Understanding the Spirit of Chinese Thought


The Chinese thought, one of the most ancient among core civilizational thoughts expressed by man since the ages unknown, it holds a unique place in human history as well as the present times. The evolution of Chinese thought is totally different from the world civilizational thought, on account of China’s geographical, ecological and consequently cultural mould.

As can be seen in the world around, the human thought developed through an intensive interaction with the nature. The geographical conditions, ecological surroundings play a crucial role in the development of man as an individual as well as a part of whole human race.

The spirit of Chinese thought lies in the psychological development of Chinese society and its inimitable dialectic with the China’s environment.

A serious understanding of Chinese past brings up a picture of an exceptionally self-reliant society which has given an ultimate importance to the philosophical thought even more than the religious leanings throughout its whole history. A single example will suffice such an exclusive observation.

Throughout Chinese History, the Chinese Education System which was has continuously dominated Chinese History, and most importantly which had remained unchanged for more than 3000 years, and whose central examination system too had remained unaltered for nearly 2000 years gives tremendous importance to the learning of Chinese Philosophy. For any man, wanting to be educated had to undergo training in Philosophy as a prerequisite. The philosophy was the foundation of Chinese Education and simultaneously its complete culture.

When all Chinese children went to school they were first taught Philosophy which contained four most important Chinese tomes such as Confucian Analects, The Book of Mencius, The Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean. These four books constitute the Neo-Confucian Philosophy, which throughout history has dominated Chinese civilizational development.

If the historical situation in China is taken in to consideration, one comes to an accurate conclusion that Chinese civilization didn’t develop on its religious background but on its philosophical basis. The Philosophies that became the founding stones of Chinese culture are devoid of theistic tendencies. The Chinese philosophy has been rightly described as this-worldly by various stalwart interpreters.

Let’s take for example the Cofucianism, which can be described as a kind of Classicism that emphasises an ethical living with human-heartedness. On this basic and exclusive premise the Confucianism developed as a practice and way of life. Many of the western scholars have interpreted Confucianism as a religion, but it must be understood that it is not a religion per se on the lines of Semitic-Abrahamic religions. It can best be related with Buddhism which too rose as a thought and way of life on its core philosophy.           

The spirit of Chinese thought must be understood in this way. It is a thought that was moulded on the grounds of ethical philosophies which engaged with this-world and human living in this life.

But at the same time, Chinese Philosophy was not just about the moral preaching regarding a living in this world, it had its own metaphysics and mysticism. The feature of Chinese Philosophy is that the metaphysical and mystical character of philosophy was unmistakably linked in the service of human morality and ethics.

And thus, the Chinese Philosophy forms a major part of popular culture and civilizational thought. To understand the spirit of Chinese thought is to understand the moralistic philosophical worldview of the China.

The Chinese Philosophies can best be understood as the originators of Chinese Religious world-views as well. And hence, modern scholars have started to denote Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism as religio-philosophies.

When one gets on the ground of Chinese thought, one understands that Chinese Philosophy and consequent religiosity doesn’t stress transcendental realities or the concept of absolute which is beyond the reach of human thought.

Four Founding Spheres of Chinese Thought

Chinese Philosophy has to be understood on its four important spheres of human life and humanity’s existence. These four spheres constitute the whole of Chinese perspective towards the world around.

The first sphere is naturalistic, which is a sphere of human instinct and human needs of most basic form like hunger, protection, procreation etc. This sphere deals with the animal side of humanity. The next sphere is about the utilitarian approach towards the world around, in which the man learns to use nature to his own ends. The Utilitarian Sphere of human life is the origin of human cultural thoughts, its unique way of life and man’s coping with the nature around to suit his survival. The third is the sphere of morality, which gets humanity in the realm of social living and community existence. To continue the community existence in good terms, humanity develops the moral values and ethics for its own sustenance. The human society and birth of morality brings one on the historical scenario in which the fundamentals of Chinese civilization were brought to life. But, Chinese thought doesn’t stop here, it transcends its own structure when it proclaims that the fourth, final and most important sphere of humanity is Universal. The whole of universe is seen as one, and everything is understood to be connected. This inter-connectedness brings the Chinese mind to understand its own place in the universe as well as its responsibility towards the whole universe.

The highest of Chinese thought developed on the backdrop of this Universalism. But, one must understand that the Universalism proclaimed in Chinese thought is not metaphysical or spiritual. It is a pure naturalism and realism. The third sphere of morality raises humanity to live an ideal and fulfilled life in the human society, but the fourth sphere of Chinese thought demands a transcendental living from humans by identifying itself with the nature and universe. It is held that the human beings who come to such a universalistic understanding become the sages. The sage concept in Chinese thought is the most important aspect of Chinese philosophy.

Yet, one must take the full cognizance of the concept of Sage in Chinese Philosophy. The sageliness in Chinese thought is not about ascetic and renunciation prone way of life. On the other hand, the sageliness of Chinese ideals is an epitome of complete universal human being. Sage is a man who has identified himself with the universe and is a contributing element of his surroundings. He works for the ethical prosperity of whole of universe. Thus the crux of Chinese thougth, or the spirit of Chinese philosophy as has been described by great 20th century Chinese philosopher Fung Yu-Lan is an ideal of a human being defined as a Sageliness within and Kingliness without. The universal being in Chinese thought is a patron of all, a patriarch of all and a teacher of all.

Another important aspect of Chinese Philosophy is its overwhelming adherence to the fruits of human intuition rather than the deductive rational speculations. And hence, the Chinese Philosophy throughout its history has been a journal of great human intuitions and the wisdom coming from it. As the emphasis is on the intuition, one comes across the doctrines of Chinese Philosophy which has a characteristic suggestive mould. The philosophical thought in China presents itself through small aphorisms, allusions and illusions. The suggestive form of thought makes on think in between the lines, beyond the lines. While the articulating quality of philosophy didn’t much develop in China, it came to China through the Philosophy of Buddhism. The most important difference between the Chinese Philosophy and the other world philosophies is the prominence of its suggestive nature and importance to intuition. And thus, the intuition through experience rather than a deductive or inductive speculations about the reality. The universalism of Chinese thought evolves from this background of intuitionism.

