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The Teachings of Confucianism & Taoism

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  • 0:01 China in the 6th Century BC
  • 0:39 Confucianism
  • 1:55 Taoism
  • 3:05 Two Philosophies in Harmony
  • 4:22 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.

Confucianism and Taoism were the guiding philosophies for many Chinese people for hundreds of years. But, how can two philosophies both work when they are often reaching different conclusions? This lesson explains how.

China in the 6th Century BCE

China during the 6th century BCE was in the midst of a great period of turmoil. For more than 200 years no real power had united China, despite the nominal power of the Zhou dynasty during the Spring and Autumn period. However, during the Warring States period, war and chaos consumed the Chinese countryside as no single power was able to maintain control. It was in this period that two of China's greatest philosophical traditions began: Confucianism and Taoism.

Confucianism

Confucius was born in the 6th century BCE to a family of minor officials to a minor ruler. In other words, he came from a pretty humble background, as far as philosophers whose work changed history go. From this background he was able to become educated and work out a philosophy called Confucianism that based itself on the ideals that people were naturally good, that education helped to make sure people remained good and avoided evil, and that relationships between people kept society functioning at its best levels as long as the relationships were being fulfilled.

According to Confucius, if those requirements were met, society would be just and the ruler would have the Mandate of Heaven, or moral high ground to rule, under Chinese thought. Needless to say, all this proved pretty popular with the Chinese of the period, who were very interested in any sort of way to recreate stability. Peasants liked it because it acknowledged that while they were subservient to their masters, that their masters could not just treat them like slaves. Masters liked it because it gave them the moral high ground to continue treating their servants, well, like servants.

Taoism

Confucius wasn't the only great philosopher of the Warring States period, however. Another philosopher, named Laozi, would be instrumental in writing about Taoism. Taoism is concerned with understanding something called Tao, or 'the way' that makes up everything in the world.

The Tao is unable to be expressed in words, as it would limit the Tao. Think about it like this: if you've ever heard the saying, 'A picture is worth a thousand words,' what if it were a really big picture, or a picture with a lot of things going on? Would a thousand words really be enough to describe that picture and everyone and everything in it? By using words, we are limiting our ability to describe Tao, but according to Taoist philosophy, it is everywhere and makes up everything.

Also important to the idea of Taoism is that nature is in balance. The best way to think of this is through a symbol used throughout Taoism that I bet you've seen before: the yin-yang. This symbol shows how everything is in balance, although each side has a little of the other to keep things interesting.

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