The Origins of Taoism: History, the Uncarved Block & Tao-Te Ching

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  • 0:02 Lack of Historical Evidence
  • 1:12 Attempts at Definition
  • 2:17 Pu
  • 3:12 Western Link
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the rather nebulous founding of Taoism. In doing so, it will explore the concepts of the Tao and the Pu, while also highlighting the role Lao-tzu played in the formation of this ancient Eastern philosophy.

Lack of Historical Evidence

When a lesson is titled 'Origins of Taoism,' one would assume it would include things like the date in which Taoism was founded, or at the very least the name of its founder. However, when it comes to Taoism, also spelled Daoism, this is simply not the case. As most scholarly sources will tell you, Taoism has no real founder nor does it have a founding date. In fact, the closest most educational sources will come to assigning a date to Taoism is to say it formed into a religious system within the lands of China sometime around the 4th or 3rd century BCE.

When it comes to who actually got the Taoist ball rolling, things get even trickier. Some scholars cite a man named Lao-tzu, also spelled Laozi, as the first to receive the inspiration of the Tao. However, not many agree on when he lived, with some even asserting he's not and never was an actual historical person. The fact that Lao-tzu actually just means 'old master' lends some credence to the idea that the guy was more of an ideal than an actual person.

Attempts at Definition

Making a lesson on the origins of Taoism even a bit more complicated and even more non-Western, if you look up the definition of Taoism, you'll find more of a description than a definition. As Webster states, Taoism is a Chinese philosophy based on the writings of Lao-tzu that stresses living simply and honestly and in harmony with nature. Like I said, it's a description more than a definition. The main reason for this is that our Western terminology doesn't really have a translation for the Eastern concept of the Tao. The best we've come up with is to sort of translate the Tao as 'The Way.'

To put it as simply as possible, The Way is a returning to one's original state of being before things like experience and life got in the way. It's the idea that all of nature was once a blank slate and that we as humans should try our best to return to this state of unfettered existence. Even as I say that, I understand how foreign and confusing it sounds. However, we'll keep going, trying to somehow link Taoism to our Western paradigm.


This being said, one of the main tenants of Taoism is the concept of the pu. Coming from the Tao-te Ching, the main text of Taoism, the pu is translated as 'the uncarved block.' Again, trying to state it as simply as possible, the concept of the pu forms the basis for the Taoist belief that all of nature was at its most powerful when it was in its original, unchanged, and natural form. In other words, things were better before they were carved into something new.

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