Chinese Philosophy: Overview

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In its twenty-five hundred years of evolution Chinese philosophy has passed through four periods: the ancient period (until 221 BCE), when the so-called Hundred Schools contended; the middle period (221 BCE960 CE), when Confucianism emerged supreme in the social and political spheres, only to be overshadowed in philosophy first by Neo-Daoism and then by Buddhism; the modern period (9601900), when Neo-Confucianism was the uncontested philosophy, although by no means without variety or conflicts of its own; and the contemporary period (from 1912), when Neo-Confucianism, having become decadent and being challenged by Western philosophy, first succumbed to it, then was revived and reconstructed, but at mid century was overwhelmed by Marxism.

Ancient Period: Hundred Schools (until 221 BCE)

The Hundred Schools, which included individual agriculturalists, diplomatists, military strategists, and other independent thinkers, had one thing in common, their primary concern with man both as an individual and as a member of society. This humanistic note was dominant from the earliest times and characterized all schools. The most prominent of the schools were the Confucianists, the Daoists, the Mohists, the Logicians, the Yin Yang school, and the Legalists.

Chinese thought at the dawn of civilization was dominated by the fear of spiritual beings. During the Shang dynasty (17511112 BCE) the Chinese would do nothing important without first finding out, through divination, the pleasure of the spirits. But when the Zhou overthrew the Shang, in 1112 BCE, human talent was needed to consolidate the newly established kingdom and to fight the surrounding barbarians. Human skill in irrigation proved to be more effective than praying to the spirits for rain. And the tribal anthropomorphic Lord (Di ), who controlled human destiny at his whim, was now replaced by impartial and universal Heaven (Tian ). The Mandate of Heaven (divine election) for the House of Zhou to rule rested on the moral ground that rule belongs to the man of virtue. In the final analysis, it was man's ability and virtue that counted. Humanism had reached a high pitch.

confucian school

The person who elevated humanism to the highest degree was Confucius (551479 BCE). His central concerns were the "superior man" and a well-ordered society. Up to his time the ideal man was the aristocrat, the junzi (literally, "son of a ruler") a perfectly natural concept in a feudal society. In a radical departure from the past, Confucius formulated an entirely new ideal, the superior man, one who is wise, humane, and courageous, who is motivated by righteousness instead of profit, and who "studies the Way [Dao] and loves men." This conception of the superior man has never changed in the Confucian tradition.

Nature of the individual

Confucius never explained how it is possible for one to become a superior man. He seemed to imply that man is good by nature, but he said only that "by nature men are alike but through practice they have become far apart." It was necessary to explain how we know that man can be good. Mencius (c. 372c. 298 BCE), one of his two major followers, supplied that explanation. From the facts that all children know how to love their parents and that a man seeing a child about to fall into a well will instinctively try to save him, Mencius concluded that man's nature is originally good, possessing the "Four Beginnings"humanity (ren ), righteousness (yi ), propriety (li ), and wisdomand the innate knowledge of the good and the innate ability to do good. Evil is due not to one's nature but to bad environment, lack of education, and "casting oneself away." The superior man is one who "develops his mind to the utmost" and "nourishes his nature."

Xunzi (c. 295c. 238 BCE), although holding essentially the same idea of the superior man, contended that the original nature of man is evil. He argued that by nature man seeks for gain and is envious. Because conflict and strife inevitably follow, rules of propriety and righteousness have been formulated to control evil and to train men to be good. Propriety and righteousness are not native moral characteristics of man but the artificial efforts of sages. Thus, Xunzi was directly opposed to Mencius. Nevertheless, both were truly Confucian because their central objective was the good man.

Nature of society

Confucius wanted a society governed by men of virtue who, through personal examples and moral persuasion rather than law or punishment, would bring about the people's welfare and social order. Mencius, applying his theory of original goodness, reasoned that if a ruler applies his originally humane mind to the administration of his government, he will have a humane government, and what Confucius desired will naturally ensue. Xunzi, on the other hand, felt that since man's nature is evil, he needs rulers to regulate him by law and teachers to guide him by rules of propriety and righteousness. Once more he and Mencius were opposed, but again they aimed at the same thingnamely, a well-ordered society.

Relation of the individual and society

The Confucian school, then, is devoted to the harmonious development of the individual and society. This theme is systematically presented in the little classic The Great Learning, traditionally ascribed to the Confucian pupil Zengzi (505c. 436 BCE). It consists of eight successive steps: the investigation of things, the extension of knowledge, the sincerity of the will, the rectification of the mind, the cultivation of the personal life, the regulation of the family, national order, and world peace. The goal is a harmonious world in which man and society are well developed and adjusted.

The harmony of the individual and society rests on several basic ideas. Foremost of these is humanity (ren ). Confucius discussed humanity more than any other subject, and throughout history it has remained one of the key concepts in Confucianism. Previously the term connoted particular virtues, such as kindness, benevolence, and affection. Confucius interpreted it to mean the general virtue, the foundation of all particular virtues. Humanity is the moral character, which enables man to attain true manhood. The moral character is developed in oneself and in one's relations with others. A man of ren, "wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others." Thus, ren has two aspects, conscientiousness (zhong ) and altruism (shu ).

Following Confucius, Mencius stressed humanity. But he almost always mentioned humanity and righteousness (yi ) together, the first in the Confucian school to do so. By this time a clear distinction between what is good, correct, or proper and what is evil, incorrect, or improper had to be made. He wanted the innate sense of correctness fully exercised. Xunzi felt the same necessity to define correctness, but he sought to achieve this end through the precision of and distinctions made in law, rules of propriety, and music.

