Daoism is a generic term covering various Chinese philosophical and religious traditions that trace their origins back to the possibly apocryphal figure Laozi from the sixth century BCE, after whom a small collection of mystico-poetic aphorisms is named, also called Daodejing (Scripture [jing] of the Way [Dao] and Its Virtue [de]). As its name implies, Daoism's cardinal concept is Dao, the primordial, creative source that gives rise to and nourishes all things and to which all things return. Human flourishing requires living with the grain of Dao in material and mental simplicity, in a state of tranquil freedom and active inaction. Philosophical Daoism, emphasizing the fecundity of emptiness and the mutual definition and transformation of contrary qualities and states, provides the archetypical intellectual framework for diverse Chinese disciplines, such as aesthetics, medicine, and martial arts. Religious Daoism, which re-interpreted and developed the concepts of philosophical Daoism, addresses people's concerns with mortality and the supernatural, the former through alchemy and its extension in the form of "inner alchemy" involving cultivation of the body and the latter through various practices intended to influence spiritual beings. Both streams of Daoism, together with Confucianism, have shaped the basic outlook of the Chinese people for over 2,000 years, with their influences extending to China's East Asian neighbors.
The common version of Daodejing opens by stating bluntly that the communicable Dao is not the Absolute Dao, immediately putting the author's own effort into question and setting an ironic tone that permeates the entire work. A skepticism about language's fidelity also pervades Zhuangzi, named after Zhuangzi (ca. 369-ca. 286 B.C.E.), considered to be almost Laozi's equal as Daoism's twin founders. True to this skepticism, the language of Daodejing is poetic and paradoxical, while Zhuangzi employs parables to make its points. The results are two masterpieces, one of poetry, the other of prose, constituting two sources of the Chinese literary tradition.
The terse, enigmatic language of Daodejing makes it pregnant with interpretative possibilities, opening up immense imaginative space in the reader's mind, just as the primordial, empty Dao is the all-embracive mother of the whole creation. Considering also that the origins of this work on the elusive Dao are shrouded in mystery, Daodejing exemplifies what it preaches in more than one way.
The fact is that Daoism espouses very general principles discernible and applicable across diverse domains, even in modern physics, as Capra tries to show in The Tao of Physics. Because Laozi, thought to be Confucius's contemporary, lived in a politically volatile era with widespread suffering, Daodejing has been read both as political advice for the ruler and survival strategies for the ruled. For example, active inaction can be interpreted as laissez-faire government, Machiavellian machination, or self-preservation through withdrawal. Daoist political principles were actually part of the short-lived state-sanctioned Huang-Lao ideology in the early Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) before Confucianism's ascendance. Even after Daoism's official displacement by Confucianism, Daoist strategies, such as retreating before an advance, continued to inform many political intrigues behind the Confucian facade.
Elements of Daoist thought, with their aversion to bureaucratic imposition, and elevation of the lowly and the weak, were soon adopted by peasant groups rebelling against the Han government. They fashioned their religio-political regimes by combining these Daoist elements with egalitarianism, millenarian prophecies of an age of great peace, popular healing practices, and revelations from the deified Laozi now honored as the founder of their movements with titles like Lord Lao. This greatly advanced the development of religious Daoism, which was also stimulated by the arrival and spread of Buddhism in China around this time. The rebels eventually reconciled with successors of the Han government. Through official recognition and conferment of attendant privileges, religious Daoist sects were institutionalized, although rebels in subsequent ages continued to legitimate themselves with variations of Daoist religious beliefs.
With the establishment of Confucianism as state ideology and the domestication of rebellious Daoist movements, Daoism moved inward and developed its spiritual aspects. On the philosophical wing, this gave rise to Neo-Daoism, which elaborated the metaphysical nature of Dao and influenced various Chinese fine arts, such as calligraphy, painting, and poetry, by putting forth the ideal of spontaneous creativity, among other things, and emphasizing the meditative potential of artistic practices.
On the religious wing, esoteric practices pursuing personal well-being and immortality were developed. Soon mainstream Daoism became established as a spiritual path toward personal salvation. Since then Daoism and Confucianism have been two complementary, intertwining strands in the fabric of Chinese culture. Both traditions emphasize the complementary of contraries and the necessity of their harmonious integration, represented visually by the diagram of the Great Ultimate, showing a circle with two interpenetrating halves morphing into each other, an icon adopted by both traditions and now most frequently seen on the attire of religious Daoists.