The Role of Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism in the Period of Warring States in China


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When a country is in disaster and chaos, who will be the one to bring order back to the country?

In China, there was a period called the Warring States, where China was a divided nation. This occurred after Zhou rule and power began to decrease and weaken, and the Zhou capital, Hao, was attacked by invaders. The attack rendered the Zhou family powerless, which caused the noble families to fight for power in the city states since they saw an opportunity to seize control over a vast amount of land. The way the three schools of thought, Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism, attempted to solve and respond to this problem would determine the future of China. During the Warring States period, the 100 schools had to come up for a solution to bring China back to order. Since the Warring States period began, city states had become territorial states, meaning the states were trying to take over their neighbors and capture more land to make the state larger. In addition, one reason the noble way of life vanished was because weapons became more effective and easier to use, due to the transition from Bronze to Iron Age in the Zhou dynasty. This allowed people in lower classes to win battles against people of higher class who had previous experience in fighting. The Chinese culture began to decrease and people forgot what important values of China were in the fight for power. In any country,“When tradition loses its strength to hold society together, human life faces the gravest crisis it has encountered.”

The main problem that Confucius and the rest of the schools of thought faced was social anarchy. This was a time where people with higher status were abusing their power and “instead of holding prisoners for ransom, conquerors had them put to death in mass executions… mass slaughters of 60,000, 80,000, and even 400,000.” The nation was ruthlessly killing each other for land and power, and the 100 Schools had to try and resolve these problems. Confucianism was based off of the idea that all humans were born neither good or bad, but that “education could transform a humbly born person into a gentleman.” He thought that having integrity and being ethical would solve the chaos. In addition, Confucius assumed that China could be united again if the nation respected those in a higher position or those older than them. He preached the Five Confucian Relationships, which are “ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother.”

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Confucius believed that the mutual respect between the two people in the five relationships would be able to establish respect and peace in China. Most of Confucius’ teachings were based on the idea of filial piety, which is the idea of respecting your elders and ancestors during and after their life. The way Confucius thought he could fix and resolve this problem was by preaching humaneness and attempting to make the people of China morally better people. However, with no strict punishments for not following his rules, people were not afraid of him, therefore, they had more freedom to rebel or not listen to what he recommended in order to unite China again. Similar to Confucianism, Laozi taught Daoism, and the main concept of Daoism was that “the only human actions that ultimately make sense are those which are in accord with the flow of Nature – the Tao.”

Daoists attempted to solve the problem by proclaiming that violence and the idea of violence itself defied the Way of Nature, implying it was not allowed in Daoism. Instead of forcing people to have integrity and unite the country by advocating characteristics like honesty or respect, Daoists thought that not interfering with events or the way things happen, would resolve the problem of the disorderly state. The problem with all the nobles fighting for power and control over all the city states was that they were greedy and tried to force violence and control over others, causing anarchy and death. Instead, Lao Tzu, another significant person in shaping Daoism, said they should, “Stop trying to control. / Let go of fixed plans and concepts, / and the world will govern itself.”

However, letting things happen as they do will not solve anything, because when a country is in complete chaos, someone needs to assert power over everyone else in order to bring them back to unity. Unfortunately, the Way of the Dao was too lenient on the way people behaved, and did not end the Warring States. However, Legalism, on the other hand, was based around concepts completely different than those of both Daoism and Confucianism. Instead of allowing life to flow naturally or to enforce integrity as second nature, Legalists believe asserting control and power would be effective. They believed that “suffering a small pain is the way to obtain a great benefit.”

In addition, Legalists knew people believed the way they ruled was harsh and severe, but the idea was that by establishing severe punishments for doing something wrong, this would be the best way to create order and peace in this time of social anarchy.

In the end, Legalism was the school of thought that united China again, partly because the way that Legalists treated people initiated fear in them that if they did not follow orders, they would be brutally punished , causing them to obey and leaving no room for people to resist or behave against the laws. In conclusion, during the Warring States, social anarchy and mass death plagued the nation. Without the Warring States, there would have been no necessity for any of the three schools to have been established, and without the three schools, China may never have been united again.

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