(Clearwisdom.net) Ancient people believed that "Tao" created the universe and that "Tao" was the origin of all things and the reason for everything. Traditional Chinese culture was bestowed upon human beings by the Divine, and it developed in line with the Tao and was rooted in the Tao. The ancient sages and men of virtue came to the human world to educate and cultivate the masses of people, enabling them to respect morality and follow the Tao.

The main content of traditional Chinese culture included orthodox beliefs, ethical principles, moral values, rites and protocols, ways of life, customs and habits, cultural arts, and so on. The ideology behind it was rooted in the thoughts and theories of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, so the culture held profound inner meanings. The purpose of this article is to discuss a few of such concepts: the integration of man and nature, the beauty of harmony, and the values of life.

    1. The Origin of Culture

The phrase "wen hua" (culture) first appeared in the book Yi Shu, which says, "Observe astronomy to detect changes; be concerned about humanity to influence the world." The concepts of astronomy, physical geography, and humanity were considered very important in Chinese tradition. Heaven, earth, and man were regarded as the three talents. With regard to astronomical phenomena, in the first passage in "Huang Di Shu," it says, "Observe the Tao of heaven, and carry it out in action, and that's all one needs to do." It means that if people can clearly observe astronomical phenomena and standardize social morals and individual conduct accordingly, then that's already perfect. In the book Shuo Wen, it says, "The phenomena of the Tao is called 'wen;' 'hua' is education," which means to educate society according to astronomical phenomena, which is also the origin of culture.

Here, the phrases "humanity" and "astronomy" are mentioned together to indicate that the principles and norms in the human world should conform to the law of heaven and to the principles of the universe. In history, sages, men of virtue, and cultivators who enlightened to the truth and put it into practice all acted according to the will of Heaven; they cultivated themselves, validated the Tao, and educated the people. According to historical records, Fuxinshi invented the Eight Trigrams; Shennongshi discovered medicinal herbs by tasting more than a hundred kinds of herbs and grasses; Yao, Shun and Yu ruled by virtue and led the people to carry out the will of Heaven; Emperor Wen in the Zhou Dynasty could predict what would happen with miraculous accuracy; Laozi inherited ancient culture; the Book of Changes recorded regular patterns of heaven and earth, yin and yang, the universe, society, and human life; and Confucius promoted Confucian culture to maintain peace and prosperity for the country. Chinese people's belief in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism established a stable, moral system, which laid a foundation for continued existence, stability, and harmony.

    2. The Main Content and Values of Traditional Chinese Culture

The teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism constitute the core of traditional Chinese culture, which not only influenced people's mental attitudes, but also gave rise to the common beliefs and integrity of the Chinese nation. The national characteristics reflected in Chinese culture include respect for heaven and gods, for manners and righteousness, and for virtue and kindness. The Tao School puts an emphasis on "truthfulness," whereas the Buddha School emphasizes "compassion." Confucianism pays attention to "benevolence, justice, rites, wisdom and trust." All of this reflects people's search to understand the essence of life and enlightenment, as well as answers to such questions as where did humans come from, where will they return to, is there a higher meaning to life and an infinite value, how should human beings behave, and how can they elevate their moral realms to reach the standards for Buddhas, Taos, and Gods. They also offer spiritual guidance.

In a specific sense, the history of 24 Chinese dynasties is a collection of biographies of righteousness and faith, characterized by examples that show "one must not engage in conduct that is loose in morals even though one is wealthy; one's will must not be moved even if he is poor; one must not be subdued by power and military force." The moral starting point of the traditional culture was the code of conduct and what spiritual elevation relied on, which not only became an infinite spiritual resource for later generations, but also directly contributed to vigorous growth and the enhancement of Chinese traditional literature, music, painting, calligraphy and all kinds of arts. The deep inner meaning in the Chinese traditional moral outlook can only be understood and experienced through spiritual and moral elevation with righteous beliefs.

The strength of traditional morality and beliefs can end world disputes and conflicts, and provide a more profound peace. In the face of chaotic world affairs and difficulties, this strength can make it possible for people to have a piece of pure land in their soul and maintain this tranquility. In the face of conflicts between self-interests and morality, it enables people to still maintain a bottom line of morality so that they do not become lost and confused, do not betray their will and conscience, do not sink to a low level, and always see hope. If people can comply with heavenly principles, they may even become sages or individuals of virtue or deities and Buddhas who validate the great Tao, save sentient beings, and become immortal. If moral civilization is lost, fabricated, evil tendencies will find their way in to lead people onto evil paths.

    3. Special Characteristics of Traditional Culture

China's five thousand years of culture have weathered the entire course of human civilization. It has demonstrated enormous strength in integration and vitality. Its enormous inclusiveness is reflected in its cultural principles of diversity and openness, and this has served to create its special disposition and tradition of "incorporating things of different natures" and "being tolerant of different kinds of people." It follows the principle of "maintaining harmony while acknowledging differences" and "seeking common ground while reserving differences." Its spirit in viewing the outer world with profound virtue, and its philosophical principle of "harmony" is fully reflected in the Taoist doctrine of "inaction," the Confucian idea of "benevolence and righteousness", and the Buddha School's spirit of "compassion." It is just as Laozi said, "the softest can handle the hardest," "becoming a high mountain by not refusing any handful of earth; forming an enormous sea by not abandoning any small streams." In the most prosperous Tang Dynasty, politics were well-ordered; the economy was prosperous, and the culture was open-minded. When the principles of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism were widely promoted, it enabled the society to maintain rather high moral standards, achieving a brilliance that attracted the attention of the world and influenced other countries.

    4. The Essence of Traditional Culture

    A. The universal outlook of "the integration of nature and man"

"Nature and man are integrated as one." This is the core element of traditional Chinese ideology, and it has played a leading role in traditional Chinese culture; it bears deep significance in areas such as moral values and aesthetic conceptions. The Book of Changes defined heaven, earth, and man as the "three major elements." The Book of Changes also says, "Change means endless procreation" and "the greatest virtue of heaven and earth is their procreation of lives." Human beings should "continue" with the "kindness" of heaven and earth, "form" the "nature" of heaven and earth, the "space" and "width" were "created" by heaven and earth; "to be knowledgeable about all things, and use the Tao to benefit the world," so as to achieve the "virtuous state of nature and man integrated as one."

Traditional culture holds God's will in awe, believing that heaven created man and all things, and bestowed upon them virtues and kind nature; it also laid down the law. Heaven and man correspond to each other, communicate with each other, and are united as one. Confucius said when summarizing his pattern of life, "I committed myself to learning at the age of 15; established myself at the age of 30; became clear-headed at the age of 40; and at the age of 50, I knew about God's will..." Mencius said, "Maintaining a clear heart and fostering God-given nature--this is the way to serve Heaven." Both the Buddha School and the Tao School talk about cycles and believe in samsara and that good and evil will meet their due fate. In the passage "Yue Shu" in the Records of the Grand Historian, it says, "Heaven and Man are interlinked, like the relationship between body and its shadow and air; people who do good deeds will be rewarded with good fortune; people who do bad things will be met with disaster. It is like if one plants melons, he will get melons, and if he plants beans he will get beans. It is just such a natural reasoning. Therefore, when one is attuned to the Tao of Heaven, one can understand human affairs."

Emperors in ancient China attached the greatest importance to offering sacrifices to gods and singing the praises of influence and guidance from Heaven and Earth. It was considered a virtuous deed to conform to the mandate of Heaven, and people would be rewarded for doing so; otherwise they would be punished by Heaven. Sages took delight in carrying out the Tao, without placing pursuit of their own good fortune as the first priority. If one does good deeds in order to gain good fortune, then there is already an element of selfishness in his heart. Therefore one should do his best to conform to the mandate of Heaven without the slightest pursuit for personal gain. It is one's duty to do good deeds and to repel the evil, and if one can try his best to do this with a sincere heart, Heaven would be moved by his efforts.

    B. "Keeping to the doctrine of the mean" and "achieving harmony"

In the book Doctrine of the Mean, it is said, "Keeping to the doctrine of the mean is most fundamental in the world; achieving harmony will keep the road clear and smooth. When harmony is achieved, Heaven and Earth will stay in their right states, and all things will grow." The fundamental theory of the doctrine of the mean is based on the concept of the integration of nature and man as one, and it also serves as a principle for moral cultivation. Confucianism believes that all conflicts between other things and oneself, between other people and oneself, between reasoning and desires, and between people should be regulated by the principle of the doctrine of the mean and by maintaining harmony, in order to achieve the state of sincerity and kindness. Then Heaven, Earth, and all things will each have a role to play and all will reach the realm of harmony.

Confucius said, "A gentleman keeps to the doctrine of the mean, whereas a malicious man goes against it. The reason a gentleman keeps to the doctrine of the mean is because he is in that state at all times, and he never does more or less; a malicious man goes against the doctrine of the mean, because he is unscrupulous and always goes to extremes."

