Chinese Philosophy — Historical Summit of the Two Saints of Confucianism and Daoism

Complementary to each other, Confucianism and Daoism have become the mainstream development of Chinese thought, with “the cultivation of rituals and music" and "returning to simplicity" as their respective driving forces. Many ancient texts record a historical summit where Confucius met Laozi. The stone reliefs of Han Dynasty also depicted this event. After asking Laozi about rituals, Confucius praised him, saying, "Today, I meet Laozi, and it's as if I meet a dragon!"

Original article: 儒、道的交會辯證

The Historical Summit of Confucianism and Daoism - “Confucius seeking advice on rituals from Laozi"

Confucianism and Daoism are two significant philosophical traditions that have coexisted in Chinese culture for an extensive period. Both have profoundly influenced the Chinese psyche, shaping their respective ideologies at the heart of Chinese thought.

According to historical records, there was a historical summit where Confucius sought advice on rituals from Laozi. The "Records of the Grand Historian - Biographies of Laozi and Han Fei" states that after Confucius asked Laozi about rituals, he praised him, saying, "I know birds can fly; I know fish can swim; I know animals can run. Those that run can be caught with nets, those that swim can be caught with lines, and those that fly can be caught with arrows. As for dragons, I cannot know, for they ride on the wind and clouds to reach the heavens. Today, I meet Laozi, and it's as if I meet a dragon!"

According to numerous ancient texts, Confucius once traveled from the capital of the State of Lu (present-day Qufu in Shandong) to Luoyi (present-day Luoyang in Henan) seeking advice on rituals from Laozi. This event is recorded in various works such as "Wenzi," "Zhuangzi," “Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals," "Records of the Grand Historian," “The Outer Commentary to the Book of Songs by Master Han," “Family Sayings of Confucius," and “Book of Rites.” Additionally, in the areas of Jining, Shandong, where Confucius lived, and Shaanxi Province, several stone reliefs of Han Dynasty portraying of "Confucius seeking advice on rituals from Laozi" have been discovered.

Chinese Philosophy — Historical Summit of the Two Saints of Confucianism and Daoism
Portrait from the Xinjin Cliff Tomb: Confucius Confucius seeking advice on rituals, with the inscription: stone reliefs of Han Dynasty portraying of Confucius met Laozi." This artwork is available in the digital collection of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica.

However, the exact number of times Confucius sought advice on rituals from Laozi remains uncertain, as various accounts differ, and some even incorporate content from the "Tao Te Ching.” “Zhuangzi- The Revolution of Heaven" describes Confucius's admiration for Laozi, saying that after Confucius returned to the State of Lu, he remained silent for three days, deeply pondering the wisdom obtained from asking Laozi about rituals. "The Records of the Grand Historian" depicts how Confucius bestowed the highest praise upon Laozi, likening him to a majestic dragon. Confucius remarked that ordinary individuals are akin to mere birds and beasts, susceptible to being ensnared by the nets of worldly values such as fame and wealth. However, Laozi stands out like a soaring dragon in the skies, riding upon the sun, moon, wind, and clouds, profound and inscrutable, beyond anyone's grasp or comprehension.

In the presence of Confucius, who had traveled a long way to inquire about rituals, Laozi earnestly spoke, "I have heard that the wealthy offer material possessions, while the virtuous offer words of wisdom." Thus, he advised Confucius, "If a person encounters opportune times and seizes the chances that arise, they can ride the carriage of success (symbolizing attaining an official position). However, if the timing is unfavorable, they may end up like dispersed wild grass, with no place to settle, drifting aimlessly (symbolizing missing out on opportunities).” Laozi expounded that in life, one enjoys prosperity and honor when the right time aligns with their capabilities, but when the timing is not in their favor, they become like vagrant grass scattered by the wind. Therefore, they should be like a shrewd merchant, who conceals treasures as if they were nothing, adept at hiding their accomplishments from public view. A noble person of exemplary virtues should also present themselves as unassuming and humble, discarding arrogance, excessive desires, ostentatious appearances, and lustful ambitions. For those possessing genuine talents and profound knowledge, even greater humility and modesty are required. They must not show off their brilliance or harbor desires for fame and fortune, as all these attributes are of no benefit to their true self.

