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Confucius, was born in 551 B.C. and died in 479 B.C. The philosophy that is known as Confucianism comes
mainly from the speeches and writings of Confucius. The ideas of Confucianism are found in “The Analects".
Confucianism is an ethical system rather than a religion. (Ethics deals with human behavior and conduct.)
Confucius was mainly concerned with how human beings behaved toward each other and paid little attention to
such matters as sin, salvation, and the soul. He developed a system of government, society, and justice which
we call Confucianism.
Confucius believed that people, because of their nature, desire to live in the company of other people, that is, in
society. It is only in society that people reach their fullest development. Therefore, it is important for people to
know how to behave in society, that is, in their relations with other people.
The Five Basic Relationships
According to Confucius, each person had a specific place in society and certain duties to fulfill. Confucius
hoped that if people knew what was expected of them they would behave correctly. Therefore, he set up five
principal relationships in which most people are involved. These relationships were
(1) ruler and subject;
(2) father and son;
(3) elder brother and younger brother;
(4) husband and wife; and
(5) friend and friend.
All, except the last, involve the authority of one person over another. Power and the right to rule belong to
superiors over subordinates; that is, to older people over younger people, to men over women. Each person has
to give obedience and respect to "superiors"; the subject to his ruler, the wife to her husband, the son to his
parents, and the younger brother to the older brother. The "superior," however, owes loving responsibility to the
The Family and the State
Confucius placed great importance on the family. In fact, filial piety (respecting your parents and ancestors) is
considered the first virtue of Confucianism. Family life was seen as a training ground for life in society. It is at
home in the family that the child learns to deal with problems that he or she will face later in the world. The
family is responsible for educating the child to be a good member of society. Confucius emphasized the
importance of education, the aim of which is to turn people into good family members, responsible members of
society, and good subjects of the emperor.
The state (government) was regarded as an extension of the family in many ways. The emperor and his officials
were referred to as the parents of the people. Subjects owed the same loyalty to their rulers that they owed to the
senior members of their family.
However, the emperor had duties to fulfill as well. Confucius believed that for society to be well ordered and
for people to live in peace and prosper, it was necessary to have a good government and a virtuous ruler. It was
the duty of the emperor and his officials to set a good example for the people. The good example of the ruler
would transform the people, and make them better. Confucius believed that only the wisest and most humane
men should rule. He further believed that if the emperor was not morally perfect, heaven would cause the world
to suffer.
The emperor also had to maintain the proper relationship between himself and heaven. Heaven was regarded as
the governing authority of the universe and the final judge of right and wrong. The Chinese believed that a
dynasty ruled as long as it held the "Mandate of Heaven," that is, the right to rule. The people felt they had the
right to say whether or not the ruler had the Mandate. When the Emperor did not see to it that there was water
for irrigation, that canal barges could transport rice, that rivers did not flood, and that roads were safe for
traveling, the people suffered. When the people suffered, they were sure that Heaven had taken away its
protection of the Emperor, so they rebelled. When the rebellion was successful, the Mandate of Heaven was
given to the leader of the rebellion. He became the emperor of a new dynasty.
The Importance of Confucianism
For 2,000 years Confucianism was the official philosophy of China. The only way a person could achieve an
important position in the government or in society was by having a good knowledge of Confucianism. To
become a government official it was necessary to pass a difficult civil service examination based on the ideas of
Confucius. Since it was Confucianism that kept the leaders in power, they were opposed to any changes. The
Confucianists believed that they were the only civilized community in the world and they looked down on the
beliefs and cultures of other people. This attitude made the Chinese unwilling to change their way of life when
they were first exposed to Western culture. This unwillingness to adopt Western ideas and techniques in the late
19th and early 20th centuries proved to be disastrous for the Chinese.
Confucius himself was not very interested in the ideas of a God, an after life, heaven, and other ideas that we
associate with religion. However, when Confucianism became the official philosophy of China, religious
functions were incorporated into it. Confucius, together with his ancestors and famous followers, became
objects of worship. Confucian temples were built all over China and sacrifices and rituals were performed.
Excerpt from The Analects:
“Lead people by means of regulations and keep order among them through punishments, and the people
will evade them and will lack any sense of shame. Lead them through morality and act as an example of
virtue, and they will have a sense of shame and will also correct themselves.”
1. What is the ultimate goal of Confucianism?
2. What is the importance of the family?
3. What is filial piety?
Daoism, a Chinese philosophy traditionally attributed to Lao Zi, originated in the 6th century BC, about the
same time as Confucianism. Daoism teaches the importance of people having a sense of nature, understanding
his or her part in it.
