Chinese Thought

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Chinese thought is a generic term, referring to the ideas produced, expanded, and transmitted in the history of China. First, these ideas are not simply general opinions, but the philosophical views of the world, life, and society that have been commonly accepted as concepts or systematic theories. These ideas or theories are the end-products of logical reasoningin Chinese, the two characters si xiang (thought) both contain a radical xin (heart/mind), the faculty of which is defined as "thinking" (Mengzi, 6A:15, p. 168). Secondly, these concepts or theories are primarily transmitted through words or writings, conveyable to and understandable by the people of later generations, although other means can also be used to pass on ideas; for example, symbolic form and structure of excavated artifacts and architectures have been correctly "understood" or interpreted as the meaningful ideas that underlie, and are integrated with, the history and culture of China. Thirdly, these concepts or theories are "typical" of the Chinese, who have employed them as tools to explore the inner and the external world, and to recapture the interaction between human activities and the natural and/or the supernatural realms. What is meant by "typical" here is in practice the formalization of philosophical opinions characteristic of the process of thinking by major Chinese philosophers.

The Origin

There is no consensus among modern scholars as to when Chinese thought started and whether or not the philosophical ideas of Chinese people originated from a single source. According to traditional beliefs, Chinese culture started with the invention of the diagrams or ideographical symbols by a legendary figure Fu Xi, and was continually shaped through the working of cultural heroes and legendary sage kings, particularly the Yellow Emperor (Huang di), Yao, Shun, and Yu, who are believed to have been the leaders of China in the fourth to third millennia b.c.e. It is traditionally believed that the period of cultural heroes was followed by the three dynastiesXia (c. 2205c. 1600 b.c.e.), Shang (c. 1600c. 1045 b.c.e.), and Zhou (c. 1045256 b.c.e.)in which a reasonably comprehensive system of thought about the philosophical foundation of the world developed and that the earliest writings discovered so far as presented in "oracle bone inscriptions," recording royal divinations and major natural and political events in the early part of the Shang dynasty, mark the beginning of systematic thinking concerning political, religious, and philosophical matters. Modern scholarship on ancient China and new findings of regional centers of civilization, however, have challenged the traditional convictions about the actual existence and functioning of the Xia dynasty and about a single line of development in early Chinese thought. Symbols and preliminary pictographs on potteries and jades discovered in East and South China (Longshan culture), and jade wares and bronze figures and masks found in Southwest China (Shu culture), have shed a new light on the multioriginal sources of Chinese thought, and on the ways these sources were integrated into a single culture through a long and gradual process. Archaeological excavations of houses, cities, and sacrificial sites dated to the prehistorical period also prove that well before using characters to record their thinking of the world and life, the people who lived in the land of China had started to reflect on the physical and the metaphysical world, search for the harmonious interaction between the spiritual and the mundane, and implement these ideas in construction, decoration, and in a variety of economic, political, and religious activities.

The Rise of Rational Thinking

Having said this, we are fully aware of the importance of written language, without which it would be impossible to form abstract concepts, and to preserve and transmit systematic ideas. The ideas as presented in the oracle bones inscriptions of the Shang and the bronze inscriptions of the early Zhou represented an attempt to rationalize, albeit in a preliminary way, the Chinese understanding about cosmic change, the nature and function of social institutions, life and death, and so on. These ideas were later reflected and expanded upon in the Book of Documents (Shu ), the Book of Poetry (Shi ), and the Book of Changes (Yi ), part of which can be dated to the western Zhou dynasty (1045?771 b.c.e.). However, the rationalization of Chinese thought did not come into full play until the Spring and Autumn period (770476 b.c.e.), when the early theological view of the world was challenged, modified, and transformed by new thinkers. Since the moving of the capital to Luoyang in 770 b.c.e., the Zhou kings gradually lost control over the states, while the lords of large states became powerful and competed with each other for the domination of the smaller ones. Natural disasters and administrative abuses had fundamentally shaken the political and economic foundation of the feudal system, and society experienced dramatic change and transformation. Substantially weakened were the force of the beliefs that the power of the Zhou king was endowed in the name of the Mandate of Heaven (tian ming ) and that the ritual (li ) binding people and states to the king was part of the cosmic order. The official ideology under the royal patronage and control was gradually torn apart: "The arts of the Way in time comes to be rent and torn apart by the world" (Zhuangzi, p. 364), and Chinese thought came to the stage where several distinct ways of thinking were pioneered as responses to the social and political reality, either negatively de-constructing or positively reconstructing. These thinking streams led to the final formation of a number of major schools, the so-called "a hundred schools" (bai jia ), during the Warring States period (475221 b.c.e.), whose rational calling found representative voices in Confucianism (Ru ), Daoism (Dao ), Mohism (Mo ), Legalism (Fa ), Logicians (Ming ), Yinyang School, School of Military Strategies (Bing ), School of Agriculture (Nong ), and so on. The competition and mutual criticism between these schools was substantial and productive, in which they developed and extended the boundaries of their own thought. Of these schools Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, and Legalism were of the greatest significance for the formation and development of Chinese thought.


