Confucius, Laozi, Daoism, and Buddhism

The history book Shiji by Sima Qian (ca. 145-86 BCE) reports the story that Confucius went to see Laozi, the Sage of Daoism. "When he went to Zhou, Confucius went to see Laozi to ask about manners and rituals. Laozi said, "The saints of the ancient times you so admire, their bodies and even bones decayed and now leave only dust and empty words. If born into the right time and employed, junzi rides a horse drawn wagon. If not, he wanders the world. There is a saying good merchants hide their best goods so the store looks as if empty, and junzi hides his virtue deep within himself and looks as if an idiot. You should get rid of your arrogance, ambition, pretension, and doubt. They do you no good. This is all I have to say to you." Confucius took his leave, and said to his disciples, "Birds fly, fish swim, and beasts run. Beast can be trapped by a net, fish can be caught by throwing a fishing line, and birds can be caught with arrows.  But a dragon rises to heaven riding clouds and wind. I cannot know the nature of it. I met Laozi today, he was like a dragon. I could not know him." (Anal 63)  

According to this story in Shiji, Laozi 's name was Li Er and served as a keeper of archival records at the court of Zhou. He cultivated dao and virtue, and his learning was devoted to self-effacement and not having fame. Witnessing the decline of Zhou, Laozi tried to leave the country. The official of the border pass asked Laozi to leave his teaching in writing. The result is the book Laozi.  

Sima Qian recorded two other versions of who Laozi was; one said he lived in Chu about the same time as Confucius and wrote 15 books on dao and virtue; the other said he was a great historian and astrologer of Zhou. Sima Qian had his doubts about these stories and commented his generation could not know about Laozi for sure.

Shiji is the most reliable historical record concerning the ancient China we have. It is often said that Shiji is comparable to Herodotus’ Histories (c. 440 BCE) in its spatial and temporal scope and its influence on the subsequent generations of historians. Herodotus’ Histories is noted for its encyclopedic grand scale that weaves the story of the rise and fall of the Persian empire. Shiji is credited with creating a new genre of history writing, of telling history through individual actor’s life stories. Shiji is also contemplation on human morality and depicts the history of China, starting with mythical Yellow Emperor down to his own day, as the rise and fall of human morality. Despite the high respect it commands, few scholars accept Shiji's  stories about Laozi at face value. Some believe he was a legend rather than an actual person, and Laozi, a collaborative work.

Nevertheless, Shiji's anecdote about the encounter  of Confucius and Laozi catches the  essence of difference between Confucius's philosophy and Laozi's philosophy. 

Even though the general impression is that Daoism is the philosophy of recluses, Daoism's sacred book Laozi (老子, also called Daode Jing 道徳経), which consists of 81 verses, talks not only about the nature of dao and morality but also about governance of a country, and how to live safely. Laozi emphasizes the need to know when to stop; "Which is more important, good reputation or health? Which is more important, health or treasure? Which is worse, profit or loss? Great love incurs great cost, possessing a large  amount creates anxiety.  He who knows to say enough, does not suffer embarrassment, do not run into danger, and therefore live long."(Laozi 44)  While Confucius aimed at political reform and changing the world, Laozi talks about living defensively, taking the world as it is.  "The best of man is like water, which benefits all things and does not fight them, which flows in places that others disdain, and is in harmony with dao. So the sage holds himself in humility, thinks deep within, gives impartially, keeps his words, governs safely, handles things craftily, and act when the opportunity arises. He does not fight, therefore nobody fights him."(Laozi 8)

               Laozi also says, "A defect makes it whole. Being bent to become straight. Being  hollow to be filled.  Being worn to be renewed.

Wanting to acquire. Being too many causes confusion. For this reason, the sage embraces dao and becomes the model for the world. The sage

does not try to be seen, so he becomes seen in the world. He does not assert himself, so he becomes well known. He does not brag, so he is trusted.

He does not boast, so he stays. He does not fight, so no one fights against him. How true is the old saying,"A defect makes it whole." The sage acts

this way, the world becomes his home." (Laozi 22)  These concepts of knowing when to stop and the awareness of yin and yang of action and

reaction are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture.

 Laozi of Shiji tells Confucius to lose his  arrogance, ambition, pretension, and doubt. He thought Confucius did not know when to stop. Confucius was not unfamiliar with such opinions.  Confucius met recluses. Confucius  also knew that he sometimes compromised his own principles because of the necessity. Though he said, "It is shameful to serve the country where dao is not followed"(Analects 14:1), he served the Duke of Lu and made his disciples serve, because they needed to make a living.

