Why Do Americans Find Daoism/Zhuangism So Compelling as a Way of Life (and Not Confucianism)?

I’ve been teaching East Asian Philosophy this semester, and have noticed something that I’ve seen in many semesters past.  For the most part, students dislike Confucianism, but love Daoism (especially Zhuangzi).  I’ve always found this curious.  I first noticed this as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland in my first exposure to early Chinese philosophy (a story to which I’ll return in a moment).

The first early Chinese work I ever read was the Analects (I don’t remember which translation it was, probably D.C. Lau).  Early in my undergrad years, I worked at a bookstore in my hometown, and was assigned to the Religion section, which I restocked and maintained.  One of the things I loved about working at the store was that I discovered so many new books there, and during my breaks (or slow times in the store), I had the opportunity to read the books I was stocking.  I picked up a copy of the Analects on a lunch break once, thinking it looked interesting and worth a try.  I ended up being fascinated with it, and read the entirety of it after my shift ended that day.  I was drawn to the Analects not as a scholar (which I really wasn’t at that point–I was just a kid who liked eclectic reading), but as a human being.  Something really resonated with me in the message of the Analects.  With Confucius and his students, it felt to me like I had discovered people who truly “got it”.  It was an epiphany–I had discovered something true, vital, and profound.  The only other text I read that had a similar effect was a few years later when I discovered the Bhagavad Gita.  In time, I came to appreciate Zhuangzi as well.

Lots of college students have such “epiphanies”.  I’d even venture to say it’s part of the natural experience of being a person of college age.  And it’s part of the value of learning and being in school (or at least around books) at that age.  All of us (or most of us at least) have the experience of discovering the books that we think sum up the highest ideals, inspire us, and inform our lives moving forward.  For me, the Analects was one of these books.  What I find so interesting and strange, though, is that it seems not to be so for the vast majority of the students I have taught over the years, no matter how passionately I advocate its ideals.  Early Confucianism in general, whether the AnalectsMencius, or Xunzi, tends to leave my students cold.

As I mentioned above, I first encountered this tendency to resist Confucianism when I myself was an undergraduate.  I began taking classes in Mandarin Chinese (with my now wife Shubhalaxmi, who provided the illustrations for my recent book “Understanding Asian Philosophy” by the way–check them out!), and in Chinese culture and literature.  It was in part my interest in the Analects that led me to start taking these classes.  In one of my classes on early Chinese literature, we covered the classic philosophical texts, from the Analects through Han Feizi, and also the Shiji.  It was a great class.  I was dismayed, however, when we read the Analects and I turned out to be the only person in class who actually liked it!  Others thought it was “dry”, “boring”, “tedious”, or otherwise just bad.  When we came to the Zhuangzi, however, it was completely the reverse!  Everyone in the class loved it, and I know that a number of those students had a similar “epiphany” with the Zhuangzi that I had with the Analects a couple of years before.

I spoke to one of my Chinese language teachers about this, explaining to her that I loved the Analects, but that my classmates hated it, and most of them liked Zhuangzi.  I remember clearly her response–she had the same experience I now have in my years of teaching these texts.  She said something like: 美國人都喜歡莊子,不知道為什麼 (“Americans really like Zhuangzi–I don’t know why”).  I find myself today wondering the same thing–why are American young people so enamored with the Zhuangzi, and why do they dislike Confucianism so much?

This is especially interesting/baffling because if we look at scholarship in Chinese philosophy, the situation seems the other way around.  There is much more scholarship on Confucianism within philosophy than on anything Daoist, including Zhuangzi.  But, as always, approaching a text as a scholar and approaching it for inspiration for living are two different things.  One generally does not see Confucianism reading groups and people who cite the Analects or Xunzi as their “philosophy of life” out in the general American public.  I’ve seen lots of people who hold the Daodejing in this light, however.  Even the well known “new age guru” Wayne Dyer has a “translation” of Daodejing, and books on Daoism (and Buddhism) sell way better in the general market than books on Confucianism.  Anyone working at a bookstore (as I did) can tell you that.

So while study of Confucianism seems to be thriving as a scholarly pursuit in the USA, it falls completely flat as inspiration for living, which after all was its original intention.  It is hard to find others out there in the general American public who were as inspired as I was by the Confucian vision.  Why, I wonder, is this?  What is it about Confucianism as lived practice that Americans find so distasteful?  And what is it about Daodejing and Zhuangzi that they find so inviting?  And why then was it that I, who am as culturally American as any other of my fellow citizens, was drawn so strongly to Confucianism rather than Daoism?  And finally, perhaps a related question:  what would make Americans interested in Confucianism, if anything?

