Ancient Chinese Philosophy

The teaching Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, 685-758, Tang Dynasty / Wikimedia Commons

Chinese culture as a whole has been shaped by the influence of ancient intellectual leaders.

By Cristian Violatti
PhD Candidate, University of Leicester


Chinese philosophy is the intellectual tradition of the Chinese culture from their early recorded history to the present day. The main topics of Chinese philosophy were heavily influenced by the ideas of important figures like Lao-Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, and Mo Ti, who all lived during the second half of the Zhou Dynasty (8th – 3rd century BCE). Chinese culture as a whole has been shaped by the influence of these intellectual leaders.

Main Attributes

Humanism has been the chief attribute of Chinese philosophy. The role of humans and their place in society has always been the main focus of Chinese thinkers. Practical, moral, and political concerns have been favoured over metaphysical speculation as Chinese philosophy tends to be concerned with worldly affairs.

This does not mean that metaphysical ideas are absent from Chinese thought. An example of an important text of metaphysics in the Chinese tradition is the obscure document named Yi Jing (I-Ching), or “Book of Changes”. Some Chinese used the Book of Changes as a manual of divination. Those who could understand its message, it was believed, would grasp all the laws of nature.

Rather than expressing their thoughts in logical and systematic prose, Chinese thinkers tended to be more poetical. They do not display a strong concern in providing strict rules; the ideas tend to be guidelines only. Texts on Chinese philosophy are often filled with aphorisms, allusions, and parables. The general tendency is to be suggestive: the more an expression is articulated, the less suggestive it is. The sayings and writings of Chinese philosophers are, therefore, often vague so that their meaning is almost boundless.

Historical Development

The basis of this tradition originated during 800-200 BCE, a time of deep political and social change and intellectual awakening in China. The 500-200 BCE period was the zenith, sometimes referred to as the Classical Age of Chinese philosophy. During this time, China saw the gradual disintegration of the Zhou Dynasty, which ended in 256 BCE, when the Qin army took control of the city of Chengzhou. As the end of the Zhou Dynasty approached, the central authority disintegrated. This scenario encouraged a long struggle known as the Warring States Period when various states competed for the control and unification of China.

A map showing the principle state of the Warring States Period in China c. 260 BCE / Philg88, Wikimedia Commons

During much of the Zhou Dynasty, the political organization of China closely resembled a feudal system, with the king of the royal house of Zhou at the head of the social structure and hundreds of princes under him, each of them ruling a state. The land of these states was also divided into different fiefs, each of them controlled by a feudal lord who reported to a prince. Under the feudal lords were the common people who were not part of the aristocracy. This structure was secured by family relations linking all the different rulers with the royal house of Zhou. If family relationships did not exist, they were arranged by marriage. Ultimately, the local lords were expected to accept the authority of the king as the head of a large family.

Under this system, education was only available to aristocrats. While the common people had no access to formal learning, the houses of the feudal rulers were centres of education. As the Zhou dynasty started to deteriorate, many aristocrats lost their lands and titles. As a result, many former court officials, who had training in different branches of learning and art, became unemployed and dispersed among the population. In order to make a living, they would use their specialized skills and teach in return for a fee. For the first time in Chinese history, we see the birth of the professional teacher, different from the court official.

Main Schools of Thought

The breakdown of the social order produced a diverse set of ideas as Chinese thinkers were trying to address and respond to the challenges that society was experiencing. The mix of ideas was so vast, that some ancient writers refer to this time as the ‘Hundred Schools’ of thought. Sima Tan (c. 165-110 BCE), the Grand Astrologer of the Han court, wrote a summary classifying the main schools of thought in ancient China. His list presents just a fraction of the schools of thought that were active in ancient China.

Yin and Yang School (Yin-Yang jia)

Also known as the School of Naturalists, the Yin and Yang School derives its name from the Yin-Yang principles, which in Chinese tradition are regarded as the two major principles of Chinese cosmology: Yin, being the female principle, and Yang the male principle. The combination and interaction of these two opposites is believed by the Chinese to cause all universal phenomena.

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

It is possible that this school had its origin in those court officials who practised occult arts. Some of these obscure practices included astrology, divination, and magic. All aristocratic houses relied on the services of officials trained in several of these occult arts, who were regularly consulted by the rulers.

Confucianism (Ru jia)

Also known as the School of Literati, Confucianism was originally composed of a set of political and moral doctrines with the teachings of Confucius as its basis. Later on, the teachings of Mencius (Meng Zi) and Xunzi (Xun zi) also became part of this school. The humanistic emphasis in Chinese philosophy is largely owed to the enormous influence of Confucianism. During most of Chinese history, Confucianism was seen as the preserver of traditional Chinese values and the guardian of Chinese civilization as such.