The early ru tradition became a school of thought that bears the name of Confucianism in the West today, mainly through the educational efforts of Confucius (Kong fuzi, 551479 b.c.e.), who, although claiming only to be a transmitter of ancient culture, attempted to rectify political chaos and social disruption by transmitting and transforming the ritual and learning of the past. Employing "controlling one's selfish desires" (ke ji ) and "re-establishing the ethical codes of conduct" (fu li ) as two major tools, Confucius was devoted to the realization of a humane and righteous society in which people followed the good example of rulers and treated each other in accord with the rules of propriety or moral codes. Confucius trained his students to become conscious moral agents or "gentlemen" (jun zi ), who sincerely upheld the Way (dao ), were grounded firmly on virtues (de ), behaved in accord with humaneness (ren ), and took recreation in the arts (Confucius 7:6, p. 86). In practice he required them to be filial to their parents, respectful to the elders in community, earnest in action and trustful in words, and to love all the people, have the friendship of the good, and cultivate themselves through studying traditional culture (Confucius 1:6, pp. 5960). The ideas and ideals Confucius illustrated in his conversations that were later compiled into a book entitled Lun yu (The Analects ) and were further expanded by his followers during the Warring States period, among whom Mengzi (372?289? b.c.e.) and Xunzi (330?227? b.c.e.) took a lead. Mengzi believed in the religious, ethical, and political vision contained in the Confucian classics, and developed the Confucian doctrine in a religio-ethical direction, while Xunzi was inclined toward the naturalistic and ritualistic vision, and cultivated it in the spirit of humanistic rationalism. Both honored Confucius and believed that everybody was able to attain the idealthat is, to become a sage (sheng ) through learning and practicingbut Mengzi and Xunzi differed dramatically in their views of Heaven (tian ) and human nature (xing ): while the former held that Heaven is the supreme moral authority and humans are born with a good nature, the latter argued that Heaven is natural and human instincts would lead to evil and chaos if not checked by rituals, moral rules, and sagely teachings. New discoveries of writings on bamboo strips at Guodian and other parts of south China dating to about 300 b.c.e. provided certain evidence that between Confucius and Mengzi there were active a number of Confucian "sub-schools" that developed Confucius's thinking about the Way of Heaven, human nature, and moral and political applications.


