Tsinghua University professor Yan Xuetong wrote in the New York Times: “Ancient Chinese political theorists like Guanzi, Confucius, Xunzi and Mencius were writing in the pre-Qin period, before China was unified as an empire more than 2,000 years ago---a world in which small countries were competing ruthlessly for territorial advantage. [Source: Yan Xuetong, New York Times, November 20, 2011. Yan Xuetong, the author of “Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power," is a professor of political science and dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University."

It was perhaps the greatest period for Chinese thought, and several schools competed for ideological supremacy and political influence. They converged on one crucial insight: The key to international influence was political power, and the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership. Rulers who acted in accordance with moral norms whenever possible tended to win the race for leadership over the long term.

China was unified by the ruthless king of Qin in 221 B.C., but his short-lived rule was not nearly as successful as that of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, who drew on a mixture of legalistic realism and Confucian “soft power” to rule the country for over 50 years, from 140 B.C. until 86 B.C.

According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, there were three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority won the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny---based on military force---inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic powers lay in between: they did not cheat the people at home or cheat allies abroad. But they were frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often used violence against non-allies. The philosophers generally agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny.

Good Websites and Sources on Classical Chinese Thought: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Religious Tolerance ; Religion Facts Religion Facts ; Classical Chinese Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies lots of dead links, but maybe helpful

Early Chinese Thought

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Since the beginnings of human civilizations, people of all sorts have devoted energy to certain basic questions about how to make the best of life: How can we know all that can be known? How can we get the most pleasure possible? How can we become the best that people can be? How do or can our lives have meaning? All of us ask versions of these questions sometimes, but even in simple and specific forms questions like these turn out to be complicated and confusing when we actually start to think about them. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/ ]

“Historically, the earliest answers to such questions were religious ones, and religion has never failed to serve as a source for such answers for most people in the world. But since about 500 B.C. religious approaches have been complemented by thinking that depends far less on beliefs concerning actions taken or standards set by a deity. Traditions that attempt to answer questions about the structure of the world and the nature of human beings without string reliance on religious concepts are generally discussed as philosophical traditions. Philosophical traditions are devoted to the free exercise of the intellect in the search for fully reliable answers to basic but elusive questions about the world and about life. In the ancient world, three cultures emerged as distinctly active in the discourse of philosophy: the cultures of Greece, China, and India. Perhaps by coincidence, philosophical activity began to achieve momentum in all three cultures about the same time, roughly 500 B.C. Although in this course we will focus solely on the development of philosophical thinking in early China, we will begin with a brief overview of issues key to the development of philosophy in Greece, and we will note throughout the course points at which the founders of Chinese thought may have build their enterprise upon different foundations from their Greek counterparts and inheritors of the Western traditions. /+/

Classical China

Dr. Eno wrote: ““Classical China,”extends from the beginning of Confucius’s career, about 520 B.C., until 221 B.C., the year of a great political upheaval that effectively ended China’s most fruitful period of philosophical inquiry. The world was in many ways a radically different place than it is today, and it will be important to become used to conceiving this different world when you read what ancient thinkers have to say.[Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Zhou-era sacrificial horsepit

“Confucius & Co. lived at a time when few people normally traveled more than ten miles from home (going further in your ox.cart meant finding a lodging place). Fewer books existed altogether than you probably have in your home now, and there were no newspapers or other sources of public information (but the luster of the night sky seemed to proclaim an urgent message from the cosmos). Fatal disease struck early in nearly every family and malnutrition and illness made disfigurement common and physical beauty rare. Most people were locked in a life-and-death struggle with the land for food, and mass starvation and the brutality of desperation were common. In studying ancient China it is crucial to avoid thinking that people had any firm concept of what the world was, that information of any kind was widely available (or that most people even had a clear idea what “information” was), that ordinary living entailed any sense of personal security, that experience suggested that there was any nobility or even value in the mere fact of being human. /+/

“In such a world, what may seem to us now as among the simplest and most self-evident ideas were often conceived only after exhaustive efforts of study, imagination, and debate. These ideas were gleaming jewels to their discoverers, and looking at the world by their light made things seem excitingly different. Our long familiarity with some of these ideas may make them seem routine and dull to us. But that familiarity, which we owe to some of the people we study in this course, also sometimes leads us to lose track of what we know, which can be little different from being ignorant of it. There are times when, if we look at old ideas with fresh eyes, we can see not only how these ideas changed the world, but how they still have power to change how we see our world and ourselves. “A key to studying ancient Chinese ideas is to see how, despite their apparent simplicity, they may guide us to new perspectives we had not before imagined. /+/

“The entire force of Classical thinking was directed towards the certainty that the future would replicate the past, that the utopia of the past would guide China through crisis to the utopia of the future. This was not only a part of the elite intellectual tradition. It was an essential feature of a culture keenly aware of its distinct role in the world, as it was known, deeply mired in incessant warfare, and bereft of religious traditions of another world where one might escape entirely the cares and sorrows of the world of people and needful ghosts. The only path of escape lay in the future.” /+/

Eastern Zhou, Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods

Beginning in the 8th century B.C. the authority of the emperors degenerated and hundreds of warlords fought among themselves until seven major kingdoms prevailed. This led to the formulation of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 B.C.). The Spring and Autumn period (771-482 B.C.), the Warring States period (481-221 B.C.) and the Age of Philosophers and the China’s Classical Age (6th century to 3rd century B.C.) occurred within the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.

