Location:Home Classical Chinese Philosophy
How Confucianism Departed From the Dao of Dynamic Balance
By Sherwin Lu
2019-08-16 07:48:07


This article was first posted on this website on 2009-03-07 and is being re-posted as a "source article" for a section of the author’s new book DAOIST-LEGALIST SOCIALISMOne with real Chinese characteristics, §I-6(2) How Confucianism Departed From the Dao of Dynamic Balance 

         DAOIST-LEGALIST SOCIALISM: One with real Chinese characteristics 
         (Table of contents)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The author of this essay mentions a very interesting historical fact: The 18th century French pioneer of economic liberalism Francois Quesnay was extolled as “the Confucius of Europe”. It shows that the economic policy of the Confucianist school of ancient China was once a source of inspiration for Western liberalist economists. Nowadays, instead of Confucianist liberalism, people are talking about the importance of Confucianist morality. But history has proved again and again that Confucianism failed to bring about a moral and prosperous society; and today’s realty is that Western liberalism, after creating cancerous prosperity for a minority of people in limited areas of the globe at the cost of all others’ well-being, subsistence and even lives and at the risk of destroying mankind’s future, is now sending the whole world into a freezing winter. From the Daoist Yin-Yang balance point of view, this is only inevitable: liberalism based on capital domination under a jungle law inevitably leads to monopoly capitalism, and absolute monopolistic capital power inevitably leads to absolute economic, political and moral corruption. Only an interactive balance between capital and Labor power, between societal institutional reform and personal moral cultivation, between the world’s rich and poor sections, and between mankind and nature can bring back a lasting human-world spring.



In a previous essay entitled Rule of Law in the Heaven-Earth-Human Dynamic Whole, the author summarizes the major points of the “dynamically-balanced multi-dimensional whole” worldview based on the mind-matter dialectical monist philosophy, as is contained in Laozi’s exposition of the “Dao”, and applies it to an analysis of the relational structure of the human society that is both vertically stratified and horizontally divided. This essay is intended to apply the same worldview to an analysis of Confucianism to see if it can stand up to an integrity test and prove itself to be worthy of its long-time dominating status in China’s history.

Pre-Qin Confucianism as represented by Confucius and Mencius was originally an ethical thought system focusing on personal moral self-cultivation, with much less attention on the management of the macro society, and no attention on the metaphysical philosophy behind its thoughts, just as Zhuangzi pointed out “As to what is beyond the physical world, the sage master leaves undiscussed” (“六合之外,圣人存而不论”,《庄子 • 齐物论》) and Confucius himself in reply to a question on learning admonished his students to “deferentially leave ghosts and deities at a far distance.”  (The Analects, 6 • 22)

But ever since it was singled out by Emperor Wu of Han as the dominating ideology, Confucianism had been used by most of the rulers as their guiding system of thought on statecraft and Confucian scholars as the backbone of state administration till mid-20th century. What they did as state administrators was far more, of course, than just cultivating one’s own moral character. More than that, they also tried to raise their ideology later to the metaphysical level as the “way of Heaven” by inventing the theory of “Heaven-human correspondence” (天人相应). But the Confucianist interpretation of the “way of Heaven” is not the same as the Dao interpreted by Daoist-Legalists (黄老学派). Though having sought advice from Laozi, Confucius and his followers have never come near to an understanding of the essential meaning of the Dao. 

The Dao of Dynamic Balance

Before making an analysis of Confucianism, it is necessary here to first mention the major points of the “dynamically-balanced multi-dimensional whole” worldview. The dynamic balance finds expression first of all in the incessantly changing relationship between human consciousness and the world which emerges under its light, in the spiraling process of shifting from imbalance (such as cognitive errors, failure of a plan, man-made disasters) to balance, then to new imbalance, then to balance again, and to new imbalance again… till infinity. Therefore, this world in human eyes, the world with all its parts and aspects as human consciousness can reach, penetrate, realize (化现) and mirror are changing all the time with the ever-going on change of the cognitive structure and functioning of human consciousness itself. This interdependence, interpenetration, interaction and reciprocal transformation between human consciousness and the world it reveals is the number one Yin-Yang relationship, the basic, or primary, “dimension“ of the whole multi-dimensional existence, which overarches all other paired relations, as Laozi says ”From the Dao emerges One; from One emerge Two…” – Hence “mind-matter dialectical monism”.

