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The Effects of Taoist Ethics on the Perception of Traditional Chinese Apparels

Jiang Jianhui

(Ethics Research Institute in Hunan Normal University, Changsha, Hunan 410081, China)
Abstract: Taoism, an important branch of Chinese traditional culture, affects the perception of Chinese traditional apparels deeply and profoundly, because it advocates viewpoints such as “Tao models itself after nature”, “disregarding both justice and material gains” and “recovering the original simplicity”. The article takes Taoist ethical thoughts as the mainline to tease out the perception of traditional apparels under the influence of Taoist ethics, and to air some opinions and comments on the “personality” of current clothing fashion, which may exert some instructions on clothing aesthetics.
Key words: Taoist ethics; perception of Chinese traditional apparels; personality; clothing fashion

One Dimensions of Taoist ethics
Taoism, an ethical school of Chinese traditional culture as important as Confucianism, is featured by its principles of “Tao models itself after nature” in terms of the relationship between “the Tao of Heaven” and “the Tao of Human”, of “disregarding both justice and material gains” as for their values, and of “recovering the original simplicity” as to the ideal human nature.
The ethical foundation of “Tao models itself after nature”
Taoism holds that “Tao” is its ethical foundation and origin of all things, and that “Tao models itself after nature” is the theoretical basis of its ethical system, according to which Taoism reconsiders and rebukes the Confucian doctrine of “humanity and rites” and puts forward such notions as “letting nature take its own course”, “rebirth” and “acting without striving”. These conceptions will be studied as follows from the perspective of “Tao” raised by Taoists.
First, “Tao” that “models itself after nature” is the doctrine of origin, thus taking on an ontological significance. Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, starts Tao te ching or Classic of the way of virtue with “The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name. Having no name, it is the Originator of Heaven and Earth; having a name, it is the Mother of all things.” 1 It also writes that “There was something undefined and complete coming into existence before Heaven and Earth…I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of the Tao (the Way or Course).” 2  Lao Tzu’s contemplation of origin of the world is thereof disclosed: Whether having a name or not, the world exists as Tao, from which all things originate, and remains unaffected by our will. Driven by “Tao”, the world takes shape and gets diversified as Tao te ching writes that “The Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced all things.” 3 And on the premise of ontology of Tao, Taoism naturally ascribes the existence of nature to the drive and cultivation of “Tao”. Chuang Tzu also writes that “While Tao can hold all things, it can also overturn them. How imposing!” 4 Under the guidance of ontological “Tao” and outlook on nature, Taoism suggests in the ethical field that “People should, rather than take morality as a utilitarian means, observe morality naturally and instinctively to benefit without harming others and to act without contending, in which way they can relish and savor morality”.(Wang,2001(3):33)
Second, “Tao” that “models itself after nature” is the doctrine of law, thus having a metaphysical characteristic. Lao Tzu says, “It is the way of Heaven not to strive, and yet it skillfully overcomes; not to speak, and yet it is skillful in obtaining a reply; not to call, and yet men come to it in spite of themselves. Its demonstrations are quiet, and yet its plans are skillful and effective. The meshes of the net of Heaven are large and far apart, but letting nothing escape.” 5 He also holds that, “May not the Tao of Heaven be compared to the method of bending a bow? The part of the bow which was high is brought low, and what was low is raised up. So Heaven diminishes where there is superabundance, and supplements where there is deficiency. It is the Tao of Heaven to diminish superabundance, and to supple- ment deficiency. It is not so with the Tao of man. He takes away from those who have not enough to add to his own superabundance. Who can take his own superabundance and therewith serve all under Heaven? Only he who is in possession of the Tao! Therefore the ruling sage acts without claiming the results as his; he achieves his merits and does not rest arrogantly in it --he does not wish to display his superiority.” 1 It can be seen that the “Tao” is the doctrine of law that creates and gets involved in the universe, and stipulates the path and direction of things during their developing process. Invisible, untouchable and unspeakable as Tao is, it is enchantingly majestic and powerful.
Third, “Tao” that “models itself after nature” is the doctrine of life, thus boasting of empirical contents. Taoists refer to Tao not only to convey its mystery and majesty, but also to express the essence of life by way of the analogy of Tao. It is because Tao “remains empty rather than replete” and is “all-inclusive” that “It can shelter the nature of all things with the power of emptiness”. 2 And it is due to the fact that “What has a positive existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what has not that for actual usefulness” 3 that it becomes “the origin of all things”. Taoists advocate that a superior man should “practice morality according to law” and “preach harmoniously without utterance”. This is why Lao Tzu mentions that weakness marks the course of Tao’s mighty deeds, contending that new-born babies and seedlings can be vigorous and vital irrespective of their frailty. With fame and fortune swarmed with the secular world, however, how can people live in harmony with others? To this Taoists replies with “It is better to leave a vessel unfilled, than to attempt to carry it when it is full. If you keep feeling a point that has been sharpened, the point cannot long preserve its sharpness. When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honors lead to arrogance, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.” 4 It means that one should be content with life moderately and face up to success or failure with a determination of not contending.