As opposed to dualism, Chinese philosophy is characterised by various systems of thought that synthesize opposing views to create a holistic way of thinking. However, this does not necessary have to align with the strong “holist” position, which argues that Chinese thought lacks any concept of dualism and is radically different from Western thought. For example, Roger Ames (1993) and François Jullien (2007) both adopt the strong holist view by claiming that the idea of the body as a material substance was foreign to the Chinese: “the body is a ‘process’ rather than a ‘thing,’ something ‘done’ rather than something one ‘has’” (Ames, 1993, p. 168). Put simply, there is no perfectly clear divide between mind and body: in classical Chinese, there is not even a single word that corresponds to ‘body’ or ‘mind’ alone. Instead, body and mind were understood by terms such as xin心 (the heart-mind) that suggest the physical body and mind are like two points on a spectrum, with some features potentially falling on one side of the line or the other, rather than being split apart as either mind or body. It should be noted, as Slingerland (2013) does, that the holistic perspective is not unique to China or the “East”. Aristotle, for instance, based his theory of ethics on ‘virtues’, a type of intelligent and emotional capacity that was linked to both the body and mind (Wiggins, 1975).
Generally, Chinese thought is known to accommodate contrasting views, especially with the emergence of the three schools of thought: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This article specifically looks at the relationship between Confucianism and Daoism, and how Chinese thought manages to unite these two distinct philosophies.
Daoism (sometimes transliterated as ‘Taoism’) is an encompassing school of thought native to China that is based on a range of philosophical texts and thinkers, the most famous being the Dao De Jing (The Book of the Way and Its Power) – possibly from the 4th century BCE. Often linked with naturalistic or mystical religions, Daoist concepts are based on the teachings of Laozi (老子, meaning “Old Master”) who is said to have lived during the same time as Confucius. Laozi may have been the author of the Dao De Jing which is also known as the Laozi. While Daoism seems to contrast Confucianism by leaning towards mysticism, it is usually allied with Confucius’ thought compared to other philosophical traditions like Mohism and Legalism, for example. Fraser (2010) states that the Confucian idea that li (ritual propriety or ceremony), a traditional code specifying behaviour appropriate for individuals according to their social roles, was disputed by Mozi (the founder of Mohism) who did not identify with high culture and found ritual to be an unconvincing moral guide. The founder of Legalism, Shi Huangdi, also turned away from Confucian teachings by arguing that instead of obligations, people were driven by self-interest and it was the job of the state to control and punish those who did not abide by its laws (Eno, 2010).
Daoism emerged when people began protesting the growing despotism and rigidity of rules during Confucius’s time, and arguably shared some emphasis with Confucianism on applying principles to this world rather than on speculating abstract thought. But, instead of being an “ally” to Confucianism, as Schipper (1993) argues, Daoism largely represented an alternative, critical perspective that diverged from Confucian thought.
One example is in relation to concepts of identity and selfhood. The self in Confucianism is described by Ho (1995) as a ‘subdued self’ as individuals are not encouraged to pursue their own ambitions and desires, but to respond to social requirements and obligations. In The Analects, this is expressed by the term ‘loyalty’ (zhong, 忠) in passage 1.4 when Master Zeng says,
Each day I examine myself upon three points. In planning for others, have I been loyal? In company with friends, have I been trustworthy? And have I practiced what has been passed on to me?
Loyalty here means not only being faithful to one’s superiors and peers, but to align one’s interests with the social group as a whole. Ritual and patterns of conduct are forms of behaviour that allow each person to form a perfect social communion with others, reinforcing social order and harmony. This idea of selfhood is said to be present in many Confucian societies like Japan where the self is ideally directed towards more immediate social purposes rather than being distinct or individual as in the West (DeVos, 1985). In China, during the May 4th Movement (the 1919 revolution against imperialism and feudalism), intellectuals criticised Confucianism and its ideas of selfhood as being paternalistic, conservative, and even oppressive. Restricting one’s conduct for ‘social harmony’ was said to leave little room for openly expressing emotions, feelings, and individuality that may counter social norms and expectations. According to Ho (1995), such restriction even in father-son relationships, which is said to be largely marked by distance, tension, and even antagonism as each person sticks to their assigned roles (for a critique of this view, see the ‘son-covering-father’ story in the Confucian Weekly Bulletin), suggests that the Confucian ideal of selfhood is flawed in reality.
In that case, whereas Confucians stated that individuals should conform to social norms, Daoism became popular by emphasising the independence of individuals. Instead of social conventions, hierarchical organisation, and government rule, people should live their lives simply, spontaneously, and in harmony with nature. In the Dao De Jing, many passages use the term “self-so” (ziran, 自然) to describe a self that simply is, without any intention to be so. To live in a way that conforms to the Dao, human beings need to refrain from planning, striving, and purposeful action, returning to an animal-like responsiveness of acting without plans or effort (Eno, 2010). The best way to do this is through selflessness, which means to “exhibit the plainness of undyed cloth; embrace the uncarved block. Be little self-regarding and make your desires few.” (passage 19). By getting rid of social regulation and desires for status, beauty, and wealth, more room is made for simply being: existing in a detached tranquillity that joins the harmonious rhythms of Nature and the Dao.
Confucianism sets up a system where human beings are active moral agents. People plan, educate, develop, and theorise about what is the correct way of behaving and interacting with others to set up a harmonious way of being. Daoism, on the other hand, opposes this view. As another famous Daoist text, the Zhuangzi (chapter 8), states: while Confucians think they can understand, name, and control reality, Daoists find such endeavours to be a source of frustration. The Dao is the unnameable reality that cannot be grasped by the mind, though people should aim to set one’s actions in accordance with the transcendental unity that is all.
