Chinese Philosophy

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China's famous West Lake

Chinese philosophy has a history of several thousand years; its origins are often traced back to the I Ching (the Book of Changes,) an ancient compendium of divination said to date to c. 2800 B.C.E., which introduced some of the most fundamental terms of Chinese philosophy. The age of Chinese philosophy can only be estimated (its first flowering is generally considered to have been in about the sixth century B.C.E.[1]), but it draws on an oral tradition that goes back to neolithic times.

The central focus of Chinese philosophy throughout the ages has been a practical concern with man and society, how to live an ideal life, and how best to organize society. Ethics and political philosophy have often taken precedence over metaphysics and epistemology. Another characteristic of Chinese philosophy has been reflections on nature and the self, which has resulted in the development of themes like unity between man and Heaven, the place of man in the cosmic order, and the explanations of differentiation and change.

Four particularly influential schools of philosophy emerged during the classic period of Chinese philosophy, which began around 500 B.C.E.: Confucianism, Daoism (often spelled "Taoism"), Mohism and Legalism. When China was unified under the Qin dynasty in 222 B.C.E., Legalism was adopted as its official philosophy. The emperors of the later Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 222 C.E.) adopted Daoism and later, around 100 B.C.E., Confucianism; these remained the determining forces of Chinese thought until the twentieth century. Buddhist philosophy, introduced during the first century, became widely popular during the sixth century (mostly during the Tang Dynasty).

During the Industrial and Modern Ages, Chinese philosophy began to integrate concepts from Western philosophy as steps toward modernization. Under Mao Tse-Tung (Máo zé dōng), Marxism, Stalinism, and other communist ideologies were introduced in mainland China. Hong Kong and Taiwan saw a revived interest in Confucian ideas. The current government of the People's Republic of China is now exploring a form of market socialism.


Early beliefs

Early Shang Dynasty thought was based upon the notion of cyclicity, stemming from what people observed around them; the cycle of night and day, the progression of the seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon. This notion, which remained relevant throughout Chinese history, reflects the order of nature. During the Shang, fate could be manipulated by the great deity Shang Di (Chinese: 上帝; py: shàngdì), most frequently translated "Lord on High." Ancestor worship was also present, as was human and animal sacrifice.

The origins of Chinese philosophy are often traced back to the I Ching (the Book of Changes,) an ancient compendium of divination said to date to c. 2800 B.C.E., which introduced some of the most fundamental terms of Chinese philosophy. It was not until Zhou Gong Dang (c. 1122 B.C.E.), the brother of King Wu of Zhou, clarified the significance of the horizontal lines in each hexagrams of the I Ching that its full context was understood. The principles of the I Ching heavily influenced the government administration and the literature of the Zhou Dynasty.

When the Shang were overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty, a new political, religious and philosophical concept, the "Mandate of Heaven," was introduced to provide a shrewd justification for Zhou rule. According to the Mandate of Heaven, whenever a ruler was no longer worthy of his position, he would be deposed and replaced by a ruler more favored by divine powers. During this period, archaeological evidence points to an increase in literacy and a partial shift away from the faith placed in Shang Di. Ancestor worship became commonplace and society became more worldly.

Hundred Schools of Thought

Around 500 B.C.E., after the Zhou state weakened and China moved into the Spring and Autumn Period, the classic period of Chinese philosophy began (this date nearly coincides with the emergence of the first Greek philosophers). This period is known as the Hundred Schools of Thought (百家, bǎijiā). Of the many schools founded at this time and during the subsequent Warring States Period, the four most influential were Confucianism, Daoism (often spelled "Taoism"), Mohism and Legalism. During this time Confucius is said to have written the Shi Yi (“Ten Wings”), a series of commentaries on the I Ching.

Imperial Era

Yin Yang symbol and Ba gua paved in a clearing outside of Nanning City, Guangxi province, China.

The founder of the brief Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 B.C.E.) united imperial China and established Legalism as its official philosophy. Li Si, the founder of Legalism and chancellor to the first Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, suggested to him that in order to unify all thoughts and political opinions, the freedom of speech of the intelligentsia should be suppressed, and all the classic works of philosophy, history and poetry should be burned. Only the books of Li Si’s school were to be permitted. After being deceived by two alchemists who promised him prolonged life, Qin Shi Huang buried alive 460 scholars. Legalism remained influential until the emperors of the later Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 222 C.E.) adopted Daoism and later, around 100 B.C.E., Confucianism, as official doctrine. Daoism and Confucianism were the determining forces of Chinese thought until the twentieth century. During the sixth century, (mostly during Tang Dynasty), Buddhist philosophy became widely accepted, largely because of its perceived similarities with Daoism.

Neo-Confucianism, a revival of old Confucian principles, with Buddhist, Taoist, and Legalist features appeared during the Song Dynasty (907 – 1279), and was popularized later during the reign of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). The respective influences of Daoism and Confucianism are often described this way: "Chinese are Confucianist during the day, and Daoists at night" Many Chinese mandarins were government bureaucrats in daily life and poets (or painters) in their leisure time.