Warring states bronze mirror

The Spring and Autumn (722 to 476 B.C.) and Warring States (476 to 221 B.C.) periods though marked by disunity and civil strife, witnessed an unprecedented era of cultural prosperity--the "golden age" of China. The atmosphere of reform and new ideas was attributed to the struggle for survival among warring regional lords who competed in building strong and loyal armies and in increasing economic production to ensure a broader base for tax collection. To effect these economic, military, and cultural developments, the regional lords needed ever-increasing numbers of skilled, literate officials and teachers, the recruitment of whom was based on merit. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Also during this time, commerce was stimulated through the introduction of coinage and technological improvements. Iron came into general use, making possible not only the forging of weapons of war but also the manufacture of farm implements. Public works on a grand scale--such as flood control, irrigation projects, and canal digging--were executed. Enormous walls were built around cities and along the broad stretches of the northern frontier. *

Historian Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins wrote: “As a result of the 500 years of intensive warfare that occurred during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period (the eastern Zhou dynasty, 711-211 B.C.), Chinese states formed and began to consolidate into a smaller number of larger polities. As a result of the desperate need to mobilize resources for war, they developed bureaucratic administrations that relied increasingly on impersonal administration rather than patrimonial recruitment that as typical of earlier periods of Chinese history."

Dr. Eno wrote: “China’s Classical age was a tumultuous era, filled with the dangers of constant civil war, political disruptions, and unpredictable social change. The intellectual elite of that period, who are the authors of all the textual records of that time, were anxious to search the past looking for political and ethical models that could help them extricate society from this era of crisis and chaos. The human past was for them as promising a field of study as the world of the natural sciences much later became for the West. At the same time, there was an urgent desire to make out a glimpse of the future, an almost millennial urge to see a new age of order emerge. These interests in history and the millennium were connected because the literate elite looked to the past as the key to their future. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Age of Philosophers

Confucianism and Taoism developed in a period of Chinese history from the sixth century to the third century B.C., described as "The Age of Philosophers," which in turn coincided with the Age of the Warring States, a period marked by violence, political uncertainty, social upheaval, a lack of powerful central leaders and an intellectual rebellion among scribes and scholars that gave birth to a golden age of literature and poetry as well as philosophy.

During the Age of Philosophers, theories about life and god were debated openly at the "Hundred Schools," and vagrant scholars went from town to town, like traveling salesmen, looking for supporters, opening up academies and schools, and using philosophy as a means of furthering their political ambitions. Chinese emperors had court philosophers who sometimes competed in public debates and philosophy contests, similar to ones conducted by the ancient Greeks.

Rival schools fought among themselves for dominance, with each claiming the authority of the ancients and each promising to restore order if his doctrines were followed. Among these schools were the Confucians and the Taoists as well as the Mozi (Mo-tzu, Mo Di), who argued that order could be restored by following the principalis of universal love, and the Legalists, who argued that order could be restored by following legal principals rather than moral ones. *

The uncertainty of this period created a longing for a mythical period of peace and prosperity when it was said that people in China followed rules set by their ancestors and achieved a state of harmony and social stability. The Age of Philosophers ended when the city-states collapsed and China was reunited under Emperor Qin Shihuangdi.

Confucius and Laozi

Hundred Schools of Thought

So many different philosophies developed during the late Spring and Autumn and early Warring States periods that the era is often known as that of the Hundred Schools of Thought. From the Hundred Schools of Thought came many of the great classical writings on which Chinese practices were to be based for the next two and onehalf millennia. Many of the thinkers were itinerant intellectuals who, besides teaching their disciples, were employed as advisers to one or another of the various state rulers on the methods of government, war, and diplomacy. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

The body of thought that had the most enduring effect on subsequent Chinese life was that of the School of Literati (ru), often called the Confucian school in the West. The written legacy of the School of Literati is embodied in the Confucian Classics, which were to become the basis for the order of traditional society. One strain of thought dating to the Warring States Period is the school of yin-yang and the five elements. The theories of this school attempted to explain the universe in terms of basic forces in nature, the complementary agents of yin (dark, cold, female, negative) and yang (light, hot, male, positive) and the five elements (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth). In later periods these theories came to have importance both in philosophy and in popular belief. *

Dr. Eno wrote: “We possess a number of texts that these wisdom traditions generated, and so important did these become to the intellectual history of China that they became the emblems of the Classical age, which is sometimes thought of simply as the “Age of the Hundred Schools.” Modern Western scholarship has tended to treat these texts as “philosophical” rather than as historical or literary, but they are not, in fact, confined to any single disciplinary interest. They represent the free play of the Classical imagination – philosophical, literary, and historical. They should be understood as a byproduct of the persuader tradition for several reasons. /+/

“First, many parts of these texts were composed as arguments that could be used to persuade rulers to adopt certain policies or employ certain types of people (including the authors) at court. They are, essentially, persuasions, although they generally argue broad points of doctrine or ideology rather than positions related to some specific situation. /+/

“Second, like many persuaders who wished to attract patronage not on the basis of their specific ideas but on the basis of their general skills in rhetoric, these texts are displays of virtuoso abilities that were often intended to induce rulers or warlords to accept the authors as retainers whether or not their ideas are acceptable as bases for court policy. Wealthy patricians often enhanced their own prestige by providing talented men with financial and other forms of support. /+/

