Chinese Cultural Traditions

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AP Theme

Cultural Developments and Interactions

Learning Objective 1B

Explain the effects of Chinese cultural traditions on East Asia over time.

Historical Development 1

Confucianism was the dominant philosophical system in China.

Historical Development 2

Taoism and Buddhism were complementary philosophical systems to Confucianism. 

Historical Development 3

Buddhism developed diverse practices as it diffused from India into East Asia.

Contents

Confucianism: The Guiding Philosophy of China

Over millennia China has developed a rich tradition of cultural beliefs. Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, referred to as “the three teachings,” are the three philosophical systems that have had the most significant impact on China’s development. Confucianism and Taoism are native to China, while Buddhism arrived from India and diffused into China along Silk Road trade routes. As a result of having multiple cultural traditions, people in China often blend their traditions. One person might practice various beliefs and rituals from different belief systems.

What is Confucianism?

Compiled from Confucius’s teachings in the 5th century BCE, Confucianism seeks to explain the best way to structure social relationships to achieve social harmony.

  • Confucianism emphasizes mercy, social order, and the fulfillment of one’s social duties.
  • The family and community always come before the individual.
  • There is a strong emphasis on obedience to authority and conforming to social expectations. 

Historical trend: A system of philosophical and ethical teachings founded by Confucius and focused on the best way to create a harmonious society. Understanding Confucianism is key to understanding China throughout its history.

Confucianism emphasizes five cardinal (most important) social relationships:

The Importance of Filial Piety

One’s Confucian duty is to remain “filial,” meaning of the child, to those in superior social positions. To be “filial,” one should respect those above them in the social order, especially their parents, and not try to step out and above their social position. 

The Confucian Social Hierarchy

Confucian beliefs influenced the traditional Chinese social system. Notice that wealth was not the most important factor in a group’s status. While merchants often had enormous wealth, they had a lower position than agricultural peasants. This lack of merchants’ status resulted from the Confucian belief that viewed merchants and commerce as unproductive and peasant agrarian production was beneficial for society.

Confucian Patriarchy

Male-dominated patriarchal systems have remained a continuity throughout Chinese and global histories. With the rise of Neo-Confucianism during the Song dynasty, patriarchy intensified in China. While women’s experience was different based on class, in general, men expected women to remain subservient. A set of moral principles, “the Three Obedience” and “the Four Virtues,” outlined proper behavior for women in China. A woman was first to be obedient to her father, her husband, and her adult sons in widowhood. Men defined feminine virtue as being a good mother and wife.

Historical trend: A social system in which men hold all or nearly all of the power and women are excluded from it.

Foot binding

Foot-binding was a powerful example of intensifying female restrictions in Song China. The foot-binding process involved tightly wrapping young girls’ feet, often breaking their bones. The goal was to form women’s feet to be small and dainty. Foot-binding was associated with Confucian images of female beauty by keeping women humble, meek, and unable to move outside the home. Foot-binding began first within the upper classes before it became increasingly widespread amongst less elite social groups.

Foot-binding was a powerful example of intensifying female restrictions in Song China. The foot-binding process involved tightly wrapping young girls’ feet, often breaking their bones. The goal was to form women’s feet to be small and dainty. Foot-binding was associated with Confucian images of female beauty by keeping women humble, meek, and unable to move outside the home. Foot-binding began first within the upper classes before it became increasingly widespread amongst less elite social groups.

Taoism in China: The Second Great Teaching

Like Confucianism, Taoism is native to China. Taoism, also commonly referenced as Daoism, emphasizes individuals finding balance in their lives by escaping society and social duties and living in harmony with the natural world. Taoists believe that each individual must discover the Tao (the way) on their terms and that social norms and expectations cannot define an individual’s Tao. This belief contrasts with the Confucian idea that social rules and expectations and individuals’ adherence to them are essential features of a harmonious society. Accepting oneself and not obsessing about life’s contradictions are essential Taoist practices. Like Confucianism, Taoism started more as a philosophy than a religion. Though, over the years, some branches of Taoism have taken on religious elements.

Buddhism in China: The Third Great Teaching

Buddhism was founded in India from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama in the late 6th century BCE. Buddhist philosophy traveled along trade routes and over hundreds of years spread across East and Southeast Asia. Buddhism emphasized the importance of ending suffering and breaking the cycle of reincarnation by achieving enlightenment. To help achieve those goals, Buddha outlined the middle path: finding balance in life by eliminating wants and desires to prevent excessive suffering.

Historical trend: Buddhism started in India and diffused to East Asia and Southeast Asia. Buddhism is a major historical commonality that connects the southern, eastern, and southeastern regions of Asia.

Changing Forms of Buddhism

As Buddhism diffused from its origin in India, it took on new beliefs and practices.

Chinese Buddhism

Chinese Buddhists mostly follow Mahayana Buddhism. Chinese Buddhism is closely interrelated with Taoism in China and looks very different from the original Indian Theravada Buddhism. For one, Chinese Buddhists view Buddha not only as a teacher but as a semi-divine being whom one can pray to for help on earth and salvation after death. Chinese imagery also depicts Buddha differently than Theravada Buddhist imagery. In Theravada imagery Buddha is often shown as a gaunt man who is often little more than skin and bones. Chinese depictions of Buddha show a much healthier man whose body is thicker. The most well-known Chinese Buddha is the laughing Buddha, who is portly, relaxed, and smiling. Chinese Buddhist imagery also commonly places images of Buddha next to depictions of Taoist spiritual elements.

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