The Three Teachings of China by Jacqueline Bengtson

San Chiao

The three teachings of Chinese religion are known as San Chiao.




Golden Age of Philosophy (771-476 BCE)

In 1027 B.C.E. the Zhou dynasty overthrew the Shang dynasty in China. During the over eight hundred year ruling of the Zhou dynasty, law was enforced, money came into use, and farming became prosperous.

The Zhou Dynasty

Political corruption and disorder took over after several hundred years during the Zhou dynasty. The people wanted direction and so, they turned to the great thinkers and writers of the age, philosophers and sages. During this time of chaos, the philosophers developed three philosophies or schools of thought that tried to explain how to guide human conduct and ensure order in society. These schools of thought were Taoism, Confucianism, and Legalism. These principles of thought have influenced and guided Chinese life to the present.

What about Buddhism?

When Buddhism reached China from India in the first century A.D., the lives of Chinese people were deeply affected. The people of China felt comforted by Buddhism. The three schools of thought dealt with life on earth, but Buddhism was a way to escape the suffering of life for many people.

The Spread of Buddhism

Over time, the beliefs and values of Buddhism blended in with the lives and culture of the people of China. Chinese Buddhists emphasized the ideas of respect from Confucianism and the views of nature from Taoism. The people of China followed the beliefs of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Due to the society's devotion to these religions and ways of thinking, the three are known as "The Three Teachings of China."

The Vinegar Tasters

Who are the three men in this image? What do they represent? What does this image represent? After reading the history and philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism the explanation will become clear!

A depiction of "The Vinegar Tasters"

The first of the Three Teachings, Confucianism


"His deepest wish was to do something to alleviate the suffering and disorder in the world of his time." (Confucianism 26)

When Confucius was born, in 551 B.C.E., the Zhou dynasty was in decline. While growing up he had a passion for study. He is said to have edited and even contributed to the Five Classics which were five books that summarized the Culture of China in Confucius' time. They included books on poetry, history, divination (fortunetelling), and ritual texts. He found his answers to creating a just society in his education of the past and through the Five Classics.

He made his first step to changing the world of disorder by founding a school. He gathered young men of talent and trained them to make them chun tzu or gentleman. His students were his disciples. He wanted to produce men of character who would change the society by their positive example.

The Xing Tan, or "Apricot Temple," where Confucius lectured to his students.

The five virtues that Confucius taught were on faithfulness or integrity, knowledge, honesty, humanity, and correct behavior. These virtues became the basic ideals of Confucianism. A foundational concept of Confucianism is that a society works harmoniously when each person understands his role and acts accordingly. Confucius believed that harmony began at the basic unity of society which was the family.

When Confucius died in 479 B.C.E. he thought of himself as a failure and called himself the "hidden orchid," that is known to bloom in inconspicuous places. His students mourned over his passing yet they continued to try and achieve the task he had given them which was to change the world. In doing so, his pupils succeeded as there has been no greater Chinese philosopher that has influenced so many people.


In 136 B.C.E. during the Han dynasty, the emperor, Wu Di, proclaimed Confucianism to be the religion of China. Once Confucian became the state doctrine, a national university was established in the capital of Changan to educate scholars on the Confucian doctrine. An examination system was established that tested students on their knowledge of Confucian thought. Over time, the only way to advance in society was to become qualified by passing the examination.

The state Confucianism that was enacted into government was the official form taught by Han scholars. Han Confucianism was different from the original teachings of Confucius himself. The governed religion incorporated early Chinese ideas on the cosmos that was of no importance to Confucius.

The universe was believed to be constantly influenced by to opposing forces: yin and yang. Yin is considered to be a negative force and Yang is a dynamic force. The two forces were always changing in power, but they were both needed for balance. Relative to this concept, the Chinese also believed that all things were composed of the five elements wood, metal, fire, water and earth. The number five had significance to the culture of China as there were five elements, five directions (including the center), five grains, and the five planets (that could be seen with a naked eye).

With this foundation of intellect, Han scholars used this information to determine how all things should work in harmony. This was the basic Confucian idea. With this knowledge scholars found ways to correct imbalances. Also, medicine, nutrition, agriculture, art, and literature with advanced based upon these discoveries.

