Confucianism and Taoism are two of the most influential philosophies in Chinese culture. Upon inspecting the story of the daughter-in-law who lived in her husband’s household and through self-cultivation became filial to her admonishing mother-in-law, we see how similar the objectives of both Taoism and Confucianism are but and the difference on their perspective of the story. In analyzing the importance of harmony, filial piety, and being wu-wei in this story, this essay will argue that the two seemingly opposite philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism share common aspects of tradition than previously acknowledged.
Upon analyzing the ideologies of both religions, they appear to be entirely different. However, harmony, filial piety and wu-wei remain the core beliefs of both traditions despite the way Taoists and Confucians approach them. Words such as “honest,” “free,” and “natural” will be discussed in the analysis of the different interpretation of the story from both religious perspectives. Furthermore, the structure of ancient Chinese family will be further discussed to examine how Confucian and Taoist beliefs relate to other aspects of early Chinese philosophy.
Xiao, filial piety is the targeted goal of the wife’s endeavor. In the story, the wife strives to become a filial daughter to her mother-in-law by working hard at cultivating herself until she became “honest” with herself and all her actions became natural. The Taoist perspective on filial piety regard it as an aspect that exist naturally. In the Tao De Ching, the great Taoist master Lao Tsu says “exterminate benevolence, discard rightness. And the people will again be filial. ” (Li, January 27, 2016). This rather paradoxical line underlines the pre-existing notion of xiao in Taoism.
Lao Tsu states that when benevolence and righteousness are discarded, can the people return to filial piety and parental affection; this text illustrate that xiao is not to be imposed in an artificial way, but that it already proceeds from authenticity and wu-wei. It is the expression of filial piety using non-action, that its true nature can be understood. The “natural” actions the wife began to exhibit are due to the fact that she found a way to be at one with the Tao and her actions have become spontaneous and effortless. Xiao, filial piety is a key ritual, Li, in Confucian tradition.
Li is a way to maintain social and political order in Chinese society and thus each person has a specific place in society and certain duties to fulfill the five key relationships of Confucianism. From the Confucian perspective on the wife’s story, the wife was working on amending two of these relationships by showing obedience to her husband, and respecting her elder (her mother-in-law). In the Analects, we examine how filial piety is of great importance to the tradition: “the noble person concerns himself with the root; when the root is established, the Way is born. Being filial and fraternal — is this not the root of humaneness. (Slkett, 2006).
From the Confucian point of view, it’s the starting point of virtue. Humaneness is the ultimate goal, is the larger vision, but it starts with xiao. According to this, Confucius have declared xiao as the basis of ren, humanness. It is also an essential element in obtain the title of Junzi, gentleman. Therefore, to become a filial daughter and wife, the wife reached into her innate goodness by ritual practice of supressing her anger and being “honest” with herself. She changed her personality from being a petty person, xioren, to junzi in order to become a filial daughter.
When analyzing the deeper meaning of xiao as viewed from both Taoism and Confucianism, we may see that the two philosophies regard filial piety is an intersection of both religions and as of great importance to the tradition. However, the differences arise in the way each religion approach xiao. In Taoism it is regarded as second-nature to obey one’s superiors or family and in Confucianism, it is considered an essential act of ren that can only be actualized by li. He or Harmonization is one of the most cherished ideals of Chinese culture.
In the story, harmony in the household was distorted due to the conflict between the mother-in-law and the daughter and it had to be regained. As a result, the wife worked hard at cultivating herself to attain that harmony. He is a prominent theme in Confucianism as well as Taoism. In the Analects, Confucius emphasized the ideal of harmony and makes it a criterion for Junzi and a way of exhibiting ren. The Master You says “achieving he is the most valuable function of observing li” (Slingerlandett, 2006). This emphasizes that in the practice of li, harmony is the key.
Therefore, the good practice of ritual propriety leads to the formation of a harmonious relations among people. Upon realizing this from a Confucius perspective, the rigorous self-cultivation that the wife retreats show that the wife was practicing li and showing sign of ren such as sympathy, respect and genuine kindness in order to achieve he in her family. In Taoism, harmony with the Tao and nature is perceived as the ultimate goal. In order to achieve such harmony, Taoists use self-cultivation as a way to “free” one’s self from worldly behaviour by following the way of nature and returning to the authentic self.
