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How Taoist Concepts Are Represented in Movies Essay

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Updated: Dec 20th, 2021


Taoism is an inexplicable phenomenon. It can be roughly translated but it cannot be explained in words. It can only be explained by means of experience. Taoism is a blend of a philosopher’s psychology and a religion that modifies the code of life. In the following essay we will discuss huge impact of Taoism in the movies of the 21st century. In the three selected movies Hero, Fight Club and Star wars different currents of Taoism can be detected flowing in the ebb and flow of the movies. Let us have a close scrutiny of Taoism in these movies.

  1. In “Hero” concept Five Elements is prevalent.
  2. In “Fight Club” philosophy of Wu-chi, lost generation and destruction for rebirth are evident.
  3. “Star wars” throws light on the concept of force and harmony in the universe.


Taoism is a term originated from Chinese writers and philosophers of 500 to 600 B.C.E. Taoism is in fact a mode and culture of living. It is a concept that relates a person with all the natural things around him. In the history we catch evidences of Tao people as wanderers to grasp the truth. They roam about in the mountains, tread along the plains and dwell on the rocks and meditate to get the essence of life. Taoism is deep-rooted belief or religion having its roots anchored in the time when Pantheism and Shamanism were the fashion of the day. Taoism has no single source. It appears that it has two pivotal sources: the sages of Civil War Period and the magicians and Shamans of Shang Dynasty.

Lao Tzu’ the founder of this concept believed in tranquility of soul, balance ‘intuition spontaneity and return to the original nature. In his famous manuscript he declared his doctrines and philosophical thoughts. Another leading philosopher of this group is Chuang Te Zu whose book having his own name as its title encompasses his philosophical theories and ideology in a complex form. Daoism is a term oft-quoted in Taoism (ReligiousTolerance.org).

Daoism and Wu Wei

“Dao” means “the way” and “Daojia” is the school of Dao. Dao is a way to live life that goes to heaven. The idea of Wu Wei is not easy to comprehend. Wu Wei can be called as an ‘effortless action” that a person carries on without any interference. It stresses on acting naturally without putting any hurdle in the natural flow of action. We must act and choose the road to virtue and heaven. This is what we can least draw from the word Wu Wei (Littlejohn).

Extensions of Taoism

China holds three main extensions of Taoism revolving on the axis of “Power” (“Te”). The first Taoism is as academic Taoism that emphasizes on teaching and preaching. They focus on Self-help and seek knowledge that enhances power and vitality in life. They are against the things like friction, fights and conflicts; instead they favor “Wei” which means pure effectiveness (Bracy).

The second group has engrossed itself in the cultivation of “Te” through physical training and exercise. They believe in the over flow and free flow of energy which they call as Ch’i. In order to achieve a level of high energy they have to consider and work on three important elements matter, movement and mind. In mater they try to strengthen themselves nutritionally. They eat healthy and herbal food to gain physical power; then come movement or physical activity.

Several programs of bodily movement are introduced to meet the desired goal. Martial art or” T’ ai-chi” owes its birth to this very branch of Taoism. Its aim is to assemble energy from the outside world and to combat the blockage that hinders its internal and external flow. It lays stress on self-realization and self-allowance to explore the new personal dimensions (Bracy).

The third extension of Taoism stands on religious grounds. It is a substitutionary power introduced in the second century CE. It brought under the canopy the religious saints, healers, faith soothers, Shamans and priests. Church occupies a prominent place having gods and deities more for ritualistic purposes than for worship. The role of magic pays a vital role in the lives of religious Taos. They tend to gather cosmic energy and distribute it among the people who are unable to get or generate on their own.

A thorough study of all three shoots of Taoism brings to us an acknowledged truth that these sects are intensively engaged in multiplying their Power (Te). Although the manners are different, they cherish a sole common target of increase in power and conservation of energy (Bracy).

