Taoism was understood and practiced in many ways, each reflecting the historical, social, or personal situation of its adherents.While this diversity may confuse and perplex the outside observer, it accounts for the resilience of Taoism in China. Taoism was adaptable, evolving to fill spiritual gaps created by the vagaries of life.
Classical Taoist philosophy, formulated by Laozi (the Old Master, 5th century B.C.?), the anonymous editor of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and its Power), and Zhuangzi (3rd century B.C.), was a reinterpretation and development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination. Laozi and Zhuangzi, living at a time of social disorder and great religious skepticism (see article on Confucianism), developed the notion of the Dao (Tao -- way, or path) as the origin of all creation and the force -- unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestations -- that lies behind the functionings and changes of the natural world. They saw in Dao and nature the basis of a spiritual approach to living. This, they believed, was the answer to the burning issue of the day: what is the basis of a stable, unified, and enduring social order? The order and harmony of nature, they said, was far more stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human learning. Healthy human life could flourish only in accord with Dao -- nature, simplicity, a free-and-easy approach to life. The early Taoists taught the art of living and surviving by conforming with the natural way of things; they called their approach to action wuwei (wu-wei -- lit. no-action), action modeled on nature. Their sages were wise, but not in the way the Confucian teacher was wise -- learned and a moral paragon. Zhuangzi's sages were often artisans -- butchers or woodcarvers. The lowly artisans understood the secret of art and the art of living. To be skillful and creative, they had to have inner spiritual concentration and put aside concern with externals, such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Art, like life, followed the creative path of nature, not the values of human society.