Chinese philosophy

Chinese philosophy is philosophy written in the Chinese tradition of thought. Chinese philosophy has a history of several thousand years; its origins are often traced back to the Yi Jing (the Book of Changes), an ancient compendium of divination, which uses a system of 64 hexagrams to guide action. This system is attributed to King Wen around 1000 years BCE and the work reflects the characteristic concepts and approaches of Chinese philosophy. The Book of Changes evolved in stages over the next eight centuries, but the first recorded reference is in 672 BCE.

The Tao Te Ching (Dào dé jīng, in pinyin romanisation) of Lao Tzu (Lǎo zǐ) and the Analects of Confucius (Kǒng fū zǐ; sometimes called Master Kong) both appeared around the 6th century BCE, slightly ahead of early Buddhist philosophy and pre-Socratic philosophy.

Confucianism represents the collected teachings of the Chinese sage Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 BC. 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 ability instead of 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.

Throughout history, Chinese philosophy has been molded to fit the prevailing schools of thought and circumstances in China. The Chinese schools of philosophy, except during the Qin Dynasty, can be both critical and yet relatively tolerant of one another. Even when one particular school of thought is officially adopted by the ruling bureaucracy, as in the Han Dynasty, there may be no move to ban or censor other schools of thought. Despite and because of the debates and competition, they generally have cooperated and shared ideas, which they would usually incorporate with their own. For example, Neo-Confucianism was a revived version of old Confucian principles that appeared around the Song Dynasty, with Buddhist, Taoist, and Legalist features in the religion.

During the Industrial and Modern Ages, Chinese philosophy had also began to integrate concepts of Western philosophy, as steps toward modernization. By the time of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, there were many calls, such as the May Fourth Movement, to completely abolish the old imperial institutions and practices of China. There have been attempts to incorporate democracy, republicanism, and industrialism into Chinese philosophy, notably by Sun Yat-Sen (Sūn yì xiān, in one Mandarin form of the name) at the beginning of the 20th century. Mao Zedong blended Marxism with Confucianism and Taoism and other communist thought . The government of the People's Republic of China encourage Socialism with Chinese characteristics. Although, officially, it does not encourage some of the philosophical practices of Imperial China, the influences of past are still deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture. 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 has spread around the world in forms such as the New Confucianism and New Age ideas (see for example Chinese traditional medicine). Many in the academic community of the West remain skeptical, and only a few assimilate Chinese philosophy into their own research, whether scientific or philosophical. However, it still carries profound influence amongst the people of East Asia, and even Southeast Asia.

Brief history

Early beliefs

Early Shang Dynasty thought was based upon cyclicity. 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. Thus, 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.

Hundred Schools of Thought

In around 500 BCE, after the Zhou state weakened and China moved in to 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 (諸子百家; zhūzǐ bǎijiā; "various philosophers hundred schools"). 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.

Imperial era

The short founder Qin Dynasty, where Legalism was the official philosophy, quashed Mohist and Confucianist schools. Legalism remained influential until the emperors of the Han Dynasty adopted Daoism and later Confucianism as official doctrine. These latter two became the determining forces of Chinese thought until the 20th century, with the introduction Buddhist philosophy (mostly during Tang Dynasty) negotiated largely through perceived similarities with Daoism.

Neo-Confucianism was a revived version of old Confucian principles that appeared around the Song Dynasty, with Buddhist, Taoist, and Legalist features. It was later popularized during the reign of the Ming Dynasty.

The respective influences of Daoism and Confucianism are often described this way: "Chinese are Confucianist during the day, while they are Daoists at night". Moreover, many Chinese mandarins were government officials in the daily life and poets (or painters) in their spare time.

Modern era

During the Industrial and Modern Ages, Chinese philosophy had also began to integrate concepts of Western philosophy, as steps toward modernization. By the time of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, there were many calls, such as the May Fourth Movement, to completely abolish the old imperial institutions and practices of China. There have been attempts to incorporate democracy, republicanism, and industrialism into Chinese philosophy, notably by Sun Yat-Sen (Sūn yì xiān, in one Mandarin form of the name) at the beginning of the 20th century. Mao Zedong (Máo zé dōng) added Marxism, Stalinism, and other communist thought.

When the Communist Party of China took over power, previous schools of thought, excepting notably Legalism, were denounced as backward, and later even purged during the Cultural Revolution. Their influence on Chinese thought, however, remains. The current government of the People's Republic of China is trying to encourage a form of market socialism.

Since the radical movement of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government has become much more tolerant with the practice of traditional beliefs. The 1978 Constitution of the People's Republic of China guarantees "freedom of religion" with a number of restrictions. Spiritual and philosophical institutions have been allowed to be established or re-established, as long they are not perceived to be a threat to the power of the CPC. (However, it should be noted that those organizations are heavily monitored by the state.) The influences of the past are still deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture. 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.

See also: Chinese nationalism, Maoism, Culture of the People's Republic of China

Main Schools of Thought


Confucianism is a philosophical school developed from the teachings of the sage Confucius (Kongzi 孔子, 551 479 BCE), collected in the Analects of Confucius. It is a system of moral, social, political, and religious thought 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 rén (humanity or humaneness), zhèngmíng (rectification of names; e.g. a ruler who rules unjustly is no longer a ruler and may be dethroned), zhōng (loyalty), xiào (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.


Despite Confucianism losing popularity to Taoism and Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism combined those ideas into a more metaphysical framework. Its concepts include li (principle, akin to Plato's forms), qi (vital or material force), taiji (the Great Ultimate), and xin (mind).


see also Xuanxue Taoism (Daoism) is a philosophy and later also developed into a religion based on the texts the Tao Te Ching (Dào Dé Jīng; ascribed to Laozi) and the Zhuangzi (partly ascribed to Zhuangzi). The character Tao 道 (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 nonaction (wu wei), 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 "practise Confucianism on the outside, Taoism on the inside." But its main motto is: "If one must rule, rule young" Most of Taoism's focus is on the undeniable fact that human attempts to make the world better, actually make the world worse. Therefore it is better to strife to harmony.


