Hundred Schools of Thought

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The Hundred Schools of Thought (Chinese: 諸子百家/诸子百家; pinyin: zhūzǐ bǎijiā; Wade-Giles: chu-tzu pai-chia; literally "all philosophers hundred schools") is the name given to philosophers and schools that flourished from 770 to 221 B.C.E., an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China. Even though this period, known in its earlier part as the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period (春秋戰國時代) in its latter part, was characterized by chaos and bloody battles, it is also known as the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy because a variety of thoughts and ideas were freely developed and discussed. This phenomenon has been called the Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought (百家爭鳴/百家争鸣; bǎijiā zhēngmíng; pai-chia cheng-ming; "hundred schools contend").


The intellectual society of this era was characterized by itinerant scholars, who were often employed by various state rulers as advisers on the methods of government, war, and diplomacy. The thoughts and ideas of this period have profoundly influenced lifestyles and social consciousness in East Asian countries through the present day.

Background of the Hundred Schools

During the Zhou Dynasty (or Chou dynasty, 周朝, 1050 to 256 B.C.E.), China moved into the Iron Age and developed from a tribal society to a land-based feudal social structure and economy. People began to actively seek practical solutions to their difficulties, rather than relying simply on prayers to their ancestors. The ancient Shang concept of an anthropomorphic “Ti,” or supreme deity, was gradually replaced by the concept of Heaven (T'ien) as the supreme spiritual reality, and by the idea that an absolute and constant "Mandate of Heaven" directed human affairs. The Chou came to believe that a person could earn Heaven’s rewards by acting in a virtuous manner, and could thereby control his destiny (ming). This was the philosophical base from which the Hundred Schools of Thought emerged from the sixth to the third century B.C.E.

The Spring and Autumn period and Warring States periods, though characterized by disunity and civil strife, were an era of unprecedented prosperity and cultural development, the "golden age" of China. Regional warlords constantly competed to build stronger and more efficient armies, and to increase the production of their lands in order to collect more taxes. These developments required large numbers of skilled, literate officials and therefore spurred the spread of education throughout the country. The use of coinage stimulated the growth of commerce, and the use of iron made better weapons and farm implements available. Great public works such as dams, irrigation projects, and canals were carried out, and massive walls were built around cities and along the northern frontier. During this period, so many different philosophies developed that it is often referred to as the age of the Hundred Schools of Thought (諸子百家/诸子百家). Many of the great classical texts, on which Chinese thought was to be based for the next two and one-half millennia, were written. The intellectual society of this era was characterized by itinerant scholars, who were often employed by various state rulers as advisers on the methods of government, war, and diplomacy.

Confucianism and its derivatives

Confucianism (儒家; Rújiā; Ju-chia; "School of scholars/dwarfs") is the body of thought that probably had the most enduring effects on Chinese life. Its written legacy, the Confucian Classics, later became the foundation of traditional society. Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.), or Kongzi "Master Kong," looked back to the early days of the Zhou dynasty for an ideal socio-political order. He believed that the only effective system of government was one in which each individual lived in prescribed relationships to all others in society: "Let the ruler be a ruler and the subject a subject." He contended that a king must be virtuous in order to rule properly. Confucius regarded the functions of government and social stratification as facts of life, to be sustained by ethical values; his ideal human was the junzi("ruler's son," 君子) translated as "gentleman" or "superior person."

Mencius (孟子, Mèng Zǐ; Meng Tzu; (371–289 B.C.E.), was a Confucian follower who made major contributions to the spread of humanism in Confucian thought, declaring that man, by nature, was inherently good. He argued that a ruler could not govern without the people's tacit consent, and that the penalty for unpopular, despotic rule was the loss of the "mandate of heaven (天, 命 Tiānmìng)."

The combined work of Confucius, the codifier and interpreter of a system of relationships based on ethical behavior, and Mencius, the synthesizer and developer of applied Confucian thought, provided traditional Chinese society with a comprehensive framework by which to order virtually every aspect of life.