Many questions, and still no answers.

21 responses to “Why Do Americans Find Daoism/Zhuangism So Compelling as a Way of Life (and Not Confucianism)?

  1. Hi Alexus

    You are being a little coy in not sharing your own thoughts on this question.
    I have noticed the same thing in my intro class and I’d be interested in your opinion.

    In my experience, it is not just that most students prefer Zhuangzi to Confucius; they also prefer a reading that takes dao as some sort of ineffable natural force field that can be “attuned” to by those who truly get it or by practicing mediation and the like and that such attuning requires a rejection or at least a breakdown of the conceptual categories that form the basis of our language and education. (Think Alan Watts not Chad Hansen or Wang Bo.) My current favourite theory to explain this is not very original. I just think it is “new age”ism, i.e. the desperate search to fill the cultural gap left by the abandonment of organised religion by projecting spiritual needs onto any suitable esoteric canvas. With an absent father we hope the forest will be kind to us if we just surrender to its mystery. What is a little surprising is that this continues through the generations. I doubt that many of my students have had a religious upbringing that they have rejected or even that their parents had one – I’m teaching in New Zealand not the USA! Are the core concepts of monotheistic paternalistic religion so well-embedded in our culture? I suppose the answer is yes.

    By contrast, the Confucian vision is intelligible, pragmatic and human-oriented. Much of it is common sense and requires hard work and acceptance of the social world rather than rejection and surrender. It all seems very unsatisfyingly secular – to those looking for something “more”. Likewise, a reading of Zhuangzi as deeply pessimistic about the human condition, curious and questioning but ultimately just laughing at any prescription for improving our lives – well, that is a bit too dark for most.


  2. I’m not sure if my intuition is right or not, but Zhuangzi, unless read carefully, seems to offer a license to say and write “nonsenses.” And it seems that is how introductory students view philosophy, as a discipline where there are no right or wrong answers and you can merely state your opinion any way you wish. Confucius doesn’t allow you such “freedom.”

    This posting of yours oddly reminds me of the “Sokal Affair,” in the sense that no one wants to do the hard academic work anymore, but would like a standpoint from which to state a lot of opinions free from criticism. I think Zhuangzi offers that for many. Of course, I would argue that’s a wrong reading of Zhuangzi.


  3. Hi Jeremy-
    Yes you’re right- I avoided giving my own view, mainly because I’m unsure. My views on this have changed throughout the years. At first I thought it had something to do with the desire for freedom that comes with youth, and the Zhuangzi really seems more friendly to that than does Confucianism. I also think there’s something to your claim about “new age” and the desire for replacement of religiosity.

    I think there also be something about the “duty” aspect of Confucianism that turns students off. It may also have something to do with the perceived focus on individuality in the Zhuangzi (an idea which Americans notoriously love), versus a focus on community and responsibility in the Analects and other Confucian texts. I think I’m going to start taking polls of my students to find out which of the texts we study are their favorites and why. I think we might learn a lot from enough of this feedback.

    How’s it going man! Good to hear from you!

    I think you’re on to something there. The Daodejing and Zhuangzi can be kind of like philosophical Rorschach tests, because the language can be so vague and suggestive, and difficult to interpret. Zhuangzi is one of those things about which a little bit of knowledge might be worse than none at all, because one really has to do the hard work to properly understand what’s going on in it.

  4. I’ve taught the Analects and the Daodejing, but not Zhuangzi. But it was a while back, and I’m having a hard time calling up specific memories relevant to the question. That’s a shame, because I taught both to highly secular groups of students and to groups who were agreed that Noah put animals on a boat. (I do remember that the Southern Baptists found it particularly scandalous that Confucius said one should not have friends inferior to oneself.) In general I’m inclined to agree with Alexus and vu~. Another problem with Confucius might be that much of it seems uninteresting in the sense that it is (a) platitudinous, or (b) way wrong, or (c) comments about people we can’t know.

  5. Interesting topic Alexus. For me it was the Daodejing that spoke to me. Although I didn’t read the Confucian texts until years later, everything I read about Confucianism in the early days was critical, from a “Daoist” perspective, and it seemed too authoritarian, too preachy. Now that I’ve read more of the secondary literature (in English) it seems somewhat less so, but still doesn’t speak to me as much. This may be because of my metaethical views (anti-realist, relativist, fictionalist). Like Confucius, however, I do have a love of learning. 😉

  6. Interesting read. I’ve studied courses in Chinese history and culture, and Chinese literature, this term and for the first time came in closer contact with confucianism and daoism. I tended to find daoism more interesting, but also more vague. However, remember when I first read texts about “filial piety”, as is something central within confucianism, it made a peculiar impression on me. I will have reason to look deeper into both these philosophies in my studies following weeks, which I look forward to!

