Chinese philosophers

Chinese Philosophy

The Warring States period (475 to 221 BC) was an age when Chinese philosophers flourished: the courts and their rulers wanted justifications for their actions, and wandering scholars were able to provide such justifications. This was indeed the great age of philosophy worldwide. In India, Buddha was a contemporary of Confucius, while in Greece, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were laying the foundations for very different philosophies.

In China, such discussions and debates flourished, and there were numerous schools of philosophy – a Hundred Schools of Thought, which would later form the basis for Mao Tze Tung’s “Let a hundred flowers bloom”. Three of these schools are of particular importance, that of Confucius, the Daoists and the Legalists and we must discuss each of them in turn if we are to understand the reformation undertaken by Qin – and indeed the foundations of Imperial, and even modern China. .



Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, 685-758, Tang Dynasty.

The most influential philosophy was one which lay in the middle of the spectrum: that of Confucius. Confucius, whose traditional dates are 551-479, was born into impoverished gentility. He set out to be a politician or political advisor, but was not very successful so he went into exile and became a wandering scholar. He gathered many disciples, and the books attributed to him offer an alluring attraction. Confucius’ philosophy could be described as that of a traditional English gentleman. It was ethics rather than religion, not so much a reasoned argument but leading by example: he established the concept of the ‘golden rule’, and his ‘Analects’ offer a collection of many alluring sayings:


Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.

Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life (my own philosophy!).

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.

Better a diamond with a flaw, than a pebble without one.

To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.

It is an alluring set of precepts well suited to the aspiring politician.

Politically he has been called a ‘conservative’. He looked back to a golden age when government was led by virtuous kings and followed by their virtuous subjects. It was an ideal education for philosophy-minded bureaucrats. But though it worked well when government was successful, when governments fail Confucianism fails too, and particularly in the periods of fragmentation, the rival philosophy of Buddhism tended to get ahead and appear more attractive. Though when a strong ruler was able to impose his personality and bring back the smack of firm government, Confucianism once again seemed very attractive, particularly to the rulers and their bureaucracy.

Confucianism perhaps had its greatest influence in the form of Neo-Confucianism. In the Song dynasty, a new savant Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200) updated Confucius with judicious input from Buddhism and Daoism and produced Commentaries on the Four Books, which became the basis for the Imperial examinations, which every budding administrator had to take. The later Chinese empire flourished by being administered by a bureaucracy which had honed its skills and proved its worth by the study of a classical and perhaps slightly outmoded philosophy.


The great rival to Confucianism was Daoism or Taoism. Daoism has a fuzzier outline than does Confucianism: its great proponent was Laozi, or Lao Tzu, a shadowy figure who is said to have been a contemporary, and possibly even a teacher of Confucius. His great work, the Tao Te Ching, or living in harmony with the ‘way’ (= Tao) is sometimes thought to be a compilation of many hands, but Daoism incorporate a considerable amount of the Chinese folk religion with its rituals and its ceremonies so that in many ways is has become the traditional Chinese religion.

Daoism has a more ambiguous approach than Confucianism. Dao, or Tao means living in harmony with the ‘Way’ – Tao is usually translated the ‘Way’, though as Chinese does not have a plural, it could also be translated as ‘the Ways’. (It might be compared to the opening of St John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word”: Word is the Greek logos, from which logic is derived. Does it mean the same as ‘the Way’ in Taoist philosophy?) A central concept is living in harmony with nature: one should cultivate the way of non-action, and let nature be itself.


A stone sculpture of Laozi, located north of Quanzhou at the foot of Mount Qingyuan

The great proponent of Daoism was Laozi, or Lao Tzu, a shadowy figure who seems to have been a contemporary and possibly even a teacher of Confucius. But Daoism incorporates a considerable amount of Chinese folk religion with its rituals and ceremonies. Chinese folk religion is in itself a somewhat shadowy concept that can best be defined as being the opposite of Judaism, being non-exclusive so that one can hold many different belief systems of the same time. Daoism merges with Chinese folk religion so that it is often considered to be the traditional Chinese religion.

Laozi’s great work, the Tao Te Ching, or living in harmony with the ‘way’ (= Tao) has an opening which recalls the opening of St John’s gospel:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;

The name that can be named is not the eternal name

However Daoism is interesting in that several Western political movements have claimed it as an ancestor. Surprisingly it is not yet been claimed by the Greens, with whom it has obvious analogies, but it has been claimed by the anarchists as Daoism tends to oppose authority and makes a strong appeal to cultivate the ‘way of no-action’, of letting nature be itself.