Another idea behind the harmony of the individual and society is the rectification of names. For Confucius it meant verifying or implementing an exact correspondence between titles of rank and actual fulfillment of responsibilities. Mencius, however, took "rectification" to mean correcting errors in one's heart (moral errors). Xunzi gave it a logical interpretation. To him rectification was distinguishing the concepts of names and actualities, similarities and differences, and particularity and generality. In doing this he developed the only logical aspect, in the formal sense, of ancient Confucianism. Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi all believed that when names are rectified the positions of the individual and society will be well adjusted.

The third concept basic to social harmony is the mean (zhongyong ). By this Confucius chiefly meant moderation as a guide to human action, but he implicitly referred to the ideals of centrality and harmony as well. The reference to centrality and harmony was greatly elaborated in the classic The Doctrine of the Mean, traditionally ascribed to Confucius's grandson Tzu-ssu (492431 BCE). Centrality (zhong ) consists in not deviating from the mean, and harmony (yong ) exists in the common, the ordinary, and the universal. Centrality in the individual is the state of equilibrium in one's mind before the feelings are aroused, and harmony is the state after they are aroused. In society centrality and harmony together mean complete concord in human relations. Ultimately, through the moral principle, heaven and earth will attain their proper order and all things will flourish in a harmonious universal operation. At this point the doctrine of the mean assumed metaphysical significance, which made it a profound influence on Neo-Confucianism.

When the individual behaves correctly and society operates in the right manner, the Way is said to prevail. The Way (Dao) is the moral law, or moral order. It is the Way of Heaven. Heaven was no longer conceived of as the anthropomorphic Lord (Di ), the greatest of all spiritual beings. To Confucius, Heaven was the origin of all things the Supreme Reality, whose purposive character is manifested in the Way. The Supreme Being only reigns, leaving the Way to operate by itself. But no one can be separated from this Way, and for the Way to be meaningful it must be demonstrated by man. "It is man that can make the Way great," Confucius said. The note of humanism was sounded again.

daoist school

To the Confucian school Dao was a system of moral truth, the expression of Heaven. To the Daoist school, however, it was Nature itself. Laozi (c. sixth century BCE), the founder of the school, equated Dao with Heaven, the "self-so" (ziran ), and the One. It is eternal, spontaneous, nameless, and indescribable, at once the beginning of all things and the way in which they pursue their course. It is nonbeing, not in the sense of nothingness but in the sense of not being any particular thing. It is absolute and mystical. When it is possessed by an individual thing, it becomes that thing's character or virtue (de ). The ideal life of the individual, the ideal order of society, and the ideal type of government are all based on it and guided by it. As the way of life it denotes simplicity, spontaneity, tranquility, weakness, and, most important of all, nonaction (wuwei ), or, rather, letting Nature take its own course. Laozi's concept of Dao was so radically different from those of other schools that his school alone eventually came to be known as the Daoist school (Daojia).

Zhuangzi (born c. 369 BCE), Laozi's chief follower, took a step forward and interpreted Dao as the Way of unceasing transformation. In so doing he gave Dao a dynamic character. In the universal process of constant flux all things are equalized from the point of view of Dao. At the same time, since everything transforms in its own way, its individual nature is to be respected. Thus, in the ideas of Zhuangzi there is a curious combination of universality and particularity, a point that had far-reaching effect on later Daoist developments.

Although the Daoist school was definitely more transcendental than the Confucian, its chief concern, like that of the Confucian school, was man. Laozi discoursed mainly on government, and Zhuangzi discussed at great length the way to find spiritual freedom and peace. There is no desertion of society or the individual in Daoism.

The dominant notes in the Daoist school were, however, oneness and naturalness. It is not surprising that the Daoists strongly attacked other schools, particularly the Confucian, for making distinctions of all kinds. But so far as interest in man and society was concerned, the school agreed with the Confucian and other schools.

mohist school

The Daoist school in time became strong enough to compete with Confucianism, but in the ancient period it was the Mohist school, founded by Mozi (c. 470c. 391 BCE), that rivaled Confucianism in prominence. In practically all its major doctrines it stood opposed to Confucianism. The most serious and irreconcilable issue was that between the Mohist doctrine of universal love and the Confucian doctrine of love with distinctions. Mozi wanted people to love other people's parents as they love their own, whereas the Confucianists, especially Mencius, insisted that although one should show love to all, one should show special affection to his own parents. Otherwise there would be no difference between other people's parents and one's own, and family relationships would collapse.

In further opposition Mozi condemned religious rites and musical festivals as economically wasteful; the Confucianists held that ceremonies and music are necessary to provide proper expression and restraint in social behavior. This conflict on the practical level stemmed from the fundamental opposition of utilitarianism and moralism. In this issue, as in the issue of universal versus graded love, Mozi justified his doctrines on the basis of "benefits to Heaven, to spiritual beings, and to all men."

Mozi also attacked the Confucianists' teaching of humanity (ren ) and righteousness (yi ), for advocating them but for failing to recognize that humanity and righteousness originated with Heaven. As he repeatedly said, it is the will of Heaven that man should practice humanity and righteousness, be economical, and practice universal love, and it is man's duty to obey the will of Heaven. Of all the ancient schools only the Mohist placed ethics on a religious basis.


