Ancient Chinese Philosophy

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published on 24 February 2013
Confucius by Wu Daozi (Louis Le Grand)

Chinese philosophy when contrasted with the western tradition, seems very different. We could take for example the old philosophical obsession in some western schools: the quest to find the underlying building blocks of things, the essential and ultimate substance or reality behind all appearances. Such an idea would not be popular in the Chinese intellectual tradition, where the interest is not in dividing the world but rather to unite it as much as possible. The western habit of dividing, categorizing and fragmenting knowledge is opposite to the Chinese attitude where there is a strong concern for integrating concepts and merging ideas, providing a more holistic approach. Probably, it is the spirit of synthesis which most characterizes the spirit of Chinese philosophy.

Even Indian philosophy, a closer neighbour, seems very different as well. In India we find a complex package of metaphysical ideas and its philosophy revolves almost entirely around topics related to other-worldly concepts: the nature of the soul, the World Soul, how to purify our spirit, reincarnation, innumerable gods and goddesses, salvation, karma and so forth. Chinese philosophy is much more concrete and concerned with this-world affairs, it revolves mostly around practical and ethical matters. Humanism focuses most of the attention in Chinese philosophy and it overshadows metaphysical speculations. It is because most Chinese philosophers were aspiring government officials that its discussions tended to be about ethical and political matters. Almost the only important text of metaphysics in this tradition is the obscure document named I-Ching, or “Book of Changes”. The Chinese used the Book of Changes as a manual of divination; he who could understand its message, it was believed, would grasp all the laws of nature. Even Confucius ranked it above all other writings, and wished that he could invest fifty years in its study. It is interesting to note that the role of humanism in the Chinese tradition does not imply any indifference to Nature. Instead, the general approach in Chinese philosophy is that of unity and harmony with Nature.

We sometimes see Chinese philosophy very close to religion. However, the reality is that there is no more religion in Chinese philosophy than that which we can find in Plato or Aristotle. We can also notice that the way ideas are expressed in China tend to be poetical: there is no concern in providing strict rules, the ideas tend to be guidelines only. It is full of aphorisms, allusions and parables and it seems not to be articulated enough when applied to the standards of Western philosophy. The tendency is to be suggestive: the more an expression is articulate, the less it is suggestive. The sayings and writings of Chinese philosophers are often vague so that their suggestiveness is almost boundless. They had a good reason for this: according to Chinese literature, in good poetry,

[...] the number of words is limited, but the ideas it suggests are limitless.

(Fung Yu-Lan, 12)

So an intelligent student of philosophy can read what is outside the texts, like an intelligent reader can read “between the lines”. For example, when teaching about the Tao or “The Way”, Taoism believes it cannot be told, but merely suggested. Chuang-tzu was also a little skeptical about how useful words are when it comes to expressing thoughts.

A basket-trap is for catching fish, but when one has got the fish, one need think no more about the basket. A foot-trap is for catching hares; but when one has got the hare, one need think no more about the trap. Words are for holding ideas, but when one has got the idea, one need no longer think about the words. If only I could find someone who has stopped thinking about words and could have him with me to talk to!

(Chuang-tzu, Ch. 26)

The Principal Schools.

The following account sumarizes some of the most important Chinese schools of philosophy. It is based on a clasification compiled by Ssu-ma T'an (died in 145 BCE), author of the China's first great dynastic history.

  • Yin-Yang chia or Yin and Yang School, which derives its name from the Yin and Yang principles, which in Chinese tradition are regarded es the two major principles of Chinese cosmology: Yin, being the female principle, and Yang the male principle. The combination and interaction of this two opposites is believed by the Chinese to cause all universal phenomena.
  • Confucianism is the name by which the Ju chia or School of Literati is known in Western literature (the word Ju literally means "literatus" or scholar). Confucius is obviously the leading figure of the school and may be justly considered as its founder. Nonetheless, the term Ju not only refers to Confucius but it includes a number of other scholars and thinkers such as Mencius.
  • Another school is the Mo chia or Mohinst School. The leader of this tradition was Mo Ti (or Mo Tzu), the first opponent of Confucius. This school had a close-knit organization and strict discipline under its leader. Its followers actually called themselves the Mohists. The contrast between Confucius and Mo Ti is one of the most interesting thinkers in Chinese philosophy. Confucius was very respectful of traditional institutions, rituals, music, and literature of the early Chou dynasty, and tried to rationalize and justify them in ethical terms. Mo Ti, on the other hand, questioned their validity and usefulness and tried to replace them with something that was simpler but, according to his view, more useful. To sum up, Confucius was the keeper, rationalizer and justifier of the old ways, while Mo Ti was its critic.
  • The Ming chia or School of Names is sometimes translated as "sophists" or "logicians". This school focused its attention on the relation between ming (the name) and shih (the actuality), something like the subject and the predicate in the West. Its members were well known for leading any discussion into paradoxical problems, they were ready to dispute with others and purposely affirmed what others denied and denied what others affirmed. 
  • The Fa chia is also known as the Legalist School. The word fa means pattern or law. This school derived from a group of statesmen who maintained that good government must be based on a fixed code of law instead of on the moral institutions which Confucianism stressed for government.
  • The Tao-Te chia or School of the Way and its Power. This school centered its metaphysics and philosophy around the concept of Tao or Way. In Western literature is referred as the the Taoist School and Lao-Tzu is credited with its foundation.

About the Author

Cristian Violatti
Cristian Violatti studies Archaeology at the University of Leicester (UK) and he is one of the editors of Ancient History Encyclopedia. Cristian is well travelled, having lived in numerous countries all over the world.

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Visual Timeline
  • 551 BCE - 479 BCE
    Life of Confucius.
  • c. 500 BCE
    Life of the Chinese Sophist/Philosopher Teng Shih (probable date of death 522 or 502 BCE).
  • c. 500 BCE
    Probable life of the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, founder of Taoism and author of the Tao-Te-Ching.
  • c. 500 BCE
    Probable life of Sun-Tzu, Military Strategist, author of The Art of War.
  • 470 BCE - 391 BCE
    Life of the Chinese pacifist philosopher Mo Ti, founder of Mohism.
  • 440 BCE - 360 BCE
    Life of Chinese Hedonist Philosopher Yang Zhu.
  • 372 BCE - 289 BCE
    Life of the Confucian philosopher Mencius (Mang-Tze).

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