The majority of traditional Chinese philosophy originates in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States eras, during a period known as the “Hundred Schools of Thought”, which was characterized by significant intellectual and cultural developments. Although much of Chinese philosophy begins in the Warring States period, elements of Chinese philosophy have existed for several thousand years; some can be found in the Book of Changes), an ancient compendium of divination, which dates back to at least 672 BCE. It was during the Warring States era that the major philosophies of China, Confucianism, Mohism, Legalism and Daoism, arose along with philosophies that later fell into obscurity, like Agriculturalism, Chinese Naturalism and the Logicians.
Following the Qin Dynasty, Confucianism became the dominant philosophical school of China. The largest philosophical rivals to Confucianism were Legalism and Mohism before the Han dynasty. Legalism as a coherent philosophy disappeared largely due to its relationship with the unpopular authoritarian rule of Qin Shi Huang; however, many of its ideas and institutions would continue to influence Chinese philosophy until the end of Imperial rule during the Xinhai Revolution. Mohism though popular at first due to its emphasis on brotherly love versus harsh Qin Legalism, fell out of favor during the Han Dynasty due to the efforts of Confucians in establishing their views as political orthodoxy. The Six Dynasties era saw the rise of the Xuanxue philosophical school and the maturation of Chinese Buddhism, which had entered China from India during the Late Han Dynasties. By the time of the Tang Dynasty five-hundred years after Buddhism’s arrival into China, it had transformed into a thoroughly Chinese religious philosophy dominated by the school of Zen Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism became highly popular during the Song and Ming Dynasties, due in large part to the eventual combination of Confucian and Zen Philosophy.
Confucianism represents the collected teachings of the Chinese sage Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 BCE. His philosophy concerns the fields of ethics and politics, emphasizing personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, traditionalism, and sincerity. The Analects stress the importance of ritual, but also the importance of ‘ren’, which loosely translates as ‘human-heartedness’, Confucianism, along with Legalism, is responsible for creating the world’s first meritocracy, which holds that one’s status should be determined by education and character rather than ancestry, wealth or friendship. Confucianism was and continues to be a major influence in Chinese culture, the state of China and the surrounding areas of Southeast Asia.
Although the People’s Republic of China has been historically hostile to the philosophy of ancient China, the influences of past are still deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. In the post-Chinese economic reform era, modern Chinese philosophy has reappeared in forms such as the New Confucianism. As in Japan, philosophy in China has become a melting pot of ideas. It accepts new concepts, while attempting also to accord old beliefs their due. Chinese philosophy still carries profound influence amongst the people of East Asia and Southeast Asia.
Early Shang Dynasty thought was based upon cycles. This notion stems from what the people of the Shang Dynasty could observe around them: day and night cycled, the seasons progressed again and again, and even the moon waxed and waned until it waxed again. This notion, which remained relevant throughout Chinese history, reflects the order of nature. In juxtaposition, it also marks a fundamental distinction from western philosophy, in which the dominant view of time is a linear progression. During the Shang, fate could be manipulated by great deities, commonly translated as gods. Ancestor worship was present and universally recognized. There was also human and animal sacrifice.
When the Shang were overthrown by the Zhou, a new political, religious and philosophical concept was introduced called the “Mandate of Heaven”. This mandate was said to be taken when rulers became unworthy of their position and provided a shrewd justification for Zhou rule. During this period, archaeological evidence points to an increase in literacy and a partial shift away from the faith placed in Shangdi (the Supreme Being in traditional Chinese Religion), with ancestor worship becoming commonplace and a more worldly orientation coming to the fore.
In around 500 BCE, after the Zhou state weakened and China moved into the Spring and Autumn Period, the classic period of Chinese philosophy began (it is an interesting fact that this date nearly coincides with the emergence of the first Greek philosophers). This is known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. This period is considered the golden age of Chinese philosophy. Of the many schools founded at this time and during the subsequent Warring States period, the four most influential ones were Confucianism, Daoism (often spelled “Taoism”), Mohism and Legalism.
Confucianism is a philosophical school developed from the teachings of the sage collected in the Analects of Confucius. It is a system of moral, social, political and religious thoughts that has had tremendous influence on Chinese history, thought, and culture down to the 21st century. Some Westerners have considered it to have been the “state religion” of Imperial China. Its influence also spread to Korea and Japan.