There were many accretions to the body of Confucian thought, both immediately and over the millennia, from within and without the Confucian school. Interpretations adapted to contemporary society allowed for flexibility within Confucianism, while its philosophical core was the fundamental system of modeled behavior delineated in ancient texts.

Diametrically opposed to Mencius, for example, was the interpretation of Xunzi (荀子;荀子; Xún Zǐ; Hsün Tzu, c. 300–237 B.C.E.), another follower of Confucius. Xunzi preached that humanity is innately selfish and evil; he asserted that goodness is attainable only through education and conduct befitting one's status. He also argued that the best form of government is one based on authoritarian control, and that ethics is irrelevant in the context of effective rule.


The School of Law, or Legalism (法家; Fǎjiā; Fa-chia; "School of law"), was a response to Xunzi's unsentimental and authoritarian philosophy. The doctrine was formulated by Han Feizi ( 韓非子)(d. 233 B.C.E.) and Li Si ( 李斯)(d. 208 B.C.E.), who maintained that human nature was incorrigibly selfish; accordingly, the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline from above, and to strictly enforce laws. The Legalists exalted the state above all, giving its prosperity and martial prowess priority over the welfare of the common people.

Although it had all but disappeared by the first dynasty, Legalism greatly influenced the form of the imperial government. During the Han Dynasty (漢朝; Hàn Cháo; 206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), the most practical elements of Confucianism and Legalism were synthesized to create a new form of government that remained largely intact until the late nineteenth century.


Philosophical Taoism, or Daoism (道家; Dàojiā; Tao-chia; "School of the Way"), developed into the second most significant stream of Chinese thought. Its formulation is often attributed to the legendary sage, Laozi ( 老子, "Old Master"), who is said to predate Confucius, and Zhuangzi (莊子; 庄子, Zhuāng Zǐ, Chuang Tzŭ, "Master Zhuang") (369–286 B.C.E.). The focus of Taoism is on the individual within the natural realm rather than the individual within society; accordingly, the goal of life for each individual is seeking to adjust oneself and adapting to the rhythm of the natural (and the supernatural) world, to follow the Way (tao or Dao, 道, Dou) of the universe, and to live in harmony. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian morality, Taoism was for many of its adherents a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar serving as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings, but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse.

School of Yin-yang

The School of Naturalists or Yin-yang (陰陽家/阴阳家; Yīnyángjiā; Yin-yang-chia; "School of Yin-Yang") was a Warring States era philosophy that synthesized the concepts of yin-yang and the Five Elements. The Ying-Yang School originated from The Book of Changes and emphasized yin and yang, the Five Elements, astrological calendars, and fortune-telling. Zou Yan (鄒衍/邹衍; Zōu Yǎn; Tsou Yen; 305 B.C.E.-240 B.C.E.) is considered the founder of this school, whose theories attempted to explain the universe in terms of basic forces in nature: The complementary agents of yin (dark, cold, female, positive) and yang (light, hot, male, negative) and the Five Elements or Five Phases (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth). In its early days, these theories were 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. The theory of yin and yang is part of the Chinese cultural heritage.


Mohism or Moism (墨家; Mòjiā; Mo-chia; "School of Mo") was developed by followers of Mozi (墨子; Mòzǐ; Mo Tzu, Lat. as Micius, 470 B.C.E.–c.391 B.C.E.). Though the school did not survive through the Qin Dynasty(秦朝), Mohism was seen as a major rival of Confucianism in the period of the Hundred Schools of Thought. Its philosophy rested on the idea of universal love. Mozi taught that "everyone is equal before heaven," and that people should seek to imitate heaven by engaging in the practice of collective love. His epistemology can be characterized as primitive materialist empiricism; he believed that cognition ought to be based on perceptions and direct sensory experiences, such as sight and hearing, instead of on imagination or internal logic, which are founded on our capacity for abstraction.

