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Taoism & Legalism in the Chinese Zhou Dynasty

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  • 0:00 China During the Zhou Dynasty
  • 1:25 Rise of Taoism
  • 3:16 Zenith of Legalism
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While Confucianism remained the most dominant philosophy to emerge from China during the Zhou period, two other philosophies, Taoism and Legalism, offered different approaches to how to best live in the world.

China During the Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou Dynasty may have been the longest single dynasty in Chinese history, but that does not mean that the government is fondly remembered by the Chinese or their historians. A far cry from the heavily centralized dynasties that would both precede and follow it, the Zhou were often unable to maintain control during their almost 800 years of rule, from 1046 BC to 256 BC. In fact, for much of that time, the emperor was a mere figurehead, as local warlords fought for control during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period.

It was during this time of political turmoil that the most prominent of Chinese philosophies, Confucianism, took root. The new school of thought put emphasis on the inherent goodness of people, the importance of education to maintain that virtue, and above all else, the importance of relationships between people to ensure the stability of society. Given the considerable respect afforded rulers, as well as the efficiency with which it encouraged bureaucrats to do their jobs, it's not surprising that Confucianism quickly became popular throughout the Chinese world. However, it was not alone. Two other philosophical traditions emerged during this period, one that would heavily complement Confucianism and another that would challenge it.

Rise of Taoism

Taoism approached life's great philosophical questions in a different method than Confucianism. Whereas Confucianism focused on relationships between people, Taoism focused instead on a person's relationship with the world around them. Pioneered by Lao Zi, Taoism focused on trying to find meaning in the concept of Tao, which is loosely translated as 'way' or 'path,' however the word is much broader than that. In fact, Taoists are discouraged from trying to define the concept of Tao, as it is too great of a concept to define. This is similar to the way that Abrahamic Monotheists are discouraged from trying to quantify God with words, as the deity is limitless and beyond language. Another way of looking at it would be trying to explain every aspect of a particularly large Where's Waldo picture using only a thousand words. It would be next to impossible to do without error.

Despite its different approach from Confucianism, Taoism actually worked quite well in concert with Confucian teachings. For starters, Confucianism offered little advice on how to exist outside of relationships, while Taoism encouraged people to seek the exact harmony in relationships that Confucianism stressed.

Confucianism was also very useful for people's careers, but Taoism was often more personally fulfilling. In other words, Confucianism was the sort of philosophy one used when he or she had to show respect and be professional, whereas Taoism could be used when one could relax and have some 'me' time. It is therefore not surprising that a common symbol of Taoism is the Yin Yang, which shows the world in balance with two forces in opposition.

Zenith of Legalism

Whereas Taoism actually worked quite well with Confucianism, Legalism was in complete opposition to it. Legalism stated that people were inherently bad and that education and ritual had a role to play in correcting that behavior, not in preserving inherently good behavior. This philosophy rose to prominence during the Spring and Autumn Period, around the same time as Confucianism.

Central to Legalism was the idea of Fa, or the rule of law, to maintain control over the people. This was in contrast to the idea of Li, or custom. Confucianism worked within the confines of Li, which if violated, would result in shame upon the person's family honor. Legalism, on the other hand, used Fa, which if violated, would demand punitive punishment from the government.

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