The Mohist doctrine of universal love was subscribed to by the Logicians. Their main interest, however, lay in a discussion of names and actualities. The school was small and has left little imprint, if any, on subsequent Chinese intellectual history. But it was the only school devoted to such metaphysical problems as existence, relativity, space, time, quality, actuality, and causes. Its most outstanding scholars were Hui Shi (c. 380c. 305 BCE) and Gongsun Long (born 380 BCE). To Hui Shi things were relative, but to Gongsun Long they were absolute. The former emphasized change, whereas the latter stressed universality and permanence. The Logicians employed metaphysical and epistemological concepts that were primitive and crude, but they were the only group in ancient China interested in these concepts for their own sake.

yin yang school

While the schools mentioned above were thriving, the Yin Yang school prevailed and influenced all of them. We know nothing about its origin or early representatives, but its ideas are simple and clear. Basically, it conceived of two cosmic forces, one yin, which is negative, passive, weak, and disintegrative, and the other yang, which is positive, active, strong, and integrative. All things are produced through the interaction of the two. Associated with the theory of yin and yang is that of the five agents, or elements (wuzing )metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. According to this theory things succeed one another as the five agents take their turns. Originally the two doctrines were separate. It is generally believed that Zou Yan (305240 BCE), the representative thinker of the Yin Yang school, was the one who combined the interaction of yin and yang with the rotation of the five agents.

Yin and yang were at first conceived as opposed to each other, succeeding each other, or complementary to each other. The five agents, too, were conceived as overcoming one another or producing one another. Eventually all alternatives were synthesized so that harmony reigns over conflict and unity exists in multiplicity. Yin, yang, and the five agents are forces, powers, and agents rather than material elements. The whole focus is on process, order, and laws of operation. Existence is viewed as a dynamic process of change obeying definite laws, following definite patterns, and based on a preestablished harmony.

One implication of this doctrine is the correspondence and at the same time the unity of man and Nature, for both are governed by the same process. Another is that the universe is a systematic, structural one, determinate, describable, and even predictable. Still another implication is that the universe is a perpetual process of rotation. Just as the five agents rotate, so history proceeds in cycles, and just as yin and yang increase and decrease, so things rise and fall. The Yin Yang school, more than any other, put Chinese ethical and social teachings on a cosmological basis. Generally speaking, its ideas have affected every aspect of Chinese life, be it metaphysics, art, marriage, or even cooking. Wherever harmony is sought or change takes place, the forces of yin and yang are at work.

legalist school

Philosophically the Legalist school is the least important because it had no new concept to offer. In fact, it did not concern itself with ethical, metaphysical, or logical concepts, as other schools do. Its chief objective was the concentration of power in the ruler. Within the Legalist school there were three tendenciesthe enforcement of law with heavy reward and punishment, the manipulation of statecraft, and the exercise of power. The school, called Fajia (meaning school of law) in Chinese, had many representatives, some of them prime ministers, but the most outstanding was Han Feizi (died 233 BCE), who combined the three tendencies of his school.

The Legalist school assumed the evil nature of man and rejected moral values in favor of concrete results. In insisting that laws be applicable to all, it unwittingly subscribed to the doctrine of the equality of all men, and in insisting that assignments be fulfilled with concrete results, it strengthened the doctrine of the correspondence of names and actualities. There is no doubt that compared to other schools, it looked to circumstances rather than principles and to the present rather than the past. It agreed with them in one respect, that life is in a process of constant change.

The Legalists helped the Qin to liquidate the feudal states and establish a new dynasty in 221 BCE. The Qin enforced the Legalists' totalitarian philosophy, suppressed other schools, and burned their books in 213 BCE. The contest of the Hundred Schools now came to an end.

Middle Period (221 BCE960 CE)

The Legalists ruled the Qin with absolute power and tolerated no other schools, but other schools were by no means totally absent from the scene. When the dynasty was overthrown by the Han in 206 BCE, some of these schools reemerged, carrying with them a crosscurrent of thought. The result was a syncretic movement.

syncretic confucianism

Confucianism became the state ideology in 136 BCE It was supreme in government, society, education, and literature and remained so until the twentieth century. But philosophically it was almost overwhelmed by the doctrine of yin and yang. This can readily be seen in the philosophies of the Book of Changes and Dong Zhongshu.

The Book of Changes (Yijing ) is a Confucian classic, but the Daoists also made much use of it. (Tradition ascribes part of the work to Confucius, but it was most probably composed several centuries later, although portions may have been in existence in Confucius's lifetime.) It shows the strong impact of the Yin Yang school. According to the Book of Changes creation of the world begins with the Great Ultimate (taiji ), which engenders yin and yang. Yin and yang, in their turn, give rise to the four forms of major and minor yin and yang. The four forms produce the eight elements (bagua ), which, through interaction and multiplication, produce the universe. The cosmogony is naive and elementary, but it introduced into Confucianism the strong features of Daoist naturalism and the interaction of yin and yang. Since then the Confucianists have viewed the universe as a natural and well-coordinated system in which the process of change never ceases.

The syncretic spirit was also strong in Dong Zhongshu (179104 BCE), the most outstanding Confucian philosopher of the period. He combined the Confucian doctrines of ethics and history with the ideas of yin and yang. Greed and humanity, the two foremost moral qualities, he correlated with yin and yang, respectively. Likewise, he equated human nature and feelings with yang and yin and thereby with good and evil. All things are grouped into pairs or into sets of five to correspond to yin and yang and the five agents. Ultimately they are reduced to numbers. In this arrangement historical periods parallel the succession of the five agents, and man, the microcosm, corresponds to Nature, the macrocosm. But Dong went beyond the idea of mere correspondence. To him, things of the same kind activate each other. There is the universal phenomenon of mutual activation and influence that makes the universe a dynamic, organic whole.

Unfortunately, this doctrine soon degenerated into superstition. Early in the Han dynasty (206 BCE220 CE) there was a wide belief in prodigies, which were taken to be influences of Nature on man or vice versa. Wang Chong (27 CEc. 100 CE), an independent thinker, revolted against this. He declared that Heaven (Nature) takes no action and that natural events, including prodigies, occur spontaneously. Man is an insignificant being in the vast universe, and he does not influence Nature or become a ghost at death to influence people. In addition, Wang Chong insisted that any theory must be tested by concrete evidence, and he supported his own theories with numerous facts. Thus, he raised rationalistic naturalism to a height never before reached in Chinese history and prepared for the advent of rationalistic and naturalistic Neo-Daoism, which was to replace Confucian philosophy.