Zhu Xi said, "Keeping to the middle way is a righteous way, and the golden mean is a defined law." It says in Lun Yu, "In the application of rites, the most precious is to maintain harmony, and of the ways taken by rulers in the past, this is the most precious." Rulers in the past stipulated rites and created music to regulate people's code of conduct and educate the country, and they treated maintaining harmony of the land under heaven as their sacred historic mission. The Chinese nation has, since ancient times, attached importance to "maintaining harmony" and respecting the golden mean, and they relied on benevolence and virtues to keep the world in harmony. Song Yeshi said in Doctrine of the Mean, "Ancient people applied the mean, and, therefore, Heaven and Earth played their respective roles, and all things grew themselves; the emperors and court officials we know who followed the same principle include Yao, Shun, Yu, Tang, Wen, and Wu; if you do the same, then illegal conduct will not find its way in."

Ancient people paid attention to harmony between man and heaven and earth. With regard to interpersonal relations, Xunzi also put forward the concept of the "collective Tao." He believed that the reason people could live together was because there were differentiated roles and there was morality and justice; people should not harm others for their own desires and interests, and should care for and be kind and tolerant towards one another. The Confucian principles in handling interpersonal relations mainly include benevolence, justice, rites, wisdom, and trust. The principles they promoted, such as "benevolence," "don't do to others what one does not want done to himself," "remember what is right at the sight of profit," and "if people have no faith in a person, there is no standing for that person," became traditional virtues of the Chinese nation.

    C. Values of life

In the book Shi.Daya.Zhengmin, it says, "Heaven created the masses of people, and there are things and principles. The nature of people came from the nature of heaven." From the universal perspective of "nature and man integrated as one," the principles of Chinese traditional culture advocate that one should start by perfecting himself, "from the emperor to the common people, everyone should treat self-cultivation as the most important." It believed that people could reach a realm of "nature and man integrated as one" through cultivation and could communicate directly with the Tao and with gods. Confucianism advocates "self-cultivation, family-regulation, and good government to maintain peace and harmony on earth." Confucius advocated that one must conduct oneself well, even when he is alone, and one must examine oneself; one should have far-reaching aspirations and mold noble characters; be upright and not go beyond principles. Zhu Xi believed that a gentleman should have an upright manner with a righteous heart and sincerity. The Tao School pays attention to returning to one's true self and cultivating to become a true person. The Buddha School emphasizes the cultivation of kindness, to ultimately reach the realm of Buddha.

Chinese traditional culture pays attention to benevolence, to conforming to the mandate of Heaven, to being content with a simple but virtuous life, to being strict with oneself in all aspects while being tolerant towards others, and to thinking about others and helping others. Lao Zi advocated that one must follow the Tao in his conduct, act according to the principles, direct one's action according to the circumstances, let things happen naturally, and be calm and tolerant. Confucius believed that people should show compassion to everyone equally. Mencius said, "The highest virtue of a gentleman is to be kind towards others."

In Chinese traditional culture, the teachings and concepts of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism had a deep influence on the Chinese people from generation to generation. People regarded the pursuit of truth and virtue as the most important, and they remained firm in their principles regardless of the circumstances. Zhuanzi once said, "A noble man is like a god. He would not feel the heat if lakes were burning, would not feel the cold if rivers were frozen, and would not be moved in the face of ferocious thunder and wind." For thousands of years, countless people with lofty virtue were widely praised, such as Tao Yuanming, who refused to curry favor for personal gains; Zhu Geliang, who could foresee events; Yue Fei, who was renowned for his loyalty to the country; Lu You, who was deeply concerned about his country and people.... These people were the backbone of the Chinese nation. They rose above personal loss and gain; they were upright and uncorrupted, cared about the people and were loyal to the country. Their upright deeds were recorded in history and have shone down through thousands of years. It is such values and the pursuit of truth that have pushed the Chinese nation forward through difficulties and hardships over its long history.

Traditional culture was bestowed upon man by the Divine, and humans were created by God. The core of traditional and righteous beliefs is to teach people to be good and to act according to the law of the universe, so as to achieve harmony between man and the universe. The purpose and significance of the Divinely-inspired culture lies in guiding people to measure things against moral standards and to maintain a righteous state of understanding principles that define "good and bad" and "righteous and evil." It also encourages people to pursue truth so that their true self will have a beautiful future. Its moral values and profound inner meanings also comprise an even more significant, sacred mission bestowed by history.