Asian Philosophy 6: Chinese Thought & the Period of the Hundred Schools

Chinese Landscape painting

The Pinyin & Wade-Giles Transliteration Systems

wade_gilesBefore we start in on the schools and sages of the Chinese tradition, first we must cover the shift in transliteration of Chinese into Phoenician/Roman alphabetic characters.  Today, we use the Pinyin system, adopted by the People’s Republic of China in 1958, adopted by other countries by the 1980s.  It still has problems, but is vastly superior to the Wade-Giles system invented in Britain in the 1800s by two sinologists, Wade and Giles.  A sinologist is a scholar who studies Chinese culture.  Just as an anglophile is someone who loves British culture, a sinophile is someone who loves Chinese culture.

Old Tao Teh Ching DaoWhen you read books from the 60s and 70s, you find the word Dao spelled ‘Tao’.  This is because the Wade-Giles ‘t’ became ‘d’, and so the Daoist classic the ‘Tao Te Ching’ becomes today the ‘Dao De Jing’.  What was once the capital city ‘Peiking’ is now ‘Beijing’.  Important for Chinese Philosophy, while the Latinized names ‘Confucius’ and ‘Mencius’ remained the same, all other names changed, particularly the suffix for ‘master’, which was ‘Tzu’ but is today ‘Zi’ (pronounced something like ‘tzih’ with a soft ‘t’ in front).  My favorite Chinese philosopher used to be ‘Chuang Tzu’, but is today ‘Zhuangzi’, Master Zhuang.  Similarly, ‘Lao Tzu’ is today Laozi, Master Lao, and ‘Mo Tzu’ is Mozi, Master Mo.  Unfortunately, none of these names appear in spell check spelled either way.  Luckily, if you search for a name either way on Wikipedia, it sends you to the right page with the modern Pinyin name with the Wade-Giles name next to it in brackets.

The Origins of Chinese Philosophy

Warring States Period China MapOne would like to think that times of peace and prosperity are good for systems of thought, but times of civil war and disintegration of empires seems best for thinkers and systems of thought.  This was true in ancient Egypt, India, Greece, and true in the golden age of ancient Chinese thought as well.  Human beings only rethink problems when they are faced with them, and they are only able to teach new and counter-cultural solutions when the orthodoxy is weak and failing.  In Laozi and Confucius’ China there were great problems in the Warring States period (500 – 220 BCE) as many kings came and went, each calling themselves ‘mandated by heaven’.  Interestingly, this same period is known as the golden age of Chinese thought, the Period of the Hundred Philosophies, also called the Period of the Hundred Schools or Period of the Hundred Sages.

Chinese EmperorIn the frame of ancient cosmology, the worldview of ancient Egypt and Persia that influenced all three of the axial age powers (ancient India, Greece and China), the world was thought to be built like a person and order was thought to be spoken downward from the heavens to the earth.  In ancient China, it was said that if a king was good he would be supported and affirmed by the voice of heaven, which in speaking for a king gave the king the “mandate of heaven” and allow him and the empire to prosper.  Likewise, the king would speak for and support local rulers and ministers.  This is very similar to most other polytheistic and monotheistic cultures of the ancient world.

Louis the 16thIf the king does not follow the way of heaven, the gods or god stops speaking for the king, and someone else comes along and takes the king’s place.  Each new king claims that the old king was ‘no longer spoken for’, so the populations of ancient Greece, India, as well as China, find themselves wondering: who or what kind of king exactly does heaven (the heavens) speak for, and why?  Philosophy of the ancient world was both about how to rule the self and how to rule a people, and the questions were often intertwined.  Up until the French Revolution in the late 1700s, Louis XVI claimed to be similarly supported and spoken for.

jade dragon sculptureChina was settled as early as 5000 BCE.  The next two and a half thousand years, when the origins of Chinese culture were laid down, is called the Period of Jade, when the legendary Red Emperor, Shenlung, and Yellow Emperor, Xianyuan, were said to have invented the basics of culture, including rites and rituals (li) hunting, fishing, and agriculture (though today, we know these to have been developed earlier in Africa before 5000 BCE by our common human ancestors).  In one passage of the Zhuangzi, the second central work of Daoism, we read:

