A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy
An Anthropological/Psychological View

You-Sheng Li, Ph.D.

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Copyright © You-Sheng Li 2005
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations in articles or reviews.

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A Few Words About This Book to Guide the Reader

This is not a general introductory book of Taoist philosophy or religion but rather a new interpretation from the anthropological and psychological view. It suits both general and academic readers. This interpretation sheds considerable new light on some academic issues regarding Chinese culture in relation to sociology and anthropology.

The physical world is rational and the social world is rational but our mind is often irrational. The irrational thinking and behaviour are allowed to ourselves and among our close friends. There is much more in this world and in our lives than rational analysis can embrace, and the mystic feature of Taoist thinking is closer to the truth in that it honours both the inner and outer world.

Taoism is a philosophy, a religion, and a way of life. It is a vehicle of pure philosophical speculation and also serves as a practical guide to living. Traditionally Taoism emphasises teaching without words. It is like a piece of art that conveys something more beyond its form. The attentive viewer can even feel the artist's emotion, almost his presence. The Taoist classics Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, Wen Tzu, Leih Tzu, and Huainan Tzu all have the quality of music and poetry. They often use different fables, stories, and aphorisms to illustrate the same point, returning to the same theme from different angles. Repetition itself conveys extra meaning in addition to the rhythm it creates. To follow the style of those Taoist classics, fables, stories, and even fictions are interwoven with elucidating text to make them enjoyable and informative for a general reader.

There is a short story at the beginning of each chapter except chapter 15, and an additional seven in 1.2 (Chapter 1 Section 2), 3.3, 7.2, 9.3, 9.4, 9.6, and 14.5. Those stories are either from the Taoist classics or from other well-known books to illustrate the Taoist way of thinking and the Chinese cultural traditions. Those stories, all in Italic, can be read alone as a collection of Taoist fables. Chapter 4 presents a fictional account of the lives of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu to give the reader a more vivid impression about what kind of philosophers we are encountering while reading this book. Academic readers can skip them if they are tight in time.

The first chapter describes the era when Taoist philosophy first appeared, and also identifies some branching points at which Western and Chinese cultures departed in history in order to help the Western reader to understand Taoism. Chapters 2 and 3 present the essence of Taoist philosophy and its new interpretation. Chapter 5 describes the founder of the first Chinese dynasty, Great Yu and his life. This was the first branching point in history, separating the West from the East, and embedding the Taoist tradition in all subsequent Chinese history. Chapters 6 and 7 talk about spare time and the multiple levels of operation in the world in relation to Taoism. The last chapter includes five independent articles discussing a current or historical issue in light of this new interpretation of Taoist philosophy. The chapters from 8 to 14 discuss certain topics that further elucidate this new interpretation in relation to the daily lives of ordinary people. Keywords and Chapter Summaries at the end of the book help those who only read certain chapters and they may find those appendixes helpful to gain a succinct knowledge about other chapters. In fact, all chapters and sections can be read alone as independent essays on specific topics but there may be some minor repeating if one reads the whole book.

An academic reader may read those summaries first before he reads the text in detail. As the word reader refers both to female and male, the word he in the above sentence should be understood as pertaining to both female and male. To save time and space, such a rule is followed throughout this book though I apologize here to those who find this too exclusive.


The following is the Table of Contents from the book:



A Few Words About this Book to Guide the Reader

The Chinese Names


Chapter 1   The Pre-Understanding Phase in Human History

(1) Introduction: The West and the East

(2) The Tao in the Light of Modern Science

(3) The Pre-Understanding Phase of Chinese History

(4)   Why Taoism Appeared in Ancient China but not in the West

(5) Comparison of Axial China with Modern Europe: Taoism and Existentialism

Chapter 2  The Essence of Taoist Philosophy

(1)   The Essence of Taoist Philosophy: Small States

(2)   The Essence of Taoist Philosophy: Other Classic Authors

(3)   The Essence of Taoist Philosophy: The Real People

(4)   Confuciusís Prehistoric World Commonwealth

(5)   The Primary Group and the Primary Society

(6)   The Hero and the Primary and Secondary Societies

Chapter 3 The Primary and the Secondary Society

(1) Biological Basis for the Primary Society

(2) No ideal Secondary Society Suits Humans Well

(3) The Prehistoric Paradise May be a Universal Experience of Humanity

(4)   The Miracle of the Indus Valley Civilization

Chapter 4  The Founders of Taoist Philosophy: Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu

