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Chinese Thought

Syncretic Philosophies

The so-called philosophical schools were never clear-cut in their heritages and boundaries. It has been argued that diverse as they were, these schools actually sprang from the unified tradition of an earlier time and shared a common root in their teachings. The commonality in theoretical deliberation and the practical needs for communication between different schools paved the way for a philosophical syncretism. Toward the end of the Warring States period syncretic writings became dominant, in which mutual accommodation between seemingly divergent theories and inter-philosophical dialogue were enthusiastically engaged. Qin (221–206 B.C.E.) and Han (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) thinkers went even further by drawing upon a variety of cultural and literary lineages, and constructed or reconstructed a grand philosophy of cosmological, religious, political, and ethical theories, which is evidenced in such eclectic collections as The Spring and Autumn Annals of Mr. Lü, The Book of Guan Zhong, and The Book of Master Huainan. Yin-yang, the Five Elements or Five Agents (wu xing), the Way, Heaven, the spiritual realm and the mundane world, political ideals, and ethical norms were all woven into a structure in which Heaven, Earth, and humanity stood as the three interrelated pillars of the universe, and resonances between human society, government administration, and natural processes were intensively sought after. In the powerful current of syncretism, the earlier teachings of the philosophical schools were transformed and regenerated, and became constituent elements of a new phase in the development of Chinese thought.

Confucian ethics and the Confucian orthodoxy.

Confucian thinkers and politicians led the way of syncretism and pushed the boundaries of their own teachings far beyond the recognition of early Confucian masters. Confucian ethics and the Confucian political blueprint were replanted in the rich soil of syncretic ideas and values, embodied in such popular texts as Xiao jing (The book of filial piety), as well as Da xue (The great learning), Zhong yong (The doctrine of the mean) and Li yun (The evolution of rites), three of the essays on ritual and rites in an anthology entitled Li ji (The book of rites). The transmission of the mainstream Confucian learning was focused on the commentary lineages of Chun qiu (The spring and autumn annals), a work believed to be composed by Confucius himself. Dong Zhongshu (195?–105? B.C.E.), a leading thinker of the Han period, drew upon the earlier resources, Confucian, Daoist, Legalist, and particularly that of Yin-yang and the Five Elements, and constructed Confucian doctrines in line with the new thinking of the Han. He reinterpreted the relationship between Heaven and humans into the backbone of a new integrated system of ethics, politics, religion, and education. Eclectic as he was in the book attributed to him, The Luxurious Dews of the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Fanlu), Dong was nevertheless faithful to Confucian ideals, according to which harmony between the three realms, Heaven, Earth, and humans, is central to the peace of the world, while the king or emperor is described as the agent of Heaven who ruled over the world by the mandate from above. In holding the vital and immense responsibility for the moral guidance of the people, the ruler's authority must be spiritually disciplined and practically based on the advice of the enlightened scholar-officials and support by the people. It was this kind of Confucian thought that was eventually elevated to be the state orthodoxy during the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 B.C.E.), to which all other schools of thought were required to conform.

Daoist religion and Neo-Daoist philosophy.

The wisdom in Lao-Zhuang Daoism was particularly appealing to thinkers with a creative mind, and its leaning to the concepts of xuan (mystery), wu wei (nonaction or no purposeful action), wu (nothingness), kong (emptiness), and jing (tranquility) opened up the imaginary vision of philosophers and religious practitioners as well. The other branch of the broadly defined Daoism, the teachings of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi (Huang-Lao) was also particularly popular at the time and penetrated all layers of social life through medical and shamanic practices that, extended and put into political practices, underlay the imperial policies during the first few decades of the Han dynasty. Through synthesizing Confucian ethics, Lao-Zhuang philosophy, and Huang-Lao teaching, Daoism developed in two directions: religio-political movements aimed at purifying the world, prolonging the life, and overthrowing the Han dynasty, and a kind of Mysterious Learning (xuan xue) emerging during the Wei-Jing period (256–420 C.E.). In the former, Dao was mystified as the divine source and Laozi the philosopher as the Savior of the world, while in the latter the heavily politicized relation between Heaven and humans was reinterpreted as that between social norms and human naturalness, and the philosophers Confucius and Laozi were transformed into the moral ideals who had embodied Dao and had reached very high stages in self-cultivation. Religious Daoism and Neo-Daoist philosophy were combined and integrated into the Daoist tradition that exercised a powerful influence over the way of life in Chinese history.