Because of the unique nature of the human mental structure, the world revealed under its light emerges as divided in many ways; one of which is the division into levels on the imaginary “vertical” dimension (figuratively termed after human’s three-dimensional visual observation pattern). In other words, the mind-dependent world, ranging from the micro through the human society to the macro, emerges as numerous levels of existence with an infinite variety of Yin-Yang relations between these levels, between numerous things on all these levels, and within each and every one of these things, as Laozi says “… From Two emerge Three; From Three emerge all things.” -- Hence “multi-dimensional”.

All these infinite number of Yin-Yang relationships may overlap, or cross, or interact with, or are otherwise connected with one another on an infinite variety of scales and in an infinite variety of ways, with the Yin aspect in one relationship functioning as Yang in another and vice versa, thus being inextricably involved and locked with each other, producing “butterfly effects” throughout – Hence “whole”.

And within every such relationship there exist ever on-going shifts between imbalance and balance through ever on-going interactions between the Yin and the Yang under ever changing circumstances, as Laozi says “All carry the opposites Yin and Yang, approaching harmony through moderation.” – Hence “dynamic balance”.

As every level of existence is itself a unity of Yin and Yang, and different pairs of Yin-Yang opposites can again join together as another Yin-Yang dyad on a larger scale, such relationships also exist between different levels and they themselves can form still-larger-scale dyads and so on until the topmost primary level, that of human mind versus the whole existence (“matter”) revealed under its light – Hence “multi-dimensional dynamic balance”.

Applying the above worldview to the observation of society, we should recognize on the one hand the relatively independent and autonomous statuses of all “individuals”, ”parts”, ”levels”, as well as all ”groups”, ”wholes”, ”totalities”, their relative independence and autonomy originating in their specific Yin or Yang attributes within all sorts and scales of paired relationships, and on the other the interdependence, interpenetration, interaction and reciprocal transformation within and between all these Yin-Yang dyads.

But both Chinese Confucianist and Western traditions are on the whole opposed to the above worldview -- they tend to single out one pole of a bi-polar relationship to be the focus and starting point for consideration of the whole situation while disregarding the opposite pole. In same-level social relations, this tendency finds expression in ego-centrism, national chauvinism, racism, etc.; In inter-level social relations (e.g., individual vs. family vs. nation vs. ecosystem vs….) in one-head autocracy, atomic individualism, monolithic collectivism, statism, anthropocentrism, etc.; or in relations between different aspects of social life (e.g., economic vs. political vs. moral-cultural) in economic determinism, or “morality-does-all” doctrine, etc. All such isms and doctrines running counter to the way of dynamic balance can be collectively called “monopole-centrism ”. 

 Confucianist Monopole-Centrism

The intended purpose of early founders of Confucianism was actually to confront one of the above isms, that is, ego-centrism. What they advocated is Ren  (仁, or benevolence), especially benevolence on the part of the rulers, i.e., rule of virtue. What is problematic is their methodology for the realization of a benevolent government – they believed in one-head autocracy, atomic individualism, and morality-does-all. The following is a detailed analysis of Confucianist thoughts and practices in handling familial-social power relations, socio-economic policies, and overall societal management. 