Yellow Emperor ChinaChuchuehzi said to Changwuzi, “I have heard Confucius say that the sage does not work at anything, does not pursue profit, does not dodge harm, does not enjoy being sought after, does not follow the Way, says nothing yet says something, says something yet says nothing, and wanders beyond the dust and grime.  Confucius himself regarded these as wild and flippant words, though I believe they describe the working of the mysterious Way.  What do you think of them?”  Changwuzi said, “Even the Yellow Emperor would be confused if he heard such words, so how could you expect Confucius to understand them?

Chinese JadeThe word li, which is used in Chinese thought to mean not only devotional ritual but also tradition and culture, much like dharma in Buddhism and equated with li by later Neo-Confucians, is related to the word for jade, as jade and items in jade vessels were given as offerings to the ancestors, gods and spirits.  The word jing means reverence, which is proper not only for the gods, rulers and parents but for the ideal self, the community, and the cosmos.  Following the Period of Jade was the Lungshan period (2600 – 2100 BCE), the time of the revered sage-kings Yao and Shun.  In one passage of the Analects of Confucius, he says, “Anyone can become a Yao or a Shun”, arguing that making oneself in harmony with the common people is the essence of being both a sage and a king.

Lord of Heaven ChinaConfucius, the Daoists and others speak of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ (Tianming) and the ‘Way’ (Dao) of heaven (Tiandao) but not much about the Lord of Heaven.  In India, Greece, China, and many other places, we can see that first many tribes and their gods were drawn into polytheistic (many gods) systems, and then after this these were increasingly drawn into monotheistic (one god over many lesser deities and saints) systems.  We can see that many gods with human like desires become one ruling god with human like desires, and then this one god becomes more and more abstract as the great One, also known as philosophical monism.

Lord of Heaven with others ChinaWe see the same pattern in China, where polytheism grew into a monotheistic and then abstract monist ‘Way’ or ‘Mandate.  Something similar occurs when scientists today still speak about ‘laws’ of nature.  The Zhou and earlier empires spoke of the Lord of Heaven, and it when the Zhou overthrew the Shang in 1029 BCE that they supported the idea, found in much of ancient Chinese thought including Confucianism and Daoism, that the heavens and the way of things only speaks for a king, giving him the Mandate of Heaven, when he is virtuous (de, as in the Dao De Jing), and when he is not he is overthrown (obviously to legitimize their own seizure of power).  Confucius and the Daoists in the Warring States period, however, do not speak much of the Lord of Heaven, but speak much of the Mandate and Way, showing us that, like the golden age of thought in ancient India and Greece, the revered thinkers were challenging the old tradition with philosophical monism that questioned the very shape of cosmology itself while extending it.

pharaohAdditionally, just as we see in India, what is at first only true for the royalty and ruling class gradually becomes popular and common.  In ancient Egypt, at first only the pharaoh could escape rounds of reincarnation and ascend into the heavens as a star, but by the later periods common people who were virtuous could obtain heavenly rest.  In ancient India, only the Brahmins and then with Theravada Buddhism only the monks could escape rounds of reincarnation and obtain nirvana.  In China, similarly, the Way and Mandate of Heaven was first used to justify the position of the king, but by the time of the golden age of Chinese thought, common people could gain not merely position but wisdom such as that of the legendary sage kings by being in accord with the Dao, the way and nature of things.

Yin & Yang

Yin Yang simpleOne early cosmological and philosophical idea that is central to Chinese thought that can be found in the early dynasties is the system of the complementary opposites of Yin and Yang, the two sides of energy (chi).  Yin is the dark, female, and earthly force, and Yang is the bright, male, and heavenly force.  Many early societies from the time of Shamanism saw the cosmos as a sexual procreation of male and female forces.  The mind understands and reasons in terms of opposites, and the creation and recreation of life by nature was associated with the procreation of offspring by female and male.  In the Chinese conception, Yin was associated with the acceptance of the passive, the darkness of space, the support of the earth, the absence of non-being, and the mystery of the unknown.  Yang was associated with the transformation of the active, the brightness of the sun, the motions of the sky, the presence of being, and the power of the known.  The Chinese character for transformation is similarly based on two characters for human facing each other head to foot.