Physical and Metaphysical background of Chinese Thought

            Any civilization and its core thought emerges out of the continuous interaction humanity initiates with its own surroundings and itself. The thinking which thus emerges is always reflective. All the major world civilizations have a great tradition of such a reflective thinking and understanding it’s environ and itself.

            The Chinese civilization and its civilizational thought must be understood as a reflection Chinese mind created regarding the nature and human commune. And to get to the gist of Chinese thinking, one must understand the physical and metaphysical background on which the thought arose. For the physical background, the geographical setting of China must be taken in to consideration, which ultimately will bring up a complete picture of economic and social background of Chinese thought.

Considering first the geographic conditions, China is surrounded on three sides by the seas, while the mainland china is a vast plain. Sustained by one the largest riverine valley plain and the fertile land thus obtained, China below the Mongolian cold and dry areas as well as to the west of desert of Gobi is an ideal land for an agriculturally prosperous civilization. It is no surprise that China boasts to be one the first lands where the paddy cultivation developed. For more than 5000 years China has been the land of agriculture and cultivation driven civilization.

In the works of Chinese Philosophers like Confucius or Mencius one comes across this core tendency of Chinese civilization. The China has been described by these thinkers as a great land all beneath the sky. At the same time, Chinese never encouraged the venturing in the Sea. Traditionally, Chinese civilization has been dominated by the culture of peasants and farmers. Venturing in the sea was seen with disgrace and it was thought to be asking for unforeseen dangers. In the Analects, Confucius says that, the wise men delight in the waters, and the good men delight on lands, the wise move, while the good stay still; wise men are happy, while the good men survive. Going on the seas was seen by the Chinese people as something which completely severed their bonds with their kin and culture. The sea travel was thought by the people as a kind of punishment or a banishment.

With this general setup of rootedness in the land of the Chinese people, one gets a good clue to decipher the economic and social background of Chinese people. As a land driven civilization, sustaining on the river waters, China has been predominantly an agriculturist’s land. The peasants have always been the spine of Chinese civilization. The situation may have changed in the latter half of 20th Century with an introduction of industrialization, but the ancient and historical China was an agricultural civilization.

And thus, the peasants and their culture forms a great part of Chinese thought. The life of peasants has always been eulogised and held in high esteem. The peasants have been described as good hearted, human hearted people, who prefer high ethics and follow moral values to the core. The life of a peasant is one with the nature and thus he is an ideal being who can become a true Universalist. It was thought that the one who gets to reside in the same village that his ancestors lived in, one who gets to till the same land which traditionally belongs to his family and one who is able to nurture all his kin under a single roof is the luckiest one. The peasant life was so much idealized that it was customary to recruit good, toiling and prosperous peasants in the state services. Since the ancient times, Peasant life with peace and prosperity has been the dream of all Chinese people.

And on the other hand, the people who dwell on the seas and markets, especially the merchants have been described traditionally in the Chinese thinking as cunning, back-stabbers, people with no loyalties and money-mongering. It was historically proven that the peasants always remained loyal to their land, village and state which was seen as one family, while the merchants formed their own communes according to their preferred commodities and had a kind of independent existence in the port-market cities. As most of the population China belonged to the peasantry the villages and peasant families were the movers of Chinese thought and civilization.

The idealized peasant family system or an extended family system was the basic or foundational social system of China. The Chinese civilization and civilizational thought has propounded five traditional social relations, which formed the basis of moral and universal spheres of human life. These relations are sovereign-subject, father-son, elder-younger brother, husband-wife and friend-friend. These relations and the ideals or the norms regarding the relations completely covered human life. But it is a surprise that the relation between mother-son has not been mentioned in the list of traditional relations, yet it was considered to be forming a part of father-son relationship. It must be understood that the Chinese man did consider these relations and followed the bonds of these relations even out of their primary boundaries, for example Chinese man ethically considered any elder man to be like his father and treated him the same.

This idealization of relations and relatives evolved further in Ancestor Worship, which still forms a great part of Chinese Society and Culture.

Another important aspect of Chinese Society is its traditional class and caste system. According to this system, there were four traditional classes, Scholars, Farmers, Artisans and finally merchants. The first three were held in high esteem while the class of merchants was seen to be downgraded way of living. It must be understood that the Chinese society didn’t made explicit class of the warriors or rulers. The core social system and its administration was rested on the shoulders of Scholars, Farmers and Artisans. And the rulers as well as the administrators, warriors were created out of these three only. These three were held to be the roots of the society and merchants or the commercial class was thought to be the branch of society.

The whole of Chinese thought developed on this physical, economic and social background. The thinkers rose in these traditional backgrounds and became prominent on account of their preaching which held a promise of making the prevalent social organization to be more ideal and virtuous. The Chinese thought thus can be divided in two parts, first is it’s this this-worldliness and the other is its teaching of spontaneity and naturalism or universalism. The spiritualism didn’t develop in China, as the core belief was that the universe is whole and it is this one, there is nothing out of the bounds of this universe. The Universe is sustained on the eternal energies and synergies. The ultimate goal of sage life was held to be its being one with the universe during the life as well as after the life.

The naturalism and social responsibility became the core of Chinese expressions and reflections. The Chinese art and poetry are the most important evidences of this trend. The art and poetry were the expressions of nature and naturalism, it revolved around the peasant life which was the ideal of Chinese civilization.

