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 early 2nd century bc; the so-called medieval age, from the late 2nd century bc to the 17th century ad, a period of synthesis and absorption of foreign thought; and the modern age, from the late 17th century to the present, a period of maturation of earlier philosophical trends and introduction of new philosophies from the West.
The classical age of Chinese philosophy occurred in the late years of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty, which lasted from about 1045 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 the Zhou, feudal bonds were broken, and widespread interstate warfare broke out during the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 bc). This developed into political anarchy in the Warring States period (403-221 bc). Meanwhile, the social and economic changes resulting from new currents of trade and commerce were disrupting China’s 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.
|A||Confucius and Later Disciples|
The most important of these scholar-officials was Confucius, known in Chinese as Kungzi (also spelled K’ung-tzu). He was a minor aristocrat and official of the state of Lu, in what is now Shandong Province, and he 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 Chinese states. Confucius thought that the way to reform society was to cultivate ethical behavior in individuals, especially in rulers and their ministers because leaders serve as important role models for their people.
According to Confucius, individuals should cultivate virtue by following the dao (tao, meaning “way”), the practices and teachings of China’s ancient kings who were sages. These practices included sacred rituals, such as making offerings of food to one’s ancestors, and the study of classical texts. Cultivated individuals will have a deep commitment to their own families, but this will result in a better society overall, Confucius believed.
Confucius did not speak directly on such issues 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 (in Chinese, Mengzi or Meng-Tzu) and Xunzi (Hsün-tzu), did much to clarify these issues.
Mencius asserted that human nature is good and that it can be developed not only by study, as Confucius had taught, but also by a process of cultivating one’s innate (inborn) tendencies. By this, Mencius meant cultivating our inclination toward compassion for the suffering of others, our disdain for doing what is wrong, and so forth. Like Confucius, Mencius believed that 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. Since the Mandate of Heaven was expressed by the acceptance of a ruler by the people, Mencius stated that 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.
Xunzi took an exactly opposite view of human nature; he asserted that humans have no innate dispositions that are genuinely virtuous. Xunzi was, however, sufficiently optimistic to believe in people’s unlimited capacity for improvement. He taught that through education, the study of the classics, and the practice of ritual, virtue could be acquired and order could be reestablished in society. Xunzi also argued that ritual practices are for the sake of shaping and expressing human emotions rather than influencing Heaven or ancestral spirits.
The differences between Mencius and Xunzi might be summed up as follows. Mencius thought virtue was something that must be developed, as a tree grows from a sprout. Xunzi thought that human beings must be reshaped, as a piece of wood is carved into a useful object. See also Confucianism.
|B||Daoism and Other Important Schools|
The second great philosophy of the classical age was Daoism (Taoism). The traditional view is that Daoism was founded by Laozi (Lao-tzu), who was presumably a contemporary of Confucius and wrote the Daodejing (“Classic of the Way and Its Virtue”). However, many scholars today believe that there was no single person who wrote the Daodejing, but rather that it is an anthology of sayings by different authors and was composed as late as the 3rd century bc. The Daodejing often talks about the dao (“way”), an entity that both creates the world and determines how things should live. The Daodejing suggests that the virtues and culture celebrated by Confucius and his followers are in reality artificial corruptions of the original simplicity of the dao. If humans followed the dao, they would live in peace and contentment in simple agrarian communities, according to the Daodejing.
The Daodejing is one of the most widely translated and admired texts in the world. But many people believe that another Daoist text, the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), is a greater work of philosophy and literature. The Zhuangzi is named after its author, the scholar Zhuangzi, who wrote in the 4th century bc. This work agrees with the Daodejing that human civilization is an artificial creation that does not correspond to reality. But it maintains that one can see through this artificiality and be freed from concerns over profit and loss, and life and death, while still participating in ordinary society.
|C||Other Classical Schools|
Among the other important schools of the classical period were Mohism, naturalism, and the dialecticians. Mohism, founded by Mozi (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 principles 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, philosophers known as dialecticians started to explore the philosophy of language. They used subtle arguments to either attack or defend paradoxical conclusions.
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 Xunzi, Han Fei (Han Fei-tzu) and Li Si (Li Ssu), were, respectively, the leading philosopher and the leading practitioner of Legalism. The Legalists based their ideas on Xunzi’s teachings that human nature was evil, but they rejected his optimism that humans could be ethically perfected. Instead, they claimed that strict controls were needed to regulate human conduct. The Legalists also developed the basis of the Chinese bureaucratic government with their view that officials must be assigned precise responsibilities and rewarded if they met those responsibilities, but punished if they failed to meet them.
