Humans model themselves on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the Way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.
-- Laozi, excerpted from Daodejing #251
A noted Chinese anthropologist has written that Chinese religion "mirrors the social landscape of its adherents. There are as many meanings as there are vantage points." The same could be said of the diverse tradition we call Daoism. Daoism was understood and practiced in many ways, each reflecting the historical, social, or personal situation of its adherents. While this diversity may confuse and perplex the outside observer, it accounts for the resilience of Daoism in China. Daoism was adaptable, evolving to fill spiritual gaps created by the vagaries of life.
Daoism can also be called "the other way." During its entire history, it has coexisted alongside the Confucian tradition, which served as the ethical and religious basis of the institutions and arrangements of the Chinese empire. Daoism, while not radically subversive, offered a range of alternatives to the Confucian way of life and point of view. These alternatives, however, were not mutually exclusive. For the vast majority of Chinese, there was no question of choosing between Confucianism and Daoism. Except for a few straightlaced Confucians and a few pious Daoists, the Chinese man or woman practiced both -- either at different phases of life or as different sides of personality and taste.
Classical Daoist philosophy, formulated by Laozi (the Old Master, 5thcentury B.C.E.?), the anonymous editor of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and its Power), and Zhuangzi (3rd century B.C.E.), was are interpretation and development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination. Laozi and Zhuangzi, living at a time of social disorder and great religious skepticism (see article on Confucianism), developed the notion of the Dao (Dao -- way, or path) as the origin of all creation and the force -- unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestations -- that lies behind the functionings and changes of the natural world. They saw in Dao and nature the basis of a spiritual approach to living. This, they believed, was the answer to the burning issue of the day: what is the basis of a stable, unified, and enduring social order? The order and harmony of nature, they said, was far more stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human learning. Healthy human life could flourish only in accord with Dao -- nature, simplicity, a free-and-easy approach to life. The early Daoists taught the art of living and surviving by conforming with the natural way of things; they called their approach to action wuwei (literally, "no-action"), action modeled on nature. Their sages were wise, but not in the way the Confucian teacher was wise -- learned anda moral paragon. Zhuangzi's sages were often artisans -- butchers or woodcarvers. The lowly artisans understood the secret of art and the art of living. To be skillful and creative, they had to have inner spiritual concentration and put aside concern with externals, such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Art, like life, followed the creative path of nature, not the values of human society.
Throughout Chinese history, people weary of social activism and aware of the fragility of human achievements would retire from the world and turn to nature. They might retreat to a countryside or mountain setting to commune with natural beauty. They would compose or recite poetry about nature, or paint a picture of the scene, attempting to capture the creative forces at the center of nature's vitality. They might share their outing with friends or more rarely -- a spouse, drinking a bit of wine, and enjoying the autumn leaves or the moon.