It seems that Confucius shared admiration for the kind of sage Laozi speaks of, because he always praised his student Guanhui very highly.  In "The Disciple",  Zilu was not fond of Guanhui who was like a younger version of Confucius but without his vitality and political savvy. This Guanhui was the Laozi' sage type. Confucius said: "I can talk with Hui for a whole day without him differing with me in any way, as if he is stupid. But when he retires and I observe how he behaves, it is quite clear that he is not stupid." (Analects 2:9) Guanhui acted like water, and hid his virtue deep within so that he looked as if he was stupid. 

Confucius had nothing but praise for Guanhui. "Guanhui was indeed virtuous! Eating a single bowl of rice and drinking a cup of water, he lived in a back alley. Others could not have endured the poverty, but he remained happy. Hui was virtuous indeed!" (Analects 6:8) Confucius also said: "Guanhui could keep his mind on ren for three months straight. Others are lucky if they can do so for one day out of a month." ( Analects 6:5)  Here, Confucius is nearly saying that Guanhui was a better person than him.  Guanhui seems to have been unselfconscious of his own qualities and simply admired Confucius.  Confucius said, "Guanhui gives me no assistance. He delights in everything I say."(Analects 11:5) Having such a student was a great solace for Confucius. When Guanhui died at the age of 30, Confucius wailed, "Heaven is destroying me! Heaven is destroying me!" (Analects 11:8)  Laozi would have thought Confucius was paying the price for loving Guanhui too much.

   Guanhui loved studying and did not care to seek employment. If he lived longer, would he have made the kind of political leader Laozi speaks of? Since he did not live, we do not  know.

After Daoists, Confucians, and others had formed their own schools, they came to emphasize the differences among them. But they share a great deal. Laozi says, "Dao a human can talk about is not the true (absolute) dao.  What you can name cannot be the true name. This what cannot be named is the origin of the universe and that what can be named is the mother of all things." (Laozi 1) Confucius shared such view of dao. Both Laozi and Confucius believe that a person of great morality should become a ruler. Confucius' advise to Zilu,"If you are humble and respectful, you do not need to worry about violence. If you are generous and right, the mighty would welcome you. if you are benevolent and decisive, no one will cheat," would not look out of place in Laozi.

Where do Laozi and Confucius differ? Laozi says, "I have three treasures and keep them every day. The first is compassion, the second is thrift, and the third is trying not to be the leader. Loving people gives courage, thrift allows ease of mind, and trying not to lead enables to develop abilities." (Laozi 67) Confucius explained his concept of ren to a student named Fanchi in three different ways: "Ren is to love people." (Analects 12:22) ; and "Ren is to be cautious in daily life, to be attentive in doing work, and to be most sincere toward others. (Analects 8:19).  So far, Laozi and Confucius are not far apart. But Confucius also says, "If you take care of your responsibilities before you consider your own benefit, won't this cultivate ren?"(Analects 12:21) This is where Confucius clearly differs from Laozi. Laozi recommends not to be a leader. Confucius considered himself a leader. Even though he recommended withdrawing when not wanted, and going only where needed (Analects 7:11), Confucius kept preaching despite the scarcity of appreciative audiences. Confucius could not give up on his belief that Heaven had given him the mission to rejuvenate Chinese culture. Without this belief, he was not Confucius.

Confucius sometimes felt the tag of Laozi's way and said, “The wise would avoid office positions in such an age.”(Analects 14:39)  On another occasions, he said, “If dao did not prevail in the country, and I had to take to the high seas on a raft, the person who would follow me would be Zilu.”(Analects 5:6).  (Confucius appreciated Zilu's unwavering loyalty.) Confucius, however, refused to give up on this world. He said, “We cannot run with birds and beasts. Am I not a human of the world? If not with humans, with whom could I associate?”(Analects 18:6)  While he admired the sage quality in Guanhui, he could not give up on his mission. His determination, tenaciousness, and passion for the human world are what eventually made Confucius the official state sage. 

In the traditional Chinese culture, Confucianism is closely intertwined with Daoism and Buddhism. The intertwining was the result of slow historical process.  Around the time when Confucianism was adopted as the official state doctrine, Daoism as philosophy got organized and formed a school known as dao jia (道家)Dao Jia is based primarily on the study of Laozi and Zhuangzi (荘子), and ponders upon the nature and manifestations of dao.

