Three Teachings in China


The Three Teachings, or Three Teachings in Harmony (三敎合一 Sānjiào Héyī), refer to the three main beliefs in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. To this day they co-exist in harmony, often practised simultaneously, even overlapping in certain areas. Together they reflect the long history, mutual influence and even complementary teaching of these belief systems. Each practice has dominated or risen to favour during certain periods of time. Chinese emperors sometimes preferred one of the teachings and the others would temporarily fall out of favour, but re-emerge again at a later date. One of the earliest references to this Trinitarian idea is attributed to Li Shiqian, a 6th century scholar, who wrote that “Buddhism is the sun, Daoism the moon, and Confucianism the five planets.” – meaning they are separate entities but coexist in harmony.


Confucianism is the most ancient of the Chinese belief systems, dating from the Zhou Dynasty (770-476 BC), with some of its ideas even dating from a much earlier period. It is named after the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551- 479 BC), who co-authored several philosophical manuscripts (Analects) on social order. Confucianism particularly focuses on social rules and moral values, as well as the concept that through scholarly pursuits and study, a good and virtuous character can be achieved.

Filial piety (xiao) including ancestor worship, humaneness (ren), correct etiquette or rituals (li), as well as the strict following of social roles, are all an integral part of Confucianism. Under imperial rule, the elite arduously followed the edicts of Confucius; taking charge of the moral education of the people and running local government. It was thought that a balanced and harmonious existence could be created, if everyone adhered to their assigned roles in society and performed the correct rituals.

Only a small fraction of Chinese society were fully literate and the elite class was formed by the highly educated scholars (wenren). It was from this group that all government officials were selected,  through a series of rigorous imperial civil examinations. These exams required thorough knowledge of the Confucian canon, the ability to write essays on moral issues, current affairs and poems in a variety of formal styles. This entailed that education and accomplishment, became vital for advancement in a government career and local power. The Chinese scholar’s studio and the objects in it, were therefore an important reflection of literati’s erudition, contemplation, governance and ultimately influence.


Daoism – or Taoism - is an early philosophy which can be traced back to the 4th century BC. It is named after the Dao (the Way). It advocates simplicity and particularly living in a balanced way in tune with nature. It focusses on the interdependence of all things, which is reflected in its famous round Yin/Yang symbol, along with a particular preoccupation with achieving immortality. There are a host of Daoist immortal deities which are widely venerated, who were thought to influence all areas of life such as health, happiness, and fortune.

Daoism’s main protagonist is the sage Laozi (604-531 BC). The earliest mention of Laozi is in the text Zhuangzi (c.300BC), named after its author. However, his first historical account is found in the Shiji  written by Sima Qian (c. 100 BC). It records that Laozi’s family name was Li and he was an archivist at the Zhou court. After leaving court he travelled West and wrote his famous treatise, the Classic of the Way and its Power (Tao-te-ching). This seminal work introduces the concept of the Dao, intended to serve as a guide for human behaviour and experience. The text has been used for 1,800 years as a sacred and revered scripture. Amongst the Daoist religious orders, the book is the mainstay for meditation, ritual ceremonies, and ordination rites. Daoism appealed to all levels of ancient Chinese society, but the common people were espe­cially drawn to it. This belief had an almost rebel-like status, promoting self-cultivation and autonomy, as opposed to constricted elitist rituals of the official (Confucian) state cult. Both these philosophies actively encouraged the search for harmony, but they differed on how to attain it.

An important aspect of Daoism is the notion of finding a way to balance the energy (qi) in the world – which applied to humans, nature and the cosmos. Daoist practices were developed for the cultivation of this balance. On a large scale the emperor could perform rituals; on a smaller scale individuals were encouraged to achieve balance in one’s own body or living space. A good balance, lead to prosperity, greater longevity and perhaps ultimately immortality. Well-known practices are for example the marital art Tai Chi (太極拳)and the practice of Feng Shui (風水)in the home.

Daoism has led to the creation of a wide range of enchanting art works. These works transport the viewer into the cosmos inhabited by immortals and deities. Also the importance of being in tune with nature and the search for happiness and a long-life.


Buddhism is based on the teachings of Prince Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), the main ideologies focus on compassion, karma, rebirth, and impermanence. It is thought, life’s suffering can be overcome by attaining enlightenment. Ultimately Nirvana, a state of perfect happiness, can be obtained by breaking away from material attachments and purifying the mind.

Buddhism was first introduced into China from north-eastern India, through Nepal and Tibet, around 100 AD, as a direct result of Han Dynasty expansion and the establishment of the Silk Road. These new trade routes not only facilitated exchange in goods, but also created an extensive religious and cultural interface along the route. During the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia, it divided into two main branches: Mahayana and Hinayana. The Mahayana, which is practised in China, particularly focusses on universal enlightenment and the salvation of mankind with assistance of Bodhisattvas.

On reaching China, Buddhism encountered the two indigenous ancient philosophies; Confucianism and Daoism. There was certainly an affinity with Daoism, even comparable ideas, allowing this new religion to be easily adopted into Chinese culture. Daoism particularly focussed on personal freedom and an intense harmony with nature. With Buddhism, there was a new additional notion, which promised eternal bliss and salvation after death. As complementary beliefs, they could also be easily be practised alongside one another. Consequently, a new Sinicized form of Buddhism emerged, incorporating new as well as established ideas, which were duly absorbed into existing religious and burial practice.

With the gradual increase of knowledge and familiarity with the Buddhist doctrines, its iconography was progressively integrated into the Chinese visual arts and culture. Buddhist temples, monasteries and elaborate cave temple complexes with sculpture and painting, were established in great numbers and gradually spread throughout China.