Let us add a caveat to avoid the historical fallacy of viewing China through the Western exclusive either/or lens. During the Spring and Autumn Era, of which we speak, the Chinese didn’t identify themselves as Taoists or Confucians. In fact, there were no self-identified Taoists until nearly a millennium later, well into the Modern Era. Further, there were no self-identified Confucians during the Spring and Autumn Era.
There was, however, the ju class, the aristocracy, which was eventually identified with and even translated as Confucianism. Before the Common Era and long after, Chinese officials, those who administered the government, tended to be drawn from the ju class. While many members of the aristocracy respected the ideas of Confucius, the class had its own traditions and agendas.
Instead of viewing them in opposition to each other, Taoism and Confucianism should be viewed as complementary philosophies. Self-identified Confucians or those associated with Confucianism, such as Mencius, employed Taoist self-cultivation practices. Further, many self-identified Taoists employed Confucian guidance when working in the political sphere. Instead of either being one side or the other, many Chinese literati followed both Taoist and Confucian principles.
Further the Book of Changes, a.k.a. the I Ching, served as a bridge between Confucian and Taoist thought.
“One should therefore think of Confucianism and Taoism in Han times [also earlier and much later] not as rival systems demanding a choice for one side or the other, but rather as two complementary doctrines, an ethical and political system for the conduct of public and family life, and a mystical philosophy for the spiritual nourishment of the individual, with the metaphysical teachings of the Book of Changes acting as a bridge between the two.”1
The yin-yang philosophy of the I Ching could be considered an umbrella philosophy of China. For instance, yin and yang were part of popular parlance and influenced many diverse features of Chinese culture, including medicine and the martial arts. Further as the first classic of China, the Book of Changes exerted a huge influence on Chinese thought.
That being said let us examine some common threads of the complementary philosophies of China, i.e. Confucianism, Taoism and the I Ching. The concept of the sage is one of those universal Chinese notions. In this section, we will address two questions: 1) What constitutes a sage in China? & 2) How does an individual become one?
Let us begin with the concept of sage contained in the I Ching.
“With respect to creating things for use and making tools helpful to the whole world, there is no one greater than the holy sages. … Heaven creates divine things; the holy sage takes them as models. Heaven and earth change and transform; the holy sage reproduces them. The Yellow River brought forth a map and the Lo River brought forth a writing; the holy men took these as models.”2
The sage is someone who is best at making tools that are useful to everyone. The sage is not connected with a mental state, as much as he or she is connected with doing something useful, i.e. creating a tool for humankind. The sage operates in the collective realm, not the individual. The sage is not seeking liberation from this realm of existence, nor seeking peace of mind. The sage is doing something useful.
Confucius is considered the Great Sage. Both Jesus and the historical Buddha are also referred to as sages. This designation is presumably more for the fact that their ideas and life example assisted many people, rather than for their links with divinity, peace of mind, or liberation.
For a deeper understanding of the Chinese sage, let us now examine the implications of the word itself. The Chinese word shéng is translated as sage. Its definitions are “I. sage, saint. II. 1. holy, 2. emperor.” Its original ideogram is made up of the three radicals, i.e. king, mouth, and eye.
One image that arises is of a kingly character. After observing, he speaks with authority. Indeed much of the early philosophical dialogue focuses upon the aforementioned Sage Kings of Old – Yao, Shun and Yü.
Much of Chinese mythology concerns the early kings bringing innovations to the Chinese people. Yü organized the Chinese people to drain and control the flooding of the Yellow river. The Yellow Emperor introduced medicine. In many cultures, gods or exceptional individuals introduced fundamental innovations. In China, kings or emperors performed this vital innovative function. From the earliest times, the concept of sage is associated with kings and the aristocracy. Most likely, the above passages from the Ta Chuan are obliquely honoring the Duke of Chou and Wen Wang as sages for creating the I Ching.
