Compare and contrast the origins and ideas of Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism. How did each relate to supernatural beliefs? 

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larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

All three originated during and as a result of a time of intense turmoil in China following the collapse of the Zhou dynasty known as the Period of the Warring States. It constituted such a great conflagration that thinkers began to contemplate the meaning of a stable society and the role of the individual within it. Since the Chinese are not innately spiritualists, none of them contained truly supernatural beliefs.

Confucianism has no relationship to supernatural beliefs; it is/was rather a philosophy that government positions should be filled by people who were honest and morally upright. Moral integrity to Confucius was more important than a good education. Three special qualities were emphasized:

  • Ren: One should be respectful, courteous and loyal as well as diligent.
  • Li: One should conduct oneself in a manner that was appropriate. Courteous to all people and respect for elders and superiors.
  • Xiao: Respect for elders and parents. This meant care for them in their later years and veneration after they died.

Daoism: From "Daoism" meaning "the way" encouraged living simply in harmony with nature, and disengaging from worldly concerns. It emphasized withdrawing and reflection of oneself. Advanced education was considered worthless as it only emphasized trivial matters. The chief moral virtue, known as wuwei involved such intense withdrawal that one would not even visit neighbors, much less interact with them; but would rather be content within oneself.

Legalism: Advocated strict adherence to the letter of the law, with no regard for compassion, morality, or even ethics. Legalists believed that the chief strength of a nation were its agriculture and military; merchants , poets, scholars, etc. were useless wastes of time and resources. Legalist teaching was that any deviation from the established law should be punished so severely that others would learn from example and dare not transgress. If a family did not report a transgressor, the entire family would be punished. If one threw trash in the street, his hands were amputated. Draconian, but effective.

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beardian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Legalism, Daoism, and Confucianism all come from the same period during the Zhou Dynasty: the Era of Warring States. Zhou China was feudal and decentralized, with families and nobles claiming land and offering protection. This fractured state was plagued with war, and in the general chaos of the time the three philosophies were formed.

Legalism sought to centralize China by putting in place a system of laws based on punishment and reward. This was best implemented in the Qin Dynasty by Qin Shi Huangdi.  

Confucianism sought to centralize China by implementing a moral/social system based in ethics. Confucianists believed in five main principles: rites and ritual (li), humaneness and benevolence (ren), empathy (shu), righteousness (yi), and filial piety (xiao). There was a clear hierarchical social system based on age and gender, and it helped organize the chaos left over from the Era of Warring States.

Daoism, unlike the other two, rejected manmade laws and customs. For Daoists, nature is strongest when it is simplest, when it is unaltered. In order to stabilize society after the tumultuous Era of Warring States, Daoists believed in leaving government and society behind and letting nature take its course.

imperator | Student

Only Daoism has any relation to supernatural beliefs. Daoism is a philosophy regarding the way humans ought to act in relation to nature. The supernatural elements were the rather mild belief in the spiritual power of nature and the importance of spiritualism. As a philosophy, Daoism rejected social constructs and artificiality, idolizing the natural state.

This stood in direct contrast and conflict of the Confucian ideals of a strict social order and hierarchy. Whereas the Confucians believed strongly that each person should seek to fill their place in society, Daoists believed that a person should fill their place in nature. As a consequence, Confucians held rituals in high esteem whereas Daoists abhorred rituals for their artificiality. Confucian morality held that acting in the interests of the collective was the greatest good. 

Legalism, by contrast, was a philosophy that did not necessarily conflict with the other two and possessed absolutely no references to the supernatural. Essentially, legalism was the principle that the law was absolute and any infractions should be punished via draconian methods.