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Chinese Religious and Ethical Systems

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Chinese Religious and Ethical Systems

It has often been said that the Chinese are not deeply religious. It is true that they have shown a comparative indifference to metaphysical speculation; Chinese culture was perhaps the first to develop an intellectual skepticism concerning the gods.


Confucius (Kong Zi) lived from 551 to 479 BC in the state of Lu (in modem Shandong province). He came from a family of officials and his concern was with the restoration of the Way (Dao) of the ancient sages. His teaching was therefore related mainly to society and its government. He advocated strict conformity, and thought that fostering correct behavior, within the context of the family, would produce an ordered society. He was not particularly interested in religion, except insofar as it related to social life.

However, in 59 AD during the Han dynasty, it was decreed that sacrifice should be made to Confucius and this began a process that was to make Confucian philosophy into the foundation of the Chinese political order. Confucius himself had only accepted the legitimacy of sacrifice to one's own ancestors, but from now on an official Confucian cult emerged, with its own temples. It gradually became linked with the state cult of the Emperor.

From the fifth century AD Confucian orthodoxy retreated before the popularity of Buddhism and Daoism. But a renaissance came during the Sung dynasty when Confucianism responded to the challenge and developed its own metaphysics. This new trend is known as Neo-Confucianism, and its main exponent was Zhu Xi (1130-1200). It subsequently became the main orthodoxy of the scholar officials until the demise of the imperial system in 1912.

In contemporary China, the Confucian cult has disappeared, but the Confucian approach to government and society retains a powerful hold on many people.

Daoism (Taoism)

The origins of Daoism are obscure, but it is first seen as a rival to Confucianism. The teachings of early Taoism are ascribed to Lao Zi in the fifth century BC who is the reputed author of the most influential Taoist text, the Dao De Jing (The Way and its Power). Where the Confucian stressed ethical action, the Taoist spoke of the virtue of Wu Wei (non-action), going with the flow of things.

Like the Confucians, Daoists looked back to a golden age. The good ruler, they thought, guided his people with humility, not seeking to interfere with the rhythms of social life conducted within the larger patterns of the natural world and the whole cosmos.

The Daoist adept was concerned to achieve 'immortality', seen as transmuted earthly existence. This led to the development of alchemy and to methods of meditation aimed at reaching material immortality.

As time passed Daoism found itself in direct competition with the foreign teachings of Buddhism. It borrowed Buddhist practices and also drew on folk religious traditions to create its own religious form and ethos. It secured an essential place in popular religious life, but in this form it has ceased to bear much resemblance to the philosophical precepts of the early teachers. The earlier, more philosophical Daoism has continued to inspire Chinese painters and poets through the ages and its teachings appealed to many a scholar official who adhered to a strictly Confucian ethic in public life.





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