Mozi advocated frugality, condemning the Confucian emphasis on ritual and music, which he denounced as extravagant. He regarded warfare as wasteful and advocated pacifism. The achievement of social goals, according to Mozi, necessitated the unity of thought and action. His political philosophy was that the population ought always to obey its leaders, and its leaders ought always to follow the will of heaven. Mozi contended that rulers should appoint officials by virtue of their ability instead of their family connections. Although Mohism as a philosophical school had declined by the end of the Qin Dynasty, its views are said to be strongly echoed in Legalist thought.


The School of Names, or Logicians (名家; Míngjiā; Ming-chia; "School of names"), which grew out of Mohism, focused on definition and logic. It is said to have parallels with the logic of the Ancient Greek sophists or dialecticians. The most notable Logicians were Gongsun Longzi (公孫龍; Gōngsūn Lóng; Kung-sun Lung, ca. 325–250 B.C.E.) and Hui Shi, both of whose works have been lost. The Logicians' thought was purely theoretical.

Other schools

The Shiji (史記) lists Confucianism, Daoism, the Yin-Yang School, Legalism, Mohism, and the Logicians within the Hundred Schools of Thought. The Hanshu (漢書) adds four more to make up the Ten Schools (十家; Shijia).

The School of Agriculture (農家/农家, Nongjia) encouraged farming and agriculture and taught farming and cultivation techniques, as a means of supplying enough food for the country. Mencius once criticized Xu Xing (許行) for advocating that rulers should work in the fields with their subjects.

The School of Diplomacy, or School of Vertical and Horizontal (Alliances) (縱橫家/纵横家, Zonghengjia) specialized in diplomatic politics. Su Qin and Zhang Yi (張儀, d. 309 B.C.E.), who developed strategies to break up the alliances among other states and open the way for Qin to unify China, were its representative thinkers. During the Warring States period, Su Qin lobbied the leaders of six states, Yan, Zhao, Han, Wei, Qi, and Chu, to join in an alliance against the Qin, which held Qin within allied boundaries for the next fifteen years. When Su Qin died, Zhang Yi lobbied the leaders of the six states to abandon their alliance and attach themselves instead to the state of Qin, effectively defusing the civil war. This strategy of “uniting” and “breaking up” ensured peace for twenty-nine years. The School of Diplomacy concerned itself more with practical matters than moral principles, emphasizing political and diplomatic tactics, and skills in debate and lobbying. Scholars from this school were good orators, debaters, and tacticians, but were not considered sages because they pursued personal gain rather than public interests.

The Miscellaneous School (雜家/杂家, Zajia) integrated teachings from different schools; for instance, Lü Buwei found scholars from different schools to collaborate in writing a book called Lüshi Chunqiu (呂氏春秋). This eclectic school tried to integrate the merits of various schools, such as Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, Logicians, and Legalism, and avoid their weak points, and did not have its own unique principles.

The School of "Minor-talks" (小說家/小说家; Xiaoshuojia) was not a unique school of thought. The thoughts and ideas discussed by and originating from infamous people on the street were incorporated into this school, which grew out of the work of some government officials responsible for collecting ideas from people on the street and reporting them to their superiors. This explains its Chinese name, which literally means "school of minor-talks."

Philosophers of the Novel School expressed themselves in a way that people found easy to understand. They didn't have their own theories, but used a specific style to convey existing theories.

Another group is the School of the Military (兵家; Bingjia), which studied warfare and strategy; Sunzi (孫子; Sūn Zǐ,"Master Sun") and Sun Bin (孫臏; Sūn Bìn; d. 316 B.C.E.) were influential leaders. This school was not among the "Ten Schools" defined by Hanshu.


  • Bary, William Theodore De and Richard Lufrano. Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 2. Columbia University Press, 2001. ISBN 0231112718
  • Chan, Wing-Tsit, trans. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 1969. ISBN 0691019649
  • Fung, Yu-lan and Derk Bodde, ed. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Free Press, 1997. ISBN 0684836343
  • Graham, A.C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. Open Court, 1993. ISBN 0-8126-9087-7
  • LaFleur, Robert André. China: A Global Studies Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2003. ISBN 1576072843

External links

All links retrieved March 27, 2014.


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