Ancient Chinese Philosophy



Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism would ultimately absorb other concepts and condemn previous schools of thought.


By Dr. Joshua J. Mark
Professor of Philosophy
Marist College


Introduction

The term Ancient Chinese Philosophy is generally understood to refer to the belief systems developed by various philosophers during the era known as the Hundred Schools of Thought (also The Contention of the Hundred Schools of Thought) when these thinkers formed their own schools during the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 772-476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (c. 481-221 BCE) after the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) had begun to decline. The term Hundred Schools of Thought should be understood figuratively to mean “many”, not literally. The ten schools which developed from this period were:

  • Confucianism
  • Taoism
  • Legalism
  • Mohism
  • School of Names
  • Yin-Yang School
  • School of Minor Talks
  • School of Diplomacy
  • Agriculturalism
  • Syncretism

In addition to these, there were minor schools which attracted adherents but were never formally established:

  • Yangism (Hedonist School)
  • Relativism
  • School of the Military
  • School of Medicine
No contemporary portrait of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (c. 551 to c. 479 BCE) survives but the most popular print during the Imperial period was taken from a now lost original by Wu Daozi (Wu Taoutsi) in the 8th century CE. / Wikimedia Commons

Out of these 14, three would gain prominence and influence – Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism – and either condemn the others outright or absorb their central concepts in whole or in part. The Warring States Period ended when the state of Qin defeated the other six states and founded the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE). Around 213 BCE, the Qin emperor, Shi Huangdi (r. 221-210 BCE) ordered all the books from the Hundred Schools of Thought burned except those on Legalism, his own personal philosophy which became that of the state. The works of the other schools which survived the period known as The Burning of the Books and Burying of Scholars only did so because they were hidden by people at great personal risk.

The Qin Dynasty was succeeded by the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE), which revived learning and an interest in the various philosophical schools of thought. Under the Han emperor Wu Ti (also known as Wu the Great, r. 141-87 BCE), Confucianism was adopted as the state philosophy and would go on, along with Taoism and Legalism, to inform Chinese culture up through the present day.

Warring States and Schools of Thought

The Zhou Dynasty began as a centralized government under King Wu (r. 1046-1043 BCE) but was greatly expanded by his brother, the Duke of Wu (r. 1042-1035 BCE) who succeeded him. The revolts which erupted following the Duke of Wu’s conquests, and the vast territory the Zhou now held, encouraged a change of plan and the Chinese government was decentralized and reorganized as a feudal system in which lords, loyal to the king, governed nearly autonomous states. This worked well as long as the lords were bound by their oaths of loyalty but, in time, the states grew more powerful than the king and the oaths were forgotten as royal authority declined.

The so-called Western Zhou period (1046-771 BCE) transitioned to the Eastern Zhou period (771-256 BCE) when barbarians (probably the Xirong people of the west) invaded and forced the government to move east for better defense. The first part of the Eastern Zhou Period is known as the Spring and Autumn Period after the name of the state chronicles of the time which recorded these events.

The Spring and Autumn Period is the era of the greatest advances in philosophy, Chinese literature, arts, music, and culture overall – even though it was a time of instability – because the scholars and thinkers who were once associated with a state-run organization became displaced, started their own schools (or preached their own vision without a formal school), and attracted followers. As each school of thought differed significantly from the others, this period was later referred to as the time of the Contention of the Hundred Schools of Thought. The term, as scholar Forrest E. Baird notes, suggests “intense philosophical rivalry from the start” as each contended with the others for followers (281). Baird comments:

[Of the major schools] only two of them, the Confucian and Mohist, were schools in the usual sense of ongoing teacher-student communities identified with specific viewpoints. The other [major]“schools” were the fabrication of a Han Dynasty historian; in retrospect, he grouped together unaffiliated individuals of an earlier period who happened to hold similar ideas. Various schools proposed conflicting solutions to the pressing moral, social, and political problems of the chaotic later Zhou Dynasty. (282)  

The Spring and Autumn Period transitioned into the Warring States Period when the seven states stepped up their conflict with each other and plunged the country into almost constant warfare. At this same time, the philosophical schools, for the most, followed suit and criticized each other in order to elevate their own vision at the expense of the others. The most famous example of this is the Confucian scholar Mencius (l. 372-289 BCE) and his criticism of Mo Ti (l. 470-391 BCE) and Yang Zhu (l. 440-360 BCE) and their schools of Mohism and hedonism.  

Philosophers and the Major Schools

Overview

The story of the schools, and the term Hundred Schools of Thought, comes from The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (l. 145/135-86 BCE), the preeminent historian of the Han Dynasty who set the standard for all other Chinese historical texts. The schools and philosophers not touched on by Sima Qian were dealt with by the later Han historians Ban Biao (l. 3-54 CE) and his son Ban Gu (l. 32-92 CE) in their work Hanshu (the Book of Han) and its appendix, the Yiwenzhi (bibliography). Confucianism, by the time Sima Qian was writing, had become the state philosophy and was already exerting considerable influence. It is natural, then, that Sima Qian would tend to favor Confucian thought over the others but he still makes an effort to present the thoughts of the different schools with relative objectivity.

