Clash of Imperial Confucianism and Religious Daoism

The Chinese dynastic cycle started in ancient times and lasted into the early twentieth century. In this cycle a family of kings known as a dynasty would rule early China with great vigor, developing solid political institutions and encouraging an active economy. As tax revenues declined, social divisions increased and growing populations tended to outstrip available resources, the ruling dynasty grew weaker, and another dynasty would take power. Internal rebellions also occurred during a dynasty’s collapse, and the Han dynasty (221 BCE-200 CE) was no exception. The social, political and religious structures of the Han dynasty’s Imperial Confucianism system conflicted with the principles of religious Daoism, and these factors motivated rebels led by individuals such as Zhang Jue to overthrow the Han’s Confucianism to establish a system that did not conflict with Daoist beliefs.

To understand why religious Daoists would rebel against the Han dynasty, it is first important to put the Confucian and Daoist schools of Chinese thought into context with history. The most important and influential philosophy to spring from ancient China was Confucianism. Founded by the scholar Confucius (551-479 BCE), Confucianism was a highly ritualized philosophy that promoted ethics such as virtue, filial piety, righteousness and benevolence towards others. Scholars such as Mencius and Xunzi would later expand the philosophy’s scope and debate issues such as human nature, but despite these minute differences between the scholars’ interpretations, the principles of Confucianism remained the same for many centuries. Daoism was another ancient Chinese philosophy and differed greatly from Confucianism. Heavily shaped and influenced by Zhuangzi’s self-titled work, Zhuangzi, and by Laozi’s Daodejing, Daoism was more mystical than Confucianism and did not focus on elements essential to Confucianism such as ritual, filial piety and virtue. As the name suggests, the philosophy concentrated on the Dao, or the Way. By focusing on the natural flow of the cosmos, followers believed that nature flowed through the Dao, and humans with their conscious wills chose to go against the Dao. Therefore, the ultimate goal of Daoism is to become one with the cosmos, nature and all other things.

While Confucianism and Daoism were two distinctive ancient Chinese philosophies, Emperor Han Wudi (140 BCE–87 BCE) made a state-sponsored form of Confucianism the central principle to the Han dynasty’s society, politics and religion. This form of the state philosophy was known as Imperial Confucianism, and it combined the Legalist philosophy of rewards and punishments administered by rulers with the Confucian ideal of educated bureaucrats. This incorporation of a philosophy into a dynasty had a great impact on the state. For example, Imperial Confucianism affected the Han dynasty’s social structure. Before the Han dynasty was in place, the Chinese relied on a non-European feudal system to define their social hierarchy. Those who had wealth were near the top, and commoners and scholars were near the bottom. However, the opposite was true in the Han’s social hierarchy since Imperial Confucianism had been incorporated into the state. Confucian scholars were considered just below the emperor while the commerce classes such as merchants were frowned upon since their lifestyles conflicted with state values and were considered to be selfish and non-virtuous. Therefore, if an individual wanted to climb up the dynasty’s social hierarchy, they had to be a good Confucian and follow its teachings.

As Imperial Confucianism was the foundation the Han dynasty’s social structure, it also supported the Han’s political structure since the philosophy was inextricably tied to the dynasty’s government. Confucius believed China should be united under one benevolent, moral emperor who truly deserved and exercised the Mandate of Heaven, the right to rule from Tian. The emperor would also promote moral men into official positions. These men would not usurp the authority of their superiors, and by their wise rule and moral examples, they would inspire their subordinates into reforming themselves. Therefore, anyone who wished to have a career as a government official, a highly coveted position in society, memorized the Confucian classics in the hopes of doing well on government placement examinations. Because a harmonious relationship and hierarchy could be established between a moral emperor, moral magistrates and a moral people, Imperial Confucianism promoted extreme loyalty to the emperor and supported the dynasty’s political structure.

Though the Han dynasty used Imperial Confucianism to maintain their social and political structures, the state-sponsored philosophy was also used to support the Han dynasty’s religious practices. A scholar named Dong Zhongshu created a brand of Confucianism that was cosmological in nature and was more mystical and religious than Confucius had originally intended. The elaborate cosmological and numerological system showed the relationship between heaven, earth and man, and it explained the complex processes of nature. The Han adopted this notion into their Imperial Confucian system, and a connection was seen between natural events and the rule of the emperor. For this reason the role of Imperial Confucianism was extremely important. It could either justify or dismiss the emperor’s claim to the Mandate of Heaven. Thereafter, the mystical form of Han Imperial Confucianism was religious in its practice, and the religious structure of the Han dynasty also validated the emperor’s rule over the dynasty’s society and government.

While the Han incorporated Imperial Confucianism into their dynasty to support their social, political and religious structures, Daoist philosophy had undergone a major transformation. By 100 CE the mystical philosophy of Daoism had become a full-fledged religion. For example, “Daoists began to believe that Laozi was a deity who could appear to his followers as a prophet and who could bring them salvation.” This offered an alternative to the Han-sponsored religious structure in Imperial Confucianism, and Emperor Huan attempted to assimilate the rising Daoist church into the state to minimize ideological conflicts and control Daoism. For example, he founded a Laozi temple sometime between 146 CE and 149 CE under the regent Liang Ji. However, assimilating religious Daoism into the Imperial Confucian structure failed because it was its own distinctive philosophy that had its own structures and practices differing from the Han system, and since religious Daoism could not be assimilated into the Han system, it would have to be a separate philosophy not formally connected to the state. As a result, one can conclude that Imperial Confucianism was a system that ruled alone in the Han dynasty; there was no room for two philosophies.

