Confucianism & Daoism: The Basics

The following is a lecture I composed for teaching Confucianism and Daoism to my sister’s 6th grade History class at Star of the Sea School in San Francisco.

Confucius_Sculpture,_Nanjing

Confucius and Laozi, the philosophers who founded Confucianism and Daoism, lived just before the Warring States Period of ancient China (476 – 221 BCE), a time of war, tragedy and interest in philosophy.  Unfortunately, people’s lives are full of problems, but fortunately problems make people think about their lives, question the answers of authorities and experts, and reason beyond their understandings.

Laozi

Each of us, as individuals, should use both belief and doubt to become better, wiser people, but how should we go about doing this?  Confucianism and Daoism, the two great philosophies of ancient China, gave people opposing ways to gain wisdom.  Many in ancient and modern times used both to compliment and extend each other.

The Confucians say we should build ourselves up to be educated, compassionate and civilized, while the Daoists say we should clear ourselves out to become open-minded, patient and peaceful.  The Confucians say we should learn from others, reason for ourselves, and do what we know to be right.  The Daoists say we should seek less for ourselves and gain perspective beyond our own interests, reasons and actions.

Confucius, the Golden Rule & Learning from Everyone

Confucius Latin

When Catholic Jesuit missionaries arrived in China in the 1600s, they were astounded to find that Confucius, the most influential and central Chinese philosopher, was incredibly similar to Jesus in his sayings and teachings.  First and foremost, like Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and other revered teachers, Confucius taught what has been called the Golden Rule: Do for others what you would want them to do for you, and do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.  Confucius said that this was the single thing that should guide one’s life, and that compassion is the central thread running throughout his thinking.

chinese-scholars1

Confucius’ student Zigong once told his teacher, “I do not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me.”  Confucius replied, “You have not come that far yet”, probably because none of us want others to simply tell us that they are amazing.  Another time, Confucius heard Zigong criticizing other people, and said, “Zigong must have already reached perfection, which affords him leisure I do not possess.”  Confucius is being sarcastic, as he often said that no one is perfect, but anyone can be excellent by continuously working to become better.

confucius-teaching-hillside-painting

Not only can anyone be excellent, but we can each learn from anyone about how to be better ourselves.  Confucius taught that when we see great people, we should seek to be like them, but when we see horrible people, we should seek how we are like them by examining ourselves.  Confucius said, “Put me with any two people at random and they will always have something to teach me, as I can take their qualities as a model and their defects as a warning.  Clearly, Confucius believed that we all share the same set of strengths and faults, no matter how talented (or horrible) we happen to individually be or where our talents are.

emperor-shun-of-china

Because no one is perfect and everyone can learn from anyone, there is no one who is above criticism, not even the prince of the state.  When asked by a duke if there is a single thing that could ruin a country, Confucius said that if the prince is never told when he is in error or contradicted, it could be the ruin of everyone.  About himself, Confucius said, “I am fortunate indeed… Whenever I make a mistake, there is always someone who notices it.”

chinese-painting-inquiring-about-the-dao

Daoism, Perspective & Less is More

laozi-water-buffalo

The legendary Daoist sages Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi taught that human perspectives are limited, and we should always keep this in mind.  Because we only have partial perspectives, we should keep in mind that others have their own perspectives which may not be the same as ours.  In one famous story, a turtle comes across a frog living in a well, and tells the frog about the sea, water that goes beyond the horizon with no walls in sight.  The frog refuses to believe the turtle, arguing that he has lived in water all his life and knows perfectly well that it comes in wells that are only so wide and have walls.  In Zhuangzi’s book, it says:

frog-with-zhuangzi

You can’t discuss the ocean with well frogs.  They’re limited by the space they live in.  You can’t discuss ice with summer insects.  They’re bound to a single season.  You can’t discuss the greater way of things with cramped scholars.  They’re shackled by their doctrines.  Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, and so you realize how small you are.  From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the greater way of things.

japanese monkey painting

If someone sleeps in a damp place, their back aches and they ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a carp?  If someone lives in a tree, they are terrified and shake with fright, but is this true of a monkey?  Of these three creatures, which knows the proper place to live?  We eat the flesh of grass-fed and grain-fed animals, deer eat grass, centipedes find snakes tasty, and hawks and falcons love mice.  Of these four, who knows how food ought to taste?  Monkeys pair with monkeys, deer go out with deer, and fish play around with fish.  Men claim that Mao-Qiang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run.  Of these four, which knows the standard of beauty for the world?