Painted portrait of Sima Qian (c. 145-86 BCE). Although he is commonly referred to as a Chinese historian, he was actually the Grand Astrologer at the court of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141 and 87 BCE). / Zaza Press, Wikimedia Commons

It should be remembered that each of the following schools was developed during a time of war and social upheaval except for Taoism whose core beliefs can be traced back to the peasant class of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE) but is said to have been founded (or at least codified) by the philosopher Lao Tzu (l. c. 500 BCE) at the same time as the others of the Hundred Schools. Each school sought to provide a guideline for the best way to live a harmonious existence during a time of chaos and uncertainty, and each, in one way or another, took its core beliefs from experience and the long-established folk traditions in presenting a view of life which would enable one to live at peace with one’s self and others.   

Confucianism

A statue of Confucius, located in Hunan, China on the shore of the Dongting Lake. No contemporary physical likeness exists of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (c. 551 to c. 479 BCE) but he is most often represented as an old man with long grey hair and moustaches. On occassion he is represented in imperial costume, representing his status as ‘the king without a throne’. / Photo by Rob Web, Flickr, Creative Commons

Confucianism was founded by Confucius (l. 551-479 BCE) who believed that human beings were essentially good and only strayed due to lack of a strong moral standard. If people were thoroughly instructed in how to develop their own individual moral standard, and the ways in which to adhere to that standard, they would then consistently behave well. Confucianism, therefore, stressed the importance of ritual. One could become “good” by observing rituals which made one “good”. One’s adherence to these rituals, whether one cared for them or not, built a strong, moral character which would contribute to a strong, moral community and this would contribute to a sound, moral, and stable state, which would result in the highest level of prosperity and happiness for all.

Taoism

Taoism, conversely, claimed that the more laws, rules, and rituals one made to control others, the more criminals one created simply because the more rules one had to observe, the greater the chances of those rules being broken. There was no need to observe all the Confucian ceremonies and rites, Taoism claimed, because all one needed to do was recognize the existence of the Tao – the universal force which created all things, bound all things, and released all things – which flows naturally through the observable world. All human beings were part of the Tao and, therefore, part of each other. Recognizing that other people had the same basic concerns, feelings, and rights as one’s self would then foster empathy and compassion and one would become a “good person” accordingly. If more people connected with the Tao, the reasoning went, more people would connect on a fundamental level and the state would then mirror this reaction to encourage a national community of unity, equality, oneness, and prosperity.

Legalism

Legalism, founded by Han Feizi (l. c. 280-233 BCE) but based on earlier principles attributed to Yang Mang (d. 338 BCE) of the state of Qin, rejects the tenets of both Confucianism and Taoism in maintaining that humans act only out of self-interest and require strict laws in order to control their natural impulses toward engaging in bad behavior. Left on one’s own, legalism maintains, one will do whatever one likes, regardless of potential circumstance or whomever else might be harmed. The only defense against the chaos of people pursuing their own self-interest is the law which promised harsh penalties for those who failed to observe it to the letter. It was adopted by the Qin Dynasty because their repressive and unpopular policies encouraged widespread dissatisfaction which would have led to rebellion if not for Shi Huangdi’s network of secret police and informants who supported Legalism and had any dissenters arrested.

Mohism

Mohism was founded by Mo Ti (also given as Mot Tzu, Mozi, and Micius) and emphasized universal love as the means to better one’s self and one’s community as well as the concept of consequentialism (one’s actions define one’s character) as the standard of determining who is “good” and who is “bad”. Mo Ti attempted to neutralize the various warring states by providing them with the same defenses and strategies so that none would gain an advantage, would recognize the futility of war, and agree to live in peace. He hoped that the rulers of each state would choose universal love, whereby everyone was treated as a member of one’s own family, over the pursuit of power but his efforts did not meet with success and the wars raged on. His philosophy was largely forgotten once Confucianism was adopted as a state religion by the Han Dynasty but was revived in the 20th century CE under the Communist Party of China.  

School of Names

The School of Names (also given as The Logicians) was founded by logicians Hui Shih (l. c. 380 – c. 305 BCE) and Kung-sun Lung (b. c. 380 BCE) who were interested in how words correlated to the objects they referred to. As scholar John M. Koller puts it, “the main interest of this school was in the relationship between language and reality” (206). The school was entirely theoretical and intellectual as adherents sought to determine how well the word for “chair” (as an example) matched the reality of a physical chair. Although the school was routinely mocked, its precepts would eventually contribute to both Taoist and, especially, Confucian thought in the importance of the precise use of language. Through Confucianism, this school of thought would influence the composition of Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian

Yin-Yang School

The Chinese yin and yang are an important element of Chinese philosophy and religion, representing the principle that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites, the correct balance of which creates harmony. They are mutually dependent and contain at their core an element of their opposite, represented by the dots. Examples of opposite pairs include white-black, masculine-feminine, fire-water and rich-poor. / Dan Carter, Flickr, Creative Commons

The Yin-Yang School (also known as School of Naturalists) was founded by the polymath Zou Yan (l. 305-240 BCE) who was a scholar at the Jixia Academy. The Yin-Yang School taught that all things were in a constant state of flux between being/action (yang principle) and non-being/inaction (yin principle) and the recognition of this pattern explained the natural world as well as one’s place in it. Everything in life was a constant transference of the energies of yin and yang and this maintained balance. Once one realized how the world worked, one would understand that it worked for all people in the same way, not just one’s self, and this would unite people in understanding. Zou Yan’s philosophy was eventually absorbed chiefly by Taoism which, in the modern day, is associated with the symbol of the Yin-Yang.