I. One-Man Autocracy in Familial-Social Power Relationship

a) The Confucianist ideal relationship in a family (including larger kinship groups) is essentially characterized by:

Family head            dominating over             other members
Male members       dominating over             female members
Seniors                   dominating over             juniors
The elder                dominating over             the younger

For this group of paired relations is prescribed the same rigid principle of absolute one-way command-and-obedience between the “superior” and the “inferior“ in spite of their kinship ties. This one-way rigidity is supposed to be offset by “kindness” and “love” on the superior side, but this “kindness” and “love” is not guaranteed by any enforceable regulations – it all depends on the “conscience” of the superiors. No wonder actually this one-way traffic would only lead to the waning of “conscience” and even kinship affection.

No one, of course, should deny the necessity for adults to properly discipline minors and for juniors to fulfill their filial duties to their parents and other elders, as these are the very initial steps in cultivating benevolent sentiments. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that the imbalanced family relationships and the living examples of absolute authority in disregard of others’ interests and sentiments can only foster despotism or slavishness and reproduce generations after generations of increasingly even more imbalanced family relationships which would distort natural humanness and make life miserable for all.

Yet, this does not exhaust all the dire consequences. While the natural kinship affection which can be felt and reciprocated directly within very short distances would more or less soften the rigidity of those sharply slanted relations, Confucianist promotion of such imbalanced relationships does not stop behind the doors of small families but was further extended to the societal scale. When the Confucianists extolled such family ethics as the prototype for the socio-political order and cloned it on a far more extensive level beyond the household floors, the harm it did to the whole society was even more, countless times more, widespread and destructive.

b) The Confucianist ideal for state power relationship resembles that for the family:

Emperor/King           Dominating over            All under heaven
The monarch            Dominating over            Subjects
The superior             Dominating over            The inferior
Officials                     Dominating over            Common people

Without the redeeming merits of kinship ties among family members, the absolute domination by the supreme ruler over the whole population and by officials over people under their power can only lead to peremptoriness and corruption. Whether the monarch can be modest enough to accept different ideas from below or the officials honest and diligent enough to really serve the people’s interests would almost totally depend on their “moral conscience”.  And this “conscience” could not be effectively cultivated or preserved, if not corrupted and destroyed, by Confucianist kins-shielding-kins principle, which places personal feelings and obligations over the law, or by their empty talks on morality without any binding force, or by their selection of officials through examinations of the candidates’ stereotyped writings divorced from practice. A better alternative combination of institutions could be the all-society mutual supervision system, a law system based on equality between the nobility and the commoners, and the social merit system for assignment and promotion or demotion of noble statuses and government posts – all in line with the Dao of dynamic balance, placing restrictions on traditional nobility privileges. These institutions were advocated and installed by Legalists in the past but were opposed and later abolished or distorted by Confucianists. Absolute power will never foster conscience but corruption; empty talks can never cultivate the virtue of benevolence but serve as a fig leaf covering up rampant sins against it, as has been witnessed again and again by Chinese history. 

II. Laissez-Faire Policy in Social Economy

Native-Born Liberalism
In the pre-modern natural economy of an agricultural society, the two major macro relationships were those between agriculture and commerce and between big business and the state. Confucianist policies in handling these relationships were:

a) Pitting agriculture against commerce to restrain the latter
In disregard of the practical necessity for interdependence and mutual promotion between different social classes with different social roles and interests in the economy through their incessant interactions towards a relative balance, Confucianists talked in abstract terms about “noble men having a moral sense of righteousness while lowly people smart at seeking material gains”. Their contempt for tradesmen was actually hurting small businesses, which were indispensable for state economy and people’s livelihood, and, in the final analysis, hurting the peasants’ interests. At the same time, by mechanically pitting people’s moral and material life against each other, they were destroying the effectiveness of their moral indoctrination and defeating their own purpose.

b) Opposing state ownership of salt and iron businesses, which were strategically vital to state economy and people’s livelihood.
By this policy, Confucianists were actually indulging and protecting big businesses in their pursuit of monopoly interests and forfeiting the national economic lifeline at the cost of the whole population’s livelihood.

