Confucianism and Taoism: a Comparative Study

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Date: Monday, January 31, 2011

Confucianism and Taoism: A Comparative Study
RELG 253: Learning Cell One
TA: Lisa Blake

Often described as the two sides of the coin, Confucianism and Taoism are being practiced, today, by over 225 million people and have existed for more than 2400 years in East Asian culture1. Despite the many differences in both traditions, however, we may also find a lot of similarities. Whether in government application or through abstract, immaterial ideals, we find that the two-sided coin can sometimes land on its side. To begin any comparison between the two traditions, one must understand the historical background of each. Firstly, Confucius was born during a period of struggle and political unrest; this was a period that spanned around three centuries resulting from the Chinese states’ continual desire to expand their borders2. Similarly, Zhuangzi appears in 369 B.C.E, again a time of continual warfare and expansion (RELG 253 Lecture, 24 January 2011). For this reason, it would be true to assume that assassinations, bribery, adultery, and other crimes were a very common problem. The latter problems would create a desire for social harmony, peace and happiness among the people and the rulers. So, the creation of Confucianism and Taoism was actually a response to these calls and to the need for better governmental rule. But then, how would governments, ruled by the ideas proposed by Confucianism and Taoism, operate? And how would these governments be similar? We start off with the idea of Wu Wei in both religions, especially in government. From the Confucian Analects, we recall a common passage: The Master said, "Is Shun not an example of someone who ruled by means of Wu Wei? What did he do? He made himself reverent and took his proper [ritual] position facing south, that is all." (Passage 15.5 in the Confucian Analects)3 Confucians put a great deal of importance on the concept of Wu-Wei. A ruler, who is virtuous, has only to face South and everything in his empire falls into sync. The ruler ruled without actually ruling. We see a similar importance applied to Wu-Wei in Daoism:  “all human actions become spontaneous and mindless as those of the natural world. Man becomes one with Nature, or Heaven ... and merges himself with Dao, or the Way, the underlying unity that embraces man, nature and all that is in the Universe.” (Watson 6)4 A true Taoist rules without desire and with the Dao; a ruler does not calculate and think but rather relies on The Dao or on a spiritual guidance. He is to appear not to rule; leaving the people to think that they are the rulers. (RELG 253 Lecture, 28 January 2011) By comparing these two conceptions of Wu Wei in government, we find many similarities. In both traditions, a ruler is not to practice law and punishment. Also, a ruler is not to interfere with his people’s life and impose a certain understanding. In short, the less the ruler does, the more is accomplished. This imposes the idea that a ruler is reliant on “something”. (In Daoism – the Dao; In Confucianism – social order and the Mandate of Heaven) So we find common grounds when comparing the essence – or basis – of good ruler ship. Another point to compare is how the ruler is chosen, the steps he takes to become elite. This delves into the topic of self-cultivation. To begin with, both Confucianism and Taoism have self-cultivation and self-improvement as an ultimate goal. Whether through the continual practice of ritual and music (in the form of adherence to the codes of behavior and cultivation of virtue (RELG 253 Lecture, 19 January 2011)) in Confucianism or through transforming oneself through the Way (RELG 253 Lecture, 28 January 2011) in Daoism, self-cultivation is the goal and it involves repetition and time. And, in both philosophies, if self-cultivation is achieved with all individuals (especially the ruler) then an improved social order and deeper understanding is the result.5 Moreover, a ruler is...
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