Since the beginning of time, man has sought to explain the world around him. This is called philosophy, a Greek word which means "love of wisdom." However, over the millennia it has come to mean much more. The philosophies of the ancient Chinese people, whether they explain nature or present ways to live a just life, became so complex that simple prose could not suitably express their meaning. Yet paradoxically, the simpler, less exact form of poetry does put forth the ideas. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in the literature pertaining to the two major schools of ancient Chinese thought; Taoism and Confucianism. Poets such as Tu Fu and Po Chü-i expressed the ideas of Taoism and Confucianism, respectively, while their fellow poet T’ao Ch’ien expressed both, through their poetry.
Confucianism is based on the ideas of Confucius, the man who gave the school of thought its name. The main goal of Confucianists was to return a gentlemanly society to China. The core of Confucianism concerned social structure. Confucius taught that a man should respect and obey those of higher rank than himself, whether they be the father of a family, or the emperor of a nation. But even with absolute obedience, Confucianists believed that men should practice restraint and benevolence in those inferior to them. At the same time, those in high status were expected to lead virtuous lives, and to set examples for those that followed them. Confucianists believed that the moral code of man was set down by heaven, and if those in positions of authority did not set good examples, then they would deposed by the forces of heaven.
One of the first great Chinese poets to write of Confucianism was T’ao Ch’ien. T’ao Ch’ien’s poem Substance, Shadow, and Spirit shows a comparison between Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and the views on life and death of each. A clear example of Confucian beliefs can be taken from this poem. He states, "Let us strive and labor while yet we may / To do some deed that men will praise." This clearly demonstrates the fact that Confucianists do not believe in reincarnation. Also, in his Poem on Returning to Dwell in the Country, T’ao Ch’ien writes, "In the same world men lead different lives; / Some at the court, some in the marketplace." These lines illustrate that for every man there is a place in an organized Confucian society.
Taoism, along with Confucianism, is one of the most ancient ideas in Chinese philosophy. The first known Taoist master was the ancient figure Lao Tzu. Perplexed by Chinese politics in his day, Lao Tzu planned to leave Chinese society for the wilderness of western China. But, before he could do this, he was stopped by a man who asked him to write down all of his ideas and beliefs. The result was the Tao Te Ching, or the Book of the Virtue of the Way. The book set forth the basic ideas of Taoism; that is, following the Tao, or the Way....