Chinese Philosophy — Schools, History, Development, and Characteristics
Chinese Philosophy includes indigenous ideologies that have formed and developed in history, which mainly describe relationships among people and nature, humanity, interpersonal relations, and the form of society.
Main Schools of Chinese Philosophy
The Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Period (770 BC — 221 BC) were the most prosperous eras for traditional Chinese philosophy ideas when the Hundred Schools of Thought formed and flourished.
Many great ideologists proposed and developed their ideas during this period, some of which soon formed influential schools.
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 regarding self-cultivation and social ethics.
Key Words: Benevolence and Hierarchy
Significant 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 — Beilin Museum of Xi'an (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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
Significant Figures: Han Fei, Shang Yang, Qin Shi Huang
Measuring Vessel Implemented in Shang Yang's Reform — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
It combined the ideology of Yin Yang, Five Elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth), and math to explain natural phenomena and predict the objective world.
Key Words: Cosmology and Astronomy
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
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 and to save or attack other kingdoms.
Key Words: Lobby and Diplomacy
Significant Figures: Fan Ju
Development History of Ancient Chinese Philosophy
Official Dominant Ideology Schools
After most ancient 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 political philosophy.
In 202 BC, Emperor Liu Bang overthrew Empire Qin and built the Han Dynasty; Taoism has been highly respected and implemented by the ruling class since then.
In the year 134 BC, Emperor Wu 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.
From then on, the new Confucianism, which includes Great Unification, the Divine Right of Kings, and Harmony Between Humans & 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) — 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 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 avoid politics and endless wars while paying 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 traditional 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)
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 allowed intelligent people to participate in politics and join the ruling class because of their talent.
In this unified, prosperous era, Confucianists could 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 Fused Religious Mural "Guan Wu Liang Shou Jing Bian" in the 217th Cave of Mogao Grottoes, Photo by Dongmaiying.
Appearing and Developing Neo Confucianism
In the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), Taoism was still respected as the national religion; some emperors were enthusiasts.
Then Confucianists during this period absorbed some theories concerning 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 Confucianist Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), Edition Printed in 1480 — Shandong Museum (Photo by AlexHe34)
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 monarchs, except Emperor Yin Zhen.
However, Confucianism, which honors excellent unification and loyalty, remained the official philosophy.
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 value the principle of practicality. They encourage people to respect hard-working, contributive ancestors and practical guides that improve people, society, and their kingdom.
Great philosophers in ancient China described their ideal societies, function, and how decent people would study and behave.
Most 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.
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