Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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TAUISM (TAO-ISM, TO;, or Doctrine of Lao-Tse). One of the three state religions of China is Tauism. It is recognized and supported by the imperial government, and one of the popular sayings is, "However the empire be disordered and convulsed, the Changs (popes of Tauism) and the Kungs (descendants of Confucius) have no occasion to be troubled." Perhaps that which most attracts the attention of foreigners who observe the rites of the Chinese at home or on American soil, is that which is referred to Tauism, rather than to the cult of Buddha or the ethics of Confucius. Yet, the religion and the system of philosophy must be carefully distinguished; for, whatever else Lao-Tse is responsible for, "he ought not to bear the obloquy of being the founder of the Taôist religion." Pure Tauism is probably not to be found in China, though in Corea it is probable that it exists in something like its original purity. In this article we shall briefly sketch the man and his system, describing in detail the widely spread and highly popular religion that calls itself by his name, and of which he is in no sense of the word the founder. Rejecting the vulgar fancies and later traditions which find so dazzling an expression in the gilt and paint and cabalistic characters and incantations of a "joss-house," we shall outline the historical career of Lao-Tse. He was born in the feudal age of China, in the petty kingdom of Tsu, now the province of Honan, in 604 B. C. His surname was Li (plum), and his personal name Ur (ear, or flat ear). From early life he was an arduous student and much given to meditation. When come to manhood, he was appointed librarian, or keeper of the records, at the court of the Chow dynasty. When eighty-eight years old, he was visited by Confucius, then thirty-five years of age, and a conversation between the two followed, in which the elder appears to have given the younger a tart lecture, couched in vaguely oracular language. Confucius seems to have left the sage with the impression that his words were too profound or too transcendental for practical purposes, and after that pursued his own methods of inquiry. It was perhaps subsequent to this interview that Li Ur was known as Lao-Tse, or Venerable Sage; though the two Chinese characters may also be rendered Old Boy—on which basis, the popular legend that he was born with white hair and with the expression of an aged man, was reared. There is not, however, one line in the sage's works, which gives countenance to marvels or supernaturalism of any kind, the multitudinous fantastic legends concerning Lao-Tse having been invented much later. The sage devoted himself to expanding his doctrine of Tau (the Way), and shunned all notoriety. Foreseeing the fall of the Chow dynasty, he left the capital with his face set westward. Before passing through the boundary gate, Yin Hsi, the warden and his admirer, persuaded the sage to commit his doctrines to writing. Lao-Tse complied, and wrote down what appear like lecture notes, which need further oral expansion. In this treatise, Tau-ti King, containing eighty-one chapters in not over 5,000 characters, his views on the Tau (Way) are set forth in an exceedingly verse, gnomic style. He then passed westward beyond the frontier, and with this final sentence of the historian Sze-ma Chien (B. C. 135-68) the voice of history is silent. He died probably about 523 B. C. The systems of Lao-Tse and Confucius may be thus stated: Confucius, a statesman rather than a philosopher, sought to find for men a rule of conduct in a code of practical morals founded on ancient precedents, the examples and precepts of kings and sages. Lao-Tse's labors, on the contrary, were purely philosophical. Man was to attain to the perfection of his nature through contemplation of God, by subduing his passions and possessing his soul in calm. Quietism is thus the first requisite of a true life. The highest morality is inculcated. In speculative physics, Lao-Tse teaches that creation proceeded from a First Principle, impersonal, self-existent and self-developing, which produced motion, whence issued all things in the universe, which have in them the dual principle of active and passive, or male and female. In politics, the sovereign elected of the people should be their model and teacher rather than ruler and judge. The voice of the people is Heaven's voice. The ruler must first right himself, then the country will be well governed. Too much government is to be deprecated. Light taxation, moderate punishments, the people well fed, but not too much enlightened, courtesy and moderation between states, will secure lasting peace and prosperity. Previous to Lao-Tse's time, the Chinese worshiped Shang-ti (Lord of Heaven, Theos, Jehovah) and Tien (Heaven). The Tau-ti King recognized God (Shang-ti) as before Tau, though it is through Tau that Heaven is to be attained. By means of Tau the soul was to attain its original state and be immortal. European scholars at first believed that the Hebrew name Jehovah was contained in Lao-Tse's book, both in phonetics, and by popular apprehension, but this idea is now exploded. The sage recognizes as fact the existence of God (Ti), but makes his Tau (Reason, the Way) primal, and superior to God. The Ti, or virtue of the Tau, becomes fulfilled in man in its highest development, by his abstraction from worldly cares, and freedom from anxiety. In other words, he teaches that non-existence is the goal of man, and equivalent to pure existence; or, as Hegel would say, they are identical. "Being and Non-being are the same." Whether Lao-Tse borrowed this tenet from the India Brahmans, or originated it, is uncertain, but the very vagueness of the system, increased by the terseness of his style, resembling that of oracles or enigmas, made it the fit soil for the strange crop that afterward grew upon it. Until the introduction of Buddhism, 68 A. D., idols were unknown in China, and Tauism was but a philosophy and a literary puzzle, though with new codes of natural and psychical philosophy grafted on it by disciples. As such it was more acceptable to minds to which metaphysical speculation was congenial, than the bald ethics of Confucius, based as these were on materialism and routine precedents; but its evolution was toward degradation. In contact and rivalry with Buddhism, the occult arts and superstitions of centuries past fastened upon Tauism so firmly that what was parasite and what was original stock could not be popularly distinguished. While the mystic element expanded voluminously, professing to teach corporeal immortality, the transmutation of metals, the composition of the elixir of life which raised men to the equal of genii—arts long after introduced into Europe—the popular belief, travestying Buddhism, filled its temples with images of deities, which became gods of the state. Out of the crowd of the early fathers of war, medicine and literature, idol deifies were multiplied indefinitely, until Buddhism was offset with its own weapons, by a native instead of a foreign pantheon. The recognition of Tauism as a state religion practically began when Wu-ti (140-88 B. C.) encouraged the alchemists, though the Tang emperors (618-905 A. D.) first admitted Lao-Tse to the rank of gods, under the title of "Great Supreme, Emperor of the Dark First Cause." Later, titles were added by admiring emperors. It must be remembered that Confucianism was not until a thousand years after the death of its founder universally spread throughout China; nor was it until A. D. 1012 that he received by imperial mandate the title "Most Perfect Sage." During the early centuries of the Christian era. Tauism had the field. The first Tauist popedom, or patriarchate, held by Chang Tau-ling, which was founded in the first century, has been held in the line of his descendants to the present day, and the sect has spread into the various nations surrounding the Middle Kingdom that accept Chinese culture. In the popular religion, "the Three Pure Ones," which are found in Tauist temples form the most conspicuous group of idols representing Lao-Tse, Chaos or Pan-kû, "The first man," and Shang-ti, or God, of the early Chinese religion. Many other idols, representing gods of every degree, incarnating perhaps the forces of nature, crowd the temples; and the religion of Tauism, though professedly based on reason, or at least rationalism, is a hopeless congeries of superstition.


—LITERATURE. The Tau-ti King has been translated into English by the Rev. J. Chalmers (London), into French by Rémusat and Stanislas Julien, and into German by Plancker and V. von Strauss, the first and last being considered the most faithful to the original. See also Legge's The Religions of China, New York, 1881; Martin's The Chinese, New York, 1881; and Oriental Religions, China, Boston, 1881.


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