Taoism and Confucianism

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the basic tenets of Taoism
  • Describe the basic tenets of Confucianism

Chinese Religions

The government of the People’s Republic of China officially espouses atheism, though Chinese civilization has historically long been a cradle and host to a variety of the most enduring religio-philosophical traditions of the world. Confucianism and Taoism, later joined by Buddhism, constitute the “three teachings” that have shaped Chinese culture. There are no clear boundaries between these intertwined religious systems, which do not claim to be exclusive, and elements of each enrich popular or folk religion. Following a period of enforced atheism after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in China, religion has recently become more popular once again. The government today formally recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam (though the Chinese Catholic Church is independent of the Catholic Church in Rome). In the early twenty-first century there has also been increasing official recognition of Confucianism and Chinese folk religion as part of China’s cultural inheritance. Let’s take a closer look at two of these Chinese religious traditions: Taoism and Confucianism.


In Taoism (also commonly written as Daoism), the purpose of life is inner peace and harmony. Tao is usually translated as “way” or “path.” Lao Tzu, sometimes written Laozi, was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer who lived during the 6th or 4th century B.C.E., and who authored the Tao Te Ching, which remains the fundamental text on philosophical Taoism. In the Tao Te Ching, Laozi often explains his ideas by way of paradox, analogy, repetition, symmetry, rhyme, and rhythm.

Taoism as an organized religion began in the year 142 C.E. with the revelation of the Tao to Zhang Daoling (Chang Tao-ling) by the personified god of the Tao, Taishang laojun, the Highest Venerable Lord (one of the three main deities). Taoism became a semi-official Chinese religion during the Tang dynasty (7th-10th centuries) and continued during the Song dynasty (960-1279). As Confucianism gained popularity, Taoism gradually fell from favor, and changed from an official religion to a popular religious tradition. [1]

The central concept of tao describes a spiritual reality, the order of the universe, as being in harmony with the virtues of compassion and moderation. The ying-yang symbol and the concept of polar forces are central Taoist ideas (Smith 1991). Some scholars have compared this Chinese tradition to its Confucian counterpart by saying that “whereas Confucianism is concerned with day-to-day rules of conduct, Taoism is concerned with a more spiritual level of being” (Feng and English 1972).

After the communist takeover of China in 1949, Taoism was banned and its followers re-educated, with the result that the number of practicing Taoists fell by 99% in 10 years. At this time Taoism began to flourish in the greater freedom on offer in Taiwan (a separatist island territory which had not been absorbed into the new communist China). After the end of the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government began to allow a small measure of religious freedom. Taoism began to revive in China, and Taoist temples and practitioners can now be found throughout the country. [2] Today, the Taoist tradition is one of the five religious doctrines officially recognized in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as well as the Republic of China (ROC), and although it does not travel readily from its East Asian roots, it claims adherents in a number of societies, in particular in Hong Kong, Macau, and in Southeast Asia.

Taoism has had a profound influence on Chinese culture in the course of the centuries, and Taoists (Chinese: 道士; pinyin: dàoshi, “masters of the Tao”), a title traditionally attributed only to the clergy and not to their lay followers, usually take care to note the distinction between their ritual tradition and the practices of Chinese folk religion and non-Taoist vernacular ritual orders, which are often mistakenly identified as pertaining to Taoism. Chinese alchemy (especially neidan), Chinese astrology, Chan (Zen) Buddhism, several martial arts, traditional Chinese medicine, feng shui, and many styles of qigong have been intertwined with Taoism throughout history.

Watch It

Watch this video to learn about Laozi (also written Lao Tzu or Lao-Tze), the founder of Daoism, and the teachings in the Tao Te Ching.


The founder of Confucianism (also known as Ruism), or Master Kong, better known as Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.), was a philosopher and politician. He did not intend to create a new religion, but sought to provide structure and reform to some of the religious ambiguities of the Zhou dynasty. According to Judith Berling, Professor Emerita of Chinese and Comparative Religions at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, “The burning issue of the day was: If it is not the ancestral and nature spirits, what then is the basis of a stable, unified, and enduring social order?” [3] This sounds very familiar to founding sociologist August Comte’s question after the French Revolution—what holds society together? Confucius’ answer was in the Zhou religion and its rituals (li), which embodied the ethical core of Chinese society.

The worldly concern of Confucianism rests upon the belief that human beings are fundamentally good, teachable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor, especially self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucian thought focuses on the development of virtue in a morally organized world. Some of the basic Confucian ethical concepts and practices include rén, yì, and lǐ, and zhì. Rén (仁, ‘benevolence’ or ‘humaneness’) is the essence of the human being which manifests as compassion, and is sometimes translated as love or kindness. It is the virtue-form of Heaven, and the source of all other virtues. Yì (義/义) is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good. Lǐ (禮/礼) is a system of ritual norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act in everyday life so as to be in harmony with the law of Heaven. Zhì (智) is the ability to see what is right and fair, or the converse, in the behaviors exhibited by others. Confucianism holds one in contempt, either passively or actively, for failure to uphold the cardinal moral values of rén and yì. Confucianism also places am emphasis on filial piety (Chinese: 孝, xiào), which is a virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors.

Confucianism entrenched itself in Chinese history and culture, becoming what sociologist Robert Bellah called a civil religion whereby “the sense of religious identity and common moral understanding is at the foundation of a society’s central institutions.” [4] Like Hinduism, Confucianism was part of the social fabric and way of life; to Confucians, everyday life was the arena of religion. Some religious scholars consider Confucianism more of a social system than a religion because it focuses on sharing wisdom about moral practices but doesn’t involve any type of specific worship; nor does it have formal holy objects.

Confucianism was the official religion of China from 200 B.C.E. until it was officially abolished when communist leaders discouraged religious practice in 1949. Like Taoism, Confucianism spread to other countries and was somewhat dormant in China for a time, but is on the rise once again.

Watch IT

Watch this video to learn more about Confucius and the basic tenets of the religion.

Try It

Link to Learning

For more insight on Confucianism, read the Analects by Confucius.


[glossary-term]civil religion:[/glossary-term]
[glossary-definition]the implicit religious values and common moral understanding shared by a nation[/glossary-definition]


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  1. "The Origins of Taoism." BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/taoism/history/history.shtml.
  2. "The Origins of Taoism." BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/taoism/history/history.shtml.
  3. Berling, Judith. "Confucianism." 1996. Center for Global Education, Society for Asian Studies. https://asiasociety.org/education/confucianism.
  4. Bellah, Robert Neeley. 1975. The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial, New York: Seabury Press.


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