HegelThe idea is that everything consists of and is in relationship with other things in terms of oppositions.  The ancient Greeks and later German philosophers used the terms dialectic and dialectical to describe the oppositional components and motions of things, including the human mind, truth, and dialogue.  Hegel, following Isaac Newton and the idea that for every motion there is an equal and opposite motion, wrote in his Logic:

Dialectic of Hegel Thesis Antithesis SynthesisThat true and positive meaning of the antinomies (oppositions) is this: that every actual thing involves a coexistence of opposed elements.  Consequently to know, or, in other words, to comprehend an object is equivalent to being conscious of it as a concrete unity of opposed determinations.  The old metaphysic, as we have already seen, when it studied the objects of which it sought a metaphysical knowledge, went to work by applying categories abstractly and to the exclusion of their opposites.

Newton's CradleHowever reluctant Understanding may be to admit the action of Dialectic, we must not suppose that the recognition of its existence is peculiarly confined to the philosopher.  It would be truer to say that Dialectic gives expression to a law which is felt in all other grades of consciousness, and in general experience.  Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of Dialectic.

yin yang swirlThe Yin and Yang became a central idea behind the Yi Jing divination system and later Daoism.  Many are familiar with Yin and Yang through the Daoist symbol which is thought to be a solar calendar showing roughly the length of daylight through the year as it increases in the summer and then diminishes in the winter.  The Daoists got this image from one of the many schools in the Hundred Schools Period that did not survive with Han patronage called the Yin Yang school.

The Yi Jing Divination System

Yi Jing Oracle Turtle ShellThe Yi Jing (I Ching in the old Wade-Giles) is the famous oracle system of ancient China.  Originally, the Chinese diviners used turtle shells and bones to answer questions of kings, nobles and common people ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending on how they would crack over a fire.  Turtles were thought to be symbolic of the cosmos, as their shells resembled heaven, round on the top, and earth, flat on the bottom.  Unfortunately, being sacred did not help the Chinese turtle, as their numbers depleted from all the divination to the point that turtles were imported from Vietnam and other southern lands and cattle bones began to be used as substitutes.  The Yi Jing replaced this earlier system about 1000 BCE with the rise of the Zhou dynasty.  Many systems of thought were influenced by the Yi Jing in the Warring States period, including Confucianism and Daoism.  Confucians and Daoists wrote commentaries on the books.  Confucius considered the Yi Jing to be one of the six great classics of the tradition of the sage emperors, and made it central to his educational system that became the entrance exams for getting a position in the Imperial bureaucracy.

Fu Xi Chinese KingThe original system is attributed to Fu Xi, a mythical king who is said to have discovered the symbols of the Yi Jing hexagrams in the stars.  It was then said to have been re-systematized by King Wen, one of the founders of the Zhou dynasty.  It is impossible today to know whether these kings were the sages behind the system, or if the system was finalized as a book by Confucius himself around 500 BCE.

The system is built out of eight trigrams which in pairs of upper and lower trigram form sixty four hexagrams.  Each trigram is build out of solid and/or broken lines, solid signifying yang and broken signifying yin.  In ancient times, a question was asked and sticks were tossed to determine each line, starting from the top down.  The counter-culture of the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, including surfers (who were introduced to Daoism in Hawaii), beatniks, hippies, and new age spiritual seekers, would toss coins, often quarters, heads being yang, and tails being yin.  Six tosses equals six lines, giving two trigrams, one heaven and one earth.  The trigrams are:

Yi Jing Trigrams Yin Yang☰ Heaven (Creative)

☱ Lake (Reflecting/Excess)

☲ Fire (Bright/Conscious/Clinging)

☳ Thunder (Exciting)

☴ Wind/Wood (Penetrating/Growth)

☵ Water (Dark/Danger/Profound)

☶ Mountain (Steady/Still)

