What was the Golden Age of Chinese Philosophy and its Four Major Schools?

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Chinese philosophy boasts a lengthy conceptual history spanning several thousand years. Within this stretch of time, there came about a golden era of Chinese philosophy in which four major schools during the Spring and Autumn (771-476 BCE) and Warring States (475-403 BC) eras were pivotal in forming, shaping, and advancing Chinese philosophical thought and culture.

These two major periods within China’s history are collectively referred to as the Hundred Schools of Thought, a title that captures the many diverse philosophical traditions that developed during the time. Four such philosophical schools were of the greatest influence: Confucianism, Toaism, Legalism, and Mohism.

The golden age of Chinese philosophy begun after the weakening of the Zhou dynasty (r. 1046-256 BCE), a transition that propelled China into the Spring and Autumn period resulting in a revitalized interest in political philosophy in response to political upheavals and crises. The fragmentation and the loss of power of the Zhou dynasty’s political structures led to an increase in violent conflict with rival polities and powers, thus ushering in the Warring States period. The conflict between the states came to an end when the Qin state conquered them all, and reunited the nation under the Qin Dynasty.

This conflict and competition, however, served to foster much in the way of innovation. Not only did China see progress in the realm of philosophy but in other areas too, such as in the usage of iron utensils in agriculture allowing for higher yields, demographic growth, the urbanization and commercialization of the economy, and new military technologies. In this milieu books and texts were penned attempting to assemble and systematize ideas on how rulers should govern their territories. There were intellectual debates and disputes as Chinese philosophers and thinkers developed the arts of logic, rhetoric, and strategy.

Further, because of the wars there existed no diplomatic means to settle the conflict, and many thinkers came to believe that unity of “All-under-Heaven” was the only way to go about attaining peace and stability in the nation. Many of the influential schools embraced this idea of unity, and how one was to go about actualizing it by turning it into a reality became a major question for competing thinkers. In this respect, the Warring States period did not only witness bloody conflict but also progress in intellectual, philosophical development on behalf of thinkers in what would become known as the golden age of Chinese philosophy.

The Four Major Schools of Chinese Philosophy

Confucianism traces itself to the sayings and biographical fragments attributed to the philosopher Confucius (551-479 BCE) recorded in the Analects. As a philosophy, it proposes the teachings on education, politics, and ethics taught by Confucius and his followers in the fifth and sixth centuries BCE. Confucius’s teachings emphasized justice and morality, particularly in the governmental and relational realms, and he explored the notion of goodness and whether moral superiority was a divine privilege or a thing that was inherent within human beings that could be cultivated. Confucius lived at a time when the Zhou Dynasty and its rulers believed they were given authority directly from the gods under what is known as the Mandate of Heaven. Confucianism views human beings and human nature as fundamentally good which distinguishes it from other schools of philosophy, particularly the legalists. This provided its followers with the motivation to help their fellow human beings improve in the moral sense and uphold righteousness. Confucius believed that the despite heaven being the source of moral order, goodness was still a quality that could be learned and that everybody could essentially be good. As such, being good through exercising seriousness, sincerity, generosity, diligence, and kindness could be obtained by all and was certainly not reserved for the nobles, powerful, and rulers. So influential was Confucius’s philosophy that it would receive further enhancement and support in later thinkers. It became the accepted social ethic and state religion of Chinese society, and continues to be embraced by several million people today.

Legalism was another influential school of Chinese philosophy which grew to its height during the Warring States and formed the basis of the Qin’s political vision. The legalists were known for their strong views on authority, state stability, control, and absolute obedience to the ruler. Their goal was to increase state power and the power of the ruler, and some of its proponents conceptualized and employed ruthless but efficient ideas and practices within the realm of politics and political philosophy to achieve this. The legalists believed that people were inherently selfish, motivated by self-interest, and a threat to social order and harmony. To safeguard order, the people needed to be ruled and subjected to strong laws, which led the legalists to advocate a rigid system prescribing punishments and rewards for behaviour. This meant that the Qin state was authoritarian and that most important was control. The laws functioned as deterrents given the state garnered the reputation for meting out harsh punishments for crimes. Advocates of this school, such as prince and statesman Han Fei (c. 280-233 BCE), Shang Yang (c. 390-338 BCE), and Li Si (c. 280-208 BC), rather than entertaining the likes of theology, education, or ethics, oriented their focus toward practical concerns of the state, particularly on the issues of central government, population control, military training, and food production. Han Feizi presents theories of administration, diplomacy, war, economics, and theories of state power, and is regarded as the seminal text for Chinese legalism as a system of thought. Han Fei’s philosophy greatly influenced the authoritarian ruler Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE) who founded the Qin dynasty, but would later be disparaged by the Han dynasty (r. 206 BCE-220 CE).

