Original Research: Cross-cultural Religious Studies

The negative words and religious turn of Laozi’s Dao theory

Youdong Yang
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 80, No 3 | a9678 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v80i3.9678 | © 2024 Youdong Yang | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 11 January 2024 | Published: 20 May 2024

About the author(s)

Youdong Yang, Department of Religious Studies, School of Philosophy, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China


Besides concepts such as ‘being’ (有 [you]) and ‘non-being’ (无 [wu]), nature and the One to reveal the relationship between Dao and the phenomenal world from a positive perspective, Laozi used negative words, forming a speech system comprising ‘opposite words’ (反言 [fanyan]), ‘forcible words’ (强言 [qiangyan]) and ‘non-words’ (不言 [buyan]). Opposite words contradict common sense to indicate that Dao should be understood in an intuitive way. Forcible words, by analogy with natural experience, describe the perceptive factors upon seeing Dao, trying to restore the corresponding experience. Non-words declare the contradiction that Dao cannot be expressed by language and urge a leap beyond reason and speculation to encounter Dao. Early religious Daoist scholars understood the spiritual realm identified with Dao advocated by Laozi and combined the experience of seeing Dao with the belief in immortality (神仙 [shenxian]) and the alchemical arts (方术 [fangshu]) to enable the religious interpretation of Laozi’s Dao theory, thus constructing the theoretical correlation between the basic principles of religious Daoism and Laozi’s thought.

Contribution: This article analyses Laozi’s negative words on Dao and the relationship thereof with the experience of seeing Dao, which is based on the interaction between an individual and Dao. Finally, it illustrates that the early Daoist classics studying Laozi understood the spiritual realm of Dao as underlined by negative words and combined the belief in immortality and the alchemical arts to transform Laozi’s thoughts to reveal the religious philosophy in Laozi’s Dao theory.


Laozi; Dao; Daoism; negative words; the experience of seeing Dao; modes of speech

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