Legalism proved an effective instrument in creating a powerful military and economic system in the state of Qin. By 221 bc, Qin had succeeded in conquering the other feudal states and establishing a unified, centrally administered empire (see Qin dynasty). Qin rule was characterized by strict laws, harsh punishment, rigid thought control (for example, the burning of all non-Legalist books in 213 bc), government control of the economy, and enormous public works projects, such as an early version of 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.
The Confucian philosophers of the Han dynasty welded a system of thought that incorporated the yin-yang cosmology of the naturalists; a Daoist 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. Han Confucianism was officially patronized by the government from 136 bc and subsequently became the required learning for government service. However, many scholars paid only lip-service to Confucianism, and even among committed Confucians there were major disagreements over many issues.
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 Daoism and also by Buddhism, a philosophy then new to China. One group of Daoist philosophers attempted to reconcile the Confucian teachings of social responsibility with the naturalness and mysticism of Daoism; 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. The teachings of Buddhism offered escape from the sufferings of life and from the endless reincarnation caused by human desires into an indescribable state of no desire known as nirvana. An individual attains nirvana by achieving enlightenment about the true nature of reality. Buddhism was also of great philosophical importance because it brought to China sophisticated metaphysical explanations of the nature of reality.
The Chinese Buddhist philosophers of the Tiantai (T’ien T’ai) sect formulated the doctrine of the “Perfectly Harmonious Threefold Truth” to explain the nature of existence. This doctrine held that things are fundamentally empty because everything depends on something else to cause it to exist; however, things have a temporary existence, and so the everyday world is not a complete illusion.
In the Tang (T’ang) dynasty (618-907) Buddhism and Daoism were dominant initially, but Confucianism alone among the three schools offered a political and social philosophy suited to the needs of a centralized empire. Consequently, it was almost inevitable that there would be a revival of Confucian cultural and philosophical thought. This revival became known as Daoxue (Tao-hsueh, “The Study of the Way”), which is usually called neo-Confucianism in English. One of the early leaders in this movement was Han Yu, a late 8th- and early 9th-century thinker who almost lost his life for criticizing the emperor’s reverence for Buddhism.
The growth of neo-Confucianism, along with fear on the part of the government regarding the growing power of Buddhist monasteries, resulted in persecutions of Buddhists and Daoists during the Tang dynasty. However, Daoism and Buddhism lived on as philosophies espoused by many educated Chinese in their personal lives and in their relationships with nature, and as religious movements popular among the people.
Neo-Confucianism reached intellectual maturity during the Song dynasty (ad 960-1279). Neo-Confucians of this period maintained that everything in the universe has two aspects: li and qi. Li, usually translated as “principle,” can be understood as the structure or organizing principle of everything in the universe. It is fully present in each thing that exists. The li determines why things are the way they are, and how they ought to be. Qi, for which there is no standard English translation, is a spontaneously moving and self-generating physical “stuff.” Qi comes in varying degrees of clarity or turbidity (murkiness).
Because the li is the same in everything, the qi is what gives things their distinctive qualities. The qi of a dog is more turbid than the qi of a human, so humans are more intelligent than dogs. The qi of a plant is more turbid than the qi of a dog, so dogs can think and perceive, whereas plants cannot. The qi of a rock is more turbid than the qi of a plant, so a plant is alive, while a rock is not. The qi also distinguishes different individuals within kinds. Thus, your qi is different from my qi even though we are both humans. And if you are more virtuous than I, your qi is less turbid than mine.
The neo-Confucians thought that they were using these ideas to make explicit what earlier sages such as Confucius and Mencius had meant, but they unconsciously borrowed heavily from Buddhism and Daoism. The very term li first gets prominence in Daoist texts, and it was adopted by Huayan Buddhists before the Confucians took it up. At the same time, neo-Confucians criticize Buddhists for selfishly trying to escape this world rather than trying to improve it, even though most Buddhists stressed compassion for the suffering of this world and some Buddhists maintained that nirvana was not a state separate from this world but was rather a way of viewing this world. Perhaps the greatest similarity is that both neo-Confucians and Buddhists aim at cultivating themselves by discovering some facts about themselves and the world through reason, observation, or meditation. This emphasis on discovery contrasts with the views of Mencius, who advocated developing our inclinations toward virtue, and of Xunzi, who encouraged us to reform our evil nature.
Neo-Confucianism found expression in three schools. These schools were the School of Principle, the School of Mind, and the School of Evidential Learning.
|D||School of Principle|
The 12th-century Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi), who perfected the doctrines of the School of Principle, is the most influential Chinese philosopher since Mencius. Zhu Xi identified the Sishu (Four Books) as the core of a Confucian education: the Daxue (Great Learning), the Lunyu (Analects), the Mengzi (Book of Mencius), and the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean). These books are compilations of the sayings of Confucius and Mencius and commentaries by their followers. The Four Books, along with Zhu Xi’s detailed commentary on them, became the basis of the civil service examinations in China and remained so until the examinations were abolished in the early 20th century.
