Understanding Chinese Society through Ancient Sages

Chinese philosophies, or if you like, doctrines, religions or cultural practices include Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Over thousands of years they have all played a major role in shaping Chinese culture, albeit sometimes falling in and out of favor with rulers over the centuries. Through an understanding of the different philosophies, even if only a brief look through the window, can only work towards helping to understand the nature and way of such a large society.


One page on a blog is never going to cover a subject so vast as three philosophies, or their role in Chinese history, but let this try to be an introduction for those who have no knowledge at all, a bit like the writer. Ever so briefly I will try to introduce the three philosophies, some of the main characters, a few interesting quotes and maybe some new understanding.

I have always been amused at how peacefully over one and half billion people live together here in China, harmonious is the keyword, there is an odd spat of course, but they are rare. Is it not true that people have misunderstandings and gripes? They sure do, actually there’s so much to gripe about, but people rarely do. Some will say that there’s no platform to voice objections from, or there’s a pointlessness to it as nobody’s listening, or dare yell out to loudly about the wrong people and you’ll just vanish, or worse. All of these are true but I think there is another element.

Let’s look a the three major philosophies:

Most certainly China’s most well known sage, Confucius (孔子) was born in 551 BC, his name is actually a Latinized version of the Chinese K’ung-fu-tzu, meaning Master (Teacher) K’ung. His guiding philosophy was that all people are fundamentally the same, no one is born greater or lesser, it is through life conditioning that establishes the differentiation. He believed if people, guided by ethics, appropriate conduct and morality, then they would naturally be virtuous and the community would be harmonious and prosperous without the need for strict laws.

He most certainly sided with the common man, in a period where perhaps there were only two classes, the ruling elite and the peasants/workers, Confucius was very much the humanitarian, guided by a concern for human happiness. Whether his students arrived in rags or robes, he would teach them equally and many would go on to extend his teachings, and to take positions in government. Confucianism appears to be quite a deep teaching, covering social interaction, hierarchy, social norms, ceremony and also a focus on emotional balance.

There are two basic concepts which form part of Confucianism, which are, Jen and Li:

Jen – which roughly translates to humaneness, or benevolence or ‘that which gives human beings their humanity’. It is the highest Confucian principle. Confucius believed that the nature of people is intrinsically good and that it our education and development that cultivates humane individuals who exhibit benevolence and care toward others. On the flip side, when people are not educated or developed properly, this quality breaks down leading people to become uncaring, undisciplined and even rash and hateful, which, effects the overall harmony of society.

Li – which covers rites (read as culture), tradition, etiquette, social interaction, manners and the like. It’s like a manual for human operation in a society and Confucius discussions apparently even go on to cover clothes to wear, tea drinking, learning, eating, mourning and so on. It would seem extensively detailed. The key promoted ideals would appear to be filial piety, brotherliness, righteousness, good faith and loyalty.

What is interesting about Confucianism is the lack of a deity, it was never portrayed as an ultimate truth or backed by a god, nor was there a heaven or hell as destination for right or wrong doing. It appears mostly as a pragmatic teaching, a moral philosophy. Over time Confucianism went in and out of fashion with thinkers and rulers alike, but grew to become a state ideology during the Han Dynasty and later evolved into neo-Confucianism, which we will come back to again later.

There’s more about the life of Confucius here http://www.biography.com/people/confucius-9254926 and http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/. A key text are the Analects, here http://classics.mit.edu/Confucius/analects.html

At Amazon: The Teachings of Confucius – Special Edition

Where Confucianism is a rule based approach, Taoism would be the opposite with the promotion of ‘go with flow’ approach. Whilst they certainly competed intellectually, with Taoists seemingly liking to make fun of Confucius and rigid thinking, together though, they form “two sides of the same coin” of Chinese religion.