The most interesting however is a powerful essay by the American libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who argues that Daoism was the forerunner of libertarianism. “Inaction” he said “became the watch word for Lao Tzu, since only the inaction of government can permit the individual to flourish and achieve happiness. The wisest course is to keep government simple and inactive, for then the world stabilises itself.”

But the main appeal of Daoism remains its adoption of the traditional Chinese folk religion. The Chinese have always had a humanistic and secular approach to religion – the Emperors have always claimed that they enjoyed the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ and gave offerings on the Altar of Harvest and other traditional sites; but it is Daoism that provides the intellectual background to the traditional religions, and is thus often considered to be the traditional Chinese religion



The opposite of Daoism was Legalism and this in a way is more important because the ideas of Legalism underlay many of the reforms introduced by Qin into the new Chinese Empire.

Legalism is the strict application of the Rule of Law. It is the belief that people are essentially evil, there is no such thing as goodness or virtue, and that laws are essential to preserve the stability of the state from the inconsistencies of the people. It is a policy that is at best pragmatic, frequently cynical, and has its nearest parallel in the works of Machiavelli. Although the concept had long existed, the first consistent formulation was that attributed to Shang Yang, or Lord Yang who is dated 390 – 338 BC. He was that rarity, a theoretical philosopher, who was also a practical politician. He came from one of the central states of China to Qin, at the time the backward western most state of China. Here he became the chief advisor to Duke Xiao, and together they made Qin into the most powerful state in China, from which eventually a century later the first emperor would emerge to unify China. He carried out a thorough reformation with his Legalistic philosophy. His insistency on the primacy of the rule of law led him to break up the large clans into nuclear families. Instead of having large extended families where grandparents, uncles, aunts, fathers, mothers and children all lived together, the ideal became the nuclear family of father, mother and children. He carried out land reform, privatising the land and selling it or giving it away to individual farmers and rewarding those who did well. Agricultural production thereby improved enormously and he was a great encourager of immigration from the other states.

He is best known for The Book of Lord Shang, a book attributed to him which sets out defiantly his philosophy.

“Sophistry and cleverness are an aid to lawlessness; rites and music are symptoms of dissipation and licence; kindness and benevolence are the foster-mother of transgressions; employment and promotion are opportunities for the rapacity of the wicked… if the people are stronger than the government the state is weak; if the government is stronger than the people, the army is strong…”

The best classification of Legalism came a century later under Han Fei (c 280-233 BC) who laid down three components of good government. The first was the Rule of Law: the Law code must be made public and it is the Law not the Ruler who rules the state. In many ways this sounds very attractive to the modern right-wing theorist, who, following Hayek believes in the Rule of Law. But Hayek believed that laws should be administered by neutral judges, while the legalist believed that the emperor is the law, and both makes the law and administers it.

The second tool of Han Fei was his methodology: the ruler should rule in secret so that no one could fathom the ruler’s motivation. This makes an interesting contrast to our modern belief in open government and transparency. The Legalist would answer that the ruler’s motives should be shrouded in secrecy, so that he can do what is right even if it is unpopular. (The weakness of open government is that it makes it difficult for the government to balance the books – something that is always unpopular).

His third tool is legitimacy: it is the position of the ruler that is all important, and the ruler should practice non-action to allow the natural order to rule.

Legalism, though cynical, was very attractive to powerful rulers and formed the basis for much of China’s success. Certainly the Emperor Qin practised the legalistic philosophy: the Han dynasty that succeeded the Qin, and who wished to get away from such a cynical philosophy vilified it, but it has been well said that the secret of China was, that although from the outside it was Confucianism based on the concept of the gentleman scholar, on the inside it relied on the cynical pragmatism of Legalism.



Song Dynasty painting in the Litang style illustrating the theme “Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are one”. Depicts Taoist Lu Xiujing (left), official Tao Yuanming (right) and Buddhist monk Huiyuan (center, founder of Pure Land) by the Tiger stream. The stream borders a zone infested by tigers that they just crossed without fear, engrossed as they were in their discussion. Realising what they just did, they laugh together, hence the name of the picture,Three laughing men by the Tiger stream.
Somehow one cannot imagine Christians conversing so happily with rival religions.



 On to The Emperor Qin Shi Huang, and how he unified China

14th March 2015