The beliefs of Confucius changed the world of all the people in China because Confucius aimed to change both them and their ways of government. This was not immediately apparent because Confucius didn’t leave an organized system of ideas. After his death, there were many disputes about the meaning and application of his beliefs, both among his followers and those who contested his worth and truth.
Among those who contested Confucianism, especially during the Qin and Han periods (221 BCE-210 CE) were the so-called Legalists. The Legalists were pragmatists. They believed the Confucian idea of educating people and cultivating wisdom in the hopes that people would become virtuous was unrealistic. The Legalists disdained Confucian virtues for an authoritarian state that ruled by force. Human nature for the Legalists was evil and required restraint and discipline. Most people would not be well educated, or at least not educated enough that they would become virtuous. So the Legalists wanted well-known laws, exercised by a strong central government, with severe punishment for those who disobey. In a proper state, the army would control (under a powerful emperor) and the people would labor; the idea of pleasures in educated discourse or courtesy was dismissed as frivolity. People today would consider many of these ideas the underpinnings of Fascism but the basic ideas of the Legalists still exist today because they have been adopted by virtually every modern government.
At about the same time Kong Fu Tzu was becoming the Venerable Master Kong, another tradition known as the Tao or Dao was being established in China. Daoism is one of the three major traditions of China, along with Confucianism and Buddhism. Unlike Confucianism, which is a philosophy, Daoism is both a religion and a philosophy.
The tradition begins with a figure known as Lao Tzu (“Old Master”)—also spelled Lao Zi. It is unclear whether this man actually existed but if he did, some historians place him in the 6th century BCE (making him a contemporary of Confucius and the Buddha). The Daoism tradition says that a young Confucius came to him seeking wisdom and guidance and that the aged Lao Tzu reprimanded Confucius for wasting effort on formal study and being to strict with his ethical absolutes. He would do far better if he observed how nature accomplished all good things without effort. The tradition also says that Lao Tzu went to India to teach the Buddha.
The tradition also says that Lao Tzu was the keeper of the Imperial Library and was famous throughout the land for his wisdom. Perceiving the growing corruption of the government (this was a time of turmoil in ancient China), he left for the countryside. On his way, the guard at the city gates asked Lao Tzu to write out the essence of his understanding to benefit future generations. Lao Tzu supposedly wrote the Dao Te Ching (The Book of the Way)—also Dao De Jing, vanished into the wilderness of western China riding a water buffalo, and was never heard from again.
The Dao Te Ching (also called “the Tao”, "The Dao" or the "Dao De Jing"), is one of the most influential books in history. Even though the text has just over 5,000 words (very short), outside of the Judeo-Christian Bible, it is the most translated work in human history. Modern scholars, however, place its origins to between 300-250 BCE (about 300 years later than the original tradition).
The Dao is also famous for Chinese sayings such as
"Those who know do not speak, those who speak, do not know" and
"Even a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step".
A common theme in Daoist literature is that anyone who tries to define the “Way” must know that it is mysterious and indefinable. The Dao is the source of all energy in the universe but it eludes discovery. Imperceptible yet irrestible, impersonal yet ever-present, the Dao’s power is like that of a river of water: the softest of all elements inevitably desolves the hardest. As water wears away the hardest stone or metal and carries off buildings in its path, it is useless to struggle against the Tao. To a Taoist, all human accomplishments will sooner or later be destroyed by the Tao…the greatest buildings will fall into decay, wealth will be lost, and even the sharpest sword will become dull. So people shouldn’t struggle against the Tao, they should blend with it and be guided by it.
Fulfillment in life cannot be attained by forcing one's own destiny; instead, one must be receptive to the path laid for you by nature and circumstance, which will themselves provide what is necessary. Lao Tzu taught that the wisest approach was a way of ‘non-action’– not inaction but rather a harmonization of one’s personal will with the natural harmony and justice of Nature. ‘The World is ruled by letting things take their natural course. It cannot be ruled by going against nature or arrogance.’ (Tao Te Ching; Verse 48).
