Chinese Philosophy

Before getting started on this post, the apology from my last blog post on Indian philosophy deserves to be repeated. It is not possible to summarise the history of Chinese philosophy in one blog post that does any justice to its breadth or depth, any more than one could summarise European philosophy in a single blog post. That being said, to really understand China without some understanding of its philosophy is difficult because of the great influence it has had on Chinese culture and politics.


Confucius (Kong Fuzi or ‘Master Kong’) lived in the 5th century B.C, making him a contemporary of Socrates and the Buddha.  According to Grayling, Confucius’ central belief was that if those in government behave ethically they will create a good society. This can be ensured through living a life disciplined by the correct observance of rituals and formalities. A key aspect of a good society is order and social harmony, and this can only be achieved by having the right relationship between ruler and ruled. This is a top down theory, where the right behaviours are disseminated from the overall leader of China into society. Fathers learn how to be good parents by observing their leader, and sons learn the right behaviours from their fathers (Confucius was not a feminist). Those in positions of authority set the standards and examples of good behaviour for others to follow.

One of the fundamental concepts in Confucian ethics is ‘ren’. This means benevolence and a concern for humanity in general. To adopt it properly requires knowledge of human character, including the ability to distinguish good people from bad. Moral imagination is emphasised, which is needed to imagine yourself in another’s place and see things from their perspective. The key virtues are loyalty, filial piety (respect and deference to one’s parents and ancestors), good faith, courage, politeness, courtesy and respectfulness.

Confucianism is idealistic and optimistic, believing that anyone can learn how to be good over time, and that good behaviours become habit through practice. To act in a way that is ‘ren’ requires study and wisdom. In particular, it requires an understanding of the four subjects taught by Confucius: culture, good conduct, loyalty and honesty. The family is the foundation of society because this is where children learn the right behaviours. This leads to the second fundamental concept of Confucian ethics which is ‘li’. This literally means ‘rites’ but more generally it means proper behaviour. A cultured person is one who behaves properly. If due process is followed in both government and ordinary life, everything will be orderly and clear, because relationships will be maintained in the proper way.

Mencius & Xunzi

Mencius was the second master of the Confucian tradition. He retained the optimism of Confucius in believing that people are fundamentally good. The cardinal virtues are driven by emotions (for example, benevolence arises from compassion), and these emotions are a natural part of human psychology. It is true that we sometimes act badly, but this is due to external factors that cause us to act against our nature. Mencius believed that the two primary virtues are benevolence and righteousness. A ruler who has both of these virtues will be aware of the impact of policies and decisions on the people, and will always act in ways that benefit the people. As well as benefiting people directly, this removes external factors that would cause people to act against their nature, ensuring that the people act virtuously and treat each other well, which further removes external factors and leads to a virtuous circle.

This optimism was not shared by the next Confucian grand master, Xunzi. This could be explained partly by the fact that Xunzi lived during the ‘Warring States Period’ in Chinese history, a period of violence and political fragmentation. This did however represent the golden age of Chinese philosophy, when Confucianism was joined by new schools including Daoism and Legalism, and an increased energy of debate which challenged existing wisdom. Xunzi believed that people are naturally bad, and can be good only through conscious effort. People are naturally greedy; they seek personal profit and see others as rivals. This means that Confucian education and models of correct behaviour are all the more important.

A key aim for Xunzi was social cohesion, which is understandable given the period in which he lived. To that end, he proposed that the ruler should decree a common language. This would improve efficiency of administration, but more importantly would promote shared values, standards and cultural norms. Xunzi also believed in the need to further standardise and promote the ‘li’ (the rites referred to earlier). He believed that common behaviour was an essential way to bring society in China together. Grayling makes the point that this is not unique to China. All societies have communal observances, ceremonies and celebrations that promote a shared sense of identity and loyalty to a shared purpose. Confucianism impressed upon Chinese politics a particular emphasis on order and a dread of disorder. Throughout China’s history every change in dynasty (and the associated violence and suffering) has resulted from disorder.

Mohism & Daoism

Mohism was founded by Mozi, who lived around the same time as Confucius. The first key principle is to ‘elevate the worthy individual’ and to follow their example. A clear ‘chain of command’ hierarchy in society helps to ensure this principle is maintained. Government must also have equal concern for all. Leaders must treat people as they would be treated themselves. One consequence is a belief in pacifism, on the basis that leaders would not generally wish to fight in wars, so they shouldn’t send others to war. The alterative of this fraternal love according to Mozi is anarchy and chaos, where different standards apply to different people, and individuals seek what is in their own self-interest. This state of affairs is only avoided by having a benevolent and righteous leader whose example and standard is followed by everyone. However, it is not clear how one might ensure leaders have such esteemed qualities.

Daoism is best understood as a group of movements and doctrines that can be gathered under one label. Their common thread is the idea that there is ‘a way’ or path that will lead to a desired destination (whatever that destination may be). According to Daoism, in the time before civilisation people naturally lived ethically good lives spontaneously and without effort. With society comes the need to make an effort to be humane and honest. This is similar to Locke’s conception of the state of nature (and opposite to Hobbes). Therefore, to live a good life we must follow the path of ‘non-action’. This does not literally mean doing nothing.  Better definitions would be effortlessness and non-striving. It is about non-attachment to the demands of society and the achievement of serenity. A common analogy is the way that water flows around things without appearing to be troubled. People should distance themselves from politics and practical life, and instead live spontaneously, without over-thinking things and without striving or desiring.


The Warring States period came to an end when China was forcibly united by its first Emperor in the 3rd century B.C. Contradicting the emphasis on benevolence in Confucianism and other schools of thought discussed so far, the intellectual basis for the Emperor’s actions comes from the school of Legalism. The priorities for rulers according to Legalism are the maintenance of personal power and of order in society. This included advocating extreme punishments for the purpose of deterrence, in order to maintain order. Legalism is a politically interventionalist philosophy. Rulers and their ministers must be heavily involved in the business of government, and have a tight grip over their subordinates. Officials should be given precise job descriptions and be closely monitored to ensure they do what is required of them and nothing more.

Legalists insist that the reliance on the strength of institutions mitigates the effects of incompetent rulers, and that this is safer than hoping every ruler will be wise. Institutions and the law are to be given utmost respect so that the ruler can exercise legitimate power through the simple maintenance of these existing laws and institutions, even if they are not particularly talented. Legalism does not have many positive things to say about ordinary people, who are considered basically inclined towards selfishness and wickedness. They cannot be relied on to help the ruler, and should be kept preoccupied with war and agriculture to prevent them getting involved in mischief. The ruler should ensure that the common people do not become too powerful, by restricting information and private wealth.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of A.C. Grayling’s ‘The History of Philosophy’, which this blog post is predominantly based on.

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