Origin of Chinese Philosophical Schools

Traditionally it is held by Chinese people that their whole civilization started with the rule of five divine kings or the semi-divine beings. These were Fu Hsi, Sheng Nung – The Divine Farmer, Huang Ti- The Yellow Emperor, Shao Hao and Chuan Hsu. These five were the settlers of Chinese land and civil code. These five rulers have been held to be the epitome of ‘Sageliness within and kingliness without’. These were followed by Yao, the first completely human ruler (2357-2256 B.C.). During the reign of this Dynasty, China had to face great floods, which were overcome by the efforts of another universal ruler Great Yu, who understood the nature, created dikes and waterways. He completely altered the natural calamity in a natural prosperity. The Great Yu became another ideal of Universal Being. This dynasty was followed by Shang Dynasty which too shared the belief in natural order and universalism.   

Chinese thought is heavily dominated by naturalism and a strong belief in natural order. The philosophical thought that can be dated to more than 4 to 5000 years ago as per the Chinese Tradition, evolved on the notion of natural cycles. The cycles of day and night, seasons, waxing and waning of moon, blossoming or flowering of trees etc. became the foundational observations of Chinese man. On the basis of concepts regarding the natural order the tenets of social order too arose.

This also led towards belief in fate, which means Shang in Chinese. The fate was also ruled by the natural order, yet it could be manipulated by the powers of great deities. These great deities were none other than the great universal beings who had not just died, but had become one with the universe. The ‘Shangdi’ was the most important deity of these times, who still is held to be an ultimate universal being.

The Shang Dynasty was overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty, which became the custodian of Chinese Civilization for more than 1000 years. The dates of this dynasty can be fixed from 1122 B.C. and lasted up to 256 B.C. During this dynasty and its glorious rule one sees the rise and growth of Chinese Philosophy in more than 100 schools. As the records are meagre about all 100 schools, it is held that these all worked on the domains of social life of people and pure naturalism or universalism.

Among the 100 schools, history is vocal about the six major schools of thought. These have been recorded by the author of China’s first dynastic history. He was Ssu-ma T’an and his son Ssu-ma Chi’an, too later joined the efforts of his father. The last chapter of their work is about the essential ideas of most important six schools of thought.

The first is Yin-Yang school of thought, which was a philosophy of cosmologists. The cosmological order of the world was their subject of expertise. According to them, the whole of cosmic being of the world is a combination of Yin and Yang. Yin is a female principle and Yang is a male principle. The interaction and co-existence of the two results in universe phenomenon.

The second is Ju Chia or the School of literature. It has been dubbed as the Confucian school by the westerners. But the nomenclature is mistaken as Confucius was just an educator of this school not the composer or an editor. This school taught the ancient classics and cultural legacy to the people. Through six classics the ideals ways of living and livelihood were preached to the people. The extraordinary students of this school formed the elite class of the Chinese society. These were the crucial scholars, thinkers and interpreters of Chinese Philosophy and Civilization.

The Third school is Mo Chia or the Mohist School. It was a close-knit organization and followed a strict discipline. It was concentrated in the various temples of holy spirits and ancestors of Chinese culture. The Sanctity of the temple as well as its protection was their profession. This school was the sole propagator of martial traditions in Chinese Civilization.

The Fourth school is the Ming Chia. It propounded the philosophy of a names and actualities. According to this school the nature is an order of actualities and not just the names. The names humans give to the nature do not change the actualities. This same philosophy it applied to the social conditions in China. Accordingly the people were asked to find their actualities and were suggested to ignore ceremonials, titles, names and superficialities.

The fifth one is the Fa Chia School. The word Fa means law. It was the school of legalists. The most important thinkers of this school were the eminent statesmen of Zhou Dynasty. The school believed that the state should be run on the fixed code of law rather than the moral tenets and judgements of the rulers or administrators. This school was the sole contender against the Confucian school of thought. The Confucian school upheld the importance of Morality and ethics, while the Fa Chia upheld the written code. It must be noted that only Fa Chia School was left undisturbed under the Maoist rule and many of its tenets were inculcated in the Chinese Marxism. While all other schools had to bear the brunt of Cultural Revolution and purges.

The sixth school is Tao Te Chia School or as has been mistakenly called as Taoist school by the westerners. The Tao means the way. The school focused on the philosophy of the human individual and integral virtue which is called as Te. The following of internal virtue by the man is the only way to live in the society and it is also the sole way of becoming one with the nature.

These all schools also developed their own organizations, ways of practice, and some forms of rituals. Yet all shared a clear bond of ancestor worship and naturalism-universalism.

There are various theories regarding the rise and origin of these schools of philosophy. Yet all the theories that have been put forwards since the 1st century B.C. till today point to the origin of this philosophies in the thoughts of various state officials, statesmen, administrators as well as the actual rulers. The Chinese Philosophy thus became state centred and the state too was held to be an indivisible part of human surrounding and nature.

The State rulers and officials themselves were the thinkers, scholars of various schools. Their own work and daily responsibilities of administration were the grounds of development of these philosophical schools. It must be understood that there was no private teaching in China during its History before Confucius. All the officials themselves being the scholars used to train various young pupils in their own school of thought. This whole system arose from the family background of the Chinese society. The system of schools made it possible for the officials to appoint the right candidate trained by himself in his post. And at the same time, other pupil were absorbed in the various other provinces of China.

Yet, during the latter period of Zhaou dynasty, this same system became chaotic on account of the changes in the administrative structures and provincial resettlements. As all the thinkers had special love for their own home and native place, officials started to works for favours and gradually corruption crept in. All were trying to be at their own native place, this resulted in the decline of the state centralized administration system. With the decline of the state, one comes across a decline of State machinery as well as official or the formal schools of thought.

And thus, this period starting from the 3rd to 2nd century B.C. saw the decline or fall of the official oriented schools of philosophy and training. And with this at the same time, many of the scholars gave up their state services and started preaching their doctrines to the common people.