Under the influence of the doctrine of the correspondence of man and Nature and the belief in prodigies, Han dynasty thinkers were chiefly concerned with phenomena. Thinkers of the Wei-Jin period (220420), however, went beyond phenomena to find reality behind space and time. They were interested in what is profound and abstruse (xuan ), and consequently their school is called Xuan Xuanxue ("profound studies") or the Metaphysical school. They developed their doctrines in their commentaries on the Laozi, the Zhuangzi, and the Book of Changes, the "three profound studies." To Wang Bi (226249), the most brilliant Neo-Daoist, ultimate reality is original nonbeing (benwu ). It is not nothingness but the pure being, original substance, which transcends all distinctions and descriptions. It is whole and strong. And it is always correct because it is in accord with principle (li ), the universal rational principle that unites all particular concepts and events. The note of principle was a new one. It anticipated Neo-Confucianism, which is based entirely on it.

Guo Xiang (died 312), another famous Neo-Daoist, developed his theory in his comments on Zhuangzi's doctrine of self-transformation. To Guo Xiang, things transform themselves according to principle, but each and every thing has its own principle. Everything is therefore self-sufficient, and there is no need for an overall original reality to combine or govern them, as Wang Bi believed. Whereas Wang Bi emphasized nonbeing, the one, and transcendence, Guo Xiang emphasized being, the many, and immanence.

As a movement Neo-Daoism did not last long, but its effect on later philosophy was great. It raised the Daoist concepts of being and nonbeing to a higher level and thereby formed the bridge between Chinese and Buddhist philosophies.


In the first several centuries Buddhism existed in China as a popular religion rather than as a philosophy. When Buddhists came into contact with the Chinese literati, especially the Neo-Daoists, in the third century, they matched Buddhist concepts with those of Daoism, identifying Tathatā (Thusness, Nirvāa ) with the Daoist "original nonbeing," for example. Under Neo-Daoist influence, early Buddhist schools in China all engaged in discussions on being and nonbeing.

Middle Doctrine and Dharma Character

The problems of being and nonbeing largely characterize the two major Buddhist schools that developed in China in the sixth century, the Middle Doctrine (Zhonglun), or Three Treatise (San-lun), school and the Dharma Character (Faxiang), or Consciousness Only (Weishi), school. The Middle Doctrine school, systematized by Jizang (549623), was based on three Indian scripturesthe Mādhyamika Ṡāstra (Treatise on the Middle Doctrine), by Nāgārjuna (c. 100200), the Dvādaamikāya Ṡāstra (Twelve gates treatise), also by Nāgārjuna, and the Ṡata Ṡāstra (One-hundred verses treatise), by Ārya-deva (exact dates unknown), a pupil of Nāgārjuna. This school regarded both being and nonbeing as extremes whose opposition must be resolved in a synthesis. The synthesis, itself a new extreme with its own antithesis, needs to be synthesized also. In the end all oppositions are dissolved in the True Middle or emptiness. The school was essentially nihilistic and is often called the school of Nonbeing.

In contrast, the Consciousness Only school, which was founded by Zuangzang (596664), regarded all dharmas (elements of existence) and their charactersthat is, the phenomenal worldas real, although only to a certain degree because they are illusory, apparent, and dependent. The school divides the mind into eight consciousnesses, the last of which contains "seeds" or effects of previous deeds and thoughts that affect future deeds and thoughts. Future deeds and thoughts are "transformations" of present ones, and present ones are "transformations" of past ones. When an individual attains perfect wisdom all transformations are transcended. In these transformations dharmas are produced. Some, the products of imagination, have only illusory existence. Others have dependent existence because they depend on causes for their production. But those of the "nature of perfect reality" have true existence. Since the school accepts dharmas and their character as real, it is often called the school of Being.

In spite of the fact that their basic problems of being and nonbeing are Chinese, the two schools were essentially no more than Indian schools transplanted to Chinese soil. They lacked the spirit of synthesis and were too extreme for the Chinese, and they declined after a few centuries, a relatively short time compared to other schools. In the meantime the Chinese spirit of synthesis asserted itself, notably in the Tiantai (Heavenly Terrace) and Huayan (Flower Splendor) schools.


According to the Tiantai school, which was founded by Zhiyi (538597) in the Tiantai Mountains, dharmas are empty because they have no self-nature and depend on causes for production. This is the Truth of Emptiness. But since they are produced, they do possess temporary and dependent existence. This is the Truth of Temporary Truth. Thus, dharmas are both empty and temporary. This is the Truth of the Mean. Each truth involves the other two so that three are one and one is three. This mutual identification is the true state of all dharmas. In the realm of temporary truththat is, the phenomenal worldall realms of existence, whether of Buddhas, men, or beasts, and all characters of being, such as cause, effect, and substance, involve one another, so that each element, even an instant of thought, involves the entire universe. This all-is-one-and-one-is-all philosophy is expressed in the famous saying "Every color or fragrance is none other than the Middle Path."


In the same spirit of synthesis, the Huayan school, established by Fazang (596664), propagated the doctrine of the universal causation of the realm of dharmas. This realm is fourfold. It contains the realm offacts, the realm of principle, the realm of principle and facts harmonized, and the realm of all facts interwoven and mutually identified. Principle is emptiness, static, the noumenon, whereas facts are specific characters, dynamic, constituting the phenomenal world. They interact and interpenetrate and in this way form a perfect harmony. This doctrine rests on the theory of the six characters, which states that each dharma possess the six characteristics of universality, speciality, similarity, difference, integration, and disintegration. Thus, each dharma is both one and all. The world is in reality a perfect harmony in all its flowery splendor.