In chapter 3 of Zhuangzi: the principles of nurturing life, the story of Cook Ting serves as an exemplar of how nurturing and cultivating one’s self enables a Taoist to be in harmony with the Tao and lead a skilful life (Watson, 1968). In the story, the wife sincerely wanted to become a filial daughter and worked hard at cultivating-herself. However, unlike Confucianism, in a Taoist approach the wife tried to return to a mode of existence that is natural and free of the social conditioning she felt for her mother-in-law; she has stripped herself of any resentment or frustration she felt and returned to her pure-being with nature and Tao.
As a consequence, her work towards self-cultivating and being one with the Tao has led to harmony in the household. Attaining societal harmony is the ultimate goal of Taoism and Confucianism. However, in the two religions, self-cultivation is not approached in a similar manner. In Confucianism, the essence of he in human relations is a form of displaying ren and being junzi is best approached by li, ritualizing self-cultivation until he is realized. In contrast, Taoists believe that harmony is a natural product of self-cultivation.
Self-cultivation in Taoism encompasses emancipating one’s self from worldly ethics and returning to the natural state with the Tao, and not through ritualization. Wu-wei, the action of no-action, is was one of the most pervasive notions in early Chinese thought. Consequently, there are elements of wu-wui in both Taoism and Confucianism. However, each religion has its own unique conception for it. In the story, the wife is has acted in the spirit of wu-wei.
From a Taoist perspective, wu-wei is considered the spontaneous following the Tao, the state of freedom by transcending the individual self, by transcending any prior knowledge. In the Zhuangzi, wu-wei is discussed as an analogy of a butcher. Ding the butcher explains that he understood wu-wei by perfecting his craft; “when I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox” (Slingerlandett, 2006). The idea here is that the butcher’s perception and thoughtful actions have ceased as he was guided by the spirit of the Tao, the all natural.
He says “what I care about is the way, which goes beyond skill” (Watson, 1968). Wu-wei is the by-product of finding harmony with the Tao, and mastering that harmony results in being skillful beyond what can be done by practicing only. In the wife story, the priest states that “when she gave up, she became free. ” From a Taoist view, this liberation and freedom she feels is the result of being wu-wei and transcending from individual self; her behavior towards her step-mother simply flows through because it is the right action.
She begins to feel “honest” because she no longer feels detached from her authentic self, and has found the honest way through harmony with the Tao. In Confucianism, wu-wei is achieved by true mastery of the rites. The idea is to cultivate until the way becomes natural and effortless and no longer require any action. Confucius was seen as the paradigmatic example of a who mastered li and proper etiquette so well that, without any notable exertion or thought, he is able to effortlessly and appropriately respond to any social situation.
The Duke says that Confucius is “the type of person who becomes so absorbed in his studies that he forgets to eat, whose joy renders him free of worries, and who grows old without being aware of the passage of the years” (Slingerlandett, 2006). Therefore, it is complete absorption and engagement in li and ritual that cultivate wu-wei. In the story, the wife no longer puts effort in supressing her resentment towards her mother-in-law since she became absorbed in performing the ritual of being a filial daughter.
She feels “free” now that she has subjective experience with the Tao. The ideal of wu-wei is prominent in both Confucianism and Taoism. However, to be in the spirit of wu-wei in Taoism one must avoid unnatural actions one performs all one’s actions with a natural, unforced attitude. In Confucianism, their understanding of wu-wei is much more tied to realm of human action. It is through rigorous learning of rites and etiquette that one can reach wu-wei. In essence, Wu-wei is the outcome of harmony with the Tao in Taoism and the product of mastering li in Confucianism.
The structure of the ancient Chinese family is an example of how both Confucianism and Taoism influenced Chinese philosophy. As examined earlier in the essay, filial piety is of great meaning to both religions, and thus respect for one’s parents and family is of utmost importance. The five relationships of Confucianism for example, three of the five have familial ties. As examined in the story in the story, the relationship between the mother and her son and the wife to her husband and mother-in-law played a vital role in the wife’s course of action.
The wife puts a significant effort into amending her relationships since household harmony is expected. In conclusion, the two seemingly contradicting philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism have more in common than previously acknowledged. Concepts such xiao, he, and wu-wei seem to reside at the heart of of both religions. However, the way each of these concepts is approached by Confucianism or Taoism vary significantly. Regardless, harmony, filial piety and wu-wei are beliefs that remain of utmost importance despite the way Taoists and Confucians interpret them.