For the complete understanding of this situation, one must take a note of most important factor of Chinese political and social history. China had been since its most ancient days a feudal state, where the ruler of China, like the king from Zhou dynasty was the ruler of whole of China. Under him were various important officials and princes. The whole land of China was divided among these princes and officials, who were the governors of those lands. Under them was a continuous line of various feudal lords and fiefs. And this way reach up to the village level where the man of most prominent family was the patriarch of whole village. The system was as much natural as it was artificial.   

The whole Chinese society was divided in to two classes, Chun Tzu and Hsiao Jen. The Chun Tzu were the lords of the land while the Hsiao Jen were the serfs and tillers of land. It must be understood that the feudal system in China was its natural ruling system. And when gradually this same feudal system started to collapse on account of its own functional weakness, many of the feudal lords left the services and became private teachers.

With this one comes to a realization that the aristocratic class of such rulers and officials were not tyrannical rulers but the patriarchs and their houses were the houses of learning and education. And hence there was no distinction between teachers and officers. In 221 B.C. this whole feudal system was dismantled by the new emperor of Zhou Dynasty, who wished to rule whole of China by his own hands.

And thus all the Schools of thought can be found to have their origins in the houses of various officers and their respective departments. Once a clear picture of whole history of disintegration and re-integration of the schools of thought, a definite root of each school can be found in various sections of state administration.

It can be said that the origin of Ju or the Confucian school was in the literati scholars and officials; the Mohist school originated in the department of Knights; the school of names and actualities had their origin in the state department of debaters and official ceremonials or conferring positions; the Legalist school had their origin in the department of men of methods and great statesmen; the Yin-Yang school had their origin in the departments related to public works and natural realities like water reservoirs, rains, lands etc., along with it the Yin Yang schools also incorporated many local Chinese ways like occult divinations, magical practices, numerology etc. And finally the Taoist school belonged to the hermits, who had always maintained their existence out of the bounds of State machinery but at the same the department related to hermits took care of their needs as well as various issues arising among them.

Finally in the Second Century B.C. we see direct shift from state mechanism of preaching and teaching to private teaching and lot more or exhaustive inclusion of pupils from whole of the  Chinese society. The further development of these philosophical schools occurred under the guidance of various private tutors. The foremost among such private tutor was Confucius or Kung Tzu.


Confucius was the first educator who taught thousands of pupils from all over China without the burden of State administration. He took up teaching the Ju School of philosophy, which mainly focused on the six great classical from ancient Chinese history. The Confucius as a private teacher in the 5th Cnetury B.C. became the great teacher for the whole of Chinese society as well as an ideal of private teaching.  The six most important classics that were focused by the Ju school were, Yi (Book of Changes), Shih (Book of Odes), Shu (Book of History), Li (Rituals or Rites), Yueh (Music) and Chun-Chiu (Spring and Autumn Annals).

Confucius must be given the credit of bringing this school to the masses and at the same time, he is the one who brought down the gist of these all classics and propagated their knowledge among the people. The teachings or the crux of these classics have been accumulated in the Analects of Confucius which were compiled by Confucius’ disciple after his death.

The important tenets of Confucianism are human-heartedness and righteousness, which became the founding stones of Chinese social philosophy. Righteousness means the ‘oughtness’ of the situation, it is a categorical imperative. The tenet expounded that everyone in the society has to do something which had to be done, and it is to be done for its own sake. The tenet can be exemplified like, justice for justice’s sake. The philosophy made a great distinction between Yi (righteousness) and Li (profit). Acting morally for the profit is Li and acting morally for the righteousness’ sake is Yi. Yi is greatness.

The Human Heartedness means that the essence of righteousness and moral behaviour is loving others. A father acts according to a way a righteous father acts and this righteousness stems from his love for the son. Accordingly the King acts according to a way King acts and this way stems from his love for the subjects. Human Heartedness has been described as the perfect virtue of Humanity.

The Ju School emphasises a certain way of consciousness or the awareness of others. This awareness rises from the family system of the Chinese society. And from these basic tenets another important principle of life was formulated by Confucius, known as Ming. It has been translated as Doing for Nothing. It upholds that one the desire for profit from the righteous behaviour is given up and righteousness is practiced for its own sake, man becomes universal in his consciousness and does every righteous action for its own sake. Right thing done for right thing’s sake. Thus everything is a Ming for the truly universal being.

Although most of the Confucian Philosophy lays stress on the moral values and Ethics, it had its own way of reaching divinity. It must be remembered that the Divinity in Chinese Thought is being one with the Universe. Confucius always thought that he was set on a mission by the heaven to awaken the Chinese towards the right way to be Universal. And this right way was of Human-Heartedness, Righteousness and Ming.

Another important aspect of the Confucian thought is the idealism developed under the philosophical leadership of Mencius in the 3rd Century B.C. According to Mencius, not every man is borne sage, there are various tendencies and characteristics in Human nature which are good as well as bad. By bringing out the good man becomes the sage, while by not controlling the vices, Man becomes evil. These vices have been related to the animalistic tendencies of human nature. It must be understood that the Chinese thought had thus completely given up the idea of evil and good as something external to universe.

The political philosophy of Confucianism brings forward a need of proper teaching and moulding of Character of human being. The five social relations must be adhered to as per their ideal ways and with righteousness and human heartedness. Confucians held that even if all the subjects had shelter to reside in and had valuable clothes or fabric to wear, if the subjects didn’t follow the tenets of Human heartedness and Righteousness, they were like animals and birds, but not humans.

