Chinese Written Language in Taoist Thought

‘It is the search for the Tao, the Way of Nature which, if you could become part of it, would take you to the edge of reality and beyond.’ ~ Martin Palmer

Taoist philosophy and practices have influenced Integral Yoga enormously. Integral Yoga, as I write on the Welcome Home page of this website, ‘has a Taoist twist’. Taoist philosophy and practices form a large part of the practice of Integral Yoga of the Dharma Ananda tradition. This is largely because of the compatibility and consistency with much of the teachings of more than one school of Hindu philosophy, in particular Advaita Vedanta, but also because they are effective meditative and contemplative practices. Whether these practices are based on living out the contemplative philosophy in the foundational Taoist texts or whether they are energetic, working with vital energy or life force (ch’i; qi, 气), Taoism cannot be excluded from discussions on ancient wisdom. Indeed, I have learnt a great deal from Taoist philosophy and practices and so have other traditions. Taoism contributed to the teachings of Confucianism, in particular Neo-Confucianism which wove together threads from both Taoism and Chán Buddhism (禅), although differs greatly from Confucianism in the sense that holds an organic view of the world, rather than one that Confucianism regards as requiring morality, regulation and codes of conduct. It has also contributed significantly to shaping Chinese Buddhism, or Chán Buddhism (禅), and thus also how it developed beyond Vietnam and Korea in Japan around 1300CE, as Zen Buddhism. Many new-age forms of Taoism, while distinctly different from the original philosophy in the foundational Taoist text, recognise their lineage and pay homage to Taoist thought and ancient Chinese wisdom.  

The Mysterious Birth of Taoism 

It has been speculated that Taoism, originating in ancient China, is far older than its foundational text is said to date back to. Taoism (Tao-chiao; Dàojiào; 道教), one of China’s three major religious traditions, is composed of practices and philosophies that address one’s relationship to the Tao (Dào道).  All that is known of the origins of Taoism is that its known texts date back to at least circa 400 BCE. Around 100BCE, the school of Taoism identified the three great founding teachers, or rather masters, or Tzu (Zi; 子), when it began to trace it roots. These were, and still are Lao Tzu (Lǎozǐ; 老子), Chuang Tzu (Zhuāngzǐ莊子) and Lieh Tzu (Lièzǐ; 列子). The earliest seminal text Tao Te Ching (Dàodé Jīng, 道德经) is ascribed to Lao Tzu, yet there is almost nothing at all known about this master, whom some believe is fictional. Lieh Tzu is also believed to be a fictional figure, which leaves only Chuang Tzu (Zhuāngzǐ; 莊子), of the ancient texts of the same name.

The Tao has been translated in numerous ways, some of which are terms that exist in a number of other traditions and lineages: source, timelessness, the birth of consciousness, universal energy, oneness, non-dual reality or supreme nature. Conceptually, Taoist texts incorporate a range of metaphors of nature to describe what living in harmony with the Tao, (Dào; 道) is in practice, while maintaining that if the Tao (Dào, 道) is articulated it is not understood. This is precisely how lines 1-2 of verse 1 of Tao Te Ching (Dàodé Jīng; 道德经) open:

‘The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal name.’

When a person lives in harmony with the Tao (Dào; 道), they become a Taoist sage (Chen-jen; zhēnrén真人) in essence, or rather, as the literal translation suggests, an authentic or perfected person, or perhaps, borrowing from other traditions, enlightened, illuminated or awakened.

Many scholars have characterised Taoism  in different ways: as ‘Contemplative Taoism’ or  ‘Philosophical Taoism’, (Tao-chia; Dàojià; 道家), as ‘Religious Taoism’ (Tao-chiao; Dàojiào; 道教) or as ‘Esoteric Taoism’ (Hsien Tao-chiao; Xiān Dàojiào; 僊 道教). However, many scholars have also argued that these categories are overly simplistic and the distinction, particularly between ‘Contemplative’ and ‘Religious’ is unclear. Although, later developments of Taoism created a religious order with priests, hierarchy and monasteries, there was little in the foundational texts that intimated such direction. Taoism is more closely aligned to a philosophical or wisdom tradition, with foundational texts that were not at all framed by religious teachings, doctrine or promoted by the founders as a religious or political leader does. Indeed, the foundational texts that form Taoism did not in any way promote religious thought as absolute truth with a set of commandments to adhere to. Given reference to the Tao as being older God in verse 4 of Tao Te Ching (Dàodé Jīng; 道德经), I maintain it is more accurate to view Taoism as a philosophical or contemplative classical tradition (2005, p. 448):

‘The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.
It don’t know who gave birth to it,
It is older than God.’

The Chinese Written Language

As is the nature with most languages in the world, there is a complicated political history of the Chinese written language. There are two main systems that were designed to transcribe the Chinese written language into the roman alphabet. These are: the Wade-Giles system and the Hànyǔ Pīnyīn system.

