The Influence of Daoism, Buddhism, and Legalism on Chinese Culture

While Confucianism constitutes the bedrock of Chinese culture, Daoism, Buddhism, and Legalism also contributed to its development.

The overriding authority of the state and strict enforcement of the law are two of the fundamental elements of Legalism. Although the Qin Dynasty (221- 206 BC), which practiced Legalism, was short lived, the effects of Legalism lived on throughout China’s political history. Evidence abounds: from a centralized political governing structure, to the absolute authority of the Emperor; from the overriding interests of the state, to the subdued rights of its individual subjects.

Unlike Confucianism, Daoism looked to nature rather than human beings as the source of morality. According to Laozi, human society has to conform to the Dao (The Way), or the essential unifying element of all that is. Some interpret Dao as Nature. Others interpret Dao as Nature’s countervailing elements—ying and yang, moon and sun, women and men, darkness and light, etc.— at work; complementing yet continuously changing, and interacting with each other at the same time. Despite the appearance of differences, all is one.

A Daoist’s goal in life is to seek The Way. By shunning earthly distractions, one is able to concentrate on seeking The Way. Laozi called for minimum human action, preferring to “leave things to Nature.” In direct contrast with Confucists who followed societal rules and hierarchy in active pursuit of self-cultivation, Daoists followed simplicity, spontaneity, and inaction aligned with nature.

Daoism’s impact on Chinese culture is pervasive in history, arts, literature, science, philosophy, folklores, politics, religion, and medicine. Its importance is second only to Confucianism. Within the intelligentsia class, throughout the past two thousand years, Daoist values and practices—such as retreating into the lifestyle of a hermit—have often been an “escape route” for Confucian officials/scholars who, for whatever reason, were no longer in a position of political influence. This co-existence of contrasting Confucian and Daoist values in the lifetime of a Confucian scholar is a good example of the fusion of two very different philosophies, and point to the sometimes perplexing nature of “duality” in Chinese culture.

Daoism began to morph into a religion around 200 AD, with texts and rituals heavily influenced by Buddhist practices. As a religion, in pursuit of eternal life, Daoists in subsequent millennia contributed to Chinese medicine, science (the invention of gun powder), and martial arts (Taiji, Wudang). As a philosophy, many Chinese paintings reflect Daoist values through the prominent display of mountains, streams, and other natural elements next to small and relatively insignificant human figures.

Buddhism was founded by Gautama Buddha around the 6th or 5th century BC In India. Buddha preached that the source of all human pains and sufferings is human desire.  The way to attain Nirvana, or eternal enlightenment, is through self-meditation and the Eightfold Path, which is similar to the Ten Commandments. Of the many different branches of Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism practiced in China contains more esoteric elements such as repeated chanting in prayers; faith in re-incarnation, heaven and hell; and worshipping multiple deities who answer to the calls of the faithful.

Buddhism was introduced to China during the 2nd century BC through the Silk Road by merchants from Yuezhi of Caucasian decent who lived in today’s Xinjiang. By the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD)—culturally the most tolerant, embracing, and richest of all Chinese dynasties—both Buddhism and Daoism had been firmly established in China and, together with Confucianism, formed the underpinnings of Chinese culture.