Lecture Five

Confucianism and Daoism

Scope: This lecture will explore the basic concepts and texts of Confucian and Daoist thought, which developed as a response to the crises of the Zhou order in the Warring States period. Confucianism is an essentially positivist approach to the world that seeks to understand the ways in which people can live together in social communities. Human relationships and a system of ritual are central to Confucius’s concept of a well-ordered society, and learning is the mechanism for maintaining that order. Daoism is, by contrast, a radically skeptical system, which doubts that knowledge is reliable and views all human action that is based on lofty ideals and theories as dangerous. The Daoist thinkers Laozi and Zhuangzi advocated a naturalistic, laissez- faire approach to life, which asserted, “by doing nothing, nothing is left undone.”


I. From the late 6th through the 4th centuries B.C.E., several important thinkers appeared in China.

A. Two of the most important schools of thought in Chinese history originated with the ideas of Confucius and Laozi, who were contemporaries.

1. Not much is known about either of these men in terms of hard facts.

2. Both seem to have been members of the class of shi, the professional administrative elite.

3. Both men had later followers who further developed their ideas, most notably, Mencius for Confucius and Zhuangzi for Laozi.

B. There were many other schools of thought at this time, some of which we will consider in the next lecture.

II. Confucianism is the school of thought deriving from the ideas of Confucius and Mencius.

A. Confucius spent much of his life trying to become a major political advisor to one of the rulers of the many small states in China.

1. He was from the state of Lu, in what is now Shandong province.

2. He held a series of minor posts in Lu and other states around the region but w'as never able to become the main advisor to a ruler.

3. He eventually gave up on serving in office and devoted his time to teaching.

4. Most of what we know about him and his ideas conies from records written down later by his students in a book called Lunyu, or The Analects.

B. The key to the teachings of Confucius is the idea of relationships between people.

1. Confucius believed that people could live together peacefully by recognizing their roles in networks of relationships.

2. The family was seen as a microcosm of how relationships linked people together.

3. Confucius used a model of Five Great Relationships to suggest how society might work.

4. The Five Great Relationships are those between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and friend and friend.

5. Each of these involved both hierarchy and reciprocity.

6. In each pair, one role was superior and one, inferior; one role led and the other followed.

7. Yet each involved mutual obligations and responsibilities.

8. Failure to properly fulfill one’s role could lead to the abrogation of the relationship.

C. Ritual was the mechanism for facilitating these relationships.

1. By following proper ritual behavior, each person would fulfill his or her role in society.

2. Any individual might be in a variety of roles at the same time, being both a father and a son, both a subject of the ruler and a master in the family.

3. It was the adoption by local strongmen of improper rituals, not suited to their true roles, that had undermined the functioning of the Zhou regime in the 8th century B.C.E.

4. Thus, Confucius came to advocate the “rectification of names” and the “return to the rites.”

D. The “gentleman” is the ideal figure for Confucius.

1. The gentleman understands the workings of relationships.

2. He observes proper ritual.

3. He engages in learning both to develop his personal moral character and to gain knowledge that is useful in serving others.

4. He seeks to promote “the Way” (Dao) of living appropriate to a well-ordered society through both personal example and service in government.

E. Mencius further developed the original ideas of Confucius.

1. Mencius lived about a century and half after Confucius.

2. He emphasized the mutual responsibilities of all the Great Relationships.

3. He developed a new version of the Mandate of Heaven that used Confucian values to explain the bestowal and withdrawal of the Mandate and the right of the people to overthrow an unjust ruler.

III. Daoism was almost the polar opposite of Confucianism, while sharing some important basic concepts.

A. Laozi is seen as the founder of Daoism.

1. Laozi lived around the same time as Confucius, but even less is known about his life.

2. Zhuangzi, like Mencius, lived later than Laozi and built on the ideas of his predecessor.

3. A book simply called Laozi contains the basic ideas of Daoism.

4. Chinese myths say that after he finished his work in China, Laozi left and traveled to India, where he became the Buddha.

B. Where Confucianism is positivist, Daoism is skeptical.

1. Laozi and Zhuangzi question the ability of people to truly know things.

2. For Daoists, all knowledge is partial and provisional.

3. By basing actions on such knowledge, people tend to make things worse rather than improve things.

4. The best way to live is to seek harmony with the natural flow of events, the Dao.

5. This doctrine of “doing nothing” became the fundamental teaching of philosophical Daoism.

6. For Laozi, the ideal life was in a small village, where all one’s simple needs were met, and though one could hear the dogs and roosters of neighboring hamlets, one never chose to go there.

IV. Confucianism and Daoism were perhaps the most important schools of thought to arise in the Warring States period, but they were not the only ones, and we will turn our attention to some others in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Frederick W. Mote, Intellectual Foundations of China.

Supplemental Reading:

Benjamin Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China.

Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred.

Questions to Consider:

1. What were the shared assumptions of Confucianism and Daoism?

2. How can Confucianism be seen as an ideology of the shi class, and Daoism also be seen in this way?

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