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Chinese Culture >> Chinese Society Traditions

Two Great Thinkers of China

The two great thinkers of China are Confucius (K'ung Fu Tzu) and Lao Tzu; they represent the two main areas of Chinese thought, the two great aspects of the Chinese character, two great gifts from China to the world.

Amazingly, they lived in the same era, and are believed to have met each other. By all accounts, they did not get on all that well.


The feudal system was degenerating and there was considerable political unrest.
Confucius deplored the moral decadence of the politicians, and proposed that the solution was a return to the values of the past. He believed in rituals and music as a way of promoting social harmony.

He worked as a teacher, and he would teach any committed student, regardless of their social background or status. He taught from the classic literature of the past, often singing verses from ancient texts, accompanying himself on the zither (an early type of guitar.)

He argued, particularly in his famous book The Analects, that rulers should be selected on merit, rather than inheritance, and that they should have devotion for their subjects, and that they should be of virtuous character to earn the respect of the people. The subject has a duty to obey the ruler, but the ruler also has a duty to listen to criticism.

He became active in politics and he was promoted to be the Minister of Justice. Under the reforms he introduced, it is said that crime was virtually eliminated.

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu believed that the interest in right and wrong and the focus on ritual and custom shown by Confucius was misplaced. His ideas, as expressed in the Tao Te Ching, focus more on the personal spirituality of the individual. The Tao, or Way, is the underlying principle of life and the universe. Any description of it falls short of its true nature, since it is itself the principle by which everything else is defined. If we try to grasp the Tao using our intelligence, we are doomed to failure.

Lao Tzu maintained that thinking is the cause of all our problems. He advocated that we should avoid the pursuit of goals and just let the eternal Tao flow through us. This he believed to be the skilful approach to life, known as wu-wei, meaning non-effort, or non-striving. This would put us all into harmony with the universe.

He is reputed to have said, "He who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak," and "The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao."

When he was aged 80, he became exasperated with the ways of men, and disappeared into the western desert, never to return.

So here we have two different suggestions to solve the problems of society.

Confucius: Everyone should concentrate on preserving the rituals and customs of the past, with good manners and proper etiquette.
Lao Tzu: Everyone should do whatever they want, not trying too hard, but just going along with the flow.

If you were a Chinese philosopher, would you be
Confucius, or would you be Lao Tzu?

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