The modern ideogram for sage is significantly different from the traditional one. In an attempt at universal literacy, the Red Chinese government attempted to simplify the ideograms. While most changes were merely aimed at brush stroke reduction, some were aimed at altering the underlying ideographic meaning of the character. Such was true of the ideogram for sage. While the old ideogram contains the radical for king at the base, the new ideogram contains the radical for earth. While the old ideogram has the radicals for mouth and eye, i.e. speaking with understanding, the new ideogram has the radical indicating repetition.
While the old ideogram associated the imperial aristocracy with the concept of sage, the new ideogram associates the earth and by association agriculture and the peasantry with the concept of sage. While the old kingly sage speaks out with understanding, the new peasant sage repeats his task endlessly. Perhaps the suggestion behind the ideogram is that repetition is the foundation of mastery, one of the sage’s features. Realizing the subliminal power of the ideograms to influence thought, the Communist leadership didn’t want their citizens getting the wrong idea, i.e. associating the sage with a king.
While the early sages were also kings, by the time of Confucius, sages advised kings. The aristocracy had grown in numbers. Some had accumulated more power, while others were no longer in positions of real authority. For those who had fallen from power, the only real hope of exerting political influence was by advising political leaders. The original ideogram also suggests this new meaning. Vested with imperial authority, the sage speaks out with understanding. The regal power is the real foundation. This is the type of sage that Confucius envisioned. This sage does not pursue self-cultivation as an end in itself, but instead to better administer the political world. While this type of sage must be wise, his goal is to assist the ruler, not solely pursue individual peace of mind.
The Lao Tzu contains a similar sentiment. However, the sage acts to assist humanity, not just the rulers. Following are a few different translations of the appropriate passages from Song- poem #27 that will help to refine our understanding.
“27. The Sage is always good at saving men, and therefore nobody is abandoned. Always good at saving things and therefore nothing is wasted. This is called ‘following the guidance of the Inner Light.”3
“27. The wise one [the sage] is always good at giving suitable help to different people. To the wise one nobody is useless. The wise one is also good at saving things. To the wise one nothing is useless. This is learned from the subtle light of the subtle path.”4
“27. The sage is always good in saving men and consequently no man is rejected. He is always good at saving things and consequently nothing is rejected. This is a called following [practicing] the light (of Nature).”5
The Sage described by the Lao Tzu, eventually to become a bible of Taoism, has features that are slightly different from the others. For the ancient Chinese, the Sage is a king who provides order and useful innovations to his subjects. For the Confucians, the Sage is someone who provides guidance to the rulers. In the Lao Tzu, the Sage attempts to save every human and conserve every thing. The Sage’s enlightened behavior seems to originate internally, almost naturally. He or she follows (or practices) the guidance of the Inner Light.
We can make a reasonable assumption about this passage. Because the Sage practices self-cultivation, his Inner Light shines brightly. Naturally following this Inner Light, he strives to assist those around him.
There is, however, a qualification to his assistance. The beginning and essence of Song-Poem #27 is that these acts of kindness should be performed seamlessly, almost invisibly, i.e. without calling attentions to the accomplishments.
“27. Good walking leaves no tracks. Good speech leaves no mark to be picked at.”6
The Sage leaves no traces. He doesn’t force himself upon others, and instead saves others without them even being aware of it. In modern terminology, the Sage moves egolessly to assist others on the Path and to conserve all things. Master Ni, a 20th century Tai Chi teacher, exhibited this type of behavior. When asked why and if he sometimes looked at his students’ 3rd eye, i.e. the middle of their forehead, he replied. “Of course. Least I can do to help out.”
For the sage/advisor to give good advice, he or she must be wise. This wisdom presumably enables the sage to act wisely and give good counsel. While agreeing upon what a sage was, the Confucian and Taoist approach to becoming wise and acting wisely was significantly different, yet complementary. Generally speaking, Confucians focused upon verbal wisdom derived from years of study that included moral training, for instance regarding filial piety. In contrast, Taoists focused upon internal wisdom derived from years of practicing self-cultivation. Of course these approaches are not mutually exclusive, but can instead be combined. Let’s check out the congruencies and divergences.
