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Chinese Thought - The Rise Of Rational Thinking

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Having said this, we are fully aware of the importance of written language, without which it would be impossible to form abstract concepts, and to preserve and transmit systematic ideas. The ideas as presented in the oracle bones inscriptions of the Shang and the bronze inscriptions of the early Zhou represented an attempt to rationalize, albeit in a preliminary way, the Chinese understanding about cosmic change, the nature and function of social institutions, life and death, and so on. These ideas were later reflected and expanded upon in the Book of Documents (Shu), the Book of Poetry (Shi), and the Book of Changes (Yi), part of which can be dated to the western Zhou dynasty (1045?–771 B.C.E.). However, the rationalization of Chinese thought did not come into full play until the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 B.C.E.), when the early theological view of the world was challenged, modified, and transformed by new thinkers. Since the moving of the capital to Luoyang in 770 B.C.E., the Zhou kings gradually lost control over the states, while the lords of large states became powerful and competed with each other for the domination of the smaller ones. Natural disasters and administrative abuses had fundamentally shaken the political and economic foundation of the feudal system, and society experienced dramatic change and transformation. Substantially weakened were the force of the beliefs that the power of the Zhou king was endowed in the name of the Mandate of Heaven (tian ming) and that the ritual (li) binding people and states to the king was part of the cosmic order. The official ideology under the royal patronage and control was gradually torn apart: "The arts of the Way in time comes to be rent and torn apart by the world" (Zhuangzi, p. 364), and Chinese thought came to the stage where several distinct ways of thinking were pioneered as responses to the social and political reality, either negatively de-constructing or positively reconstructing. These thinking streams led to the final formation of a number of major schools, the so-called "a hundred schools" (bai jia), during the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.E.), whose rational calling found representative voices in Confucianism (Ru), Daoism (Dao), Mohism (Mo), Legalism (Fa), Logicians (Ming), Yinyang School, School of Military Strategies (Bing), School of Agriculture (Nong), and so on. The competition and mutual criticism between these schools was substantial and productive, in which they developed and extended the boundaries of their own thought. Of these schools Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, and Legalism were of the greatest significance for the formation and development of Chinese thought.


The early ru tradition became a school of thought that bears the name of Confucianism in the West today, mainly through the educational efforts of Confucius (Kong fuzi, 551–479 B.C.E.), who, although claiming only to be a transmitter of ancient culture, attempted to rectify political chaos and social disruption by transmitting and transforming the ritual and learning of the past. Employing "controlling one's selfish desires" (ke ji) and "re-establishing the ethical codes of conduct" (fu li) as two major tools, Confucius was devoted to the realization of a humane and righteous society in which people followed the good example of rulers and treated each other in accord with the rules of propriety or moral codes. Confucius trained his students to become conscious moral agents or "gentlemen" (jun zi), who sincerely upheld the Way (dao), were grounded firmly on virtues (de), behaved in accord with humaneness (ren), and took recreation in the arts (Confucius 7:6, p. 86). In practice he required them to be filial to their parents, respectful to the elders in community, earnest in action and trustful in words, and to love all the people, have the friendship of the good, and cultivate themselves through studying traditional culture (Confucius 1:6, pp. 59–60). The ideas and ideals Confucius illustrated in his conversations that were later compiled into a book entitled Lun yu (The Analects) and were further expanded by his followers during the Warring States period, among whom Mengzi (372?–289? B.C.E.) and Xunzi (330?–227? B.C.E.) took a lead. Mengzi believed in the religious, ethical, and political vision contained in the Confucian classics, and developed the Confucian doctrine in a religio-ethical direction, while Xunzi was inclined toward the naturalistic and ritualistic vision, and cultivated it in the spirit of humanistic rationalism. Both honored Confucius and believed that everybody was able to attain the ideal—that is, to become a sage (sheng) through learning and practicing—but Mengzi and Xunzi differed dramatically in their views of Heaven (tian) and human nature (xing): while the former held that Heaven is the supreme moral authority and humans are born with a good nature, the latter argued that Heaven is natural and human instincts would lead to evil and chaos if not checked by rituals, moral rules, and sagely teachings. New discoveries of writings on bamboo strips at Guodian and other parts of south China dating to about 300 B.C.E. provided certain evidence that between Confucius and Mengzi there were active a number of Confucian "sub-schools" that developed Confucius's thinking about the Way of Heaven, human nature, and moral and political applications.


In contrast to Confucian ideals, many Daoist ideas were propagated as an alternative route to social harmony, as evidenced in the following passage: "Exterminate the sage, discard the wise; and the people will benefit a hundredfold; exterminate benevolence, discard rectitude, and the people again will be filial" (Laozi, 1963 p. 75). A variety of sources have been identified showing the rise of the Daoist thought during the end of the Spring and Autumn period and the beginning of the Warring States period, but no definitive dates for the Daoist masters Laozi (traditional dates c. 571–c. 480 B.C.E.) and Zhuangzi (360?–280? B.C.E.) have been agreed on. The majority of modern scholars have refuted the traditional beliefs, arguing that the two most important Daoist philosophical books, Daode jing (or Laozi) and Zhuangzi, might not have come into existence until the fourth to third centuries B.C.E. However, the two silk texts of the Laozi discovered in 1973 at a Han tomb in Mawangdui dated to 168 B.C.E. and the bamboo version of part of the Laozi excavated in 1993 from a Chu tomb at Guodian were testimony that this Daoist work had already had different lines of textual transmission by the fourth century B.C.E. It is clear that the Laozi and the Zhuangzi were representative of the way of life for those people who withdrew themselves from social and political controversies. Central to them are the concepts of dao, the Way, and de, its power. As the mystic origin and principle of the world, we are told, dao cannot be known unless we have reduced our sensational experience and knowledge to the minimum, which is described either as a process of "polishing the mystic mirror" (Laozi, 1963, p. 66) and/or as "driving out perception and intellect" and "doing away with understanding" (Zhuangzi, p. 90). To live peacefully in a chaotic society, we are advised to take water as our guide: staying lower, withdrawing from politics, and not contending with others. In defining the nature of Dao as yin or yielding, the Laozi openly opted for a "feministic approach" and took "the mystic female" as the model for humanity. Withdrawing from the corrupted and chaotic society, the Daoist masters propagated a natural way of life in which there was no competition and purposeful action (wu wei). Apart from these philosophical collections, other strings of Daoist ideas and practices, such as the so-called Learning of Huang (the Yellow Emperor)-Lao (Laozi), also played an important part in the formation of Daoism.