samurai-on-horseback-statue

Daoists also teach the idea of wu-wei, or non-action.  This does not mean that one should not act at all, but that often doing less is doing more.  Being patient and paying attention can save us from doing too much or having to do things over again.  In a Japanese story that illustrates this well, a local lord has three sons and must decide who should inherit his position.  He tests them by placing a pillow on the door to his room and calling them one at a time.  The eldest son enters and annihilates the pillow in a frenzy of skilled sword strikes.  The middle son draws his sword but sees the pillow in mid-air and catches it.  The youngest son sees the pillow on the door, tucks it under his arm and enters the room to the joy of his father.  The youngest son was paying attention, and so he did not even need to pull out his sword.

walking-in-nature-chinese-painting

There are many passages In the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, the two central texts of Daoism, that similarly teach that wanting too much and trying too hard is the wrong way to be:

Sages do not boast, and are thus admired by everyone, do not want to shine, and thus will be enlightened, do not seek excellence, and are thus excellent, and because they do not argue, no one can argue with them.

chinese-mountain-painting-stairs

Those who know do not speak.  Those who speak do not know.

Whoever knows how to lead well is not warlike.  Whoever knows how to fight well is not angry.  Whoever knows how to conquer enemies does not fight them.  Whoever knows how to use others well keeps themselves low.

archer-china

Those who divide fail to divide.  Those who judge are bad at judging.  What does this mean, you ask?  The sage embraces things.  Ordinary people judge between things and parade their judgements in front of others.  So I say, those who judge fail to see.

When you’re betting for cheap prizes in an archery contest, you shoot with skill.  When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim, and when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck.  Your skill is the same in all three cases, but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind.  They who look too hard on the outside get clumsy on the inside.

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7 thoughts on “Confucianism & Daoism: The Basics

  1. Informative post. I’m sure many aspects of both philosophies were left out for your purposes, but for Taoism, the Tao deserves mentioning even to 6th graders. On another note, I read in The Disputers of the Tao that the nobles used Confucian ideas for stately matters and Taoist ideas for personal matters. Which philosophy do you think has more merit?

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    • You are right that the idea of the great Way (or Dao) is central to Daoism, I chose to focus on concepts that elementary school students could employ in their daily lives and interactions with others. It is true that Confucianism remained the central philosophy of the state system for a long time in China, Daoism was popular for nobles who engaged with art and scientific experimentation. Personally, I find Daoism to be my favorite, but this is largely because it fits my personal style and political philosophy.

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      • It’s surprising how little most people know about Taoism, let alone the other Chinese philosophies, given that it is just as (or more) agreeable than Confucianism. I’ve spoken to a chinese student at my university and he said that part of the curriculum for primary school is to have its students memorize key words in all of the influential philosophies around the time of the warring states period. Even though it was memorization, there was bound to be less meaning in the words like virtue and tao. Do you think your students got out of your presentation a sufficient view of the two philosophies? (It seems that for things to really make sense, a combination of experience, education, and exposure to the full body of ideas is necessary.)

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  2. Your lecture made it easy to understand the teachings for the middle schoolers. That’s a very commendable thing, but I have one concern: “Being patient and paying attention can save us from doing too much or having to do things over again” in illustrating inaction seems to connote an unwarranted conclusion or a total contradiction, the former in implying an objective of wu-wei and the latter in endorsing excessiveness itself (daoism does include nondistinction), although I don’t think for the sake of your audience you strove to nuance the ideas.

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    • I am having trouble understanding you. You suggest that “implying an objective of wu-wei” is “an unwarranted conclusion”, but an individual can employ the concept of wu-wei in their lives while also having objectives. The concept of wu-wei itself does not have objectives, because it is a concept, not a person. Second, you suggest that there is a “total contradiction” in “endorsing excessiveness itself”, but there is little about the concept of wu-wei that endorses excessiveness. Could you explain these suggestions using examples?

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      • I can only speak about my understanding from the Zhuangzi, which, I interpreted, its concept of inaction is a sort of peace of mind (a concrete example is still water), so your illustration focuses on purpose and the use of a degree of inaction to fulfill the purpose, and this is understandable. I take an example of inaction to be when you drive to work without even being aware of how you got there. The contradiction is that Taoism endorses nondistinction, that “this” and “that” are not really so; same goes for “too much” and “too little,” right? If the sage has no use for plans (by way of nondistinction), then what is purpose to him?

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