On Daoism: Religion as a System of Culture

Vol. 42 No. 4   12/2012    


On Daoism: Religion as a System of Culture


Chang, Heng  









Key words

Daoism, Dao, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Shaman-historian tradition


        This article seeks to explore the origin of pre-Qin Daoism based on an interpretation of the texts of Laozi and Zhuangzi. It traces the genesis of their philosophical contemplation in an effort to understand the relationship between Daoism and primitive religion. From our perspective, primitive religion in China is characterized as a “Shaman-historian tradition.” It was imbued with profound wisdom, and flourished in the southern Chu region against a complicated historical background. Credible evidence contained in the Tianxia chapter of Zhuangzi directs our attention to the peculiarly religious nature of Daoism. Although their thought was a product of the Shaman-historian tradition, Laozi and Zhuangzi actually reformulated that tradition to a great extent. The primordial “Ultimate Oneness of Divine Brightness” was transformed into the metaphysical substance of Dao, and indigenous mythology was converted into philosophical allegory. All of the rituals, worship, and even magical incantations were discarded. This reformation, however, did not eliminate the tradition’s inherent religiosity, which was simply forgotten by later generations. The reason that Laozi is called an “Immensely Great Authentic Person” and Zhuangzi a “Heavenly Person” or “Ultimate Person” should be understood in the religious sense. The spiritual freedom gained from the physical cultivation of “nonaction” and “non-dependence” is the highest achievement in this religious tradition. The argument of this article is plain and straightforward; therefore the main text is only divided numerically without any section titles in order to avoid unnecessary distraction. Furthermore, in so far as the intention of this essay is to trace the genetic origin and explore the essence of Daoism rather than textual criticism per se, I have decided to, somewhat generically, entitle it “On Daoism.”  



Author: Chang, Heng
Genre: Article