Modern era

During the Industrial and Modern Ages, Chinese philosophy began to integrate concepts from Western philosophy as steps toward modernization, and to question whether Confucian ideas should be modified or even discarded. By the time of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, there were many initiatives, such as the May Fourth Movement, to completely abolish the old imperial institutions and practices of China. Attempts were made at the beginning of the twentieth century to incorporate democracy, republicanism, and industrialism into Chinese philosophy, notably by Sun Yat-Sen (Sūn yì xiān, in Mandarin). Under Mao Tse-Tung (Máo zé dōng), Marxism, Stalinism, and other communist thought was introduced to mainland China.

When the Communist Party of China took over power in 1949, previous schools of Chinese philosophy, excepting Legalism, were denounced as backward, and even purged during the “Great Leap Forward” and “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.

Development of Concepts in Chinese Philosophy

Historically, Chinese philosophy passed through four periods, classical, Neo-Taoist and Buddhist, Neo-Confucian, and modern. The chief concepts of the classical period (sixth–third century B.C.E.) were Tao (“the Way”), te (“virtue”), jen (“humanity,” “love”), i (“righteousness”), t'ien (“heaven”), and yin-yang (cosmic elements of tranquility and activity, or weakness and strength, respectively). Every school had its own “Way,” (Tao) but the Way of Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) and that of another traditional sage, Lao-tzu (sixth century B.C.E.), were the most prominent. The Tao of Confucius was the Way of man, the ancient sage-kings, and virtue, and advocated the cultivation of traditional values and norms such as filial piety and loyalty. In the philosophy of Lao-tzu, Tao was the Way of nature; his school advocated a life free from the social conventions and worldly aspirations that interfered with the natural order, and came to be called the Taoist school. The Yangists taught that man should concern himself with his bodily well-being instead of seeking power and material possessions. For all schools, Tao possessed the two aspects of yin and yang, the Dao endowed in man was his virtue, and the greatest virtues, especially for the Confucianists, were jen (“humanity,” “love”), and i (“righteousness”).

During the Neo-Daoist and Buddhist period (third–ninth century C.E.), there was a concentration on metaphysical concepts. Going beyond Lao-tzu's characterization of Tao as Nonbeing, the Neo-Daoists questioned whether Ultimate Reality was Being or Nonbeing, and whether the principle (li) underlying a thing was universal or particular. Under the influence of Neo-Daoism, early Chinese Buddhist philosophers directed their attention chiefly to Being and Nonbeing. Buddhist schools introduced from India were divided into corresponding categories, schools of Being and schools of Nonbeing. The question of universality and particularity, or of one and many, led to the development of truly Chinese Buddhist schools, whose concern was the relationship between principle, which combines all things as one, and facts, which differentiate things into the many.

Main Schools of Thought


Main article: Confucianism

Confucianism is the collective teachings of the sage Confucius from 551 – 479 B.C.E. It is a complex system of moral, social, political, and religious thought which has had tremendous influence on the history of Chinese civilization. Some scholars consider it to have been the "state religion" of imperial China. Confucian ideas were very influential in shaping the Chinese culture and state of China. Mencius (fourth century B.C.E.) believed that human beings have inherent virtue which they must cultivate in order to become “good.” Hsün Tzü regarded human nature as inherently evil, requiring self-discipline and self-cultivation in order to be transformed into virtue.


Main article: Daoism

Daoism (Taoism) is the English name for:

(a) a philosophical school based on the texts the Tao Te Ching (ascribed to Laozi and alternately spelled Dào Dé Jīng) and the Zhuangzi.
(b) a family of organized Chinese religious movements such as the Zhengyi ("Orthodoxy") or Quanzhen ("complete reality") sects, which collectively trace back to Zhang Daoling in the late Han Dynasty;
(c) a Chinese folk religion.

The character Tao 道 (or Dao, depending on the Romanization scheme used) literally means "path" or "way," but in Chinese religion and philosophy it has taken on more abstract meanings.

Yin and Yang

Main article Yin and Yang, Theory of Five Elements.

The exact origin of Yin-yang thought is unknown; it came from ancient Chinese thought. Yin and Yang represent two complementary principles whose interactions form all phenomenal changes of the cosmos. Yang is an active principle and Yin is a passive principle. Complementary elements such as day and night, light and shadow, activity and passivity, male and female, and others are conceptualized as two pairing principles. Yin and Yang form a harmony, and the idea of harmony is applied to health, arts, martial arts, and social life.

The concept of dual characteristics of Yang and Yin was often tied to the Theory of Five Elements (Chinese: 五行; pinyin: wǔxíng), which explains the natural and social phenomena by the combination of five basic elements or agents of the cosmos: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water (木, 火, 土, 金, 水; mù, huǒ, tǔ, jīn, shǔi). The combined theories of Yin-Yang and Five Elements were widely applied to cosmology, medicine, art, astrology, fortune telling, history, and other social and cultural aspects of life throughout Chinese history.


