The Axial Age in China

When I told my students that the culture tendency of China over the centuries has been very conservative, I made sure they understood that I was not referring to positions and issues considered conservative in contemporary American politics. Instead, I was using the word for its core meaning—that the people of China, for the most part, wanted to converse the past. They were uncomfortable with change. New ideas tended to be discouraged; holding to the tried and true tended to be the preferred mode of operation.

Traditional Chinese thought sees the world composed of two forces: yin and yang. Yin is described as feminine, soft, dark, and passive; yang is described as masculine, hard, bright, and assertive. Neither yin nor yang is good; neither yin nor yang is bad or evil. Balance between the two is good. Imbalance—too much of either or two little of either—is bad. Therefore, if a family or community or nation has reached a balance of yin and yang, the worst thing they could do is change. Maintaining balance is better than seeking any improvement. Losing balance is worse than remaining steady, poised, and centered.

Another traditional Chinese belief reinforced this inherent conservatism. Many Chinese people believe that, when people die, they become more powerful. They linger around their families, blessing those who maintain the ways of the past and afflicting problems on those who threaten changes. When one’s ancestors are enforcing the older ways, one does not risk innovation. This burden fell hardest on young women who married into a family and needed to be taught the ways of the family. Any trouble in the household would be pinned to their behavior, and they would be firmly directed to follow the family path, not to innovate. Over time, they would bear sons, the sons would grow up, and the women who once suffered the instruction of their in-laws would now have power to train the next generation.

Only one good way exists to introduce new ideas into such a culture. One must insist that the new ideas are old, that they had been forgotten, that they must be restored to remove current problems and to bring back the peace and harmony of the past. Confucius (551-479 BCE) was a master of such presentation. He insisted that he taught nothing new, that he was restoring the old ways of China that had been forgotten. He introduced no new gods, no new ceremonies, and no new customs. He spoke glowingly of the past. But, while he claimed to be returning to the older and better ways, Confucius introduced Axial Age principles into Chinese thought. His approach was individualistic: Confucius directed people to look within themselves to find the virtues that would be expressed in proper attitudes and proper behavior, maintaining peace and harmony in the family, the community, and the nation.

Confucius was optimistic about human nature. He said that people want to be happy, that obeying the rules leads to happiness, and that people disobey the rules only because they do not know or understand the rules. Therefore, Confucius taught the rules that were appropriate to people in their various relationships: father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, ruler and ruled, friend and friend. Success in following the rules, though, came from inner virtue, from being true to one’s self. Like other Axial Age philosophers, Confucius directed people to search within themselves to find truth, virtue, and piety.

Although Confucius was mostly ignored during his lifetime, a group of students wrote what he said and continued sharing his ideas after he died. Over time, they became more accepted in China and in neighboring lands. Eventually, Chinese government even sponsored the teachings of Confucius. At times, no one could acquire a government job without first passing a test on Confucianism. A government established and in place valued the teachings of Confucius because he told people to respect and help their rulers, not to challenge them or rebel against them. Of course, any revolutionary government had to evade Confucianism. Mao’s Communist Revolution resisted the teachings of Confucius and included them among the evils that had to be overturned in China. But now, seventy years later, the Communist Party in China likes people to learn the teachings of Confucius, because he told people to respect and help their rulers, not to challenge them or rebel against them.

Around the same time that Confucius lived, another philosophy also emerged in China. Attributed to the legendary Laozi, the principles of Daoism also direct a person to look within himself or herself. But where Confucianism stresses rules appropriate to social relationships, Daoism pays more attention to observing the world, fitting into what is happening, and going with the flow instead of fighting the stream.

The Dao is not a god. No one prays to the Dao or builds temples to the Dao. But the Dao is at the center of the universe: it is the source and cause and meaning of all things. One might even say that the Dao “surrounds us and penetrates us [and] binds the galaxy together.” One does not resist the Dao; one cooperates with the Dao, observing the flow of energy around one and finding one’s place in that flow. The Daoist principle of wu wei, sometimes translated as “doing nothing,” is better interpreted as “effortless exertion.” A Daoist is active in the world, but the activity of a Daoist moves with the flow of energy, not against it. While a Confucianist might try to follow all the traffic laws, driving exactly at the speed limit, a Daoist is more likely to conform to the traffic; if all the other drivers are going sixty-five, the Daoist will go sixty-five. (Note: that is meant as an example of how the two groups think, not as a description of Chinese drivers.)

Some forms of Daoism express the thought that a person living in harmony with the Dao will not sicken, age, or die. Such harmony includes the right foods and beverage, the right amounts of exercise and rest, the right meditation, and the right attitude toward family and friends and neighbors and those in authority. Rumors persist among some Chinese Daoists that a small number of experts have achieved that balance and have lived for centuries, not in the cities and towns, but hidden in the countryside. In an effort to stamp out religion, the Communist Party sought the legendary long-lived Daoists to kill them. Failing to find them, Party officials announced that they never existed, that Daoism is a sham. Because those Party officials were backed by soldiers with guns, people nodded and agreed with them. But when the soldiers and the Party officials left, the same people told each other that the experts evaded the government searchers because of their power drawn from harmony with the Dao.

In the western world, Confucianism and Daoism are both studied and described as Chinese religions. They could just as easily be called philosophies. Neither movement added new gods to the gods already worshiped in China; both movements encourage people to honor the same gods that were already being honored. In the Roman Empire and in its aftermath, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle were often borrowed by Christian teachers and adapted to the Christian faith. Some people suggest that, stripped of polytheism, Confucianism and Daoism can also be blended with Christian teachings. Four hundred years ago, Jesuit missionaries in China said that the laws of Confucius were as worthy to be followed as the laws of Moses, but that grace and forgiveness come only through Jesus Christ. Likewise, one might translate verses from the first chapter of John’s Gospel to read, “In the beginning was the Dao, and the Dao was with God, and the Dao was God… all things were made through him… and the Dao became flesh and made his dwelling among us….”

Next to come: the Axial Age in India. J.