One of the most influential schools of thought in Chinese culture has been Huang-Lao, which literally translates as “Yellow Emperor Old Master.” The ideology was very popular during the early Han period of the 2nd century B.C.
Huang-Lao is derived from multiple philosophies that blend together to create a practical framework on how to live an ethical, spiritual life. In fact, it is this practicality that made it very popular with people of the early Han period.
“Huang-Lao Daoist thought presented a holistic approach; it grafted aspects from the School of Names and Legalism onto the main trunk of Daoism, with the School of Yin-Yang providing structural elements, whilst avoiding negation of the established mainstream culture by maintaining an emphasis on the educational ethics of the Confucians. With an eye to establishing realistic values and order, Huang-Lao Daoism grew to become a highly feasible and implementable system of political philosophy,” Feng Cao, from the Renmin University of China, said in a report.
Documentation regarding Huang-Lao was discovered thanks to a 1973 archeological excavation near the city of Changsha in southern China. The researchers uncovered several old texts, including four previously unknown texts that were later titled “The Four Classics of the Yellow Emperor.” One of the texts proclaims that its ideas are the teachings of the Yellow Emperor. This allowed historians to identify the four texts as expounding Huang-Lao philosophy. Huang-Lao places emphasis on the “natural way,” where every component of existence, all the way from the universe to the government, is believed to have a unified purpose.
“The Natural Way is seen as an objective principle existing throughout the universe and governing Heaven, Earth, and all beings, including man and the structure of human society. Although not visible and without extension, the Way influences all matters of life. In human society, the Dao is called “natural order,” in politics it is called fa, or “law.” The unity of action with the Way will lead to a unity with the universe. Such a situation will unite the largest and the smallest, the apogee and the withering away of life and state,” according to China Knowledge.
A good ruler, according to Huang-Lao, is expected to seek unity with the Dao and rule his subjects with appropriate punishments and rewards. Ministers are expected to fulfill their obligations with integrity. The public should not be burdened with excess taxes. During the later Han period (A.D. 25 to A.D. 220), Huang-Lao started integrating several superstitions — like sacrifices to spirits, exorcism of ghosts, incantations, and so on — so that it eventually morphed into a religion.
The philosophy of Daoism, from which Huang-Lao borrows heavily, is not just popular in China, but also in other parts of Asia like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Dao essentially means a path or way. Daoist teachings aim to make people realize that since human life is a very small aspect of the larger process of nature, the only way to live sensibly is by engaging in actions that are in accordance with the flow of nature.
“Their [Daoist] solution to the problem of how human beings should behave is expressed in the typically Daoist doctrine of wu-wei, or non-action. This did not mean doing absolutely nothing, but doing nothing unnatural, nothing that was out of keeping with the Dao. Related to the doctrine of non-action was the idea of no desires, which meant that no one should have excessive desires because such desires are bound to cause injury both to oneself and to others,” according to Asia For Educators.
Daoists focused on the principle of truthfulness, and aspired to follow the path of truth in their words and deeds. They mostly shunned extravagance for the essence. The primary lineage was only passed on to one disciple selected by the master based on the disciple’s character qualities and virtue. Daoists believed in maintaining balance, as exemplified in the yin-yang. Disruptions in balance are what results in unwanted situations in the internal human body and external society.