The complementary ideologies of Confucianism and Daoism, represented by "cultivation of rituals and music" and "returning to simplicity" respectively, have together become the mainstream developments in the intellectual realm of our country. Moreover, at different stages of life, they each shoulder the important task of guiding individuals through either splendid and prosperous moments or treacherous ice crevasses.

Chinese Philosophy — Historical Summit of the Two Saints of Confucianism and Daoism

The Philosophical Debate between Qu Yuan and the Fisherman in Ancient China

During the Warring States period, Qu Yuan possessed the qualities of a fragrant orchid and the grace of the bright moon. He ardently loved his homeland, the State of Chu, with unwavering loyalty. However, entangled in the complex struggles among the feudal lords and ensnared by malicious slander, he was exiled. Along the riverside, he wandered and recited verses, portraying his desolation. The reclusive fisherman, witnessing Qu Yuan's despondent state, could not bear to see him in such distress and initiated a profound dialogue that delved into the contrasting philosophies of Confucianism and Daoism.

The fisherman, who embraces the Daoist belief of "harmonizing with radiance while blending with dust," points out that the sage should not be entangled by worldly matters or be fixated on preconceptions. Instead, the sage should be adaptable and responsive to the changing times. When the world is immersed in impurity, the sage should distance themselves and follow a path of self-preservation that floats along with the world's tides, aligning with the masses. There is no harm in also stirring up muddy waters and sullied waves in harmony with others - "The sage does not stagnate in things but moves with the world; when the world is impure, why not disturb the mud and raise the waves?" "When people are drunk, why not partake in the dregs and sip from the wine vessel? Why burden oneself with deep thoughts and lofty ideals, only to be cast away?” The fisherman suggests that when everyone is indulging in revelry, the sage need not abstain but can join in the merry-making with wine dregs and fine drinks. Why hold oneself aloof and end up in self-imposed exile?

Chinese Philosophy — Historical Summit of the Two Saints of Confucianism and Daoism

However, Qu Yuan, who bravely embraced independence and refused to conform to the crowd, holding firmly to Confucian principles, believed that once a person has maintained purity, they should not be tainted by impure external influences. How could someone as immaculate as the purest snow be sullied by the world's dust? "How can one, who keeps himself clean and pure, accept the filth of the world?... How can one, so radiant and spotless, be covered in the dust of the mundane?” Thus, he chose to follow the currents of the Miluo River and found his resting place within the belly of the river fish, as he preferred death over compromising his integrity. Qu Yuan's unwavering determination to remain virtuous and unsullied in service to his country was evident in his resolute declaration, "Even though I may face death nine times, I shall never regret my path!”

The life attitude demonstrated by the fisherman embodies the philosophical and worldly wisdom of Laozi and Zhuangzi, where the mind is empty, tranquil, and adaptable to changes in the surroundings. In the Analects of Confucius, we find individuals like the bamboo craftsman, who ridiculed Confucius for being negligent in physical labor and failing to distinguish between the five grains, and the reclusive hermit from the State of Chu, who warned against the dangers of engaging in politics. All of these figures share the same philosophical mindset.

According to the records in the Analects of Confucius, there was an incident where Zilu, a disciple of Confucius, got separated from Confucius and encountered an elderly man carrying bamboo utensils with a wooden staff. Zilu asked him if he had seen the "Master" (referring to Confucius). However, the elderly man replied, "Your four limbs are unaccustomed to toil; you cannot distinguish the five kinds of grain - who is your master?” The next day, Zilu caught up with Confucius, and Confucius asked him to relay a message: "Not to take office is not righteous…A superior man takes office, and performs the righteous duties belonging to it. As to the failure of right principles to make progress, he is aware of that."

