Chinese Philosophy

Special thanks to the Microsoft Corporation for their contribution to our site.  The following information came from Microsoft Encarta. Here is a hyperlink to the Microsoft Encarta home page.

Chinese Philosophy
, collective designation for the various schools of thought originated by Chinese scholars and sages. Chinese philosophy has passed through three distinct historical stages: the classical age, a creative period from the 6th to the 2nd century BC; the medieval age, from the 2nd century BC to the 11th century AD, a period of synthesis and absorption of foreign thought; and the modern age, from the 11th century to the present, a period of maturation of earlier philosophical trends and introduction of new philosophies from the West. Throughout all these periods, Chinese thought has tended toward humanism rather than spiritualism, rationalism rather than mysticism, and syncretism rather than sectarianism.

Classical Age

The classical age of Chinese philosophy occurred in the late years of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty, which lasted from about 1027 BC to 256 BC. During this era of political and social turmoil, feudal states long subordinate to the house of Zhou gained economic and military strength and moved toward independence. When their power eclipsed that of Zhou, feudal bonds were broken, and widespread interstate warfare broke out in the 5th century BC, developing into political anarchy in the 4th and 3rd centuries. Meanwhile, the social and economic changes resulting from new currents of trade and commerce were disrupting the simple agricultural society. In this climate of political anarchy and social upheaval a new class of scholar-officials emerged, consisting of men who aspired through their learning and wisdom to reunify the empire and restore order to society.

Confucius and Later Disciples

The most important of these scholars was Confucius, a minor aristocrat and official of the state of Lu, in the present Shandong Province, who spent most of his life in the late 500s and early 400s BC as an itinerant scholar-teacher and adviser to the rulers of various states. To reestablish order and prosperity, he advocated a restoration of the imperial government, social and family organizations, and the rules of propriety prescribed in the classical literature of the early Zhou dynasty. The most important element in his system, however, was the individual. Confucius taught that each human being must cultivate such personal virtues as honesty, love, and filial piety through study of the models provided in the ancient literature. This would bring harmony to the graded hierarchy of family, society, and state. The most important individuals were the ruler and his advisers, because their standards of virtuous conduct would set an example for the realm.

Confucius did not speak directly on such basic issues of his day as the nature of human beings, the rights of the people against tyrannical rulers, and the influence of the supernatural in human affairs. Two of his 4th and 3rd century BC disciples, Mencius and Hsün-tzu, did much to clarify these issues. Mencius asserted that human nature was basically good and that it could be developed not only by study, as Confucius had taught, but also by a process of inner self-cultivation. Like Confucius, Mencius accepted the hierarchically ordered feudal society in which he lived, but he placed far greater stress on the responsibilities of the ruler for the welfare of the people. The Zhou rulers held their position under a doctrine known as the Mandate of Heaven; Heaven was thought to be the impersonal authority governing all the operations of the universe. Mencius held that the Mandate of Heaven was expressed by the acceptance of a ruler by the people. If the people rose up and overthrew a tyrant, it was proof that Heaven had withdrawn its mandate. In the name of Heaven Mencius claimed for the Chinese people the right of rebellion. Hsün-tzu took an exactly opposite view of human nature; he asserted that rebellion was fundamentally evil. Hsün-tzu, however, was sufficiently optimistic to believe in people's unlimited capacity for improvement. He taught that through education, the study of the classics, and the rules of propriety, virtue could be acquired and order could be reestablished in society. Hsün-tzu thus endowed Confucianism with a philosophy of formal education and a tendency toward rigid rules for the regulation of human conduct.

Taoism and Other Important Schools

The second great philosophy of the classical age was Taoism. The philosopher Lao-tzu, who probably lived during the 6th century BC, is usually regarded as the founder of this school. Whereas Confucianism sought the full development of human beings through moral education and the establishment of an orderly hierarchical society, Taoism sought to preserve human life by following the Way of Nature (Tao) and by reverting to primitive agrarian communities and a government that did not control or interfere with life. Taoism attempted to bring the individual into perfect harmony with nature through a mystical union with the Tao. This mysticism was carried still further by Chuang-tzu, a Taoist philosopher of the late 4th century BC, who taught that through mystical union with the Tao the individual could transcend nature and even life and death.