Despite having such vibrant philosophical and religious traditions like Confucianism and Daoism, which often contradict each other, there has never been a war of religions in China. One of the reasons why is because of the holistic perspective found in most of Chinese thought. One of the benefits of this is that unlike in Europe, political leaders in East Asia were for the most part unable to appropriate or justify violence based on religious difference since people were able to incorporate a range of opposing views. While not unique to China or the “East”, there are lessons to be learnt from inclusivism and alternative knowledge, especially in the globalising world.
The following text is an extract from the book The New Legalist Vol. 1 (2010) compiled by independent scholars and chief editor of the New Legalist website Sherwin Lu, and contract research fellow of the Centre for Chinese and Global Affairs, Peking University Yuzhong Zhai.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the Confucian Weekly Bulletin. The extract is from the chapter Eastern Wisdom Can Help Solve Today’s Global Problems: A study of the “dynamically-balanced multi-dimensional whole” worldview (p. 262), raising interesting points about the relationship between Legalism and Confucianism, and the relevance of China’s philosophies to today’s world problems.
“The Chin dynasty ended with a conspiracy at the top on the death of the First Emperor, whose successor, one of his sons, betrayed his father’s Legalist policy by distorting the rule of law and triggered rebellion by the people. But Chin’s Legalist policy was largely revived and continued during the next dynasty of Han. In the later years of the Han dynasty, Confucianist ideology gradually got the upper hand and was finally authorized as the sole guiding system of thought for running the country. Confucianist doctrine had ever since remained the orthodox ideology in China till the 1911 Revolution, though some Legalist practices had been carried on and other Legalist ideas were adopted sometimes by reformist statesman and sometimes at the beginning of a new dynasty on replacing an old, corrupted one.
Why was Legalism defeated by Confucianism in Chinese history? The answer is in the inconsistency in Legalist practice due to the limit of historical conditions. The major inconsistencies are: The social merit system failed to cover the selection of the top ruler (king/emperor)- the throne was still inherited by royals on, and the all-society mutual supervision system failed to reach the one or two most powerful men under the king/emperor on the topmost level of the hierarchical ladder. Therefore, when a Legalist emperor died, the state power could easily be shifted, either through conspiracy or through the work of time, into the hands of weak or morally depraved succeeding emperors and/or power-hungry top-ranking officials, who placed their own interests above those of the people and would not bother to take the pains, as required by Legalist principles, to do the regulating of social life against the strong oppositions from some special interest groups, especially when there were no more threats of rivalry from outside. This inconsistency can only be corrected by a democratic system based on the modern principle of people’s sovereignty, corrected in a way in which the institutional power of the state exercised from the top down and people’s power exercised from the bottom up remain in a constant dynamic balance.
However, except from that loophole, the legalist theories and practices in ancient China were quite successful. The most important lesson from these theories and practices is that, especially at a time of “warring states”, the only way for a people to survive and prosper is to have a strong state under the constant watch of the people and with the institutional power to implement a comprehensive series of social, economic, political and other policies which aim at regulating all different kinds of social relationships towards a dynamic balance between all different interest groups and different aspects of social life, including a constant dynamic balance between the institutional power of the state and people’s sovereignty. And to do this, the atomistic world view, both in its ancient Chinese version, i.e., the Confucianist orthodoxy (except for some of its teachings on the cultivation of personal and socio-political virtue), and in its modern vision, i.e., the Liberalist laissez faire ideology, must be repudiated.
The atomistic pattern of thought looks at society as a mechanical aggregation of millions or hundreds of millions of individual human beings each pursuing his/her own interests. According to this view, the will and interests of a state equal the sum total of all its individual members’ wills and interests. It disregards the fact that the state, as a special kind of social group of human beings, can also have its relatively independent will and interests which can in turn affect the will and interests of each individual member and all other social groups, large or small, within and outside of it. The historical argument between the Legalists and the Confucianists regarding the management of state affairs is a typical case.
The Legalists emphasize the importance of the rule of Law, insisting that, so long as the social law originates in and in line with Tao, i.e., the law of Nature, it will cultivate and fortify virtue in all people and thus ensure a good order for the society, while Confucianists preach that personal cultivation of family virtue based on kinship principles will guarantee social justice, because, according to them, if all people behave virtuously towards others in the “extended family” of the big society. The Confucianists failed to see the family virtue cannot be naturally extended beyond the scope of the family and readily applied to all social relationships because the cultivation of family virtues is based partially on natural kinship feelings and partially on a kind of intuitive perception of people being mutually interdependent, a direct perception by all five senses which is possible only within such a limited circle of “face-to-face” relationships as a family. Beyond this limit, people need extra impetus and motivation, i.e., the rule of law, or the reward and punishment system on the social scale, for the nurturing of social values.
Confucianists also opposed the state’s owning some economic enterprises which were critical to national economy and people’s livelihoods and setting by a large enough quantity of commodity wealth as a necessary financial leverage for regulating the market and other aspects of social life to defend people’s peaceful life from external and internal dangers.
As social atomists deny the necessity of a dynamic balance between the collective entity and the individuals, they inevitably advocate a policy that indulges the advantaged, permitting them to get the upper hand over the disadvantaged. And this policy inevitably results in the split of a society into “two nations”: the privileged versus the underprivileged, and this is the root cause of all social upheavals, mass violence and war. It is the case with the old China under the ideological domination of Confucianism, as well as with today’s world divided into the super rich handful and the poor majority all over the world. In Chinese history, whenever advocates of Confucianist ideas of “virtue” were loudest, it must be a time when social conflicts were approaching a crisis, as was pointed out by Lao Tzu in his Tao Te Ching. Can’t we draw a lesson from history and apply it to a truthful understanding of the world situation today?”
To read more about the Legalist perspective, see the New Legalist website here.