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.
Image: Friends Playing, 1600. Retrieved from here.
During the third century, the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus placed a placard with the Golden Rule on his palace wall. The placard read, “Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris” (What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others). In the West, the oldest reference to the Rule can be found in the writings of Isocrates, an ancient Greek rhetorician and critic of Plato. Isocrates points out that the self and the other are comparable. As he writes in Speeches (19.49), “give a just verdict, and prove yourselves to be for me such judges as you would want to have for yourselves.” To put it simply, one should use power moderately and reasonably, aiming to achieve a fair and balanced exchange with others. It is only by treating others as one would want to be treated that a system can be created that does not result in favouritism or discrimination. As some theorists argue, humans are self-interested beings that only do tasks because of the benefits that they expect to obtain, either directly or indirectly. By treating others fairly, one should expect to receive the same kind of treatment. Thus, if fair treatment is not provided, one should also expect an unfair repayment of some sort, whether this occurs in the long-term or short-term. Different religious systems have different ways of explaining how this return takes place. For Buddhism and Hinduism, cosmic justice or karma results in good or bad future consequences depending on one’s intent and behaviour. Islamic thought explains this through the ‘right of God’, who determines whether one will be punished for treating others’ unfairly. In Confucianism, proper behaviour is what leads to social harmony and effective governance, while unfairness results in moral chaos and political struggle.
The Confucian version of the Gold Rule is found in many passages in the Analects. For example, in 5.12 it is stated that when Zigong said, “What I do not wish others to do to me, I do not wish to do to others”, the Master replied that Zigong had not yet reached this level of moral development. In other words, it takes time and effort to learn reciprocity: “that which you do not desire, do not do to others.” (15.24). Others have translated the word ‘reciprocity’ in the Analects as ‘consideration’, which means to care or keep in mind someone or something over a period of time. The Latin term considerationem comes from the past participle of considerare, which from the mid-15th century referred to taking something into account (Harper, 2017). However, consideration alone does not cover the Golden Rule. While you might take something or someone into account, it does not necessarily follow that you will act on that consideration. For instance, while I might consider the neighbour’s interests in my decision to plant a tree near the neighbour’s gate, I might go through with my decision for planting the tree near the gate as this spot is ultimately better than the spot near the door, even if the neighbour may not like my decision. In that case, an element of reciprocity is important as without considering the mutual exchange of benefits or returning something the same way as it was given, the Golden Rule would not work. It involves reversibility, exchange, and consistency as we consider how to treat others as we would like to be treated. Because the Confucian idea of this exchange involves an aspect of care: treating others as honoured guests, and acting towards subordinates as though conducting a ritual (Analects, 12.2), the Golden Rule in the Confucian sense can be understood as ‘reciprocal consideration’.
There are many aspects to reciprocal consideration. For one, there are two formulations to the rule. The first describes reciprocity positively as you “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In the Bible, Luke 6:13 and Matthew 7:12 both express the rule this way and describe it as the ‘Law and the Prophets’. To know and act towards others as you would want others to act towards you is what leads to moral righteousness and mutual consideration. However, as Zecha (2011) points out, a standard objection to this version of the Rule is that many people have strange desires that others may not want to reciprocate. For example, someone who enjoys experiencing pain might wish to harm others so that others will harm them in return. To escape this problem, the negative version of “not doing to others as you would not want done to you” supposedly discourages harmful behaviour and includes an element of restraint or ‘action within appropriate limits’ when considering how to interact with others. In practice, this requires a person to become empathetic by imagining oneself as the other, or as Confucians put it, ‘compassionate’: to feel with or together with someone. Mengzi 4A9 indicates the political relevance of this exchange as it notes that “there is a way to get the people: get their hearts, and the people are got. There is a way to get their hearts: it is simple to collect for them what they like, and not to lay on them what they dislike” (Legge, 1991, p. 300). So, according to the rule, political leaders or those in authority have a duty to appeal to and feel with subordinates. Although on an individual basis, reciprocal consideration is based on the protection of the self, when applied to a larger scale, those in less powerful positions should feel that the powerful have an ultimate allegiance to the human community, rather than an interest to preserve their power. When the stakes are higher and more lives are affected by how society is organised, ruler attempts to engage in reciprocal consideration needs to be done with right intention and integrity, otherwise subordinates may question the ruler’s legitimacy. Examples of this can be seen in American or Chinese foreign politics. When actions are interpreted as one-sided, deceptive, and unfair, fear and suspicion ensue. Any attempts to explain or justify these actions by rhetoric are dismissed as empty speech, where words no longer have substance or value. As the Book of Poetry states, when “Tian (or in this case, trust and reciprocity) is poised to topple, No more of this babble!” (ode 254).
