Why is China Kicking Ass? Explaining Chinese Values and Behaviors via the Three Teachings: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism

Why is China Kicking Ass? Explaining Chinese Values and Behaviors via the Three Teachings: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism

To what does China owe its success? What are the forces that has shaped Chinese society and thinking? To better understand China, as well as present-day Chinese behavior, values, and world view, it is important to understand the country’s three historic schools of thought: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

These three teachings (三教 Sānjiào) are the bedrock of China’s ancient culture and Chinese philosophy.

The influence of these teachings can also be seen in many other East Asian cultures – particularly Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

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The focal points and distinctions of these three philosophies are as follows:

Confucius presenting the young Gautama Buddha to Laozi - China, Qing Dynasty

Confucius presenting the young Gautama Buddha to Laozi – China, Qing Dynasty

Confucianism – is centred on political ideas and social harmony.

Taoism – concentrates on the health of the human body.

Buddhism – concerned about psychology and the nature of the mind.

While these are simplistic views, they do provide a starting point in the understanding the philosophies.

Consistent with the concept of Yin and Yang, each of these teachings also emphasize the opposite of its main focus:

Confucianism promoted social harmony by teaching about self-cultivation.

Taoism taught about health by emphasizing harmony with the natural environment.

Buddhism taught about the mind by contrasting it with the material world of things and forms.

Therefore a complete picture of each teaching must include a balanced view of these opposite ideas. This view of life, where the play of opposites is fundamental is symbolized by the Taiji, also known as the Yin Yang symbol.

Common to each of the three teachings:

  • The concept of Yin and Yang
  • Concept of the Tao – the “way” or the “path.” The concept of living your life in a great natural way. In Confucianism it is called Tian (天)
  • Confucius, Laozi, and Buddha all lived in the 6th century BC
Coin showing eight trigrams and Yin Yang

Coin showing eight trigrams and Yin Yang

Other Common Names for Confucius, Laozi, and Buddha

Confucius = Kong Fuzi, K’ung Fu-tzu, Kongzi, Kong Qiu (Chinese: 孔丘), Zhongni (Chinese: 仲尼)

Laozi = Lao-Tzu, Lao-Tze, Lao-tse, Lao-tsu, Laocius

Buddha= Gautama Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, Shakyamuni

 

1. Confucianism (儒) and the Chinese Work Ethic, Family System, & Sense of Modesty

confucius-statue

Statue of Confucius (551–479 BC). Dongting Lake, Hunan, China

A portrait of Confucius by the Tang Dynasty artist Wu Daozi (680–740)

A portrait of Confucius by the Tang Dynasty artist Wu Daozi (680–740)

Confucius (derived from Chinese: 孔夫子 Kǒng Fūzǐ, literally “Master Kong”) lived in 500BC in a city today known as Qufu in China’s Shandong province.

  • Ideas of modesty and scholarly dignity, repeated in Confucius temples throughout China
  • The petty person (小人, xiăorén) is opposite to the ideal – is egotistic and does not consider the consequences of his action in the overall scheme of things.
  • Everyone must assume their rightful place in society according to their ability – cuts through social position and classes
  • Focus on self-improvement and advancement through education and scholarship
  • Elderly are highly respected due to their experience and wisdom
  • The husband needs to show benevolence towards his wife and the wife needs to respect the husband in return

Influences of Confucianism seen in present-day Chinese behavior:

  • It impacts the Chinese family system and accounts for the traditional Chinese respect for authority and the aged.
  • Chinese do not believe in negating the responsibility of grandparents by transferring their welfare to commercial homes for the aged.
  • China’s strong focus on education and long hours of study. Chinese striving to reach the top of their field, often obtaining top-notch credentials in business, law, and science (MBA, Ph. D, M.D., etc)
  • Being petty and egotistic is highly frown upon. Having a relationship with a Chinese female (or male), therefore, offers less drama.
  • Modesty is an ideal human quality. This is evidenced when you pay a Chinese person a compliment – they will not usually respond with “thank you” (谢谢xièxie). While today’s wealthy Chinese may enjoy showing off their material possessions, such as designer hand bags and clothes and cars, they generally remain modest in one-on-one scenarios. They do not enjoy talking about themselves and this results in a more balanced conversation.
  • The theme of mutuality and respect between husband and wife

Confucianism and its latent effect on non-Confucian cultures and economies in modern-day East Asia

  • Many scholars believe that without Confucianism, the people of the East Asia region – Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and even China – would not have been able to modernize and industrialize as quickly as they have.

 

2. Taoism (道) and Chinese Medicine, Human Health, Diet, & Foodies

A Taoist monk is enjoying life, reading and having tea. Qingcheng Mount, Chengdu

A Taoist monk is enjoying life, reading and having tea. Qingcheng Mount, Chengdu

Laozi

Laozi

  • Promotes longevity and human health
  • Not living in harmony and nature was thought to be the cause of disease
  • Sought long life – by eating and drinking special foods and potions
  • Taoist alchemists, searching for these tonics of immortality, sometimes made interesting and useful discoveries. Thus Taoism is closely connected with the development of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
  • Laozi – the founder of Taosim.
  • The concept of无为 = Wúwéi = non-action (or action through non-action) is associated with water through its yielding nature, which stresses the importance that goals can be achieved effortlessly as long as one avoids a potentially harmful disruption or interference

Influences of Taoism seen in present-day Chinese behavior

  • Chinese Traditional Medicine, Eastern Medicine
  • Explains why Chinese are often big “foodies.” Similar to the alchemists, they enjoy experimenting with all different sorts of edibles and believe consuming a wide variety of healthy food is the key to longevity
  • Describes why Chinese use sun umbrellas and stay out of the sun – too much sunlight produces an imbalance between you and your environment and can result in disease. They do not believe in tanning beds – the idea of “fake n’ bake” and the resulting appearance of orange skin is not considered beautiful or healthy.
    taoist alchemist

    Taoist alchemist brewing a yummy tonic.

