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date: 05 July 2022

Chinese Philosophy

Abstract and Keywords

The history of Chinese philosophical thinking is described here. The concepts developed in Chinese philosophical thinking are then outlined, concepts such as heaven, virtue, the Way, the unavoidable, vital force, yin and yang, centrality, and harmony. The importance of the Shang period is highlighted. The very important notion of dao (the appropriate way in the world) is introduced and described in detail. Chinese philosophy is characterized by a this-worldly, humanistic emphasis, this text states. Finally the history of Chinese philosophy is divided into four periods, each one detailed in turn.

Keywords: Chinese philosophical thinking, yin and yang, dao, Shang period, virtue, heaven

Chinese philosophical thinking first emerged during the Western Zhou period (ca. 1046–771 BCE), when Chinese people began to develop theoretical concepts in a quasi-systematic fashion to formulate their understanding of the world. These concepts include tian 天 (Heaven), de 德 (virtue), dao 道 (the Way), ming 命 (mandate, the unavoidable), qi 氣 (energy, vital force), yin 陰 and yang, zhong 中 (centrality, equilibrium), and he 和 (harmony). With these concepts, ancient Chinese philosophers not only developed their views of human society, nature, and the beyond, but also articulated their visions of the good life.

Some of these concepts evolved from primal religious thought of the Shang period (ca. 1600–1046 BCE). We have little record of the prior Xia dynasty (ca. 2200–1600 BCE), but the oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang dynasty provide rich material for helping us understand the world of the Shang people. The Shang people believed in a supreme being called “Shang Di 上帝,” or “Lord on High,” as distinct from the lord on earth. The Shang Di appears to possess anthropomorphic capacities, capable of rewarding good people and punishing the bad. During the Zhou period, this notion was gradually replaced by a more encompassing notion, tian. The original meaning of tian is the highest point, usually pointing to the sky. In the discourse of Chinese philosophy, tian acquired a broad spectrum of meaning, from the highest power in the world, to the fundamental moral order, to the sky, to nature. The notion has maintained a high level of ambiguity, and its meaning varies with different philosophers. At times it is appealed to as the supreme deity; sometimes it is just the intangible grounding of morality; and at other times it is taken simply as the natural way of the world. In mainstream Chinese philosophy, tian is generally understood to be in close connection to humanity as demonstrated in the broadly embraced notion of the unity of Heaven and humanity (tian ren he yi).

(p. 10) An equally important notion is dao, the appropriate way in the world. In most contexts, dao can be understood as the natural as well as moral order of the universe. In comparison with tian, dao is a more elusive and fluid notion, even though tian can also be seen as an evolving process. The dao of tian and the dao of humanity are often seen as inseparable. Depending on the school of Chinese philosophy, dao is regarded as either self-generating or generated through human activities, or both. Although tian is full of de (virtue), the latter term is mostly reserved for human beings. De is understood as a power or attainment that enables its possessor to function appropriately and effectively in pursuing and promoting the dao. Both the Shang and the early Zhou justified their legitimacy by stressing a special relationship between the rulers and Shang Di. An important new theme emerged during the Zhou period: that tian blessed the people of Zhou because they were virtuous (de). The Tianxia chapter of the Zhuangzi calls the study and application of these fundamental concepts the “art of the dao (dao shu 道術),” stating that the sages followed a philosophy that takes tian as the root and de as the foundation. “Dao shu” is probably the ancient Chinese term closest to the Western understanding of “philosophy (love of wisdom).” If we may say that in the West philosophy is mainly understood to be a search for truth, “wisdom” in China is primarily understood as the art of dao and philosophy is mainly taken as an activity to look for the “way.” In comparison with Western philosophy, which emphasizes logical, algorithmic reasoning, Chinese philosophy is often carried out through analogical reasoning and parabolic discourse. Although logical argumentation is employed, Chinese masters tend to use heuristic methods in their teaching and help students arrive at conclusions through elicitation.

The concepts of qi, yin, and yang have played a vital role in the initial shaping and developing of Chinese thought. Qi, usually rendered as “energy” or “vital force,” is the primary stuff-force of the universe. Qi is an active force in itself and can take either tangible or intangible forms. The myriad things of the world are various forms of qi; these forms can be changed in numerous ways. Qi is eternal rather than a product of divine “creatio ex nihilo.” The yin and yang are two types of qi: the yin stands for the dark, soft, and feminine; the yang stands for the bright, firm, and masculine. They are present in everything and everywhere. The balance and healthy interaction of the yin and yang manifest the virtue of centrality or equilibrium (zhong), which leads to harmony in particular things and in the world as a whole. Harmony became a commonly shared ideal soon after it was first developed in the early Zhou period. The model of the unity between tian and humanity contains a prevailing theme of harmony. It is not unreasonable to argue that harmony is the highest ideal in Chinese philosophy. Virtually all early philosophers advocated harmony (he) as the ultimate goal of human action, even though their views of harmony sometimes differed greatly from one another.

