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The Fisherman said: Life of Qu Yuan among Confucianism and Daoism

Akihiro Eguchi


            Daoism and Confucianism are the two biggest philosophies that originated in ancient China. The sources of both ideas are found in the spring and autumn period and the warring states period around third century BC in China. Confucianism was developed by Confucius and formalized by his followers like Mencius and Xun Zi focusing on the importance of Ren and Li. On the other hand, Daoism was developed by Laozi and his follower Zhuangzi by focusing on returning to nature.  Although both discussed the way, Dao, they interpret Dao in different ways.  Confucianism sees Dao as the way” of rules people should follow; on the other hand, Daoism sees Dao as the ultimate path provided by nature with where people should be converged. That is true that many scholars in China had put a heavy value on the rules of Confucianism and depended on the philosophy. However, at the same time, perhaps more importantly, the philosophy of Daoism was widely spread to many other people in local communities and that developed a huge part of the characteristics of Chinese people’s identities. It is interesting to see the interaction between those two ideas through writings from this age. This paper will start with introducing the history of two philosophies and discusses the differences and similarities between those by tracing the poem of Qu Yuan in Lí sāo with the perspectives of two different fishermen who can be found in texts in this age.

            The most important figure for the establishment of Confucianism is Confucius. He was the origin of the philosophy of Confucianism and was a philosopher and educator in the spring and autumn period in China. The character represents teacher, and actually his work was formalized by his students as Analects after he died. According to Analects, his policy for education was asa transmitter and not a maker, believing in and loving the ancients” (Legge, 1970). Therefore, he spent a lot of his effort in collecting and publishing about classical studies, and thus most of his own work can be found only in texts written by his followers. He worked for a government, but he was expelled from his country because of a political change.  However, as he said “at fifty, I knew the decrees of heaven (Legge, 1970), he seemed to find his role on the way traveling from country to country with his followers to teach people. His central philosophy is what he called Ren, which describes a love reside inside of people’s heart. He defined several different Ren towards parents, elderly, and master, and talked of the importance to expand the Ren from people around to the country. He found the way the Ren will be spread out in politeness, Li. In the corrupt society, he saw the Ren as the base of Li and believed that education of Ren will help to recover the social order with Li.  Therefore, Dao in Confucianism is the rule that people have to follow and the way of ethics.

According to Kan (2005), it can be seen that Ren is the internal reflection of the Dao and Li is the external reflection of the Dao. He points out that Confucius’ follower Mencius established fundamentally good by titling the philosophy toward Ren, and Xun Zi established fundamentally bad by titling the philosophy toward Li. Based on his philosophy with Ren and Li, Confucius also believed that if the leader does the right thing, nobody in the country will do a bad thing. He tried to avoid talking about ambiguous things like heavenly things; however, ironically, governing people just by believing in their virtues was nothing different from believing in heavenly power, so many people pointed out that his philosophy was too ideal. Therefore, many other ordinary people depend more on Daoism which is more directly connected to people’s desire and everyday life.

            Compared to all the other philosophies of that period, like Confucianism, Legalism, and Mohism, the philosophy of Daoism took a totally different perspective. People who followed Daoism try to distance themselves from the real world in order to be more integrated with nature. Laozi discussed Dao as being completely different from what Confucianism discussed, but the way he described Dao was where everything is created and everything is returned to at the end of people's life. They say that people are based on the earth, the earth is based on the heaven, the heaven is based on the Dao, and the Dao is based on the nature. In other words, they suggest that people to come back to the life with nature, and abandon complex systems of societal life that they have developed.  According to Kan (2005), they still acknowledge the value of virtue; however, they pointed out that it should not be that people govern others with virtue, but it should be that virtue should lead people to govern. By saying "When the Great Dao (Way or Method) ceased to be observed, benevolence and righteousness came into vogue" (Legge, 1891), they tried to criticize the way Ren is treated in Confucianism instead of the Ren itself. They thought the more people proclaim the importance of virtue, the more people lose the original goal of the Dao. Therefore, the Dao he thought to be important was flexibility, as described as " The highest excellence is like (that of) water" (Legge, 1891), as water flows freely and fits into any shape of containers.

Zhuangzi is another influential Daoist philosopher who sought for rest for a person’s soul by releasing it from any anguish. He pointed out that it is worthless to measure the value of everything and to react nervously to those changes.  Compared to those types of people who worry too much about their lives and social values, he suggested the way to take everything that happens to them as their destiny and live freely with nature.  In spite of Confucianist philosophy, which thinks education will make it possible for people to live their life in a humane manner, Daoism believed that the education deprives people of their innate characteristics and their humanities.