“Third, the authors of these texts, like the “wandering persuaders” who roamed from court to court in search of employment, were usually itinerant men of learning in search of patronage. These texts represented their “dossiers.” When rulers of states announced that they were opening their courts to talented men from afar and urged those seeking honor to come seek an audience, the authors of these texts would take their places besides military experts seeking armies to lead and glib Machiavellians offering clever schemes in return for ministerial positions. /+/

“But unlike the other persuaders, the authors of these texts addressed audiences beyond the court: disciples, for whom the texts were intended as important teaching tools, potential disciples, who would be attracted by the texts and come to study with those who were masters of them (bringing some form of tuition payment with them), and authors of competing texts, whose positions the author would attempt to discredit. These are the “academic” audiences of the text, and it is because the texts were written with them in mind that they seem, in many ways, to be talking to one another.” /+/

Confucius and his students

General Pre-Philosophical Chronology

Dr. Eno wrote: “The formative period of early Chinese philosophy is generally dated from about 500 B.C., when Confucius was in his prime, to 221 B.C., the year when the Classical era was brought to a close by a series of military conquests that established revolutionary new political structures throughout China. Thus the period which is the subject of this course comprises the latter half of the Classical era, which stretches from 770 to 221 (virtually all dates in this course are B.C. dates; all dates should be assumed to be B.C. unless otherwise specified). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The Classical age was in many ways an aberrant period in Chinese history. The events that had immediately preceded it had resulted in a fragmentation of the unified Chinese state – the descendant of the Shang Cultural sphere – that had been in place for several centuries previously. During the entire Classical period, the Chinese mainland was a multi.state region. There was no single state of China. So directly did this challenge basic cultural assumptions, however, that the multi.state situation was never generally regarded as other than a temporary aberration and a problem to be solved. Just as there had been a Chinese state in the past, there would inevitably be one in the future. Because the multi.state form of Classical China persisted for over five centuries, the conviction that this situation was a temporary departure from the norm came into increasing tension with apparent reality. This disparity constitutes a key feature of the political background to the birth of philosophy in China. /+/

“Prior to the Classical era, the cultural sphere we retrospectively identify as Chinese had been characterized by long stretches of time during which the appearance of political stability had been provided by the existence of a single royal clan which provided a dynastic succession of ruling kings. The Classical Chinese understanding of the past identified three dynasties prior to the Classical age: the Xia, the Shang (or Yin), and the Zhou. /+/

“At present, the historicity of the Xia Dynasty is uncertain (it would have been a preliterate political entity, and if such a dynasty existed, it has left no written record proclaiming itself). The Shang royal clan ruled the polity embracing what we have termed Shang Culture from about 1500 to 1045. At that time, the Shang royal house was toppled by the dominant clan of a fringe member of the Shang polity, the tribe of the Zhou. The Zhou royal house succeeded to the political influence of the Shang, and ruled over an expanding state with considerable success until 771, at which time the Zhou capital was sacked by nomad invaders from the western regions and the Zhou king killed. /+/

“The Zhou Dynasty was not seen as having ended with the destruction of the capital. A son of the murdered king was removed eastwards to a secondary capital of the Zhou by the leaders of various powerful clans. Throughout the Classical period until 256, which is also called the Eastern Zhou period, the descendants of this royal refugee continued to occupy the Zhou throne and to serve as important symbols of Chinese political unity. However, these latter Zhou kings exercised no significant power, and their presence did little to limit the de facto sovereignty of the independent states of China that succeeded to power after the fall of the Western Zhou monarchy in 771. /+/

“Nevertheless, the withering of the Zhou monarchy was not completed in the transition from 771 to 770 B.C. During the initial centuries following the collapse of the Western Zhou, the Zhou royal house continued to provide some cultural focus. The rulers of most of the independent states derived legitimacy on the basis of ancient ties to the Zhou royal house, and this shared origin led them to preserve both rituals of subservience to the Zhou kings and forms of social practice linking their courts to the culture of the Western Zhou. During the fifth century B.C., however, major political dislocations and rapid technological changes fundamentally altered the direction of China’s political culture and the linkage between the independent states and the Zhou past became superfluous. Because of this, traditional accounts of Classical China have generally demarcated two distinct eras, each named after an historical text recounting the events of that time. The earlier era is known as the “Spring and Autumn Period,” the latter as the “Warring States Period.” The dates used for these eras vary. In this course, we will date the Spring and Autumn Period as 770.453 (its narrower dates are 722.481) and the Warring States Period as 453.221 (traditionally, 403.221). /+/

“Thus, a chronological table of early China, for the purposes of this course, would look like this: Xia Dynasty c. 2000-1500 B.C.; Shang Dynasty c. 1500-1045 B.C., Zhou Dynasty (Western Zhou 1045-771 B.C. Eastern Zhou 770- 256 B.C.) Spring-Autumn 770-453 B.C. (Classical); Warring States 453- 221 B.C..

