Introduction to Chinese Thoughts

There are several schools of thought in Chinese philosophy, and they include Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, Buddhism, and Mohism. In about 500 B.C., the classical period of Chinese philosophy blossomed, and the most influential schools of thought, as mentioned above, were established. The period is famously referred to as the contention of a hundred schools of thought. After the unification of China during the Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C., Legalism eclipsed the Mohist and Confucianist schools of thought. Later, during the Han Dynasty from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D., the Chinese adopted Taoism but then shifted to Confucianism as their official doctrine. Although there was a parallel introduction of Buddhism into Chinese culture, both schools of thought, Taoism and Confucianism, remained a determinant force in Chinese thought up to the 20th century. Taoism is also referred to as Daoism, and is described as a great indigenous philosophical tradition of China. The term Dao refers to a road and is most often translated as “the way”. It implies the process of reality, that is, the way things are bound to come together while still in the process of transformation. Daoism reflects the deep-seated belief in Chinese culture that change signifies the essential character of things. As a fundamental philosophy to which the Chinese subscribe to, it is thus important to understand how other schools of thought view the idea of the Dao.


Mencius was the first greatest follower of Confucius who felt obliged to defend the Confucian school of thought. In defense of the philosophy, he singled out the theory of Mozi that was among the philosophy’s most dangerous rivals. Mozi, who was earlier known as Mo Di, lived in the period between the death of Confucius and the birth of Mencius. For Mohists, reality can be fathomed through sense perception, inference and historical precedent. Fundamentally, the most profound arguments surrounding the Mohist school of thought are political in nature and reveal both populism and authoritarianism as a characteristic blend of the philosophy.

According to Mohism, the ethical standards for humans are objective, and both nature and human activity operate within the same ethical norms. The Mohist Dao is thus the way of reality itself, in that it has to be the tried and tested knowledge of the world. What it means is that the outcomes of human personal and political lives are not predestined although the universe follows a normative Dao. People are free to follow or diverge from the Dao of nature because the philosophy subscribes to humans being critical in having a causal role in affecting the course of events. The Mohist philosophy is, however, well understood because it was included in the Daoist canon. Therefore, although they can be said to bear some sought of resemblance, the definition of Mohism cannot be qualified as that of Daoism. While the Dao seems to explain nature itself and how it works, Mohism, on the other hand, is more theoretically focused on the Dao and claims that it is merely a feature of the natural world.

As for the Legalist school of thought, it was a network of ideas that concerned itself with the state. It existed during the Warring States period and considered only the perspective of rulers. That philosophy was behind a number of political reforms that were introduced in the period between 360 and 338 B.C., in the state of Qin. Li Si, who was the last prime minister of the pre-imperial Qin, was a self-avowed Legalist who studied under the Confucian master Xunzi. Li Si discarded the teaching of Confucius after observing that those Confucians that possessed moral excellence never held any significant governmental positions. Having noted that, he only retained those teachings that were legalistic. Although during Li Si’s age the philosophy of legalism was growing into a set of complex ideas, it is not well-established when exactly Legalism started to be regarded as an intellectual faction. Although, in the period surrounding 240 B.C., when some of the greatest Legalist texts authored by a man named Han Feizi appeared, the idea became coherent.

The Legalist philosophy implies that everything is prone to change; that if socioeconomic conditions change, human behavior is also bound to change. The changes then require adaptation of political institutions in which rulers should use legal systems to force people to comply with the law. The other fundamental pillar of the philosophy is that, overwhelmingly, humans are selfish and covetous. Secondly, that situation is unchangeable and can become an asset to the ruler. Legalism is known to have borrowed ideas from the Daoist classic Doa De Jing. To the Legalist, the Dao is embodied in the ruler and thus his authority is limitless and unquestionable. Although there are some borrowed Daoist ideas in Legalism, Daoism believed that government should be invisible. According to that philosophy, people were to live without any laws guiding them because laws were unproductive, and only that which was self-grown and in conformity with nature mattered. The eminent disparities between these two philosophies were in the fact that Legalists believed that only the government defended the best interests of the society. Daoism, on the other hand, emphasized that people needed to be as one with nature and that society was unimportant.

Finally, the militarist philosophy in China was the result of increased warfare and the desire to defeat enemies during wars. Before the militarist view during the Shang and Zhou period, a war was viewed as an aristocratic affair that was governed by complex protocols. During the war, it was required that the enemy be treated fairly and a kind of traditional honor in battle and extreme generosity towards the enemy was suggested. However, the approach to war changed when the military strategist and general Sun Tzu began writing on the military strategy giving birth to the militarist philosophy. There is difficulty in ascertaining Sun Tzu’s historicity, though it is believed he lived in the 6th century B.C. He is credited with the work on military strategy The Art of War, which was also known as The Thirteen Chapters.

The main ideas in regards to that philosophy are that war is based on deception and succeeding by any means possible, and is not to be treated in an aristocratic or honorable manner. Sun Tzu changed the principles of war by applying the Daoist principles concerning warfare. The principles were against treating war as a sport, which, if prolonged, would only cost more lives. The Daoist advocated for casual living by acting in accordance with the natural way of things, a concept exemplified by Sun Tzu through his writings. He emphasizes that the natural way to victory is achieved by ignoring the wisdom of the time in issues regarding military engagements. The Tao-Te-Ching, the great Daoist work, reveals the horror of war and exemplifies a great longing for peace. In support of the same, Sun Tzu explains that the greatest way to achieve peace is by having a swift victory or even better by defeating an enemy before the war has even begun. Thus, to the militarist, the real Dao was to subscribe to individual independence from nature expressed through the Tao-Te-Ching. Other than conforming to reality by being rigid and holding to how one thinks things should be, the militarist should recognize the fluidity of the conditions and take action decisively. There is a tone of solemnity between the militarist view and that of Daoism, in that the Dao way of life has great respect for the value of life and it abhors acts of violence or war. However, in the Tao-Te-Ching, war can be accepted but only when one has no choice and is protecting the life of an innocent person.

The aspects of the Dao are believed to have had the greatest impact on Chinese culture, and most of other views such as Mohism, Legalism and militarism borrow some concepts from the Dao as explained above. The Dao does not have any uniform definition, and as such is translated by other philosophies to apply to the way they view reality. Thus, the common ground is that it is not thoroughly definable by one philosophy, and adapts to the way one refers as true path of reality. Though there are very many contradicting viewpoints in each philosophy, there is some common ground that can be traced to separate Daoism from the other views. A different school of thought flourished in China after the Zhou Dynasty had gradually collapsed, giving rise to various governing ideologies. During the Han Dynasty (25 – 220 B.C.), there were many different schools of thought, which made that period the peak of Chinese philosophy. The rise of those philosophies that provided different ideas of governance is attributed to the rise and decline of the state, which was the result of different views on reality by ancient thinkers who thus shaped the characteristics of the society.

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