In contrast to Confucian ideals, many Daoist ideas were propagated as an alternative route to social harmony, as evidenced in the following passage: "Exterminate the sage, discard the wise; and the people will benefit a hundredfold; exterminate benevolence, discard rectitude, and the people again will be filial" (Laozi, 1963 p. 75). A variety of sources have been identified showing the rise of the Daoist thought during the end of the Spring and Autumn period and the beginning of the Warring States period, but no definitive dates for the Daoist masters Laozi (traditional dates c. 571c. 480 b.c.e.) and Zhuangzi (360?280? b.c.e.) have been agreed on. The majority of modern scholars have refuted the traditional beliefs, arguing that the two most important Daoist philosophical books, Daode jing (or Laozi ) and Zhuangzi, might not have come into existence until the fourth to third centuries b.c.e. However, the two silk texts of the Laozi discovered in 1973 at a Han tomb in Mawangdui dated to 168 b.c.e. and the bamboo version of part of the Laozi excavated in 1993 from a Chu tomb at Guodian were testimony that this Daoist work had already had different lines of textual transmission by the fourth century b.c.e. It is clear that the Laozi and the Zhuangzi were representative of the way of life for those people who withdrew themselves from social and political controversies. Central to them are the concepts of dao, the Way, and de, its power. As the mystic origin and principle of the world, we are told, dao cannot be known unless we have reduced our sensational experience and knowledge to the minimum, which is described either as a process of "polishing the mystic mirror" (Laozi, 1963, p. 66) and/or as "driving out perception and intellect" and "doing away with understanding" (Zhuangzi, p. 90). To live peacefully in a chaotic society, we are advised to take water as our guide: staying lower, withdrawing from politics, and not contending with others. In defining the nature of Dao as yin or yielding, the Laozi openly opted for a "feministic approach" and took "the mystic female" as the model for humanity. Withdrawing from the corrupted and chaotic society, the Daoist masters propagated a natural way of life in which there was no competition and purposeful action (wu wei ). Apart from these philosophical collections, other strings of Daoist ideas and practices, such as the so-called Learning of Huang (the Yellow Emperor)-Lao (Laozi), also played an important part in the formation of Daoism.


Mohism (also spelled Moism) was virtually created in the activities and thought of Mo Di or Mozi (Master Mo, 468?376? b.c.e.). Differing from Confucians who presented a humanistic system that defined and redefined the moral-political-religious code by way of a "virtue ethic," Mohists went for a utilitarian way to improve people's material welfare, maintaining that a theory was good only if it was able to bring benefits to the people, order to society, and an increase in population to the state. For Mozi, what brought the greatest harm to the world was partiality (bie ) that caused people to love their own parents, families, and states while hating and attacking the parents, families, and states of others. He called for the abandonment of partiality and replaced it with universal love (jian ai ), regarding the states of others as our own, and loving the families of others as our own. By this, it was claimed, the ideal society of the great unity would be realized. Based on utilitarian principles, Mozi was strongly against all activities that did not contribute to the material welfare of the people, and called for the abandonment of Confucian ritual and music. Unlike Daoists who simply withdrew themselves, Mohists were constantly on peace missions, strongly condemning aggressive wars and selflessly aiding the defense of the state attacked. Against the tide of pragmatism, rationalism, and agnosticism, Mozi and his followers reconfirmed the authority of the spirits and spiritual powers, arguing that the righteous way we must follow was to worship Heaven above, to provide services to the spirits in the middle realm, and to bring benefits to the people below. In politics they called for "honoring the worthies"namely, selecting and promoting the most qualified to governmental posts. In order to increase the welfare of the state and the people, they put forward as important policies "identifying with the superior" and exercising the control of thought as the tool for social order. Having a particular appeal to artisans, merchants, and small property owners, Mohism occupied a distinguished and influential position in the philosophical arena during that time, which can be seen from the fact that Mengzi listed the school of Mo as one of the two most dangerous rivals (Menzi, 3B:9, p. 114), while Han Fei (280?233 b.c.e.), a Legalist thinker, described Mohism as one of the two most important schools (Han Fei, p. 118). After the death of Master Mo, however, Mohists disintegrated into three sub-schools, each claiming to be "true Mohism" and accusing others of being "false Mohism." They developed Mohist thought in the areas of epistemology and formal logics, which together with many of earlier Mohist ideas and ideals had a lasting effect on the development of Chinese thought, although Mohism as a school had died out by the time of the Han dynasty.