The second Daoism classic Zhuangzi was written by the philosopher Zhuangzi (active c. 350–300 BCE). (Some ancient books are known by the names of the authors.) Zhuangzi’s historical existence is usually not questioned. Still, because Zhuangzi, like Laozi, went under many editing, determining what he actually thought and wrote can be tricky. (This is a shared problem of studying ancient scripts. Biblical scholars face similar problems of determining who wrote which parts and when.)   Zhuangzi is a collection of allegorical stories that challenge the readers' views of reality. One of the famous story is Butterfly Dream, in which, Zhuangzi tells that he once dreamed of being a butterfly, flying carefree, and after he woke up, he could not decide if he was a butterfly or a man. Unlike Laozi, Zhuangzi shows no interest in politics. Zhuangzi represents the reclusive, transcendental, escapist elements of Daoism.

Daoism in English covers both Daoism as philosophy(dao jia)  and Daoism as religion (道教 dao jiao). Daoism as religion is the sum of historical development of cultural customs. So, it is impossible to give concise definitions or pin down what their central religious tenets area. This kind of religion is called natural religion, in contrast to revealed religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Shinto of Japan and Hinduism of India are also natural religions. Daoism as religion is polytheistic, venerating many different gods. We will see Daoism as religion in action most prominently in Creation of Lesser Gods.

Daoism as religion has its origins in shamanism of the primitive society. It developed slowly, incorporating various folklore and folk religions, myths, and philosophy of different schools, as well as divination and medicine. China is a country that includes many ethnic groups. Currently 56 ethnic groups are recognized in China, including the dominant Han that constitutes over 90 percent of the population. (Since being a Han is socially advantageous, many mixed ethnicity people call themselves Han, too.) Chinese also had contacts with far away places such as India and Rome through the traders of the Silk Road of Land and sea. There were quite a wide range of sources Daoism as religion took their inspirations from,  including the element of female worship from matriarchal culture. Daoism as religion has numerous deities that are known under different names. This makes identifying the Daoist deities rather difficult even for specialists.

There is also another strand of Daoism named xian dao (仙道 Path to Immortality). Path to Immortality pursues longevity and immortality by trying to eliminate perishable elements in human body through spiritual and physical purification. The methods include ingesting various powdered metals and stones as magic portions. In its pursuit of magical perfection, Path to Immortality is similar to Western alchemy. The famed immortals are described to have slowly desiccated and dissipated their mortal bodily elements so that after a few days in their coffins, they simply disappeared into thin air.There is a debate if Path to Immortality is an integral part of Daoism or not. In any case, Path to Immortality has given Daoism a bad name. Many rich and famous, including many emperors, wanted Daoists to make the famed immortality portions. Ingesting these potions was a perilous undertaking, not infrequently ending up in worsened health and death. This made Daoism synonym to Charlatanism to some.

Daoism as religion regards Laozi the supreme deity, the manifestation of dao in human form who presides over the multitude of gods,  spirits, and demons. Daoism as religion considers Confucius one of their gods. Daoist deities are similar to ancient Greco-Roman deities: they have superior power, but are not unequivocally different from humans. Daoism as religion saw its earliest organized form in the Celestial Masters and Supreme Peace sects. Founded in the mid-second century, these sects focused on faith-healing, formed armed temple institutions, and fought against local authorities. Starting with these two sects, Daoist sects often played a role in peasants’ anti-government movements, which happened repeatedly in Chinese history.

In the meanwhile, Buddhism arrived from India and started to spread in the third century. Since basic knowledge of Buddhism is required to understand the novels we will review, a short introduction is due here. Buddhism started with Siddhartha Gautama ( c. 563 BCE to 483 BCE).  Siddhartha followed then dominant Brahmanism in leaving the secular world to lead a contemplative life. He, however, rejected the caste system of Brahmanism. (Today, the caste system is officially abolished, but still lingers as custom. The Untouchables periodically perform mass-conversion to Buddhism and Christianity to escape their despised status which exists only within Hinduism.) He also preached compassion not only for fellow humans but also for non-human life forms, in opposition to Brahmanism’s custom of animal sacrifices. Buddha believed that the Brahmin way of concentrating on the self was counterproductive in alleviating human suffering. Instead, he talked about easing suffering through accepting the impermanence of all things and keeping the disciplined moderation of the Middle way.


Siddhartha Gautama did not leave his own writings. After his passing, his students tried to edit and preserve his teachings. Buddhist scriptures come in three categories; the record of Buddha’s and his immediate students’ words and actions; the rule of moral behaviors and prohibitions, and; the logical interpretations of the former two categories. Some 100 years after Buddha’s passing, this early form of Buddhism, called Theravada, divided into two sections, and started to develop different sects of Buddhism. (There are many schools and sects in Buddhism: Today in Japan, for example, thirteen major schools of Buddhism involving 56 sects are officially recognized.) Theravada Buddhism spread and is still practiced in the southern regions such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos.  


