Taoism has two primary thinkers who developed Taoist thought, Lao-Tzu and Chuang-tsu. The chronology of thought and logic of the development of Taoism has been obfuscated by the books themselves and the fragments of thoughts and notions within them that seem to arise from different historical periods. Confucius also did identify notions tao and wu wei in the Analects, and still Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu are still considered dated after Confucius but still part of an earlier stratum of Taoist ideas.
In both cases, the fundamental concept of wu wei, or non-action is advocated. This is contrasted with yu-wei activity, where both Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu both see the Confucian noble men and Mohist men of worth, as busybodies who are living in illusion about transformation of society by their various activities. Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu advocated for self-preservation as superior to self-sacrifice. Taking care of one’s health and withdrawing from activities that may cause bodily harm so as to live free of anxiety and stress was primary, while performing various social activities and duties and pursuing social gains seen as secondary.
Chuang-tzu’s text gives many descriptions of the indescribable tao, which somewhat echo’s that of Lao-tzu, although Chuang-tzu’s philosophy diverges whereby ordinary mundane reality is injected with mystical grandeur where there’s a transcendental humoristic quality that transforms one’s life away from the mundane. He goes onto document the trancelike mystical experiences of the mystic sages. Such as one passage where Yen-cheng Tzu-yu inquires ‘what is this-can the body really e made to become like a withered tree and the mind like dead ashes? The man who sits here now is not the man who was sitting here before” In this text, we can understand that in approaching the mystical states of Taoism there is a metaphoric death, or approaching of the death of oneself and in seeing all of the qualities of oneself that are not in alignment with the Tao die away from oneself in the mystical meditation. In approaching one’s transformation, it is like looking at the dead and dying parts of oneself and going through a transformation or rebirth to a higher state of consciousness.
This concept is then further illustrated with the image of a hunchback cicada-catcher, who is praised by Confucius for his unwavering attention towards the object of his desire, the cicada. As we know, the cicada is a famous symbol in Chinese culture for rebirth and transformation. The life cycle of the cicada involves one beetle burrowing underground for several years, sometimes up to 10 years, and then changing bodies and becoming a winged insect. In this way, the image of a hunchback thinking of nothing but the cicada wings is indeed not only humorous, but it’s also symbolic of wanting a full transformation of oneself and the unwavering attention towards this death of self. The creative illustrations of the protean changeability of nature is emphasized in contrast to unexpected changes, or even the order and regularity of the mundane world.
What’s even more evident in the character of the hunchback is the theme of virtue in being yourself. Even people who do not have a perfect body can still be respected, and should feel comfortable being themselves. Indeed the concept of the “true or perfect man” arises in Chuang-tsu’s line of thought, and how he faces the problems of his body, but is still not his body and resides in heaven in his heart, and completes his activities with no obsession over his looks. This theme comes up several times in the works of Chuang-tzu, where ugly or deformed men are admired by everyone in a particular village, or become teachers. It is emphasized that “virtue has no form.” In this way, a living man is capable of transcending his ordinary reality and achieve a higher existence.