Confucians also gave a complete right to the people to revolt against the ruler who didn’t adhere to the virtuous living. According to Mencius, people are the most important element of the State, the spirits of the land and the grain are secondary, and the sovereign is the least important element of the state. These ideas of Mencius were resonated with great import during the 1911 People’s Revolution in China. Confucians strongly propounded that only the sage should become the King. Such a state has a kingly-sagely government. Other governments are just physical, while the Sage’s government is universally virtuous. At the same time, Confucianism also developed a just system of land distribution according to which the Agrarian economy of China became completely people oriented.

According to Confucianism, the whole universe is the moral universe, and understanding this moral universe has been equated with the understanding of the heaven. Accordingly Mencius, loyalty, good faith, righteousness, human heartedness and doing for nothing count to be the heavenly honours while the positions, official status were the human honours.

Another important aspect of Confucius thought is the concept of ‘Chi’. It must be understood that the ‘Chi’ as has been described by Mencius as full development of Human nature on the lines of righteousness. The ‘Chi’ was the prowess of righteous character and righteous being.   

Mohist School of Thought

The most important rival to the Confucius School of Rose in the personality of Mon Tzu, a third century B.C. Philosopher. The rise of Mohist School is in the royal department of Knights and Military tactics. Earlier during the Zhou Dynasty’s feudal system, the Knights were the hereditary class of the warriors. But after the dismantling of the feudal system, these warriors became completely free and were ready to serve anyone who could afford them. These warrior travelled all over China, teaching their skills to all those who wished to learn the arts of warfare. Mon Tzu was one of such warriors.

According to the details of the conduct of the Chinese warriors their morals and ethical behaviour has been noted. These were the people who had the guts to complete any task which they promised to do. With all the righteous heart they didn’t flinch from charging in the thick of danger. The Mohist School of thought has been described as the extension of this same moral conduct. According a recorded episode from the life of Mon Tzu, when his employer lord was threatened by another king, Mon Tzu went alone to the rival king to persuade him to not to attack the city. During that encounter, he demonstrated that the most important mechanism of the rival king is useless in front of his own defensive mechanism. When rival King tried to convert him to his side, Mon Tzu said, more than 300 Mon Tzu are defence ready in his lord’s kingdom. This whole episode has been detailed by the Mon Tzu to emphasize the true nature of war, which should be a glorious competition among two powers to develop more and more sophisticated weaponry, but not to use them to people’s harm. This competition with open exhibition of one’s abilities should be enough to shut the mouths of rivals.

At the same time, Mo Tzu described the form of just war. According to his tenet, war is only if it is waged for the self-defence.

The most important tenet of Mohist Philosophy is an all-embracing love. Mohism too follows the tenets of righteousness, human heartedness and the doctrine of doing right thing for its own sake. But at the same time, one must consider the social backgrounds of both of these philosophies.

The Confucianism derived its pupil mostly from the older aristocratic families and had their unquestionable support. The philosophical doctrines of Confucianism too rested mostly on the aspirations and ways of life of the aristocratic people. It thus gave tremendous importance to the arts of Music, Poetry, Painting etc. which had a great tradition among the people of aristocratic families. On the other hand, the Mohist students belonged to the lower classes of the Chinese society and had no touch with the higher luxuries of Aristocratic class and their tastes. The Confucianism was a philosophy and way of life of the elite. On the other hand, Mohists completely belonged to the lower strata of the Chinese Society.

Mo Tzu had expressed his disdain for Confucianism which wasted much time and human enterprise on the wasteful things like Arts and Crafts. At the same, it must be understood that the Confucianism had also distanced itself from the common people and their beliefs or ways of life. The common people of the historical Chinese Society always worshipped their ancestors as well as the spirits of heavenly beings who were the true universal beings. The temples were raised in their honour. The Mohists who belonged to this strata of the people completely understood the importance of such beliefs and worships, and hence took up spirit worship as one of their core practices.

Yet, it must be understood that these were the differences of the ways and methods but not the core philosophy. The core of the thought was still the same.

Another important aspect of the Philosophy of the Mo Tzu is his own theory of origin of the State. According to the theory, people always need someone to report to if something occurs in their life over which they don’t have the hold. For such situations, one must report to his superiors. The Superiors must be able to differentiate between what is right and what is wrong, if he too is confused, he should also report to his superiors. The decision and precision of the superiors is all binding. Thus, according the Mo Tzu the state was an organization of all people in which the authority was to be decided by the wisdom of right conduct. Yet, ultimately he supported the totalitarian state, because all the people of the society sometime or later need an enlightened ruler to direct them and their life.


Another important school of thought is Taoism, with which the Confucians readily engaged. The Taoists were the social recluses who valued the purity of their own being, and hesitated to entangle in the world around.

The basic or the fundamental ideas of the Taoism are drawn from the Philosophy of the Yang Chu. Yang Chu was the first such recluse who systematised the Tao way of life and the importance of internal virtue of human nature.

The principle thought of Yang Chu was ‘Each one for himself’, and ‘preserving the genuineness of human life and maintaining what is actual in it, without allowing other things to overshadow this genuine self’.                     

Various interpretations of the Taoist doctrines propounded the importance of human individuality and genuine human life. It specifically denied the importance of fortunes and even getting in to the social life.

It must be understood that the Taoism didn’t just put forth a reclusive way of life from the society. On the other hand, its virtue of upholding the genuineness of individual human life, made them admired by various state rulers and other philosophers. Many of the Taoist philosophers were asked and even requested by the rulers during various Dynastical periods to rule the land, Yang Chu himself was also requested to do the same. And although he denied to be enthroned on the seat of emperor, Yang Chu became a cornerstone of whole of the administration of the Empire.

The Tao means a way, which on the one hand asks the practitioner to be one with his genuine internal being, and on the other to be one with the nature. The disentangled human being was propounded to the best to be Universal being.

The Taoism expressly upholds the authenticity of every being. Even some one with no qualities at all, or even someone with evil nature according to Taoists are completing their duty of fulfilling the scheme of nature by following their own innate virtue.

