The Texts of Taoism: Tao-te Ching, Chuang-tzu & the Taoist Canon

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  • 0:02 Taoism Defined
  • 0:49 Lao-Tzu
  • 1:26 Tao-Te Ching
  • 2:43 Chuang-Tzu
  • 3:40 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 explain the ancient philosophy of Taoism and its canon of scripture. In doing so, it will highlight the history and content of the Tao-te Ching and the Chuang-tzu, as well as the role of Lao-tzu.

Taoism Defined

Although almost completely unheard of in our Western world, the canons, or sacred texts, of Taoism have greatly impacted the Eastern world. With the two most important of these texts being the Tao-te Ching and the Chuang-tzu, these texts give the modern world a glimpse into the ancient Taoist beliefs concerning the nature of the universe and the life of man.

Before we dive into these ancient texts, let's back up and get a few things down about Taoism itself. Taoism, also spelled D-a-o-i-s-m, is a Chinese philosophy that stresses living simply, honestly, and in harmony with nature. Although this definition seems rather cut and dry, the actual historical evidence about Taoism is sketchy at best.


When it comes to who actually first came up with Taoism, no one can really give a definitive answer. Many scholars cite a man named Lao-tzu, also spelled L-a-o-z-i, as the first to receive the inspiration of Taoism. However, not many agree on when he lived, with some even asserting he's more myth than real man. With this rather hazy intro, let's move on to the canons of this rather nebulous faith. Unfortunately for our purposes, the concrete historical details of these texts are just about as sketchy as those of its founding.

Tao-Te Ching

As stated earlier, the two most important of these ancient texts are the Tao-te Ching and the Chuang-tzu. Since the Tao-te Ching is believed to be the oldest and most important of the Taoist texts, we'll start with it. The Tao-te Ching is the chief text of Taoism. Tradition asserts these texts were authored by Lao-tzu. Yes, the guy we mentioned earlier who many historians don't even think existed.

With this in mind, I'll say once again, the historical evidence behind these texts is rather lacking. In fact, most scholars refuse to even date the texts, preferring to vaguely state that they were compiled over generations, not just years or decades. The closest you'll usually see to dating gives the wide range of anywhere from the 8th to 3rd centuries BCE.

Despite its lack of historical concrete evidence, the Tao-te Ching continues to be studied in our modern world. With over 80 sections of poetry, mysticism, and practical knowledge, it was originally intended to advise the rulers of ancient China. However, it still helps to form the tenants of today's Taoism. To help me remember its importance, I like to think of it as being so pivotal to Taoism that its name actually includes the word Tao.

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