The Wisdom of Lao Tzu and Kong Fu Zi: Lessons in Governance and Leadership
Updated: Mar 1
Governance, the art of effective leadership and creating a just society, has been a subject of discussion and debate throughout human history. From the early philosophers of ancient China to modern-day political theorists, countless minds have sought to understand what makes for effective governance. In this article, we explore the ideas of two of the most renowned Chinese philosophers, Kong Fu Zi (Confucius) and Lao Tzu, and their differing views on governance. Their teachings offer insights into the complexities of leadership and the challenges of governing a people. These ideas and principles have influenced countless generations of leaders, and their wisdom is still relevant today.
Chinese philosophy has a rich history, spanning thousands of years and encompassing a diverse range of schools of thought. Two of the most influential and enduring philosophies to emerge from ancient China are Confucianism and Taoism, which have had a profound impact on Chinese culture and society, as well as on philosophy and religion worldwide.
Confucianism, founded by Kong Fu Zi (Confucius), emphasizes the importance of moral and ethical principles, social and political harmony, and the cultivation of personal and social virtue. It emphasizes the role of the ruler in creating an ordered and just society, and the importance of the “rites” or rituals in promoting social harmony.
Taoism, founded by Lao Tzu, emphasizes individual harmony with nature and the universe through simplicity, detachment, and non-action. It emphasizes the importance of living in accordance with the Tao or the Way, a principle that is difficult to define but that can be experienced through meditation and contemplation. Taoism also stresses the importance of balance and the interdependence of opposites.
While Confucianism and Taoism have different approaches and emphases, they both share a concern for the well-being of individuals and society, and a belief in the importance of personal and social responsibility. Despite their differences, these two philosophies have coexisted and influenced each other throughout Chinese history, and continue to shape Chinese culture and thought today.
Confucianism and Taoism have not only influenced each other but have also evolved and adapted to the changing cultural and political contexts of China. For example, during the Tang dynasty, the philosopher Han Yu criticized Buddhism and advocated for a revival of Confucianism, leading to a shift away from Buddhist influences in Chinese culture. Similarly, during the Song dynasty, the Neo-Confucian movement emerged, which blended Confucianism with Taoist and Buddhist ideas, emphasizing the importance of self-cultivation and moral education.
However, the influence of Confucianism and Taoism extends far beyond China’s borders. Confucianism, with its emphasis on social harmony and respect for authority, has been an important influence on East Asian societies such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Its principles have been applied in areas such as education, government, and business, and continue to shape the values and norms of these societies. Taoism, with its emphasis on individualism and naturalism, has also had an impact on Western philosophy and spirituality, inspiring thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
In this article, we will explore how the ideas of Confucius and Lao Tzu have influenced governance and leadership throughout history, both in China and beyond. We will examine their differing views on governance and the challenges of leadership, as well as the ways in which their philosophies have been applied in different contexts. Additionally, we will delve deeper into the differences between Confucianism and Taoism and how these differences have led to different approaches to governance and leadership. By gaining a better understanding of these two important philosophical traditions, we can gain insights into the complexities of leadership and governance, and how these ideas continue to shape our world today.
Challenging Ideas Against Confucianism
During the late Han period (25–220 CE), Confucianism had become the dominant ideology of the ruling class in China. However, as the Han dynasty began to decline, there were growing criticisms of Confucianism as being insufficient to deal with the social and political problems facing China at the time.
Cao Cao was a prominent military general and warlord during the late Eastern Han dynasty in China, who later became the King of Wei during the Three Kingdoms period. Cao Cao is known for his contributions to the political and military landscape of China during his time, but he is also notorious for his ruthless tactics and the suppression of intellectuals and scholars.
One of the reasons why Cao Cao was against Confucianism, and by extension Confucius, was because he saw it as a threat to his power. Confucianism emphasized the importance of moral values, ethics, and the cultivation of the individual self, which did not always align with Cao Cao’s ambitions and actions as a military leader. Confucianism also placed great emphasis on loyalty to the emperor, which posed a potential challenge to Cao Cao’s authority as a regional warlord.