Spread of Taoism

Taoism is a multi dimensional and complex philosophy, but since its origin till the date it has spread worldwide. Once it was a part of Chinese culture only but now with the advent of 21st century it is penetrating in the West as well. At present we have almost thirty one million Tao followers across the globe. Throngs of people are in United States are getting interested in Taoism. They are inspired by Tao symbols of Yin and Yang that expresses cosmic contrast (Kohn).

Taoism in Movies

History confirms Taoism as one of the rampant philosophies of the time which invited activity and energy utilization of hundreds of individuals in China. This philosophy prompted them to engage themselves in physical exercise and activities related to physical fitness like Yoga, Martial art and even painting and calligraphy etc. This made them mentally and physically healthy and strong (Toropov and Hansen). They started propagating their philosophy in movies and dramas. Taoism resides in many movies sometimes hidden and sometimes apparent but always it inspires awe and admiration of the audience.


Let us quote the example of the movie” Hero”. The movie is the story of five swordsmen and three minor characters. Four swordsmen are assassins whereas the fifth is the king himself. In this movie minor characters include “an old musician, a calligraphy master, a maid named as broken sword and a Moon” (Li). All eight characters are the true representation of traditional Chinese Tao people. One of the swordsmen “Nameless” is the figure that tells the story of conflicts again and again to the king but every time, the details are different and confusing (Li). Despite this, the proximity of the fighting sides with the man and the cosmos makes the movies complex and escalates its ideology.

Taoism is depicted on different levels in the movie. Towards the end of the movie two swordsmen keep on gazing at each other combating in their minds. They have no swords in the duel and this event in the movie is an allusion to Lao’s concept of perfection of tune without any sound. Perfect tune makes no sound; similarly perfect sportsmen can fight without swords. They use no swords. This sort of meditation has been a usual practice of religious figures of ancient times. For hours they keep on meditating on the universe and its healing effects (Li).

In this movie the fighting techniques have been displayed by using art of calligraphy in the form of characters of broken sword and Sky. Nameless has to understand the calligraphy of broken sword to defeat him. The concept of unity in the universe floats in the words “sword” and “All under heaven” that broken sword writes for Nameless (Li). It throws light on the ideology of fight or action for the man, universe and God. Self possesses least importance because in Taoism self dissolves in the God and the universe. This concept is not positively hailed and applied in the western world of self importance.

Taoism also exhibits the aesthetic beauty of heaven and the earth. This ideology is very beautifully shown in the two hours of the movie. The scenes and landscapes are not multicolored. Simple and mono colored background is portrayed in the movie with characters wearing the attires of the same color. It creates an understanding of Taoist aesthetic sense in the mind of the viewer.

Concept of Five Elements

The Tao concept of five elements and Yin (spiritual) and Yang (material) has become the part of the Movie. According to Chinese Tao mythology five elements – earth, wood metal, fire and water subdue their former element. In this way fire is subdued by water fire subdues metal and this sequence goes on. Each element coupled with its substantial identity describes a different dynamic process. These are the basic and essential components of all the material things. Earth signifies transformation and change. Wood represents development of action and impulse. Metal denotes downfall and contraction. Fire is the symbol of dynamic phase and action; and last but not least Water signifies placidity and reflection (Nations Online).

Each of the five elements exhibits its own color depending upon its material and nature. For example: Yellow color is typical for earth, green is used for wood, metal is given white color; red shows fire and for water black is specified. Each element is supposed to represent a separate Chinese regime (Nations Online). The King of the movie symbolized the Qi dynasty and was a firm believer of the theory of five elements. He was notorious for his corrupted and Barbarous rule; but the king in the movie is wise and believes in unity. He imposed his will at the cost of sacrifices of millions of people and his inhumane conduct went against theological teachings on Chinese sages and seers.