Confucius was touted as a great Sage, who had become wise due to his scholarship. Confucius felt that people could be trained to act wisely by following certain universal tenets. His followers felt that his teachings contained these universal tenets. Eventually everyone who was going into government service was required to have a thorough understanding of the sayings of Confucius. The wisdom advocated by the Confucians was knowledge-based and acquired externally, i.e. through scholarship and moral training.
In contrast, Taoists felt that wisdom derived from internal sources. They felt self-cultivation practices led to sagehood, not scholarship. These internal practices enable(d) the sage to act wisely naturally. Under this perspective, too much knowledge and moral training acts as form of cultural conditioning and actually obscures the truth. Taoists sought truth and wisdom from inner cultivation, while Confucians tended to emphasize external training.
There is one other distinction worth mentioning. Confucians were firmly committed to political involvement as the best means to help out. Taoists felt that the best course was self-cultivation. While the Confucians attempted to transform society through political activism, the Taoists transformed the world through personal transformation.
It is easy to see that these approaches could and did easily merge. Confucians frequently practiced self-cultivation to fine-tune their learned behavior and responses. Individual transformation could also easily occur through political involvement. Further, Emperors frequently employed Taoist Masters as their sage-advisors.
The concept of a politically involved sage has dominated the Chinese political landscape ever since its legendary beginnings. We have seen and will see both the sage-advisor and the sage-king regularly throughout Chinese history. The legendary Sage Kings of Old and the Yellow Emperor were the first. The Duke of Chou and his father were also sage-kings. As we shall see, the First Emperor of the incredibly important Chin dynasty had a sage-advisor. Even in 20th century China, Mao Tse Tung, for better or worse, attempted to fit the classic archetype of sage-king7.
In summary, the concept of sage is fundamental to the Chinese experience and has been an operative principle throughout their long history. While Taoists and Confucians have differing opinions upon how to become a sage, they both believed that the sage helps out in this world rather than trying to escape it.
Another incredibly important element that underlies the Chinese experience and philosophies is the concept of alignment with the Tao of Heaven. This notion has both political and individual manifestations. Further, the sage plays an important role in facilitating this divine alignment.
To understand the concept, let us first briefly sketch its historical development. During the Shang dynasty, Shang Ti, the Supreme Ancestor was worshipped. During the Chou dynasty, Shang Ti became associated with the concept of Heaven (T’ien)8. Just as the Shang attempted to align with the will of Shang Ti, the Chou attempted to align their country with the will of Heaven. Due to this divine alignment, the Chou Dynasty obtained the Mandate of Heaven.
While Shang Ti and the Mandate of Heaven were associated with the Emperor and the Imperial Dynasty, the Taoists incorporated these ideas on a personal level. A ruler’s failure to align with Heaven could lead to the loss the Heaven’s Mandate, hence the downfall of his dynasty. Similarly the failure to heed the Tao of Heaven could lead to the dissipation of the individual. Just as governments were to align themselves with Heaven for ultimate manifestation, individuals were to align themselves with the Tao in order to most effectively fulfill potentials.
Confucius employed the word Tao in a political sense. He counseled individuals, presumably those in the ju class, to serve those rulers who aligned their government with the Tao, and to avoid those who didn’t. Those who aligned with Heaven, either politically or individually, would be able to naturally tap into the power of the Tao.
Under Confucian political philosophy, a good ruler takes care of his subjects, rather than satisfying personal desires. In other words, he serves the culture that he leads rather than serving his own needs. The ruler who abused his power through lack of responsibility to his subjects went against the Will of Heaven. If he went against the Will of Heaven, then he lost Heaven’s Mandate and was subject to overthrow.
“Confucians since the time of Mencius had insisted that only a worthy ruler can hold onto “Heaven’s mandate” (Tien-ming) and that an unworthy ruler, having lost that mandate, may not only legitimately be toppled, but truly deserves to be replaced.”9
What was the proper role of the ruler? To conquer more territory and further the interests of the military aristocracy? Was his purpose to enable the merchant class to become more prosperous? No. To insure that he had the Mandate of Heaven, the ruler attempted to establish peace and prosperity for all his subjects. Typically, the Emperor employed Confucian officials to administer the realm and Taoist masters to ensure that the empire was aligned with Heaven.