While Cao Cao was wary of Confucianism’s emphasis on loyalty to the emperor, he recognized the importance of loyalty in his own military and political ventures. One famous example of Cao Cao’s admiration for loyalty is his encounter with the general Guan Yu, who was serving under the warlord Liu Bei at the time. According to historical accounts, Guan Yu had previously served under Cao Cao but had defected to Liu Bei’s side. When Guan Yu was captured by Cao Cao’s forces in battle, Cao Cao was impressed by his loyalty to Liu Bei and treated him with respect and honor. Cao Cao is said to have praised Guan Yu for his loyalty and even offered him a high-ranking position in his own army, but Guan Yu ultimately declined, stating that he could not betray his oath of loyalty to Liu Bei.
Huang-Lao was a philosophical school that had a significant influence on Cao Cao’s political and governing philosophy. Huang-Lao was a syncretic philosophy that merged the ideas of the Huangdi (Yellow Emperor) and Lao Tau, the founder of Taoism. Huang-Lao emphasized the importance of “wuwei” or non-action, and the idea that the ruler should rule by embodying the Tao, or the way of nature.
Cao Cao was known for his interest in Huang-Lao philosophy, and he was believed to have adopted some of its ideas in his governance. Huang-Lao’s emphasis on the importance of the ruler’s virtue, as well as the need for a just and moral government, may have resonated with Cao Cao’s own beliefs about the role of the ruler. However, it is worth noting that Cao Cao was not exclusively influenced by Huang-Lao, and he also drew from other philosophical traditions, such as Legalism and Confucianism, to shape his political and governing philosophy.
The historian, Chen Shou, who wrote the Records of the Three Kingdoms, also noted that Cao Cao was interested in the Huang-Lao school of thought, and that he “often discussed the Taoist classics with his advisors and subordinates.” The book “The Taoist Tradition in Chinese History” by John Lagerwey and Lü Pengzhi also mentions Cao Cao’s interest in Huang-Lao philosophy and how he incorporated its ideas into his governance.
Additionally, some of the texts that Cao Cao wrote, such as his “Admonitions for the Age,” reflect ideas that are consistent with Huang-Lao philosophy, such as the importance of ruling through virtue and the need for a just and moral government. Overall, while there may be some debate among scholars about the extent of Cao Cao’s influence by Huang-Lao, there is evidence to suggest that he was interested in and drew from this philosophical tradition.
Buddhism was introduced to China during the Han dynasty, and it coexisted with Confucianism for many centuries. While Buddhism did not completely replace Confucianism, it did have a significant impact on Chinese society and culture, and it offered an alternative worldview and set of values.
Buddhism emphasized the pursuit of enlightenment and the cessation of suffering, which appealed to many Chinese who were seeking meaning and purpose in their lives. It also taught the importance of compassion, selflessness, and non-attachment, which challenged some of the values and beliefs of Confucianism.
In the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), Buddhism enjoyed a period of great popularity and influence, and it even became the official religion of the state for a brief period. During this time, many Buddhist monasteries and temples were built, and Buddhist ideas and practices influenced Chinese art, literature, and philosophy.
However, Confucianism remained a dominant force in Chinese society, and it continued to shape Chinese culture and values. In fact, during the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE), a new form of Confucianism known as Neo-Confucianism emerged, which combined Confucian ideas with Buddhist and Taoist concepts.
So while Buddhism did have an impact on Chinese culture and society, it did not completely replace Confucianism, which remained a major influence on Chinese thought and values.
Development, Struggle and Evolution of Confucianism
During the Han dynasty, Confucianism became the dominant ideology and enjoyed significant influence in Chinese society, government, and education. This continued through the Tang and Song dynasties, when Confucianism was further developed and refined by scholars and philosophers.
However, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, Confucianism faced challenges from other philosophical and religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, as well as from Western ideas and influences. Confucianism also came under criticism for its association with the ruling elite and its perceived role in maintaining the status quo and suppressing dissent.
The Modern Era
In the early 20th century, Confucianism was further challenged through the Republican era (1912–1949) such as the May Fourth Movement, which took place in 1919 in response to the Treaty of Versailles and the perceived weakness of the Qing dynasty. The movement called for modernization and the rejection of traditional Chinese values, including Confucianism. The May Fourth Movement was led by intellectuals and students who sought to promote democracy, science, and rationalism, and viewed Confucianism as an obstacle to progress. They saw Confucianism as promoting rigid social hierarchy, filial piety, and the suppression of individual freedom and creativity. Instead, they advocated for Western-style liberalism and individualism.
During the Cultural Revolution in China, from 1966 to 1976, there was a suppression of Confucianism, along with other traditional cultural and religious practices. However, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, there was a shift towards promoting traditional culture, including Confucianism, as a way to reconnect with China’s past and promote a sense of national identity.
In the contemporary period, there has been a resurgence of interest in Confucianism in China and beyond. This has been promoted by various institutions, including the Chinese government, as a way to promote traditional cultural values and identity. There has been a renewed focus on Confucianism’s emphasis on social order, moral values, and education, as well as its potential for addressing contemporary social, political, and ethical challenges.
Background of the Dialogue
The story of the dialogue between Confucius and Lao Tzu is believed to have taken place around the 6th century BCE during the Eastern Zhou dynasty in China. Confucius, whose birth name was Kong Qiu, lived from 551 BCE to 479 BCE and was a philosopher, politician, and educator who founded Confucianism. Lao Tzu, whose birth name was Li Er, was a philosopher and poet who is considered the founder of Taoism. His birth and death dates are uncertain, but he is believed to have lived around the same time as Confucius, possibly from the late 6th century BCE to the early 5th century BCE.
This dialogue between Confucius and Lao Tzu is a traditional story passed down through Chinese history and culture. It is not clear whether the conversation actually took place or if it is a fictionalized account, but it is widely believed to represent the philosophical differences between Confucianism and Taoism, two major schools of thought in ancient China. The story has been retold and interpreted in many different ways over the centuries, and its themes of governance, ethics, and human nature continue to resonate with people around the world today.
The philosophical differences between Confucius and Lao Tzu reflect the political and social challenges of their time, as well as their differing visions for how to address those challenges. Confucius sought to restore order through strong leadership and the cultivation of virtue, while Lao Tzu believed that individual harmony with nature was the key to restoring balance and order in society. Despite their differences, both Confucianism and Taoism have had a profound impact on Chinese culture and society, and continue to shape philosophical and political discourse around the world.
In addition to Confucianism and Taoism, Legalism, also known as the Fajia, was a significant school of thought that emerged during the Warring States period and heavily influenced the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). The most prominent philosopher associated with Legalism was Han Fei, who was a student of Xunzi, a Confucian philosopher. Han Fei’s ideas were heavily influenced by the turmoil and instability of the Warring States period, and he believed that a strong and centralized state was necessary to bring order and stability to society. His ideas were adopted by the Qin dynasty, and Legalism became the official philosophy of the state during this period.
There are no known legends or stories that suggest that Han Fei, the Fajia philosopher, had met with either Confucius or Lao Tzu. Han Fei lived several centuries after the time of Confucius and Lao Tzu, during the Warring States period in China (475–221 BCE), which was marked by intense warfare and political instability. While Han Fei was influenced by the teachings of Confucius and other early Chinese philosophers, his own philosophy emphasized the importance of strong centralized government, strict laws, and harsh punishments to maintain social order and prevent chaos. This contrasts with the emphasis on personal virtue and ethical behavior found in Confucianism and the emphasis on individual harmony with nature and the universe found in Taoism.
The Main Dialogue
Kong Fu Zi approached Lao Tzu with deep reverence and posed his question, “Master Lao, what is the path of the Tao?”
