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Taoists – China's Cynics

An alternative to both Confucius and Mozi appeared that would eventually become the second most influential school of thought among the Chinese. This was Taoism, whose legendary founder is Laozi, thought to have lived in the 500s BCE. China's literate minority has been described as reading Laozi sometime around the mid-300s. Laozi saw nature as paradoxical and essentially indescribable. He claimed that people should forget trying to acquire truth. Knowledge, he claimed, merely contributes to discontent and unhappiness. According to legend he declared:

Banish sageliness, discard wisdom, and the people will benefit a hundredfold.

Early Taoism rejected Confucianism's striving for virtue, belief in social reform, ritual and governmental regulation. Instead, Laozi advocated withdrawal from social strife, and he expected society to continue being driven by greed and a lust for power. His early followers scoffed at Confucianist veneration of early Zhou emperors. They saw futility in lecturing a king or prince to do right. They saw lectures on morality as attempts to parade one's own excellence. Laozi is believed to have written that humanity should discard words such as duty, humanity, benevolence and righteousness. Only during disorders, he claimed, did people hear talk of "loyal servants." These words, he claimed, were the flip side of strife, and strife should be avoided.

The second man of Taoism has been described as Zhuangzi (Master Zhuang). He lived from 369 to 286 – a contemporary of Mencius during the Warring States period. Zhuangzi is said to have been an official who dropped out to become a teacher. He advocated liberating oneself from narrow mindedness – by accepting Taoism. In accord with Laozi's opinions, he described Confucianism's professing values as an artifice. In the place of such values he proposed that people focus their attention on and submit to nature. Nature, he claimed, is primary.

While Mencius wrote of duty and decency, the wisdom of monarchical rule and of anarchy returning people to beastliness, the Taoists insisted that all social organization was ruinous. The Taoists claimed that more laws created more robbers and thieves, that more government created more greed and ambition. They claimed that the best rulers would be those who converted to Taoism and gave up luxurious living and warfare and who just left people alone.

The Taoists saw military leaders as murderers who built their reputations on the bodies of thousands of innocent people. They claimed that a military hero was to be pitied because he was unaware of his guilt and ignorance. Like the Buddhists, early Taoists sought salvation for themselves through a pursuit of serenity. Like many others, they believed in harmony. He who does not fight, they believed, would live in peace, and he who does not strain after success will suffer no failure.

One of their paradoxical expressions claimed that he who does nothing accomplishes everything. In this, like Mozi, they believed that one should refrain from devoting oneself to the pursuit of material gains or fame, that one should live modestly, that luxury breeds envy and that envy breeds strife. And they believed that to help end strife and greed, profits should be banished.

Believing in submitting to nature, the Taoists believed in acting on impulse, such as eating when one is hungry and sleeping when one is tired. This, they believed, left them in "perfect harmony" with their original nature. The realization that much of conflict originated with impulse (as with infants fighting over toys or adults fighting over territory) eluded them.

The Taoists sought harmony between themselves and heaven by joyfully surrendering to the will of heaven. In this, they believed, they could achieve a happiness unaffected by change and death. They favored moving to a quiet, sparsely populated area where one could contemplate the beauties of nature. If evil came one's way – as with the arrival of a murderous army – they believed in remaining passive, and if this brought death so be it, because death was inevitable.

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