. Laozi then dictated to him the small book consisting of some five thousand Chinese characters that we call the Classic of the Way and its Power (Tao Te Ching).

Laozi s lifetime was set at a moment of profound change in China. During the sixth century B.C., the former feudal order of the Chou dynasty was gradually giving way to a new age of social and human development. Early China, like many other cultures of the Bronze Age, included ancestor worship and sacrifice. Theirs was an aristocratic warrior society, centered on the king and the nobility, their clans, and their ancestors.

The end of this feudal world was marked by several important innovations. The development of high-grade iron ore metallurgy during the seventh century B.C. signaled the end of the Bronze Age. Iron tools and other manufactured goods provided trade and economic expansion. This economic development created a new society of merchants and artisans, which took hold of the city-states, until then dominated by the aristocrats. …

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