Chinese philosophy originated through the ideas and beliefs of various Chinese scholars and sages. The Chinese culture has been dominated by three schools of thought-Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Confucianism, more of a social philosophy than a religion, is concerned with the moral nature of social relationships. Taoism, in contrast, is concerned with the relation of humanity to the larger world of nature. Buddhism mainly teaches that life is full of suffering, emptiness, and illusion (Corcoran 217). The three schools of Chinese thought that have influenced the Chinese way of life are Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Throughout the Chinese culture, Chinese thought was centered on humanism rather than spiritualism, rationalism rather than mysticism, and syncretism rather than sectarianism.
Confucianism was the official Chinese state doctrine for over two thousand years. Confucianism mainly deals with the moral nature of social relationships. It emphasizes the importance of respecting those in authority. At the same time however, it stresses the need for those in authority to behave in a moral and self-righteous manner (Corcoran 217). As a result of these beliefs, a family is ruled by an authoritative father, who all members of the family have to obey without question (Corcoran 219).
The ideas of Confucianism originated from a man named Confucius. Not much is known about this man, except that his ideas and beliefs shaped Chinese life for over two thousand years. Confucius spent much time trying to teach is pupils to become true gentlemen, by which he meant morally and spiritually men, as opposed to men who receive their name by being born into wealthy families. Most importantly, Confucius emphasized the importance of moral conduct. He believed that people in authority have to sit high standards for themselves and always engage in appropriate behavior (Corcoran 212).
Confucius probably never imagined that his beliefs would eventually turn into a philosophy and influence the beliefs of his own people (Corcoran212). The Confucianists also believed that heaven was the supreme moral authority, which dictates an ethical code to which all people should live by. People who hold positions in authority, including the ruler, are taught to conduct themselves in a decent manner and serve as models of virtue to their followers. Those who disobey the moral way of heaven are considered unworthy to hold a position in authority (Corcoran 213). Confucianism basically serves as a set of ridged rules for the regulation of human conduct.
Taoism, in contrast to Confucianism, is more concerned with the relation between humanity and nature. According to Taoist belief, human beings are perceived as being merely one of the many manifestations of nature, equal with all other creatures (Corcoran 217). Taoism enforces that rather than seeking wealth, status, or power, people should deviate themselves from society and strive to live a simple life in harmony and peace with nature.
Taoism received its name form the term Tao, which means “path” or “way”. According to early Chinese beliefs, Tao was the force that controlled the universe. Confucians once thought of the Tao as a moral force, calling for self-righteous behavior and to respect authority. In contrast, the Taoists believed that human moral rights should not be ascribed to the Tao. Taoists believed the Tao was beyond the scope of human concerns, but believed its workings could be seen by observing nature (Corcoran 209).
Lao Tzu, which means “old master”, or “Ancient One”, is the name given to the author of a book called the Tao Te Ching, or “the way and its power”, one of the two basic texts of Taoist philosophy. Legend has it that Lao Tzu remained in his mother’s womb for sixty-two years before birth and emerged as a wrinkled, white haired old man. In order to pass a gatekeeper to escaped chaos in China, Lao Tzu wrote down five thousand words of wisdom, called the Tao Te Ching. Some say that he was one hundred sixty years of age when he departed from China, while others claimed he was two hundred years old (Corcoran 208). The ideas expressed in the Tao Te Ching frequently contradict both logic and intuition; yet at same time seem to represent a truth that cannot be explained using words.
The difference between Confucianism and Taoism is evident in the origins of the beliefs. While Confucius stresses duty and education, and teaches that people should work to serve society and honor superiors, Lao Tzu recommends not honoring men of worth, not educating people, and encouraging cleaver people to act. He also suggests that placing value on objects, actions, or people only results in unnecessary behaviors (such as jealousy). Lao Tzu states that people should seek to simplify their life and should free themselves of wants and desires. Only when one has achieved a sense of freedom and stability can he or she focus on the mystery of the nature that will enable them to find the way (Corcoran 209).
The third school of Chinese thought, Buddhism, emerged in China during the second century A.D.
China was experiencing a period of disunity that followed the decline of the Han dynasty. Buddhism stressed the fact that life on earth is filled with suffering and characterized by emptiness and illusion. The Chinese were especially attracted to Buddhism during this period of grief. Buddhism’s message stated that people could overcome their suffering through self-discipline, mediation, and moral conduct. With its doctrine of reincarnation, Buddhism provided the Chinese with a new hope of reaching peace in China (Corcoran 217). Buddhism teaches that life is depressing and full of sorrows and that sorrow is caused by desires. The only way to rid oneself of sorrow is to eliminate all of one’s desires. This can be accomplished through meditation, self-discipline, restraint, and moral conduct (Corcoran 229). Buddhism evolved in India and reached china in the first century A.D. The basic meaning of Buddhism was elaborated in many different ways to form many diverse schools. The form of Buddhism that erupted in China was based on previous Chinese beliefs and was dramatically different from original Indian forms (Corcoran 229).
The main school to emerge in China was Ch’sn Buddhism, which taught that one could attain enlightenment through meditation. The Ch’sn Buddhism that dominated in china during the eighth century contained many Taoist beliefs, such as the emphasis on simplicity and solitude. Ch’sn Buddhism’s emphasis was on instilling one’s desires and trying to find one’s enlightenment (a peace of mind). The impact of Chinese Buddhism is apparent in the poetry with the use of Buddhism imagery, symbols, and language. Common Chinese Buddhist symbols include the full moon, which symbolizes a clean mirror that reflects without judgment, and ripples or reflections in the water, which symbolize material objects change and physical appearances are unreal. Examples of Buddhist language include the “King” or “emptiness”, which signifies the unreality and vanity of physical perceptions and worldly concerns (Corcoran 229).
In conclusion, the three schools of Chinese thought-Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism dominated the Chinese history. Throughout the centuries, elements of all three schools of thought have influenced the Chinese way of life. However, as these philosophies were practiced, they have been distorted, contradicting their true meanings. Confucianism, for example, always emphasized the power of authority, but when practiced, neglected to stress their obligations to treat their subjects with compassion. Taoism, in contrast, evolved into a folk religion concerned with finding magical charms and elixirs to illnesses. Finally, Buddhism arose into a notion that one’s behavior determines their fate in the afterlife. All three schools basically kept the beliefs and after a period of time, like everything else, changed (corcorad 217).