In comparison with the philosophical traditions that developed from Greece and India, Chinese philosophy is characterized by a this-worldly, humanistic emphasis. While Chinese philosophy does not renounce the beyond, its primary concern is unmistakably this human world and this human life. This feature is (p. 11) evidenced not only in such early influential schools of thought as Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, and Legalism, but also in Chinese Buddhism, in contrast with Buddhism in India. A second important characteristic of Chinese philosophy is dynamism. Such concepts as dao, qi, and other related ideas have left a defining feature in Chinese philosophy that the world is fundamentally changing and self-renewing. Constituted with the dynamic qi, the world is never seen as a static entity. This understanding of the world as dynamic is directly connected to a third characteristic of Chinese philosophy: contextualism. The inseparable pair of the concepts yin and yang penetrates the entire universe and defines everything as correlated and connected. Because of their interdependence, things have to be understood contextually. This, of course, does not mean that Chinese philosophers cannot see things in separation; it is that their overall tendency is to see things as connected rather than distinct, and their epistemological pattern is largely holistic. Dynamism and contextualism serve as cornerstones for the broadly shared notion of harmony as a highly valued ideal. If the world evolves without a preset form and things are fundamentally correlated, it is only logical to see the world as self-conforming and to see harmony as the optimal state of affairs.

The history of Chinese philosophy can be divided into four periods. The first period is the pre-Qin period, including early developments in the Western Zhou dynasty up to the founding of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). The Zhou people's use of the Mandate of Heaven as a supernatural justification and the de as a moral justification of their overthrowing the Shang dynasty already demonstrated a sophisticated level of philosophical reasoning, which probably further stimulated and encouraged philosophical thinking. The fall of the Western Zhou dynasty led to the era known as “Spring and Autumn” (770–476 BCE) and then that of the “Warring States” (475–221 BCE). These were times when the previously established political and moral order collapsed and various streams of thought arose in response. Numerous schools of thought competed, engaging in sometimes heated debates. This period was the most creative and productive time for Chinese philosophy, laying much of the foundation for the later development of Chinese intellectual traditions. Both Confucianism and Daoism took shape during this period. Two other rival schools of thought, Mohism and Legalism, flourished during this time. The first five chapters of this section address this first period of Chinese philosophy.

The second period covers the Han (202 BCE–220 CE) through the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). During this period, Confucianism was expanded and systemized. Daoism adopted an organized religious form (dao jiao 道教) while maintaining its philosophical attraction to free-spirited intellectuals. Buddhism was introduced from India and was transformed as the Chinese made it their own. The Han royal court made Confucianism its official philosophy, relying on its teachings to maintain order in society. Gradually, however, Buddhism replaced Confucianism as the predominant philosophy in China and from China further exerted a large influence in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. During this period, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism formed a competitive and complementary relationship, and became the (p. 12) three pillars of Chinese religious and intellectual culture. Chapter 6 mainly covers this period.

The third period stretches from the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE) to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911 CE). Through the great effort of Neo-Confucian scholars, Confucianism was revived and synthesized with Buddhism and, to a lesser degree, with Daoism. This is a period when Confucianism went through a major transformation and to a large degree reclaimed its influence in China. Chapter 7, on Neo-Confucianism, focuses on this period.

The final period begins in 1912 with the demise of the Qing dynasty. In this period, Chinese philosophical traditions faced tremendous challenges. Western invasions and oppression led many Chinese thinkers to question the value and viability of their own cultural traditions. With the founding of the People's Republic of China and the relocation of the Republic of China to Taiwan in 1949, Maoist-Marxism became the official ideology in mainland China. Traditional philosophies, Confucianism in particular, were criticized. For several decades, studies of Chinese philosophy could only be found outside mainland China. This situation began to change in the 1980s. In recent decades, Chinese philosophy has been undergoing a process of self-evaluation and transformation as Chinese philosophers defend, reform, and renew their heritage. The last chapter of this section, on Contemporary Confucianism, represents this still-unfolding period.

I would like to thank Raeburne Heimbeck, Yong Huang, and the editors-in-chief of this volume for their generous assistance in the preparation of this section.

Bibliography and Suggested Readings

Chan, Wing-tsit. (1963) A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Cua, Antonio S. (ed.). (2003) Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy. New York/London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Fung, Yulan. (1948) A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. New York: The Free Press.Find this resource:

Graham, A. C. (1989) Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, IL: Open Court.Find this resource:

Ivanhoe, P. J., and Bryan Van Norden (eds.). (2006) Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (2nd ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.Find this resource:

Schwartz, Benjamin. (1985) The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Zhang, Dainian. (2002) Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy. Translated and edited by Edmund Ryden. New Haven, CT, and Beijing: Yale University Press and Foreign Languages Press.Find this resource: