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The Story of the Way

By Kristofer Schipper | HUMANITIES, November/December 2000 | Volume 21, Number 6

Opening November 4 at the Art Institute of Chicago is a new NEH-supported exhibition on Taoism, a belief system that has permeated 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 T'ai Chi, ritual calligraphy, and performance of the Tao Te Ching. The following recounting of the legend Laozi is adapted from the catalog Taoism and the Arts of China.

According to Chinese tradition, the Tao existed before the world was born out of 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 Chiense 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.

There were those who regretted that the ancient religious and social order installed by the kings of the Chou dynasty was gradually disappearing. One of these conservatives was Confucius. In his efforts to maintain the ritual tradition, he is said to have put down the ritual texts in writing. These became the Chinese Classics. We do not know to what extent these Classics are truly representative of the religion of the aristocracy, but what is certain is that the religion of the common people, with its worship of holy mountains and streams, as well as the great female deities, was left out.

Laozi, on the other hand, is portrayed as a commoner. The legend of his responsibility for the calendar and archives is intriguing because it broke with tradition. He contributed to the worldview in which mutually opposed and complementary forces, yin and yang, evolve from the primordial chaos into the phenomenal world of Heaven and Earth, the "ten thousand beings." Each of these beings, or parts of creation, is shaped and nurtured by the cosmic energies of Heaven in earth in endless numbers and continuous transformation.

According to this cosmology, all beings are related to each other through elaborate systems of correspondence. The creative and destructive processes are thus considered to be natural and not linked to any divine will or destiny. This was a universe that was created and evolved spontaneously through the interplay of cosmic forces according to the universal principle of the Tao.

On the basis of this worldview, diviners created a system of prognostication, based on a mathematical game in order to arrive at sixty-four different symbolic combinations or "hexagrams." This system is documented and elaborated in the classic Book of Changes (I Ching). The hexagrams ideally represented all the possible and forever changing combinations of yin and yang forces in the universe. Even in later times, when it developed a pantheon of many transcendent immortals and deities, Taoism always remained a religion without a supreme being. Neither a polytheism nor a monotheism, Taoism lifts humans up to a level above particular gods and ancestors, to a heaven above heaven, to the one universal principle that allows the world to find unity in its endless diversity.

These developments are in some respects comparable to those of the ancient Mediterranean world. There, too, the ancient feudal order and the sacrificial religion gradually made place for a new society and culture in the city-states. In ancient Greece, beside the ancient "public cult" there emerged "mystery religions," which were expressions of the search for transcendence and immortality. These movements did not follow traditional class rules, and often recruited members from different levels of society. The mystery religions in turn were the fertile ground on which philosophy developed.

In China as well, a similar, newly emerging conscience marked the divide between the archaic warrior society and the new city civilization, and stood in the very center of the traditional distinction between Laozi and Confucius. Confucius defended the ancient ritual codes by giving them a moral meaning. In reply, the Old Master asked him: But what good does that do to you personally? It is this awakening of the individual awareness that marked a major turning point in Chinese culture. From it came qusetions about individual destiny, the purpose of life and death, and immortality. On the ruins of the ol order, a new search emerged that created a religion in which personal transformation occupied a place of increasing porminence, based on the Way of the Old Master.

About the Author

A Taoist priest, Kristofer Schipper is Directeur d'Études at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Sorbonne, Paris, and Professor Emeritus of Chinese History at Leiden University, the Netherlands.

Funding Information

The Art Institute of Chicago has received $325,000 from NEH for the exhibition "Taoism and the Arts of China." It travels to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco from February 21 to May 13, 2001.