A copy of Zhu Xi’s commentary on the ‘Analects’ of Confucius, printed during the Ming dynasty / Photo by AlexHe34, Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that this school originated with those court officials who specialized in teaching the classics and the execution of traditional ceremony and music. After struggling during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), Confucianism emerged as the final and permanent victor during the later Han period (206 BCE – 220 CE) and, thanks to the patronage of the Han Dynasty rulers, it would dominate Chinese thought ever after.

Mohist School (Mo jia)

The leading figure of this school was Mo Ti, also known as Mozi, Mo Tzu or Mo Di, who was the first opponent of Confucius. The followers of this school were organized as a close-knit organization and there was a strict code of discipline in place. The contrast between Confucius and Mo Ti is one of the most interesting in Chinese philosophy. Confucius was very respectful of traditional institutions, rituals, music, and literature of the early Zhou Dynasty, and he tried to rationalize and justify them in ethical terms. Mo Ti, on the other hand, questioned their validity and usefulness and tried to replace them with something that was simpler but, according to his view, more useful. Confucius is seen as the keeper, rationalizer and justifier of the old ways, while Mo Ti was its critic.

The military specialists that were at the service of the royal families during the feudal Zhou Dynasty are believed to be the origin of this movement. The strict discipline practised by the Mohists and the fact that their leaders often had the power to kill school members, might be considered relics of the military origin of the school. As the feudal lords lost their lands, the knights became unemployed, turning into knights-errant. Knights were commonly recruited from the lower class: for this group, the typical values of Confucianism (ritual and music) were meaningless. This could help to explain the negative attitude which the Mohists had for the values of Confucianism.

School of Names (Ming jia)

Sometimes referred to as “sophists” or “logicians”, this school focused its attention on the relation between ming (the name) and shi (the actuality), something like the subject and the predicate. Its members were well known for leading any discussion into paradoxical problems, they were ready to dispute with others and purposely affirmed what others denied and denied what others affirmed.

A famous passage in a book written by Gongsun Long (Kung-Sun Lung), a member of the School of Names, describes the kind of paradoxes that are created when the logicians practised their intellectual tricks:

[…] while riding horseback one day he [Gongsun Long] was stopped by a gatekeeper, who told him that horses were not allowed beyond. Kung-sun [Gongsun Long] announced, “This is a white horse, not a horse!”

(Hucker, 74)

The origin of this group is difficult to identify. Even the school itself is hard to distinguish from other schools: the legacy of its ideas had little impact on Chinese history, and the opinions of its members do not have a homogeneous basis. Some scholars believe that this school originated with the ‘debaters’, who were officials specialized in the art of speaking.

Legalist School (Fa jia)

The word fa means pattern or law. This school was solely concerned with what must be done and how people should and should not behave in order to ensure the flourishing of the state. Because this school is not interested in moral considerations, it is sometimes seen as the opposite thought to Confucianism, which is based on moral principles. From the Legalist standpoint, moral institutions are not a good guide for society and good government should be based entirely on a fixed code of law and practices.

A bronze plaque upon which is engraved an edict from the second emepror of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) in China. (Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto) / Photo by Captmondo, Wikimedia Commons

During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), Legalism became the official state policy, reaching its peak of influence. The bad reputation that later Chinese historians gave to the Qin rulers and the many brutalities that they were accused of ended up undermining the respectability of the Legalist school.

Before the Zhou dynasty began its decline, the feudal society had in place two different principles of conduct: an unwritten code of honour regulating the behaviour of the aristocrats and another code of punishments which applied to the common people. Punishments were used by the rulers to ensure the obedience of their subjects. The origin of the Legalists is believed to be in those ministers responsible for managing these principles of conduct.

Taoism (also Daoism or Dao jia)

As the Zhou Dynasty began to collapse, there were those who became so sceptical of the aptitude of rulers and society itself to put an end to the growing chaos and restore order, that they became hermits and recluses, withdrawing from society, and leading a simple life in solitude. The offshoot of this escapist attitude, some scholars believe, resulted in the development of Taoism. It challenges many of the ideas of Confucianism by focusing on individual life over social duty and spirituality over worldliness. In fact, Confucian texts describe many episodes where recluses would mock Confucius and his useless efforts (in the recluses’ views) in trying to improve society. The Taoist way of life follows simplicity, spontaneity, and non-action or inactivity (letting nature do her job).

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

Taoist philosophy is centred around a concept hard to define, the Tao (Dao) or Way, described by Wing-tsit Chan as “the One, which is natural, eternal, spontaneous, nameless and indescribable”.

The number one work of this tradition is the Laozi (Lao Tzu) or Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), sometimes translated as Classic of the Way and of Virtue. Taoist tradition credits the creation of this text to Lao Tzu, an older contemporary of Confucius, but scholars today believe that the work had multiple authors.


Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 06.17.2015, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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