In addition, historically minded writers during the Classical period, in search of the well-springs of the Chinese state, incorporated into the distant past certain mythical heroes or spirits who were recast in the mold of ancient kings or emperors. The most famous of these will appear in our philosophical texts, and include the successive legendary emperors Yao, Shun, and Yu (the last the supposed founder of the Xia), as well as the culture hero known as the Yellow Emperor, often portrayed as the first of the great semi-divine rulers of China. Before continuing with a description of the historical record of pre-philosophical China, we should pause to look at the legendary history which “predated” the dynastic era; although few now grant the historicity of these accounts, they were, in many ways, far more real to our Classical period thinkers than what we see as the true record of the Chinese past. /+/

Legandary emperor Shennong

Classical Beliefs about Legendary Ideal Rulers

Dr. Eno wrote: “People in Classical China were keenly aware of the history of their culture. The ethically charged story of the rise of the current royal house, the Zhou Dynasty, was a foundation of political legitimacy (the “right to rule”) for local power.holders in most parts of China, even though the Zhou kings had long since ceased to exercise effective power. Descriptions of the Zhou founders were the basis of many aspects of popular and philosophical models of the ideal ruler. People were also aware of some features of the Shang Dynasty, which had preceded the Zhou and which the Zhou founders had overthrown. There were vaguer cultural memories of a still earlier dynasty, the Xia (modern historians are divided over the question of whether the Xia Dynasty really existed; if it did, it would have held power between about 1800 and 1500 B.C.). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“When telling the story of China before the Xia Dynasty – of the origin of Chinese culture – the Classical historians relied on a mixture of legend and myth. Few people today believe that the tales of these distant times, which focused on the deeds of almost super.human sage kings, have any basis in fact. Nevertheless, the tales were facts for our Classical thinkers, and since we will encounter the heroes of these tales, it’s important to know the stories behind them. /+/

“There are three main figures to the “pre.dynastic” legendary period of Chinese culture. They are the sage kings Yao, Shun, and Yu. Although other mythical heroes later became very important to Chinese culture, such as the famous Yellow Emperor, for our purposes only Yao, Shun, and Yu are essential. All three seem originally to have been semi-divine heroes of important popular myths, who because of their association with some key aspect of cultural excellence were reinvented as ordinary mortals who ruled as kings. /+/

Basic Ideas of Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory

In his class on “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory” at Harvard University, Michael Puett, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, teaches his students one of key principals of classicla Chinese philosophy is that small actions can have profound ramifications. Christine Gross-Loh wrote in The Atlantic, “Confucius, Mencius, and other Chinese philosophers taught that the most mundane actions can have a ripple effect, and Puett urges his students to become more self-aware, to notice how even the most quotidian acts—holding open the door for someone, smiling at the grocery clerk—change the course of the day by affecting how we feel. [Source: Christine Gross-Loh, The Atlantic, October 8, 2013 /*]

“That rush of good feeling that comes after a daily run, the inspiring conversation with a good friend, or the momentary flash of anger that arises when someone cuts in front of us in line—what could they have to do with big life matters? Everything, actually. From a Chinese philosophical point of view, these small daily experiences provide us endless opportunities to understand ourselves. When we notice and understand what makes us tick, react, feel joyful or angry, we develop a better sense of who we are that helps us when approaching new situations. Mencius, a late Confucian thinker (4th century B.C.E.), taught that if you cultivate your better nature in these small ways, you can become an extraordinary person with an incredible influence, altering your own life as well as that of those around you, until finally “you can turn the whole world in the palm of your hand." /*\

“Decisions are made from the heart: Americans tend to believe that humans are rational creatures who make decisions logically, using our brains. But in Chinese, the word for “mind” and “heart” are the same. Puett teaches that the heart and the mind are inextricably linked, and that one does not exist without the other. Whenever we make decisions, from the prosaic to the profound (what to make for dinner; which courses to take next semester; what career path to follow; whom to marry), we will make better ones when we intuit how to integrate heart and mind and let our rational and emotional sides blend into one. Zhuangzi, a Daoist philosopher, taught that we should train ourselves to become “spontaneous” through daily living, rather than closing ourselves off through what we think of as rational decision-making. In the same way that one deliberately practices the piano in order to eventually play it effortlessly, through our everyday activities we train ourselves to become more open to experiences and phenomena so that eventually the right responses and decisions come spontaneously, without angst, from the heart-mind. /*\

“Recent research into neuroscience is confirming that the Chinese philosophers are correct: Brain scans reveal that our unconscious awareness of emotions and phenomena around us are actually what drive the decisions we believe we are making with such logical rationality. According to Marianne LaFrance, a psychology professor at Yale, if we see a happy face for just a fraction of a second (4 milliseconds to be exact), that's long enough to elicit a mini emotional high. In one study viewers who were flashed a smile—even though it was shown too quickly for them to even realize they had seen it—perceived the things around them more positively. /*\

“If the body leads, the mind will follow: “Behaving kindly (even when you are not feeling kindly), or smiling at someone (even if you aren't feeling particularly friendly at the moment) can cause actual differences in how you end up feeling and behaving, even ultimately changing the outcome of a situation. While all this might sound like hooey-wooey self-help, much of what Puett teaches is previously accepted cultural wisdom that has been lost in the modern age. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do," a view shared by thinkers such as Confucius, who taught that the importance of rituals lies in how they inculcate a certain sensibility in a person. In research published in Psychological Science, social psychologist Amy Cuddy and her colleagues found that when we take a power stance (stand with our legs apart, arms thrust out, taking up space), the pose does not only cause other people to view us as more confident and powerful; it actually causes a hormonal surge that makes us become more confident." /*\



Although sometimes characterized as a religion Confucianism is more of a social and political philosophy than a religion. Some have called it code of conduct for gentlemen and way of life that has had a strong influence on Chinese thought, relationships and family rituals. Confucianism stresses harmony of relationships that are hierarchical yet provide benefits to both superior and inferior, a thought deemed useful and advantageous to Chinese authoritarian rulers of all times for its careful preservation of the class system.