Among the other important schools of this period were Mohism, Naturalism, and the Dialecticians. Mohism, founded by Mo-tzu during the 5th century BC, taught strict utilitarianism and mutual love among all people regardless of family or social relationships. During the 4th century BC, naturalism offered an analysis of the workings of the universe based upon certain cosmic principles. The best known of these were yin and yang, which represented the interacting dualities of nature, such as female and male, shadow and light, and winter and summer. Also in the 4th century BC, dialecticians moved toward a system of logic by analyzing the true meaning of words so as to avoid the logical pitfalls inherent in language.


Legalism emerged as the dominant philosophy in the state of Qin (Ch’in) during the chaotic years of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Two disciples of Hsün-tzu, Han-fei-tzu and Li Ssu, were respectively, the leading philosopher and the leading practitioner of legalism. Basing their ideas on Hsün-tzu's teachings that human nature was incorrigibly evil and that strict controls were needed to regulate human conduct, the legalists developed a political philosophy that emphasized strict laws and harsh punishments in the control of every aspect of human society. All personal freedom was subordinated to their objective of creating a strong state under a ruler of unlimited authority.

Legalism proved an effective instrument in creating a powerful and totalitarian military and economic machine in the state of Qin. By 221 BC, Qin had succeeded in conquering the other feudal states and establishing the first imperial dynasty of China, a unified, centrally-administered empire characterized by strict laws, harsh punishment, rigid thought control (for example, the burning of all nonlegalist books in 213 BC), government control of the economy, and enormous public works projects, such as the Great Wall, accomplished with forced labor and at great cost in human life.

It was not long before the oppressive rule of the Qin dynasty drove the Chinese people to rebellion. In 206 BC a rebel leader of plebeian origin proclaimed the Han dynasty. The legalist-inspired centralized administration was retained (it endured in principle until 1912), but government controls over the economy and ideology were relaxed. Numerous beliefs that had flourished during the late Zhou dynasty were resurrected and reexamined with a view toward establishing a system of thought of adequate compass and sophistication to serve as a philosophical basis for the new and vastly expansive Han empire.

Han Confucianism

Basing their ideas largely on Hsün-tzu's concept of the universe as a triad of heaven, earth, and humanity, the Confucian philosophers of the Han welded a system of thought that incorporated the yin-yang cosmology of the naturalists; a Taoist concern for perceiving and harmonizing with the order of nature; Confucian teachings on benevolent government, rule by virtuous leaders, and respect for learning; and legalist principles of administration and economic development. They hoped that this all-encompassing philosophy would give the ruler and the government the knowledge to understand the heavenly and earthly sectors of the triad and the means necessary to regulate the human sector so as to coordinate it with heaven and earth and establish perfect harmony in the universe. The rationalistic systematization that prompted this formulation eventually led to farfetched notions and superstitions to explain the mysterious workings of heaven and earth. Although Han Confucianism was supported by the government from 136 BC and subsequently became the required learning for government service, its excessive superstitiousness produced a camp of opposition during the first several centuries AD, and the school divided over questions of the authenticity of classical texts.

Medieval Age

During the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, a variety of social and economic causes brought the downfall of the Han dynasty, leading to political disunity and foreign invasion. The philosophical void created by the collapse of Han Confucianism was filled by Taoism and also by Buddhism, a philosophy then new to China. One group of Taoist philosophers attempted to reconcile the Confucian teachings of social responsibility with the naturalness and mysticism of Taoism; a second group sought escape from the troubled environment through the belief in pleasure as the only good.


Buddhism filtered into China from India and central Asia from the 1st to the 6th century. Language difficulties at first hampered the Chinese in their attempts to grasp the philosophical subtleties of the Indian system. Between the 3rd and 8th centuries, however, Buddhist doctrine was translated and disseminated through all levels of Chinese society by Chinese pilgrims returning from India and by the great Central Asian translator Kumarajiva. The teachings of Buddhism were basically religious, offering escape from the sufferings of life and the endless reincarnation caused by human desires into an indescribable state of no desire known as Nirvana. Buddhism was also of great philosophical importance, because the formulas for achieving Nirvana that it brought to China included sophisticated metaphysical explanations of the nature of existence.