  7. I wonder how much of this has to do with age as opposed to country of origin. The older one gets, and especially if one raises kids, the old Confucian values of moral practice, devotion to the local, and discipline as a way of life start to make more sense. College students understandably prefer to “live in the moment” and reject stuffy old rules and values. Maybe it’s because of my own sympathy with Confucius, but my students seem to like him and Daoism roughly equally by my lights.

  8. As a college student and follower of Zhuangzi, I can say that the “appeal” of the philosophy/religion comes not from such fancies as a pass for nonsense, new ageism, or anything else. Also, I see the opposite of what this post says; my peers don’t see the Zhuangzi (or any other eastern philosophy) as enlightening, nor do they even get inspired by its ideas. Maybe this contrast that the post highlights comes from different perspectives, rather than the philosophies themselves, i.e. teacher-viewing-student and student-viewing-student. Whatever the case, I’m fairly certain those Zhuangzi-loving students to whom you refer do not really, wholeheartedly believe its teachings, unlike me, as I continue to write about it so that others may be able TO wholeheartedly believe it. If these questions still bug you, I think some answers (or at least insights) to your questions can be had from my posts.

  9. Hello Alexus,
    I find your article interesting because I am an American (among other nationalities) and was not a college student for very long – yet I too was drawn to Taoism (sorry, I prefer the old spelling) rather than Confucianism. But my path was different and did not go by way of Chuang Tzu. I came to Taoism on my own by my own ponderings of metaphysics and epistemology. Wu, and the Taijitu, for me, are “it” – my epiphany. They symbolize my understanding of this physical reality but that’s it. I derive no moral guidelines from Lao Tzu or anyone else – and though I can see the ‘permissive’ aspect of it, I feel it is lacking a little bit of the rigor of Confucius.
    To me, Confucius was Karate – square, hard, clean-cut and right-angled. Taoism was Tai Chi – circular, soft, shifting and flowing.

  10. The search for an epiphany in life is part of the draw. People go to college and see it as a right of passage into wisdom but what they are really getting for the most part is vocational training. People want epiphanies from new sources rather than the experiences they already have. Like Bill Haynes said, Confucianism is platitudinous. It doesn’t differ all that much from Sunday school lessons or after school specials. Its that familiarity that causes people to look over it for something else shines a bit different.

  11. Perhaps most students simply feel that Confucianism is elitist? You would probably get more mileage appealing to people who joined the military out of high school.

  12. Very odd and circuitous route to the Lao Tzu for me. As a career U.S. Marine Officer (and son of a military officer.) I have lived an existence of duty, responsibility, and structured relationships. The Analects seemed to me to be very familiar ground. I came to Lao Tzu by way of Sun Tzu, which we study as part of our curriculum. Sun Tzu gave a glimpse to a different approach – Lao Tzu broke open vistas of possibility which I am still exploring. For me, Confucius is Bach, Lao Tzu is Duke Ellington. Both are magnificent and I treasure their insights, but if I were to be completely honest, I simply enjoy Ellington more. You are probably on to something about the American character and a natural affinity for Taoist thought.

  13. It’s very obviously because Daoism is seen as being hippy, lefty, peaceful, rejection of the material world stuff, all very fashionable amongst young people and Confucianism is seen as being a defence for a hierachical, male dominated, obedient to your master world.

  14. Can you recommend a book on Taoism?

  15. I think it is more that many in the West (perhaps especially in the US) don’t like the idea – and reality – of obligations. Certainly not as basic to ethical life. They seem to me to prefer rights of (self)assertion (‘freedom,’ ‘creativity’ etc.)

  16. or don’t ACCEPT the reality of obligations.

  17. Hm. And yet rights and obligations are basically the same thing. My rights are other people’s obligations, what they owe me. Conversely, if I owe you something, you have a right against me.

    What I read about “millenials” suggests they aren’t allergic to duties.

    I suppose moral requirements needn’t all be seen as “what we owe to each other” (Tim Scanlon’s phrase and book title) — there might be something I really ought to do for some other reason than that I owe it to anybody.