Confucianism mainly addresses humanist concerns rather than things like God, revelation and the afterlife. It emphasizes tradition, respect for the elderly, hierarchal social order and rule by a benevolent leader who is supposed to look out for the well being of his people. Named after a Chinese sage named Confucius, it contains elements of ancestor worship, which is partly why it is sometime regarded as a religion. Traditionally, Chinese who have sought a mystical philosophy or religion turned to Taoism or Buddhism. This means that it is possible and even likely that someone who is regarded as a Confucian is also a Buddhist or a Taoist or even a Christian.

Confucianism was a system of ideas developed by later philosophers out of Confucius' thoughts and its relationship to the original thoughts of the man himself is extremely debatable. The term Confucianism was coined by Westerners. In China, Confucians call themselves ju, a word of uncertain origin that refers to their beliefs as the “way of the sages” or “the way of the ancients." These beliefs are associated with the legendary founders and ancient sages of China and are thought to have existed from time immemorial. Confucius is regarded as the last of the great sages.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Philosophically, there were two early manifestations of this reaction against Confucianism: the schools of Daoism and Mohism. The inspirations for these two schools were very different, and they are in many ways opposites of one another, but they share a common origin as rejections of Confucianism and searches for an alternative path to human excellence. We will discuss these schools in subsequent readings, but it is important to note here that an important feature that these schools shared was the fact that they both attacked the Confucian belief in the importance of Ritual and the Confucian portrait of the junzi as a sage who discovers the path to ethical righteousness through the mastery of Zhou ritual practices. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In this way, throughout the remainder of the Classical period, the feature of Confucianism that clearly distinguishes it from all other schools of thought is precisely its stubborn emphasis on Ritual. Since we today tend not to feel that Ritual is a very significant aspect of human life, and since there may be no one on earth who feels that the particular institutions of Zhou ritual are of any value whatever, the Confucian stress on Ritual tends to make early Confucian philosophy seem irrelevant to our world. One of the main ways in which the study of early Confucianism challenges us is its demand that we grasp how the Confucian celebration of Ritual could have somehow made clear sense to Confucius and his followers.” /+/


Mencius (372-289 B.C.) and Xunzi (Hsün Tzu) were two important and influential philosophers that followed Confucius. Confucius is sometimes viewed as the Socrates of Chinese philosophy while Mencius and Xunzi are seen as Plato and Aristotle. Xunzi was a realist who claimed that man was inherently evil and that education and moral training were necessary to produce a well ordered society.


Mencius, or Meng Zi, was a Confucian disciple who made major contributions to the humanism of Confucian thought. Mencius declared that man was by nature good. He expostulated the idea that a ruler could not govern without the people's tacit consent and that the penalty for unpopular, despotic rule was the loss of the "mandate of heaven." [Source: The Library of Congress]

Mencius was an idealist who emphasized justice and humanity; proposed the idea of popular rule; and is credited with articulating the famous "Mandate of Heaven" ideology. "Any man can become a Yao or Shun," he said (Yao or Shun were two great mythological kings) and "the people are the most important element in a nation. Therefore to gain the peasantry is to become sovereign."

“The effect of the combined work of Confucius, the codifier and interpreter of a system of relationships based on ethical behavior, and Mencius, the synthesizer and developer of applied Confucian thought, was to provide traditional Chinese society with a comprehensive framework on which to order virtually every aspect of life. [Ibid]

“There were to be accretions to the corpus of Confucian thought, both immediately and over the millennia, and from within and outside the Confucian school. Interpretations made to suit or influence contemporary society made Confucianism dynamic while preserving a fundamental system of model behavior based on ancient texts. [Ibid]

Mo Zi, Xun Zi and the Legalists


Diametrically opposed to Mencius, for example, was the interpretation of Xun Zi (ca. 300-237 B.C.), another Confucian follower. Xun Zi preached that man is innately selfish and evil and that goodness is attainable only through education and conduct befitting one's status. He also argued that the best government is one based on authoritarian control, not ethical or moral persuasion. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Xun Zi's unsentimental and authoritarian inclinations were developed into the doctrine embodied in the School of Law (fa), or Legalism. The doctrine was formulated by Han Fei Zi (d. 233 B.C.) and Li Si (d. 208 B.C.), who maintained that human nature was incorrigibly selfish and therefore the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline from above and to enforce laws strictly. The Legalists exalted the state and sought its prosperity and martial prowess above the welfare of the common people. Legalism became the philosophic basis for the imperial form of government. When the most practical and useful aspects of Confucianism and Legalism were synthesized in the Han period (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), a system of governance came into existence that was to survive largely intact until the late nineteenth century. *

