53 The Chinese Religions: Daoism and Confucianism

Confucius and the Origins of Confucianism

Confucianism is a philosophy developed in 6th-century BCE China, which is considered by some a secular-humanist belief system, by some a religion, and by others a social code. The broad range of subjects touched on by Confucianism lends itself to all three of these interpretations depending on which aspects one focuses on.

The philosophy is based on the belief that human beings are essentially good, that they engage in immoral behavior through lack of a strong moral standard, and that adherence to an ethical code, and rituals which encourage it, enabled one to live a productive and tranquil life of peace which would translate to a strong, ethical, and prosperous state.

It was founded by Confucius (K’ung-fu-Tze, Kong Fuzi, “Master Kong”, l. 551-479 BCE), a Chinese philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 772-476 BCE). Confucius is considered among the greatest philosophers of the Hundred Schools of Thought (also given as the Contention of the Hundred Schools of Thought) which references the time during the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period (c. 481-221 BCE) when various philosophical schools contended with each other for adherents. He is, without a doubt, the most influential philosopher in China’s history whose views, precepts, and concepts have informed Chinese culture for over 2,000 years.

Confucius himself claimed to have written nothing and offered nothing new, insisting his views were taken from older works (known as the Five Classics) he was just popularizing through his school. The later Confucian philosopher and scholar Mencius (Mang-Tze, l. 372-289 BCE), however, attributed the Five Classics to Confucius, a view that continued to be held until the mid-20th century CE. These works, three others on Confucian thought, and one by Mencius make up The Four Books and Five Classics which have been the foundational texts of Chinese culture since the time of the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) when Confucianism was made the state philosophy.(11)


statue of Confucius
Confucius by Rob Web is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Confucius’ philosophical vision was very simple: human beings were innately good, ‘good’ being defined as understanding the difference between right and wrong, and inclined naturally to choose what is right. This claim could be proven by how people reacted to others in times of trouble. The best-known example of this concept (given by the later Confucian Mencius) is a person coming across a young boy who has fallen into a well. One’s first impulse is to save the boy – either by direct action or by running to find someone to help—even though one does not know the boy or his parents and might be risking one’s own safety in trying to help him.(11)

In cases where one did neither of these things—in other words, where one chose wrong over right—it was due to ignorance of what was right owing to a lack of a moral code and standard of conduct. Someone who would allow the boy to drown in the well would most likely have done so out of an overly developed sense of self-interest. If such a person were educated in right action and a proper understanding of the world and their place in it, they would choose right over wrong. This is where the theological aspect comes in which encourages some to interpret Confucianism as a religion. Confucius believed in the Chinese concept of Tian (Heaven) which should be understood in this case as something quite close to the Tao. Tian is the source of and sustainer of all life which created the ordered world out of chaos. One needed to recognize the existence of Tian, a constant flux of Yin and Yang (opposite) forces, in order to understand one’s place in the world. Sacrifices made to the various gods made no difference to those gods, who were all aspects of Tian, but made a significant difference to the one offering the sacrifice because belief in a higher power, whatever form it took, helped to check one’s concept of self-importance, reduced one’s ego, and encouraged one to move from self-interest to consider the interests and welfare of others.(11)

A belief in a higher power alone was not enough to encourage right action, however, nor to control one’s baser instincts. Confucius advocated a strict code of ethics one should adhere to in order to maintain the middle way in life of peace and prosperity. These are known as the Five Constants and Four Virtues:

  • Ren – benevolence
  • Yi – righteousness
  • Li – ritual
  • Zhi – knowledge
  • Xin – integrity
  • Xiao – filial piety
  • Zhong – loyalty
  • Jie – contingency
  • Yi – justice/righteousness

All of these were equally important, but they began with filial piety. People were encouraged to honor and respect their parents and observe a hierarchy of authority where a son obeyed his father’s wishes, a younger brother respected and deferred to his older brother, and women did the same with men. In this way, the family would live harmoniously and, if enough families embraced filial piety, one would soon have a whole community of contented people, then a state, and then an entire country. There would be no need of oppressive governments or laws because people would, essentially, be governing themselves through recognition of the benefits of virtuous behavior.

By embracing filial piety, one was taking the initial step toward the other constants and virtues because one was subjecting one’s self to a policy of behavior that did not elevate the self. Even the head of the household, the father, was expected to be humble, in his case in the face of Tian. No one was above observance of filial piety in accordance with righteousness.

Filial piety (and the rest) was informed by Ren which means not only ‘benevolence’ but that which makes a human truly human, one’s basic humanity, which understands right from wrong and instinctively leans toward what is right. Expressed in behavior, Confucius coined the so-called Silver Rule, a much earlier version of the Golden Rule attributed to Jesus Christ (‘silver’ because the concept is expressed in the negative), when he said, “whatsoever you do not want done to you, do not do to another” (Analects 12:2)

By adhering to these precepts, in accordance with the rituals which encouraged them, one would attain the state of junzi (literally “lord’s son”) which meant a superior individual and is usually translated as ‘gentleman’. A junzi recognized the order of the world and his – or her – place in it (since Confucius understood women as in need of as much instruction as men, although his era did not allow for it formally) and, through adherence to Confucius’ teachings would behave well, in the interests of all involved, and live-in peace with one’s self and others.(11)

Taoism and Tao Origins

Taoism (also known as Daoism) is a Chinese philosophy attributed to Lao Tzu (c. 500 BCE) which developed from the folk religion of the people primarily in the rural areas of China and became the official religion of the country under the Tang Dynasty. Taoism is therefore both a philosophy and a religion.

A monumental statue at Mt. Qingyuan of Lao-Tzu
Lao-Tzu by Thanato is license under CC BY-SA 3.0

It emphasizes doing what is natural and “going with the flow” in accordance with the Tao (or Dao), a cosmic force which flows through all things and binds and releases them. The philosophy grew from an observance of the natural world, and the religion developed out of a belief in cosmic balance maintained and regulated by the Tao. The original belief may or may not have included practices such as ancestor and spirit worship but both of these principles are observed by many Taoists today and have been for centuries.

Taoism exerted a great influence during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) and the emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712-756 CE) decreed it a state religion, mandating that people keep Taoist writings in their home. It fell out of favor as the Tang Dynasty declined and was replaced by Confucianism and Buddhism but the religion is still practiced throughout China and other countries today.(12)


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