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 BC) 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 the Hundred Schools of Thought, a title which 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, a transition which propelled China into the Spring and Autumn period resulting in a revitalized interest and preoccupation with 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 to, 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. The 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 BC) recorded in the Analects. As a philosophy, it proposes the teachings on education, politics, and ethics taught by Confucius and his followers in the 5th and 6th centuries BC. 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 of which could be cultivated. Confucius lived at a time when the the Zhou Dynasty (ruling from 1046 to 256 BC) 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 (such as 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 anyone, and was not only reserved for the nobles and the powerful rulers. So influential was Confucius’s philosophy that it went on to receive development and support by later thinkers. It became the accepted social ethic and state religion of Chinese society, and is still embraced by between five and six million people today.

Legalism was an influential school of Chinese philosophy which grew to its height during the Warring States period in China’s history, and formed the basis of the Qin dynasty’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 that this was a threat to social order and harmony. Thus, to safeguard order, the people needed to be ruled and subject to law. The legalists thus advocated a rigid law system which prescribed both punishments and rewards for specific behaviours. The Qin state, through appointing legalism as its state ideology, was authoritarian, and most important to them was control and the laws which would police the population and mete out harsh punishments for crimes. A major advocate of the legalist school was the prince and statesman Han Fei (c. 280-233 BC), as were Shang Yang (c. 390-338 BC), and Li Si (c. 280-208 BC). The legalist philosophers did not entertain widely the subjects of theology, education, or ethics, but rather geared their interests on practical concerns of the state such as central government and control, military training, and food production. In this respect, Fei’s text Han Feizi is deemed the seminal text of Chinese legalism as an intellectual system of thought, and it touches on administration, diplomacy, war and economics, and theories of state power. Fei’s philosophy would be influential on the authoritarian ruler Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC), the founder of the Qin dynasty, although it would later disparaged by the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

Mohism originated in the teachings of Mozi (470 – c. 391 BC), and although it never dominated Chinese intellectual thought, Mohism was particularly influential during its height in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. The school contributed to a number of areas of inquiry including logic, epistemology, political theory, and ethics. They had a reputation for logical thinking, intellectual debates, and for prioritizing the solving of ethical dilemmas. The Logicians, a school within Mohism, applied rational thought in solving logical puzzles, and delved into mathematics where they elaborated on mathematical concepts such as circumference, diameter, and radius, along with the definition of volume. They also embraced a utilitarian ethic that emphasized impartial concern for all people, believing that one should care for all people equally, and that acts of compassion should be done without desire for reciprocation. Their hope was also to unite people and avoid sectarianism, and believed that the ideal governmental structure was that where the ruler loved his people and that officials were selected according to meritocracy. They are also distinguishable from some of the 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, which existed within the natural world. The religious beliefs of the Mohists provide a rare glimpse into the religion of a small segment of ancient China.

Taoism (also referred to as Daoism) is a philosophy credited to the legendary figure Laozi (also referred to as Lao Tzu) who historians think might have lived either in the 6th century or 4th century BC. According to traditional accounts and the Shiji (a text penned in large part by 1st century historian Sima Qian), 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. It is said that as he was leaving he was requested by a gatekeeper to write a text. Tradition says that Laozi agreed and penned the Tao Te Ching. However, the Tao Te Ching evidences multiple authors and additions from later periods, and is unlikely to have been authored by Laozi. The Tao Te Ching urges people to be humble, avoid pride, and also live alongside others, oneself, and the world in peace. It wishes to get people to realize their connection to their fellow human beings as well as the Earth. Laozi’s life would eventually be invested with religious significance. He was soon deemed to be the perfect Taoist master, portrayed as the Tao personified, and also be worshipped as a god. Whether or not Laozi existed, and independent of when he may have lived, Laozi has undoubtedly had a large influence on Chinese politics and culture. For example, Zhang Ling (d. 156 AD), a Taoist partisan, is credited as the founder of the first religious sect of Taoism: the Way of the Celestial Masters (in 142 AD), which presents Laozi as being at the top of a pantheon of deities. Taoism would also become the official religion of China under the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). According to Taoists, the Tao (or Dao) is an invisible (although not transcendent), mysterious cosmic force which flows through all things, and is the source, pattern and substance of the universe. As per the Tao Te Ching, the Tao, through “unnatural” human acts, can be unbalanced, which is why the Tao Te Ching attempts to teach people to a “return” to their natural state, and therefore be in harmony with the Tao. There are various ways Taoists believe harmony can be sustained or obtained, and the virtues of compassion, frugality, and humility (known as the Three Treasures) are perhaps the most important. Many Taoists believed that there are three (highest) Gods, referred to as the Three Pure Ones, at the top of the Taoist pantheon. The pantheon is deemed hierarchical and emanates from the Tao.


  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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