HOME | Philosophers | Quotations | Books
Key Terms: dao  tian  li  yi  liyi  ren  zhi  junzi

Confucian Key Terms

Dao 道

"way," path, to guide, a holistic guiding moral discourse.

As the title of A.C. Graham's famous book on early Chinese philosophy---Disputers of the Tao---implies, the meaning of "dao" was contested in ancient China. To begin to sort out these differences, it is useful to distinguish three senses of the word "dao." First, dao is the way things are, the propensities and regularities of the world. This meaning can be specified as "tiandao," or "dao zhi tian," the way of tian (nature, the sky). Second, "dao" can indicate the way people should be (rendao), given these propensities. While Daoists stress the former, Confucians stress the later. Indeed, Confucius is said not to have discussed tiandao (Analects 5.13). For Confucians, rendao was fleshed out in terms of ritual propriety and appropriateness (liyi), stressing the five relations. A Confucian who wants to talk about tiandao, will more often abbreviate it "tian" than "dao" (as in the opening lines of Xunzi's "Discourse on tian"). Thus, it is sometimes said that what Daoists mean by "dao" is (roughly) what Confucians mean by "tian."

The third sense that the word "dao" carries is that of "discourse," in particular, a moral guiding discourse. Eric Hutton describes dao as "an overall conception of how to live upon which deliberation focuses" (Hutton 2002, p. 372). Mencius defines dao as conjoining ren (consummate virtue) with ren (people), and putting it into words (7B16). Laozi, on the other hand, says, "The way (dao) that can be articulated (dao), is not the constant way (dao)."

According to Xunzi, the concept of rendao (the way of people) required conscious activity (wei) on the part of people for its construction and articulation. As Chen Daqi explains, "The standards of ritual and propriety for ordering a country and cultivating oneself originate from exemplary people and are produced by sages. It is people themselves who invent and establish them, they do not exist naturally. Because tian cannot be patterned after, people must establish [liyi] themselves. Xunzi does not establish the way of people (rendao) based on the way of tian (tiandao). This is the great distinguishing character of Xunzi's theory. The way of people is what people create. This view can be called artificialism" (Chen 1954, p. 5). Thus rendao is both the way for people to follow, and a way created, articulated, and extended by exemplary people. It is the latter that Confucius stress in Analects 15.29: "People are able to broaden dao, it is not dao that broadens people."

Last Date Modified: 08/21/2007
Kurtis Hagen, e-mail: hagenkg@plattsburgh.edu