Circumscribing the place of taoists in Chinese society is not straightforward for any period: honored by emperors and members of the nobility, they were scorned, as a rule, by literati-officials and treated with a mixture of reverence and familiarity by ordinary people. The paradoxical strength of passivity, the power of compliance, and the endurance of the peripheral already form a central theme in the mystical writings gathered in the fourth and third century b.c. Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. The Taoism of these ancient texts advanced a doctrine of liberation through submission, of control by means of noninterference, and of transcendence as a result of physiological and mental regimens. The ideal of liberation from the physical, epistemological, and social constraints of the human condition in time translated into a quest for immortality which, by the Ch'in unification of the empire, became quite explicit. Huang-Lao thought, named for the Yellow Emperor and patron of the immortals (Huang-ti) and Lao-tzu, dominated court politics from this period through the middle of the second century b.c.

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