It also means that the individual should do things natural to him and appropriate to do in his circumstances, thus serving as an instrument of the Law rather than doing the things as individuals. That is why no one should take any credit for things done.
Nature is stabilized by order, and humans along with all other natural phenomena exist within nature. Attempting to force one's own path is arrogant, futile and self-destructive. All mankind’s troubles on the Earth are caused by having forgotten the “Way.” Remembering the “Way” is an awareness of one’s deep connection with Nature within the entirety of creation.
In many ways Taoism thinking ran counter to that of Confucius, who emphasized education, moral improvement, and good government. The Taoists ridiculed such ideas as artificial and useless. The China of Confucius and Lao zi was in chaos and disorder, so unlike Confucius, the Taoists urged withdrawal into the world of nature and encouraged behavior that was spontaneous, individualistic, and natural. Confucius focused on the world of human relationships, the Taoists turned to the realm of the mysteries of nature. An old Chinese saying was Confucius roams within society while Lao zi roams beyond it.
Unlike Confucius, the unique thing about the Daoism approach to ethics is that they weren't designed to preach to people about how to live. Taoists believe that people should be guided by the following:
1. Selflessness, 2. Moderation, 3. Embracing the mystery of life instead of being afraid of it, and 4. the idea of non-contrivance (don’t listen to those who preach or tell you how to live).
Taoists believe that there are four principles to nature that we should focus on. The first is the idea of “Oneness,” of the harmony that exists when humans and nature coexist in unity.
The second is the idea of “Dynamic Balance”, the two basic distinctions in nature, the yin and the yang.
The third is the idea of “Cyclical Growth,” the sun is replaced by the moon, the moon by the sun, summer replaced by winter, winter replaced by summer, etc.
And the fourth is the idea of “Harmonious Action.” Here the example is a bamboo stick in the wind. Watch it bend in the wind. It overcomes the wind by yielding to it. If it were stiff, it would break because bamboo is so brittle, but because it yields, it overcomes. Thus, weakness produces strength, and strength produces weakness.
Applied to human life, Daoism asked people to withdraw from the world of political and social activism, to disengage from the public life so important to Confucius, and to align themselves with the way of nature. Taoists believe that life is the greatest of all possessions, everything was doomed to decay. Fame, wealth, power, and education were fleeting, transient illusions. If people weren’t interested in the acquisition of stuff or power, they could give their full attention to enriching their own lives. This led early Taoists to try to find ways to lengthen life; eventually creating various magical practices in their attempt to prolong and enrich life.
Taoists stress living simply, serenely, and quietly, limited government, small self-sufficient communities and abandoning active efforts at self-improvement. “Give up learning and put an end to your troubles” declares the Dao te Ching. Taoists also hate pomp and glory, and they despise the fame that many people seek. They see such things as the cause of strife and discord in society. If people were content to live as the Tao intended without trying to rise above other people, then life would be as intended. This also reflected an ancient Chinese attitude that condemned pride. Pride invited destruction…the tree that stands taller than its neighbors is the first cut by the woodsman…better to be humble, small, or imperfect than to stand out from the rest.
Despite its differences with Confucianism, the Taoist perspective was widely regarded by the Chinese as complementing rather that contradicting Confucian values. This outlook was supported by the idea, made famous by Daoism, of the Yin and the Yang…a belief in the unity of opposites.
In trying to explain the true nature of the universe, ancient Chinese philosophers developed the concept of Yin and Yang. What made the universe operate the way it did was understood to be a balance between these two forces. These are the contrasting energies out of whose interactions particular things come into being. And in the end, life can proceed only with a perfect balance of Yin and Yang, mountain and valley, light and dark, dry and moist, evident and hidden.
The Yin was the negative force in nature. It was seen as whatever is receptive and calm, such things as the feminine, the earth itself, the moon, water and clouds, darkness, and shadow. The Yang represents the positive force of nature. It was seen as the light, brightness, warmth, whatever is aggressive and hard, maleness, the sun, stones and storms.