The above two policies may seem to be self-contradictory in their attitude towards business and business people but, as a matter of fact, the contradiction was between the moral extremism in their preaching and permissiveness in their policy-making, both originating from the same individualistic and parochial mentality typical of small peasantry. The result of such policies was rather “snobbish” in the sense that they fawned on big speculators and profiteers while frowning at small business people trying to earn a mere living.

Confucianist statesmen turned a blind eye to business tycoons collaborating with corrupted officials and encroaching on the interests of peasants and small merchants, thus impoverishing the common people, weakening the power of the state, intensifying social conflicts, inviting disasters at home and invasions from outside and then years after years of war till the final collapse of the dynasty. 

Source of Inspiration for Western Liberalism
The economic policy of the Confucianist school was not only favored by self-seeking rulers in China, it also won the favor of Western liberalist economists, as seen in the fact that the 18th century French pioneer of economic liberalism Francois Quesnay was extolled as “the Confucius of Europe”. Now, ironically, this kind of liberalism has been imported back to China, its place of origin, with a new and much-touted Western trademark, to carry on the cause that the Confucianists had failed to realize, thus sending the 5000-year-old empire into a full-force convulsion and excitement.

What is even more disappointing is that both Confucianism and Western liberalism have always been crying their wares under the banner of the Daoist “wu wei government” (无为而治), actually distorting, with or without intention, the true meaning of wu wei. Some blind followers of Confucianism even alleged that later Neo-Confucianism has incorporated the quintessential ideas of Daoism and Buddhism and, so, as a synthesis of all Chinese thought traditions, is worthy of its status as the representative voice of Chinese culture. But we will see below how different the Chinese Daoist idea of wu wei is from Western and Confucianist liberalism.     

Distortion of “Wu Wei Government” 
The pseudo–Daoists in the West share the same line of thought with those in the East in distorting Daoism for a defense of their laissez-faire arguments. So, we might as well take an example from the Western academia: a U.S. economics professor named Ken McCormick published an article years ago entitled “The Tao of Laissez-faire”, in which he quoted half of a sentence from Dao De Jing: “I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves; I prefer stillness and the people are rectified of themselves; I am not meddlesome and the people prosper of themselves…”
 (http://college.holycross.edu/eej/Volume25/V25N3P331_341.pdf, P. 334), but omitted the final most important segment. The following is the whole sentence translated by Charles Muller, which conveys better the essential meaning, not just a literal rendition, of the Daoist idea of wu wei by using, for instance, “do not force my way” instead of “take no action”: 

“The Way of Heaven” vs. “the Way of People”
Laozi says in Dao De Jing, 77:
       “It is the Way of Heaven
To remove where there is excess
And add where there is lack.
The way of people is different:
They take away where there is need
And add where there is surplus
(Trans. by Charles Muller.)

Obviously, the first half is about “no desires” leading to the nature’s way of balance, or “doing wu wei” (Dao De Jing, 63) (Note: To “remove” and ”add” ARE “actions” which requires “doing”), while the second half is about how “avarice” has been indulged by and/or guiding “people” who “force their way” of laissez-faire, or pseudo-wu wei. Confucianists, as well as Western liberalists, are such “people”, while ancient Chinese Daoist-Legalists’ policies aiming at dynamically balancing inter-human and human-nature relationships were living examples of “wu wei government”, of following “the Way of Heaven”, or “the natural course of things”.

Therefore, all such ideas in the previous quote as “not force my way”, ”(the people) transform themselves”, ”enjoy my “serenity”, ”(the people) correct themselves”, ”not interfere”, ”(the people) enrich themselves”, ”no desires”, ”(the people find their) original mind” should be understood in connection with the antithesis between “the Way of Heaven” and “the way of people”.

The above debate shows that picking out a phrase, or a segment, and divorcing it from the whole context of a system of thought (Daoism in this case) and from the socio-cultural context in which it was born and practiced (the original Chinese cultural tradition in this case) is not the way to seek truth. 