Whereas Buddhist philosophy in the sixth and seventh centuries came to be more and more Chinese with the Tiantai and Huayan schools, Confucian philosophy remained dormant. In the eighth and ninth centuries its very life was threatened by the growth of Chan, or the Meditation school (Zen in Japan).

The Meditation doctrine, introduced from India by Bodhidharma (fl. 460534), aimed at the realization of the Ultimate Reality through sitting in meditation. Its emphasis was on concentration to the point of absence of thought in order to get rid of attachments. As the Meditation school developed it conceived of the mind as split into the true mind, which does not have thought or attachments to the characters of dharmas, and the false mind, which has them. Sitting in meditation was the effort to get rid of them.

Hui Neng (638713), an aboriginal from the south, rose in revolt against the tradition. He and his followers refused to divide the mind but maintained that it is one and originally pure. Erroneous thoughts and erroneous attachments are similar to clouds hiding the sun. When they are removed the original nature will be revealed and great wisdom obtained. The way to discover the original nature is calmness and wisdom. Calmness does not mean not thinking or having nothing to do with the characters of dharmas. Rather, it means not being carried away by thought in the process of thought and being free from characters while in the midst of them. Sitting in meditation is useless, and external effort, such as reciting scriptures or worshiping Buddhas, is futile. When the mind is unperturbed by selfishness or deliberate effort and is left to take its own course, it will reveal its pure nature, and enlightenment will come suddenly. Instead of assuming a dualistic nature of the mind, ignoring the external world, and aiming at uniting with the Infinite, as Indian meditation did, Chinese meditation assumed the original goodness of nature, took place in the midst of daily affairs, and aimed at self-realization.

Chinese influences on Chan are obvious. Buddhism had become characteristically Chinese, with its interest in the here and now. It swept all over China. The Confucian Way was in imminent danger of disappearance. Han Yu (768824), the greatest Confucianist of the Tang dynasty (618907), had to defend the Confucian Way and demanded that Buddhist and Daoist books be burned. His contribution to Confucian philosophy is negligible, but he paved the way for Confucian awakening.

Modern Period: Neo-Confucianism (9601912)

The combination of the wide spread of Chan and the attractiveness of the Huayan and Tiantai metaphysics, as well as the Chan psychology, woke the Confucianists from a long slumber. For centuries, within the Confucian school itself, efforts had been confined to textual studies and flowery compositions. Reaction, long overdue, now set in. Consequently in the early years of the Song dynasty (9601279) Confucianists raised new problems and attempted to find solutions.

Since the Book of Changes had exerted tremendous influence throughout the ages, the Confucianists naturally turned to it for inspiration and support. But instead of using it for divination, as the Daoists did, they used it for a study of human nature and destiny on the basis of principle. This new movement eventually came to be known as the school of Nature and Principle (Xingli Xue or, in English, Neo-Confucianism).

The man who opened the vista and determined the direction of Neo-Confucianism was Zhou Dunyi (also called Zhou Lianxi, 10171073). Elaborating on the cosmogony of the Book of Changes, he held that in the evolution of the universe from the Great Ultimate through the two material forces of yin and yang and the five agents to the myriad things, the five agents are the basis of the differentiation of things, whereas yin and yang constitute their actuality. The two forces are fundamentally one. Consequently the many are ultimately one and the one is actually differentiated in the many. Both the one and the many have their own correct states of being. The nature and destiny of man and things will be correct in their differentiated state if they all follow the same universal principle. This was the central thesis of Neo-Confucianism for the next several centuries. The influence of the Buddhist one-in-all-and-all-in-one philosophy is unmistakable.

rationalistic neo-confucianism

Neo-Confucianism developed in two different directions, the rationalistic school of Principle and the idealistic school of Mind.

ChengZhu philosophy

The central figures in the rationalistic movement were Cheng Yi (Cheng Yichuan, 10331107), who formulated the major concepts and provided the basic arguments, and Zhu Xi (11301200), who supplemented and refined them and brought Neo-Confucianism into a systemic, rationalistic whole. At the center of the school is its concept of principle (li ); its other major concepts are the Great Ultimate, material force, the nature of man and things, the investigation of things, and the moral quality of humanity, or ren.

The idea of principle, virtually absent in ancient Confucianism, probably came from Neo-Daoism and Buddhism. If so, it was employed to oppose them. In the view of the Neo-Confucianists of the Song dynasty both Daoist nonbeing and Buddhist emptiness are too abstract, but their principle is concrete. Cheng Yi repeatedly said that for a thing to exist there must first be its principle, the law according to which it will exist. Principle is definite, correct, self-evident, and self-sufficient. It is in each and every thing. Put differently, the principle for each particular thing is a definite one.

Since the possible number of things in the world is infinite, the number of actual and potential principles is infinite. As new things appear, new principles are realized. In the production and reproduction in the universe the process of daily renewal never ceases. This is a principle in itself, and there is always a new principle to make a new thing possible. But all principles are at bottom one, called the Great Ultimate. As substance the Great Ultimate is one, but as it functions it is manifested in the many, or the innumerable concrete things. The Great Ultimate is both the sum total of all principles and principle in its oneness.

The manifestations of the Great Ultimate depend on material force, which actualizes things. Operating as yin and yang, material force provides the stuff that makes a thing concrete. Things differ from one another because of their material endowments, and they resemble one another because of principle. Principle as the Great Ultimate exists before physical form (xing er shang ), whereas material force exists after physical form (xing er xia ). Logically speaking, principle is prior to material force, but as Zhu Xi emphasized, they are never separate. Without material force principle would be neither concrete nor definite, and without principle there would be no law by which material force could operate. In the universe there has never been any material force without principle or principle without material force.

