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Compare and contrast Confucianism with Daoism, imagining how each might apply to contemporary forms of government. How would a Daoist-based approach to government differ from a Confucian-based approach?

Living Religions


Chapter Overview

The goals of Chapter 6 are:

  1. To present the foundations and defining characteristics of Daoism and Confucianism
  2. To highlight the differences between these two religions but also explain their complementary relationship
  3. To describe the many forms of Chinese religious expression

Daoism and Confucianism are two religious traditions of ancient China. As religious and social forces, they have coexisted for centuries in China and have spread to other Asian regions such as Korea and Japan. While their respective approaches to religious questions such as the meaning of existence and the most productive way to approach life’s problems are different, they nonetheless co-exist and offer complementary values of such a nature that one person’s actions and thoughts can encompass both sets of traditions. Students should also note that Buddhism has played a significant role in Chinese religion, and it too may complement aspects of Daoist and Confucian belief and practice.

Students should note that Chinese terms used in this chapter are transliterated using the Pinyin system, with the older Wade-Giles form in parentheses, e.g. Dao (Tao).


Ancient traditions

The spiritual ways of ancient Chinese civilization influence all later developments. Ancestor veneration in the form of rituals called li involves funerals, mourning rites, and continuing sacrifices. Ancestors not cared for may cause trouble for their descendants; kings sought the guidance of their ancestors through divination using oracle bones. Various rites ward off the actions of demons and ghosts. The world is full of invisible spirits—be they ancestors, the spirits of charismatic humans, or nature spirits.

Another ancient belief is that in a great spiritual being, masculine, ruler (but not creator) of the universe, known as the Shangdi. In later eras, there was greater focus on the idea of Heaven as an impersonal power. Rulers justified their rule by citing the Mandate of Heaven.

Also important is the belief that the universe is a manifestation of qi, an impersonal self-generating energy with two forces: yin (dark, receptive, female) and yang (bright, assertive, male). The two forces operate in a regular pattern, a creative rhythm called the Dao or way.

Various forms of divination have long been used to achieve harmony with the cosmic process. One important divination technique uses divining objects such as coins cast six times, which creates a combination explained in the Yijing or Book of Changes.

Harmony with the cosmos is a central ideal in these ancient ways, and this ideal is expressed in differing ways in Daoism and Confucianism.


Daoism—The way of nature and immortality

Daoism is a scholarly label applied to a wide array of beliefs and practices which range from a philosophical tradition to longevity practices. Religious Daoism may involve not only Daoist practices, but Confucian virtues and Buddhist-style rituals.


Teachings of Daoist sages

The historical origin of Daoist philosophy is unclear, but it is said to have started with the Yellow Emperor who is said to have ruled from 2697 to 2597 B.C.E. He is understood to have studied with an ancient sage who taught him about meditation, health, and military practices.

There are two major texts of the Daoist literati or philosophical tradition. The first is the Daode jing (“The Classic of the Way and its Power”). Chinese tradition states that the Daode jing was written by Laozi in the sixth century BCE, but archeological evidence suggests the text may be somewhat later. The central theme of the Daode jing is that one can live most happily by harmonizing one’s self with the universe and with the challenges of life in general by being receptive to the beauty and direction of nature, and by being quiet.

The second major text is the Zhuangzi, attributed to the author of the same name (c. 365-290 BCE), who maintained that the best approach to life in a chaotic civilization is detachment.

The Dao in Daoist philosophy is extremely difficult to express. It is the eternally real, unnamable, a mystical reality that cannot be completely grasped by the mind. According to the Daode jing it cannot be named or categorized, but it is “the gate to the secret of all life.” To live in harmony with the Dao, one should experience the transcendent unity of all that is and cease to feel any personal preferences. The Daoist sage is like a valley through which a stream flows; obstacles are slowly worn away rather than attacked directly.

Such an approach to life is known as wu wei, paradoxically actionless action. Daoism frequently uses the image of flowing water to illustrate the ideal life. Water passing over rocks flows smoothly and effortlessly, yet is powerful enough to carve great canyons. Another example is that of a butcher who lets his hand be guided by the natural makeup of the carcass, finding the spaces between the bones where a slight movement of the blade will glide through without resistance. When applied to government, the principle of wu wei means that rulers should guide society without interfering with its natural course. The Dao is our original nature, but civilization obscures it. Some students may hasten to make Daoism into a rather superficial “go with the flow” philosophy; it is important to emphasize the difficulty and profundity of Daoist concepts.

