Daoism and Confucianism, two of China’s greatest indigenous philosophical and theological traditions, both emerged in what are now the adjacent eastern Chinese provinces of Henan and Shandong at roughly the same time (c. 6th–5th century BCE).
For around 2,500 years, both customs have been ingrained in Chinese culture. Both have a specific founder, although Laozi, the founder of Daoism (who thrived in the sixth century BCE), is a very enigmatic figure and some of the details of his conventional biography are almost definitely legends.
According to a common but improbable tale, Confucius (551-479 BCE), the founder of Confucianism, once met Laozi, another philosopher, and the earlier (older) philosopher was not pleased. Whatever the case, over the course of millennia, their separate traditions have inspired and borrowed from one another and share many of the same ideas (about mankind, society, the ruler, heaven, and the world) as one another. Daoism and Confucianism have continued to have a significant impact on Chinese culture even after the end of the imperial period (1911) and the founding of the communist People’s Republic (1949), which was frequently brutally anti-religion.
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As philosophies and modes of living, Confucianism and Daoism emerged. Daoism, in contrast to Confucianism, finally became a self-aware religion with a structured theory, cultic rituals, and institutional leadership. It became common practice among later scholars to distinguish between the philosophical and the religious versions of Daoism, with some believing the latter to be a superstitious misinterpretation or adulteration of the original philosophy, in part because the doctrines of religious Daoism invariably differed from the philosophy from which they arose.
Daoism and Confucianism arose as philosophical
However, such critical viewpoint is now universally regarded as being overly simplistic, and the majority of modern scholars believe that the intellectual and religious interpretations of Daoism inform and influence one another.
The Daodejing (“Classic of the Way to Power”), traditionally attributed to Laozi but likely written by many authors after his death, and the Zhuangzi (“Master Zhuang”) by the same-named Daoist philosopher from the fourth to third centuries BCE both lay out the fundamental principles and doctrines of philosophical Daoism. The many linked connotations of the term “dao,” including “route,” “road,” “way,” “speech,” and “method,” show how extensive and diverse the philosophical concept from which the tradition derives its name is. As a result, the idea is open to many different interpretations and functions within Daoist philosophy.
The Cosmic Dao, or the Way of the Cosmos, is its most profound interpretation. It is the immanent and transcendent “source” of the universe (Daodejing), spontaneously and ceaselessly creating the “ten thousand things” (a metaphor for the world) and giving rise, in its constant fluctuation, to the complementary forces of yin and yang, which make up all aspects and phenomena of life. The Cosmic Dao is “imperceptible” and “indiscernible,” in the sense of not being any particular thing or indeterminate; it is the emptiness that latently includes all forms, beings, and forces of particular phenomena. The concept of the “way” of a thing or set of things, such as people (such as sages and kings) or mankind as a whole, is another significant interpretation of the dao.
The naturalness, spontaneity, and eternal rhythmic fluctuation of the Cosmic Dao are contrasted by Daoist philosophy with the artificiality, restriction, and stasis of human society and culture. Only when the human method (rendao) is tuned to or in harmony with the Cosmic Dao, in part through the wise rule of sage-kings who practice wuwei, the virtue of refraining from acting contrary to nature, will humanity develop.
In general, Confucianism views human social institutions, such as the family, the school, the community, and the state, as essential to human flourishing and moral excellence because they are the only realm in which those achievements, as Confucius conceived of them, are possible. Daoism, on the other hand, embraces nature and what is natural and spontaneous in human experience, even to the point of dismissing much of China’s advanced culture, learning, and morality.
As a lover of antiquity, Confucius made a concerted effort to restore the knowledge, cultural norms, and ritualistic practices of the early Zhou kingdom (starting in the 11th century BCE) in order to morally reform the violent and disorderly society of his time (the Spring and Autumn Period) and to encourage personal cultivation, or the task of acquiring virtue (ren, or “humaneness”) and becoming a moral role model (junzi, or “gentleman”). Confucius believed that everyone, regardless of status, is capable of having ren, which is demonstrated when one’s social interactions show humanity and generosity toward others.
Self-cultivated junzi are distinguished from petty people (xiaoren; literally, “little person”), who are morally equivalent to children, by their ethical maturity and self-knowledge, which they have gained via years of study, contemplation, and practice.
Over the course of the following 1,500 years, other thinkers who were acknowledged as the founders of their own schools of Confucian and Neo-Confucian philosophy interpreted Confucius’s ideas in a variety of ways. The Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi released a collection of quotes attributed to Confucius that had been passed down both verbally and in writing around the year 1190. Since then, it has come to be recognized as the most trustworthy historical account of Confucius’s life and teachings and is known as Lunyu, or The Analects of Confucius.