What is distinctive about Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism is the view that our qi is so turbid initially that we cannot discover the li, or organizing principle, for ourselves. To clarify our qi and achieve enlightenment, according to Zhu Xi, we must carefully study the Four Books under the guidance of a wise teacher.
|E||School of Mind|
The neo-Confucian School of Mind was founded by Lu Xiangshan, a contemporary of Zhu Xi, but its greatest advocate was Wang Yangming, a philosopher, statesman, and general who wrote in the early 16th century. Lu and Wang criticized Zhu Xi and his followers for promoting a dangerous division between li and qi, and between knowledge and action. Lu and Wang charged that Zhu Xi’s followers, because they stressed the need to clarify the qi in order to see the li, would become obsessed with studying how to be virtuous instead of actually acting virtuously. Lu and Wang stressed that knowledge and virtue are within us. Every person can, they claimed, see what li requires of them, if they merely use their mind in an effort to do so. Furthermore, they maintained that to know what is virtuous is to be motivated to act virtuously and that genuinely virtuous action can proceed only from ethical knowledge. Consequently, knowledge and action work in unison.
|A||School of Evidential Learning|
During the Qing dynasty, beginning in 1644, Confucian philosophers reexamined the civilization of the preceding Ming dynasty in an attempt to discover the weaknesses that had led to that dynasty’s downfall. The School of Evidential Learning rejected both the speculation on li and qi of the School of Principle and what it saw as subjectivism, or an emphasis on the individual mind, in Wang Yangming’s followers. Instead, these Confucian philosophers called for renewed study of the classical texts 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 the School of Evidential Learning was Dai Zhen (Tai Chen). During the 18th century he provided careful textual arguments showing that the Neo-Confucians were projecting onto the Confucian Classics Buddhist concepts that were alien to these works. He believed that this teaching had resulted in Neo-Confucians identifying truth or principle with their own subjective judgment. He went on to assert that principle (li) could be found only in things and that it could only be studied objectively through the collection and analysis of factual data. This school concentrated 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 (study of speech sounds), and historical geography, but very little development of the natural sciences.
|B||Chinese Philosophy from the 19th Century to the Present|
The shortcomings of Neo-Confucianism became abundantly clear in the 19th century. Speculation on the nature of reality 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 Kang Yuwei made a radical attempt to adapt Confucianism to the modern world. In his revolutionary treatise Confucius as a Reformer, Kang claimed to have discovered Confucian authority for a sweeping reform of Chinese political and social institutions; such reform would be necessary if China were to resist the force of Western imperialism. Kang’s Confucian reform program, implemented briefly in 1898, was frustrated by the entrenched power of Cixi, China’s conservative empress dowager, and other advocates of the status quo in the imperial government. Kang himself was exiled. An attempt to revive Confucian ethics in China was sponsored by 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. The Western philosophies most influential in 20th-century China were pragmatism and Marxism. The former, illustrated in the writings of Hu Shi, a student of 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. The social and political philosophy of Karl Marx, whose works became widely known in China about 1919, became the philosophy of the Chinese Communist Party (see Communism) and dominated Chinese thought for decades after the Communists gained control of the country in 1949.
The best known of the 20th-century Confucian philosophers is Fung Youlan, who reconstructed the Neo-Confucian School of Principle using Western philosophical concepts, especially those of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. In the 1960s Fung, under pressure from radical supporters of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, moved toward the historical materialism of Marx and revised his 1931 work, The History of Chinese Philosophy, according to the ideas of Marxism-Leninism (see Communism: Marxist-Leninist Ideology).
In recent decades the Chinese government, although officially still Communist, has moved away from rigid intellectual orthodoxy and allowed more discussion of other philosophies. This relaxation led to the so-called high-culture fever of the 1980s, during which intellectuals passionately debated the merits of a wide variety of native and foreign philosophies, including Confucianism, rationalism, hermeneutics (interpretation of texts), European versions of Marxism, and postmodernism. Intellectual discussion in China cooled somewhat after the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, but the intellectual scene remains diverse and vibrant, with no one philosophical position dominating discussion.
Some of the most serious discussions of Chinese philosophy occurred in the West during the late 1990s and early 2000s. There has been keen Western interest in Chinese thought, especially in Daoism, since the 1960s, and Chinese philosophy has slowly gained increased acceptance and recognition among Western philosophers.