Some forms of Daoism advocate withdrawal from the hectic activity of everyday life for a life of contemplation and seeking harmony. One means of seeking harmony is feng shui, a form of geomancy which examines the flow of qi to determine the ideal placement of a building, grave, or even home furnishings.


Organized and folk Daoism

The second century CE saw the beginning of organized groups or sects of Daoism, using longstanding practices such as alchemy, faith-healing, sorcery, and power objects. Chinese popular religious practice has long included worship of spirits who may affect one’s destiny. The Kitchen God is one of the familiar spirits, and may be propitiated with animal offerings. Folk tradition asserts that the Kitchen God, or spirit, lives in a family’s kitchen and makes an annual report to the Jade Emperor about the family’s virtues and failings. To ensure a good report, during the Lantern Festival at the end of Chinese New Year celebrations, the Kitchen God may be offered something sweet or intoxicating. Villages may make collective offerings to spirits affecting their wellbeing. The use of talismans is also widespread, as well as worship of virtuous people understood to have become divine after death.

Organized Daoist sects developed complex rituals, texts, and had organized clergy. Some sects were founded on the basis of visionary revelations. Some, such as Highest Purity Daoism, advocated celibacy. In the fourth century, the Numinous Treasure group arose, assimilating elements of Buddhism. It, in turn, was succeeded by a school called Complete Perfection, the dominant Daoist monastic tradition since the twelfth century. Complete Perfecting incorporates Daoist inner alchemy, Ch’an Buddhist meditation, and Confucian social morality. The present Daoist canon, compiled in 1445 CE, contains over 1,500 scriptures, but has not yet been thoroughly studied by non-Daoist scholars.

Families may hire either Daoist or Buddhist priests to perform funeral rites.




Longevity and immortality

One key component of Daoist practices is individual spiritual practices for self-cultivation, longevity, and perhaps immortality. These practices, said to be passed down secretly from teacher to pupil, seek to use the energy available to the body for physical health and intuitive perception of the universal order. The body contains the “three treasures” of generative force (jing), vital life force (qi), and spirit (shen). Breathing techniques, diets, visualization, etc. may be used to activate the three treasures. Literature and folk tradition refer to sages thought to be centuries old; especially famous are the Eight Immortals.

The Queen Mother of the West is an important celestial being who guards the elixir of life. There have also been noteworthy female Daoist sages.


Daoism today

In communist mainland China as well as Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities, Daoist practices are still pursued. Chinese temples combine Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist elements. Throughout Chinese history, rulers have sometimes demanded allegiance to their own particular form of religion and suppressed others. Under communism, religion has been persecuted as well.

The Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China remains officially anti-religious, but there has been a recent resurgence of religious practice throughout the country, and Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian religious sites are being built.

Hong Kong, now part of the People’s Republic of China, has long been home to many Daoist practices, and Daoist organizations there pursue social welfare and educational programs. Academic study of Daoism is intensifying as well.

In both Asia and the West, Daoism continues in three major forms: organized religious institutions, societies for self-cultivation, and practitioners of techniques for spiritual development, health, and longevity.

Spiritual development techniques such as acupuncture, traditional Chinese herbal medicine, and the energy training practice of Taiji quan (which is a series of dance-like postures that look like swimming in the air) are now popular (though not necessarily in a spiritual context, much like some western yoga practice).

Self-cultivation systems incorporating traditional health exercises are generally known as Qigong, used both in China and the West to cure disease and improve concentration and health. An example of such a system is Falun gong or Falun Dafa, which combines Buddhism and Daoist energy practices. Falun gong has been repressed in China.


Confucianism: the practice of virtue

Confucianism originated about the same time as Daoism, during the sixth century BCE, an era of great spiritual teaching throughout India, Greece, and China. This was approximately the era of the Buddha, maybe Laozi, Persia’s empire, Athens’s Golden Age, and the Hebrew prophets.

In Chinese, Confucius is known as Kong fuzi, and his teachings are called Juchiao, “the teaching of the scholars.” Confucian tradition is based on ancient Chinese beliefs in the Mandate of Heaven, ancestor worship, spirits, and the power of ritual. It has long co-existed with Daoism and Buddhism, and many individuals have harmonized elements of each in their lives.