The whole plot of the movie moves scene to scene with colors. The king and his courts men are dressed in black or dark-colored robes that are used for water. The scene orbiting the swordsmen shifts from one color to another. The basic color is yellow that denotes common forefathers of the Chinese nation. In the movie Yellow color is used for the first assassin and by the end of the movie we find yellow color at the suicide scene of the lovers (Broken Sword and Snow). So we find a panorama of five elements and their respective colors in the movie “Hero” (Li).

We can summarize this movie as a representative of Taoism without having any protagonist in it. The name of the movie is ‘hero’ but the viewer is unable to find any hero in it. In this way the movie is close to life because as a matter of fact, we find it hard to meet real hero in real life. Real life is different from reel life. The movie delineates the sacrifices of people that are hard to be acknowledged in reality since ages.

Fight Club

Another important movie in this reference is Fight Club that is based after some alternations on the book Fight Club. This movie is a piece of anarchist literature in which several adaptations are introduced to gain interest and curiosity of the viewer. At the first look, this movie seems to be quite chaotic and confusing but the producer has developed the plot and the story line with such an expertise that the viewer can’t help learning from it.

Fight Club is the story of a man who has a split personality. He split up his personality in two halves. His new oriented half has been named as Tyler Druden who possess every trait that he wishes to have. But the irony of the situation is that he becomes forgetful of the fact that although he is the embodiment of the two personalities but his mind is the same. He resides to alter ego to get his targets in life. Eventually, he loses hold on himself but the other half despite wishing to lose him cannot get rid of him. Tyler’s anarchism urges him to gather people to want some one to believe in and give vent to his teachings before them. He voices many Taoist t concepts to the people and educate them (Harrison).

Taoism in the Fight Club

The concept of Yin and Yang is one of the most prevalent concepts on Chinese Taoism. It states the presence of two opposite forces in the universe. Any force can subdue the other force for the time being but imbalance can not be maintained in this regard. Yin is feminine, weak, flexible and yielding. The hero of the movie is the embodiment of Yin force. He is timid and sensitive. Yang is masculine, decisive, rigid and dominating. The split half Tyler can be well described as having yang force (Harrison).

Wu Wei is another prominent notion of Taoism. It means ineffective action or the action that comes spontaneously without any effort. The doctrines of Fight Club prompt people to live life freely without the desires of completion and realization of their aspirations and hopes. We can only find our selves by letting ourselves loose and destroying our possessions (Harrison).


Wu-Chi comprises of the idea of birth and decay. This concept is based on ultimate nothingness. It shows the man comes from nothingness and goes back to nothingness after his death. Death is an unavoidable and ever approaching reality. It is not considered as a bitter reality but as a relieving agent to take us away from the world of frets and fevers (Harrison).

Lost Generation

Fight Club highlights the turmoil of modern lost generation. We are the living in the age of floating anxieties. Tyler speaks of the depression and frustration. We have gone astray from our right goal and spiritually depressed and dejected. Flight Club shares the Taoist teachings of Rebel and Revolution in the movie. The disillusionment in their present mode of life causes people to work for change without any fear of losing any thing. The main character of the movie along with Tyler Druden initiated a Fight Club to ooze out the tension and depression of the lost generation. In the beginning he fights with himself but with the passage of time people become a part of the Fight Club to vent out their pent up aggressive and wild emotions. Tyler’s company has made them wish not to die without having scars over their bodies (Harrison).

Rebirth and Rejection of Technology

The final objective of Fight Club is the destruction of the modern hollow society for it renewal. It follows the rejection of the modern and heavy technology. Same idea has been conveys in Taoist manuscripts on Simplify and Utopia. According to it, people must work themselves and should not rely completely on high technology. They can use small and restricted tools in their work but use of technology in the modern world should be discouraged. Thus, Fight Club is another movie having Taoist ideas and philosophy moving side by side with the story (Harrison).