The major Confucian concepts include humanity or humaneness, rectification of names (a ruler who rules unjustly is no longer a ruler and may be dethroned), loyalty, filial piety, and ritual. Confucius taught both positive and negative versions of the Golden Rule. The concepts Yin and Yang represent two opposing forces that are permanently in conflict with each other, leading to perpetual contradiction and change. The Confucian idea of “Rid of the two ends, take the middle” is a Chinese equivalent of Hegel’s idea of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis”, which is a way of reconciling opposites, arriving at some middle ground combining the best of both.
Daoism is a philosophy and later also developed into a religion based on the texts the Dao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi. The character Dao literally means “path” or “way”. However in Daoism it refers more often to a meta-physical term that describes a force that encompasses the entire universe but which cannot be described nor felt. All major Chinese philosophical schools have investigated the correct Way to go about a moral life, but in Taoism it takes on the most abstract meanings, leading this school to be named after it. It advocated non-action, the strength of softness, spontaneity, and relativism. Although it serves as a rival to Confucianism, a school of active morality, this rivalry is compromised and given perspective by the idiom “practice Confucianism on the outside, Taoism on the inside.” Most of Taoism’s focus is on what is perceived to be the undeniable fact that human attempts to make the world better actually make the world worse. Therefore it is better to strive for harmony, minimizing potentially harmful interference with nature or in human affairs.
A ruler should govern his subjects by the following trinity: (a) law or principle; (b) Shu method, tactic, art, or statecraft: and (c) Shi legitimacy, power, or charisma.
Legalism was the chosen philosophy of the Qin Dynasty. It was blamed for creating a totalitarian society and thereby experienced decline. Its main motto is: “Set clear strict laws, or deliver harsh punishment”. Both Shang Yang and Han Fei promoted the absolute adherence to the rule of law, regardless of the circumstances or the person. The ruler, alone, would possess the authority to dispense with rewards and punishments. Ministers were only to be rewarded if their words matched the results of their proposals, and punished if it did not; regardless if the results were worse or better than the claims. Legalism, in accordance with Han Fei’s interpretation, could encourage the state to be a militaristic autarky. The philosophy was highly progressive, and extremely critical of the Confucian and Mohist schools.
The School of Naturalists or the School of Yin-yang; was a Warring States era philosophy that synthesized the concepts of yin-yang and the Five Elements. This theory attempted to explain the universe in terms of basic forces in nature: the complementary agents of yin (dark, cold, female, negative) and yang (light, hot, male, positive) and the Five Elements or Five Phases (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth). In its early days, this theory was most strongly associated with the states of Yan and Qi. In later periods, these epistemological theories came to hold significance in both philosophy and popular belief. This school was absorbed into Taoism’s alchemic and magical dimensions as well as into the Chinese medical framework.
Mohism (Moism), founded by Mozi promotes universal love with the aim of mutual benefit. Everyone must love each other equally and impartially to avoid conflict and war. Mozi was strongly against Confucian ritual, instead emphasizing pragmatic survival through farming, fortification, and statecraft. Tradition is inconsistent, and human beings need an extra-traditional guide to identify which traditions are acceptable. The moral guide must then promote and encourage social behaviors that maximize general benefit. As motivation for his theory, Mozi brought in the Will of Heaven, but rather than being religious his philosophy parallels utilitarianism.
Agriculturalism was an early agrarian social and political philosophy that advocated peasant utopian communalism and egalitarianism. The philosophy is founded on the notion that human society originates with the development of agriculture, and societies are based upon “people’s natural propensity to farm.”
The Agriculturalists believed that the ideal government, modeled after the semi-mythical governance of Shennong, is led by a benevolent king, one who works alongside the people in tilling the fields. The Agriculturalist king is not paid by the government through its treasuries; his livelihood is derived from the profits he earns working in the fields, not his leadership. Unlike the Confucians, the Agriculturalists did not believe in the division of labor, arguing instead that the economic policies of a country need to be based upon an egalitarian self-sufficiency. The Agriculturalists supported the fixing of prices, in which all similar goods, regardless of differences in quality and demand, are set at exactly the same, unchanging price.
Confucianism was particularly strong during the Han Dynasty, whose greatest thinker was Dong Zhongshu, who integrated Confucianism with the thoughts of the Zhongshu School and the theory of the Five Elements. He also was a promoter of the New Text School, which considered Confucius as a divine figure and a spiritual ruler of China, who foresaw and started the evolution of the world towards the Universal Peace. In contrast, there was an Old Text school that advocated the use of Confucian works written in ancient language (from this comes the denomination Old Text) that were so much more reliable. In particular, they refuted the assumption of Confucius as a godlike figure and considered him as the greatest sage, but simply a human and mortal