Lao Tzu (老子 Laozi) is widely considered to be the founder of Taoism which (also referred to as Daoism). No one is actually completely certain whether Lao Tzu was a real person or just a representation of a person who lived the Dao. The Dao, or Tao, translates to road, or the way. The opening lines of the text called the Tao Te Ching or Daodejing written by Lao Tzu, perhaps sets the stage:

The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao..The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

So what is the Dao? Perhaps best explored through the writings of Lao Tzu:

There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born, it is serene, empty, solitary, unchanging, infinite, eternally present, it is the mother of the universe, for lack of a better name, I call it the Dao. It flows through all things, inside and outside, and returns to the origin of all things.

We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being but non-being is what we use.

Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi – 莊子), who extended and further developed the Daodejing writes

Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail. Hold on to all that you have received from Heaven but do not think you have gotten anything. Be empty, that is all. The perfect man uses his mind like a mirror, going after nothing, welcoming nothing, responding but not storing.

The Daodejing, whilst a short book being able to be read in maybe an hour or two, may take a lifetime to really understand the ideas. Two of the central virtues or traits are Wu wei and Ziran:

Wu wei, which translates to mean “non-action” in English. At the same time it doesn’t mean doing nothing or being passive. Rather, it means to act in-line with the Tao or more clearly act without force, or seeking to control and to simply ‘go with the flow’ and let things ‘be’. The point is that there is no need for human tampering with the flow of reality.

Chuang Tzu writes, which may help explain Wu wei further:

Confucius was seeing the sights at Lu-liang, where the water falls from a height of thirty fathoms and races and boils along for forty li, so swift that no fish or other water creature can swim in it. He saw a man dive into the water and, supposing that the man was in some kind of trouble and intended to end his life, he ordered his disciples to line up on the bank and pull the man out. But after the man had gone a couple of hundred paces, he came out of the water and began strolling along the base of the embankment, his hair streaming down, singing a song. Confucius ran after him and said, “At first I thought you were a ghost, but now I see you’re a man. May I ask if you have some special way of staying afloat in the water?”

“I have no way. I began with what I was used to, grew up with my nature, and let things come to completion with fate. I go under with the swirls and come out with the eddies, following along the way the water goes and never thinking about myself. That’s how I can stay afloat.”

Ziran (tzu-jan) which translates literally to self-such, has the meaning of being natural or naturalness. It emphasizes spontaneity and creativity via an ultimately natural state, unaffected by artificial influences or an ‘as-it-isness’.

Taoism also presents an acceptance of opposites, or Yin and Yang, such as life is lived inside the interplay of opposites: up and down, hot and cold, male and female, dry and wet, outside and inside, high and low, joy and sadness, peace and war, exertion and rest, life and death, and so on. Yin and Yang symbolize this interplay that is at the center of life’s dynamism or energy.

Chuang Tzu writes:

Everything has it’s that, everything has it’s this, so I say, that comes out of this, and this depends on that, which is to say this and that give birth to each other. But where there is birth there must be death, where there is death there must be birth, where there is recognition of right, there must be recognition of wrong, where there is recognition of wrong there must recognition of right.

It can be seen that a central theme of Taoism is an emptiness of the self, or loss of ego, and a oneness with nature, for Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, oneness is achieved by accepting and celebrating things exactly as they are instead of trying to control or transform them. Which is somewhat the opposite to Confucianism which requires a learning, in Doaism is somewhat of an un-learning.

Unlike the West, China has never been a country that sought to culture, or at any stage feature, individual autonomy, people rarely have had the means to raise their economic situation, or improve their lot so to speak, neither having political liberty. Whilst they had no control over the outside world a person could manage their own personal spiritual life, and the Daoist principles along the lines of going with the flow were attractive to many and perhaps life a easier under the circumstances.

There is more about Taoism here http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/daoism/ and a site that offers side by side translations of the Dao De Jing http://www.yellowbridge.com/onlinelit/daodejing.php

At Amazon: Tao Te Ching- Lao Tzu, A TranslationTao Te Ching

After entering into China most believe somewhere between 65AD and 68AD, Buddhism just like Taoism and Confucianism went in and out of fashion with ruling leaders. Buddhist found good company with the Taoists who shared similar views where the Wu wei became identified with the Buddhist concept of void, and similarities were shared in thinking regarding the loss of the self or ego.

