Ancient China, before the great religions emerged, already saw patterns in nature, had concepts of yin and yang, venerated ancestors, and had other beliefs associated with the Chinese way. Over the centuries, both Daoism and Confucianism developed these ideas further but in different directions.
The Daoists, beginning with Laozi (Lao Tzu), spoke cryptically about nature and its operation and what it meant to live harmoniously with the Dao, the principle or power that makes the universe move through the patterns and rhythms seen in nature. The Daoists saw the veneer of civilization as something artificial or at least far removed from the Dao, the source of all. Disdaining formal education, they advocated a more intuitive path best conveyed through stories or in images such as water. Simplicity, gentleness, humility, seeing the relative nature of things, and a certain earthiness were Daoist values. Yet this apparent ordinariness also embodied a different way of looking at the world and being in it. Daoists sought a special effortless way of acting to accomplish one's purposes, longevity, and often the attainment of extraordinary powers.
Confucius focused on human fulfillment in the social sphere of life, for surely the Dao flowed through the human world just as it did in nature. Troubled by the political turmoil and what he perceived as a decline in civilization, Confucius advocated a program of comprehensive education and the cultivation of special virtues. He wanted both to develop individuals who could be social leaders and to create a harmonious society. He appealed to tradition and the past as a model for the present. In Confucian thinking, to a great extent human beings are their relationships. Careful attention to the duties and obligations of a person's different relationships with others was a central focus. One must live up to the highest expectations or standards of the various social roles one occupied, beginning with the family.
The excellent or noble person would have an inner integrity and a deep consideration for others. This person would have mastered the social graces—all those countless rituals of propriety that allow for smooth interaction between people. The noble person would avoid extremes in life, maintaining equilibrium and harmony. Additionally, the aesthetic sense would be developed, manifested in a love for all the arts associated with civilization, such as poetry and literature, calligraphy, painting, and music. By automatically choosing to do what is right after years of practice and study and by fulfilling one's job duties and social obligations properly, one would be united with the force of the universe.
Despite changes brought by the modern world, Confucian values continue to influence not only China but all of East Asia. They include attention to family and social harmony while observing a hierarchy in both family and society; a respect for the aged; and the valuing of education and self-discipline. Confucian and Daoist values have shaped the arts of China. Ultimately, the two are seen to be complementary, with Confucianism dominating the social realm and Daoism informing one's private life.