The earlier Taoists entered in great debates with the Confucians, who were derided as the ones who vainly tried to rectify the social order, which was bound to collapse, and at the same time, Confucians derided the Taosists for giving up their social responsibility even when they had great potential.

It seems that this debate continued to a great scale when ultimately both the philosophies took over their respective values and principles. The Taoists became spontaneous who worked diligently to preserve the genuineness of all beings. While the Confucians adopted the metaphysical idea of genuine virtue of human individual being.   

The School of Ming Chia or the Dialecticians and Debaters

To understand the essence of this, one can refer to a very interesting story about a great lawyer called Teng His. According to the story, during a great flood of the river Wei, a certain rich man from a certain village drowned in it and died. His body was picked up by a boatman of an adjacent village. When the relatives of dead man went to get the body from boatman, he asked for a huge reward. Knowing this to be unethical, the relatives went over to Teng Hsi for the advice. Teng His told the relative, to merely wait as there is no one else who needs the dead-body, and hence no one else will put claim on it. The relatives started to wait. Troubled by their approach to the whole situation, the boatman too approached Teng Hsi, who again told to merely wait, as there is no one else from whom the relatives can get the body. The end of the story has not been mentioned but has been put to popular interpretations. All are free to their own conclusions.

The story states most important aspects about the Ming Chia school. First of all, Ming Chia School was borne out of the activities of the lawyers and their own interpretations of various letters of law or codes of conduct. The prominent philosophers of this School like Kung-Sun Lun, Hui Shih were the lawyers themselves.

The methodology of this school was about the minute observations of the situation as well as the concerned code of law or conduct regarding the same, and then finding various possibilities in the situation, which neither worsened the situation nor completely resolved it. The Ming Chia believed in the continuous debate among the opposites is the only way of nature. And the dialectic or the debate in nature doesn’t resolve itself, neither worsens the whole situation. It just goes on.

Another example of the whole approach of this School can be seen in another interesting story of two kings who wanted to wage war against each other over some land disputes. Fortunately, these kings approached two different lawyers from Ming Chia School to become their messengers and lawyers. These both lawyers started a series of correspondences between the two kings, whose tone was kept to be debating yet not bringing the whole situation on a threshold. Eventually the kings left the correspondence and started the final preparations for the war. At that time, the lawyers cunningly brought another important king in the correspondence by sending a letter to him describing the whole situation and details of the dispute. The letter contained a notion of fear or anticipation which claimed that such situations may arise in other states as well. This simple move initiated an exhaustive chain of correspondences in which various kings came up with various ideas to resolve the conflict. Finally, by seeing the exhaustive size and nature of this debate, the kings resolved not to fight and solve the dispute by applying various other measures. Again story doesn’t reaches conclusion, but it is left for interpretations.

An important aspect of the Ming Chia School is the theory of relativity. According to this theory, the greatest is something which cannot be enclosed while the smallest is something which cannot further be divided. On the basis of this theory, there is nothing in this universe which is greater than the universe. And thus all the cases or conditions were to be seen in this manner to find the relativity of smallness and greatness. The pains arising from smallness can be alleviated by showcasing the pains of even smaller units, while the audacity arising from the greatness can be calmed by presenting the greatness of greater units.

The further development of this philosophical occurred with the development of the concept of Universals. These Universals are not some universal divine entities, but abstract ideas regarding the identities of all. For example, Human is a universal concept, while Chinese Human is a sub-strata of universal. This notion laid the foundation of notions of actualities and names or mere identifications. According to the Ming Chia, for the better understanding of the world, the actualities or the universals have to be comprehended.

These all notions again converged on the principles of loving all beings as a part of one universe, righteousness. Only the method of reaching these core tenets differed.

The Yin-Yang School of Thought

The Yin Yang School represent the occult practices, related philosophies and further divinations. The Yin Yang school presupposes that the whole universe is a phenomenon of combination of Yin and Yang, the female and male counterparts of the supreme energy. Further the Yin Yang School developed the six classes of occult arts from the observation of nature and imaginations of Universe.

The first of these classes is about Astrology. And it gives the order of twenty eight constellations, progressions of planets, Moon and Sun for the complete understanding of fortune and misfortune.     

The Second is about Almanacs, and it serves to understand the cycle of seasons, times of equinoxes and solstice, periods of Sun, Moon and Five Planets and thereby comprehend the times of cold, heat and rains etc.

The third is about the five primordial elements in Chinese Thought, which are water, wood, metal, earth and fire. Everything related to human life and universe accordingly arises from the revolution of these five elements.

The fourth is about the divination practices and occult mysticism, in which the folk shamans or the diviners used the tortoise shells, or the shoulder blades of ox and a stalk of milfoil plant to make the divinations.

The fifth again is about divinations with various interpretations of signs and utterings of diviners. The final sixth class is about the Physiognomy. It is based on the basic principle that the man is a part of the Universe, and hence his whole living should be in harmony with the five basic elements as well as the whole nature. The Feng-Shui, literally meaning wind and water is a product of this system.

The most important aspect of the Yin Yang School is the development of Grand Norm based on the five basic elements of the universe. According to the Norm, the equilibrium between these five elements guarantees a good condition for all the people as well as the whole universe, while the imbalance in them is the cause of various calamities.

This whole norm is attached to the conduct of the emperor by Yn Yang School. According to it, the solemnity of the emperor results in the seasonable rains, his regularity in seasonable sunshine, his intelligence in seasonable heat, his deliberation by seasonable cold; and his wisdom by seasonable cold. And on the other hand, madness of emperor will be followed by steady and disastrous rains, his insolence by growing sunshine, and his idleness by growth in heat; his haste by growth in cold and his ignorance by growth in disastrous winds. The sovereigns conduct was responsible for the natural balances.    