Lao Tzu’s response was serene and measured, “The Tao is not something that can be explained or grasped intellectually, but rather something that can be felt and understood on a deeper level. The Tao is the natural order of the universe, the underlying principle that governs all things.” Kong Fu Zi appeared lost in thought and whispered, “But how can we apply the Tao in our daily lives?” Lao Tzu provided guidance, “By living in harmony with the Tao, we can cultivate our virtues and attain inner peace.”
After a moment of contemplation, Kong Fu Zi shared his perspective, “I believe that moral education and self-cultivation are the keys to achieving this harmony.” Lao Tzu acknowledged his viewpoint, “While self-cultivation is crucial, true harmony comes from letting go of our desires and embracing the flow of nature.”
Kong Fu Zi’s curiosity was piqued, and he queried, “But what about the role of the ruler in promoting virtue and order?” Lao Tzu expressed his belief, “The best ruler is one who governs least, allowing the people to follow their own natural inclinations.”
Kong Fu Zi raised an essential concern, “But what if the people’s inclinations lead to chaos and disorder?” Lao Tzu responded with profound insight, “It is only when we try to control and manipulate the world that we create chaos. Trusting in the Tao and allowing things to unfold naturally is the path to true harmony.”
Kong Fu Zi complained that during his time, it was a warring time, and no ruler was interested in his idea to build a just society that respected heredity, forefathers, and rites, in order to make people live in peace. He yearned to ask some ruler to adopt his idea and hoped that others would follow suit since they had seen how better governance was in place.
Lao Tzu replied, “When the Great Way falls into decline, the doctrines of humanity and righteousness spring forth. When knowledge and intelligence appear, the Great Artifice arises. When disordered and chaotic times come, it is difficult for those who cherish humanity and justice to enact their principles, and it is even more challenging for those who possess knowledge and wisdom to manifest their abilities. Therefore, the wise person finds joy in the Way and not in the possession of knowledge. They act in accordance with the natural course of things and do not attempt to force things to conform to their own desires. If your actions are based on this understanding, then your efforts will not be fruitless, and you will succeed in your endeavors.”
Kong Fu Zi replied, “I am ashamed, Master Lao. My words were foolish, and my ambitions were naive. I now see that true change must come from within, from the hearts of the people themselves. It is not enough for a ruler to impose his will upon them. Rather, he must inspire them to choose the path of virtue and righteousness for themselves. I thank you for your wisdom, Master Lao, and will strive to live according to your teachings.”
Lao Tzu replied, “When the world is in chaos, the wise ruler remains silent, for speech is like a weapon that only fuels the flames of discord. Instead, he lets his actions speak for themselves and leads by example. The foolish ruler, on the other hand, uses his tongue to manipulate and control, causing more harm than good. In such difficult times, it is the strong who protect the weak, and the wise who guide the foolish. Therefore, the ruler must act as the teeth, protecting and defending the people, while the savants must act as the tongue, speaking up for their rights and holding the ruler accountable. It is crucial to strike a balance between the two, and when they work together in harmony, peace and prosperity can be attained. However, there may be instances when the teeth bite the tongue, resulting in conflict and disharmony. Therefore, it is important to exercise caution and wisdom in all actions, knowing that even the weakest force, like water, can eventually overcome the strongest obstacles.”
