Confucianism, Daoism – Legalism

Amidst the chaos of political instability and constant warring of the Zhou era, arose many intellectual thinkers that brought such profound impact in the field of politics, religion and philosophy. Even to the day, their influence can be espied in the many matters of China. Confucianism became the paramount school of thinking and later significant philosophies such as Daoism and Legalism gained immense recognition as well. Each party had their own proposals for creating an idealistic political society where the many problems they faced in their everyday lives could be eliminated. All three approaches were very distinct but at the same time, they contained certain similarities as well. In my reasoning, I find that Confucianism and Daoism could be paralleled in many ways to find several common grounds. On the other hand, Legalism goes on to take a more unique approach which was much different from the previous two.

Kongzi (Confucius, a Latinized name) was born in 551 B. C.E., to a poor family of the lower nobility. Throughout his life, he relentlessly tried to gain an office with a prominent ruler of the time who was willing to adopt his various concepts. Unfortunately, Confucius died in 479 B. C.E., before such a change ever took place. However, he succeeded in winning over a handful of devote followers who continued his legacy and Confucianism later went on to become one of the most influential thought systems of Chinese history. Of his followers, Mencius and Xunzi became the most renown. Since Confucius did not succeed in completing a manual of his views, these followers had to derive their own interpretations of the system which now formulate, the Analects. The Analects portray an idealized gentleman, and his various duties in terms of the society, family and the rituals. Confucius explains about the way (Dao) which he believed, that if the people accepted its terms and were willing to abide, they would succeed in creating a utopian society.

By the beginning of the common era, another philosophy emerges and gains wide acceptance among the commoners. Daoism, just like the predecessor and also as the name implies, puts emphasis on "the way," that a certain individual is to abide to. Even though the two systems had different concepts about the way, the common denominator of both schools was to achieve total harmony in the society. Confucianism focuses mainly on social order while Daoism puts its central focus on being one with the nature.

"[I]f an individual can practice five things anywhere in the world, he is a man of humanity... reverence, generosity, truthfulness, diligence and kindness" (Ebrey 19B). Confucius' gentleman had to possess these fine qualities to achieve success. On the other side of the token, Daoism emphasized the need for similar entities. Laozi explains: "For minds, the depth is good. In social relations, human-heartedness is good. In speaking, the trustworthiness is good. In governing order is good" (Ebrey 28B). Both systems, though through different approaches, promote peace and goodwill among the family, society and with neighboring states.

Both Confucianism and Daoism accept the presence of a supernatural entity but do not provide a clear explanation on it. Both thought systems consider it mostly as a mystery that the human mind cannot fully comprehend or alter. Confucius put great importance in conducting numerous rituals for various occasions. He found it to be an essential part for the well being of the society. He said, "when superiors love ritual, the people are easy to direct" (Ebrey 22A). Xunzi provides a more elaborate explanation. He said "Ritual conduct is the perfection of decorum. . . Sages comprehend it, gentlemen comfortably carries them out, officials preserves them and the common people consider them the custom" (Ebrey 25). The same sense of mystery (or vagueness) can be sensed in Daoism. Laozi declares, "The way that can be discussed is not the constant way. . . nameless is the source of Heaven and earth. . . Their identity can be called a mystery" (Ebrey 27 AB).

Both Confucianism and Daoism disfavored a harsh government. Confucius urged to lead the people with virtue and rituals as opposed to government policies and punishments. He believed that the ruler should gain respect through his deeds rather than achieving it through his status and authority. Likewise, Daoism disliked the emphasis of status being displayed in the political realm. It asked for a light government and asked for a ruler that portrayed a serving attitude. Both systems disliked governments that employed killing and wished for a non aggressive rule. Both beliefs also agree that individuals should foster compassion, humility and moderation for a successful society.

By third century, yet another thought system evolved among the numerous small states. Legalism was far different in its ideals and approach unlike its predecessors. Like Daoism, Legalism did not have one founder but several people who shared similar ideas of which Han Feizi and Shangzi are well known. While Confucianism tried to gain total harmony with social order and Daoism searched for the same result in nature, Legalists believed that a strong political structure was the answer. While the previous two believed that politics should be very minimal, Legalism asked for a strict code of law and an emphatic enforcement of it.

"Former ages did not all have the same teachings. Which past will you use as a model? The great kings did not repeat each other. Which rituals will you follow?" (Ebrey 33B). Before the advent of Legalism, judgements were made as the need arose and lacked a set pattern. Rulers searched the past for previous practices and rituals and acted with no specific patterns. Both Confucianism and Daoism derive their kernel principles and doctrines from ancient teachers and sacred texts. Since there were wide margins for different interpretations, there was much room for corruption; thus the Legalists adhered to a strict, written code of law which was made public. Every individual was considered equal under the law making the system run a state instead of what the ruler deemed fit. No matter who the ruler was and what his status was, what would keep the state functioning was the law. Unlike the other philosophies, Legalism put the emphasis on the rule rather than the ruler.

Morality and benevolence were crucial factors for a successful state, according to Confucianism and Daoism. They also placed great importance for rituals and other traditions. Many practices were continued throughout generations. Legalism believed that such aspects should have no role in the government. According to them, a strong rule with a strict hand was necessary in order to keep the citizens from growing lazy and disrespecting the authority.

Out of the three different thought systems, Legalism was a success in the sense that it achieved what the other two systems desperately strove for - the unification of China. "Qin conquered Yan in 226, Wei in 225, Chu in 223, Qu in 221. Now, in 221, it ruled the entire Chinese world and was ready to make that world over in the image of Qin" (Wills 41). Many of the Legalist ideas were quite thought provoking and praiseworthy; they believed in equality for all and government according to merit. However, the system gained a rotten reputation according to the ruthless rule of the First Emperor. Confucianism thus became the official Philosophy, gaining wide acceptance in China.

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