Still another school of thought was based on the doctrine of Mo Zi (470-391 B.C.”), or Mo Di. Mo Zi believed that "all men are equal before God" and that mankind should follow heaven by practicing universal love. Advocating that all action must be utilitarian, Mo Zi condemned the Confucian emphasis on ritual and music. He regarded warfare as wasteful and advocated pacificism. Mo Zi also believed that unity of thought and action were necessary to achieve social goals. He maintained that the people should obey their leaders and that the leaders should follow the will of heaven. Although Moism failed to establish itself as a major school of thought, its views are said to be "strongly echoed" in Legalist thought. In general, the teachings of Mo Zi left an indelible impression on the Chinese mind. [Source: The Library of Congress]

Han Feizi, The Legalists and Xi Jinping

Ryan Mitchell wrote in The Diplomat: “Much like a dragon, ‘the ruler of men has bristling scales. Only if a speaker can avoid brushing against them can he have any hope of success.’ That, at least, is the dilemma facing Chinese statesmen as described by the ancient philosopher Han Feizi. Officially repudiated – but still influential – throughout China’s 2000+ years of imperial rule, he and his “Legalist School” have gained new prominence recently due to favorable citations by People’s Republic of China leaders. Above all, those include references made by President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful ruler in decades. Far from mere casual remarks, such statements serve as ideological guideposts to determine the Communist Party line. Just one sentence of Han Feizi’s that Xi quoted last autumn, for example, subsequently appeared thousands of times in official Chinese media at the local, provincial, and national levels. [Source: Ryan Mitchell, The Diplomat, January 16, 2015; Ryan Mitchell is pursuing a Ph.D. in Law at Yale, where his research focuses on political philosophy and international law]

Scholars Orville Schell and John Delury, in an influential book on the history of Chinese reform efforts, credit “pragmatic” Legalist thought of as being behind both much of China’s historical success and its ongoing rebirth as a great nation. For Confucians, who focus on ideals of loyalty, righteousness, and benevolence, little could be more repugnant than the Legalist position that “if a wise ruler masters wealth and power, he can have whatever he desires.”

On this topic, Han Feizi’s overall pragmatic approach begins the moment an aspiring politician opens his mouth to speak. Like Machiavelli in the West, he lived in a dangerous political climate where a wrong word could result in disgrace, exile, or worse. As he explicitly stated in his writing, the first task of any political theorist is to avoid getting on his prince’s bad side; or “brushing against the ruler’s scales.” Discretion, and subtlety, are the key to achieving influence. Ideals, and morals, are to be kept private.


Taoism (Daoism in pinyin) is a philosophy-turned-religion that preaches living in harmony with nature and simplicity. It began as a philosophical tradition in early China. Its most famous work is the Daodejing, attributed to a person known as Laozi, who may have existed in the 6th century B.C. It developed into an organized religion by the A.D. 2nd century. Although its practices vary widely, it generally advocates self-discipline and good living as a way to attain immortality, as well as elaborate rituals to purge individuals or communities of evil. Its ideas of harmony with nature underlie many aspects of Chinese culture, from calligraphy and painting to architecture and medicine. For generations, its formal teachings were passed down by Taoist priests as well as lay practitioners.

Taoism is derived from the Chinese word Tao ("The Way"), which is pronounced "dao." It is the second most important stream of Chinese thought after Confucianism. Like Confucianism it developed during the Zhou period. Its formulation is attributed to the legendary sage Lao Zi (Old Master), said to predate Confucius. As is true with Confucianism, it isn't really a religion in the Western sense of the word. It is more of a mystical philosophy built on a set of ethical principals for everyday living. Unlike Confucianism, which is a practical philosophy with religious overtones, Taoism is more spiritual, rooted in magic and shamanism and concerned with things like self awareness, transcendentalism, and immortality.

Religious Taoism (Tao-chiao) is made up of many movements and sects and has a large cannon of texts. Some texts focus on cosmic manifestations of yin and yang. Others deal with individual and personal matters, meditation, yoga-like practices and mind-control exercises. Folk religion and Taoism are intimately tied together. Taoism grew out of folk religion and incorporates shamanism, animism and many folk deities and traditions. See Folk Religion

Taoism presents the “other half of the Chinese soul, the darker and more ethereal side of the Chinese binary system of yin and yang. On one side sits the Confucian method and practical mind, and on the other towers the fascination with nature and mysteries harkened in the ancient cryptic verses of Laozi, a central figure in Taoism." [Source: Asia Times, Francesco Sisci, Asia Editor of La Stampa, September 2, 2010 /*]

Tao originally a small path in the mountains, describes the easiest way to move up and down the difficulties of life. It is a concept central to Chinese thinking and way of acting - to China's own being. The concept is vague but also precise, linked to the idea of water, which takes the shape of the object holding it without changing nature. It is the yielding of a woman. The way is the Chinese cosmic order, the closest thing China has to the god or gods of Judaic or Greek tradition. In the movement to rediscover China through rediscovery of Confucianism, the Tao had to emerge as well." /*\

Early Taoist Thinkers and Schools of Thought

Taoism formally grew out religious ideas that were circulated at the academy of Chi-gate which was very active in the 4th century B.C. Among the thinkers that were active there were Tsou Yen, regarded as the creator of the Chinese “scientific” view of the universe based on yin and yang; Sung Hsing, Yin Wen and Yang Chu, who advocated a philosophy revolving around individual salvation; Mozi, the leader of the Mohism “universal love” school; and Yang Chu, who was so committed to living as long as possible and avoiding trouble he would not “pluck out a single hair even if it might have benefitted the whole world."

