Chinese Philosophy

Chinese Landscape painting

The Pinyin & Wade-Giles 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.

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.

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