A popular story is Journey to the West where the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, traveled to India to further discover Buddhism and obtain sacred texts. It’s an adventure filled tale full of suffering and discovery along a trail that turns out to be the monks path to enlightenment. The translated version in English is known as Monkey.

As interest grew in Buddhism and texts where translated Daoist phrases where used making it quite acceptable, but it was Chinese nature to simplify and such they did with the Ch’an Buddhism. Ch’an Buddhist masters were not so interested with doctrine or debate, they wanted sudden enlightenment. It was their belief that the Buddha nature existed in everyone and to lose attachment to the self and ego it was possible to achieve oneness with all things. They took a simple approach much like the Taoists and rejected lengthy doctrine.

“absence of thought means not to be carried away in the process of thought, non-attachment is mans original nature thought after thought goes on without remaining.”

As Ch’an evolved it left behind many Buddhist and Taoist traditions and celebrated an instantaneous enlightenment which is obtained by an immediate encounter with the absurd, the encounter destroys your rational thought and allows you to achieve perfect freedom. Ch’an masters taught their disciples by ridiculing them and hitting them. Their aim was a sudden collapse of the ego.

Two notable characters are Línjì Yìxuán (臨済義玄) and Chan master Huangbo Xiyun (Huángbò Xīyùn; 黃蘗希運), the story of Linji and his enlightenment:

As a young monk, Linji was trained by the Chan master Huangbo. During his first three years at the temple, Linji was unnoticed by the master as he worked in the fields and the ktichen, meditated, and served the older monks. The head monk, Mu Chou, was impressed by Linji’s kindness and sincerity and wanted to bring him to the attention of the Master. Linji was so humble and sincere that he never asked questions or did anything to attract notice. Mu Chou advised Linji to ask the Master a question, “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” Linji asked Huangbo Xiyun this question three times, and each time the Master hit him with a six-foot pole. Linji could not understand the meaning of these blows, and decided to leave the temple and wander about on foot (hsing-chiao), learning from ordinary life what he had failed to learn in the temple.

When he went to say goodbye to the Master, Huangbo advised him not to travel far, but to visit the reclusive monk Dàyú (大愚), who would teach him what he needed to know. Linji went to Dayu’s monastery and told him what had taken place. Dàyú then said, “Why, Huang Po was to you as your own grandmother. Why have you come here suddenly, asking me about your faults?” Suddenly Linji became Enlightened. Up to that moment, Linji had perceived Buddhism and its teachings as merely ideas, separate from himself. He had always searched for the truth outside of himself. Now, in a flash, he experienced existence as it is in itself, and he realized the emptiness of thoughts, words, and philosophical explanations. He now understood that Huangbo’s stick pointed to the truth of his own being, and that his own question about Buddhism came from illusion. He recognized the true generosity and liberating kindness of Master Huangbo.

Linji returned to Master Huangbo’s monastery and told him what had happened. Huangbo, delighted, said, “Just wait till Ta Yu comes here. I’ll give that blabbermouth a real beating.” Linji cried out, “Why wait? You have it (Reality) all now!” and hit Master Huangbo. Huangbo, was secretly amused by this, but taking the attitude of a master, he shouted, “A madman! He’s come back to pull the tiger’s whiskers.” Linji then responded with a thundering great shout of “Ho!” Linji’s “Ho” became famous and is still used by Rinzai masters. “Ho” became “Kwatz” in the Japanese language; this word is shouted to empty the student’s mind and free him from dualistic, ego-centered perception.

One of the key principles is to ‘just be’, not to practice doctrine but to simply ‘be present’. Their goal is mindfulness, being present and not distracted by past or future. A quote that helps explain:

When washing the dishes you might be thinking about the tea afterwords and try to get them out of the way as soon as possible in order to sit and drink tea but that means you are incapable of living during the time you are washing dishes, when you are washing the dishes must be the most important in your life just as when you are drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life, when you are using the toilet, let that be the most important thing in your life and so on. Chopping wood is meditation, carrying water is meditation.

