Daoism, like Confucianism, is a mixture of philosophy and religion. Unlike Confucianism, which prescribed social and official rituals for every occasion, Daoism stressed non-action, wu-wei, and freedom in nature. Daoist philosophy encouraged mystical practices and a transcendent spirit. Distinctions and categories were considered arbitrary, and even language was illusory: the sages could instruct their disciples without words.

Three classic philosophical texts embody these ideas. The Daodejing, a short, brilliant treatise is attributed to Laozi, who may or may not have existed. The Zhuangzi, written by Zhuang Zhou (about 399-295 BC) is full of wit and paradox. The third is the Liezi, which may have been written in imitation of the Zhuangzi. These texts stressed the need to retire from the world and master the dao, or 'way'. Daoists also practiced dietary, breathing and sexual exercises to nourish the spirit. They carried out experiments in search of immortality.

A famous story illustrating this quest for spiritual freedom comes from the Zhuangzi: one day Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, happily flying around. He did not know that he was Zhuang Zhou. But then he awoke and found himself to be Zhuang Zhou. He could not be sure whether he was Zhuang Zhou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou.

A number of motifs with Daoist associations appear frequently in Chinese paintings, and on ceramics and textiles: deer, peaches, the lingzhi fungus and gourds are among the most popular.

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