The development of Buddhism in China was shaped by the Chinese predilection for syncretism, the reconciliation of opposing religious creeds. Indian Buddhism was divided into sects, some holding that the basic elements of existence were real (realism) and others that they were unreal or empty (idealism). Neither of these extreme positions could satisfy Chinese Buddhist philosophers of the T'ien T'ai sect, who formulated the "Perfectly Harmonious Threefold Truth" to explain the nature of existence. This doctrine held that although things are fundamentally empty, they have a temporary existence, and this is the true nature of all things in the universe. The syncretic metaphysics of the T'ien T'ai sect made the greatest doctrinal contribution to Buddhism; but the Meditation sect that taught the direct intuitive method of penetrating the true nature of the universe had far broader appeal and permanence in China. This sect is better known in the Western world under its Japanese name of Zen Buddhism.

Syncretistic Period

The reunification of China under the Sui dynasty from 589 to 618 and the Tang dynasty from 618 - 907 ushered in several hundred years of religious and philosophical syncretism involving Taoism, Buddhism, and resurgent Confucianism. Although Buddhism was dominant initially, Confucianism alone among these three schools offered a political and social philosophy suited to the needs of a centralized empire. Consequently, it was reestablished as the basis for the education of prospective officials, and the educated official class became increasingly Confucian. This fact, as well as fear on the part of the government regarding growing church power, resulted in persecutions of Buddhists and Taoists and their ultimate decline. Taoism, however, lived on as a philosophy espoused by many educated Chinese in their personal lives and in their relationships with nature.

It was not until the Song dynasty, after China had undergone another period of political disunion from 907 to 959 known as the Five Dynasties, that Confucianism was reinstated. Neo-Confucianism grew out of the renewed study of the classics required for the imperial civil service examinations, and attempted to reinforce Confucian ethics with a metaphysical foundation. In so doing, it unconsciously took over some of the forms of Buddhism and Taoism, although in substance it was quite different. Neo-Confucianism taught that a principle existed for all things in the universe; it sought to discover the principle and held the knowledge of principle would unite the individual with the universe and guide him or her in personal, social, and political relations. Buddhism, on the contrary, had taught that all things in the universe were ultimately empty; it sought to enlighten its followers to this and held that enlightenment would lead the individual to reject mundane affairs. Taoism did not regard the universe as empty, but it sought to lead the individual away from human society and even to transcend life and death.

Modern Age

Neo-Confucianism found expression in three schools. These schools were the School of Principle (rationalism), the School of Mind (idealism), and the School of Practical Learning (empiricism).

School of Principle

The metaphysical speculation of the 11th century was synthesized in the 12th century by the great Neo-Confucian Chu Hsi, who developed the doctrines of the School of Principle. In the 14th century these doctrines were adopted for the imperial civil service examinations, remaining the same until 1905. This school asserted that all things were composed of two elements: principle (li), which was a reflection of the Great Ultimate (Tai-chi), and matter (ch'i). Through the "investigation of things," which came to mean the study of human affairs as recorded in the classics, and through self-cultivation, one could penetrate matter and perceive principle. This study would result in an understanding of all things and at the same time accentuate the principle (the fundamentally good human nature), and minimize ch'i (the physical propensities) in one's mind. Thus enlightened, the individual could comprehend the affairs of the universe and regulate them through the power of personal virtue.

School of Mind

The Neo-Confucian School of Mind originated in the 11th and 12th centuries, but it was not until the late 15th century that it found a formidable spokesperson in the scholar-statesman Wang Yang-ming. Following the early teachings of the school, Wang held that the mind was not a combination of li and ch'i but pure li, or principle. Because the mind was pure principle, unencumbered by ch'i, it had the essential goodness of human nature. All people therefore possessed innate good knowledge and need only look within their minds to find it. Wang held, moreover, that truly good knowledge must have a practical consequence. This led him to conclude that knowledge and action formed an inseparable unity. He advocated a philosophy that started with discovery of principle, or knowledge of the good, in one's mind and carried the promptings of the mind into virtuous actions beneficial to society. After Wang's death, the School of Mind veered toward the practice of Zen-like meditation to achieve enlightenment. Eventually this led one group of his followers into subjectivism, a kind of spontaneous response to all natural urges. This trend was associated with the weakening of Chinese government during the latter years of the Ming dynasty, which ended in 1644.

