The Tao Te Ching Industrial Average


Since we looked at Confucius last week, it only makes sense to move on to his supposed contemporary Lao-Tzu. Not a whole lot is known about him, and even what is known might not be accurate. The name Lao-Tzu, or Laozi in the Pinyin Romanization, means “old master,” so it’s really more of a title. His original name is said to be either Li Er or Li Dan. According to legend, he lived in the sixth century BC, and worked as an archivist for the Zhou imperial court. Becoming fed up with the decadence and moral decline of the imperial city, he eventually set out toward the west on a water buffalo.

When he arrived at the westernmost gate of China, the guard asked him to write down his philosophy, and that’s said to be how the Tao Te Ching came to be. There are also tales of his having met with Confucius. Many modern scholars, however, think that “Lao-Tzu” might actually be a composite character, and that the Tao Te Ching was composed by different sages over several centuries. Some followers of Taoism have deified the old sage, and there are many myths about him that are much wackier than the one about his leaving China on a buffalo, like the one about how he was born an old man.

While Confucianism was intended as a practical belief system, Taoism is much more mystical. The Tao, which can be loosely translated as “The Way,” is the path to true harmony with nature. The desired state in Taoism is that of Wu Wei, which means “without action,” but isn’t meant to be taken literally. From what I’ve been able to gather, it basically means knowing when to act, and making sure your actions are natural. As with Buddhism, human desire is thought to be a negative thing, driving people away from simplicity. There’s also a sort of anti-authoritarian aspect to Taoism, in that it opposes greedy and power-hungry rulers. The old saying, “That government is best which governs least,” often attributed to Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, fits pretty well with what Lao-Tzu (if he existed) taught. Kind of odd, then, that the Tang Dynasty would claim descent from the sage, but I suppose there’s no religion or philosophy that shrewd leaders can’t use to their own advantage. And no, I haven’t read The Tao of Pooh, even though pretty much everyone else has.

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10 Responses to The Tao Te Ching Industrial Average

  1. vilajunkie says:

    I’ve read The Tao of Pooh AND The Te of Piglet, a sort of sequel using the idea that “the small are not weak”. I love the philosophy of Taoism; it makes so much sense to me. However, people who use Taoism as a business model (thus warping it) or even just as an excuse to obsess over everything superficially Asian (such as eating nothing but sushi or buying martial arts weapons to decorate their house) make me groan.

    • Nathan says:

      Does that ever happen the other way ’round? Are there Asians who convert to Christianity because they like cheeseburgers?

      • vilajunkie says:

        I’m not sure about that, but the Japanese in particular have a nationwide fascination with all kinds of American food and culture. They misinterpret most of it, of course; for example, the number one food of choice on Valentine’s Day for the Japanese isn’t chocolate, but KFC! But the Japanese (and by extension most East Asians) aren’t really big on chocolate anyway. They prefer fruity or salty-to-bitter snacks, including a lot of shrimp-flavored junk food.

      • Nathan says:

        Hey, I prefer fruity snacks to chocolate ones, too.

        I think I’ve heard that the Japanese have different interpretations of Christmas and Valentine’s Day, in that they’re both romantic holidays, but the guys are the gift-givers during the former and the women during the latter. Is this accurate?

      • vilajunkie says:

        That I’m not sure about. But I think an article/post about Western holidays in non-Western countries would be really cool if you can find out anything on the subject.

      • Nathan says:

        Thanks for the idea! I’ll look into that.

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