Religious Daoism became a renegade belief since it could not be assimilated into the dynasty, and it would conflict with the Imperial Confucian system essential to the Han’s existence and practices for several reasons. First, religious Daoism had an anti-social attitude towards Han society. Daoism appealed to those who had withdrawn from the politics and intrigue of society, including those failed officials and those disillusioned by the state. As a result, these people did not consider the virtues of Confucianism to be society’s foundation, and they did not believe Confucian scholars or the emperor to be at the top of the social hierarchy. With their anger and contempt united under one religion, Daoists opposed the social principles of Confucianism, and religious Daoism opposed the structure of Han society. Religious Daoism also was an alternative to Confucian teachings that were practiced in the Han society. For example, Daoists engaged in “breathing exercises, sexual techniques, and medical potions – all to enhance that individual’s ability to attain immortality….” By rejecting the virtues associated with Imperial Confucianism, the social authority and hierarchy of the Han lost its foundation. Therefore, religious Daoism opposed Han society’s structure.

While religious Daoism conflicted with the Han’s social structure based on Imperial Confucianism, it also opposed the dynasty’s political structure. It did not believe in the political hierarchy that one moral emperor with the Mandate of Heaven should rule, nor did it believe in the promotion of moral men into official positions. Instead, Daoism was not interested in politics because it got in the way of the Dao. As a result, these ideas went against the foundations of Confucian politics, and, therefore, religious Daoism opposed the political structure of Imperial Confucianism and the Han.

As religious Daoism conflicted with the Han’s social structure, it also opposed the dynasty’s Imperial Confucian religious structure. As stated earlier, the followers of Daoism did not believe Tian to be their god. Instead, they considered Laozi to be their god, and as Hansen notes, “peasant leaders claimed to have seen Laozi, who foretold the binning of a new utopian era.” By believing in Laozi over Tian and in the new world to come, this opposed the Confucian notions that Tian was god and that he had granted the Han emperor the authority to rule over the dynasty. As a result, this makes religious Daoism oppose the essential principles of the Han’s religion and further opposes the Han’s political structure.

Because religious Daoism had not been assimilated into the Han system yet conflicted the social, political and religious structures of Imperial Confucianism, Daoism was a force opposing the principles of the Han. However, these social, political and religious conflicts between Imperial Confucianism and religious Daoism would become much more than simple ideological differences.

Zhang Jue, a devout religious Daoist, led the rebellion of the “Way of Great Peace” in 184 CE against the Han dynasty. He and his followers formed a nationwide faction against the Han, burned down villages and made the government quiver with fear. These Daoists opposed the Han dynasty for the same reasons why the Imperial Confucian social, political and religious structures conflicted with religious Daoism. First, one could use the argument that they opposed the Imperial Confucian society because they were filled with people who held anti-social attitudes towards Han society. As previously stated, Daoism appealed to those who had withdrawn from the politics and intrigue of society, including those failed officials and those disillusioned by the state. According to the book History of the Later Account, the eight disciples of Zhang Jue spent ten years converting people to Daoism, and they apparently had “several hundred thousand followers scattered through the commanderies and kingdoms.” It is likely that some of these converts had been disenchanted and disgusted with the Han’s structures and wanted to act upon their anti-social sentiments by rebelling against society. However, Zhang Jue and his followers also rebelled against the Imperial Confucian society because the social hierarchy did not agree with their beliefs. The rebels did not believe in Confucian values; they believed the Dao. Since the Han people willfully went against the Dao by practicing Confucianism to climb up the Han’s social hierarchy, the rebels disagreed with this action. Therefore, one could claim that Zhang Jue and his followers were opposed to the Han’s social hierarchy.

While Zhang Jue and his followers were opposed to the Han society because they had anti-social attitudes and disagreed with its social practices and hierarchy, religious Daoists also opposed the Han’s political and religious structures. First, they did not believe in the Confucian leaders. They did not believe in the Confucian’s Mandate of Heaven, and there was no connection between natural events and the rule of the emperor. Therefore, they did not have the means necessary to either justify or dismiss the emperor’s claim to the Mandate of Heaven because they did not believe in it. However, they did dismiss the emperor’s right to rule since “’Green Heaven [was] already dead [and that] Yellow Heaven must be established.” Therefore, Zhang Jue and his followers were opposed to the Han dynasty’s political and religious structures. The king had no right to rule because there was no Mandate of Heaven to claim, and the Imperial Confucian religion had to be replaced by Yellow Heaven.

While Zhang Jue and his followers opposed the Han dynasty’s social, political and religious structures, what specific event motivated the religious Daoists to rebel? Chinese Confucians would have rebelled against authority when they thought the emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven. However, the Daoists did not believe in the Confucian’s Mandate of Heaven. Therefore, one can conclude that the Daoists were motivated to rebel against the Han because the social, political and religious structures of Imperial Confucianism conflicted so much with their ideas of structure that they wanted to tear down the Han system and replace it with structures that complimented their own beliefs. There were probably other factors such as growing populations outstripping available resources that helped facilitate rebellion, but one must remember that the Han system only had enough room for one philosophy to be the foundation for the dynasty. Tearing down the Imperial Confucian system was the only way to bring about change, and the Daoists who strongly disagreed with the Han did want change. Therefore, these uprisings could not have been prevented as the Han dynasty could not assimilate the religious Daoists into the Imperial Confucian system.

Religious Daoists would never successfully overthrow the old system and establish their own structures supporting their beliefs. The Han successfully put down their rebellions, and the dynasty would eventually collapse due to “a massive shortfall of funds at the end of the second century, when the entire agrarian population became impoverished.” However, it is difficult to deny that the social, political and religious structures of the Han dynasty’s Imperial Confucianism system conflicted with the principles of religious Daoism. They were just too fundamentally different, and they played a crucial role in the attempts to overthrow the Han’s Imperial Confucianism system.