School of Practical Learning

During the early Qing, or Manchu, dynasty, beginning in 1644, Confucian philosophers reexamined the Ming civilization in an attempt to discover the weaknesses that had led to the downfall of that dynasty. The School of Practical Learning rejected both the metaphysical speculation of the orthodox School of Principle and the subjective idealism of Wang Yang-ming's followers. They called for renewed study of the classical texts of the Han dynasty to rediscover the true ethical and sociopolitical doctrines of Confucianism. This study produced a highly critical spirit and precise scientific methods of textual verification. The greatest philosopher of this school was Tai Chen, who, during the 18th century, objected to the Neo-Confucian teaching that the truth or principles of things existed in the human mind and that they were attainable by mental discipline. He believed that this teaching had resulted in excessive introspection and mysticism. In addition, he rejected what other Neo-Confucianists had determined to be truth or principle as no more than their subjective judgment. He went on to assert that principle could be found only in things and that it could only be studied objectively through the collection and analysis of factual data. Such scientific methods, however, were never used by the empirical school for a study of the natural world; this school concentrated instead on the study of human affairs as they were dealt with in the classics. The result was distinguished scholarship in the fields of philology, phonology, and historical geography but very little new knowledge and no development of the natural sciences.

19th- and 20th-Century Speculation

The shortcomings of Neo-Confucianism became abundantly clear in the 19th century. Metaphysical speculation provided no explanation for the changes that the impact of the West necessitated in China, and traditional ethics seemed only to impede, if not entirely frustrate, Chinese attempts to modernize. In the 1890s, however, the brilliant young philosopher K'ang Yu-wei made a radical attempt to adapt Confucianism to the modern world. In his revolutionary treatise Confucius as a Reformer, K'ang claimed to have discovered Confucian authority for a sweeping reform of Chinese political and social institutions; such reform would be necessary if China was to resist the force of Western imperialism. K'ang's Confucian reform program, implemented briefly in 1898, was frustrated by the entrenched power of orthodox Confucianists in the imperial government, and K'ang himself was exiled. An attempt to revive Confucian ethics in China was sponsored by the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in the New Life Movement of the 1930s.

By about 1897 Western philosophy had appeared in China through translations, and in the next several decades many Western philosophical ideas were brought to China by students returning from North America and Europe. Chinese philosophy in the 20th century has adapted a number of systems derived from Western thought while attempting to use ideas from the traditional Eastern schools.

The Western philosophies most influential in 20th-century China have been pragmatism and materialism. The former, illustrated in the writings of Hu Shih, a student of the American philosopher John Dewey, conceived of ideas as instruments to cope with actual situations and emphasized results. It was therefore well suited for a philosophy of reform, and it played an important role in the New Culture Movement (begun in 1917), which sought to modernize Chinese social and intellectual life. By 1924, however, pragmatism began to decline in popularity, probably because it lacked an integrated political philosophy. Materialism in China has consisted primarily of dialectical materialism, as described by Karl Marx, whose works became widely known in China about 1919. Materialism has been the moving power in Chinese economic reconstruction, and since the late 1920s historical materialism (the economic interpretation of history) has gained wide acceptance even among some non-Communist philosophers. Most of the materialists eventually accepted Marxism-Leninism, the orthodox philosophy of the Chinese Communist Party, enunciated by Mao Zedong. Although the Chinese Communists have claimed that Mao's beliefs were a further development of Marxism-Leninism, a careful analysis shows that Mao's originality was not so much theoretical as practical.

The best known of the 20th-century Confucian philosophers is Fung Yu-lan, who developed and reconstructed the Neo-Confucian School of Principle. Although his conclusions were similar to those of the Song Neo-Confucianists, Fung supplied new and logical arguments and clarified the original system. In the 1960s Fung moved toward historical materialism and revised his work The History of Chinese Philosophy (1931, 1934; supplement, 1936; translated 1948) according to the ideas of Marxism-Leninism.

Return to Ron's Home Page