And as every man had to live in concord with the nature, Yin Yang comes up with the monthly commands according which the diet, livelihood, festivals, clothes etc. were to be followed.

The most important philosopher of this School is Tsou Yen, who belonged to the third century B.C. he must be credited with the thorough narration of Chinese History till his times as well as the complete description of Chinese Geography. He classified rivers, mountains, plains, valleys, plants, animals and eventually by understanding the geographical or physical personality of China, named the whole region as red region. The red region according to him is heavenly one while the other continents are just the physical entities.

After the geographical descriptions he goes on to narrate the history of China. And this he explains from the beginning of the universe, when there were only five eternal forces of the five eternal elements. With great revolutions in these elements, the world was formed. Further he goes to narrate that the first five heavenly emperors of China were the personifications of these five eternal elements. The history develops by the revolutions in the five elements. This is a very unique approach to the philosophy of history that has been taken up by the Yin Yang School. Various Emperors, Dynasties, Ages have been described to be the manifestations of the five primordial elements and their internal changes as well as interactions.

The Legalist School of Thought

The legalist school of thought again was a product of the age-old ways of rites, codes, customs, ways of conduct, punishments, honour codes etc. that were practiced among the Chinese people during the Zhou Dynasty. These conducts were divided in Li and Hsing. The Li meant all important rites, ceremonies, rituals, mores, rules of conduct that were part and parcel of the Aristocratic life in Chinese Feudal Society. The Hsing were the prescriptions of penalties and punishments that were given on the occasion of wrongs in conduct.

During the feudal times, many noble lords had rose to the positions like advisors to the emperors or the provincial kings, these men were known as the men of methods.

The most important synthesizer of this School was Han Fei Tzu who belonged to the 2nd Century B.C. The philosophy of Han Fei Tzu was so much acclaimed by the ruler of Chi’n region and kingdom, that it was adopted as a state philosophy. And yet, he died in the prison on account of some jealousies on part of his contemporaries.

He narrated the philosophical background of the imperial power. According to him, the emperor is like a heaven, who treats all his subjects as his children. Emperor treats everyone equally and at the same time, his character moulded to be universal carries the same strength in all of his laws and orders. The Emperor becomes heavenly only when he rules intelligently, impartially and fairly.

Another important aspect of Legalist School is the doctrine of Shu, which means that the emperor should have such a great skill in handling the men, that the men should work for him without knowing that they are being handled.

The more important tenet of Legalist School of thought was its very scientific Philosophy of History. Being an agrarian society, Chinese had always given importance to the precedence. By knowing the past, the agriculturists had always tried to decide various things like what is to be sown, how much to be sown, water contents etc. regarding the land as well as the settlement. The specific perspective various other philosophical schools developed about the history, always held the notion that golden age of the civilization was in the past. And thus, the philosophies always tried to push the civilizational thought towards that specific golden age standards.

On the other hand, the philosophy of history adopted by legalist school is completely radical. It specifically says that because of plenty of resources and less mouths to feed, the historical age was a golden age, and men then didn’t need to quarrel. But the age we live in has at least five children in one family with lesser lands to cultivate. The quarrels are unavoidable. To expect to rule today’s world by following the naïve principles of yesterday is a foolishness. And hence it gives a notion that, when the guiding principles of the people become unsuited for the prevalent circumstances, the standards of value and virtue must be changed. As the conditions change, different principles should be practiced. This conception of history as a process of changes was the most revolutionary worldview put forth by the Legalist School.

With this perspective, The Legalist School prescribes a new form of government, in which the laws and rules have to be made and which have to be implemented among the people with all required force. The Legalists maintain that with changing times, society cannot expect a sage like personality in the King. And at the same time, it is unlikely that the people will do well on their own. By the means of law, the king has an only job to see that no one deflects them. And for that King can be a mere human who has the ability to bring up various able people to make laws for him and implement them. For the same, the legalists also prescribed the appointment of the people in specific offices who have the required characteristics for that specific office. The required characteristics are the actuals which are being employed while the names and posts are the mere superficialities.

It must also be noted that the Legalist School was the only school of thought which was adopted by the Chinese Marxism and later Maoism as having great philosophical currency for present times.

Foundations of Chinese Buddhism

The great tradition of Buddhist thought reached China in the first century A.D. but at the same time Buddhism was not unheard of China before this period. Traditionally Emperor Ming (22 – 58 AD) is attributed with the introduction of Buddhist thought in China. Since the first century A.D. Later during the Fifth Century A.D. the most important push came to the spread of Buddhist ideas in China, with the translation works and initiatives by Great Buddhist Scholar Kumarjiva. It must be understood that in China there was and is a great difference between the terms Buddhism in China and Chinese Buddhism.

The Buddhism in China is basically the transfer of Buddhist ideas and ideologies to China through the works of great scholars like Huen Tsang, Fa Hien etc. These scholars travelled to India and various Buddhist centres in India. The Buddhist doctrine that was brought to China by these scholars has unfortunately remained completely Indian in its form and mould. And hence, this can be known as Buddhism in China, which never assimilated itself with the Chinese Thought. The spread of this Buddhism was very meagre and only in pockets. It never became Pan-Chinese philosophico-religious force.

On the other hand, the Chinese Buddhism was that strand of Buddhism which started in the first century A.D. and which received a great impetus under the works of Kumarajiva. Kumarjiva not only translated the Buddhist works but he assimilated the Buddhist philosophies in the mainstream Chinese Philosophy. The Buddhism initially became well received by the school of thought of Taoism. The philosophical doctrine of the recluse became lot stronger when it received the reinforcement from the Buddhist metaphysics. These metaphysics have been called as negative metaphysics.