When principle is endowed in man it becomes his nature. Man's nature is originally good because principle is good, and principle is good because it is the source of all goodness. Evil arises when feelings are aroused and deviate from principle. In this respect Neo-Confucianism retains the traditional Confucian doctrine that Nature is good whereas feelings are sources of evil. The Song Neo-Confucianists made a sharp distinction between the principle of Nature and selfish human desires.

Through moral cultivation selfish desires can be eliminated and the principle of Nature realized. To the rationalistic Neo-Confucianists the first step toward cultivation was the investigation of things (gewu ). According to Cheng Yi every blade of grass and every tree possesses principle. Therefore, all things should be investigated. One can investigate by studying inductively or deductively, by reading books, or by handling human affairs. When things are investigated, as The Great Learning taught, one's knowledge will be extended, one's will sincere, one's feelings correct, and one's personal life cultivated. When this is done one will have fully developed one's nature and fulfilled one's destiny.

The development of human nature, according to the Cheng YiZhu philosophy, does not stop with personal perfection but involves all things. This is where the concept of ren comes in. To Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi, as to previous Confucianists, ren is humanity, the moral quality that makes man a true man. But under the influence of the century-old Confucian doctrine of the unity of man and Nature and also the cosmological scale of Buddhist ethics, the Neo-Confucianists applied the concept of ren to all things and said that through it man can "form one body with heaven, earth, and all things." Furthermore, they added a new note to ren by interpreting the word in its other sense, that of seed or growth. ren was then understood to be the chief characteristic of heaven and earth, the production and reproduction of things. This life-giving character is the highest good. It is inherent in man's nature. Man's duty is to develop it and put it into practice. Neo-Confucianism returned to the chief topic and fundamental ethical concern of Confucius and gave it new meaning.

As has been indicated, Zhu Xi and Cheng Yi were the chief figures of rationalistic Neo-Confucianism. However, Cheng Yi's older brother Cheng Hao, their uncle Zhang Zai, and Shao Yong, who with Cheng Yi and Zhou Dunyi are called the Five Masters of early Song Neo-Confucianism, also contributed substantially to it.

Cheng Hao

Cheng Hao (Cheng Mingdao, 10321085) shared many ideas with his brother. The two were really the twin leaders of the school in its formative stage. Whereas Cheng Yi stressed the idea of principle as one and its manifestations many, Cheng Hao stressed principle as production and reproduction. He saw the spirit of life in everything, which impressed him much more than the rational character of things. Furthermore, to Cheng Hao the highest principle was the principle of Nature, a concept he evolved himself. He believed that principle is more than the rational basis of being. It is the principle of Nature, the self-evident universal truth that carries with it the dictate to distinguish right from wrong and the imperative to do good. Instead of focusing his attention on the investigation of things, he directed it to the calmness of mind. Only when the mind is calmthat is, free from selfishness, cunning, and deliberate effortcan it be peaceful. One can then respond to things as they come and naturally maintain a balance between the internal and the external. Cheng Hao considered understanding the nature of ren to be of the greatest importance. The man who has such an understanding will be free from all opposition between the self and the other and will be able to form one body with all things. It can easily be seen that although he differed from his brother on many points, Cheng Hao strengthened Neo-Confucianism by providing it with warmth and spirituality.

Zhang Zai

Unlike the Cheng brothers, Zhang Zai (Zhang Hengqu, 10201077) regarded principle not as above or different from material force but as the law according to which material force operates. He identified material force with the Great Ultimate and considered yin and yang as merely the two aspects of material force. As substance, before consolidation takes place, material force is the Great Vacuity (taixu ). As function, in its activity and tranquility, integration and disintegration, and so forth, it is the Great Harmony. But the two are the same as the Way (Dao). In its ultimate state material force is one, but in its contraction and expansion and the like it is manifested in the many. Similarly, in ethics ren is one, but in its application in the various human relations, as filial piety toward parents, brotherly respect toward brothers, and so on, it is many. Zhang Zai's advocacy of the concept of vacuity was too Daoistic to be attractive to his fellow Neo-Confucianists, but in making the doctrine of the one and the many the metaphysical foundation of Confucian ethics, he made "a great contribution to the Confucian school," in Zhu Xi's description.

Shao Yong

Shao Yong (10111077) agreed with his contemporaries that there are supreme principles governing the universe, but he added that they can be discerned in terms of numbers. In his cosmology change is due to spirit; spirit gives rise to number, number to form, and form to concrete things. Since the Great Ultimate engenders the four forms of major and minor yin and yang, Shao Yong used the number 4 to classify all phenomena. In his scheme there are the four seasons, the four heavenly bodies, the four kinds of rulers, the four periods of history, and so on. Since the structure of the universe is mathematical, elements of the universe can be calculated and objectively known. The best way to know is to "view things as things." All these are new notes in Neo-Confucianism that set Shao Yong apart from the rest. He was as much interested in the basic problems of principle, nature, and destiny as were other Neo-Confucianists. However, he hardly discussed social and moral problems, and his whole metaphysical outlook was too near Daoist occultism to be considered part of the main current of rationalistic Neo-Confucianism.

idealistic neo-confucianism

In spite of the fact that the rationalistic Neo-Confucianists tried to maintain a balance between principle and material force in metaphysics and between the investigation of things and moral cultivation in the way of life, they tended to be one-sided in their emphasis on principle and the investigation of things.