Legalism is a pragmatic political philosophy synthesized by Han Fei. With an essential principle like "when the epoch changed, the ways changed", it upholds the rule of law and is thus a theory of jurisprudence.

A ruler should govern his subjects by the following trinity:

  1. Fa (法 fǎ): law or principle.
  2. Shu (術 shù): method, tactic, art, or statecraft.
  3. Shi (勢 shì): 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"


Buddhism is a religion, a practical philosophy, and arguably a psychology, focusing on the teachings of Gautama Buddha, who lived on the Indian subcontinent most likely from the mid-6th to the early 5th century BCE. When used in a generic sense, a Buddha is generally considered to be someone who discovers the true nature of reality.

Although Buddhism originated in India, it has had a lasting effect on China. Since Chinese tradition focuses on ethics rather than metaphysics, it has developed several schools distinct from the originating Indian schools. The most prominent examples with philosophical merit are Sanlun, Tiantai, Huayan, and Chán (a.k.a. Zen). They investigate consciousness, levels of truth, whether reality is ultimately empty, and how enlightenment is to be achieved. Buddhism has a spiritual aspect that compliments the action of Neo-Confucianism, with prominent Neo-Confucians advocating certain forms of meditation.


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.


The logicians (School of Names) were concerned with logic, paradoxes, names and actuality (similar to Confucian rectification of names). The logician Hui Shi was a friendly rival to Zhuangzi, arguing against Taoism in a light-hearted and humorous manner. Another logician, Gongsun Long, told the famous When a White Horse is Not a Horse dialogue. This school did not thrive because the Chinese regarded sophistry and dialectic as impractical.

Great philosophical figures

  • Confucius, seen as the Great Master but sometimes ridiculed by Taoists.
  • Lao Zi, the chief of Taoist school.
    • Zhuangzi, said to be the author of the Zhuangzi.
    • Liezi, said to be the author of the Liezi.
  • Mozi, the founder of Mohist school.
  • Han Fei, one of the theoreticians of Legalism
  • Lin-chi, a great Buddhist Ch'an thinker and teacher, essentially shaped what would become one of the largest schools of Buddhism (Rinzai school of Zen)

Concepts within Chinese philosophy

Although the individual philosophical schools differ considerably, they nevertheless share a common vocabulary and set of concerns.

Among the terms commonly found in Chinese philosophy are:

  • Tao (the Way, or one's doctrine)
  • De (virtue, power)
  • Li (principle)
  • Qi (vital energy or material force)
  • The Taiji (Great Heavenly Axis) forms a unity, from which two antagonistic concepts, Yin and Yang originate. The word Yin originally referred to a hillside facing away from the sun. Philosophically, it stands the gloomy, passive, female concept, whereas Yang (the hillside facing the sun) stands for the bright, active, male concept. Both concepts, though antagonistic, are also complementary and the present domination of one implies the future rise of the other, as moon's phases (this is one of the meanings of the well-known Yin-Yang figures).

Among the great controversies of Chinese philosophies are:

  • The relation between matter and principle
  • The method of discovering truth
  • Human nature

Among the commonalties of Chinese philosophies are:

  • Epistemological optimism. The belief that the big questions can be answered even if the answers are not currently known.
  • The tendency not to view man as separate from nature.
  • The tendency not to invoke a unified and personified supernatural power. Questions about the nature and existence of God which have profoundly influenced Western philosophy have not been important in Chinese philosophies.
  • The belief that the purpose of philosophy is primarily to serve as an ethical and practical guide.
  • The political focus: most scholars of the Hundred Schools were trying to convince the ruler to behave in the way they defended.

Comparison between Chinese and Western philosophy

The focuses of Western and Chinese philosophy are radically different, thus they have a considerable effect on mentalities of both societies. Western philosophy emphasizes ambition, individualism, rationality, power, and liberty, while Chinese philosophy emphasizes benevolence, harmony, wisdom, family, and honoring one's ancestors. Chinese philosophy primarily focuses more internally, while the focus of Western philosophy is more external.

While Enlightenment Thinking calls for liberty and democracy, Legalism demands unquestioned loyalty to imperial authority. While competition is essential in the ideology of Capitalism, cooperation is seen as the key for harmony in the philosophy of the East. Western philosophers primarily value reason and rationality, while the Far Eastern philosophers generally emphasize meditation and wisdom. This is not to say that Chinese philosophy is irrational, nor to say that Western philosophy is unwise.

Despite their many differences, it would be far from the truth that Western and Chinese philosophy differ completely differently. The two philosophies explored deep into the realms of inquiry and covered similar grounds. Thus, naturally, they would have an ample number of schools that thought similarly. For example, there were philosophers in China, such as the Logicians, that made scientific rationality their chief focus, while there were philosophers in the West, such as Marcus Aurelius, that saw meditation as the path to knowledge. It is just the mainstream philosophical schools that make Western and Chinese philosophy different.


Further reading

  • A History of Chinese Philosophy (Princeton Paperbacks), Feng Youlan, tr. Derk Bodde, 1983.
  • Disputers of the Tao; Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, A. C. Graham, 1989.
  • Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, Arthur Waley, 1983.
  • Chinese Thought, from Confucius to Mao Zedong, Herrlee Glessner Creel, 1971.
  • The Importance of Living, Lin Yutang, 1996.
  • Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy, Antonio S. Cua (Editor), Routledge, 2003.
  • Fung Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (Macmillan, 1948).

See also

External links

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