Theravada Buddhism regards Buddha as the perfect human being, not god. Theravada practitioners follow Buddha’s footsteps in leaving the world and to lead a contemplative life, and showing humility in accepting alms from those who stay in the society and perform economic activities. Since only those who practice contemplative life could attain enlightenment, Theravada Buddhism left the question of the benefits to those who support the monks and nuns. Though Theravada philosophy denies the belief in deities, common people of Theravada Buddhism believe in and worship different deities, seeking protection and wish fulfillment. (There are usually discrepancies between a religion understood by scholars  and the religion practiced by common people.)


 Since around 100 CE, the schools of Buddhism known as Mahayana became influential. These schools developed more populist characteristics; they preached the salvation of lay, non-contemplative people through practicing Buddhism. New ideas, such as that people could be saved through good work of charity and giving alms, and reciting the sutra (holy writing), emerged. The idea of the Pure Land in the West where the virtuous would go after death also appeared. Some also preached that it was possible to lead a contemplative life without leaving the society, predating John Calvin (1509–1564) by more than a thousand years. Mahayana Buddhism also absorbed Hinduism deities into their system, and, in turn, Buddha became a deity in Hinduism. Mahayana Buddhism's deities are, thus, similar to Daoist gods in nature, creations of natural religion.

Mahayana later developed anti-Theravada tendency, calling the southern Buddhism Himayana (the small vehicle) of focusing on individual salvation. Mahayana Buddhism thrived from the third century and produced many new schools. It spread via the Silk Road to China, and then onto Korea and Japan. In the sixth century, Tantric Buddhism which is a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism, appeared. Due to the influx of Islam between the eighth and twelfth centuries, Mahayana Buddhism in northern India largely disappeared and was absorbed back into Hinduism.


The most distinct of the Mahayana sutras is the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundariika Sutra; written between 100 BCE and 200CE). The Lotus Sutra is unique among the Buddhist scriptures in its self-claim of ultimate sutra of true knowledge. It claims that the sutra would give its believers unlimited spiritual and bodily benefits; the believers would be persecuted for possessing the true knowledge, but must spread the knowledge even in the face of persecution, and; the persecutors would eventually suffer severe punishment. (This sounds rather similar to Christian persecution narrative.)  The Sutra proved very attractive to the oppressed, because of its militant energy, as well as of its claim that everyone, including women and sinners, can be saved. Its mystic, magical imagery also proved attractive, so that the Lotus Sutra itself became the object of magical veneration. The Lotus Sutra did not obtain much popularity in India, but was translated into Chinese in the fifth century and became very influential.


Living in the polytheistic culture of Daoism as religion, most Chinese saw no problem in accepting Mahayana Buddhist teachings. Arrival of benevolent deities was always welcome. And Mahayana Buddhism came with the promise of saving the populace from the hell. This was a novel idea and exciting. Chinese emperors sponsored the translations of Buddhism scriptures. In the fourth century, two highly learned Indian Buddhists came to China, to greatly advance the translations and studies of Buddhism. In the fifth century, the Lotus Sutra, the most magical of the sutras, arrived, and the Pure Land sect also emerged. Buddhism in China also started to develop the characteristics of focusing on services of the ancestors by performing rituals. Confucian emphasis on filial piety and indigenous beliefs about the underworld of the dead seem to have influenced this development.


           During the fifth century, in part responding to the rising challenge of better organized Buddhism’s growing influence, Daoists started to form an organizational structure based on temples. Temples ran schools that offered Daoist education in such subjects as history of Daoism, philosophy of dao, divination, and medicine. They also taught their own moral code (no killing of living beings, no eating of meat or drinking alcohol, no lying or stealing, being filial and loyal, no disobeying Daoist rules, etc.), adherence to which was a requirement for professional Daoists. This temple-based system, which shows great similarities to the Buddhism system, bridged over Daoism as philosophy and Daoism as religion.

            There are differences between temple-trained Daoists’ religion and popular Daoism that includes more folksy unorthodox magic. For thousands of years, people believed and some still believe that the deities and demons could do them both favors and harm, and spent (and spend) much energy and money to ward off evil powers and invite good fortune by performing rituals. Popular Daoism includes uneducated masses’ simple beliefs. Confucian intellectuals who pride themselves in not speculating upon such subjects as gods, demons, and supernatural often disdain Daoism as religion for its magical thinking.

Daoism as religion incorporated many Buddhist deities as their gods and took many details of Heaven and Hell from Buddhism. Yama, the Indian god of death, came to play an important role in Daoism as religion. Belief in the world of the dead and veneration of the dead ancestors were indigenous to China. When introduced into China, Yama—in more elaborate versions, the court of  Ten Yams—was assigned the role of the god who presides over the world of the dead and moral retribution.


