Taoism and Confucianism


Confucianism and Taoism are seemingly opposite but also complementary ways of approaching life and solving its problems.  They are world-views which originated in China but that are both universal. Confucianism is named after the Chinese Sage Confucius (Kung Fu Tse) who incidentally was not a Confucianist, and developed a moral and ethical philosophy, six centuries before Christ. Taoism is the nature mysticism local to China and is far more aimed at individual development and enlightenment than social. Both are universal in that Confucianism is a way of doing things which comes naturally to civilized, organised, bureaucratised and conformist (official) societies world-wide, while Taoism is part of the perennial philosophy and is the personal ideology of the individual, the lover, the eccentric, the spiritual searcher after truth, the rebel and the seeker of simple solutions to life’s problems and union with Nature.

In this paper I will briefly outline a few problems of a simple kind  and present Confucianist and Taoist treatments of their solutions.

The first problem:  Opening a vacuum-held jar lid.

The Confucianist approach to getting a top off from a jar, held tight by a vacuum, is primarily to apply brute force externally to the lid and force it off. This is done with either the hands or a mechanical device, a lever. With small jars this is a practical technique but with larger and larger jars and lids, it becomes exceedingly difficult and tedious.

The Taoist technique is to release the vacuum. This addresses the essence, not the externals of the problem – because inside, the lid is held on by the power of vacuum in the top of the jar.  The vacuum is released by inserting a wedge – sort of object, it could be a spoon or other strong object, between the side edge of the lid and the jar top. Applying a small amount of pressure causes the two to separate allowing air into the top of the jar. The lid then unscrews with the minimum of effort.

Comparing the two techniques, it is clear that the Confucianist method uses a cumbersome, mechanical approach which does not address the essence of the problem. With large jars it would be completely inappropriate and impractical. On the other hand the Taoist method is quick, simple, costs nothing and is exactly the same whether you are dealing with a tiny jar or a large one. The Taoist technique is geared to the inner essence of the problem which the Confucianist method ignores, looking only at external superficial appearances in trying to deal with the problem.

The second problem:  Calculating the number of games played in a knock-out tournament.

This simple mathematical problem is given by Edward de Bono in his book on lateral thinking as an illustration not of Confucianism and Taoism but of his technique at lateral thinking. A teacher wants to keep a class busy for half-an-hour with a simple, mechanical but tedious sequence of calculations that lead to the desired answer.  However, one bright student, using ‘lateral thinking’ solves the problem in a matter of seconds. What is the problem?  Imagine a football or chess tournament which has 16 teams or players in it.  How many individual games need to be played before a winner emerges? The Confucianist technique is to calculate the number of games piecemeal. First there are 8 pairs of teams, then when the winners go through this becomes 4 pairs, then 2 pairs and finally one pair in the final. The total number of games then becomes (for a tournament comprising 16 teams), 8 + 4 + 2 + 1 = 15. So the answer is 15.

The lateral thinker or Taoist uses a different approach. Instead of concentrating on games won he or she looks at the opposite, that is games lost. With clear intuition he realises that in the tournament all teams or players will lose a game except the final winner. So the number of games lost is the same as the number of games won, except it is much easier to calculate.  If there are 16 teams in the tournament then 15 losses occur = 16 – 1. Both techniques arrive at the same answer but one is much more simple and quick than the other.  The Taoist technique takes seconds and it doesn’t matter whether there are 16 teams in the tournament or 256.  The method is essentially the same. If there were 256 teams in the tournament the number of games played (lost) would be 256 – 1 = 255. Using the Confucianist technique to calculate the numbers at each stage of the tournament piecemeal would take hours in this case.

So in this example, we see slightly different aspects of the difference between the two techniques. The Confucianist method is slow, laborious and we suspect, primarily designed, in this case, to keep a class busy and out of mischief for half an hour. The Taoist method goes straight to the heart of the problem and instead of being misled by society’s obsession with ‘winning’ it solves the riddle by looking at the key to the problem which is that the number of games lost is equal to the number of games played. All that can be said in favour of the Confucianist approach is that it is useful to society and in generating the result generates additional statistics and data about the different stages of the tournament and finally suggests a mathematical relationship between the sums at the powers of 2 (8 + 4 + 2 + 1 = 2^4 – 1).

The third problem: How to bring fresh water from a nearby river to a small Chinese town.

This example is given by Joseph Needham in his book Science and Civilization in China as illustrating the main differences between Confucianist and Taoist approaches to doing things. The problem is how to provide fresh water to a small town from a nearby river. The Confucianist approach would be to divert water from the river at a convenient point well below the town and then use much man-power, mechanical devices and expense to lift it up again to the level of the town and so distribute it. This will solve the problem while generating employment, circulating money, aiding the invention and perfection of mechanical devices and generally keeping everybody busy. The Taoist approach would be to divert the water at a convenient point above the level of the town and using the natural tendency of water to find its own level, that is to run downwards, create an aqueduct to lead the water to the village or town and so distribute it. This method uses nature’s properties to move the water rather than human effort, creates much less employment (a one-off aqueduct rather than constant lifting of water), circulates less money and does not need inventions or mechanical devices.

This example clearly reveals that Confucianism is a social philosophy, and its solutions to problems are designed to benefit society in creating wealth, employment and invention. The Taoist method is one which is based on the individual, addresses the essence of the problem rather than appearances, and is in tune with nature. Instead of expending effort in lifting water upwards after we have allowed it to run downwards, we just divert it at the right point to run by its own momentum (with gravity’s help) into the town


Clearly, there are simple, easy ways to solve problems and there are difficult, tedious ways. It seems very much the case that civilized society, with its obsession with externals, appearances and irrelevant details prefers the difficult way to do things. This is in keeping with its greatly over-yang nature. Over-Yang means giant, mechanical, crude, external, superficial and so on but most importantly, over-masculine. There is a clear link between the problems in our society and problems in our psyches concerning sexuality and gender. The solution must be to redress the balance and level-off with an equal emphasis on Yang and Yin values. Yin, after all, represents the small, the inner, the subtle, the essence and naturally, the feminine. If we are in harmony then society is in harmony.

It is my belief that every problem, whether it is Fermat’s Last Theorem, or CERN’s accelerator, or getting cheap energy through FUSION, has a simple solution as well as a difficult, complicated one. But our society’s obsession with doing things the Confucianist way, in order to create wealth and employment and inventions, means that people have forgotten, to a large extent, the ancient Taoist (and universal) approach that seeks simple, easy and cost-effective solutions to difficult problems. People just don’t believe that there are simple solutions to many of these problems. If the experts can’t solve them then they must be impossible, they think.  But maybe the experts are looking in the wrong place, and the wrong way, and from the wrong perspective.

I am not asking people to abandon completely the Confucianist approach, which is so engrained in all of us, particularly men, by our upbringing and education. All I ask is for the imbalance to be less completely one-sided and total.

Ideally we should use both techniques to solve difficult problems, both the Yin and the Yang, both the ‘left brain’ and the ‘right brain’, both Taoist and Confucianist.


John Grieve

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