The Yin and the Yang are often seen as opposites in conflict with each other but in fact each contains the seeds of the other; the black and white spots in the famous Yin-Yang symbol represent the way in which each lies at the heart of the other. Except for a few objects, like the sun or the earth, which were clearly Yin and Yang, all the rest of nature, humankind, and even events were a combination of both forces. When these two forces were at work in harmony, life was what it should be.
For the Taoist, the secret of life, whether of individuals, societies, or governments is to understand the Yin-Yang. In Taoist philosophy, Yin and Yang are in a quest for harmony by working through the Five Agents—water, fire, earth, wood, and metal to produce the world and human history.
Early Daoism didn’t seem concerned about existence after death. Early Taoists, like Confucianists, were more concerned with the quality of life as it is lived daily…there wasn’t much speculation about the heavens, the gods, rituals, etc. But over time, that began to change.
So one of the basic tenets of Daoism today is the quest for immortality. In the Daoism tradition, one hopes to reach the Isle of the Immortals. To help you on your quest are the Eight Immortals (the Ba Xian) whom most Taoists still pray to. The Eight Immortals are surrounded by legend, but at least some of them appear to be actual historical figures. They represent the eight conditions of life—youth, age, poverty, wealth, high rank, low or no rank, feminine, masculine—and the idea is that immortality can be achieved from any condition of life.
In China, the Golden Mother (Jin-mu) presides over those who have actually attained immortality, and the peaches of immortality she grows only ripen every 3,000 years.
There are two other routes to immortality. One is by finding the secret medicine or elixir of immortality. This search is known as the Outer Alchemy. There are countless intricate formulas and recipes using cinnabar, jade, and gold. Initiates must take enough of these materials into their systems to render the body indestructible attempting to “steal the secret of heaven and earth,” the secret of Life—usually with fatal results. Not only must you find the right formula, you must also perform an uninterrupted chain of charitable acts (1200 according to one ancient source). One stumble invalidates the process and you have to start all over again.
The second alternate route is called Inner Alchemy, which is an attempt to harness the energies within the body and direct them to prolong life. The body is pervaded by Qi, known in the West as Ch’i. Taoists developed many exercises to promote the Ch’I (Tai Ch’i) which balance the Yin and Yang and eliminate destructive spirits within the body.
Daoism, along with Buddhism and Confucianism, has been an integral part of Chinese culture for over 2,500 years. In 1949, China underwent its Communist revolution, becoming the People’s Republic of China. The official position of the Chinese government was that religion was a relic of the feudal past and should not be a part of a modern society. Theoretically the Chinese government tolerated and allowed freedom of religion. But Taoism and Confucianism were treated with contempt and regarded with great suspicion since Confucianism was clearly tied to China’s feudal past and Taoism was seen as superstition. Buddhism was seen as an imported religion and was also suspect. Christianity was seen as being part of the imperialistic West so all Christian missionaries were expelled by 1952. Islam was more of a delicate matter for the new government since millions of Muslim Chinese lived in the western part of the country. Even though Islam was brought in from outside the country, China did not repress it. Despite the official governmental position many temples, mosques, and churches were closed or converted to other uses. Chinese Christians were forced to join a government sponsored organization.
In 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, religions in China were severely repressed. For three years, the leaders of the Cultural Revolution moved against that represented the four “olds,” old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Religion was considered old…and any remaining temples or churches that had stayed open were forced to close. Buddhist temples were singled out to be plastered and painted with government slogans. Their statues were smashed and dragged through the streets. Confucius was called the “number one criminal of feudal thinking.” His birthplace was raided, and the temple there was destroyed. People who dared to celebrate Taoist festivals were arrested and accused of wrong thinking. Many Taoist shrines, altars, and relics were destroyed in the purge.
After Chairman Mao died in 1976, China began liberalizing its position towards established religions. But the Chinese government only tolerates those religious organizations that accept strict government regulation. Religion must be free of foreign influence. To be officially recognized, religious organizations must accept government censorship of religious writings and guidance in the selection of clergy, and limit religious activities to approved locations. Only five religions are officially recognized: Taoism, Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, and Islam. The government doesn’t recognize individual Protestant denominations.
What is clear is that Marxist attempts to build a non-religious society have failed in China as they failed in then former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.