A common misconception in mainstream texts and media is the idea that Confucianism has always been a doctrine for the ruling class whereas Buddhism and Daoism appeal to the “ignorant masses” (Welch & Seidel, 1979, p. 1). However, all three indigenous philosophies have contributed to shaping Chinese culture which views the universe as a harmonious and inter-related whole. While Confucianism puts emphasis on morality and how people should maintain proper relationships to achieve an ideal state of harmony (or ‘harmonisation’ depending on the translation of he, 和), Daoism is more individualistic and mystical, relying on instinct and consciousness rather than rules to govern social conduct (Jing, 2008).
The name daojia, 道家 or “school of the dao” was created by the historian Sima Tan in the text, Shi ji (“Records of the Historian”), which was written in the 2nd century BCE and later completed by his son, Sima Qian. According to Sima Qian’s classification (liujia zhi yaozhi, 六家之要指), the Daoists are one of the Six Schools in Ancient China, which also include the Confucians, the Mohists, the Legalists, the Logicians and the Yin-Yang school (or school of Naturalists). The classification of Daoism as a single school meant that historians compiled a list of texts such as the Laozi, 老子 and Zhuangzi, 莊子 of the pre-Han period that shared similar views on themes related to cosmology and ontology. Some of these themes include discussing ‘the Way’ (dao, 道, lit. “path”) as the ultimate metaphysical force in the cosmos, and ‘wu’ (無, “nothingness” or “nonbeing”), as a state that is complementary to being rather than meaning non-existence. Through the idea of wu, Daoists went one step further than the Greeks by expanding the traditional definition of ontology as examining the ‘being’ or existence of a human being by dealing with the concept of nothingness. This resulted in heated debates during the 3rdand 4thcenturies over whether things in the world were born from nonbeing or being (Chai, 2012). The eventual consensus in the Daoist school was that dao gives birth to both nonbeing and being and so, dao itself must be beyond the sphere of existence and non-existence.
Once institutionalised, the experts and practitioners of Daoism began to promote self-cultivation practices or “techniques of the Way” (dao shu, 道術), which would help individuals realise the daoand live a more harmonious life. While some of these techniques included adopting a sceptical mind and finding meaning in indirect, non-argumentative writing, often in the form of poetry and parable (Hansen, 2007), the political implication of Daoist thought was its opposition to authority, government, and coercion. As Loy (1985)noted, the Daoist concept of “spontaneity” (or wu-wei, 无为, lit. “without exertion”) was contrasted to the Confucian practice of obediently following teachers and traditions. For the Daoists, rules and social conventions restrained individuals from expressing their true nature, while natural movement was a way of promoting freedom and egalitarianism. Hansen (2007) argues that from a Confucian perspective, the rejection of order through authority and rulers was anarchist since the role of government was to promote moral character, whether by education, attraction or force.
However, whether this is a correct understanding of Daoism is debatable. For instance, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy John Clarke (1983) points out that it has become commonplace to identify Daoism and anarchism in political discussions, and Andrew Vincent (1992) adds that “it is also asserted that anarchist themes are to be found within ancient Chinese texts like the Tao te Ching [Daodejing]” (p. 116). But for Feldt (2010), these claims have often been made in passing or without critical engagement. The Zhuangzi also tends to be overcited when linking Daoism to anarchism because it is one of the only pre-Qin philosophical classics that does not make normative political claims. Whereas other Daoist texts like the Daodejing (also called the Laozi) provide theories for rulership and legitimate political power, where the ideal government would exert a minimum amount of interference over individuals (Ames, 1983), the Zhuangzi is silent on political issues and suggests that people should stay away from politics and any external, dominating powers (D’Ambrosio, 2018). Since the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which was dominated by a Bolshevik-style state-party system, anarchist activity and Daoist thought have been isolated and marginalised in the Chinese radicalism movement. Anarchism in China was also more associated with Buddhism because of the large number of Buddhist monks joining the Guangdong anarchist movement in the early 1920s (Dirlik, 2012).