Listed under "Legalism" (fa jia ) by later historians or catalogs are such politicians and thinkers as Guang Zhong or Guanzi (d. c. 645 b.c.e.), Shang Yang (390?338 b.c.e.), Shen Buhai (401?337 b.c.e.), Shen Dao (350?275? b.c.e.), and Han Fei (280?233 b.c.e.). According to the authors of Han shu (History of the former Han dynasty), Legalists originated with administrative officials (li guan ), who put into practice realizable codes of rewards and penalties in order to support rites and institutions (Ban Gu, p. 1736). However, the formation of the so-called Legalism school followed a route quite different from that of other schools, since these men were not united by loyalty to a master, nor by an organization, nor through their commitment to specific books. They were grouped together as a single school on the grounds that they all asserted that the only way to save the world from collapse and to strengthen the power of the state was to govern it by penal codes and restrain it with clearly defined law (fa ). All Legalists attempted to justify the universality of law, and to identity law not only with the codes of punishment, but also with the "standardized" patterns of behavior, including administrative and military planning and statecraft. Taking law as the most important tool for governance, some Legalists deliberately associated law (fa ) with the arts of rulership (shu ) and the authoritative power (shi ). Entwined with administrative techniques, Legalism demonstrated a tendency toward ideological authoritarianism, encouraging the ruler of the state to exercise control over people's thinking, constantly disciplining as well as stimulating individuals to avoid punishment and to seek benefits. Differing from the other schools of the time that engaged in scholarly debates and argument as the way to prevail, some Legalists held a negative attitude towards the so-called "useless and harmful" philosophies and encouraged the ruler to suppress them if at all possible. Hostile to Confucians who took the past as the moral and political model for today, Legalists argued that the times had changed and the past must not be used to guide today's activities, and some went even further to attack the so-called sage kings as the culprits of an immoral society. Despising the reclusive Daoists who refrained from engaging in politics, Legalists positively took part in the state administration; also, ignoring Mohists who opposed aggressive war and championed for peace, Legalists took war as a necessary tool to strengthen the power of the ruler, expand the state, and make the people strong, disciplined, and submissive. Effective means as many Legalist ideas were in increasing the power and wealth of a state, Legalism virtually elevated the state of Qin in West China above all other states and was instrumental to the final establishment of a unified empire in 221 b.c.e.

Heaven and Humans

Divergent as these schools are in terms of metaphysical views and political vision, they developed their ideas and theories around a certain number of key themes, such as Heaven and humans, the Way and changes, the past and today, knowledge and the criteria of truth, the internal and the external realms, and so on. Of these themes the relation between Heaven and humans stands at the center, underlying almost all the important ideas and ideals propagated by the major thinkers, and functioning as the core of Chinese thought in later history. Heaven is a convenient translation of tian, which, originally meaning "sky" above us, contains multidimensional meanings, such as the natural order, the religious ultimate (the Lord of Heaven), the source of the political order (the Mandate of Heaven), and the moral order. In search of the Way of Heaven and its relation to the way of humans, Chinese thinkers of the Axial era (800200 b.c.e.) raised a number of questions such as whether or not Heaven or the Will of Heaven could be known, whether or not Heaven would intervene in human affairs, and what attitude humans should have toward Heaven. The majority of the early philosophers came to the understanding that harmonious interaction between Heaven and humans was the key to the solving of all social, political, and philosophical problems.

In its metaphysical and physical connotation, Heaven refers to the cosmos, the material world, the Natural Law, or simply Nature, in which humans live, act, and regenerate, and to which humans conform. When asked why he did not speak, Confucius pointed out that silent Heaven ran its course by its law rather than by its words: "What does Heaven ever say? Yet there are the four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming into being" (Confucius 17:19, p. 146). Major Daoist masters took Dao (the Way) as the original substance of Heaven, and regarded the returning to Heaven as a necessary step for the unity with Dao: "Humans follow the way of Earth; Earth follows the way of Heaven; Heaven follows Dao, and Dao follows its own nature" (Laozi, chapter 25; see Laozi, 1963, p. 82). Xunzi understood Heaven as the natural order operating according to unchanging principles, arguing that Heaven ran its courses constantly and did not change along with the events in the human society. Against the religious and moralist teaching that Heaven would bless the good and punish evil, Xunzi believed that Heaven did not intervene in human affairs but provided the environment in which all living things exist. Differing from the ideas that humans could do nothing in relation to the natural order, however, Xunzi defends the position of humans in the world that while performing their duties in accord with seasonal changes, humans should not simply glorify and obey Heaven, but rather must "regulate what Heaven has mandated and use it" (Xunzi, vol. 3, p. 21). The texts of The Book of Changes (Yi jing ) provided many insights into the nature and function of the universal order (Heaven and Earth) that underlies the myriad phenomena and defines the natural law of Heaven as the foundation of human existence. Represented by the sage, humans are equipped with the power and intelligence to stay in tune with the natural order.