Lu Xiangshan

Opposition to these trends arose in Zhu Xi's own time, notably from his friend and chief opponent, Lu Xiangshan (Lu Jiuyuan, 11391193). Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi had regarded mind as the function of man's nature, which is identical with principle. To Lu mind was principle. It is originally good and endowed with the innate knowledge of the good and the innate ability to do good, as Mencius had taught long before. It is one and indissoluble. There is no such distinction as that between the moral mind, which is good, and the human mind, which is liable to evil, a distinction made by Zhu Xi. Both the principle of Nature and human desires are good, and they should not be contrasted, as they were by Zhu Xi. The mind fills the whole universe. Throughout all ages and in all directions there is the same mind. It is identical with all things, for there is nothing outside the Way and there is no Way outside things. In short, the mind is the universe. To investigate things, then, is to investigate the mind. Since all principles are inherent and complete in the mind, there is no need to look outside, as did Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi.

This thoroughgoing idealism shows not only the influence of Mencius but also the impact of Buddhism. However, Lu was no less a critic of Buddhism than were other Neo-Confucianists. Actually, he criticized Zhu Xi not to promote Buddhism but to uphold Confucianism. In his opinion the way of Zhu Xi led to a divided mind, aimless drifting, and devotion to isolated details that meant little to life. Lu advocated instead a simple, easy, and direct method of recovering one's originally good nature. It consisted in having a firm purpose, "establishing the nobler part of one's nature," and coming to grips with fundamentals. In short, Zhu's way was "following the path of study and inquiry," whereas Lu's way was "honoring the moral nature."

Lu's opposition did not have any immediate effect, for rationalistic Neo-Confucianism was too strong to be checked. It dominated the Chinese intellectual world for several hundred years. By the fifteenth century, however, it had degenerated into concern only with isolated details and had lost touch with the fundamentals of life. There was no longer any intellectual creativity or moral vigor in it.

Wang Yangming

Opposition rose again, this time from Wang Yangming (Wang Shouren, 14721529), who pushed the idealistic movement to its highest point in Chinese history. Wang reiterated most of Xiangshan's ideas but carried some of them to new heights. Like Lu, he said that the mind is principle and that things are in the mind, but he emphasized the direction of the mindthat is, the will. To him a thing (or affair) was nothing but the mind determined to realize it. There is no such thing as filial piety, for example, unless one is determined to put it into practice and actually does so. Like Lu, Wang said that the investigation of things is the investigation of the mind; however, he added that since the most important aspect of the mind is the will, the sincerity of the will must precede the investigation of things, an idea diametrically opposed to Zhu Xi's contention that as things are investigated, one's will becomes sincere. Going beyond Mencius's doctrine of the innate knowledge of good, Wang held that because of one's innate ability to do good, one necessarily extends the innate knowledge into action. Knowledge and action are really identical; one is the beginning and the other the completion. Here are two original doctrines, the extension of the innate knowledge and the unity of knowledge and action, both of which represent new steps in Chinese thought.

Wang Fuzhi

For 150 years the idealistic philosophy of Wang Yangming dominated China, putting Zhu Xi's rationalism on the defensive. A number of philosophers attempted compromise, without much success. In the seventeenth century Wang's idealism declined, and Zhu Xi's rationalism reasserted itself. But rationalism enjoyed neither monopoly nor prominence, for revolts arose one after another. From the seventeenth century on, Confucianists regarded both Zhu and Wang as too speculative. The spirit of the time demanded the evident, the concrete, and the practical.

One of the first to rebel was Wang Fuzhi (Wang Chuanshan, 16191692). He rejected the central Neo-Confucian thesis that principle is a universal, transcending and prior to material force. Instead, he contended that principle is identical with material force. It is not a separate entity that can be grasped but the order and arrangement of things. The Great Ultimate and the principle of Nature are no transcendent abstractions. They, along with the mind and the nature of things, are all within material force. Wang Fuzhi boldly declared, "The world consists only of concrete things." He also refused to accept either the distinction between the principle of Nature and human desires or the subordination of human desires.

Dai Zhen

In the same spirit, Dai Zhen (Dai Dongyuan, 17231777) attacked the Neo-Confucianists, particularly those of the Song dynasty, for their conception of principle. He said that they looked upon principle "as if it were a thing." To him principle was nothing but the order of things, and by things he meant daily affairs, such as drinking and eating. The way to investigate principle, he thought, is not by intellectual speculation or by introspection of the mind but by critical, analytical, minutely detailed, and objective study of things based on concrete evidence. Dai Zhen's conception of principle led him to oppose vigorously the Neo-Confucianists' view of human feelings and desires, which he thought they had undermined. In his belief principle can never prevail when feelings are not satisfied, for principles are merely "feelings that do not err." Dai Zhen perpetuated the Neo-Confucian doctrine that the universe is an unceasing process of production and reproduction, except that to him Nature, like principle, was but an order.

Kang Youwei

By the end of the nineteenth century there was a swing back to the philosophy of Wang Yangming. The sad situation in China called for dynamic and purposive action that only an idealism like Wang's could provide. All of these factors conditioned the thought of Kang Youwei (18581927), the greatest Confucianist of the time. In an attempt to translate Confucian philosophy into action he enunciated the extraordinary theory that Confucius was first and last a reformer. Kang himself engineered the abortive political reform of 1898. Obviously influenced by the Christian concepts of utopia and progress, he envisaged the Age of Great Unity. In his theory of historical progress history proceeds from the Age of Chaos to the Small Peace and finally to the Great Unity, when nations, families, classes, and all kinds of distinctions will be totally abolished. The philosophical basis for this utopia is his interpretation of ren. He equates it with what Mencius called "the mind that cannot bear" to see the suffering of others. It is compassion. It is also the power of attraction that pulls all peoples together. As such it is ether and electricity, which permeate all things everywhere.

