What is the Tao Te Ching and the “Tao”?


Despite consisting of only 81 verses and thus being one of the shortest religious classics ever to have been written, the Tao Te Ching has profoundly influenced Chinese thought and culture for thousands of years.

It is also the major text of Taoism, the religion thought to have originated with Lao-Tzu of the Spring and Autumn period. Tradition ascribes the authorship of the Tao Te Ching to Lao-Tzu, although many scholars view him as a legendary figure of Chinese history (1). The Tao Te Ching is believed to be a collection of texts authored by several persons that developed over time only reaching its final version in the third century BCE (2). It is apparent that this pithy text was written in an age of social turmoil and thus reflects a disillusionment with the state, even referring to it as a thief and its courts as extravagant. But this was also a period of great intellectual ferment, particularly because feudal lords were seeking eagerly for a political philosophy to bring prosperity to their people and increase power for themselves. This ushered in the so-called golden age of Chinese philosophy.

Historians know very little about Lao Tzu except that he was born in 571 BCE, probably a contemporary of Confucius, came from an old, cultured family, and was a Keeper of the Imperial Archives at the capital. Some scholars have argued that Lao Tzu is entirely legendary and did not exist. Scholars and historians Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, Chien Mu, Kuo Mo, and (the Dutch) J.J.L. Duyvendak contend that the Tao Te Ching’s style and terminology belonged more appropriately to the third century BCE and that Lao Tzu could not have been a real person. If so, then the Tao Te Ching is likely an anthology of wisdom sayings completed in the Warring States Period (480-222 BCE). The verses are presented in no particular order and the style also ranges from wise anecdotes and poetry to a good dose of humor. The verses are also pithy as they attempt to communicate deep meaning through few words, which can prove to be an obstacle to interpreters trying to figure out the text’s meaning.

The Tao

The Tao Te Ching affirms a root to the world that is beyond name and description. This is the “Tao”, which is perhaps best translated as “way” and likened to a cosmic process. At the root of the world is not Being but a process that is the origin of all things as well as the creative source of the world. We find in verse 41 a pithy creation account suggesting all things to have their origin in the Tao,

“Tao produces the One. The One produced the two. The two produced the three. And the three produced the ten thousand things. The ten thousand things carry the yin and embrace the yang, and through the blending of material force they achieve harmony.”

The phrase “the ten thousand things” is a Chinese idiom referring to everything. Thus, all things in the universe ultimately owe its creation and existence to the Tao and the “One” is the stuff of creation from which further things are created. The text affirms that the ten thousand things (i.e. everything) are rooted in the interaction between yin and yang (often interpreted as “the two”), conceived as the active and passive or positive and negative forces. This interaction manifests “harmony” through a blending of material force (“chi” or life essence). An example of this interaction would be sexual reproduction when a man and a woman come together to produce a child.

Underlying everything is non-being, which distinguishes Taoism from those religions which perceive the underlying principle of creation as an Absolute, personal being. The Tao’s character is soundless, vast, and empty. It is non-being and can be compared to a bowl in which things arise and interact, almost spontaneously. The Tao is also everywhere; according to verses 4 and 34,

“Tao is empty yet if fills every vessel with endless supply. Tao is hidden yet it shines in every corner of the universe” (verse 4).

“The Great Tao flows everywhere. It may go left or right. All things depend on it for life, and it does not turn away from them” (verse 34).

Verse 34 is informative concerning the function of the Tao. The Tao “may go left or right” and suggests an aimlessness and purposelessness to its behaviour. It has no strategy or plan but it is also benevolent for it does not turn away from those things that depend on it. This distinguishes it from other concepts of deity which hold God to have a specific plan and purpose for the world and human beings within it. But if the Tao is really aimless then what does it say about the world? How does the world maintain its harmony if everything derives from the aimless Tao?

Yin and Yang

The answer is that the Tao functions much like a pendulum that swings between yin (negative form of energy) and yang (positive form of energy): “Reversion is the action of the Tao. Weakness is the function of the Tao” (verse 42). As such, all processes involve a sort of pendular swaying and rhythmic action between the two extremes of yin and yang. A knowledge of extremes or poles requires a knowledge of opposites. For example, verse 58 speaks of calamity that can only be known of if one is aware of happiness. Taoism goes even further to teach that the one extreme is dependent on the other and that the processes of life oscillate between the two extremes.

Human Beings in the World

Verse 76 of the Tao Te Ching has the following to say of the place of human beings within the world,

“When man is born, he is tender and weak. At death, he is stiff and hard. All things, the grass as well as the trees, are tender and supple when alive. When dead, they are withered and dried. Therefore, the stiff and the hard are companions of death. The tender and weak are companions of life.”

According to this verse, in a world in which things are always undergoing processes of change and are in constant flux, the best way to live is to be flexible. Death is associated with that which is stiff and hard, but life is tender and supple. The Tao, as we learned in verse 34, moves without direction and plan, and humans beings would best adapt to these changes. Rigidity will not serve them and harmony with the Tao is desirable. In verse 8, the “best man” is analogous to water: “[water] benefits all things and does not compete with them.” Water is soft and it flows smoothly, thus adapts to change. Human beings lose harmony with the Tao when they try to change the course of things instead of just allowing life to follow its course.

