<< Back to Lessons Index

7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 5 - Philosophy and Religion in China

What will we be learning in this unit?
  • What were the major teachings of Confucius?
  • How did Legalism and Daoism differ in their views of government?
  • Why did many Chinese people accept Buddhist ideas?

Wisdom of Confucius
  • Confucius was born in 551 b.c. to a noble but poor family. A brilliant scholar, Confucius hoped to become an adviser to a local ruler. For years, he wandered from court to court talking to rulers about how to govern. Unable to find a permanent government position, he turned to teaching. As his reputation for wisdom grew, he attracted many students. 
  • Like two other influential thinkers who lived about the same time, Gautama Buddha in India and Socrates in Greece, Confucius never wrote down his ideas. After his death, students collected many of his sayings in the Analects
  • Unlike the Buddha, Confucius took little interest in religious matters such as salvation. Instead, he developed a philosophy, or system of ideas, that was concerned with worldly goals, especially how to ensure social order and good government. Confucius studied ancient texts to learn the rules of conduct that had guided the ancestors.

 5 relationships of Confucius
  • Confucius taught that harmony resulted when people accepted their place in society. He stressed five key relationships: father to son, elder brother to younger brother, husband to wife, ruler to subject, friend to friend. Confucius believed that, except for friendship, none of these relationships was equal. For example, older people were superior to younger ones and men were superior to women. 
  • According to Confucius, everyone had duties and responsibilities. Superiors should care for their inferiors and set a good example, while inferiors owed loyalty and obedience to their superiors. A woman's duty was to ensure the stability of the family and promote harmony in the home. Correct behavior, Confucius believed, would bring order and stability. 
  • Confucius put filial piety, or respect for parents, above all other duties. Other Confucian values included honesty, hard work, and concern for others. "Do not do to others," he declared, "what you do not wish yourself".

Other Confucius Ideas
  • According to Confucius, a ruler had the responsibility to provide good government. In return, the people would be respectful and loyal subjects. Confucius said the best ruler was a virtuous one who led people by good example. 
  • Confucius believed that government leaders and officials should be well educated. "By nature, men are pretty much alike, he said. "It is learning and practice that set them apart.He urged rulers to take the advice of wise, educated men. 
  • In the centuries after Confucius died, his ideas influenced every area of Chinese life. Chinese rulers relied on Confucian ideas and chose Confucian scholars as officials. The Confucian emphasis on filial piety bolstered traditional customs such as reverence for ancestors. 
  • As Chinese civilization spread, hundreds of millions of people in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam accepted Confucian beliefs. Close to a third of the world's population came under the influence of these ideas.

  • A very different philosophy grew out of the teachings of Hanfeizi (hahn fay dzee), who died in 233 b.c. According to Hanfeizi, "the nature of man is evil. His goodness is acquired. Greed, he declared, was the motive for most actions and the cause of most conflicts. 
  • Hanfeizi insisted that the only way to achieve order was to pass strict laws and impose harsh punishments. Because of this emphasis on law, Hanfeizi's teachings became known as Legalism. To Legalists, strength, not goodness, was a ruler's greatest virtue. "The ruler alone possesses power, declared Hanfeizi, "wielding it like lightning or like thunder. 
  • Many feudal rulers chose Legalism as the most effective way to keep order. It was the official policy of the Qin (cheeng) emperor who united China in 221 b.c. His laws were so cruel that later generations despised Legalism. Yet Legalist ideas survived in laws that forced people to work on government projects and punished those who shirked their duties.

  • The founder of Daoism was known as Laozi (low dzee), or "Old Master.  He is said to have lived at the time of Confucius. Although we know little about him, he is credited with writing The Way of Virtue, a book that had enormous influence on Chinese life. Unlike Confucianism and Legalism, Daoism was not concerned with bringing order to human affairs. Instead, Daoists sought to live in harmony with nature.
  • Laozi looked beyond everyday cares to focus on the Dao, or "the way of the universe. How does one find the Dao? "Those who know the Dao do not speak of it,  replied Laozi. "Those who speak of it do not know it.
  • Daoists rejected conflict and strife. They wanted to end conflict between human desires and the simple ways of nature. They stressed the virtue of yielding. Water, they pointed out, does not resist, but yields to outside pressure. Yet it is an unstoppable force. Many Daoists turned from the "unnatural ways of society. Some became hermits, artists, or poets.

  • Daoists viewed government as unnatural and, therefore, the cause of many problems. "If the people are difficult to govern, Laozi declared, "it is because those in authority are too fond of action? To Daoists, the best government was one that governed the least. 
  • Although scholars kept to Laozi's teachings, Daoism evolved into a popular religion with gods, goddesses, and magical practices. Chinese peasants turned to Daoist priests for charms to protect them from unseen forces. Instead of accepting nature as it was, some Daoist priests searched for a substance to bring immortality. To achieve this goal, they conducted experiments. Sometimes, their work contributed to science and medicine. 
  • Gradually, people blended Confucian and Daoist teachings. Although the two philosophies differed, people took beliefs and practices from each. Confucianism showed them how to behave. Daoism influenced their view of the natural world.

  • By a.d. 100, missionaries and merchants had spread Mahayana Buddhism from India into China. At first, the Chinese had trouble with the new faith. For example, Chinese tradition valued family loyalty, while Buddhism honored monks and nuns who gave up the benefits of family life for a life of solitary meditation. 
  • Despite obstacles such as this, Buddhism became more popular, especially in times of crisis. Its great appeal was the promise of escape from suffering. Mahayana Buddhism offered the hope of eternal happiness and presented Buddha as a compassionate, merciful god. Through prayer, good works, and devotion, anyone could hope to gain salvation. Neither Daoism nor Confucianism emphasized this idea of personal salvation. 
  • By a.d. 400, Buddhism had spread throughout China. Buddhist monasteries became important centers of learning and the arts. Buddhism absorbed many Confucian and Daoist traditions. Chinese Buddhist monks stressed filial piety and honored Confucius.