The core of ancient Chinese culture is its way of thinking. Thinking, being the soul of ancient Chinese culture, reflects its essence in the form of concise and coherent theories. Boasting a long history and a variety of contents and schools, ancient Chinese thought is extensive and profound, with Confucianism and Taoism as the principal part. The reasons are manifold. First, from the historical point of view, Confucianism and Taoism, being the earliest schools of thought, are the quintessence of ancient Chinese civilization before the Spring and Autumn Period. Both schools came into being in the late Spring and Autumn Period, a time when the dominant position of the official or imperial school of thought was challenged by other emerging schools of thought, or private schools of thought. And Confucius and Lao Zi, respective founders of Confucianism and Taoism, are in fact the forerunners and great thinkers of private schools of thought. Confucius was born in the State of Lu, known for the preservation of a wealth of historical and cultural codes and records and a complete culture of rites and music. Given such a circumstance, Confucius became a follower of past traditions and a trailblazer for future generations. The great contribution of Confucius lies in his bequeathing of the glorious cultural heritage, and, in particular, his collecting and compiling of historical and cultural books and records, later known as The Five Classics, including The Book of Poetry (or The Book of Songs, The Book of Odes), The Book of History, The Book of Rites, The Book of Changes, and The Spring and Autumn Annals. In addition, he founded the Confucian School, which was devoted to the preservation of traditional culture, with the happy result of a complete Confucian doctrine, carrying forward and further developing traditional Chinese culture. The vitality of Confucianism and its thought consists in their close relation to traditional Chinese culture. Lao Zi, on the other hand, was a court historian of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. His professional training enabled him to master the “Heavenly Way”, focusing on astrology, and the “Human Way”, covering success or failure, fortune and misfortune as well as the rise and fall of dynasties during his study of history. The result is the founding of the Taoist Doctrine with the Heavenly Way and the Human Way combined. Therefore, viewed from the historical perspective, the reason why Confucianism and Taoism became the core of ancient Chinese thinking is that both were deeply rooted in the fertile soil of ancient Chinese culture.
Second, from the viewpoint of the content, Confucianism and Taoism are complimentary, constituting the dialectical unity and balance in ancient Chinese cultural system. Although both Confucianism and Taoism originated from ancient Chinese culture, they sought to observe and explain the world using entirely different or opposite approaches, thus forming two drastically different world outlooks in content and style as well. This not only enriches ancient Chinese thinking, but also results in a balanced system, dialectical and dynamic, which, because of the complementarities and oppositeness of the two schools, makes it possible for ancient Chinese thinking to regulate and renew itself, acquiring a vigorous vitality in its long and stormy history of development. From the cosmological point of view, although both Confucianism and Taoism advocate that man is an integral part of nature, Confucianism concentrates on the human side, stressing the power of virtue in the human character. For instance, Confucius advises people to “do something even though they know it is impossible to succeed”, and Xun Zi holds that “man can know and transform nature”. In short, subjective will and moral character constitute the main themes of the Confucian philosophy.
On the other hand, Taoism focuses on the Heavenly Way, emphasizing naturalness and inaction, namely letting things take their own course, so that man and nature coexist peacefully, without one getting the upper hand of another. The core of Taoism is, therefore, letting nature take its course. Consequently, a unique Chinese concept of man and nature is formed, a concept which is characterized by the emphasis on man on the one hand and letting nature take its course on the other. That is, one should take the initiative while sizing up the situation. What really matters is to make the right decision or choice in a given situation.
From the political point of view, Confucianism advocates the rule of rites and virtuous character. Later borrowing some of the thoughts of the Legal School, it recommends the rule of virtue along with the use of punishments. So the political thought of Confucianism is characterized by moral teaching and rules and regulations. On the contrary, Taoism stresses the rule of inaction, making light of righteousness and virtue, rites and punishments. The Confucian politics of “action” and the Taoist politics of “inaction” oppose yet complement each other, alternating tension with relaxation, the latter regulating and complementing the former.
As far as the outlook on life is concerned, the Confucian concept is very constructive, encouraging people to “go into the society”, while the Taoist notion is very passive, asking people to “retire from the world”, and to be critical of the reality or society. This eventually leads to the formation of the typical personality of literati and officialdom in feudal China, active and passive, constructive and critical. By “going into the society” and being critical, they can bring into full display their independent personality so as to achieve spiritual fulfillments. By “retiring from the world” and being constructive, they can realize their political aspirations so as to reap earthly fruits. “A sage may be in a royal court, yet his heart is in the mountains and forests.” This has become an ideal model of personality. From the methodological point of view, both Confucianism and Taoism are characterized by their speculative thinking. For example, Confucianism advocates the Golden Mean or the Middle of the Road, opposing both going beyond and falling short. By mean or middle is meant a relative balance between the extremes, which is a dynamic balance, constantly adjusting itself with the changing time and space. On the other hand, Taoism suggests that people stick to one end or extreme, namely the weak, the quiet, and the void, hoping to gain advantages by making concessions, to use inaction against action, to defeat the strong by the weak, and to cope with shifting events by sticking to a fundamental principle. Therefore it is easy to see that these two schools of philosophy are totally different in their approaches to life. While Confucianism emphasizes prudence, scrupulously abiding by one’s duty or faithful adherence to the principle, enterprise, and enthusiasm, Taoism stresses strangeness, coping with changing events, retreating in order to advance, and calmness. The combination of the two has eventually led to the birth of the characteristic culture of the Chinese nation, that is, prudent without being rigid, enterprising without being foolhardy, principled and flexible, enthusiastic and cool-headed.
Seen from the influence of the two philosophies, the rich content and different styles of Confucianism and Taoism became the fountainhead or an inexhaustible source of ancient Chinese thinking, clarifying the orientation of its development. Despite the rich content and various schools of thought of ancient Chinese thinking, Confucianism and Taoism remained the two most important thoughts in ancient China. While Mohism or the Mohist School, and the Yin-Yang School or the School of Positive and Negative Forces derived from Confucianism, the Military Strategists, the Legalists, and the Logicians were closely related with the Taoists. Later, Jing Xue or the study of Confucian Canon or Classics in the Han Dynasty, Xuan Xue or Taoist metaphysics in the Wei and Jin dynasties, Dao Xue or Neo-Confucianism in the Song and Ming dynasties, and Shi Xue or Real Learning between the Ming and the Qing dynasties were in fact the combination, derivation and development of Confucianism and Taoism, which in turn provided many concepts, categories and propositions for the development of ancient Chinese thinking. These traditional concepts, categories and propositions changed with the times, taking on new meanings from different schools of thought in different eras, thus becoming the basic carriers of traditional thinking.
Besides Confucianism and Taoism, Buddhism was another important thought in ancient China. Buddhism, a religious system introduced into China from India in the Han Dynasty, aimed to find out the causes of human sufferings in the hope of being detached from the earthly world. Under the influence of the powerful Chinese culture, Buddhism began, from the first day of its introduction, to be naturalized or localized, which was a process basically shaped or perfected during the Sui and Tang dynasties. The most representative school of Buddhism in China was the Zen School with Chinese characteristics, whose theories on Buddha Nature and Cultivation were greatly influenced by Confucianism and Taoism. The advantage of the Buddhist studies was its speculative philosophy, whose intense abstraction and adroit speculation made up for the directness and simplicity of traditional thinking. Therefore, the introduction of Buddhism enriched traditional Chinese culture and improved the thinking ability of the nation. And the Neo-Confucianism in the Song and the Ming dynasties, a combination of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, the greatest achievement in ancient Chinese thinking, with its all-embracing theoretical system and profound thoughts, is a case in point.