Chinese anarchist visions were largely influenced by the writings of Russian activist and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin (1901), who put forward a version of ‘socialist anarchy’ that called for the abolition of individual property and the emancipation of the individual from the State, which was thought to maintain and reproduce conditions of economic slavery. Although some Maoist policies that integrated agriculture and industry were in line with the anarchist movement’s goals of setting up a more equal society, the emergence of state-based and armed groups such as the Communist Party and the Kuomintang meant that the Chinese anarchist community quickly lost its influence amongst the political elite (Dirlik, 2012). In its historical context, Anarchia, meaning the absence of government in Ancient Greek (coming from the word an-arkhíaor “not authority”), is about organizing society without government or coercion. Mainstream anarchist movements are opposed to states, armies, slavery, the wages system, prisons, all forms of capitalism, bureaucracy, patriarchy, matriarchy, monarchy, oligarchy, and intimidation by gangsters (Rooum, 1995). Anarchism is not perfect freedom in that people are not universally assumed to be altruistic or good. Rather, the movement is based on the belief that although humans are imperfect and can be unpredictable, a non-coercing and non-authoritarian way of organizing society is ethically worth striving for. In other words, anarchism seeks to offer a plausible alternative to current systems of governance where, it is argued, modern-day forms of slavery and brutality increase inequalities and reduce individual opportunity. It should be noted that when anarchism was applied to China, the anarchists did not insist on an anarchism with Chinese characteristics, but tried to apply universal anarchist principles to China’s political situation.
While there are some similarities between anarchist beliefs and Daoist principles, there are also fundamental differences. For example, although both Daoism and anarchism see freedom of the individual as a crucial aspect to human relations and existence, the meaning of freedom in anarchism is socio-political, where an ideal society would be free from oppression and authority, whereas the Daoist freedom is based on metaphysics. In the Daodejing (道德經), it is written that humans should have the freedom to cultivate their natural and simple character that originally comes from the dao. For instance, in chapters 8 and 9 the ideal human condition is described as natural governing “without desire which is like the softness of water that penetrates through hard rocks. His work is of talent like the free flow of water. His movement is of right timing like water that flows smoothly. A virtuous person never forces his way and hence will not make faults.” In that case, the cultivation of the self involves action without force. An individual is free in their creativity and accessing this freedom means not holding on to things such as desire and success. While some writers appeal to the noncoercive and nonauthoritarian conception of wu-weias one of the key links between Daoism and anarchism, there are various ways of translating wu-wei. Roger Ames and David Hall (1983) use the term “noncoercion”, but Ames (1994) also generalised the meaning through the terms “noncoercive activity”, “nonaction”, “doing nothing”, and “acting naturally”. D.C. Lau (1963) uses “nonaction”, while Edward Slingerland (2003) refers to wu-wei as “effortless action”. The different translations can have different meanings when discussing political authority. For example, a government that “does nothing” or is non-active seems like an appeal to anarchism, whereas governing through “noncoercive activity” or natural action is to voluntarily govern without relying on force. But the authority would still remain. Thus, Wu-wei is not simply the lack of authority or action. In chapter 43 of the Daodejing, the Sage is advised to do nothing (with a purpose), and in chapter 48 it is stated that a person should arrive at the point of non-action where “there is nothing which he does not do.” Thus, there is still activity, intention, and spontaneity in the meaning of wu-wei as the dao can only be expressed and realised beyond actions and words.
Finally, at no point does Daoism outright reject a ruling authority or the state. This is because, as Xiao Gongquan (1979) states, “what Lao Tzu attacked was not government in and of itself, but was any kind of government which did not conform to “Taoistic” standards” (p. 299). In other words, it is believed that society should be governed by a sage-ruler that follows the standards and spontaneous workings of the dao, which involves allowing citizens to realise their individual freedoms by not applying an excess of laws. In chapter 57 of the Daodejing, Lao Tzu says “Govern the state by being straightforward; wage war by being crafty; but win the empire by not being meddlesome…Hence the sage says, I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves”. Here Lao Tzu puts forward the idea that the state should be non-intrusive with minimal or no taxation and laws so that people can live without unnecessary competition or strife. For Robert Eno (1990), Confucius himself adopted such as Daoist attitude as his political theory was a justification for staying away from government at least until a sage would become a proper ruler. The development of a rule-based, authoritarian Confucianism would later contrast Daoism’s natural spontaneity and scepticism to social control, but to equate Daoism with Western anarchism is to ignore the cultural and historical differences in how both schools of thought developed and influenced Chinese society.
It should be noted that while traditional Confucianism spoke more of virtuous rulers teaching their citizens about correct conduct and moral behaviour, by the early Ming dynasty emperors began adopting an official neo-Confucian theory of foreign policy that allowed for the legitimate use of force (see Feng Zhang, “Confucian Foreign Policy Traditions in Chinese History,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics8 (2): 2015, p. 197-218. https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/pov004).