It’s clearly that Confucius emphasizes the importance of filial piety and respect for elders, stating that The Master said: “Wealth and honor: those are what people want. [But] you won’t/shouldn’t abide in them if you don’t/can’t obtain them in accordance with the Way. Poverty and lowliness: these are what people hate. [But] do not avoid them if you cannot do so in accordance with the Way! If a nobleman (junzi) departs from ren, how can he make a name for himself?’ The Noble Man (junzi) does not leave Humaneness even for the time it takes to eat a meal. Stressed out and pressured, he stays with it; in trouble and danger, he sticks with it.” (Analects 4.5) “While your parents are alive, it is better not to travel far away. If you do travel, you should have a precise destination.” (Analects 4.19). “If, for three years (after your father's death) you don't alter his ways of doing things, you can certainly be called ‘filial.’” (Analects 4.20). “Your parents' age should not be ignored. Sometimes it will be a source of joy, and sometimes it will be a source of apprehension.” (Analects 4.21). “The ancients were hesitant to speak, fearing that their actions would not do justice to their words.” (Analects 4.22)
「子曰：『富與貴、是人之所欲也。 不以其道得之、不處也。貧與賤、是人之惡也。 不以其道得之、不去也。君子去仁、惡乎成名。君子無終食之間違仁、造次必於是、顚沛必於是。』『父母在，不遠遊，遊必有方。』『三年無改於父之道、可謂孝矣。』『父母之年、不可不知也：一則以喜、一則以懼。』『古者言之不出、恥躬之不逮也。』」
This demonstrates Confucius’ emphasis on social hierarchy and the importance of respecting one’s elders. Similarly, in the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tau discusses the concept of Wu Wei, or “non-action,” stating that “The Tao does nothing, but leaves nothing undone. If powerful men could embody it, all things would be transformed by themselves, naturally” (Tao Te Ching 37).
This illustrates Lao Tzu’s belief in the power of natural spontaneity and the value of letting things unfold without forcing them.
Lao Tzu looked at Kong Fu Zi with a grave expression and said, “Remember my words, my friend. When the Tao is lost, there is Virtue, but when you seek Virtue, you risk losing the Tao. It is a delicate balance, and one that requires great wisdom to maintain. If you strive too hard for virtue in the state, you may inadvertently create chaos and turmoil. Do not forget that the Tao is the natural order of the universe, and it is only by aligning ourselves with it that we can find true harmony. Let us trust in the way of the Tao and allow things to unfold naturally.” With these final words, Lao Tzu bid farewell to Kong Fu Zi, hoping that he would heed his warning and find his own path to enlightenment.
Kong Fu Zi expressed his admiration for Lao Tzu’s wisdom and acknowledged the depth of his knowledge. They had a pleasant conversation, exchanged gifts, and bid farewell. As he departed, Kong Fu Zi remarked to one of his students that Lao Tau was like a dragon, with his wisdom and knowledge beyond comprehension.
In conclusion, the meeting between Kong Fu Zi and Lao Tzu serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of wisdom, humility, and a willingness to learn from others. Despite coming from different backgrounds and possessing different views on governance, both men were able to engage in a respectful and insightful conversation that left a lasting impression on Kong Fu Zi.
Through their dialogue, Lao Tzu was able to convey the importance of following the natural course of things and finding joy in the Way rather than the possession of knowledge. He emphasized the difficulty of enacting change during disordered and chaotic times and reminded Kong Fu Zi of the need to inspire people to choose the path of virtue and righteousness for themselves.
Ultimately, this encounter illustrates the timeless nature of wisdom and the enduring relevance of the Tao Te Ching. The insights and lessons contained within this classic text continue to resonate with readers from all backgrounds and cultures, offering guidance on how to live a fulfilling and meaningful life.
As we reflect on this meeting, we are reminded of the power of dialogue and the importance of seeking out knowledge and wisdom from others, regardless of our own views and beliefs. It is through these interactions that we are able to expand our understanding of the world and ourselves, and to live a life guided by virtue and wisdom.
The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature: From the Earliest Times to 1900, edited by Kang-i Sun Chang and Stephen Owen. In Chapter 4, “Philosophy and Religion,” the authors discuss the interaction between Confucianism and Taoism, including the possible meeting between Confucius and Lao Tzu. They reference historical texts that mention the meeting, such as “Shiji” (史記), and explore the significance of the encounter for Chinese philosophy and culture.
Full Time Line of Chinese Dynasties and Emperors: https://historycooperative.org/chinese-dynasties/
Correction: Name corrections have been standardized to ensure consistent writing.