Applied in the spiritual realm, Heaven signifies an anthropomorphic Lord (huang tian) who presides above, and rules over or governs directly, the spiritual and material worlds, by which humans fulfill their destiny. In the Confucian classics, particularly the Book of Poetry, the Book of Documents, and the Book of Rites, Heaven and humans are locked in a mandate giver and receiver relation: while the king rules the world by the Mandate of Heaven (tian ming ), he must be responsible to Heaven above him. It is a fundamental belief that as the spiritual power, Heaven awards virtuous people with the right to govern and punishes those who depart from the Way, which will definitively lead to the collapse of the dynasty. Succeeding to this tradition, Confucius claimed that "Heaven alone is great!" (Confucius 8:19, p. 94), believing that whether or not the Way prevailed in the world was predetermined by Heaven, and that his mission to transmit the ancient culture was endowed by the power of Heaven. However, Confucius admitted that it was not easy for ordinary people to understand the will of Heaven, and that the only path to this kind of knowledge was through learning and practice (Confucius 2:4, p. 63). This theme is further illustrated in the Mengzi, where humans are required to know their heart/mind first: by extending the heart/mind, we are able to know the will of Heaven and to serve Heaven (Mencius 7 A:1, p. 182). The spiritual relationship between Heaven and humans is clearly explained in Mohism: Heaven is like the watchdog above us and nobody would be able to evade Heaven's eyes. For Mozi, Heaven desires righteousness and hates unrighteousness, and if we devote ourselves to righteousness then we are doing what Heaven desires, and if we disobey the will of Heaven then we are bringing misfortune and calamity upon ourselves (Mozi, p. 79).

For a majority of Confucian followers, Heaven is the source of virtues, the prototype of the moral order that guides humans in their social life, and the supreme sanction of human behavior. Confucius claimed that "Heaven has given birth to virtues that are in me" (Confucius 7:23, p. 89). Mengzi believed that there are two kinds of honors, the honors bestowed by Heaven (for example, humaneness, righteousness, sincerity, and the like) and the honors bestowed by humans (for example, positions and ranks in the government). He believed that the former should be sought after first and the latter would follow as a matter of course (Mengzi 6A:16, pp. 168169). Even Xunzi, who attempted to separate the natural order and the moral order, defining the three roots of rituals as serving Heaven above and Earth below, paying honor to one's fore-bears and exalting rulers and teachers, drew much from the moral significance of Heaven (Xunzi, vol. 3, p. 58). Later Confucians in general took Heaven and Earth as the model of moral rules and principles; for example, just as Heaven is above and the earth below, so too the sovereign is placed over his ministers and subjects, parents over their children, and a husband over his wife. Although other schools did not emphasize as much the moral nature of Heaven as the Confucians did, they argued from different perspectives that the Way of Heaven was the foundation of moral virtues. Mozi drew upon his understanding that Heaven has its will, and argued that humans must follow Heaven's will, devoting themselves to the good fortune and prosperity of the people (Mozi, p. 79). Regarding Heaven as a natural process revolving ceaselessly, the Zhuangzi nevertheless requires the virtue of emperors and kings to take Heaven and Earth as its ancestor, the Way and its virtue as its master, and to take nonaction as its constant rule (Zhuangzi, p. 144). Han Fei believed that the Way was the beginning of all beings and the measures of right and wrong, although under Daoist influence he argued that only by being empty and still could the ruler hold fast to the Way (Han Fei, p. 16).