According to negative metaphysics various important doctrines of Buddhism like Non-being, Avidya, Shunyata were absorbed in the mainstream Chinese thought. And with it, the doctrine of karma too was adopted by the other schools of thought as well like Confucianism.

It must be noted that this development of the Chinese Buddhism led towards the development of a novel philosophical stream known as Zen or Chi’an. It was a direct synthesis between Tao Te Philosophy and the Buddhism.

The most important thing to remember about the rise of Buddhism in China, is the specific metaphysical doctrine that the Buddhism preached. It was actually a necessity of Chinese society. The Buddhism along with Taoism and Confucianism completely dominated the Chinese thought and philosophical scenario till the beginning of 20th Century.

Chinese Buddhism adopted a novel doctrine of double truth to accommodate other philosophical as well as social life thoughts of china. According to the thesis of Double Truth, the non-being or the Shunya is a higher truth while the being or existence is the common sense truth. The Higher truth could only be reached by the complete understanding of the common sense truth. Chinese Buddhism under the leadership of thinkers like Seng-Chao and Tao-Cheng. Both of them were the disciples of Kumarajiva.

According to the philosophical construct of Seng-Chao, everything or everybeing has in itself being as well as non-being. And it goes through both of these realities. This can be said as the first explicit metaphysical articulation that originated in China.

The Philosophy of Tao Cheng should be seen as a great thought which actually joined the Buddhism and Chinese doctrine of ethics. According to his philosophy, it was articulated that the good deeds do not entail retributions according to Karma theory. The good karmas always contribute towards man’s ascendance towards the universalism. He also postulated that the Buddhahood can be achieved by a sudden enlightenment. And for this enlightenment various meditation exercises were formulated which became the core of Zen philosophy and way of life. It must be understood that Buddhahood according to Chinese Buddhism is not just Nirvana but a development of Universal Mind. The complete Universal Being is the Buddha.

A note on further development of Chinese thought

            The above details have noted the foundations of Chinese thoughts as well as the Philosophies. The further development in these schools occurred as per their encounters and disputes with other schools. The Taoism adopted the certain doctrines like the human heartedness, universal love and righteousness from the Confucianism, while Confucianism too adopted the virtue of individual being and its genuine uniqueness as its core principle. At the same time, both of these philosophies interacted with the Buddhism whole-heartedly which developed new streams of Buddhism and Zen Philosophies. It can be noted that the symbiosis of Chinese Buddhism, Taoism and Mohist philosophy of military ethics developed a very interesting field of Kung-Fu in China.

            The whole development of Chinese thought also saw various eclectic streams which earnestly sought to combine all philosophies in one universal doctrine. This was dubbed as Great Learning stream of Chinese Thought. The Great Learning became a doctrine of world politics and world philosophy. The world philosophy must be understood as stream of thought which wished to unify the whole world that was beneath the sky. But, this world was the red region or the contemporary china. It was understood that the whole of China can be unified by someone who doesn’t delight in the killing of men but delights in the Universal Love.

            This doctrine of universal love or the universalism that was shared by all the people of china from emperor to common peasants can be understood as the cornerstone of Chinese Social thought, which guaranteed great periods of stability and peaceful co-existence.

Chinese Doctrine of enclosed life and living

            Although Chinese thought always supported and followed the concept of universalism and human-heartedness, the China Society had always maintained a kind of distance from the external world and contact.

            This characteristic of Chinese society stems from its unique geographical conditions as well as the predominantly peasant society. The geography of China is mostly dominated by great river valleys and alluvial plains. The agricultural society which rose on these grounds always rejoiced in a village life and the enclosed family system with personal bonds and ties. The external elements which fell out of the familial relations’ world, were kept at a distance. This situation and mental mould helped the Chinese to understand the whole of Chinese society as an extended family. But at the same time, all those things that fell out of the bounds of peasant society and peasant life were dubbed as alien. Chinese society has always tried to avoid such admixtures.

            Similarly the direct threat of Mongolian Nomadic powers since the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C. has always dominated the Chinese fears for destruction of their way of life. It must be understood that the since the most ancient times, Chinese plains became less accommodative for the hunter-gatherer communities. The plains were the home of big games, for whom the earlier humans were the apex predators. Yet, this predator became so dangerous in its abilities, that within a span of 500 to 1000 years many of the big game species were completely annihilated from the Chinese lands. During these times, the Chinese population too was increasing. To sustain this population, there was only one option, which was paddy cultivation. The invention of Paddy Cultivation was the greatest event in Chinese History, as its importance is noted by the divine status of first of five emperors, who was a divine farmer.

            The continuous threat from the Mongolian Nomads and Nomadic ways, always haunted the Chinese mind. This mind-set is the birth place of doctrine of Chinese Walls. The Chinese Civilization always tried to protect its way of life, which it thought to be superior one than all. It must also be noted that the Chinese states also followed the doctrine of walls, in which various states built huge walls or rampart walls enclosing their whole of state region. This same strategy became more prominent in the 14th Century when the Mongolian Raiders as well as the western Chinese Oirat people defeated the Chinese forces of Ming Dynasty. After these defeats Chinese Ming Dynasty Emperors built the Great Wall of China.

            Such Wall also became a compelling approach China had with the world. It can be seen from the example of Buddhism, which only when it came through Kumarajiva, who was borne on the borderlands of China and India which is Turkmenistan of Modern Times, and when his disciples completely assimilated the Buddhist Philosophy with the Chinese Ethnic Thinking became a mainstream Chinese Thought. On the other hand, the Indian Buddhism which came to China with Huen Tsang and Fa Hien, which unfortunately never shed its complete Indian identity never spread throughout China.

            And at the same time, it should also be noted that the doctrines of Confucianism and Taoism never left Chinese lands, except towards the Southern lands when the Chinese imperial powers expanded in those regions. The Chinese Universe is the Chinese Land and nothing more than that.