III. “Morality-Does-All” Doctrine in Handling Overall Societal Management

As said above, Confucianists advocate one-head political autocracy and economic liberalism. According to the view of multi-dimensional dynamic balance, “one-head” is indispensable while the problem is with “autocracy”; and individual liberty is valuable but extremist denial of interpersonal balance is wrong. Indulgence of extreme economic individualism would inevitably lead to autocratic political hegemony of a handful of people whether it is disguised as “liberal democracy” or not. While in reality the two extremities are but the two sides of one thing, in theoretical rhetoric “liberalism” and “autocratic hegemonism” appear to be incompatible with each other. So, Confucianists invented the “morality-does-all” doctrine as a conceptual bridge to get the two extremities linked together and coordinated in imagination. And the coordination exists only in imagination, as it cannot be realized in actuality -- it is not the same thing as a dynamic balance in real social relations, because the “morality-does-all” doctrine itself runs counter to the way of dynamic balance through interaction and mutual adjustment between people’s moral sentiments and the society’s economic-political arrangement of relationships. The Confucianist moral virtues were supposed to grow in the laissez-faire economic jungle enveloped in the suffocating political air of one-head autocracy. But in historical actuality this kind of social environment could only foment the immoral social atmosphere of “everyone for himself and the devil takes the hindmost”, instead of universal love, benevolent government, or rule of virtue.

This author has generalized Confucianist thought on this issue as “morality-does-all” doctrine, because they only see the decisive impact of people’s moral quality, especially that of those in power, on social order, but not the determining influence of social relations, i.e., whether or not they are relatively balanced and harmonious, on social morality – to have it elevated or corrupted. Under the spell of this dogmatic belief, they tend to talk about morality and moral education as related to personal behavior within micro context only, not touching such big issues as whether the existing macro social relations are moral or not and whether they need to be reformed on ethical principles. As a matter of fact, Confucianists generally took the existing social order for granted, not doubting about its moral soundness or even trying to take advantage of it to climb up the existing social hierarchical ladder for personal fame and gains.

Some Confucianists may also be critical of some aspects of the then existing social reality, but their criticisms tend to be in abstract terms, not going right to the heart of the matter as Laozi did, because in their eyes to “take away where there is need and add where there is surplus” is only natural and has always been the case (actually not always). Therefore, their moral preaching is usually intended to serve the purpose of maintaining the existing social order from being changed. The content of their preaching would not go beyond advising those in  “superior” positions to be kind to their “inferiors” and admonishing those in “inferior” positions to know their place and not to overstep their bounds. With this mindset, they would not, of course, become aware of “the Way of Heaven” and think about calling for a change of “the way of people”.

Confucianist morality is supposed to solve all social problems through a process called “cultivate a sage’s soul inside oneself and then externalize it into kingly government” (内圣外王). Obviously, they only see the process from the inside to the outside, not the vice versa, or in modern philosophical terms, the impact of existence on consciousness, especially that of social existence on social consciousness. This means that Confucianists have deviated from the Dao of dynamic balance in handling the No. one or primary Yin-Yang relationship, that between mind and matter. Just as Zhuangzi says, “If a sagely soul is forged and a kingly government is realized, both stem from the One” (All Under Heaven, 《天下篇》) This “One” is none other than the Dao. This points out the underlying interaction between one’s internal mind and the external reality as between Yin and Yang, instead of just one-way traffic from the internal to the external. It also reveals that Confucianism has never come to understand and accept what distinguishes Daoism from other secular or religious world outlook. What best Confucianists have done is merely to have picked out some word fragments from Daoist literature as a sort of decoration for the packaging of their defective system of thought.

The Confucianist “morality-does-all” doctrine appears to be diametrically opposed to the Western economic determinism, but actually they both ignore or deliberately disregard the dynamic balance, i.e., the mutual impact, adjustment, and transformation between a society’s politico-economic arrangement and people’s moral-spiritual attainment. Each of them sticks to one extreme and resists the Way of Heaven from opposite directions, both sabotaging social balance and harmony or aggravating existing social imbalance and chaos and, if not counteracted, leading to endless social disasters. 