“Into late imperial times, China’s rulers and their subjects all shared the belief that all legitimate authority derives directly from heavenly sources. For centuries, Taoists and dynasts alike considered it to be the Taoist masters’ responsibility to assist the sovereign in managing his heavenly mandate. In medieval times, the emperor, the Taoist master, and the divine realities of Heaven were all seen as co-participants in the same process: unifying the world – “all under Heaven” – in a state of “Great Tranquility” (t’ai-p’ing).”10
What were the features of this state of “Great Tranquility”?
“It [t’ai-p’ing] was a state in which all the concentric spheres of the organic Chinese universe, which contained nature as well as society, were perfectly attuned, communicated with each other in a balanced rhythm of timeliness, and brought maximum fulfillment to each living being.”11
How was the ruler to maintain this state of “Great Tranquility”? Generally speaking, the Chinese rulers employed Confucian officials to give political and economic advice and manage the practical affairs of the empire. Covering their bases, they employed Taoist masters to align with heavenly forces and provide spiritual guidance.
Because of the widespread Chinese belief that legitimacy derived from heavenly sources, most rulers through the 1st millennium of the Common Era, especially the Tang Dynasty, employed Taoist Masters to legitimize their rule and provide a sense of continuity with the past. The Han Dynasty, at the beginning of the modern era, revived the legendary Sage-Emperor paradigm that Confucius had traced back to the Duke of Chou. Taoist Masters played the role of Sage to the Emperor. Indeed some scholars trace the deification of Lao Tzu and the beginnings of institutional Taoism to the Imperial Han Dynasty’s need to establish legitimacy for their rule.
The revolutionary side of Taoism is also linked to this concept. If the Taoists felt that the imperial dynasty wasn’t aligned with Heaven, they would withdraw their allegiance and shift their support to another dynasty. There is some evidence that the Tang Dynasty replaced the Sui Dynasty, at least in part, because Taoist Masters were unhappy with the Sui and shifted allegiance.
Although Taoist Masters faded in political importance with the foreign invasions in the 2nd millennium, the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century attempted to reinforce their Mandate of Heaven by aligning with a legendary Taoist Immortal, Chang San Feng. Even Mao Tse Tung’s seemingly miraculous 1000-mile march established his alignment with Heaven. This arduous event was an affirmation to the Chinese populace that the Communists had the Mandate of Heaven and contributed to their popular support.
Just as Chinese rulers attempt(ed) to retain the Mandate of Heaven via divine alignment, the Taoists attempt to fulfill personal potentials by aligning themselves with the Tao, the Way of Heaven. In some contexts, ‘te’ is translated ‘the virtue of alignment with the Tao of Heaven’12. Hence one way of translating Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching would be ‘the classic book concerning the virtue of alignment with the Tao of Heaven’.
After determining the importance of divine alignment, the next question was how to align oneself with the Tao or Heaven, whether ruler, government, or individual.
One time honored device was the oracle. The Longshan culture used a hot point on a variety of bones and then interpreted the cracks to understand Heaven’s Will. The Shang applied the same techniques to tortoise shells. The Chou threw yarrow stalks and employed the I Ching to interpret their meaning. Each of these techniques was based upon the same concept. Heaven/Shang Ti regularly manifested in the random events of day-to-day life.
While Shang Ti was anthropomorphic and Heaven more abstract, they both shared a type of intentionality. Instead of divine intervention, these supernatural forces communicated with individual humans via oracles. Individuals trusted that this divine communication would suggest the proper course of action, for instance stop, start or remain still. Following the proper course of action would enable the individual or empire to align with Heaven and tap into the power of the Tao.
The Chinese tended to perceive Heaven and the Tao as divine processes, rather than as supernatural beings that intervened in human affairs, like the Greek gods or the Old Testament God. Sailors utilize meteorological signs to maximize their sailing opportunities. These signs suggest when and if to sail and in which direction and at what time. In similar fashion, Taoists in particular believed that attending to divine portents, such as the I Ching, would enable them to better navigate their individual life.
