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What Does Dao Mean in Chinese Culture?

Even though someone in the West may not subscribe to Christian tenets, he or she lives in a world profoundly influenced by the way those beliefs have shaped the ambient culture. In the same way, Chinese people who may never have read the Daodejing are acculturated to its way of thinking.
© James Miller 2003
This article is excerpted from Jerusha Hull McCormack and John G Blair, THINKING THROUGH CHINA (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), chapter 7.

The Meaning of Dao in Chinese Culture

Even though someone in the West may not subscribe to Christian tenets, he or she lives in a world profoundly influenced by the way those beliefs have shaped the ambient culture. In the same way, Chinese people who may never have read the Daodejing are acculturated to its way of thinking.

Dao in Everything

Not every Chinese person consciously seeks to be in touch with Dao; indeed many today may not even use the term. But the way the vast majority of Chinese focus their lives every day has been profoundly conditioned by beliefs associated with Dao. As one instance: Dao may be taken as the name for that primal unity that gives rise to qi [vital energy], itself expressed in the shifting forces of yin and yang. As such, in daily life, Dao provides the frame of reference for practices as diverse as diet, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and multiple Chinese arts and sciences, from calligraphy to qigong to meditation. As its principal enabling concept, Dao points to energies that shape a world in which everything is connected – and everything changes.

A sense of the complexities of a worldview based on Dao-thinking may be offered by the Daodejing: one of the fundamental classic texts memorized – from the 7th century into the 20th century – by all who aspired to leading positions in China. While remaining elusive, it offers a shifting perspective on the totality of existence, as

The Dao produces the One
The One turns into the Two
The Two give rise to the Three
The Three bring forth the myriad of things.
The myriad things contain Yin and Yang as vital forces,
Which achieve harmony through their interactions. [DDJ 42]

Dao Links All Things

While most Chinese people focus their lives on the myriad things that fill the world, the way they think about those things reflects an implicit understanding that everything originates from – and is animated by – the impersonal forces known as Dao. In other words, any particular focus will evoke for a Chinese person an implicit reference to its larger field (as in William Blake’s finding a world in a grain of sand). To respond in this spirit is thus to attune oneself to the way everything changes – and in changing, becomes changed by what it changes: thus reaffirming, once again, the connecting force of Dao.

Is it possible to organize a whole culture around linking together as opposed to the Western propensity for taking apart through the analytic distinctions we call “knowledge”? Absolutely. But clearly the resulting culture will differ greatly from its counterpart in the West.

© James Miller 2003
This article is from the free online

Taoism and Western Culture

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