The Ideal Government

As we noted, the Tao Te Ching was written during a time of political turmoil in China’s history, which we find reflected in verse 17,

“The best [rulers] are those whose existence is known by the people. The next best are those who are loved and praised. The next are those who are feared. And the next are those who are despised… [The great rulers] accomplish their task; they complete their work. Nevertheless their people say that they simply follow Nature.”

Here it teaches that the best kind of governments are those that govern lightly. Such a government is so light that people are hardly even aware that they are being governed and it leaves them feeling as though they are free. This ultra-light form of state control encourages people to behave naturally and spontaneously, which is the best way to live a harmonious life. The Tao Te Ching further teaches that those government which are loved and praised by the people it governs is only second best, behind a government that governs lightly. For a people to love a ruling government they must be aware of its activity as a power over them, which, according to the Tao Te Ching, is not as good as a government whose touch is so light that it is not felt. Third comes a government which is feared, which is better than a government which is despised. It is better to have order, even if this order is based upon fear than to have disorder that arises when a government has no authority.

Concluding Thoughts on the Tao

There are various interpretations of and perspectives on the Tao. As Arnolds Grava observes,

“The concept of Tao has been at all times most difficult to interpret because of its multiple connotations, and because of the over-emphasis by some commentators on one particular aspect of it, to the exclusion of the others” (3).

This short article will certainly not settle the question of interpretation. For some, a reading of the Tao Te Ching suggests the Tao not to be a personal deity but more as something akin to the laws of nature. The Tao seems like a process within the universe with which human beings will have to, should they wish to live successfully, survive, and find spiritual fulfillment, exist in harmony with. If so, the Tao Te Ching proposes what seems like a spiritualized and intellectualized view of natural law. The authors of the Tao Te Ching likely witnessed and reflected upon processes within the universe that to them evidenced startling signs of intelligibility. Such intelligibility no doubt found expression in the regular rising and setting of the sun, the appearance and disappearance of the heavenly bodies, the growth and decay of plants and crops, and so on. There seems intelligibility involved in these processes.

Grava presents a view that proposes the Tao’s essence to correspond with the scientific concept of a tensional field. According to this view, the Tao’s “very principle, its inward bipolarity, is precisely what characterizes every field of tension, be it the nuclear (between protons and neutrons), be it the extra-nuclear (between the nucleus and the electrons), or be it the gravitational (between one atom and another).” These polar tensions constitute the so-called structural field of the cosmos from where the Tao manifests its own function or power (Te) to produce all things. The Tao Te Ching’s notion of “Heaven” and “Earth” can be interpreted to correlate with the space-time world, and are therefore symbols or symbolic representations of the dynamism both behind and within the appearance of the world. The Te can be viewed as the unifying power or the binding force of the two poles in the field of tension. The Tao Te Ching also proposes the idea of a void or emptiness thought to be a necessary interval or space between the polar poles of this field. This “in-between” space functions as the background for the interplay of opposites from which patterns are created and development is possible (4). The patterns and material entities created through this process of the interplay of opposites allow the Tao to be perceived through observable phenomena in the universe. Further, to say that the Tao cannot be described is to say that its state of potentiality, presumably its potential to create an incomprehensible number of things (both known and unknown to us), is beyond human conceptualization and comprehension. Grava marvels at how “modern this almost 2500-year-old concept sounds, if interpreted correctly, and viewed from the modern perspective.”

Another view emphasizes the feminine aspect of the Tao. Ellen Marie Chen says that of all ancient Chinese classics, it is the Tao Te Ching that “stands alone in explicitly speaking of Tao as the Mother of the world (v. 25): it is the dark female animal (v. 6); to reach union with Tao man needs to abide by the female (v. 28); the female animal overcomes the male animal by its stillness (5). Such traces from the text have led some western scholars to suggest that Tao was originally a Mother-goddess (6). Indeed goddesses were not uncommon in the ancient world as evidenced in artifacts such as the Venus figurines and the many goddesses in the sacred scriptures of, for example, the Hindus and Shintoists, or in the popular belief of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Marie Chen views the Tao Te Ching as a work on naturalism and primitivism with nature being good, sacred, and harmonious. The meaning of the term “ming”, the Taoist term for spiritual enlightenment, convinced her that the Tao Te Ching was indeed a work in search of immortality and of a more integrated life rooted in hidden creative power.


1. Chang, Hsiu-Chen. 1998. “On the Historicity of the “Tao Te Ching.” Comparative Literature Studies 35(2):146-173

2. Hofmeyr, Jan. 1991. “The Religions of China.” In A Southern African Guide to World Religions, edited by J. W. De Gruchy and M. Prozesky, 101-118. Cape Town: David Philip

3. Grava, Arnolds. 1963. “Tao: An Age-Old Concept in Its Modern Perspective.” Philosophy East and West 13(3):235-250.

4. Chang, Amos Ih Tiao. 1956. The Existence of Intangible Content in Architectonic Form based upon the Practicality of Laotzu’s Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 7.

5. Marie Chen, Ellen. 1974. “Tao as the Great Mother and the Influence of Motherly Love in the Shaping of Chinese Philosophy.” History of Religions 14(1):51-64.

6. Duyvendak J. J. L. 1954. Tao Te Ching. London: John Murray. p. 56.


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