Mohism (also spelled Moism) was virtually created in the activities and thought of Mo Di or Mozi (Master Mo, 468?–376? B.C.E.). Differing from Confucians who presented a humanistic system that defined and redefined the moral-political-religious code by way of a "virtue ethic," Mohists went for a utilitarian way to improve people's material welfare, maintaining that a theory was good only if it was able to bring benefits to the people, order to society, and an increase in population to the state. For Mozi, what brought the greatest harm to the world was partiality (bie) that caused people to love their own parents, families, and states while hating and attacking the parents, families, and states of others. He called for the abandonment of partiality and replaced it with universal love (jian ai), regarding the states of others as our own, and loving the families of others as our own. By this, it was claimed, the ideal society of the great unity would be realized. Based on utilitarian principles, Mozi was strongly against all activities that did not contribute to the material welfare of the people, and called for the abandonment of Confucian ritual and music. Unlike Daoists who simply withdrew themselves, Mohists were constantly on peace missions, strongly condemning aggressive wars and selflessly aiding the defense of the state attacked. Against the tide of pragmatism, rationalism, and agnosticism, Mozi and his followers reconfirmed the authority of the spirits and spiritual powers, arguing that the righteous way we must follow was to worship Heaven above, to provide services to the spirits in the middle realm, and to bring benefits to the people below. In politics they called for "honoring the worthies"—namely, selecting and promoting the most qualified to governmental posts. In order to increase the welfare of the state and the people, they put forward as important policies "identifying with the superior" and exercising the control of thought as the tool for social order. Having a particular appeal to artisans, merchants, and small property owners, Mohism occupied a distinguished and influential position in the philosophical arena during that time, which can be seen from the fact that Mengzi listed the school of Mo as one of the two most dangerous rivals (Menzi, 3B:9, p. 114), while Han Fei (280?–233 B.C.E.), a Legalist thinker, described Mohism as one of the two most important schools (Han Fei, p. 118). After the death of Master Mo, however, Mohists disintegrated into three sub-schools, each claiming to be "true Mohism" and accusing others of being "false Mohism." They developed Mohist thought in the areas of epistemology and formal logics, which together with many of earlier Mohist ideas and ideals had a lasting effect on the development of Chinese thought, although Mohism as a school had died out by the time of the Han dynasty.


Listed under "Legalism" (fa jia) by later historians or catalogs are such politicians and thinkers as Guang Zhong or Guanzi (d. c. 645 B.C.E.), Shang Yang (390?–338 B.C.E.), Shen Buhai (401?–337 B.C.E.), Shen Dao (350?–275? B.C.E.), and Han Fei (280?–233 B.C.E.). According to the authors of Han shu (History of the former Han dynasty), Legalists originated with administrative officials (li guan), who put into practice realizable codes of rewards and penalties in order to support rites and institutions (Ban Gu, p. 1736). However, the formation of the so-called Legalism school followed a route quite different from that of other schools, since these men were not united by loyalty to a master, nor by an organization, nor through their commitment to specific books. They were grouped together as a single school on the grounds that they all asserted that the only way to save the world from collapse and to strengthen the power of the state was to govern it by penal codes and restrain it with clearly defined law (fa). All Legalists attempted to justify the universality of law, and to identity law not only with the codes of punishment, but also with the "standardized" patterns of behavior, including administrative and military planning and statecraft. Taking law as the most important tool for governance, some Legalists deliberately associated law (fa) with the arts of rulership (shu) and the authoritative power (shi). Entwined with administrative techniques, Legalism demonstrated a tendency toward ideological authoritarianism, encouraging the ruler of the state to exercise control over people's thinking, constantly disciplining as well as stimulating individuals to avoid punishment and to seek benefits. Differing from the other schools of the time that engaged in scholarly debates and argument as the way to prevail, some Legalists held a negative attitude towards the so-called "useless and harmful" philosophies and encouraged the ruler to suppress them if at all possible. Hostile to Confucians who took the past as the moral and political model for today, Legalists argued that the times had changed and the past must not be used to guide today's activities, and some went even further to attack the so-called sage kings as the culprits of an immoral society. Despising the reclusive Daoists who refrained from engaging in politics, Legalists positively took part in the state administration; also, ignoring Mohists who opposed aggressive war and championed for peace, Legalists took war as a necessary tool to strengthen the power of the ruler, expand the state, and make the people strong, disciplined, and submissive. Effective means as many Legalist ideas were in increasing the power and wealth of a state, Legalism virtually elevated the state of Qin in West China above all other states and was instrumental to the final establishment of a unified empire in 221 B.C.E.

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