Star Wars

Star wars is another series of film that falls in the same category. The success of the movie after its launching is well understood by the hefty annual revenue of more than 400 million dollars and this sum is still escalating day by day. In only after three years on its release we see toy shops teeming with the posters, toys and games related to the characters and action figures of the movie. This giant film expresses different approaches towards religion. George Lucas has attempted to lay the foundation of this Sci-Fi on Taoism.

Star wars is the sequel of almost six movies displaying comparative perceptions in religion. In the first movie of the Star Wars films in 1977 “A New Hope” a deadly weapon ‘Death Star’ has been introduced by an alien Count Dooku who had allied with Separatists. They had a plan to launch their aggression against all planets to subdue them. A group of guerilla fighters wage the car to destroy the death weapon. It advocates the power of force in the universe. Force creates an energy field that girdles that entire universe and galaxy in a bond (Grimes).

Empire Strikes Back

Next movie “Empire Strikes Back” is probably the manifestation of religion to the maximum. It is about the use of Force in life. Luke has been warned by Yoda to be cautious of the bleak side and negativity in life. He exclaims that force should be used for defensive purposes rather than offensive motives. But Luke does not seem to believe it. Luke’s weak point is his recklessness and it has been pointed out and rebuked by Yoda and the spirit of Obi-wan (A New Hope) as well. At last, they leave Luke like many parents who let their children retire to the world with a piece of advice i.e. burial of feelings is necessary to carry out what Luke has been taught in the training by Yoda (Grimes).

Return of the Jedi

The last film of Star wars contains the conception of salvation in religion. Luke is fully active and a well-trained Jedi in this part. He fights for his people with tremendous force. He wrestles with evil but somehow can’t suppress the hatred and anguish linked with the Dark side. Soon they discover that another evil Death star has been built to challenge their forces. Luke is the only Jedi in the battalion. The rest are common and ordinary people.

But it is interesting to note that all of them believe in the presence and support of force in their fight for freedom. As the plot develops, we see Luke desirous of saving his father’s soul. He succeeds in burning his father’s body for redemption on the expense of leaving the Death star half-destroyed. Good prevails over evil when advanced army is defeated by ancient tribes and Luke comes to celebrate with them after his father’s salvation (Grimes).

Role of Force in life

Star wars have allegorical portrayal of religion. It restates the role of religion in all the boxes and affairs of life. It conveys a universal message that spirituality is essential to be triumphant over evil in life. It shows that good and evil are perpetual and constant; both can be used in religious practices but the Good force nurtures new ideas and prepares a person to confront the challenges of life (Grimes).

Taoism and Star Wars

Star wars have many references to the Taoist philosophy. The Jedi’s motto in the movie “May the force be with you” (Grimes 159) has been adapted from Dao jing.

Tao’s principle of Wui-we breathes in the scene when Yoda advises his trainee Luke to act without acting.

Tao’s notion of opposition and harmony has been delineated by Lucas in ‘The Return of the Jedi’. Darth is a bad man where as Luke Skywalker is a good chap; still he must repress evil and overcome the hurdles of his journey to reach his destination. Critics are of the view that Lucas has used Taoist concept of opposition and harmony to let his heroes and villains undergo development of action in the film (Toropov and Hansen).

Martial Art

Martial art is a social practice of self defense as well as a physical training to confront stages of life. In the last few decades a tremendous rise in the exercise of Martial art has been noticed in Eastern and Western countries. Broadly speaking, Martial art is a way to enhance self control and breed self defense in an individual (Brown and Johnson). Chinese and Japanese history gives the traces of the practice of martial art in Tao people. It has been studied in Buddhist temples and shrines in Manchu dynasty and practiced afterwards for defensive purposes and later on it became an essential component of their spiritual and social order.

The Samurai is a group of warriors who came into origin by the need of the feudal lords to defend their domains against attack. Martial art is adopted on t he basis that body and mind work with complete harmony and represent duality. They are indispensible to each other for proper functioning in a social structure. It enables a person to resort to the holistic plans of disposition to inculcate poise ,sensitivity towards his own self and others, social benign attitude and genial temperament in performing several actions. It is note worthy that the practical aim of Martial art is to weed out widespread violence in social circle and refrain one’s self from indulging in such destructive activities.