Concluding Remarks

        Now, history has come to a new phase. Theoretically at least, no society should be divided into a powerful minority and a subservient majority. The power of all officials in governing the society should be balanced by that of the governed in employing, supervising, holding accountable and dismissing them if necessary, so that nobody can stay outside of or, like the God, above the complicatedly interconnected grand net of multi-dimensional social relationships, balanced or unbalanced.

        Therefore (the following is a generalizing interpretation by this author of the Daoist line of thought and act characterized by “the Yin mentality”(守雌), ”stay humble”(居下), ”undisturbed by desires”( 虚静), “wu wei, or not to force one’s will against the Dao”( 无为)), everybody, whether in superior or inferior positions, should consciously learn to use the “mind-matter unity” and “dynamic balance” worldview and social outlook to observe and analyze social relations as far as one’s duties and abilities can reach, and then in one’s actions either to adapt oneself to all balanced or being-balanced situations, or, in line with the Heavenly way towards a general balance, help adjust those unbalanced social relationships at proper points of time. Timing is very important; sometimes one needs to wait patiently and guard against willful and premature actions. To do all this, one has to, first of all, reflect on and adjust one’s own mind-set, expectations and line of thought if they are not in harmony with the Heavenly Dao. (Here applicable are the principles and methods for purification of the soul shared or respectively advocated by Daoists, Buddhists and Confucianists.) Only thus could a general balance of social relations on and between all levels be reachable, peace and order be restored, and a community of sagely inhabitants become a reality.

        To sum up, Confucianism as a system of thought is not that “superior” on the whole as lauded by rulers of past dynasties. Since, as mentioned earlier, what is beyond the physical world is left undiscussed, the originators of the theory (and the followers as well) have failed to reach and grasp the all-encompassing general law in the universe, that is, the supreme way of Heaven and Earth as revealed by Daoists. Hence, even though their motives might be genuine and well-meant and some of their ideas are valuable and worth inheriting and carrying forward, but, because of the lack of guidance by the supreme way of all existence, their theory is defective like a lame duck and failed their expectation in its effect on the society, as has been proved again and again by two thousands of years of history.

        The main reason why the Chinese civilization has been able to survive two more millenniums since Confucianism became a dominating ideology is not because of its favorable impact on the Chinese society, but because the early rulers of almost every major dynasty learned lessons from the collapse of the preceding dynasty they have just replaced and adopted some Daoist-Legalist measures to revitalize and rebuild the society. History repeats itself in cycles from Daoist-Legalist reforms to a period of peace and prosperity, then to the ascendancy of Confucianist ideology again, which led to the pauperization of peasants and intensification of social conflicts, then to peasants uprising and/or invasions from outside, to social chaos and wars, then to the emergence of new leaders and of a new dynasty re-unifying the country by Daoist-Legalist measures…This repeated cyclical process itself is just the manifestation on a grand scale of the Way of Heaven, the way of dynamic balance. Whoever went along with it prospered; whoever went against it perished.  

        History has long recalled the misplaced designation of Confucianism as the dominating ideology shaping the Chinese culture. Gone are the days when some privileged people can sanctify a certain doctrine as the supreme guidance of social life and force it onto the whole population without being tested and endorsed by history and leaving no room for doubt and challenge. History’s expected choice is likely to have the Daoist metaphysics as the core and have Daoism, Bhuddism, Confucianism and many other schools of thought complement, modify, and integrate with each other, to have them assimilate whatever is excellent and valuable in Western and other cultures, and to have them get nourished and enriched by new historical practices of the mankind – This should be the new orientation of the Chinese culture in this 21st century.

Copyright: The New Legalist Website      Registered: Beijing ICP 05073683      E-mail: alexzhaid@163.com   lusherwin@yahoo.com