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Introduction | History of Chinese Philosophy | Major Schools
 
Introduction Back to Top

Chinese Philosophy refers to any of several schools of philosophical thought in the Chinese tradition, including Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, Buddhism and Mohism (see below for brief introductions to these schools). It has a long history of several thousand years.

History of Chinese Philosophy Back to Top

It is known that early Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BC - 1046 B.C.) thought was based on cyclicity, from observation of the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the moon, etc., a concept which remained relevant throughout later Chinese philosophy, and immediately setting it apart from the more linear Western approach. During this time, both gods and ancestors were worshipped and there were human and animal sacrifices.

During the succeeding Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 B.C.), the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was introduced, which held that Heaven would bless the authority of a just ruler, but would be displeased with an unwise ruler, and retract the Mandate.

The "I Ching" (or "Book of Changes") was traditionally compiled by the mythical figure Fu Xi in the 28th Century B.C., although modern research suggests that it more likely dates to the late 9th Century B.C. The text describes an ancient system of cosmology and philosophy that is intrinsic to ancient Chinese cultural beliefs, centring on the ideas of the dynamic balance of opposites, the evolution of events as a process, and acceptance of the inevitability of change. It consists of a series of symbols, rules for manipulating these symbols, poems and commentary, and is sometimes regarded as a system of divination.

In about 500 B.C., (interestingly, around the same time as Greek philosophy was emerging), the classic period of Chinese philosophy (known as the Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought) flourished, and the four most influential schools (Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism and Legalism) were established.

During the Qin Dynasty (also know as the Imperial Era), after the unification of China in 221 B.C., Legalism became ascendant at the expense of the Mohist and Confucianist schools, although the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 220) adopted Taoism and later Confucianism as official doctrine. Along with the gradual parallel introduction of Buddhism, these two schools have remained the determining forces of Chinese thought up until the 20th Century.

Neo-Confucianism (a variant of Confucianism, incorporating elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Legalism) was introduced during the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960 - 1279) and popularized during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644).

During the Industrial and Modern Ages, Chinese philosophy also began to integrate concepts of Western philosophy. Sun Yat-Sen (1866 - 1925) attempted to incorporate elements of democracy, republicanism and industrialism at the beginning of the 20th century, while Mao Zedong (1893 - 1976) later added Marxism, Stalinism and other communist thought. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966 - 1976, most previous schools of thought, with the notable exception of Legalism, were denounced as backward and purged, although their influence has remained.

Major Schools Back to Top

The main schools of Chinese philosophy are:

  • Confucianism:
    This school was developed from the teachings of the sage Confucius (551 - 479 B.C.), and collected in the Analects of Confucius. It is a system of moral, social, political, and quasi-religious thought, whose influence also spread to Korea and Japan. The major Confucian concepts include ren (humanity or humaneness), zhengming (similar to the concept of the Mandate of Heaven), zhong (loyalty), xiao (filial piety), and li (ritual). It introduced the Golden Rule (essentially, treat others as you would like to be treated), the concept of Yin and Yang (two opposing forces that are permanently in conflict with each other, leading to perpetual contradiction and change), the idea of meritocracy, and of reconciling opposites in order to arrive at some middle ground combining the best of both. Confucianism is not necessarily regarded as a religion, allowing one to be a Taoist, Christian, Muslim, Shintoist or Buddhist and still profess Confucianist beliefs. Arguably the most famous Confucian after Confucius himself was Meng Tzu (or Mencius) (372 – 289 B.C.)
  • Taoism:
    Sometimes also written Daoism, Taoism is a philosophy which later also developed into a religion. Tao literally means "path" or "way", athough it more often used as a meta-physical term that describes the flow of the universe, or the force behind the natural order. The Three Jewels of the Tao are compassion, moderation, and humility. Taoist thought focuses on wu wei ("non-action"), spontaneity, humanism, relativism, emptiness and the strength of softness (or flexibility). Nature and ancestor spirits are common in popular Taoism, although typically there is also a pantheon of gods, often headed by the Jade Emperor. The most influential Taoist text is the "Tao Te Ching" (or "Daodejing") written around the 6th Century B.C. by Lao Tzu (or Laozi), and a secondary text is the 4th Century B.C. "Zhuangzi", named after its author. The Yin and Yang symbol is important in Taoist symbology (as in Confucianism), as are the Eight Trigrams, and a zigzag with seven stars which represents the Big Dipper star constellation.
  • Legalism:
    Legalism is a pragmatic political philosophy, whose main motto is "set clear strict laws, or deliver harsh punishment", and its essential principle is one of jurisprudence. According to Legalism, a ruler should govern his subjects accordoing to Fa (law or principle), Shu (method, tactic, art, or statecraft) and Shi (legitimacy, power, or charisma). Under Li Si in the 3rd century B.C., a form of Legalism essentially became a totalitarian ideology in China, which in part led to its subsequent decline.
  • Buddhism:
    Buddhism is a religion, a practical philosophy and arguably a psychology, focusing on the teachings of Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), who lived in India from the mid-6th to the early 5th Century B.C. It was introduced to China from India, probably some time during the 1st Century B.C. Chinese tradition focuses on ethics rather than metaphysics, and it developed several schools distinct from the originating Indian schools, and in the process integrated the ideas of Confucianism, Taoism and other indigenous philosophical systems into itself. The most prominent Chinese Buddhist schools are Sanlun, Tiantai, Huayan and Chán (known as Zen in Japan).
  • Mohism:
    Mohism was founded by Mozi (c. 470 - 390 B.C.) It promotes universal love with the aim of mutual benefit, such that 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. In some ways, his philosophy parallels Western utilitarianism. Although popular during the latter part of the Zhou Dynasty, many Mohist texts were destroyed during the succeeding Qin Dynasty, and it was finally supplanted completely by Confucianism during the Han Dynasty.
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