The Yin and Yang Symbol

Major Events in Confucianism

  • When Buddhism spread throughout China in the first century of the common era, it posed a threat to the influence of Confucianism and its authentic principles.
  • During the Tang dynasty (618-907) the Confucians gained considerable power over all other ways of thought.
  • During the last years of the Tang dynasty, thinkers of Confucianism began to reexamine their tradition. The new life of Confucian writing was at its greatest influence during the Song dynasty (960-1279). In this new way of thinking, inspiration and ideas from Taoism and Buddhism was implemented in their teachings. The philosophical system was called the School of Li in China, and Neo-Confucianism in the West.
  • In the early 1700s, Jesuit Europeans traveled to China as missionaries and Christianity began to spread which was another threat to the influence of Confucianism.

The second of the Three Teachings, Taoism


The earliest history of China, which was written around the second century B.C.E., suggests that Li Ehr was the founder of Taoism. He lived as and archivist in the royal palace in the capital of the Zhou dynasty. He was referred to as Laozi (Lao Tzu) which means "The Old One," or "The Master." It is said that Laozi lived during the same time as Confucius only he was slightly older than Confucius.

It is said in tradition that Laozi grew up as a very wise man in the sixth century B.C.E. He was sought out by people who asked him questions on religion and politics. It is also said that a legendary meeting took place between Laozi and Confucius. Even though Laozi was known for his teachings he was very short tempered. He challenged Confucius' philosophies and beliefs by saying knowledge, learning and a code of behavior wouldn't improve society. Laoiz believed that people were born good and that they would remain good by being left alone.

When Laozi was ninety, he decided to leave the providence while riding a water buffalo. Before crossing the border, a guard asked Laozi to record his wise thoughts. The guard didn't want the wisdom from a great sage to be lost. According to the story, he wrote a short manuscript before he left and gave it to the guard. The work that was left behind is known as the Laozi or Tao Te Ching (Daodejing), "The Book of the Way and Its Power." It is said in some sources that when Laozi left, he became immortal.

A 19th century painting of Laozi stopping at the West gate of China to write the "Tao Te Ching" by request of the gatekeeper.

What does Taoism mean?

Tao means "the Way." But, the Tao is the source of all things. It is a guarantee of all that there is in any universe. How to live according to the Tao is told in the religion of Taoism. Te is the power to bring the Tao into realization.

Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching is a collection of poems that are called chapters. The book's philosophical beliefs are attributed to Laozi, yet scholars believe that the book is a collection of works written by many others over time. The poems are very short and their meanings have been interpreted and debated for centuries. The poems were initially written to advise rulers on how to govern.

Laozi suggests that rulers are asking for trouble when they interfere in the lives of the people. His ideas are consistent when he says that what is low cannot fall, and what bends does not break. He explains that before problems become large, handle them when they are small and when you rush into solving a situation, it is hard to undo mistakes that can be made. Laozi explains how a wise person will work without recognition, will do what is righteous, and will become aware of what is natural. This person is said to understand Tao.

Laozi believed that harmony that naturally exists between heaven and earth can be found within anyone. He believes this harmony cannot be found with Confucianism. Laozi said, "Earth was in essence a reflection of heaven, run by the same laws- not by the laws of men." The book conveys that life is a path with many obstacles but the path is a teacher of many lessons. All would go well when lessons were learned, just like all goes well when rules are followed.

The Tao Te Ching originally pertained to the needs of society. The main focus of the book are the beliefs of Laozi. The unchanging principal behind the universe is Tao and living according to the Tao is the secret to life. The Tao is a spontaneous process that regulates all beings. "The Way," is present at all levels in the human body, in society, in nature and in the entire universe. The book describes how a ruler should not dominate affaires and this political philosophy of creative inaction is called Wu-Wei. Achieving health and immortality with little importance attached to material gain is to accord with, "the Way."


Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) was another great Taoist who emerged about two centuries after Laozi. He was remembered for being one of the greatest literary figures of Chinese history. The first Chinese work to present a philosophy of life that ordinary people could understand was written by Master Zhuang and was called the Zhuangzi. His work was easily relatable and his work's meaning was understandable to the common folk.


