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Chinese philosophy is philosophy written in the Chinesemarker tradition of thought. Chinese philosophy has a history of several thousand years; its origins are often traced back to the Yi Jing (the Book of Changes), an ancient compendium of divination, which uses a system of 64 hexagrams to guide action. This system is attributed to King Wen of Zhou (1099–1050 BCE) and the work reflects the characteristic concepts and approaches of Chinese philosophy. The Book of Changes evolved in stages over the next eight centuries, but the first recorded reference is in 672 BCE.

The Tao Te Ching (Dào dé jīng, in pinyin romanisation) of Lao Tzu (Lǎo zǐ) and the Analects of Confucius (Kǒng fū zǐ; sometimes called Master Kong) both appeared around the 6th century BCE, slightly ahead of early Buddhist philosophy in Northern India and pre-Socratic philosophy in Ancient Greece.

Confucianism represents the collected teachings of the Chinese sage Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 BCE. His philosophy concerns the fields of ethics and politics, emphasizing personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, traditionalism, and sincerity. The Analects stress the importance of ritual, but also the importance of 'ren', which loosely translates as 'human-heartedness, Confucianism, along with Legalism, is responsible for creating the world’s first meritocracy, which holds that one's status should be determined by ability instead of ancestry, wealth, or friendship. Confucianism was and continues to be a major influence in Chinese culture, the state of China and the surrounding areas of Southeast Asia.

Throughout history, Chinese philosophy has been molded to fit the prevailing schools of thought and circumstances in China. The Chinese schools of philosophy, except during the Qin Dynasty, can be both critical and yet relatively tolerant of one another. Even when one particular school of thought is officially adopted by the ruling bureaucracy, as in the Han Dynasty, there may be no move to ban or censor other schools of thought. Despite and because of the debates and competition, they generally have cooperated and shared ideas, which they would usually incorporate with their own. For example, Neo-Confucianism was a revived version of old Confucian principles that appeared around the Song Dynasty, with Buddhist, Taoist, and Legalist features in the religion.

During the Industrial and Modern Ages, Chinese philosophy had also began to integrate concepts of Western philosophy, as steps toward modernization. By the time of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, there were many calls, such as the May Fourth Movement, to completely abolish the old imperial institutions and practices of China. There have been attempts to incorporate democracy, republicanism, and industrialism into Chinese philosophy, notably by Sun Yat-Sen (Sūn yì xiān, in one Mandarin form of the name) at the beginning of the 20th century. Mao Zedong blended Marxism with Confucianism and Taoism and other communist thought to create what is sometimes known today as "Maoism" . The government of the People's Republic of Chinamarker encourage Socialism with Chinese characteristics. Although, officially, it does not encourage some of the philosophical practices of Imperial China, the influences of past are still deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture. As in Japanmarker, philosophy in China has become a melting pot of ideas. It accepts new concepts, while attempting also to accord old beliefs their due.

Chinese philosophy has spread around the world in forms such as the New Confucianism and New Age ideas (see for example Chinese traditional medicine). Many in the academic community of the West remain skeptical, and only a few assimilate Chinese philosophy into their own research, whether scientific or philosophical. However, it still carries profound influence amongst the people of East Asia, and even Southeast Asia.

Brief history

Early beliefs

Early Shang Dynasty thought was based upon cyclicity. This notion stems from what the people of the Shang Dynasty could observe around them: day and night cycled, the seasons progressed again and again, and even the moon waxed and waned until it waxed again. Thus, this notion, which remained relevant throughout Chinese history, reflects the order of nature. In juxtaposition, it also marks a fundamental distinction from western philosophy, in which the dominant view of time is a linear progression. During the Shang, fate could be manipulated by great deities , commonly translated as Gods. Ancestor worship was present and universally recognized. There was also human and animal sacrifice.

When the Shang were overthrown by the Zhou, a new political, religious and philosophical concept was introduced called the "Mandate of Heaven". This mandate was said to be taken when rulers became unworthy of their position and provided a shrewd justification for Zhou rule. During this period, archaeological evidence points to an increase in literacy and a partial shift away from the faith placed in Shangdi (the Supreme Being in traditional Chinese religion), with ancestor worship becoming commonplace and a more worldly orientation coming to the fore.

