Chinese Philosophy — Schools, History, Development, and Characteristics

Chinese Philosophy

Chinese Philosophy includes indigenous ideologies that have formed and developed in history, which mainly describe relationships of people and nature, humanity, interpersonal relations, and form of society.

 

Main Schools of Chinese Philosophy

The Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Period in history (770 BC — 221 BC) were the most prosperous eras for Chinese philosophy when main schools formed and flourished.

 

Many great ideologists proposed and developed their ideas during this period, some of which soon formed influential schools. 

Taoism was formed after Lao Zi finished the masterpiece Tao Te Ching, which talks about the function of the whole universe and how humans should perfectly fit in. 

Key Words: Feel and Conform

Important Figures: Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi

Silk Manuscript of Dao De Jing (Tao Te Chin), Unearthed From Tomb of Prime Minister Li Cang (? — 185 BC)

Silk Manuscript of Dao De Jing (Tao Te Chin), Unearthed From Tomb of Prime Minister Li Cang (? — 185 BC) — Mawangdui Museum of Hunan Province

Founded by Confucius, an ideology that is in respect to self-cultivation and social ethics.   

Key Words: Benevolence and Hierarchy 

Important Figures: Mencius, Xun Zi, Dong Zhongshu, Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming

Stone Relief of the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), Portrayed Confucius' Consulting to Great Philosopher Lao Zi

Stone Relief of the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), Portrayed Confucius' Consulting to Great Philosopher Lao Zi — Beilin Museum of Xi'an (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Established by Mo Zi, was more of a huge chivalrous organization that represents civilians, and values equality and ability. 

Key Words: Equal and Peace

An ideology that believes a well-established legal system is the most efficient and best way to govern a country.

Key Words: Autocracy and Unification

Important Figures: Han Fei, Shang Yang, Qin Shi Huang

It combined the ideology of Yin YangFive Elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth), and math, trying to explain natural phenomena and to predict the objective world. 

Key Words: Cosmology and Astronomy

Military Strategist

Represented by Sun Zi, the writer of The Art of War. It is a system with respect to the training of soldiers and tactics of wars, which includes a series of theories discussing how to win on battlefields. 

Key Words: Fight and Win

Important Figures: Wu Qi, Bai Qi

School of Name

This included some logicians and dialecticians, trying to discuss and figure out the difference between “Name” and “Fact” and their relations. 

Key Words: Logic and Speculation 

Political Strategist

They were the earliest Machiavellian diplomatists in Chinese history, who analyzed political circumstances and made strategies for kings, by all means, to reach their specific goals: to form or break national alliances, to save or attack other kingdoms.

Key Words: Lobby and Diplomacy

Important Figures: Fan Ju

 

Development History of Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Official Dominant Ideology Schools

 

After these Philosophical Schools were formed in the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Period (770 BC — 221 BC), they all flourished in different kingdoms. 

Later, with the establishment of the unified Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), the history of Chinese philosophy stepped into a stage when the ruling classes set an official ideology.

Qin Shi Huang, the founding emperor of the Qin Dynasty, respected Legalism as the official, dominant ideology. 

Unearthed Bamboo Slips Recording the Laws of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC)

Bamboo Slips Recording the Laws of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC) — Hubei Museum 

Since 202 BC, Emperor Liu Bang had overthrown Empire Qin and built the Han Dynasty, Taoism was highly respected and implemented by the ruling class. 

 

In the year 134 BC, Emperor Wudi of Han accepted suggestions from Confucianist Dong Zhognshu and made Dong’s adjusted Confucianism the dominant ideology of the Han Empire. In the meanwhile, other schools and their ideas were suppressed and excluded. 

 

Since then, the new Confucianism, which includes Great Unification, Divine Right of Kings, and Harmony Between Human & Nature, became the orthodox ideology for the next 2000 years in Chinese history.

Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183)

Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183) — National Museum of China (Photo by Ayelie)

Formation of the Taoism Religion

 

Around the period (around 147 — 581) when the Han Dynasty declined, ended, and the whole of the nation stepped into the divided Three Kingdoms, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties, the ruling class was exclusively the aristocracy.