With it’s lack of doctrine, virtues and it’s pure simplicity, Ch’an style of Buddhism is quite distinct from Tibetan Buddhism or that from India. Ch’an Buddhism traveled to other countries including Japan where it became known as Zen Buddhism, and even as far as the west to be known as Zen.

Buddhism came to favor with the Tang and Song dynasties edging out both Confucianism and Taoism as the preferred system of belief. Following the fall of the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism went out of favor and Confucianism began it’s revival.

More about Chinese Buddhism http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/china-txt.htm – The Record of Linji available online http://books.google.com.au/books?id=Q_Je6UW0XxUC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Here’s a detailed introduction to Journey to The West http://learner.org/courses/worldlit/journey-to-the-west/watch/ featuring rich video and text.

At Amazon: Essential Chan Buddhism: The Character and Spirit of Chinese ZenThe Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination

Confucian philosopher Hsün Tzu sought to develop Confucian thought further and added and emphasised the need for authoritarian rule and put forth that man is not born good by nature, but becomes good through study and adherence to rule.

Hsün Tzu writes:

The empire can be ruled only by utilizing human nature. Men have likes and dislikes; thus they can be controlled by means of rewards and punishments. On this basis prohibitions and commands can be put in operation, and a complete system of government set up. The ruler need only hold these handles [rewards and punishments] firmly, in order to maintain his supremacy. . . . These handles are the power of life and death. Force is the stuff that keeps the masses in subjection.

Hsün Tzŭ forms a kind of bridge between Confucianism and Legalism. Although he opposed Legalist ideas as such, his doctrine that human nature is evil and his authoritarianism tended in the Legalist direction. His two most famous students were Legalists; one of them was the greatest Legalist of all, Han Fei Tzŭ.

Whilst Confucianism and Taoism were based in the realm of improving the human experience for people suffering through war, oppression and poverty, Legalism was concerened with the lack of rule. They proposed that they were poor but because they did not work hard enough to enrich their rulers.

Some extracts from records of the time explain more:

His decree ordered that the people be organized into groups of families, which should be mutually responsible for each other’s good behavior and share each other’s punishments. Anyone who did not denounce a culprit would be cut in two at the waist…..Military prowess was to be rewarded by the ruler with titles of nobility…….All, great and small, would be compelled to work at the fundamental occupations of farming and weaving; those who produced a large quantity of grain or silk would be exempted from forced labor. Those who sought gain through the secondary occupations [trade and crafts], and the lazy and indigent, would be made slaves…..

Han Fei Tzŭ tells us:

Rewards should be generous and certain, so that the people will value them. Punishments should be severe and inevitable, so that the people will fear them. Laws should be
uniform and definite, so that the people can understand them. Therefore the ruler should reward without stint, and punish without mercy……rewards and punishments are not concerned primarily with the individual to whom they are applied but are designed to have an exemplary effect upon the whole people.

So, whilst not quite in the ranks of being a humanitarian based philosophy, more of a system of totalitarian rule, it did draw from Confucianism. And it wasn’t without failure, it managed to restore peace via the success of the Qin Dynasty in becoming the ruler of all China and the end of the warring states period. By all records it was an extremely harsh rule, with all dissension punished ruthlessly, such as anyone who quoted Confucius classics to to criticize the emperor would be punished with death. Soemwhere around 206BC a peasant led a rebellion and the Qin Dynasty fell, and in come the Han Dynasty.

