Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism are philosophies that emerged out of China's Warring States period (475-221 BCE). Let's learn about these philosophies, and how they influenced the Qin and Han dynasties!

Overview

  • Three competing belief systems came to prominence during the Warring States period of Chinese history.
  • Confucianism is an ethic of moral uprightness, social order, and filial responsibility.
  • Legalism is a theory of autocratic, centralized rule.
  • Daoism is a philosophy of universal harmony that urged its practitioners not to get too involved with worldly affairs.
  • These philosophies influenced the operations of the early Chinese empires; some even became official state ideologies.

Confucianism

Towards the end of the Zhou Dynasty, as feudal lords squabbled over land holdings, a scholar and government minister by the name of Kong Fuzi—later latinized as Confucius by sixteenth-century Jesuits—gained students and followers as he taught the classics: the ancient Zhou-era Book of Documents, the Book of Odes, and The Book of Changes, a fortune-teller's text better known by its Han Dynasty name: the I Ching.
Detail from a wall fresco in a Han Dynasty tomb, depicting Confucius.
Detail from a wall fresco in a Han Dynasty tomb, depicting Confucius. This image is in the public domain. Image credit: Wikimedia
These texts were already ancient in Confucius's time. The respect that Confucius accorded them is perfectly in-line with his philosophy of filial piety, or near-religious respect for your parents or elders. Fundamentally, Confucianism is a philosophy of respect for the past.
While little of Confucius’s original language survives, The Analects of Confucius—meaning literally The Gathered up Sayings of Confucius—was composed by his students and followers based on conversations they had with him.
In the Analects, we get a sense of what filial piety looked like to Confucius. Here's a snippet from Book One of the Analects:
The Master said: When the father is alive, observe the son’s intent. When the father dies, observe the son’s conduct. One who does not alter his late father’s [way] for three years may be called filial.
Confucius urged ethical and upright behavior, framing responsible government as a moral duty similar to parenthood. He believed providing a good example of moral conduct to the people would spur them to act within the confines of the law:
The Master said: Guide them with policies and align them with punishments and the people will evade them and have no shame. Guide them with virtue and align them with li [ritualized etiquette and ceremonies] and the people will have a sense of shame and fulfill their roles.
What role does shame, as Confucius terms it, play in motivating behavior? What does it have to do with running a city, or a country?
Confucianism presents the idea that people can be made good if they follow moral instruction and perform rituals that venerate the gods and honor the ancestral dead. In a time of social upheaval and war, the Confucianists believed only careful maintenance of the old forms could uphold societal unity. And war there was!

Legalism

During the Warring States Period of Chinese history, from 475 to 221 BCE, what we now think of today as China was divided into seven competing nations. The dukedoms and fiefs that had swelled in importance during the end of the Zhou Dynasty had now become states of their own.
One of those seven states was the state of Qin, whose young ruler, King Zheng, would later become Qin Shi Huang, the first ruler of the Qin Dynasty, in 221 BCE. But let's rewind the tape about a century and a half. If we want to understand Legalism, the ideology that explains Qin Shi Huang's despotism and centralized rule, we have to go back to Shang Yang, a reformist statesman from the state of Qin. Lord Shang's understanding of humanity was profoundly different from Confucius's.
A statue of Shang Yang.
A statue of Shang Yang. Image credit: Wikipedia, creative commons 2.5 attribution license, user Fanghong
Lord Shang was born in 390 BCE, 169 years prior to the reign of Qin Shi Huang. In The Book of Lord Shang, Shang Yang recommended harsh punishments for light offenses; he reasoned that if petty crimes were met with heavy punishments, more serious crimes would be deterred.
Under Shang's regime, the people of the state of Qin had severely constrained lives: peasants could not leave their villages without travel permits; farmers who did not meet growing quotas were forced into slave labor; and minor crimes were punished with severity.
How is this philosophy different from Confucianism? How do you think Shang Yang felt about the natural inclinations of people?
The state of Qin diminished the strength of its aristocracy and consolidated power and land under the royal family. This change in power structure gave the ruler of Qin, rather than feudal lords, direct control over the activity of the people. Trade with other states was discouraged, and peasant activity was focused, by law, on military service or agriculture.
The decreased power of local nobles led to the establishment of an administrative system that answered directly to the head of Qin, whether it be a duke or a king. The administrators, or bureaucrats, in this system were responsible for translating the ruler's will into action.
Now, let’s fast forward back to King Zheng’s time. A fanatical focus on conscripting troops and increasing agricultural production had turned the state of Qin into a military powerhouse by the third century BCE. The young King Zheng began a nine-year campaign to conquer his neighbors. In 221 BCE, when his opponents lay in ruins, Zheng declared himself Qin Shi Huang, first Emperor of Qin.
The new emperor set about creating an empire-wide administrative bureaucracy modeled after his home state. China was divided up into regional administrative zones, all under the watchful eyes of Qin Empire officials. Under Qin Shi Huang, common people were conscripted into forced labor and punished or disfigured for petty infractions.

Daoism

Where Confucianism and Legalism both required strict adherence to principles, whether they were enforcement-based Legalist ones or shame-based Confucian ones, Daoism recognizes no law but the Dao, the way.
What is the Dao? It's a little difficult to say, but we'll let the Dao De Jing, ascribed to the legendary sixth century BCE sage Laozi, explain:
The one who knows [the Dao] does not speak; the one who speaks does not know. The wise man shuts his mouth and closes his gates.
A little paradoxical, no? Daoism is a kind of anti-activism: it asserts that the best life is one of willful ignorance, seeking no knowledge and avoiding involvement in politics or public life. The Dao is meant to represent the natural order of the universe, and Daoism stipulates that human beings are the only species that disobeys the Dao. Rather than seek to elevate oneself through words and deeds, Daoists cultivated a practice of wu wei, or inaction: giving in to thoughtless, effortless, and natural action.
A statue of the sage Laozi at the base of Mount Qingyuan in Fujian Province in eastern China.
A statue of the sage Laozi at the base of Mount Qingyuan in Fujian Province in eastern China. Image credit: Wikipedia, Creative Commons 3.01 license, Thanato
Consider how this statue differs from Lord Shang's statue above. How does this statue of Laozi embody some Daoist principles?
What does wu wei suggest to you? How might a person live without effort or involvement?
The Dao is not a goal to actively seek, but rather a state to be approached through not approaching it. Daoists believe that rather than involve yourself with affairs of state, it is better to keep to your own doings and live simply. Silence is valued above words; inaction and stoicism are valued above action and outrage.
"Water is good," says the Dao De Jing. "It benefits all things and does not compete with them. It occupies places people disdain and thus comes near to The Way."
Daoists believe that if all people ceased striving for glory, riches, and attainment, there would be no war, no envy, and lessened suffering. Daoism colored many elements of later Chinese philosophy and would later come to influence Buddhism as it made its way to China along the Silk Road.
Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism all each played a role during the Warring States Period. These three philosophies influenced the styles of Chinese governance throughout the Qin ascendancy, the Han dynasty, and beyond, becoming more or less influential depending on which dynasty was in power.
Article by David Rheinstrom.
Bibliography:
Bary, William Theodore De et el, 1999, Sources of Chinese Tradition. Columbia University Press.
The Analects of Confucius: An Online Teaching Translation. Eno, Robert. 2015. Bloomington, Indiana
The book of Lord Shang, trans. 1928 by J.J.L Duyvendak
Bentley, Jerry H. et. al. Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2015,.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.