The Chinese culture gave birth to many different traditions, inventions, and practices that made a great influence both on the development of this country and the rest of the world. China is the place where two of the most significant Asian teachings – Confucianism and Daoism – originated. They formed the principal ways in which the Asian civilization developed and had a huge impact on the process of Asian identity formation. Despite the fact that both teachings originated in China, they are not identical and focus on different aspects. This essay is devoted to the analysis of the main differences between Confucianism and Daoism views of how individuals should live in the world.
First of all, it must be highlighted that Confucianism is a philosophic system in contrast to Daoism that has almost all features of a classical religion. Confucianism does not provide any rituals for private worship and does not have any procedures for people who want their sins to be forgiven. Moreover, it does not have any institute of clergy that would regulate behavior of the subjects. Confucianism also claims that many religious rites and traditions should be treated as superstitions that prevent the society from harmonious development. Therefore, non-religious basis of Confucianism stipulates the principal differences between this philosophy and Daoism.
The biggest difference between Confucianism and Daoism that perfectly reflects the nature of these teachings is their focus on different aspects of human life and the relations between an individual and the rest of the world. The main aim of Confucianism is to regulate the relations between the individuals and the society and help people to find their way to serve the society in the best possible way. Daoism, on the other hand, focuses on the interconnections of an individual and the whole universe claiming that contemplation and non-action are the best methods of their harmonization. This difference can be clearly seen from the analysis of the writings of the leading philosophers. Confucius argues that any person should exert every effort to become a gentleman. It means that he should pay close attention to four main spheres – “personal conduct”, “serving his superiors”, “nourishing the people,” and “governing the people” (Ebrey, 1993, p. 18). It is clear that these four elements of decent behavior do not appeal to anything but the relations between a person and the society. Daoism, as it has already been mentioned, focuses on the perception of the world and the universe. It is said, “When everyone in the world sees beauty in the beautiful, ugliness is already there” (Ebrey, 1993, p. 28). Much focus is made on the balanced connection of the opposites as in this example. This harmony is treated as a key that may help to find the Dao and follow it. Moreover, in Confucianism, the writings often emphasize the necessity to change something to make it better for the society, whereas in Daoism writings there are almost no calls to actively change something. The concept of non-action is very important for this religion.
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Another important difference between Confucianism and Daoism is based on their understanding of unity. According to Confucianism, an individual should seek unity and harmony with the society, whereas in Daoism the society does not have so much power. In Daoism, a person should simply follow the Dao (the Way), and in many cases it means to be united with the nature and the universe. This unity with the society is often expressed through the emphasis on loyalty, obedience, and respect to the elder and the superior. Confucius writes that a gentleman should “keep in mind the need for integrity” and it should govern all his actions (Ebrey, 1993, p. 19). He says, “In his bearing he wishes to be respectful” (Ebrey, 1993, p. 18). This unwillingness to break the rules and obey the existing law is one of the key features of Confucianism. It can be explained by the fact that at the time when this philosophy was formed, one of the main tasks of the Chinese civilization was to cement a very big and diverse empire, so respect to the society should be made the utmost goal of every person. However, in Daoism, the nature, not the society, occupies a very important place. Lao Tze argues that “for dwelling earth is good” and “for minds, depth is good” (Ebrey, 1993, p. 19). These parallels between the unity with nature and the understanding of deep inner self are very frequent in Lao Tze’s writing and the texts created by his followers.
According to Confucianism, a person should deal with his/her immediate external environment to find the way to self-improvement, while in Daoism it is necessary for a person to appeal to his/her inner self for the same purposes. For example, when Confucius describes the situation when a person makes mistakes, he depicts it as an eclipse of the sun and the moon, meaning that when a mistake is made, no one would notice the person who did it and thus the punishment of the society was implemented. However, there is always a chance to correct the mistake and then “everyone will look up to him again” (Ebrey, 1993, p. 19). It is obvious that the society is considered to be the most efficient source of self-improvement as all the signals required to understand how the person should behave and develop his character are to be obtained from the external environment. The situation with Daoism is different. It is believed that all necessary answers are kept inside the human psyche and the Way can show them where to find the guidance. Understanding the Way and the place of the individual is, according to Daoism, the first step to self-improvement.
Confucianism is focused on the rational and moral ideals that can be easily employed in any everyday situation, whereas Daoism is more inclined to the spirituality and intuitive spontaneity. For example, it is possible to find many references to daily activities and routines in the writing of Confucius and the other philosophers who worked in the frames of this teaching. The Mencius, describing the role of government, gives many realistic examples. For instance, he mentions a “draught in the seventh and eighth months” that usually has a very negative impact on the fields of rice (Ebrey, 1993, p. 22). These examples are not only devoted to the explanations of daily activities. In some cases, they are quite symbolic and function as allegories of some larger and more important concepts. However, similar references to everyday routines are almost absent in Daoism, as in this religion spirituality is more significant than the regulated everyday activities aimed at strengthening the society. The writings of the leading Daoism theorist are often very metaphorical. For example, Lao Tze writes, “The world represents all that exists and may exist” (Lao Tze). This philosophical statement reflects the basic approach of Daoism doctrine to the outside world. It may be also applied to many other spheres if understood broadly. Moreover, taking into account the Daoism tendency to attribute high value to spontaneous decisions caused by the inner self, it is possible to say that this characteristic feature may be treated as one of the factors explaining the lack of direct instructions in Daoism writings.
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The above-mentioned differences result in the way how these two teachings understand the upper stage of human development. In Confucianism, it is a statesman or a respected scholar, whereas in Daoism the preference is made to mystic hermits who have managed to reach the stage of deep and profound connection with the nature. This idea is connected with the understanding of material possessions, which is also different in these two teachings. Daoism strongly criticizes the lust for riches that leads to moral degradation. Zhuangzi argues that “the rich embitter their lives by their incessant labors; they accumulate more wealth than they can use” (Zhuangzi). In many other Daoism writings, the same idea is even further developed to attain high value to hermits who refused all the material possessions to learn the Way and follow it without any limits and restrictions. On the contrary, Confucianism treats the accumulation of material wealth with relative approval. This teaching acknowledges that it is quite natural for people to long for more wealth. Confucius says, “Riches and honors are the things people desire”, but at the same time he warns that if these possessions are acquired in some dishonest manner that contradicts to his doctrine, it is likely to vanish and does not last for a long time (Ebrey, 1993, p. 19).
To conclude, despite the fact that Confucianism and Daoism have a certain number of similarities, they are quite different. These differences relate to the way these doctrines understand the role of an individual in this world and his/her relations with the society and the nature. Confucianism is focused on the social norms and ethical aspects of the human behavior, whereas Daoism pays more attention to the spirituality and unity with the nature and the whole universe. Confucianism and Daoism also have a different approach to dealing with the material wealth and treating the inner self.