The thinking of Yang Chu was particularly influential. He drew on old physical theories, many based on idea of chi (qi, “breath”), regarded as the breath of all life. His aim was to collect “fine parts” associated with chi to prolong life and find happiness and elevated spirituality. A number of methods, including diet and consuming certain herbs, were developed to accumulate these “fine parts."

Around the same time the School of Lao-tze and Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, 369-280 B.C.) were exploring similar ideas. Scholars there developed the theory of Tao: 1) that the fundamental basis of all beings is based on a state of non-being rather than being; 2) that it was possible to avoid death through uniting oneself with the universal nothingness of Tao; and 3) the best way to do this was to empty oneself of desires and live like a hermit.

Buddhism, Taosim, Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism

Confucius, Laozi and Buddha

Buddhism developed in China through its interaction with other Chinese religions, particularly Taoism. Within Buddhism there was a great deal of flexibility in what was required of followers and it was not necessary for followers to dispense with their beliefs in other religions. Many Chinese followed Buddhism and Taoism at the same time. Even so Buddhism and Taoism were rivals. The Six Dynasties Period overlapped with the Age of Faith (A.D. 3rd to 7th centuries A.D.), a period when Taoists and Buddhists fought for dominance in China.

In some ways Taoism and Buddhism were similar. They both promised followers salvation, stressed detachment and incorporated many superstitions. But in other ways they were very different. Taoism, for example, aspired to make a person physically immortal in their own bodies while Buddhism regarded the human body as a temporary vessel that would ultimately be discarded. Buddhism was able to win many coverts from Taoism by placing a strong emphasis on moral conduct and analytical thinking criticizing the foggy cosmology and superstitious and ritualistic nature of Taoism.

Taoism is some ways developed as a response to Confucianism. These two schools of thought are central to Chinese culture and history. The focus of Taoism is the individual in nature rather than the individual in society. It holds that the goal of life for each individual is to find one's own personal adjustment to the rhythm of the natural (and supernatural) world, to follow the Way (dao) of the universe. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian moralism, Taoism served many of its adherents as a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar on duty as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse. [Source: The Library of Congress; [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University ]

With competition from Taoism and Buddhism — beliefs that promised some kind of life after death — Confucianism became more like a religion under the Neo-Confucian leader Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi, A.D. 1130-1200). In an effort to win converts from Taoism and Buddhism, Zhu developed a more mystical form of Confucianism in which followers were encouraged to seek “all things under heaven beginning with known principals “and strive “to reach the uppermost." He told his followers, “After sufficient labor...the day will come when all things suddenly become clear and intelligible." Important concepts in Neo-Confucian thought were the idea of “breath “(the material from which all things condensed and dissolved) and yin and yang.

Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in Time, “A century ago, a broad spectrum of Chinese intellectuals criticized Confucianism for holding China back, and as recently as the 1970s, communist leaders were denouncing Confucius. China, moreover, has never been an exclusively Confucian nation. There have always been other indigenous, competing creeds. Taoism, for example, has provided an antiauthoritarian counterpoint to hierarchical models of politics for millennia. [Source: Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Time, January 1 2011]

Saniiao (the Three Teachings): Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism

Three Doctrines

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Most anthologies of Chinese religion are organized by the logic of the sanjiao (literally “three teachings”) of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Historical precedent and popular parlance attest to the importance of this threefold division for understanding Chinese culture. One of the earliest references to the trinitarian idea is attributed to Li Shiqian, a prominent scholar of the sixth century, who wrote that “Buddhism is the sun, Daoism the moon, and Confucianism the five planets.” [Li’s formulation is quoted in Beishi, Li Yanshou (seventh century), Bona ed. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), p. 1234. Translation from Chinese by Stephen F. Teiser, Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/]

“Li likens the three traditions to significant heavenly bodies, suggesting that although they remain separate, they also coexist as equally indispensable phenomena of the natural world. Other opinions stress the essential unity of the three religious systems. One popular proverb opens by listing the symbols that distinguish the religions from each other, but closes with the assertion that they are fundamentally the same: “The three teachings -- the gold and cinnabar of Daoism, the relics of Buddhist figures, as well as the Confucian virtues of humanity and righteousness -- are basically one tradition.” [The proverb, originally appearing in the sixteenth-century novel Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi), is quoted in Clifford H. Plopper, Chinese Religion Seen through the Proverb (Shanghai: The China Press, 1926), p. 16.]

“The three teachings are a powerful and inescapable part of Chinese religion. Whether they are eventually accepted, rejected, or reformulated, the terms of the past can only be understood by examining how they came to assume their current status. And because Chinese religion has for so long been dominated by the idea of the three teachings, it is essential to understand where those traditions come from, who constructed them and how, as well as what forms of religious life (such as those that fall under the category of “popular religion”) are omitted or denied by constructing such a picture in the first place.

“It must also be noted that the focus on the three teachings privileges the varieties of Chinese religious life that have been maintained largely through the support of literate and often powerful representatives, and the debate over the unity of the three teachings, even when it is resolved in favor of toleration or harmony -- a move toward the one rather than the three -- drowns out voices that talk about Chinese religion as neither one nor three. Another problem with the model of the three teachings is that it equalizes what are in fact three radically incommensurable things. Confucianism often functioned as a political ideology and a system of values; Daoism has been compared, inconsistently, to both an outlook on life and a system of gods and magic; and Buddhism offered, according to some analysts, a proper soteriology, an array of techniques and deities enabling one to achieve salvation in the other world. Calling all three traditions by the same unproblematic term, “teaching,” perpetuates confusion about how the realms of life that we tend to take for granted (like politics, ethics, ritual, religion) were in fact configured differently in traditional China.”