 

Therefore, many intelligent, well-educated people tried to stay away from politics and endless wars, while paying their attention to self-cultivation, self-release, and art. 

 

The Taoism Religion, which apotheosized Taoism Philosophy, absorbed theory from the School of Yin-Yang, and included a complete system of Alchemy and pursuit of immortality, was formed and popularized.

 

Soon, it became one of the most influential religions in Chinese culture. 

 

At the same time, Buddhism was imported and spread quickly. 

Part of Painting "Ge Zhi Chuan Yi Ju Tu" that Describes Ge Hong (283 - 343), An Exceptional Taoist, Chemist and Doctor, Moving to A mountain to Practice Taoism - By Artist Wang Meng (1308-1385)

Part of Painting "Ge Zhi Chuan Yi Ju Tu" that Describes Ge Hong (283 - 343), An Exceptional Taoist, Chemist, and Doctor, Moving to A mountain to Practice Taoism - By Artist Wang Meng (1308-1385)

The Fusion of Confucianism, Taoism Religion and Buddhism

 

After hundreds of years of separation and wars, the unified Sui (581 — 618) and Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) were established. 

 

During this period, the Imperial Examination was invented and widely applied, which allows intelligent people to participate in politics and join the ruling class because of their talent. 

 

In this unified, prosperous era, Confucianists were able to realize their political dreams. 

 

In the meantime, emperors of the Tang Dynasty respected Lao Zi (also named Li Er) as their honorable ancestor (since they have the same family Li) and the Taoism Religion as National Religion, while Empress Wu Zetian highly respected Buddhism. 

 

Since then, Confucianism, Taoism Religion, and Buddhism gradually fused.

Part of Tang Dynasty Mural "Guan Wu Liang Shou Jing Bian" in the 217th Cave of Mogao Grottoes

Part of Tang Dynasty Fused Religious Mural "Guan Wu Liang Shou Jing Bian" in the 217th Cave of Mogao Grottoes, Photo by Dongmaiying.

Appearing and Developing of Neo Confucianism

 

In the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), Taoism was still respected as the national religion; some of the emperors were quite enthusiasts. 

 

Then Confucianists during this period absorbed some theories that were in respect to the formation of the universe from Taoism Religion and Buddhism and opened up a new chapter of Confucianism. 

 

Great Philosopher Zhu Xi was the most influential one, whose Neo Confucianism was then respected as the official ideology, since the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368). 

Commentaries of Four Books by Great Confucisnist Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), Edition Printed in 1480

Commentaries of Four Books by Great Confucianist Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), Edition Printed in 1480 — Shandong Museum (Photo by AlexHe34)

Until about 300 years later, Wang Yangming proposed the School of Mind, which challenged Zhu Xi’s theory. However, they were still the internal conflicts of Confucianism. 

 

Therefore, in the Yuan and Ming (1271 — 1644) dynasties, the official philosophy was Neo Confucianism, while the national religion was Taoism.

 

Until the Qing Dynasty (1616 — 1912), Buddhism was respected as the national religion, while Taoism was suppressed by most of the Qing’s monarchs, except Emperor Ying Zhen.

 

However, Confucianism, which honors great unification and loyalty, still remained as official philosophy.

Temple and Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu

Main Hall of Temple and Cemetery of Confucius (or Kong Zi) and the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu, Firstly Constructed in 478 BC and Had been Expanded and Rebuilt Several Times in History, Biggest Temple to commemorate Confucius and His Exceptional Students.

 

Characteristics of Ancient Chinese Philosophy

  • Highly valued the principle of practicality. They encourage people to respect hard-working, contributive ancestors, and those practical principles that make people, society, and their kingdom better. 

  • Great philosophers in ancient China described what their ideal societies look like, how they function, and how decent people would study and behave. 

  • Most of the ancient Chinese philosophical schools are Polytheism or Atheism or at least encourage people to stay away from celestial beings or ghosts. 

  • Ancient Chinese philosophical ideas pursue harmony of humans and nature, as representative and outcome of an agricultural society.