Taoism and Confucianism are considered two of the most influential belief systems in Ancient China. Both of these philosophies which simultaneously existed shaped the religion, traditions, culture and beliefs of their followers for well over 2,000 years.
Taoism and Confucianism are regarded as a way of life, sharing common beliefs about man, society, heaven and the universe. Both also began as philosophies but later took on a religious slant.
While these two philosophies may have been based on similar scriptures and promote ideas that are somehow in line with each other, there are strong contrasts on how they are founded and expressed especially when it comes to views regarding self, behavior, politics and religion. These notable differences are the reasons why others may consider Taoism and Confucianism polar opposites.
It was in the 6th century B.C.E. when the two contemporaries, Lao Tzu and Confucius are believed to have lived and taught their respective philosophies. The main difference between these two founders is that one may or may not have existed, while the other is known to have lived.
Taoism was founded by Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu is translated either as ‘Old Master’ or ‘Old Boy’. Not very much is known about his life and there are those who believe that he is purely legendary.
One myth narrated that around 604 B.C.E., Lao Tzu was born as an old man, already white-haired and full of wisdom. Eventually, Lao Tzu worked for the Imperial Archives as head librarian. It was said though that because he was dismayed at society’s lack of goodness, Lao Tzu chose to leave his home in Luoyong to become a recluse.
As he was leaving civilization, he passed through the city gates for the final time and the gatekeeper asked Lao Tzu to write down his parting thoughts. Lao Tzu agreed and returned after three days with a small book containing his writings, which were later on titled as Tao Te Ching, the most important text of Taoism. Lao Tzu never returned back to civilization after that. He was said to have lived the rest of his life somewhere near Tibet, beyond the Great Wall of China.
Here’s a popular quote from Lao Tzu:
“Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”
Unlike Lao Tzu, whose life was very vague, Confucius was a person known to have existed. Confucius was a politician, teacher, musician, and philosopher born in 551 B.C.E. in the State of Lu, known today as Qufu in Shandong Province.
Confucius had a brilliant teaching career due to his mastery of the six arts- ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and arithmetic, as well as his familiarity with classical traditions including history and poetry.
As a politician, Confucius started as a government employee but later on, he rose through the ranks as a political advisor to the rulers of the Chou dynasty. Later in his life, Confucius decided to leave politics to focus on teaching a small number of students. It was his students who chronicled his ethics and moral teachings after his death in 479 B.C.E. The written teachings were to become his most popular book, the Lun-yü, or Analects.
A popular quote from Confucius:
"Not to teach a man who can be taught, is to waste a man; to teach a man who cannot be taught, is a waste of words. The wise will lose neither men nor words."
According to a legend, Confucius and Lao Tzu did meet to discuss the Imperial Archives and that during the meeting, Lao Tzu was unimpressed by the fine-looking robes worn by Confucius. Also, it was said that Lao Tzu did not agree with looking back on the past saying,
“Put away your polite airs and your vain display of fine robes. The wise man does not display his treasures to those he does not know. And he cannot learn justice from the Ancients."
While Confucius was said to have been so impressed of Lao Tzu that he described him as:
“A dragon riding the winds and clouds in the sky”
The key word in Taoism is 道 Tao, the Way of Nature, Universe, or God. It teaches to “follow the Tao Way” - Don’t violate it. Promote it. Tao is the standard of right and wrong.
Tao means ‘The Way’ and Taoism is defined as the follower of Tao or The Way. The main focus in Taoism is what the Tao refers to as it represents the laws of nature, how they work and respond. This philosophy is more about finding the person’s way of life through nature and universe around him. It also encourages a person to comprehend the natural values of the world to become more in-tune with his inner self.
The keyword in Confuianism is 礼 Li, the right way of behavior - among people, in the right situation, right time and place.
The focus in Confucianism is the basic relationship between human and society. This philosophy promotes social harmony and mutual respect between the people. It is mainly concerned with the good value that is obtained by establishing social values.
Unlike Taoism which does not have a set of moral codes or society structures, Confucianism is focused heavily on social etiquette, rites and rituals, as well as establishing a virtuous government. It also believes in setting good examples for other to follow, primarily in these five key relationships:
Taoism and Confucianism also differ in the way they view different issues which are still relevant up to present day.
In viewing women for example, Taoism do not place a distinction between men and women, holding women as equal, respected members of society. This is because the focus is on the ‘self’ so both genders are seen as manifestations of the Tao.
However, Confucianism gives women a lesser importance in society than men. According to Confucianism, women were to occupy a lower position than men at every level. Although women are accorded honor and power as mothers and mothers-in-law, they are thought to be naturally inferior to men. In fact, Scholar Xiao Ma has said:
"Women always have been fighting for a way out of the Confucian shadows."
Taoism: to gain harmony with nature
Confucianism: to gain harmony with society
The goal of Taoism is to gain harmony with the Tao and nature, while Confucianism is to gain harmony with people in society. Although the goals of Taoism and Confucianism are similar that they try to place individuals as part of a larger experience, the difference lies on the extent of the relationship.
With Confucianism, the relationship is limited between one person and another in society, while in Taoism, it extends to the relationship between oneself and nature.
Taoism teachings are more vague and liberal, while Confucianism teachings are more defined, with some set of instructions very specific. Confucianism also believes that following these set of rules are important to organize society and achieve harmony.
The teachings of Taoism and Confucianism cannot be abridged into a few paragraphs as they are rich in valuable and timeless learnings and thoughts. However, we can summarize the core teachings into the following:
In Taoism, the three core teachings are:
In Confucianism, the three core teachings are:
In Taoism, followers are encouraged to visit shrines regularly to fulfill their roles within the religion. Rituals also include a level of mysticism involving shamanism, divination and street parades with Taoists wearing honor guard costumes, god-image worship and performers portraying being possessed by spirits.
Another religious practice in Taoism includes the cultivation of a bodily energy called the ‘chi’ which is an animating force and sustaining principle behind all living things. Thus, Taoists embraced Tai Chi which is a slow and controlled physical exercise to achieve mental stillness.
Confucianism, on the other hand, does not hold regular practices and rituals, however, followers do believe that participating in rituals serves to unite people and is a way to improve society. But instead of regular practices, Confucianism highlights four important stages in a person’s life and with each of these stages, there are specific practices that are followed.
Religious reverence is also a part of Confucianism and followers visit temples to pay homage to Confucius, Ti'en (God or Heaven), and perform ancestor worship which has become a vital part of Chinese life. Later on, Confucians also started practicing 'Jing Zuo', which is meditation through sitting quietly.
Taoism and Confucianism are both regarded as a way of living. Although they may represent different ways of thinking and behavior, it is important to note that both beliefs are similar in a way that they focus on man’s self-improvement. Regardless of the differences between Taoism and Confucianism, both philosophies have served to provide a guideline to living and will continue to be a timeless source of inspiration and learning for generations to come.