Syncretic Philosophies

The so-called philosophical schools were never clear-cut in their heritages and boundaries. It has been argued that diverse as they were, these schools actually sprang from the unified tradition of an earlier time and shared a common root in their teachings. The commonality in theoretical deliberation and the practical needs for communication between different schools paved the way for a philosophical syncretism. Toward the end of the Warring States period syncretic writings became dominant, in which mutual accommodation between seemingly divergent theories and inter-philosophical dialogue were enthusiastically engaged. Qin (221206 b.c.e.) and Han (206 b.c.e.220 c.e.) thinkers went even further by drawing upon a variety of cultural and literary lineages, and constructed or reconstructed a grand philosophy of cosmological, religious, political, and ethical theories, which is evidenced in such eclectic collections as The Spring and Autumn Annals of Mr. Lü, The Book of Guan Zhong, and The Book of Master Huainan. Yin-yang, the Five Elements or Five Agents (wu xing ), the Way, Heaven, the spiritual realm and the mundane world, political ideals, and ethical norms were all woven into a structure in which Heaven, Earth, and humanity stood as the three interrelated pillars of the universe, and resonances between human society, government administration, and natural processes were intensively sought after. In the powerful current of syncretism, the earlier teachings of the philosophical schools were transformed and regenerated, and became constituent elements of a new phase in the development of Chinese thought.

Confucian ethics and the Confucian orthodoxy.

Confucian thinkers and politicians led the way of syncretism and pushed the boundaries of their own teachings far beyond the recognition of early Confucian masters. Confucian ethics and the Confucian political blueprint were replanted in the rich soil of syncretic ideas and values, embodied in such popular texts as Xiao jing (The book of filial piety), as well as Da xue (The great learning), Zhong yong (The doctrine of the mean) and Li yun (The evolution of rites), three of the essays on ritual and rites in an anthology entitled Li ji (The book of rites). The transmission of the mainstream Confucian learning was focused on the commentary lineages of Chun qiu (The spring and autumn annals), a work believed to be composed by Confucius himself. Dong Zhongshu (195?105? b.c.e.), a leading thinker of the Han period, drew upon the earlier resources, Confucian, Daoist, Legalist, and particularly that of Yin-yang and the Five Elements, and constructed Confucian doctrines in line with the new thinking of the Han. He reinterpreted the relationship between Heaven and humans into the backbone of a new integrated system of ethics, politics, religion, and education. Eclectic as he was in the book attributed to him, The Luxurious Dews of the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Fanlu ), Dong was nevertheless faithful to Confucian ideals, according to which harmony between the three realms, Heaven, Earth, and humans, is central to the peace of the world, while the king or emperor is described as the agent of Heaven who ruled over the world by the mandate from above. In holding the vital and immense responsibility for the moral guidance of the people, the ruler's authority must be spiritually disciplined and practically based on the advice of the enlightened scholar-officials and support by the people. It was this kind of Confucian thought that was eventually elevated to be the state orthodoxy during the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 14187 b.c.e.), to which all other schools of thought were required to conform.

Daoist religion and Neo-Daoist philosophy.

The wisdom in Lao-Zhuang Daoism was particularly appealing to thinkers with a creative mind, and its leaning to the concepts of xuan (mystery), wu wei (nonaction or no purposeful action), wu (nothingness), kong (emptiness), and jing (tranquility) opened up the imaginary vision of philosophers and religious practitioners as well. The other branch of the broadly defined Daoism, the teachings of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi (Huang-Lao) was also particularly popular at the time and penetrated all layers of social life through medical and shamanic practices that, extended and put into political practices, underlay the imperial policies during the first few decades of the Han dynasty. Through synthesizing Confucian ethics, Lao-Zhuang philosophy, and Huang-Lao teaching, Daoism developed in two directions: religio-political movements aimed at purifying the world, prolonging the life, and overthrowing the Han dynasty, and a kind of Mysterious Learning (xuan xue ) emerging during the Wei-Jing period (256420 c.e.). In the former, Dao was mystified as the divine source and Laozi the philosopher as the Savior of the world, while in the latter the heavily politicized relation between Heaven and humans was reinterpreted as that between social norms and human naturalness, and the philosophers Confucius and Laozi were transformed into the moral ideals who had embodied Dao and had reached very high stages in self-cultivation. Religious Daoism and Neo-Daoist philosophy were combined and integrated into the Daoist tradition that exercised a powerful influence over the way of life in Chinese history.