Moral retribution, or, more simply put, making sure that good deeds will be rewarded and bad deed will be punished, is fundamental to Daoism as religion (or to any religion). Sometimes Daoist moral retribution occurs in this world through the intervention of gods, demons, and ghosts. Other times, this retribution occurs after people die when they are judged by Yama. Every human is supposed to have a bug inside the stomach that records every good and bad deed the person does. This bug makes a nightly report to Yama who compiles, with the help of his cadre of bureaucrats, detailed dossier on every human being. Based upon this indisputable evidence, Yama determines the proper place for the dead. (A similar idea is observed in the Last Judgement fresco of the Gothic cathedral of Albi in south France; it depicts the dead carrying a ledger of their good and bad deeds.) The options include going to different levels of Heaven and Hellwhile Confucian and Daoist intellectuals see Heaven as the abstract principle of universe and do not believe in Hell, common people understand Heaven and Hell as the place they go after they die, as well as sent back to the human world to be reborn, sometimes not as a human but as an animal. The original Buddhist concept of reincarnation based on karma is like that of preservation and transfer of energy, and excludes the possibility of remembering previous lives.  Such abstract idea failed to stick, and reincarnation came to be mostly misunderstood as the extension of previous life into the next as authorized by Yama.


Sometimes competing with each other, and sometimes learning from each other, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, came to coexist as integral parts of Chinese culture by the beginning of Tang dynasty era (618–917). The Tang emperors regarded Laozi as their ancestor, and made Daoism the state religion, which greatly strengthened the influence of Daoism. On the other hand, some Tang dynasty emperors were Buddhist and great patrons of Buddhist temples, which made the Tang dynasty era the Golden Age of Chinese Buddhism. The Golden Age was ended by Emperor Wu’s crack down, during which Buddhist temples were raided and destroyed, and the Buddhist priests and nuns were killed (845). The confiscation of temple treasures greatly enriched the imperial coffer. Buddhism in China never recovered the same degree of prosperity afterwards. (There were four emperors who persecuted Buddhism; Emperor Wu’s persecution was the severest.)


Such persecutions were, however, exceptions rather than the norm, and people mostly came to take coexistence of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism as granted. (In the novels we review, we will see many instances of this coexistence.) Some later Daoist schools even incorporated Christian and Islamic elements into their teachings. Such ecumenism is based on the idea that dao, with its many manifestations in human and natural world, is the universal guiding moral principle for all humans.

           Popular Daoism that encompasses Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism is what largely defined the popular Chinese culture until the communism disruption in the twentieth century. So much so that the Chinese Daoism scholar Hu Futan observes  only non-Chinese scholars try to pick Daoism apart into different elements, using tens of different definitions; Daoism is Daoism for the Chinese, with all its complexities rolled into one. Even under the Communist condemnation of Daoism (as well Confucianism and Buddhism) as superstition, popular Daoism did not disappear.

Confucius was the official Sage. He was to be admired and enumerated. However,  as Confucius' life itself shows, his way can be far from easy or safe.  So the common people who wanted to wade through the hustle and bustle of daily life safely often turned to the defensive wisdom of LaoziLaozi was their everyday Sage. Both Sages still influence Chinese culture today.




 Hiroshi Moriya, Chugoku Koten no Ningen-gaku (Life Lessons of Chinese Classics) (Tokyo: Shincho-sha, 1984).

 Hu Futan, Dogaku to Sengaku (Taoism and  Path  To Immortality) .

 Noritada Kubo, Dokyo no Kamigami (Daoist Gods) (Tokyo: Kodan-sha, 1996).

Minoru Akeuchi, Chugoku-no Shiso: Dento to Gendai (Chinese Thoughts: Tradition and Today) (Tokyo: NHK Books, 1999).

Seigo Masaoka, Sainsui Shiso (The Idea of Sansui) (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobou, 2008.)

Hobokushi, Retshusenden, Shinsenden, Sangaikyo (Baopozi, LieXianyun, Shenxianyun, Shanhaijiang)  (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1976).

Ray Huang, China: A Macro History (Armonk, NY: An East Gate Book, 1988).

Lucian W. Pye, The Spirit of Chinese Politics, new edition  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).

Higeyoshi Murakami, Nihon Shukyo Jiten (Encyclopedia of Religions in Japan) (Tokyo: Kodan-sha, 1988).

Stephen T. Asma, Why I am a Buddhist: No-nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey (Chancellorsville, VA: Hampton Roads Pub. Co., 2010).

François Jullien, The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China (New York: Zone Books, 1999).