Discovery of an Ancient Record of the Classics

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, In July 2008, “a precious cargo of muddy bamboo strips arrived at the Old Library at Tsinghua University in Beijing, donated by a graduate who had acquired them in the Hong Kong art market. “When we opened the box it had a bad smell. Moldy. Many were broken,” said Li Xueqin, an eminent historian and paleographer at the university. Underneath the hard, impacted mud was something stunning: ancient literary texts, written on the bamboo strips in pure, stable ink. For three months, Mr. Li’s team cleaned the slender strips, a difficult job because the very cells of the bamboo were saturated with water, making them as soft as cooked noodles. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, July 10, 2013 |+|]

Qin Dynasty bamboo slips

“Inscribed with some of the earliest known texts of the Chinese classics and believed to have been illegally excavated from the tomb of a historian who lived in the state of Chu during the Warring States period, around 300 B.C., the bamboo strips are revolutionizing our understanding of ancient thought and raising issues rooted in the past that feel stunningly contemporary: Is there such a thing as fixed meaning? Is what we think of as truth actually true? Exhortations to cleave to orthodoxy — “Love the Communist Party” and “Study the Classics” — are common in China and often linked, but what, in fact, are the classics? |+|

“In a gauge of the excitement in scholarly and cultural circles, Francesco Sisci, a Beijing-based Italian journalist and classically trained scholar, compared the discovery of the manuscripts, and two other similar finds here since 1993, to the rediscovery in Europe of the pre-Christian cultures and values of Greece and Rome. It was this embrace of the classical world that prompted “the fire of Enlightenment” and “helped to free European minds from the fetters of dogmatism, justified by a superficial reading of the Bible, and launched Europe on the path to developing the modern world,” Mr. Sisci wrote.|+|

“ It’s simply extraordinary in its implications, said Mr. Li. “It would be like finding the original Bible or the ‘original’ classics,” he said in an interview at Tsinghua, as the inscribed bamboo strips lay in boxes of distilled water in a cool room on a floor above us. “It enables us to look at the classics before they were turned into ‘classics.’ The questions now include, what were they in the beginning, and how did they become what they became?” he asked. It’s important to know that about 100 years after the texts were buried, the first Qin emperor conducted a “literary holocaust” in China...He ordered books burned and banned private libraries, shaping the intellectual tradition for thousands of years by standardizing the written Chinese language. That required all texts to be rewritten, during which unwelcome theories were discarded. |+|

“Could the strips be fakes? The complex way in which the content connects to existing texts, the historical detail and physical condition rule that out, according to experts who include some of China’s leading paleographers and intellectual historians. Mr. Li’s team at Tsinghua carbon-dated them to 305 B.C., plus or minus 30 years. “They were so saturated with water, to 400 percent, when we got them,” said Liu Guozhong, a member of the Tsinghua team. Offering a homely analogy, he said, “It’s like boiling noodles. You can’t make over-boiled noodles without spending the time boiling them.”|+|

Contents of the Tsinghua Texts—the Ancient Record of the Classics

The Tsinghua texts — as the discovered classic texts are now called—total about 2,500 bamboo strips, including fragments, which are up to 46 centimeters, or 18 inches, long. Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, “The Tsinghua manuscripts and the two other collections, also dated from around 300 B.C. (one excavated from the historical Chu state area of Hubei Province, while the other was bought on the Hong Kong art market), together include: The earliest known copy of the “I Ching,” the ancient book of divination; hitherto unknown poems from “The Book of Songs”; texts attributed to Confucius that are not found in later renditions of “The Analects”; the oldest version of Laozi’s “Dao De Jing,” or “The Taoist Book of the Way” (with many differences from later editions); and previously unknown chapters of “The Book of Documents,” the Confucian history classic of speeches about good governance by model kings, which carried great political significance. This work would become a target for destruction by later rulers. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, July 10, 2013 |+|]

Sarah Allan, a scholar of ancient China at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, told the New York Times the Tsinghua texts challenge Chinese culture as the country seeks to present itself as different from the West. “These manuscripts provide much entirely new information about the formative period of Chinese thought just at a time of renewed interest in what it means to be Chinese,” she wrote. By predating that censorship, the bamboo strips show us the true core of China’s philosophical, literary and historical thought, Ms. Allan said. |+|

bamboo slips with translations

“The particular significance of these three groups of manuscripts lies in the date at which they were buried,” she wrote. “300 B.C. was the height of China’s Axial Age, that is, it was in the middle of the period in which the core ideas of the Chinese intellectual tradition took form,” she wrote. “These manuscripts speak directly to the core issues of the Chinese intellectual tradition and were recorded at the height of the formative period.” They include a description of a popular, alternative political system to the dynastic rule that dominated for thousands of years — the “abdication of the good to the good as the best means of political succession,” Ms. Allan wrote. A ruler would retire from office and hand power to a deserving person, who could in theory be anyone. “This idea of abdication as a means of political succession was too threatening to later dynasties to survive,” she wrote.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.