Kang was philosophically superficial but historically important. He showed that at the turn of the twentieth century China was at a philosophical crossroad.

Contemporary Period (from 1912)

Philosophy in twentieth-century China was indeed confusing and chaotic, but certain tendencies could clearly be seen. There was first of all importation from the West. In the first three decades Charles Darwin, Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Henri Bergson, Immanuel Kant, René Descartes, William James, John Dewey, Karl Marx, and others were introduced, each with his champion. Of these, James and Dewey were the most influential, since pragmatism was advocated by Hu Shih, leader of the intellectual revolution. Only Marxism, however, has remained strong, and it has become the established state philosophy.

Under the stimulation of Western philosophy both Confucianism and Buddhism resurged from a long period of decadence. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Ouyang Jingwu (18711943), strongly impressed by Western idealism, sought to revive Buddhist idealism as it was centuries ago, and his opponent, Abbot Taixu (18891947), attempted to transform Buddhist idealism in the light of Western philosophy. Since neither knew Western philosophy or was really a philosopher, their movements, though extensive and vigorous, resulted more in religious reform than in intellectual advancement, and in the late 1930s their work quickly disappeared from the philosophical scene.

The renewal of Confucian philosophy, however, was different. Feng Youlan (18951990) developed his philosophy on the basis of rationalistic Neo-Confucianism, and Xiong Shili (18851968) built his on the foundation of idealistic Neo-Confucianism. Since the 1930s they became the two most prominent philosophical thinkers in China. While importation from the West and reconstruction of traditional philosophy were going on, certain philosophers tried to evolve their own systems out of Western thought. The most successful of these was Zhang Dongsun (18861962), who alone produced a comprehensive and mature philosophy.

Feng Youlan

Trained in philosophy at Columbia University, Feng Youlan derived his rationalism from the Neo-Confucianism of Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi and converted Neo-Confucian concepts into formal logical concepts. According to him, his "new rationalistic Confucianism" is based on four main metaphysical conceptsprinciple, material force, the substance of Dao, and the Great Whole. The concept of principle is derived from the Cheng-Zhu proposition "As there are things, there must be their specific principles." A thing must follow principle, but principle does not have to be actualized in a thing. It belongs to the realm of reality but not actuality and is purely a formal concept. The concept of material force is derived from the Cheng-Zhu proposition "If there is principle, there must be material force" by which a thing can exist. Material force is basic to the concept of existence but does not itself exist in the actual world. It is only a formal logical concept. The concept of Dao means a "universal operation," the universe of "daily renewal" and incessant change. Finally, the Great Whole, in which one is all and all is one, is also a formal concept, being the general name for all, not an assertion about the actual world. It corresponds to the Absolute in Western philosophy.

Basically, Feng's philosophy is a combination of Neo-Confucianism and Western realism and logic. Feng called his own system a "new tradition." It is new not only because it has interpreted Neo-Confucian ideas as formal concepts. In addition, Feng's system has replaced Neo-Confucianism, which is essentially a philosophy of immanence, with a philosophy of transcendence. To Feng the world of actuality is secondary.

In 1950, Feng repudiated his philosophy because it "neglects the concrete and the particular," but in 1957 he still maintained that Confucius was an idealist rather than a materialist. This suggests that he was not entirely Marxian in his interpretation of Chinese thought. He remained the most important Chinese philosopher of the last thirty yearsthe most original, the most productive, and the most criticized.

Xiong Shili

Xiong Shili called his philosophy the "new doctrine of consciousness-only." According to his main thesis reality is endless transformation of closing and opening, which constitute a process of unceasing production and reproduction. The original substance is in perpetual transition at every instant, continually arising anew and thus resulting in many manifestations. But reality and manifestations, or substance and function, are one. In its closing aspect original substance has the tendency to integrate, resulting in what may temporarily be called matter, whereas in its opening aspect it has the tendency to maintain its own nature and be its own master, resulting in what may temporarily be called mind. This mind itself is one part of the original mind, which in its various aspects is mind, will, and consciousness.

Xiong's terminology comes from the Book of Changes and the Buddhist Consciousness Only school, but his basic ideasthe unity of substance and function andthe primacy of the original mindcome from Neo-Confucianism, especially that of Wang Yangming. He avoided Zhu Xi's bifurcation of principle and material force and Wang's subordination of material force to the mind and has provided the dynamic idea of change in Neo-Confucianism with a metaphysical foundation.

Zhang Dongsun

The theory of Zhang Dongsun (born 1886) has been variously called revised Kantianism, epistemological pluralism, and panstructuralism. Chiefly formulated between 1929 and 1947, it is derived from Kant but rejects Kant's bifurcation of reality into phenomena and noumena and Kant's division of the nature of knowledge into the a posteriori and the a priori. To Zhang knowledge is a synthesis of sense data, form, and methodological assumptions. Perception, conception, mind, and consciousness are all syntheses, or "constructs," and constructs are products of society and culture. He maintained that although he combined Western logic with modern psychology and sociology, his system was his own. During World War II he shifted more and more from metaphysics to the sociology of knowledge and thus was drawn closer and closer to Marxism.

During the years since World War II neither Xiong's, Feng's nor Zhang's philosophy has become a movement, although Xiong has exercised considerable influence on a number of young philosophers. While Zhang is keeping silent, Xiong maintaining his position, and Feng still reconsidering his philosophy, Marxism has become the triumphant and official system of thought. It demands that philosophy be practical, scientific, democratic, and for the masses. Traditional philosophy is being studied and will survive, but it is being interpreted in a new light.

See also Buddhism; Communism; Mysticism, History of.


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