It is a training that procreates self realization and mass realization in a person (Brown and Johnson). A person engaged in Martial art keeps his eyes and senses alive to the world all around. He is responsible and sensitive enough to act and react in certain circumstances. Thus, in this way Martial art has become an integral component of Eastern and Western culture alike. Some illustrious teachers of Chinese martial art include Chang Choo-Tung, Chang San Fen, Chuan You, Chang Wang Ting, Chen Fa Ke and the list goes on (Frantzis).

Gung fu

Gung fu is a special kind of martial art that apparently is a physical exercise but inwardly it meets the goal of preparing the mind to correspond with the body in harmony. It is based on the principle of spontaneity in the universe. Tao notion of Yin and Yang is also the basic edifice that works in the mind of every practitioner. He is fully aware of the fact that although they are opposite forces but they are interrelated and inter dependent. It confirms that one should fall in harmony to the force and strength of the opponent. Nothing unnatural should be done in gung fu. It teaches the practitioner a lesson to act in accordance with the other force. Forgetting himself can only respond to the opponent’s move. It also improves proper circulation, respiration and apt functioning of other organs of the body (Lee and Little).

Martial art films

Martial art films are very famous all over the world. In 1979 inspired by the films of Hong Kong enclosing Bruce lee’s “Fists of Fury”, “Five Fingers of Death” and “The Chinese Connection America” plunged into making Martial art movies as a separate genre. Martial art films are specifically made to exhibit style of Asian Martial art including fencing and boxing; that is altogether different from Western culture of fight in the movies. Martial art movies are a mere pageant of armed and unarmed fighting styles like Sword fighting and Kung fu. “The Karate Kid series”, “3 Ninjas series” and “Side Kicks” can adjust in the title of Martial art movies (Dixon).


To sum up our detailed piece of work, we can conclude that Taoism either a philosophy or a religion influences the life and beliefs of Chinese People. Films and movies are the true depiction of the society. They reflect what the society possesses. Art and literature is the best possible way to propagate any ideology or teaching in the masses. Turning the pages of history we encounter many examples of movies and dramas that hold Taoism and Chinese religious teaching as constituent elements of their themes.

Taoism is a philosophical ideology of the ancient people to express and recognize their real self and their relation with the surrounding. It is perpetually modern in the sense that it penetrates in the psychology and living structure of the recent Chinese culture and a vital part of their belief to architect new Chinese philosophies.

Works Cited

Bracy, John. Ba Gua: Hidden Knowledge in the Taoist Internal Martial Art. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1998.

Brown, David and Alan Johnson. “The Social Practice of Self-Defense Martial Arts: Applications for Physical Education.” National Association for Physical Education in Higher Education 2000: 247-259.

Dixon, Wheeler W. Film genre 2000: new critical essays. New York: SUNY Press, 2000.

Frantzis, Bruce Kumar. The power of internal martial arts: combat secrets of ba gua, tai chi, and hsing-i. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1998.

Grimes, Caleb. Star Wars Jesus: A Spiritual Commentary on the Reality of the Force. Enumclaw, WA: WinePress Publishing, 2007.

Harrison, Robert H. “” 2002. Scribd. Web.

Kohn, Livia. The Taoist experience: an anthology. New York: SUNY Press, 1993.

Lee, Bruce and John Little. The Tao Of Gung Fu : A Study In The Way Of The Chinese Martial Art. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1997.

Li, You-Sheng. . 2008. Web.

Littlejohn, Ronnie. Daoist Philosophy. 2003. Web.

Nations Online. . 2010. Web.

ReligiousTolerance. Taoism. 1995. Web.

Toropov, Brandon and Chad Hansen. The complete idiot’s guide to Taoism. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books, 2002.

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