Hundred Schools of Thought

In around 500 BCE, after the Zhou state weakened and China moved in to the Spring and Autumn Period, the classic period of Chinese philosophy began (it is an interesting fact that this date nearly coincides with the emergence of the first Greek philosophers). This is known as the Hundred Schools of Thought (諸子百家; zhūzǐ bǎijiā; "various philosophers hundred schools"). This period is considered the golden age of Chinese philosophy. Of the many schools founded at this time and during the subsequent Warring States Period, the four most influential ones were Confucianism, Daoism (often spelled "Taoism"), Mohism and Legalism.

Qin and Han Dynasty

The short founder Qin Dynasty, where Legalism was the official philosophy, quashed Mohist and Confucianist schools. Legalism remained influential until the emperors of the Han Dynasty adopted Daoism and later Confucianism as official doctrine. These latter two became the determining forces of Chinese thought until the introduction of Buddhism.

Confucianism was particularly strong during the Han Dynasty, whose greatest thinker was Dong Zhongshu, who integrated Confucianism with the thoughts of the Yin Yang School and the theory of the Five Elements. He also was a promoter of the New Text school, which considered Confucius as a divine figure and a spiritual ruler of China, who foresaw and started the evolution of the world towards the Universal Peace. In contrast, there was an Old Text school that advocated the use of Confucian works written in ancient language (from this comes the denomination Old Text) that were so much more reliable. In particular, they refuted the assumption of Confucius as a godlike figure and considered him as the greatest sage, but simply a human and mortal.

Neo-Taoism and Buddhism

The III and IV centuries saw the rise of the Xuan Xue (obscure knowledge), also called Neo-Taoism. The most important philosophers of this movement were Wang Bi, Xiang Xiu and Guo Xiang. A peculiar feature of these Taoist thinkers, like the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, was the concept of feng liu (lit. wind and flow), a sort of romantic spirit which encouraged following the natural and instinctive impulse.

Buddhism arrived in China around the I century AD, but it was not until the Sui and Tang Dynasties that it gained considerable influence and acknowledgement. At the beginning, it was considered a sort of Taoist sect, and there was even a theory about Laozi, founder of Taoism, who went to India and taught his philosophy to Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism was far more successful in China than its rival Hinayana, and both Indian schools and local Chinese sects arose from the V century. Two chiefly important monk philosophers were Sengzhao and Daosheng. But probably the most influential and original of these schools was the Chan sect, which had an even stronger impact in Japan as the Zen sect.

From Neo-Confucianism to late Imperial Era

Neo-Confucianism was a revived version of old Confucian principles that appeared around the Song Dynasty, with Buddhist, Taoist, and Legalist features. The first philosophers, such as Shao Yong, Zhou Dunyi and Chang Zai, were cosmologists and worked on the Yi Jing. The Cheng brothers, Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao, are considered the founders of the two main schools of thought of Neo-Confucianism: the School of Principle the first, the School of Mind the latter. The School of Principle gained supremacy during the Song Dynasty with the philosophical system elaborated by Zhu Xi, which became mainstream and officially adopted by the government for the Imperial examinations under the Yuan Dynastymarker. The School of Mind was developed by Lu Jiuyuan, Zhu Xi's main rival, but was soon forgotten. Only during the Ming Dynasty was the School of Mind revived by Wang Shouren, whose influence is equal to that of Zhu Xi. This school was particularly important in Japan.

During the Qing Dynastymarker many philosophers objected against Neo-Confucianism and there was a return to the Han Dynasty Confucianism, and also the reprise of the controversy between Old Text and New Text. In this period also started the penetration of Western culture, but most Chinese thought that the Westerners were maybe more advanced in technology and warfare, but that China had primacy in moral and intellectual fields.