☷ Earth (Receptive)

mount fujiNotice that Creation is the beginning of the end Reception (heaven and earth), Bright is the beginning of the end Darkness (fire and water), Excitement or agitation is the beginning of the end Growth (thunder and wind), Stillness is the beginning of the end Excess (mountain and lake).  When we invert a hexagram, changing its solid lines to broken and broken lines to solid, the opposite has an opposite role in process and change.

lightningThere are eight hexagrams that are composed of a trigram and its reverse or mirror image: Creation (heaven on heaven), Insight (wind on lake), Synergy (fire on fire), Nourishing (Mountain on Thunder), Critical Mass (lake on wind), Danger (water on water), Mindfulness (thunder on mountain) and Reception (earth on earth).  Four of these eight hexagrams are composed of the same trigram twice, the trigrams that are symmetrical.  The inversions are interesting as Insight is the beginning of the end Mindfulness, and Nourishing is the beginning of the end Critical Mass.  This is very similar to the inversions amongst the trigrams.

Fu Xi HexagramsThere are 8 hexagrams that are composed of a trigram and its inverse, the diagonal from bottom left to top right of the Fu Xi order: Prosper (earth on heaven), Decline (mountain on lake), After Ends (water on fire), Benefit (wind on thunder), Continuing (thunder on wind), Before Ends (fire on water), Attraction (lake on mountain), and Stagnation (heaven on earth).  Prosper/Stagnation and After Ends/Before Ends are both inverses and reverses, and also that Prosperity and Stagnation are positive and negative beginnings, and After Ends and Before Ends are positive and negative endings.  Prosperity is a beginning that is beginning, Stagnation is a beginning that is not beginning, After Ends is an end that has ended, Before Ends is an end that has not ended.  We have a beginning that is and isn’t and an end that has been or isn’t yet.

King WenWhen we compare the original Fu Xi order with the later King Wen order, it becomes clear that the Fu Xi order is composed of inversions and alternates while the King Wen order is based in reversals.  The Fu Xi order is composed of sets of inversions and alternates.  The King Wen order is not composed of inversions or alternates but is essentially a list of hexagrams and their reversals from start to finish.  This is why Creation and Reception are hexagram one and hexagram two for King Wen but they are the first and last hexagram of the Fu Xi.  King Wen took the hexagrams and focused on matching each with its reversal without regard for the essential inversions and alternates of Fu Xi.

LeibnizLeibniz calculatorThe Early Modern German philosopher Leibniz invented the binary system still used by computers today, which may or may not give way to something else like quantum computers in the near future.  Leibniz was a sinophile, and invented his binary system, which represents all numbers in terms of ones and zeros, inspired by the Yi Jing divination system.  Leibniz was communicating with Christian missionaries in China, and he, like some of the missionaries, believed that Europeans could learn much from Confucianism that was in line with Christianity.  Also an admirer of the Chinese abacus, Leibniz was one of the most important innovators of the mechanical calculator, an early computer which employed his binary system.  Thus, our computers, internet and phones are in part based on the ancient Chinese Yi Jing.

The Period of the Hundred Schools

Han Dynasty map chinaThe Period of the Hundred Philosophers or Hundred Schools, as it is called, came with the Warring States Period after the Spring and Autumn period (770 – 476 BCE), the period when the Zhou dynasty (1029 – 476 BCE) crumbled.  One of the six Confucian classics that became the texts for the Chinese Confucian educational system and bureaucracy was The Spring and Summer Record.  This was the period when Confucius and Laozi lived.  Mencius and Xunzi (the two great Confucians after Confucius) and Zhuangzi (the great Daoist after Laozi) lived in the Hundred Schools or Warring States Period, at the time when Confucianism and Daoism were forming along with and competing with other schools who followed other sages.