School of Minor Talks

The School of Minor Talks (also known as the Fictionists) developed out of the practice of the policy of sending government officials into the streets to listen to and report on what the people were saying. This eventually formed the basis of the philosophy of, essentially, the thoughts of the common people. This philosophy never gained a wide following and little is known of who founded it or how it was observed. Its adherents were referred to as the “Fictionists”, presumably, because there was no way to ascertain whether what they reported as having been heard was what they actually had heard.  

School of Diplomacy

The School of Diplomacy, as the name suggests, focused on training in diplomatic politics as a means of improving one’s character and bettering the state. Through training in diplomacy, one learned how to treat others with courtesy while also convincing them of one’s own superior position or policy. This school was eventually absorbed by Confucianism.  

Agriculturalism

Agriculturalism, whose primary advocate was the philosopher Xu Xing (l. c. 372-c. 289 BCE), was an egalitarian philosophy which maintained that social classes led naturally to oppression and everyone, from peasant to king, should work the land equally and benefit from their labor. By doing so, everyone would recognize their connection to one another and would help each other as they wished to be helped themselves. Xu Xing’s philosophy contradicted the basic tenets of Confucianism which emphasized the importance of social structure and was discredited by Mencius.  

Syncretism

A Qing Dynasty print showing Confucius presenting Gautama Buddha to the philosopher Lao-Tzu. / Flickr, Creative Commons

Syncretism attempted to combine the concepts of Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and Mohism in one cohesive philosophical system. The greatest proponent of this school was the Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu (l. 179-104 BCE) who essentially took what suited the Confucian vision from the other three systems. Dong Zhongshu’s Confucianism would eventually form the basis for Neo-Confucianism, which is still observed in China, and around the world, in the modern era.

Conclusion

Among the minor schools, the School of Medicine is the least famous but among the most significant. It was supposedly founded by the legendary physician Qibo who served the Yellow Emperor, among the mythical Five Emperors said to have ruled c. 2852-2070 BCE. Qibo’s works were thought to have been developed by the physician Bian Que (d. 310 BCE) who may have founded the school. It emphasized the importance of health through diet and self-care and Bian Que, or one of his disciples, composed the Huangdi Neijing (Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor), among the oldest medical treatises in the world.

The School of the Military devoted itself to the study of the work of Sun Tzu (l. c. 500 BCE) and his supposed descendent Sun Bin (d. 316 BCE) and their respective treatises on warfare both known as The Art of War. Through military preparedness, it was thought, one maintained order and order naturally encouraged good behavior. Sun Tzu’s and Sun Bin’s works did not encourage war but, rather, emphasized the importance of ending any conflict as quickly as possible – of winning – in order to restore peace and encourage prosperity. Sun Tzu’s work would become a “must-read” in the 1980s CE business world and is still consulted in the present day for business strategies.

Aside from these two were Yangism, the hedonist school founded by Yang Zhu which encouraged individual expression without regard for social custom, and the Relativist school of the sophist Teng Shih (l. 6th century BCE) who, like the later Greek sophist Protagoras (l. c. 485-415 BCE), taught the precept that whatever one believed to be true, was true or, in Protagoras famous phrasing, “Of all things, the measure is Man” meaning that everything is relative because objective reality is necessarily subject to individual interpretation.

These various schools of thought were vigorously suppressed by the Qin Dynasty, except – as noted – for Legalism, but their concepts, and fragments of the founder’s work, were preserved by later writers. When the Han Dynasty restored freedom of speech and lifted the other repressive policies of the Qin, these schools were again brought to light and what remained of their works were incorporated into the major schools of Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism, all three of which have continued to inform Chinese culture for over 2,000 years and have also shaped the philosophies, business practices, and personal lives of people around the world.

Bibliography

  • Baird, F. Heimbeck, R. S. Philosophic Classics: Asian Philosophy. Routledge, 2005.
  • Durant, W. Our Oriental Heritage. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
  • Ebrey, P. B. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Koller, J. M. Asian Philosophies. Prentice Hall, 2007.
  • Leach, M. & Fried, J. Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. Harper & Row, 2004.
  • Sima Qian. The First Emperor. Oxford University Press, USA, 2008.
  • Sima, Qian & Watson, B. Records of the Grand Historian. Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • Waley, A. Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China. Stanford University Press, 2010.

Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 07.06.2020, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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