Modern era

During the Industrial and Modern Ages, Chinese philosophy had also begun to integrate concepts of Western philosophy, as steps toward modernization. By the time of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, there were many calls, such as the May Fourth Movement, to completely abolish the old imperial institutions and practices of China. There have been attempts to incorporate democracy, republicanism, and industrialism into Chinese philosophy, notably by Sun Yat-Sen (Sūn yì xiān, in one Mandarin form of the name) at the beginning of the 20th century. Mao Zedong (Máo zé dōng) added Marxism, Stalinism, and other communist thought.

When the Communist Party of China took over power, previous schools of thought, excepting notably Legalism, were denounced as backward, and later even purged during the Cultural Revolution. Their influence on Chinese thought, however, remains. The current government of the People's Republic of Chinamarker is trying to encourage a form of market socialism.

Since the radical movement of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government has become much more tolerant with the practice of traditional beliefs. The 1978 Constitution of the People's Republic of China guarantees "freedom of religion" with a number of restrictions. Spiritual and philosophical institutions have been allowed to be established or re-established, as long they are not perceived to be a threat to the power of the CPC. (However, it should be noted that those organizations are heavily monitored by the state.) The influences of the past are still deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture. As in Japanmarker, philosophy in China has become a melting pot of ideas. It accepts new concepts, while attempting also to accord old beliefs their due.

See also: Chinese nationalism, Maoism, Culture of the People's Republic of China

Main Schools of Thought


Confucianism is a philosophical school developed from the teachings of the sage Confucius (Kongzi 孔子, 551 479 BCE), collected in the Analects of Confucius. It is a system of moral, social, political, and religious thought that has had tremendous influence on Chinese history, thought, and culture down to the 21st century. Some Westerners have considered it to have been the "state religion" of imperial China. Its influence also spread to Korea and Japan.

The major Confucian concepts include rén (humanity or humaneness), zhèngmíng (rectification of names; e.g. a ruler who rules unjustly is no longer a ruler and may be dethroned), zhōng (loyalty), xiào (filial piety), and (ritual). Confucius taught both positive and negative versions of the Golden Rule. The concepts Yin and Yang represent two opposing forces that are permanently in conflict with each other, leading to perpetual contradiction and change. The Confucian idea of "Rid of the two ends, take the middle" is a Chinese equivalent of Hegel's idea of "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis", which is a way of reconciling opposites, arriving at some middle ground combining the best of both.


Despite Confucianism losing popularity to Taoism and Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism combined those ideas into a more metaphysical framework. Its concepts include li (principle, akin to Plato's forms), qi (vital or material force), taiji (the Great Ultimate), and xin (mind).

New Confucianism

New Confucianism is an intellectual movement of Confucianism that began in the early 20th century in Republican Chinamarker, and revived in post-Mao era contemporary Chinamarker. It is deeply influenced by, but not identical with, the Neo-Confucianism of the Song and Mingmarker dynasties.


Taoism (Daoism) is a philosophy and later also developed into a religion based on the texts the Tao Te Ching (Dào Dé Jīng; ascribed to Laozi) and the Zhuangzi (partly ascribed to Zhuangzi). The character Tao 道 (Dao) literally means "path" or "way". However in Daoism it refers more often to a meta-physical term that describes a force that encompasses the entire universe but which cannot be described nor felt. All major Chinese philosophical schools have investigated the correct Way to go about a moral life, but in Taoism it takes on the most abstract meanings, leading this school to be named after it. It advocated nonaction (wu wei), the strength of softness, spontaneity, and relativism. Although it serves as a rival to Confucianism, a school of active morality, this rivalry is compromised and given perspective by the idiom "practise Confucianism on the outside, Taoism on the inside."But its main motto is: "If one must rule, rule young"Most of Taoism's focus is on what is perceived to be the undeniable fact that human attempts to make the world better, actually make the world worse. Therefore it is better to strive for harmony.


Legalism is a pragmatic political philosophy synthesized by Shang Yang and Han Fei. With an essential principle like "when the epoch changed, the ways changed", it upholds the rule of law and is thus a theory of jurisprudence.

A ruler should govern his subjects by the following trinity:
  1. Fa (法 fǎ): law or principle.
  2. Shu (術 shù): method, tactic, art, or statecraft.
  3. Shi (勢 shì): legitimacy, power, or charisma.

Legalism was the chosen philosophy of the Qin Dynasty. It was blamed for creating a totalitarian society and thereby experienced decline. Its main motto is: "Set clear strict laws, or deliver harsh punishment". Both Shang Yang and Han Fei promoted the absolute adherence to the rule of law, regardless of the circumstances or the person. The ruler, alone, would possess the authority to dispense with rewards and punishments. Ministers were only to be rewarded if their words matched the results of their proposals, and punished if it did not; regardless if the results were worse or better than the claims. Legalism, in accordance with Han Fei's interpretation, could be considered to be ultranationalistic, and encouraged the state to be a militaristic autarky. The philosophy was highly progressive, and extremely critical of the Confucian and Mohist schools. This would be used to justify Li Si's large scale persecution of the other schools of thought during the Qin dynasty, and the invariable denunciation by Confucian scholars from the Han dynasty and onwards.


Buddhism is a religion, a practical philosophy, and arguably a psychology, focusing on the teachings of Gautama Buddha, who lived on the Indian subcontinent most likely from the mid-6th to the early 5th century BCE. When used in a generic sense, a Buddha is generally considered to be someone who discovers the true nature of reality.

Although Buddhism originated in India, it has had the most lasting impact on China. Since Chinese traditional thought focuses more on ethics rather than metaphysics, it has developed several schools distinct from the originating Indian schools. The most prominent examples with philosophical merit are Sanlun, Tiantai, Huayan, and Chán (a.k.a. Zen). They investigate consciousness, levels of truth, whether reality is ultimately empty, and how enlightenment is to be achieved. Buddhism has a spiritual aspect that compliments the action of Neo-Confucianism, with prominent Neo-Confucians advocating certain forms of meditation.


Mohism (Moism), founded by Mozi (墨子), promotes universal love with the aim of mutual benefit. Everyone must love each other equally and impartially to avoid conflict and war. Mozi was strongly against Confucian ritual, instead emphasizing pragmatic survival through farming, fortification, and statecraft. Tradition is inconsistent, and human beings need an extra-traditional guide to identify which traditions are acceptable. The moral guide must then promote and encourage social behaviors that maximize general benefit. As motivation for his theory, Mozi brought in the Will of Heaven, but rather than being religious his philosophy parallels utilitarianism.


The logicians (School of Names) were concerned with logic, paradoxes, names and actuality (similar to Confucian rectification of names). The logician Hui Shi was a friendly rival to Zhuangzi, arguing against Taoism in a light-hearted and humorous manner. Another logician, Gongsun Long, told the famous When a White Horse is Not a Horse dialogue. This school did not thrive because the Chinese regarded sophistry and dialectic as impractical.

Great philosophical figures

  • Confucius, seen as the Great Master but sometimes ridiculed by Taoists.
    • Mencius, Confucius' follower having idealist inspiration
    • Xun Zi, another Confucius' follower, closer to realism, teacher of Han Fei and Li Si
    • 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.
  • Shang Yang, Legalist founder and pivotal Qin reformer
  • Han Fei, one of the most notable theoreticians of Legalism
  • Li Si, major proponent and practitioner of Legalism
  • Lin-chi, a great Buddhist Ch'an thinker and teacher, essentially shaped what would become one of the largest schools of Buddhism (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:
  • Tao (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 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 commonalties 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.
  • The political focus: most scholars of the Hundred Schools were trying to convince the ruler to behave in the way they defended.


  1. page 60, Great Thinkers of the Eastern World, edited Ian McGreal Harper Collins 1995, ISBN 0062700855
  2. ISBN 0-7641-2168-5
  3. ISBN 0-14-044348-7
  4. Yuli Liu, 'Confucius', in Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics, Hodder Arnold 2006 ISBN 0340900288
  5. 'Maoism', in Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics, Hodder Arnold 2006 ISBN 0340900288

Further reading

See also

External links

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