"Confucianism" is often taken as a metonym for "Chinese culture." It's easy to see why: the educated elite in imperial China, who themselves had to master the Confucian classics, had a material interest in asserting the cultural preeminence of those works. The bureaucratic civil service exam, a political invention of the Han dynasty not found in the pre-Qin texts, melded Confucian philosophy and state power together in a powerfully hegemonic union.
But "Chinese culture" has always been more than "Confucianism." It includes other philosophical and religious perspectives: Legalism, Daoism, Buddhism, the "school of names" Mohism, and others. "Culture" is a vague and expansive terms, which includes many other aspects of human life: architecture, cuisine, dress, aesthetics, etc. Reducing the vastness of cultural belief and production and performance in historical China to a single, and far from all-encompassing, rubric - "Confucianism" - is obviously flawed. But it's done all the time, perhaps because "Chinese culture" is so large and complex. You have to start somewhere to get a sense of it and Confucianism might well seem to be the best point of entry.
The danger, however, is, when starting with Confucianism, we might come to assume that this is somehow the core of Chinese culture, the pivot around which all the other elements rotate. If we fall into that assumption we could be distorting our view, buying into a perspective that imperial power holders preferred but one that limits our capacity to appreciate the full significance of other cultural elements. Indeed, it is not surprising at all that CCP apparachiks chose "Confucius Institutes" as the name for thieir Chinese as a foreign language programs.
So, let's do a little thought experiment as an antedote to the usual cultural preeminence that is granted to Confucianism: how might we understand Daoism as the core of Chinese culture? Here are some ideas (and a quick caveat: I do not mean to imply here that "Chinese culture" can be expressed in these terms alone - this is not a "Chinese characteristics" exercise. Just pushing against the Confucian mainstream...):
- Daoism instills a certain detachment; that is, a person following Dao, in a Daoist manner, will let go of instrumental and emotional attachments to things and people and expectations. We cannot control our fates, so when circumstances move in a direction we were not expecting or do not desire, acceptance is the natural response. To some, this might smack of "fatalism," which can have measurable socio-cultural effects. To others, this could be seen as a healthy understanding of the limits of human efficacy in the world (this is my personal preference). However we interpret it, we can note that Daoist acceptance has long been present and important in Chinese worldviews. Maybe that is why Lu Xun was purported to have said: "Daoism is the root of Chinese culture." (I cannot find a specific textual reference for this statement. Suggestions welcome!). Lu saw this as a problem (if we see "The True Story of "Ah Q" as holding a critique of Daoism...), but we needn't agree with that interpretation while accepting the more basic point of Daoism's cultural centrality.
- Everybody reads the Daoist classics. And by everybody I mean the educated elite in China throughout history. An old saw (again, no specific textual references. Help!) had it that a person was (had to be?) a Confucian during his or her working life, but a Daoist in retirement (or a Confucian during the working day and a Daoist in the evening). This suggests that while Confucianism had a certain material advantage, being the curriculum one had to master to gain access to government position and material wealth, Daoism is what everyone really aspired to. Daoist-like thinking even makes an appearance in the earliest Confucian texts. Analects 15.5 reads:
The Master said: 'If anyone has managed to rule by doing nothing, surely it was Shun. And how did he do so much by doing nothing? He just sat reverently facing south, that's all!" (Hinton)
Yes, that would be a direct statement of wu-wei - 無為 - right in the middle of this Confucian classic. And that suggests that either: 1) Confucianism is rooted in ideas that later emerged (and likely contemporaneously circulated orally or otherwise) as distinctly "Daoist" (see an interesting discussion here; may be paywalled ); or 2) that some Daoists got hold of an early version of The Analects and mischievously inserted a few passages that gets their ideas across. Perhaps the most famous example is the "madman of Chu" in Analects 18.5, though 18.6 and 18.7 also fit this bill.
The point here is that Daoism has always been around and many, many people have engaged with Daoist ideas all through Chinese history. Indeed, we might see Confucianism as an attempt to counter a more powerfully entrenched socio-cultural orientation. Confucius and Mencius and others had to work quite hard to get their ideas across, and in their own times they failed to do so (or at least they failed in terms of gaining the kind of widespread political-cultural effects they seemed to desire). Maybe Confucianism is simply a prescriptive reaction against an empirically more influential Daoist culture.
- Daoism has a broader cultural influence than Confucianism because it is conventionally practiced as a religion in a much more prevalent manner than Confucianism. This is true in its own right, as Daoist religion is extensively practiced in all Chinese cultural locations, but also in its combination with Buddhism, which yields Chan (or Zen) Buddhism. We can argue about whether Confucianism is a "religion" or not (I tend toward the "not" position) but there is no question about the religious expressions of Daoism. And this is important, as it gives to Daoism a practical existence that Confucianism might lack. When somebody dies, more people look for a Daoist "priest" not a Confucian scholar.
Those are just some rough thoughts. But perhaps they are enough to begin to fulfill my purpose here: to destabilize an over-simplistic identification of "Confucianism" and "Chinese Culture." Daoism is just as important; indeed, it might be more central to Chinese culture than Confucianism. And it might have been smarter for the PRC government to name its Chinese language organizations "Laozi Institutes" or "Zhuangzi Institutes"...