Confucianism and Taoism: a Comparative Study

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.

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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.

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” (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 expected to have cultivated himself in both religions in order to be considered a true ruler.

From the similarities in government explained above, a new similarity arises: The path one has to take in both religions to be become a true ruler. The path begins with practice and repetition in a social or intrapersonal context and the goal is to achieve self-cultivation and become a true ruler. 6 Along with similarities in government, one might also find similar abstract ideas in Confucianism and Daoism. First of all, the aspect of change is very important in both traditions. In Confucianism, we reference the Book of Changes, the I-Ching.

This book describes all nature and human endeavor in terms of the interaction of Yin and Yang 7. By that logic, everything would change, with Yin and Yang expressing themselves in accordance with the time of the year, location, time of day… Everything is therefore constantly changing. With Daoism, a similar emphasis arises. In the Zuangzi, we find this text: “The Way is without beginning or end, but things have their life and death. ” (Page 83 of the Zhuangzi)8 Through this text, we can identify two worlds: The world of 10000 things and the Way or the Dao.

(RELG 253 Lecture, 26 January 2011) We humans would live in the latter and still be at home (seek to find and our goal is) in the former. And change here is what makes all the difference between the two worlds. The world of the 10000 things is, much like the world described by Confucianism, the result of Yin and Yang and in constant change. The Dao, however, is absolute and never changes. The two worlds are therefore very different. Additionally, we find a common absence of self in both traditions. In Confucianism, humans are seen as social beings.

For that reason, this tradition never analyzes the person in terms of spirit and body and what substance or no-substance makes a person. Rather, Confucianism deals with the upbringing and the personality a person develops when dealing with other people 9. This results from Confucianism assigning great importance on the social aspect and philosophy as opposed to the individual, intrapersonal one. (RELG 253 Lecture, 17 January 2011) Likewise, in Daoism, humans have no self as explained by the Toa Te Ching: “Because he is without self, he can accomplish his self.

” (Chapter 7 in the Tao Te Ching)4 The self, in Daoism, is replaced with a “hologram”, an omnipresent entity that is conceived in your head. This entity is put there by the Dao knowing that it is an illusion. By understanding and accepting that their selves are holograms, humans become one with the Tao 10. By comparing these ideologies we find that both Confucianism and Daoism impart significant importance to the (absence of) self. Furthermore, similarities arise from concepts that appear to be opposites at first glance. The first of these concepts is education.

Daoism is seen to oppose education because of the latter’s tendency to force people to learn and be what they are not (That is not natural). However, what should also be known is that Daoism encourages personalized education and understanding the whole rather than the pieces in order to understand the Dao. So, Daoism believes in a personalized education as opposed to an institutional one. 11 When reviewing Confucianism, we, again, find a specific focus on personalized education or self-education rather than institutional education.

One starts off by imitating to learn (That is the institutional part of education). It is, however, more important to think about what you have learned and to do so logically and creatively. The quality of thinking is highlighted in the Confucian Analects: “If you learn without thinking about what you have learned, you will be lost. ” (Passage 2. 15 in the Confucian Analects)3 But to conclude what should be learned and to understand what should be imitated, should one not analyze one’s self first?

And for this reason, an education in Confucianism will always be largely a self-education focused on self-assessment and thinking rather than just imitating12. (Do not look at the time factor but on the degree of importance of each part) And this creates an important similarity in both Confucian and Taoism ideologies: We must know the importance of self-realization and understand how everything fits into the world, to become whole, before attempting to learn the details. A final similarity arises from both Confucianism’s and Daoism’s emphasis on example.

In Tao Te Ching, we find: “[…] For this reason the Master embraces the Tao as an example for the world to follow […]” (Chapter 22 in the Tao Te Ching)4. In this quotation, we find that the Master (or teacher), by being one with the Tao, sets an example for the other humans to follow. When others see the enlightened, they will follow and gradually be. In Confucianism, a similar occurrence is observed. The Confucian Master (or the Confucian ruler) is a role model for society to follow. This is also observed in the imitation that one is required to perform in order to achieve sincerity and learn.

(RELG 256Lecture, 19 January 2011) During the course of this essay, many similarities between the two religions have been analyzed. We went from the common purpose to describe the application of Wu Wei in both religions. We then discussed a common goal and a similar path to be followed in both religions. Furthermore, we saw that Daoism and Confucianism have common abstract concepts such as change, absence of self, education, and example. In conclusion, it seems that the two traditions have more in common than first thought.

Do they have enough in common, though, to co-exist in one philosophy or religion?

Works Cited

  1. 1. Taoism and Confucianism – Ancient Philosophies (2008) Retrieved 29 January 2011 from http://www. ushistory. org/civ/9e. asp 2. Beck, S. (2006) Confucius and Socrates Teaching Wisdom. 1worldpeace. org 3. Slingerland, E. (2006)
  2. Confucius: The Essential Analects. Indianapolis: Hackett 4. Watson, B. , & Lombardo, S. (1993) Tao Te Ching. New York: Hackett 5. Shoucheng, Y. (June 2008)
  3. The Parting of the Tao: On the Similarities and Differences Between Early Confucianism and Early Taoism.
  4. Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Volume 21, Issue 2, p. 157 -165 6. Shoucheng, Y. (June 2008)
  5. The Parting of the Tao: On the Similarities and Differences Between Early Confucianism and Early Taoism. Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Volume 21, Issue 2, p. 165 -173 7. I-Ching (n. d. ) Retrieved 30 January 2011 from http://www. crystalinks. com/iching. html 8. Watson, B. (1964)
  6. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings. New York: Colombia 9. Klemme, D. (1999)
  7. The Concept of “Self” in Confucian Thought Retrieved 29 January 2011 from http://www. tparents. org/Library/Unification/Talks/Klemme/klemme_confucian.
  8. htm 10. Google Books: Self as Person in Asian Theory and Practice. Retrieved on 28 January 2011 from http://books. google. com/books? id=bl-3thwn7DYC&pg=PA174&lpg=PA174&dq=absence+self+in+taoism&source=bl&ots=95BaJmjh3E&sig=tRUPQt37VqcrG6mpHrJtyJHfdHc&hl=en&ei=nipGTaSAGMrXgQe6uoC0AQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&ved=0CD8Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=absence%20self%20in%20taoism&f=false 11. Kirkland, R. (1996) Taoism from Philosophy of Education: An encyclopedia, 1996 12. Riegel, J. (2006)
  9. Confucius. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 30 January 2011.

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Confucianism and Taoism: a Comparative Study. (2016, Nov 01). Retrieved from

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