    It would then make sense to say that e.g. Confucian morality is about duties but not rights.

    A paper I haven’t read yet that gets into some of these things is Kai Marchal’s “The Virtue of Justice in Zhu Xi,” in Angle & Slote eds. Virtue Ethics and Confucianism.

    (I didn’t mean to say above that Confucianism is platitudinous; I meant the Analects can seem that way.)

    • The “if you believe rights are basic, then you already have obligations” idea seems to me instructively wrong (and in a way that helps my initial point, I believe). Anyway, an extract from the IEP essay on Simone Weil makes the point nicely:

      The very titles brought out, in a way only implicit in Oppression and Liberty, the untimeliness of her [Weil’s] moral and political thought. For she did not begin with rights, nor with the ideal of liberal freedom encapsulated in Hobbes’ remark that a free man “is he that… is not hindered to do what he has a will to.” She built, rather, on the internal ethical connection between need and obligation:

      Obligation is concerned with the needs in this world of the souls and bodies of human beings, whoever they may be. For each need there is a corresponding obligation: for each obligation a corresponding need. There is no other kind of obligation, so far as human affairs are concerned. (SE 21)

      Needs and obligations were more fundamental than rights of any kind. Indeed, to think rights fundamental to “social conflicts” was itself a grave moral error, for it “inhibit[ed] any possible impulse of charity on both sides.” She continued:

      Relying almost exclusively on this notion [“rights”], it becomes impossible to keep one’s eyes on the real problem. If someone tries to browbeat a farmer to sell his eggs at a moderate price, the farmer can say ‘I have the right to keep my eggs if I don’t get a good enough price.’ But if a young girl is being forced into a brothel she will not talk about her rights. In such a situation the word would sound ludicrously inadequate. (SE 21)

      For Weil, rights were “middle level” moral concepts. They were not, and could not be, fundamental or “eternal.”

      An obligation which goes unrecognised by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognised by anybody is not worth very much… Rights are always found to be related to certain conditions. Obligations alone remain independent of conditions. They belong to a realm situated above all conditions, because it is situated above this world. (NR 18)

  18. Thanks for the interesting quotations Witters!

    (For anyone here who hasn’t glanced at the IEP essay, let me say that in Witters’ comment, everything after the first paragraph is a quote from the IEP, and that every paragraph in that quote that ends with an alphanumeric reference is a quote from Weil.)

    I didn’t mean to mention or allude to the idea that rights are basic. By “basically” I meant “pretty much.” Personally, while I think rights and obligations are real, I don’t think either of them is anywhere near being basic to ethics. That opinion would put me in the mainstream of the Western and I guess pretty much any tradition.

    My thought was that rights and obligations are pretty much the same thing, as Lee’s being Kim’s parent is the same thing as Kim’s being Lee’s child; or Lee’s being Kim’s superior officer is the same thing as Kim’s being Lee’s subordinate.

    “Pretty much” at least because the terms “right” and “obligation” (in the sense of owing, not in the broader sense of moral requirement) are a good deal vaguer than “parent” and “superior officer”. And also because there is sometimes some vagueness or open-endedness as to exactly whom a particular right is a right against, and as to exactly whom a particular obligation is an obligation to.

    In either sense of obligation, it seems to me that the claim “For each need there is a corresponding obligation: for each obligation a corresponding need” is obviously false. But I’m not familiar with Weil’s writings, which may suggest qualifications that may get around my objections. (Something in your quotes might be held to do that.) Here are some simple objections.

    “For each need there is a corresponding obligation.”
    It seems to me that needs that are impractical to know of do not involve obligations. Maybe I need to move inland before the tidal wave hits.

    “For each obligation there is a corresponding need.”
    It seems to me that if I’ve borrowed a dollar I have an obligation to return it, even if nobody needs me to do that.

    In the last paragraph quoted, each thing Weil says (except the second thing) seem to me obviously false. I don’t know what argument there might be for them, so I am not instructed!

    • Thanks Bill. Rather than go through your eminently to the point questions/concerns I would point you to the the full Weil entry (not entirely a cop out insofar as I wrote the entry). I think that in the end she offers a compassion-based ethics that (as she herself noted) had deep and interesting connections with Buddhism and Taoism and Confucianism.

  19. I’m grateful, witters, to have been pointed to the IEP essay on Weil. Not only is it (she) profoundly fascinating, the essay is also a great read and (as seems to me) a brilliant job of teaching. I’ll have to go back to it a few times before I’m ready to offer thoughts and questions.

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