Taoists believe(d) that there were and are unseen supernatural forces at work (generalized as the Tao). If an individual could somehow align with these forces, he or she could maximize the chances of fulfilling personal potentials. The I Ching was a tool that Taoists employed to align with Heavenly processes and thereby tap into the Tao’s supernatural power.
“The I ching was essentially a textual oracle: it allowed people to peer into the processes that operate in the ever-changing world, and to determine how to bring our activities into alignment with those processes. Such concerns would remain vital for all later Taoists – from Lao-tzu to living liturgists – and were never of prime concern for non-Taoists.”13
Those of both Taoist and Confucian persuasion practiced self-cultivation and spoke about the Tao. However, Taoists believed that humans could tap into supernatural forces in order to attain extraordinary states of Being. Confucians might believe in supernatural forces, for instance Heaven’s Mandate, but had a more pragmatic approach to alignment. A good leader would retain the Mandate of Heaven, while a bad one would lose it. A feature of good leadership was and is attending the needs of the citizenry. Another was inspiring the populace through religious rites and traditional rituals that Taoists provided.
Confucius also spoke of the importance of the ruler aligning his or her behavior with the Tao, i.e. Heaven. However, his political philosophy was of a more pragmatic, not mystical, bent. To align with the Tao, the ruler must maintain peace and tranquility (t’ai-p’ing) in order to maximize the possibility of his citizenry fulfilling personal potentials. To retain Heaven’s Mandate, Confucius also believed that rulers should employ merit to choose their advisors and officials, rather than relying upon heredity factors. Bloodline alone should not serve as the sole qualification for political office. This is a very modern notion – nothing mystical here.
Some Taoists practiced divination to determine the Tao of Heaven. Others felt that self-cultivation leads to divine alignment. They felt that conditioning distorts our behavior, drawing us out of alignment. This conditioning manifests on cultural, genetic and personal levels. The little voices, urges, and demi-urges that are constantly screaming to be heard within the brain are a mixture of conditioning and Heaven. While Confucius might use the logic of the brain to distinguish Heaven’s directives from the rest, and while the early Imperial dynasties might consult an oracle to determine the right from the wrong course of action, many Taoists felt that inner cultivation was sufficient to align with the Tao.
In summary, Taoism and Confucianism are complementary Chinese philosophies. Chinese thought is at the root of and transcends both. For instance, the notion of the sage-advisor is common to Chinese culture, no matter which philosophical persuasion. Taoists practice inner self-cultivation to become a sage, while Confucians stress study of Chinese classics and moral training.
Another common Chinese belief is that political and personal power derives from heavenly sources. To tap into this power, the ruler and/or individual must align with the Tao, i.e. Heaven. Confucians believed that individuals must fulfill tightly defined social responsibilities to the state and family. Taoists believed that inner cultivation produces alignment. While the I Ching’s philosophy influenced adherents of both traditions, Taoists frequently employed it as an oracle to align with Heaven. However, divine alignment was important for virtually all Chinese.
1 Burton Watson, 1964, pp. 10-11
2 Wilhelm, I Ching, Ta Chuan (included with the I Ching – like a philosophical instruction book) p. 319
3 John Wu, Lao Tzu, p. 37
4 Hua-Ching Ni, Esoteric Tao The Ching, Seven Star Communications Group Inc., 1992, p. 56
5 Wing-tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu, Princeton University Press, 1963, p. 147
6 Wing-tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu, p. 147
7 While there were some enlightened rulers in the West during the era of kingdoms, it was not part of the tradition. Most of the rulers were warrior kings or conquerors, who were bent upon accumulating wealth and power, not upon furthering the social good.
8 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan, p. 41
9 Kirkland, Taoism, the Enduring Tradition, Routledge, 2004, p. 148
10 Kirkland, Taoism, the Enduring Tradition, p. 146
11 Kirkland, Taoism, the Enduring Tradition, p. 146-7
12 Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China, p. 41
13 Kirkland, p.29