Master Kong’s life

Confucius was born into a genteel family that had fallen upon hard times due to a change in the ruling dynasty. His father died when he was three, and his mother died when he was twenty-three. After her death, he entered a three-year mourning period during which he studied ancient ceremonial rites. Confucius concluded that the political instability of his time could be remedied if rulers would return to classical rites and standards.

He instructed students in the Six Classics of China’s cultural heritage, the Yijing, poetry, history, rituals, music, and dance. Today, only five of the six survive; the one on music has either been destroyed or perhaps never existed. His teaching was considered fairly unimportant during his lifetime, and it was only in subsequent centuries that his contributions were widely recognized.


The Confucian virtues

Ren (innate goodness, love, benevolence, humaneness, human-heartedness) is the most important virtue extolled by Confucianism. A person devoted to ren is motivated by what is moral, not personal profit, seeks self-improvement rather than recognition, is mindful of parents, and believes human nature is essentially good.

Strong government was a key concern of Confucius; he believed that people must have faith in their rulers, and that rulers in turn must lead virtuous lives to set a good example.

Confucianism emphasizes relationships over individuality; as an example, the modern character for ren combines “two” and “person.” There are five basic relationships essential for a stable society: parent/ child, older/younger siblings, husband/wife, older/younger friend, and ruler and subject.  These relationships involve mutual obligations and responsibilities, with the first party in each of these relationships considered superior to the second.

Individuals are to cultivate morality within themselves, and in turn within their families, society, and government. One’s relationship with parents is central; filial piety is a key moral principle. Filial piety extends to ancestor worship. The rites honoring ancestors and deities are called li, understood to be the earthly expressions of the natural cosmic order. Confucius frequently spoke of the typical gentleman of high civilization as a model.


Divergent followers of Confucius

Later followers of Confucius added to his thought. Mengzi (Latinized as Mencius) stressed the goodness of human nature, and the virtue of yi (righteous conduct). Xunzi in contrast argued that humans are self-centered by nature and that Heaven operates according to natural laws rather than intervening on the side of good government.


The state cult

Confucianism was adopted by the state during the Han dynasty (205 BCE-220 CE). Men seeking government positions had to pass examinations based on the six classics. Neo-Confucians stressed the importance of meditation and dedication to becoming a noble person; they encouraged women to offer themselves in total sacrifice to others. Neo-Confucianism advocated greater emphasis on offerings.


Confucianism under communism

Confucian teaching on the importance of the scholarly life was strongly attacked by Mao Zedong. During the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism was attacked as one of the “Four Olds”—old ideas, culture, customs, and habits. Confucian morality nonetheless forms the basis of Chinese ethics. Recent Communist Party leaders have advocated Confucian virtues without naming them as such. Confucianism, however, is not officially recognized as a religion in China, while Buddhism, Islam, Daoism, Protestantism, and Christianity are. Some advocate “Capitalist Confucianism,” according to which business is conducted with the Confucian values of humanity, trustworthiness, sincerity, and altruism. Confucian-based civil service exams have been partially reintroduced.


Confucianism in East Asia

Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan have been strongly influenced by Confucian values. Contemporary discussions of Confucianism may involve a reappraisal of women’s roles.


Key Terms

Dao (Tao)



Qi (ch’i)


Wu wei





Class Activities/Assignments

  1. Use the quotations from the Daode jing on pp. 187-188 as the basis for explaining the concept of Dao.
  2. Investigate whether any of the spiritual practices described in the chapter are found in the area—e.g. an acupuncture or Chinese medicine clinic, a martial arts studio, a feng shui
  3. Research the current Chinese government’s focus on building a “harmonious society” and discuss how this concept may reflect the influence of traditional Chinese concepts.


Class Discussion/Questions

  1. Using examples from the chapter, explain how Daoism, Confucianism, and even Buddhism may be blended in Chinese religious practice.
  2. Explain the significance of relationships—with humans and nature—in both Daoist and Confucian thought.
  3. What role do Daoism and Confucianism play in contemporary communist China and other parts of Asia? Use specific examples from the chapter to illustrate your answer.
  4. Compare and contrast Confucianism with Daoism, imagining how each might apply to contemporary forms of government. How would a Daoist-based approach to government differ from a Confucian-based approach?
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