More here http://www.iun.edu/~hisdcl/h425/legalists.htmhttp://www.english.cciv.cityu.edu.hk/China_5000/?chapter=dicts/Legalist

The revival of Confucianism and melding of the philosophies
As the Confucianism returned to favor it attacked the other philosophies who were blamed for the fall of the dynasty and social structure. Oddly the revival took Confucianism to a new level by drawing on elements of Taoism and Buddhism to form the beginning of Neo-Confucianism. The new doctrine grew to take on spiritual thought and meta-physics to provide not just a system for understanding social order, but also understanding the universe. Li Ao (Chinese: 李翱) a famous character in the revival of Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism writes:

Therefore it is sincerity that the sage takes as his nature, absolutely still and without movement, vast and great, clear and bright, shining on Heaven and Earth. When stimulated he can then penetrate all things in the world. In act or in rest, in speech or silence, he always remains in the ultimate. It is returning to his true nature that the worthy man follows without ceasing. If he follows it without ceasing he is enabled to get back to the source

Like the Taoists, Li recommended a return to oneness with nature and like the Buddhists he recommended turning inwards and finding your own human nature. A difference is perhaps that Li promoted enlightenment via learning as opposed to Buddhist and Taoists teaching of un-learning or via monastic retreat. The synthesis of Taoist, Buddhist elements would have a large effect of the development of Confucianism which would dominate as the leading form of thought and teaching in China for some thousands of years.

An important ancient text not mentioned so far is the I Ching or Book of Changes which dates back some 3000 years. The I Ching (古文經), is described as a system of cosmology and philosophy that subsequently became intrinsic to Chinese culture. It centered on the ideas of the dynamic balance of opposites, the evolution of events as a process, and acceptance of the inevitability of change. This text, along with Taoism and Buddhist thought, along with theories of Yin and Yang would all be expressed in the Neo-Confucian theory. A popular painting portrays the slogan “the three teachings are one” where Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu are pictured all drinking out of the same vinegar jar.

More on Neo-Confucianism http://www.iep.utm.edu/neo-conf/

A loose, brief and non-concluded conclusion
Of course with any of the above, it would be possible to spend a lifetime of study, as many do, but that’s where I will end this article. Thoughts; one can certainly feel the teachings of all three philosophies permeating day to day life, most certainly Confucianism. At first take of Chinese manner and nature, many will draw dim conclusions around mannerisms that differ from Western culture. But it actually takes a much longer look to see the rich vein of historic philosophies that form their true nature, being family orientated, ceremonious, peace loving and harmonious. There is surely much to discover, and much to learn and share. It’s almost easy to be seen that the answers for the West lay in the East, and the answers for the East, lay in the West….


The entrance of Russia and Marxist theory
Sat Yun Sen, considered the father of modern China, led China from imperial rule and into becoming a republic but not democracy as the West would have hoped. Perhaps there was too much angst towards the West, from it’s early invasions, and in later years aid, which some Chinese viewed as demoralizing, and giving the West superiority albeit not the intention. Russia’s approach was somewhat different, it treated China as an equal and won the propaganda war and the re-education began.

Mao and the cultural revolution.
Mao Zedong, the founder of the Peoples Republic of China, remains a highly prominent figure. As the leader of the Chinese Communist Party with his Red Army, in conjunction with the Nationalists, defeated Japan’s invasion of China. Later, when the civil war resumed, he would go on to defeat the Nationalists who would later retreat to Taiwan. He was considered, and still is, a great thinker and strategist, his thinking based in Russia’s Marxist-Leninist theories, he would lead a re-education of Chinese society under the banner of Communism.

Although revered, no one thinks highly of some of his later policies, including the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Beginning around 1966, Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, initiated the Cultural Revolution having the goal of removing capitalist, traditional and cultural elements and enforce communism. Perhaps some of the darker days in China’s recent history where many lives were lost, many persecuted, and an unprecedented cultural destruction that saw thousand year old temples destroyed, schools of thought banished, all forms of ancient texts destroyed and a halt of economic activity.

Following the death of Mao in 1976, Deng Xiaoping rose to power and instituted a market economy, along with opening up and reform. China’s growth as an economic powerhouse had begun and prosperity was in return. China remains under a communist philosophy albeit, with a market economy, all as they say, with Chinese characteristics. One could only hope for the true character of the Chinese people to prevail.

More reading:
A hand selected collection of books on Chinese Philosophy