            These philosophical ideas had significant impacts on the Chinese literature works in this time period. One interesting example can be found in the poem made by Qu Yuan in the warring states period. Qu Yuan was well-educated and showed great ability in politics in his country Chu. Thus, he obtained great trust from the king, but an envious colleague spread a bad rumor about him, and he was expelled after all. The king misled the country and died because he did not care about the opinion given by Qu Yuan. Additionally, because of failure after failure, the country became terribly decadent and all citizens became exhausted. Lí sāo was the poem that was about Qu Yuan’s feeling of patriotism and the anger towards corrupt people and society. The entire poem describes his anguished cry about the hopeless future of his country, and he describes his disappointment over the world by the depiction of his travel through the real world in the first half of the poem and the imaginary world in the last half.

            In the first half, by projecting himself as the main character in the poem, he describes his background (Minford, 2000).  He wrote that he was born in a noble family and was deeply educated, so he was appointed to work under the king. However, because of the rumor made up by an envious colleague, he lost his role and started spending his time worrying about his country.  He recalls good old days in history with great fullness of virtues in politics with Confucianism. However, at the same time, he understands it never going to happen again so he decides to travel to and imaginary world to meet with ancient people.

            By crossing over many mountains, rivers, he eventually arrived at the country in the myth; however, he still cannot get a satisfying answer for his life.  Kan (2005) writes that the description of himself, which is not understood by others in the real world, implies the deepness of Qu Yuan’s anguish as he still cannot find his place even in the heaven. He finally decided to depend on divinations, and these tell he should leave his country. He understood there is no place he can live with satisfaction anywhere on earth nor even in heaven; the only place he can go is the other side of the world where all the ancient great people are living. This poem describes the strong feeling of conflict of Qu Yuan who was put in between the two different philosophies. While his basic ideal state of society and people is greatly influenced by Confucianism because of his very conservative way of life, his desire to travel to an imaginary world may be unconsciously influenced by Daoism. As Chen (1980) points out, this story is definitely a tragedy, and he was the tragic hero who was swayed by cunning people and a system that hires skilled people to govern the country with a strict moral system, but in fact, does totally opposite things.

            Another poem, Yu Fu, which was published together with Lí sāo in Chu Ci describes this philosophical conflict of Qu Yuan very well. In this poem, a fisherman asks him the reason why he came that far. Then, Qu Yuan answers that it was because while everyone was dirty and cunning, I was clean, and while everyone was drunk, I was sober. Then, the fisherman tells him to join them by being cunning to succeed and by drinking together. He also added that if the water is clean, I would clean my tassel, but if the water is dirty, I would clean my toes. His reply directly represents the idea of Daoism by adjusting themselves to the nature as similar context can be found even in his text of Lí sāo as his sister’s suggestion not to be stubborn. Therefore, he successfully drew the contrast between the idea of Confucianism and Daoism in his poem. However, what he thinks Confucianism is might be a little different from what Confucius thought. One important aspect in Confucius' teaching was the balance between Li and music. For instance, when Confucius says that “It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused. It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established. It is from Music that the finish is received” (Legge, 1970), he emphasized moderation in Confucianism.  On the other hand, Qu Yuan’s life seems only to be in a state with Li, but he was in great lack of a joyful moment. Confucianism does not keep him away from drinking with other people, but he was being too strict on himself. His life would have been a lot different if he knew how to enjoy his life, as ideal as what he wanted to be.

            Interestingly, Zhuangzi also wrote a story about a fisherman from a Daoism perspective about a fisherman talking with Confucius. The fisherman says that "the beauty of the service rendered (to a ruler) does not require that it always be performed in one way. […] Therefore the sages take their law from Heaven, and prize their (proper) Truth, without submitting to the restrictions of custom" (Legge, 1891). This teaching is given to Confucius, but at the same time, this can be a lesson from Daoist perspectives to Qu Yuan as well. It is completely a good thing to keep good old fashion with a morally and honest way; however, what the fisherman points out was that in order to succeed in something, they have to be aware that an absolute power does not exist, and that can keep people from doing things a different way. Depending on the situational changes, it is important for people to adjust their behavior rather than just following a rule or morals at all the time.

            Under the name of Confucianism, government tells people to hire skilled people and people with virtue in order to deal with other people's life fairly. However, in the warring states period, people may have been too busy dealing with a lot of other things rather than being polite and being partial to other people. The reason why Confucius did not succeed very well in politics was that all what he says was too ideal to apply to real world situations. Therefore, a person like Qu Yuan sticks to what he believes in this field could not realize it. However, it is also true that most people tend to remember people like him because of his moral behaviors. Even in the 21C, the day Qu Yuan died remains an important day for Chinese people, and his name will be passed from generation to generation. 


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  • Kan, S. (2005). Read about 50 figures. Philosophy in China. Tokyo: PHP Institute.
  • Legge, J. (1970). The Chinese classics: With a translation, critical and exegetical notes, prolegomena, and copious indexes. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
  • Legge, J. (1891). The Sacred books of China: The text of Taoism. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Minford, J., & Lau, J. S. M. (2000). Classical Chinese literature. New York: Columbia University Press.