(1) The Founders and Their Lives

( 2 ) Confucius Meets Lao Tzu

(3)  The Death of Chuang Tzu

Chapter 5  Great Yu as a Branching Point in the Course of Chinese Cultural Evolution

            (1) Rivers and the Pathways of Human Cultural Evolution

(2)  The Yellow River and Great Yu

(3)   The Conflicting Details of Surviving Records and Taoism

            (4) Comparison with the Miracle of the Indus Valley Civilization

(5) Great Yuís Thirteen Year Odyssey as a Political Campaign

(6) The Taoist Traditions in Comparison with the West

Chapter 6 Spare Time and Social Pyramids

(1) Spare Time and the Self Existence King      

(2) There is no Law Dictating How to Spend Spare Time

(3)    The Social Pyramids

(4) Human Nature is Essentially Peaceful and Self-contained but has a Wide Range of Peripheral Potentials

(5) Spare Time is the Basis for the Development and Advancement of Culture and Civilization

(6) Our Society is Fully Open to Further Development

            (7) The Six Levels

Chapter 7 The Multiple Level Operation of Our World

(1)   The Independence of Individuals

(2)   The Multiple Level Operation in Our World

(3)   Darwinís Theory and the Multiple Levels of the Biological World

(4)   Organic Society

Chapter 8 Human Nature

(1) The Taoist View

(2)   The Plasticity and Openness of Human Nature

(3) The Spectrum of Human Desires

(4) Human Children and Apes

(5) Leisureliness of Mind is the Basis for the Development and Advancement of Culture and Civilization

(6)  Equality is Rooted in Our Nature

Chapter 9 Death and Immortality

(1)               Introduction

(2)               Death and Immortality at the Biological Level

(3)                 Death and Immortality at the Social Level

(4)               Death and Immortality at the Cultural Level 

(5)               Death and Immortality at the Intellectual Level

(6)               Death and Immortality at the Intellectual Level

(7)                Death and Immortality at the Cosmic Level

Chapter 10 The Taoist Concept of Freedom

(1)               Freedom in the West and the East  

(2)               Freedom at the Cultural Level

(3)               Freedom at the Other Five Levels

Chapter 11 Enjoyment and Happiness

(1)               Introduction: Culture and Happiness

(2)        Taoist Enjoyment

(3)        Lao Tzuís Three Treasures

(4)               Balance Your Emotions and Enjoy the Moment

(5)               The Six Levels of Enjoyment and Happiness

(6)               The Six Levels of Human Relationship

Chapter 12       Life Cultivation

(1)               The Taoist Life Cultivation

(2)               Nature and Man are One

(3)               Imagination and Reality

(4)               The Cultivation of Happiness

(5)                The Taoist Goal of Self Cultivation

(6)               The Taoist Deity

(7)               Taoist Influence on Chinese Medicine

Chapter 13   Aesthetics

(1)    Beauty Brimming Over Every Corner of Life

(2)    The Taoist Aesthetic Theory

(3)    Aesthetics as a Replacement for Religion

(4)    Taoist Aesthetics and the Life of Intellectuals in Chinese History, and Chinese Calligraphy 

Chapter 14   The South and The North

(1) Introduction

(2) Social Power and Talented Culture are Separate

(3) Reciprocity, Equality, and Inequality

                (4)  The Centre and the Peripheral Areas

(5) Defencelessness and Terrorism

Chapter 15       Social Implications

1.         Greek Tragedy and the Watercourse Way of Taoist Thinking

2.         Taoism and Mao Zedong

3.         The Taoist Emperors in Chinese History

4.         Has Democracy Run Out of Choice?

5.         The Movie HERO and Chinese Taoist Philosophy


Key Terms

Chapter Summaries