The Daodejing emerged at a time in Chinese history that was every bit as turbulent as the one we live in now.
During the five centuries that comprised the Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (403 – 221 BCE), rulers of a veritable patchwork of feudal states and fiefdoms vied with each other for supremacy while the traditional culture and civilization of the ancient Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 771 BCE) collapsed around them. Wars were waged, armies were slaughtered, and alliances were broken almost as soon as they were forged, while the common people were left to lead miserable lives of endless poverty, back-breaking labor, and relentless suffering.
In response to this turmoil, a colorful cast of characters from the educated class tramped from state to state peddling their particular brand of wisdom to any ruler who would listen them on how to restore social order, boost economic prosperity, and secure military victories in the hope of being assigned a lucrative position in his court. Confucius (551 – 479 BCE), whose teachings were compiled after his death in the Analects by successive generations of his followers, is by far the most famous of these figures; the great military strategist Sunzi (ca. 544 – 496 BCE), who is credited as the author of the Art of War, is another well-known example.
Along with the Analects and the Art of War, the Daodejing is the third seminal work to have emerged from this period. Although this is traditionally attributed to an unknown author called Laozi (Old Master), there is considerable doubt as to whether he actually existed and strong arguments to suggest that the work was a compilation of collective wisdom rather than the labor of an individual genius.
Whatever its origin, the Daodejing provides a quite startling alternative vision to the much more orthodox thinking featured in the Analects. Whereas Confucius advocated the restoration of the strict and elaborate rituals practiced during the (no-doubt-mythical) golden age that marked the establishment of the Zhou dynasty and a rigorous study of the ancient classics, Laozi (whoever he may have been) envisioned a return to a (no-doubt-equally mythical) primordial age when humanity lived in perfect harmony with the timeless rhythms of the way (道/Dào), comprising heaven, earth, and the natural world.
Despite their radically different approaches, however, the teachings in the Daodejing and Analects address the same fundamental issue afflicting not just the age that they emerged from but also the times that we now live in: how to bring stability and harmony to a deeply-divided society. I will be exploring this topic in greater detail in future entries.