Yellow Turban RebellionThe Hundred Schools period ended with the brief Chin (221 – 206 BCE) and then the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) who took over the China that the Chin had unified.  While there may not have been a hundred separate schools, there were many schools of thought in this time but many and their teachings did not survive.  The four most popular and famous philosophies were Confucianism, Daoism, Moism, and Legalism.  We will be discussing the first three in greater detail in the coming weeks.

brick wellThe word ‘China’ comes from the Chin, who were the first to unify much of the land.  The Chin were patrons of Legalism, and Emperor Chin pronounced Confucius a subversive danger to the state.  Confucian books, including the Analects, the Mencius and the Xunzi were burned, and anyone found reciting them or hiding them was executed.  The legend developed that Confucianism and the texts survived hidden in a well.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALegalism was started by Shang Yang (390 – 338 BCE) and then in Chin times championed by Han Fei (280 – 233 BCE).  Central to Legalism was the idea that law (fa) should be strict and in the interests of the state and the ruler who ensures the protection and continuation of the state (a position much like Hobbes, the later British political philosopher, takes in his book Leviathan).  The ruler uses rewards and punishments to regulate agriculture, trade, and warfare.  Shang Yang argued that people are self-interested, and only respond if there are great threats as well as great rewards (what the British would later call the stick and the carrot).  The Legalists rejected allegiance to family and the aristocracy in favor of utility, with a strong emphasis on punishment as the effective tool of the ruler.  They believed in the evolution of society beyond the ways of the past and toward a new disciplined future, much like the Soviet Union but without the communal property of the Moists, who the Legalists despised.

MoziWhile some Han rulers employed Legalism to rule and patronized Legalist scholars, the Han did not overall employ the authoritarianism of the Legalists, likely because the Han were trying to win over the people at a prosperous time with much new wealth and many other options of philosophy.  They equally did not like the communalism of the Moists who believed that war should be abolished and, like in Plato’s ideal republic, all property and family shared in common, likely because the Han were trying to hold down a prosperous and diverse empire.  We will study Moism in the weeks to come, as well as the School of Names, also called the Logicians or the Sophists (both ancient Greek terms for debaters).  We will spend more time with Confucianism and Daoism, however, as they along with Buddhism became the primary three systems of thought in Chinese culture.

Beijing, Confucius TempleThe Han chose, in supporting education, scholarship and the arts, to patronize Confucianism and Daoism.  Confucianism included Confucius (550 – 480 BCE), and the two central and early Confucians, Mencius (Menzi, 370 – 290 BCE) and Xunzi (312-230 BCE).  Daoism included Laozi (600 – 500? BCE), supposed author of the Dao De Jing, and Zhuangzi (370 – 300 BCE), though these two figures would not have known themselves to be ‘Daoists’ any more than Confucius would have known his followers would go on to found the central system of Chinese thought and politics.

Six refined scholars Chinese Painting

chinese landscape lake waterfallConfucius and the Daoists proposed different solutions to the problem of self and society.  The Daoists believed that going off into nature, forgetting embedded understandings and rejecting typical human ways was best for cultivating the individual, while Confucius believed that the city, morality and study were best for cultivating human virtues.  Thus, while Confucius and the Daoists were both questioners of individual desires and judgment, the Confucians believed we should turn to civilization and cultivation to realize our true nature and the Daoists believed we should turn away from civilization and back to simplicity and the natural to realize our true nature.

5 thoughts on “Asian Philosophy 6: Chinese Thought & the Period of the Hundred Schools

  1. hye Eric, im keen from KL Motion Pictures, a production house in Malaysia. I found few of your illustrations used above, interesting to be used in our upcoming documentary called Melaka. Can you please get back to me asap regarding the copy right issue? thanks you can also reach me through whatsapp : +60176599032

    • Most of the images I use are from Wikimedia Commons, and are free use. The others are things I found online, and while I have tried to not use copyrighted material I can’t tell you as to the issues surrounding their use.

  2. The distribution of the hexagrams on the chart is really cool and logical. But Western…like I am…very curious about the fact that most of the other orderings are less mathematically symmetrical (ie. this on has ultimate yang top left (Western…ie. not top right) and logically/mathematically progressing to ultimate yin bottom right (ie. not bottom left). Music to my eyes, but the left-to-right vs. the right-to-left is not he point because it would have been as recognizably cool the other way…it’s the logic of the progression which is so awesome. I would love to know more about the origin (or derivation) of this arrangement.

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