Main article: Legalism

Legalism had its origins in the ideas of Chinese philosopher Xun Zi (310 – 237 B.C.E.), who thought that ethical norms were necessary to control man’s inherently evil tendencies. Han Fei (280 – 233 B.C.E.) developed this concept into a totalitarian pragmatic political philosophy based on the principle that man seeks to avoid punishment while achieving gain. The ruler must firmly control the state using the three concepts of:

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

Law must severely punish any unwanted action, and reward anyone who followed it. Legalism was the chosen philosophy of the Qin Dynasty(221 – 206 B.C.E.) which first united China.


Main article: Buddhism

Although Buddhism originated in India, it had the greatest impact on China. It is believed that Buddhism was imported to China during the period between the end of Former Han Dynasty and the beginning of Later Han Dynasty; more than three hundred years later during the the Eastern Jìn Dynasty (ch: 東晉 317-420) it underwent an explosive growth in popularity. During those three hundred years, the supporters of Buddhism were mostly naturalized citizens, nomadic people coming from the Western Regions or Xiyu in Central Asia. The Chinese intellectual classes followed the Confucian political culture of the Han Dynasty. They were Sinocentric, viewing the people of other countries as “barbarians, and regarding Buddhism as a teaching from India—an inferior nation.

The War of the Eight Princes, or Rebellion of the Eight Kings, was a civil war fought among princes and kings of the Jin Dynasty from 291 to 306 C.E., during which the Wuhuan, a nomadic people from northern China, and the Xianhi, from Manchuria and eastern Mongolia, were incorporated in large numbers as mercenaries into the troops of Sima Yue. The rising influence of the Wuhuan and Xianhi diminished Sinocentrism.

Around the same time, the political culture of China declined and was replaced with a religious revival centering on the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi, which adapted gradually to Buddhist thought. The Buddhism which had originated in India took quite a different form in China. For example, Nāgārjuna (龍樹 in Chinese) (c. 150 - 250 C.E.) was an Indian philosopher, and the most influential Buddhist thinker after the Gautama Buddha himself. Nāgārjuna's primary contribution to Buddhist philosophy was the development of the concept of śūnyatā, (or "emptiness Śūnyatā," or Suññatā (Pāli)), translated as "Emptiness" or "Voidness," as an element of Buddhist metaphysics as well as Buddhist epistemology and phenomenology. After being imported to China, the concept of śūnyatā was changed from "Emptiness" or "Voidness" to “Something being,” obviously an influence of the traditional Chinese thought of Laozi and Zhuangzi.


Main article: Mohism

Mohism, founded by the philosopher Mozi (470 – 390 B.C.E.), promoted a philosophy of universal love, an equal affection for all individuals. Mozi believed that tradition is inconsistent, and that human beings need an extra-traditional guide to identify which traditions are acceptable. In Mohism, morality was defined not by tradition, but rather by a constant moral guide that paralleled utilitarianism by seeking the good of the greatest number. The Mohists believed that government was a tool to provide this moral guide and to promote and encourage social behaviors that maximized general utility. Activities such as song and dance were considered to be wasteful of resources that could be used to provide food and shelter. Mohists created their own highly organized political structure and lived frugal, ascetic lifestyles in an effort to practice their ideals. They were opposed to any form of aggression and believed in the heavens as a divine force (Tian) which punished the immoral acts of men.

Major philosophers

  • Confucius, seen as the Great Master but sometimes ridiculed by Daoists.
    • Mencius, Confucius' follower having idealist inspiration.
    • Xun Zi, another Confucius' follower, closer to realism.
    • Zhu Xi, founder of Neo-Confucianism
    • Wang Yangming, most influential proponent of xinxue or "state of mind."
  • 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, who essentially shaped what would become one of the largest schools of Buddhism, the 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:

  • Dao (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 for 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 commonalities 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.
  • Focus on politics: most scholars of the Hundred Schools were trying to convince the ruler to behave in the way they defended.


  1. Antony Flew and Stephen Priest (eds.), A Dictionary of Philosophy. Pan Macmillan, 2002. ISBN 0330487302).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Creel, Herrlee Glessner. Chinese Thought, from Confucius to Mao Tse-Tung. University Of Chicago Press, 1971. ISBN 9780226120300
  • Fung You-lan; Derk Bodde, (trans.) A History of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 1. Princeton University Press, 1983. ISBN 9780691020211
  • Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao; Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. Open Court Publishing Company, 1989. ISBN 9780812690880
  • Waley, Arthur. Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China. Routledge Curzon, 2004. ISBN 9780415361804
  • Yutang, Lin. The Importance of Living. Harper Paperbacks, 1998. ISBN 9780688163525
  • I Ching, or Book of Changes. Richard Wilhelm (Translator), Cary F. Baynes (Translator), C. F. Baynes (Author), R. Wilhelm (Author) Princeton University Press, 3rd edition (1967)

ISBN 069109750X ISBN 978-0691097503

External links

All links retrieved December 10, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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