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East and Southeast AsiaThe Daoist Yin-yang

The principles of yin and yang were associated with both the Yijing of the twenty-third century B.C.E. and Laozi, the sixth century B.C.E. Daoist philosopher. Yin is dark, yang is light, yin is night, yang is day, yin is cold, yang is hot. One yin and one yang make the Dao (yiyin yiyang zhiwei dao). The Chinese characters tell the tale: yin represents the constitution of the moon while yang represents the constitution of the sun. They are eternal partners in a cosmological relationship that governs every action and event in life. Yin-yang is the clearest expression of an ancient Chinese life of equilibrium. This polar coupling had a profound impact on Confucius and Confucianism, especially in terms of virtues and their coexistence.

Laozi believed that the yin-yang balance was key to the workings of the universe. To be mutable like water was the path to longevity. A single drop of water can go where no army can—through a crack in a mighty wall. In Dao de jing (The Book of the Way and the Book of Virtue), the philosophy of Dao shines forth. The best leader is the one who lags behind; the best teacher is the one who does not try to instruct anyone. Following his own philosophy, Laozi departed from an overly administered city life for the quiet confines of a mountain retreat far away from the Confucian bureaucracy.

Zhuangzi, a follower of Laozi, explicated many Daoist principles in terms of parables. He embraced Laozi's principle of wuwei (nonaction): the best action is no action. Recounting the ebb and tide of life, Zhuangzi tells the story of a trip to the mountains. One day, he sees a gigantic tree with plush foliage. When a woodcutter passed up the tree, Zhuangzi asked why. The reply was that the tree had no use. Zhuangzi concluded that because of its uselessness, the tree could live. Later on, Zhuangzi stopped by a friend's home in the valley. The friend had two geese, one that cackled and one that did not. The friend instructed his son to kill and prepare the goose that did not cackle. The following day, Zhuangzi's students asked of him: "Yesterday, there was a tree on the mountain that gets to live out the years Heaven gave it because of its worthlessness. Now there's our host's goose that gets killed because of its worthlessness. What position would you take in such a case, Master?" (Watson, p. 209). Zhuangzi answers that he might stand halfway between worth and worthlessness: "climb up on the Way and its Virtues and go drifting and wandering, neither praised nor damned, now a dragon, now a snake, shifting with the times, never willing to hold to one course only" (Watson, p. 209). Zhuangzi extols a middle path: "Now up, now down, taking harmony for your measure, drifting and wandering with the ancestor of the ten thousand things, treating things as things but not letting them treat you as a thing—then how could you get into any trouble?" (Watson, p. 210). Following from Laozi and Zhuangzi is a distinction between philosophical and religious Daoism. The study of the classical texts of Daoism caught the court's eye in the Han dynasty, where the term daojia (philosophical Daoism) was first introduced. As an exemplar for political rule, philosophical Daoism emphasized following the Dao through both meditation and the union of thought and action. Although Confucianism was proclaimed the official religion/philosophy of the Han, Daoism became popular while leading the path to the development of daojiao (religious Daoism) that revered a deified Laozi. Religious Daoism strove for immortality through various practices including meditation, alchemy, breathing, and sexual practices. The intermingling of official classical religions and popular versions is an important point of convergence. Endymion Wilkinson writes:

To the extent that historians are concerned with questions of value and belief, they cannot afford to ignore the history of Chinese religion in all its many forms—popular or elite, public or private, formal or informal, common or esoteric, home-grown or imported, secret or open. (pp. 570–571)

The impact that Daoism had on both Confucianism and Buddhism should not be overlooked. In the Wei (220–265 C.E.) and Jin (265–420 C.E.) dynasties, Daoism emerged again through a melding of Confucian ideas. Daoism may also have paved the way for Buddhism coming into China, especially with its emphasis on meditation. Buddhist monks, Daoist priests, and Confucian masters flourished at Lushan (Lu Mountain). Their interactions were reciprocal, especially in popular forms.

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