The Daoists believed there was a natural order to existence and that people should do as little as possible to
change the natural order. This order, is known as the Dao. By accepting things as they are, people could live in
harmony with the natural laws. Daoists opposed the existence of large bureaucratic governments and many
governmental laws. Individuals should seek to find their own nature and place in the natural world and act
according to instinct, since human instincts are good, and it is learning and tradition that have taught them to be
bad. Once people rid themselves of the burden of unnatural laws and customs, they can find the Dao (or way) of
the universe.
Daoism stresses the idea of Wu-Wei, or inaction. Daoists believe that people create their own problems by
trying to force their own ambitions. By following the Dao, or natural way of the world, people can be happy and
society will run smoothly. Simply put, if life is a river, Daoists believe man should float and let the river take
them where it will. Fighting the river is unnatural, and will only cause problems. Float on…
Excerpts from The Dao De Jing
The best rulers are hardly known by their subjects;
The next best are loved and praised;
The worst are feared;
They have no faith in their people,
And their people become unfaithful to them.
When the best rulers achieve their purpose,
No one is aware of their actions.
Their subjects claim the achievement as their own.
Those who know do not talk.
Those who talk do not know.
Keep your mouth closed.
Guard your senses.
Temper your sharpness.
Simplify your problems.
Mask your brightness.
Be at one with the dust of the earth.
This is primal union.
He who has achieved this state
Is unconcerned with friends and enemies,
With good and harm, with honour and disgrace.
This therefore is the highest state of man.
The best of man is like water,
Which benefits all things, and does not fight with them,
Which flows into the lowest places, where most despise
Where it is in harmony with the Way.
So the wise man:
Lives within nature,
Thinks within the deep,
Gives within expecting anything in return,
Wu-Wei (Inaction)
Fill a cup to its brim and it is easily spilled;
Temper a sword to its hardest and it is easily broken;
Amass the greatest treasure and it can be stolen;
Claim credit and honour and you are prone to failure;
Rest when the work is done - this is the way of heaven.
Too much color blinds the eye,
Too much music deafens the ear,
Too much taste dulls the palate,
Too much play maddens the mind,
Too much desire tears the heart.
The wise man lives in balance, and avoids excess.
The Way takes no action, but leaves nothing undone.
When you accept this
The world will flourish,
In harmony with nature.
Reveal your naked self and embrace your original nature;
Forget your self-interest and control your ambition;
Forget your habits and simplify your affairs.
Embracing the Way, you become embraced;
Breathing gently, you become newborn;
Clearing your mind, you become clear;
Accepting others, you become accepted;
Accepting the world, you embrace the Dao.
Caring and nurturing,
Creating but not owning,
Giving without asking,
This is harmony.
Armies are tools of violence;
They cause men to hate and fear.
The wise man will not join them.
His purpose is creation;
Their purpose is destruction.
Weapons are tools of violence,
Not of the sage;
He uses them only when there is no choice,
And then calmly, and with tact,
For he finds no beauty in them.
Whoever finds beauty in weapons
Delights in the slaughter of men;
And who delights in slaughter
Cannot content himself with peace.
So battles must be mourned
And military victories celebrated with a funeral.
The sage does not distinguish between himself and the world;
The needs of other people are as his own.
He is good to those who are good;
He is also good to those who are not good,
Thereby he is good.
He trusts those who are trustworthy;
He also trusts those who are not trustworthy,
Thereby he is trustworthy.
Write: In your own words, summarize the beliefs of Daoism found in the Dao De Jing.
The Legalist philosophy originated during the same period as Confucianism and Daoism. Philosopher Han
FeiZi founded it. The Legalists assumed that human nature was evil and that the people must be
restricted by laws. They believed that through harsh punishments people would be forced to obey these
laws. They taught that a strong central government was essential to maintain peace and order, and that
the ruler should be an unquestioned authority. They also believed that only two occupations should be
allowed: farmer (to provide sustenance) and soldier (to support the ruler).
Excerpt from Han FeiZi’s book:
“When a wise man governs a state, he does not rely on the people to do good out of their own will.
Instead, he sees to it that they are not allowed to do what is not good. If he relies on people to do
good out of their own will, within the borders of the state not even ten persons can be counted on
[to do good]. Yet, if one sees to it that they are not allowed to do what is not good, the whole state
can be brought to uniform order. Whoever rules should consider the majority and set the few
aside: He should not devote his attention to virtue, but to law.”
Questions: Answer the following questions below.
1. How did the Daoists and Legalists differ in their views of human nature? Cite examples from the
quote above (for Legalism).
2. What does Han FeiZi mean by “[A ruler] should not devote his attention to virtue, but to law”?
3. Regarding government, contrast the ideas of Daoism and Legalism.
4. If you had to choose, would you rather be a Daoist or a Legalist? ________________. Explain.
Chinese Philosophies: Short Essay
Which of the Three Philosophies of Ancient China is your favorite? What do you like about it? How
does it apply to your life or your view of the world? Use specific examples or quotes to illustrate
your opinion.