It is interesting to note the meaning of ‘empty speech’. In Confucianism, the concept of empty ritual is often discussed. Rituals are learnt ways of proper behaviour. They are actions that necessitate social harmony. While the purpose of these actions are to perform for and with others, rituals should not be morally empty. Singerland’s (2003) translation of the Analects notes that sparse ritual is better than empty excess ritual (p. 18). In other words, the point of performing public actions is that they should express inward morality. By practising ritual, one is taught to cultivate internal ethical attitudes and channel one’s emotions, improving social harmony. On the other side of this spectrum is empty speech. That is, what Moncayo (2016) calls “parrot’s empty or idle speech” (p. 23). Usually when we hear someone talk, the content of their words has meaning. The words are full and convey expression and imagery to the listener. Often, words can have double-meanings and these meanings are understood in the context of the conversation. So, to have empty speech means to speak without meaning. No information is being signified, or what is said has little substance. It becomes a case of either uttering words without saying anything, or saying something while meaning or doing something else. Talk becomes disjointed rather than connected to listeners, which ultimately leads to empty noise.
Thus, when we think of ‘reciprocal consideration’, it is not just about putting oneself in the other’s shoes. Reciprocity is about joining speech with action, with the expectation that others will do the same. Without this expectation, mutual trust and empathy become difficult to maintain and one would struggle to exist in a social community. As Confucius says, whether through human-to-human gift giving or sacrificial rites for the ancestors, it is important to be present, as it is important “for the spirits to be present” (3.17). Relationships begin to form when there is a balanced reciprocity between the ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ of any exchange.
The meaning of the word ‘humanism’ refers to the significance of human beings in society. As the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1949) stated, humanism “not only states the question of the human person but also that of society…of the relations between men” (p. 23). Thus, Humanism is about the development of the individual, and about maintaining good relations between people. The emphasis on society is shown in educational thought. For instance, in nineteenth century Germany, teachers of Greek and Latin were called umanista as they taught studia humanitatis or humanistic studies, including literature and history (Kristeller, 1955). Humanities faculties in today’s universities have kept this namesake as most areas of study in these fields are concerned with human nature, behaviour, and action. Subjects like philosophy and politics, for example, reflect on the meaning of humanity and the potential for human beings to achieve dignity, freedom, and significance (Manzo, 1997). However, while these traditions in the West are well-explored in the literature, Eastern philosophies such as Daoism and Sufism are often thought to focus on the supernatural and mystical. This article examines rational humanism from an Eastern perspective by focusing on Islamic and Confucian thought.
The humanist tradition of prioritising the human being’s existence, duties, and potentials is found throughout classical Islam (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). For instance, human beings are thought to be filled with God-consciousness, living to fulfil the task of serving God in their lifetimes. The Qur’an says that God “(is) the One Who (has) made you successors (of) the earth and raised some of you above others (in) ranks, so that He may test you in what He has given you.” (Surah Al-An’am, 6:165). A human’s task is to serve God and take responsibility for their reason. So even though humans are not the absolute rulers of the world, as agents of God, they are responsible for establishing good relations with God, other humans, and the earth. This involves setting up societies based on human values of freedom, peace, and tolerance.
