No word for Daoism in Chinese

Language

“Daoism” is, to a great extent, a concept arising from the western preoccupation with the primacy of thought. Before the development of a western-style academia in China, the word had no direct equivalent in the Chinese language.

Da Dao (大道), or The Great Way, is not a system of thought. It is something that cannot be understood with the mind acting alone, nor is it something that can be easily categorised. The Great Way is something that is experienced, in part, through the mind, body, spirit, Nature and the Divine all acting together as one single, unified whole. Historically, several words related to The Great Way have been used in China:

  • Daojiao (道教) means the Teachings of the Way, and is taken to mean the Religion of the Way.
  • Daojia (道家), is frequently mis-translated as “Daoist Philosophy”, however jia does not mean philosophy in the western sense, but rather a school, family or house, and can just as easily be translated into English as religion as the previous term can.
  • Daoxue (道學) simply means the Study of the Way.

In all three cases, there is a holistic assumption in which thought or thinking carries no more weight than breathing, movement, energy or feeling, and in which the differentiation between self and other that gives rise to a strongly categorised worldview is viewed as a delusion, not something to be promoted.

A good example of the western miscomprehension of The Great Way is the great emphasis that has been placed on the book known as the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching 道德經), which comes closest in style to a western philosophical text, and the corresponding de-emphasis of thousands of other texts.

The Dao De Jing was originally a very specialised text aimed at rulers (Wang 王), not a general readership. Even in this specialised case, the Dao De Jing can present itself though the cultural lens of the reader’s worldview, especially in translation, but that does not make it a book of philosophy in the western sense. Its famous opening line makes this clear from the outset.

In any event, the Dao De Jing has eclipsed the most important of all texts that pertain to The Great Way, the Yi Jing (I-Ching 易經), as the most representative text of “Daoism” in the western mind. The Yi Jing, the most thorough exposition of The Great Way, is often denigrated to the level of a book of fortune telling. This is true in both East and West, largely because it is not properly understood.

In studying The Great Way, not understanding is more often than not a superior starting point than misunderstanding, and the Yi Jing is a greatly superior starting point than the Dao De Jing, at least when the profuse confucian commentaries are understood as just that, confucian commentaries, and are not taken as part of the original text as they are often presented.

This website makes use of the familiar English word Daoism (also written Taoism) as a collective term for Daojiao, Daojia and Daoxue in their original Chinese senses. This should not be taken as an acceptance of Daoism as a school of thought that can be compared to schools of thought such as Platonism or Confucianism. Just the opposite is true. In reality there is no English word that acceptably describes what Daoism is, but “religion” certainly comes much closer to the mark than “philosophy”.

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