Moreover, Confucius, who once lamented that the auspicious phoenix had not arrived, also encountered a recluse from the State of Chu who sang a "Phoenix Song" to him. The lyrics went as follows: "Oh phoenix, oh phoenix, How is your virtue degenerated! As to the past, reproof is useless; but the future may still be provided against. Give up your vain pursuit. Give up your vain pursuit. Peril awaits those who now engage in affairs of government." Confucius alighted from his carriage, wanting to engage in conversation with the eccentric man, but the man paid him no attention and walked away. Later, Li Bai composed a poem saying, "I am originally a madman of Chu, laughing at Confucius with the Phoenix Song.”

When facing different stages and circumstances in life, traditional culture offers two complementary perspectives, Confucianism and Daoism, which can be used to complement each other. There is no absolute superiority or right and wrong between them. Sometimes, they serve as the unwavering faith that sustains a person's firm ideals, and other times, they represent the unavoidable choices dictated by timing and circumstances. As for how to choose, it depends on the individual's temperament and beliefs.

Chinese Philosophy — Historical Summit of the Two Saints of Confucianism and Daoism

Lastly, it's essential to clarify that "philosophical Daoism" is not the same as “religious Taoism."

Confucianism and Daoism are two significant philosophical traditions that have coexisted in Chinese culture for an extensive period. Both have profoundly influenced the Chinese psyche, shaping their respective ideologies at the heart of Chinese thought.

The essence and purpose of Daoist teachings lie in "following the natural way." Laozi was inspired by the nurturing power of nature, where all things are born without self-assertion, act without dependency, and grow without domination. The "Way of Humanity" is interconnected with the "Way of Heaven," and harmony can only be achieved when humans and heaven synchronize. Therefore, it advocates for individuals to embody the spirit of "effortless action" and align themselves with the principle of "doing without doing.”

The Daoist life philosophy of "embracing softness and non-contention" stands as a clear stream, amidst the chaos and distractions of the mundane world, gently soothing the wounded souls of people. Wang Bi's annotated version of the "Laozi," a widely circulated classic, explores the core principles of the text. Apart from cosmology, it mainly delves into Laozi's concept of "breaking attachments," criticizing how people often cling to relative values such as beauty, goodness, abundance, gains, and strength, which Laozi points out as being subjective and not absolute truths. In terms of life philosophy, Laozi values "softness," advocating for a tranquil and unassertive approach, contentment with simplicity, and non-contention.

Laozi even presents the idyllic "Peach Blossom Land" of a small country with few inhabitants, aiming to eradicate wars and calamities caused by excessive desires, embodying an early utopian ideal in our country.

Chinese Philosophy — Historical Summit of the Two Saints of Confucianism and Daoism
Laozi, Highest Elder Lord

As part of the pre-Qin philosophers' "Daoist" school of thought, Daoism is distinct from the later religious belief known as “Taoism."

Due to Taoism's belief in Laozi as one of the "Three Pure Pellucid Ones" and the embodiment of "Highest Elder Lord," who descended to establish a teaching and then withdrew from the world, there have been numerous legends associated with Laozi over the ages. Thus, Laozi is revered as the founding patriarch in Taoism. During Emperor Shun of the Han Dynasty, Zhang Ling established the "Way of the Five Pecks of Rice" and honored Laozi as the founder, composing the "Xiang'er," referring to Laozi as "Highest Elder Lord." As time passed, his influence continued to grow during the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties. In the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Xuanzong not only bestowed additional honorific titles upon Laozi but also established Taoism as the state religion and constructed the "Ascend to Immortality Platform" north of the Eastern Gate of Ku County. On the platform, tall cypress trees flourished, and birds chirped, while a bronze statue of Laozi was cast inside the hall. There were inscriptions on the eaves of the hall, such as "Source of the Way and Its Nature" and "Remnants of a Soaring Dragon," and outside the mountain gate, there were stone steles and archways bearing inscriptions like "Ancestor of Ten Thousand Teachings," "Hometown of Laozi," and "Place where Confucius Inquired about Rituals." Finally, Emperor Zhenzong of the Song Dynasty granted Laozi the additional title of "Highest Elder Lord, the Emperor of Primordial Unity and Supreme Nature." The "Journey to the West" and the "Investiture of the Gods" have also drawn numerous allusions from these legends, depicting Laozi either subduing Sun Wukong or assisting Jiang Ziya in battles.

Written by Lily
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