The Taoist's study of nature allowed them to make advantages in science and technology. They increased their knowledge of astronomy by recording the planet's movement. It is possible that Taoists also may have developed the magnetic compass. Discoveries in Biology and Chemistry were made and it is believed that Taoist's invented gunpowder to scare away ghosts. The religion influenced Chinese art as nature scenes dominate most artistic work.

The third of the Three Teachings, Buddhism

The search for Enlightenment

The very first Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama of the fifth century B.C.E. He was born as a prince and lived a sheltered life. On four different occasions of wandering out into the world, Gautama saw a sick man, an old man, a corpse, and wondering holy man. These were known as the Four Signs as they were the signs that lead Gautama to want to seek the meaning of life. He then lived a homeless experience known as the Great Renunciation. One day as he sat under the Bodhi tree, he reached enlightenment.

A cultural interpretation of Siddhartha Gautama under the Bodhi Tree reaching Enlightenment

How To Reach Enlightment

You must pass through the four stages of dhyana or the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Dukkha means all existence is unsatisfactory and filled with suffering.
  2. Dukkha arises from tanha, which means how people always try to cling onto something in an ever changing world.
  3. When dukkha ceases completely it is considered nirvana.
  4. The Fourth Truth can be found by following the Eightfold Path which is right understanding, right directed thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

Chinese Buddhism

During the first century of the common era, Buddhism spread from India throughout China. The spread of Buddhism started along trade routes that linked India to China and the beliefs branched out further. The Chinese felt as though Buddhism was their source of salvation as they were attracted to the concept of enlightenment, rebirth, karma (the moral law of cause and effect), and having responsibility over one's fate.

Monks and nuns were seen as getting merit for future lives because of their practice of meditation, rituals, chanting, teaching, and the study of Buddhist texts. By achieving nirvana and following the Eightfold Path, it was an ideal for Buddhists to detach themselves from the world and become fully self-aware. This intrigued the Chinese as they sought ways to liberate themselves of suffering.

Integration of Buddhism with Taoism and Confucianism

The arrival of Buddhism challenged the already established philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism. The centuries of disunity after the fall of the Han dynasty allowed Buddhism to spread rapidly. The ideas and philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism were adopted by Chinese Buddhist. During this time, Taoism was staying influential by taking on many aspects of Buddhism.

The Tang dynasty (618-907) allowed culture and philosophy to blossom within society. The ruler Tai Zong set a policy that gave support to the three teachings of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Later in this dynasty, however, when the Confucians gained considerable power in the government, they attacked Buddhism and Taoism as harmful to the empire.

The Three Teachings in the 20th Century

"Religion will perish only if humanity eliminates social classes and establishes much stronger control over the natural world." -Mao Zedong on June 1, 1952

After the end of WWII, a civil war broke out between the Communist Chinese rebels led by Mao Zedong and Chiang's Nationalist government. Mao established the People's Republic of China in 1949 when the Communists won. Mao had a drive to root out the traditions of China and change the society. His ideas posed a great threat to all three teachings in the 20th century.

"The Vinegar Tasters"

Now that the history and philosophies of the Three Teachings of China are understood, the cultural interpretation of the three religions in this piece of artwork can be explained!

In this image there are three men standing around a vat of vinegar. The men have dipped their finger in the vat and tasted the vinegar. Each man wears a different facial expression. The men each represent the "Three Teachings" of China and the vinegar represents the Essence of Life. The men are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi. The first man wears a bitter expression, the second a sour expression and the third man is smiling.

Confucius' wears a bitter expression because he thinks of the world as a bitter place. Through rules and regulations, he believes that what is out of sorts can be fixed. Buddha wears a sour expression because he believes that life is filled with attachments and desires that lead to suffering. By escaping the world through nirvana, he believes one can achieve enlightenment. Laozi is smiling because he values the vinegar for what it is just like he values the nature of life for what it is. What others may perceive as negative is positive in the view of a Taoist.

The moral of this painting is that when you understand the world for what it is, it is sweet, not sour or bitter.


Information Sources

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Hoff, Benjamin, and Ernest H. Shepard. The Tao of Pooh. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Hoobler, Thomas, and Dorothy Hoobler. Confucianism: World Religions. New York: Facts on File, 1993. Print.

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Jackie Bengtson

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