Mohism originated in the teachings of Mozi (c. 470-391 BCE) and although it never came to dominate Chinese intellectual thought became influential in the fourth and third centuries BCE, particularly through its extensive contributions to the fields of logic, epistemology, political theory, and ethics. The Mohists had a reputation for logical thinking, intellectual debates, and prioritizing solutions to ethical dilemmas. The Logicians, a school within Mohism, applied rational thought in solving logical puzzles and delved into mathematics to elaborate on the concepts of circumference, diameter, radius, and volume. The school also embraced a utilitarian ethic that emphasized impartial concern for all people. They maintained that one should care for all people equally and that acts of compassion should be done without desire for reciprocation. The school also wanted to unite people and avoid sectarianism, which underpinned their conviction of the ideal governmental structure being where the ruler loved his people and that officials were selected according to meritocracy. The Mohists are further distinguishable from other schools because of their religious and supernatural convictions. They revered Tian, ancestral ghosts, and nature spirits, and were dedicated to maintaining harmonious relations with these agents. The Mohists did not have a concept of another realm of existence of life after death, but rather that human beings, when they died, became ghosts existing within the natural world.

Taoism (or Daoism) is a philosophy credited to the legendary figure Laozi (also called Lao Tzu) who historians think might have lived either in the sixth century or fourth century BCE. According to traditional accounts and Sima Qian’s Shiji, Laozi attracted followers and disciples, and was a contemporary of the philosopher Confucius. He was purportedly concerned with the moral decline of his day in Chengzhou which led him to pursue exile. According to legend, as Laozi was leaving a gatekeeper requested him to write a text. Laozi agreed and penned the Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching, however, evidences the hands of multiple authors and additions from later periods, and is therefore unlikely to have been authored by Laozi himself. It is a pithy work (arguably one of the shorter of all religious texts) urging people towards a place humility and to avoid pride. People are to live peacefully within the world and alongside one another. At a later stage, Laozi’s life would become invested with great religious significance. He came to be viewed as the perfect Taoist master, portrayed as the Tao personified, and be worshipped as a god. Independent of Laozi’s existence or in which century he might have lived, he has undoubtedly had an enormous impact on Chinese politics and culture. He certainly had an influence on Zhang Ling (d. 156 CE), a later Taoist partisan who is credited with founding the first religious sect of Taoism called the Way of the Celestial Masters (founded 142 CE) presenting Laozi at the top of a pantheon of deities. Some Taoists came to believe in three highest Gods, referred to as the Three Pure Ones, at the top of a pantheon emanating from the Tao. Taoism would also become the official religion of China under the Tang dynasty (r. 618-907 CE). According to Taoists, the Tao is an invisible, mysterious cosmic force that flows through all things and is the source and substance of the universe. As proposed by the Tao Te Ching, the Tao can be unbalanced through “unnatural” human acts, which is why it wants people to “return” to their natural state of being in harmony with the Tao. There are various ways Taoists believe harmony can be sustained or obtained, of which the Three Treasures of compassion, frugality, and humility are most important.

6 comments

  1. […] It is also the major text of Taoism, the religion thought to have originated with Lao-Tzu of the Spring and Autumn period. Tradition ascribes the authorship of the Tao Te Ching to Lao-Tzu, although many scholars view him as a legendary figure of Chinese history (1). The Tao Te Ching is believed to be a collection of texts authored by several persons that developed over time only reaching its final version in the third century BCE (2). It is apparent that this pithy text was written in an age of social turmoil and thus reflects a disillusionment with the state, even referring to it as a thief and its courts as extravagant. But this was also a period of great intellectual ferment, particularly because feudal lords were seeking eagerly for a political philosophy to bring prosperity to their people and increase power for themselves. This ushered in the so-called golden age of Chinese philosophy. […]

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