The Wade-Giles system was developed in China in 1867 by British ambassador Thomas Wade and based on the Beijing dialect. Later, it was refined in China in 1892 by British diplomat Lionel Giles. This system is most commonly used in English translations of Taoist texts. You will note that using this system, the word is Taoism, which is a far more common transliteration than other systems. It was used in Taiwan, alongside other systems, until 2008. Some names in Taiwan, also Singapore, still used Wales-Giles transliteration.

The Hànyǔ Pīnyīn system – usually shortened to just Pīnyīn, which I am most familiar with – is the transliteration (Romanisation) system of Chinese Mandarin that is used in Mainland China today. It was published (but later revised several times) in the 1958 by the Chinese government and it was developed by a number of linguists, one of which was famous linguistic and economist Zhou Youguang. The system includes four diacritics denoting tones (high, rising, low, falling and no tone).  The word Hànyǔ (汉语) means ‘the spoken language of the Han people’, while Pīnyīn (拼音) literally means ‘spelled sounds’.

In addition to these two different systems for transliteration, there are two sets of characters for writing in Chinese. These are: Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. The word for Chinese characters is Hànzì (Simplified Chinese, 汉字; Traditional Chinese, 漢字), Hànzì literally meaning ‘Han characters’.  Traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, whereas in Mainland China, the Simplified Chinese characters are used. Additionally, in the Japanese language, traditional characters are used as one of the three written scripts for complex language, Kanji (漢字or 感じ). These are used alongside Katakana, カタカナ, the script for transliterations of foreign words, and Hiragana, ひらがな, the script for the transliteration of Japanese words. A much smaller number of Traditional Chinese characters are also used in the Korean, Okinawan and Vietnamese languages. The Simplified Chinese characters were adopted from the twentieth century onwards.

In this glossary, I have used both the Wade-Giles system and the Hànyǔ Pīnyīn system, although I am far more comfortable with Pīnyīn and so glossary entries are built around Pīnyīn. There are occasionally no differences at all between the two transliterations, while sometimes they are unrecognisably different. For further emphases and to help distinguish between the two, I have italicised all Pīnyīn terms. When I have used the Chinese characters alongside the transliteration, I have used Simplified Chinese. For deeper study and to learn the literal and/or philosophical meaning of the figures, texts, concepts and practices, hover over the highlighted word to read the glossary entry in full.

This glossary focuses largely on the philosophical dimension of Taoist thought, which I refer to as ‘Contemplative Taoism’ and is sometimes also referred to ‘Philosophical Taoism’.

Historical Figures and Foundational Texts in Taoism 

Wade-Giles Hànyǔ Pīnyīn Hanzi
Chuang Tzu Zhuāngzǐ 莊子
I Ching Yìjīng 易經
Lieh Tzu Lièzǐ 列子
Lao Tzu Lǎozǐ 老子
Tao Te Ching Dàodé Jīng 道德经


Central Concepts  in Taoism

Wade-Giles Hànyǔ Pīnyīn  Hanzi
Tao  Dào 
Wu-wei  Wú wéi 无为
Yin-yang Yīnyáng 阴阳


Further Concepts and Phrases in Taoism 

Wade-Giles Hànyǔ Pīnyīn  Hanzi
Ch’ing-ching Qīngjìng jīng 清静经
Ch’ing Qīng
Chung-ho Zhōng hé 中和
Fan Fàn
Feng Liu Fēngliú 風流
Hsiang Sheng Xiāngshēng 相生
Hsin Xīn
K’ung Kōng
Lan Lán
Liang Yi Liǎngyi 两儀 
Ming Mìng
Shih-wu  Shìwù 事物
T’uei   Tuī
Tzu-jen Zìrán 自然

Recommended Further Reading

365 Tao: Daily Meditations
By Deng-Ming Dao

Daoism: A Short Introduction
By James Miller

Scholar Warrior: An Introduction to the Tao in Daily Life
By Deng-Ming Dao

Tao: The Watercourse Way
By Alan Watts with Al Chung-Liang Huang

The Way of Heart and Beauty: The Tao of Daily Life
By Deng-Ming Dao

Recommended Translations of Classical Texts

The Book of Chuang Zi 
Translation and commentaries by Martin Palmer and Elizabeth Breuilly

The Book of Lieh-Tzu: A Classic of Taoism
Translation and commentaries by A C Graham

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: The Book about the Way and the Power of that Way
Translation and commentaries by Ursula K Le Guin

My Tao Te Ching: A Fool’s Guide to Effing the Ineffable: Ancient Spiritual Wisdom Translated for Modern Life
Translation and commentaries by Francis Briers

Tao Te Ching (A New English Version)
Translation and commentaries by Stephen Mitchell

‘For the nature universe is not a linear system. It involves an infinitude of variables interacting simultaneously, so that it would take calculable aeons to translate even one moment of its operation into linear, alphabetic language.’ ~ Alan W Watts

By Dr. Gabriella F. Buttarazzi (Uma Shakti Devi)

Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Writer and Educational Researcher

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