Buddhism and the interaction of "the three teachings."

By the first century of the common era, if not earlier, Buddhism had been introduced to China via Central Asia. Different but innovative, Buddhist teachings on ignorance, suffering, and Buddhahood were met both with enthusiasm and suspicion, welcomed by those who were preoccupied with issues of longevity, metaphysical speculation, and superhuman achievements, while resisted by those who attempted to secure the integrity of Chinese culture in relation to the state and family. In debates with Confucians and Daoists, Buddhists skillfully accommodated their teachings to the cultural requirements and spiritual needs of Chinese society, soon seizing the minds of the people and becoming powerful in the reshaping of the political and religious landscape. Based on the study of particular texts and the synthesis of Indian and Chinese understandings, distinguished Buddhist thinkers and their followers created various schools of Buddhist doctrine, of which Tiantai, Huayan, Chan, and Pure Land were particularly important and influential. In search of harmony and unity between the three teachings, Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist theorists and practitioners consciously explored and justified the rationality of the one body of the three teachings (san jiao yi ti). Confucius, Laozi, and the Buddha were recognized as the fountainheads of three religio-ethical traditions, distinctive from each other and yet being the same in essence. It was held that in their mutual supplementation, the three teachings were all needed to meet the political, ethical, personal, social, and spiritual needs of the society. The interaction between Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism became the major subject matter and the mainstream current in the later development of Chinese thought.


Well embedded in the integral development of the "three traditions," the Confucians of the Song (906–1279) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties revived the traditional Confucian teachings in response to the challenges from a variety of philosophical lineages, particularly those of Buddhism and Daoism. Their works or commentaries on earlier Confucian texts revealed new horizons for Confucian philosophy, innovating its ethical understandings, and placing moral and political principles on the ground of metaphysical and metaethical rethinking about the Supreme Ultimate (Tai ji), Heaven (tian), Principles of Heaven (Tian li), material force (qi), and the heart/mind (xin). Of the seminal thinkers of this period, Cheng Yi (1033–1107) and Zhu Xi (1130–1200) led the way to a rational reasoning about the reality of Confucian principles and norms, while Lu Jiuyuan (1139–1193) and Wang Shouren (1472–1523) preferred an idealistic identification between human heart/mind and social virtues and between knowledge and action. Common to both types of Confucian learning, however, was the emphasis on humanity and self-cultivation, pointing to the direction of the attainability of sagehood by all. Reshaped as the new learning of the Confucian Way, known as Neo-Confucianism in the West, Confucian thought became the state ideology and the philosophical basis of Chinese life and thinking until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

However, Neo-Confucianism did not go without significant challenges. Dissatisfied with the stereotypes of Zhu Xi's authoritarian scholarship, a number of independent thinkers in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) branded Song scholars as "unfaithful followers" of the Confucian Way, proposing to return to the learning of the Han dynasty (Han Xue) and to take studies of Confucian classics rather than philosophical reinterpretations as the path to Confucian values. Other scholars engaged in "evidential studies" of ancient texts and commentaries (Kao Zheng Xue) against speculations, and explored new ways by which Confucian learning could be used to improve people's lives and to strengthen the state. Although these currents did not change the overall landscape of Qing learning, they in one way or another prepared Confucian intellectuals for a new stage that was looming large with the incoming of "Western learning" (Xi Xue), in which the further development of Chinese thought would be fundamentally influenced by the conflict and interaction between the Chinese and the Western cultures.



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Xinzhong Yao

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterChinese Thought - The Origin, The Rise Of Rational Thinking, Heaven And Humans, Syncretic Philosophies, Bibliography