Tan and Ibrahim (2017) also point out that Islam’s ideology of humanism gives people the hope of achieving moral perfection when guided by religion. However, the religious aspect of this statement should not be overemphasised. Although God plays a central role in Islam, the way to God and moral perfection involves cultivating human skills, including reason, empathy for others, and knowledge. Adab is an important Islamic concept here. Abi-Mershed (2009) states that adab originally meant rules of conduct in social and political relationships, but later by the eighth and eleventh century referred to ethical ways of learning and engaging in the world. Through adab, humans can achieve self-actualisation, develop peace in the world, and be closer to the moral perfection of God.
In the Confucian tradition, human relationships and right education are central to harmony and order. As the Analects states, Confucius’s son, Boyu (伯魚), said that his father taught no secret doctrine. He only asked if his son had learnt poetry and the rites (16.13). In that case, learning poetry, music, and rites among a community of friends are important rituals for attaining humanity. Throughout the Analects, it describes how Confucius tried to apply the right pronunciation to the reading of poetry, and order sections of songs in the right order (Analects, sections 7 and 9, for example). Like Islam, the potential to develop moral perfection comes from organising society according to the correct principles, and developing human character through knowledge.
The spiritual side of Confucianism is debated. For instance, some scholars note that central to Confucianism is the concept of tian or Heaven. In the Analects 7.23, Confucius states that Heaven is the author of his virtue, and only Heaven understands him (14.35). Tu Wei-ming (2001) even introduced the idea of an ‘anthropocosmic’ system to describe a worldview where the human relationship to the world is one where tian is in perfect harmony with ren (persons), forming the greater triad of tian–ren-earth relations. By existing in such a system, human beings are able to achieve moral goodness through the practice of “praiseworthy behaviours, thoughts, and actions of sage-kings” (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017, p. 5). In other words, attaining harmony with tian and human beings is an ongoing and dynamic process where culturally, socially, and cosmically, human beings can be transformed.
On the other hand, while this cosmological aspect of Confucian humanism is discussed, Kato (2016) states that Confucius avoided discussing themes such as human nature and tian in detail. Confucius’s original vision was in the practical and present, while later Confucian scholars extended his doctrines to the metaphysical and spiritual. What this means is that the original Confucian teachings can be understood in ideas about teaching and learning or for Confucius, the here and now.
Western humanism developed from the practice of rhetoric of speech in ancient Athens. In a similar way, Confucianism uses li or private and public ritual to develop social harmony and self-cultivation. Li can be thought of as a system of language and body that communicates with others. Rituals express complex emotions towards ancestors, parents, colleagues, etc., that, accompanied by sincere feelings and intentions, send messages that words alone are unable to express. For example, taking part in tea and coffee ceremonies in Chinese, Japanese, Arabian, and Serbian cultures, sends messages of respect, hospitality, and willingness to take part in social engagement.
Teaching ritual practices is a key part of Confucian education, and it places humanist values of social relationships and human capabilities at its centre. Rather than attain moral perfection through divine intervention or luck, human actions through li are what leads to learning. The Great Learning uses the analogy of “carving and grinding” when discussing moral cultivation (section 3). In general, learning is about repeating, internalising, and applying knowledge. In moral cultivation, a similar process takes place, where self-reflection, correction, and interaction with the teacher places ritual and learning within a communitarian framework (Tu, 1985; Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). With a sincere heart-mind, one can begin to understand what is to be learnt by expressing themselves with the right words. This contrasts ideas about learning that are passive and require constant repetition and remembering. Learning in Confucianism involves investigating things, imagination, and rationality. The Great Learning highlights that students, “encountering anything at all in the world…must build on what they already know of principle and probe still deeper, until they reach its limit” (cited in Gardner, 2007, p. 7-8). The student is required to dedicate themselves to questioning, problem-solving, and in Confucius’s case, learning from the old: to “review what is old as to know what is new” (Doctrine of the Mean, section 27).
Aside from the Islamic emphasis on God-consciousness, Confucianism and classical Islam both situate human beings as central agents that are required to perform moral duties in their lives. Perfection is possible if humans take part in moral education that encourages people to use their faculties of reasoning to achieve adab and li, which involves self-actualisation and building dynamic relationships with others. Such principles are increasingly relevant in the West as higher education learning and teaching becomes commercialised through vocational workplace training.