  • Demonstrates why Chinese do not believe in consuming Western pharmaceutical medicine to “cure” common health problems – how it is a “Band-Aid” solution to a more serious and fundamental problem or imbalance
  • Illustrates why most unmarried Chinese females do not use birth control – particularly pills, shot, and IUD
  • Describes why Chinese females do not believe in eating Western food and processed food and their firm belief that being fat is both unhealthy and disgusting. Clear skin and slim body type is ideal as it reflects both health and well being
  • Although alcohol is cheap, ubiquitous, and not does require an ID for purchase, the instance of alcoholism is low in China. This also applies to drugs, albeit illegal.
  • Despite having a sub-par health care system, the average life expectancy in China is 75 years. Elders are usually in good health, rarely seen in wheelchairs, and often exercise in the park at 6 in the morning.

3. Buddhism Influencing the Chinese Belief of Having a Clear Mind

A monk reading a book while waiting for his bus at the Yangon Bus station along with a case of liquor and a bag full of dollars.

A monk reading a book while waiting for his bus at the Yangon Bus station along with a case of liquor and a bag full of dollars.

  • Not native to China, but Imported from India about 2000 years ago
  • Its influence in China is only slightly less than that of Taosim
  • Today in China – most temples you will see are Buddhist
  • Shakyamuni – the historical Buddha of India, like Confucius and Laozi, lived in the 6th century BC.
  • A white horse carried Buddha scriptures (Sutras) from India to China via Silk Road and arrived in Luoyang – the first place to practice Buddhism in China
  • Zen (Chan) focuses on certain scriptures of Buddhism
  • Tantric – traditional religion of Tibet and Mongolia. Fundamental teachings remain the same of those historical Buddhism and Zen Buddhism
  • Of the 3 teachings, Buddhism has experienced the biggest and most obvious resurgence in modern times – around 100 million Chinese formally identify themselves as practicing Buddhist and the number of persons who follow the religion in a less open manner is even greater
  • Monasteries where young men can live and practice traditional Buddhist lifestyles are once again common in China.

Influences of Buddhism seen in present-day Chinese behavior

  • Chinese females have a clearer mind when compared to females of Anglo countries. They are more “in the moment” as their head in not filled with pettiness. Instead of letting problems linger, Chinese females resolve their problems swiftly and do not “sweat the small stuff”
  • Chinese females are more open-minded and more accepting to behaviors that may be considered “odd” in Anglo countries
  • During holidays and times of stress, Chinese will visit Buddhist temples and pray

 

General Influences of the Three Teachings: Chinese/East Asian Values & World View
(as Compared with those of the West)

east-vs-west-800

 

EAST

 

WEST

COLLECTIVE

INDIVIDUALISM

Family, Group, Team Self
Others shape identity Personality/interests shape identity
Attention devalued Uniqueness is prized
Belonging to group Attention is valued
Collaboration Own person, own contribution, own opinion

DUTY & OBLIGATION

RIGHT & PRIVILEGE

Duty to community & Others Personal development
Emphasis on group achievement Immediate benefits
Loyalty
Compliant
Need-driven

HIERARCHY

EQUALITY

Age, position, education Personality & skills

RESPECTFUL, CONSIDERATE, THOUGHTFUL

SELF-ASSERTION

Modesty & self-effacing Leadership
Nominate others Volunteer self
Give input/ lead in appropriate setting, when invited Immediately express one’s idea
Share complete thoughts External processing
Ascribed authority Earned authority

RESTRAINT

EXPRESSIVENESS

Do not make a scene or show emotions Self-expression
Formality Casualness
Speak when spoken to (proper) Social skills and small talk is important
Tolerate crisis/ fatalism Promote flexibility & change

EVENT/ PEOPLE-ORIENTED

TIME-ORIENTED

People/ relationships/ events are priority Punctuality is priority
Rude to leave event/ person or to say no Rude to be late

WHOLISTIC

PARTICULAR

Big picture Details
Circular Linear
Inter-relationships (medicine) Isolation
Long term perspective Immediate perspective
Synthetic Analytic

INDIRECT

DIRECT

Subtlety Obvious
Direct question can shame someone Indirect approach is frustrating, annoying, & confusing
Not confrontational Confrontational

HARMONY

CLARITY

Conflict-avoidance Prefer knowing what someone wants/ thinks
Cooperative; compromising Assert opinion

HUMILITY & SACRIFICE

LEADERSHIP/ ASSERTIVENESS

Most respected leaders: modest, sacrificial, serving Directive

 

Common Element of East Asian Values and the Three Teachings:
The Concept of Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang are at the heart of Chinese philosophy and the Three Teachings. They describe how apparently opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Many tangible dualities (such as light and dark, fire and water, and male and female) are thought of as physical manifestations of the duality of yin and yang.

Yin and yang thus are always opposite and equal qualities.

Yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive; and is associated with water, earth, the moon, femininity, and nighttime.

Yang, by contrast, is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive; and is associated with fire, sky, the sun, masculinity and daytime.

The belief in Yin and Yang is the fundamental difference between Chinese (East Asian) and Western culture. East Asian cultures believe that a human being is an integral part of the universe and of society, and that people are fundamentally connected.  This belief fosters the acceptance of a duty towards others and this in turn has a dramatic effect on both behavior and relationships. It results in a more selfless, peaceful, and balanced people, and produces a more sustainable and thus more powerful society.

The Chinese philosophy and world view has withstood the test of time and is the fundamental reason why their country is so successful in the world today.

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