Buddhism and the interaction of "the three teachings."

By the first century of the common era, if not earlier, Buddhism had been introduced to China via Central Asia. Different but innovative, Buddhist teachings on ignorance, suffering, and Buddhahood were met both with enthusiasm and suspicion, welcomed by those who were preoccupied with issues of longevity, metaphysical speculation, and superhuman achievements, while resisted by those who attempted to secure the integrity of Chinese culture in relation to the state and family. In debates with Confucians and Daoists, Buddhists skillfully accommodated their teachings to the cultural requirements and spiritual needs of Chinese society, soon seizing the minds of the people and becoming powerful in the reshaping of the political and religious landscape. Based on the study of particular texts and the synthesis of Indian and Chinese understandings, distinguished Buddhist thinkers and their followers created various schools of Buddhist doctrine, of which Tiantai, Huayan, Chan, and Pure Land were particularly important and influential. In search of harmony and unity between the three teachings, Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist theorists and practitioners consciously explored and justified the rationality of the one body of the three teachings (san jiao yi ti ). Confucius, Laozi, and the Buddha were recognized as the fountainheads of three religio-ethical traditions, distinctive from each other and yet being the same in essence. It was held that in their mutual supplementation, the three teachings were all needed to meet the political, ethical, personal, social, and spiritual needs of the society. The interaction between Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism became the major subject matter and the mainstream current in the later development of Chinese thought.


Well embedded in the integral development of the "three traditions," the Confucians of the Song (9061279) and Ming (13681644) dynasties revived the traditional Confucian teachings in response to the challenges from a variety of philosophical lineages, particularly those of Buddhism and Daoism. Their works or commentaries on earlier Confucian texts revealed new horizons for Confucian philosophy, innovating its ethical understandings, and placing moral and political principles on the ground of metaphysical and metaethical rethinking about the Supreme Ultimate (Tai ji ), Heaven (tian ), Principles of Heaven (Tian li ), material force (qi ), and the heart/mind (xin ). Of the seminal thinkers of this period, Cheng Yi (10331107) and Zhu Xi (11301200) led the way to a rational reasoning about the reality of Confucian principles and norms, while Lu Jiuyuan (11391193) and Wang Shouren (14721523) preferred an idealistic identification between human heart/mind and social virtues and between knowledge and action. Common to both types of Confucian learning, however, was the emphasis on humanity and self-cultivation, pointing to the direction of the attainability of sagehood by all. Reshaped as the new learning of the Confucian Way, known as Neo-Confucianism in the West, Confucian thought became the state ideology and the philosophical basis of Chinese life and thinking until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

However, Neo-Confucianism did not go without significant challenges. Dissatisfied with the stereotypes of Zhu Xi's authoritarian scholarship, a number of independent thinkers in the Qing dynasty (16441911) branded Song scholars as "unfaithful followers" of the Confucian Way, proposing to return to the learning of the Han dynasty (Han Xue ) and to take studies of Confucian classics rather than philosophical reinterpretations as the path to Confucian values. Other scholars engaged in "evidential studies" of ancient texts and commentaries (Kao Zheng Xue ) against speculations, and explored new ways by which Confucian learning could be used to improve people's lives and to strengthen the state. Although these currents did not change the overall landscape of Qing learning, they in one way or another prepared Confucian intellectuals for a new stage that was looming large with the incoming of "Western learning" (Xi Xue ), in which the further development of Chinese thought would be fundamentally influenced by the conflict and interaction between the Chinese and the Western cultures.

See also Confucianism ; Consciousness: Chinese Thought ; Daoism ; Humanism: Chinese Conception of ; Justice: Justice in East Asian Thought ; Legalism, Ancient China ; Maoism ; Mohism ; Mysticism: Chinese Mysticism ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia ; Time: China .



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Xinzhong Yao

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