Skip main navigation

Confrontation in Chinese Understandings of Dao

Excerpt from Jerusha Hull McCormack and John G Blair, THINKING THROUGH CHINA (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), chapter 7

(This article is excerpted from THINKING THROUGH CHINA (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) by Jerusha Hull McCormack and John G Blair, chapter 7.)

There is a basic confrontation in Chinese understandings of Dao. From the time it first emerged as a primary way of thinking about the world (during the centuries leading up to the unification of China in 221BCE), Dao has been evoked in two quite distinct and even hostile orientations. The philosophical Daoists, led by Laozi and Zhuangzi, turned their attention upstream, back toward the origins of the world. They typically saw human intervention as destroying the natural purity of life in primitive circumstances. In the West, the discourse of Jean-Jacques Rousseau responds to similar preoccupations. But unlike Rousseau, the philosophical Daoists tended to withdraw from the larger world in order to cultivate a kind of creative spontaneity, inspired by wine if not by meditation. Like Henry David Thoreau, perhaps our nearest equivalent in the West, philosophical Daoists also tended to see civilization as a mistake. They opposed all except the most minimal of governmental organizations and idealized the life of the hermit as one of contemplative solitude. In that sense, philosophical Daoists might be understood to be the world’s first anarchists.

The other, competing lineage also took the concept of Dao as touchstone. Concentrating on that practical world spurned by Laozi and Zhuangzi, the teachings of Kongzi focused on social and political affairs. One might say that the Confucianists, later exemplified by Mengzi and Xunzi, turned their attention downstream. To them dao was a word for the right way for humans to act. For Kongzi, the goal was to live up to one’s given role within the hierarchy as well as humanly possible; as such, embodying to perfection the central Chinese (and Confucianist) virtue of xiao, commonly translated as “filial piety.” Since everything is open to change and change cannot be counted on to be positive, the most urgent project was to maintain a human community strong enough to withstand the multiple disruptions that by the very nature of things threaten it: natural disasters, external enemies, bad leaders, disobedient children, self-seeking individuals.

Distinguished in this way, these two fundamentally different ways of engaging with Dao might be compared to the differing interpretation by Christians on the doctrine of salvation: Is one saved by means of “faith” or “works”? As in that controversy, the distinction between the philosophical Daoists and Confucianists has given rise to a very different emphasis on how one finds the “way.” Those Christians who rely on salvation by faith, might, like the Daoists, concentrate on the solitary life of prayer. On the other hand, those Christians who rely on salvation by works would, like Confucians, emphasize the necessity of participating in the larger social world, as exemplified by acts of benevolence. In short, the Daoists focused directly on the elusive nature of things, the Confucianists on its consequences: the fragility of the human community and the need to strengthen it.

© Rowman & Littlefield
This article is from the free online

Taoism and Western Culture

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now