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The Philosophers


The most influential philosopher of the period was K'ung-fu-tzu or Confucius. In essence, Confucius called for a restoration of early Chou institutions for he felt that the rulers of that period had created an ideal society through the example of great personal virtue. He therefore attempted to create a class of virtuous gentlemen who could take over high positions of government. The doctrines of Taoism were also set down in this Period of the Warring States, and legalism, a third school of political thought also developed.

Confucius developed his philosophy at a time when the Chou dynasty (c.1027-256 BC) was in decline. States had developed and gained autonomy within the Chou realm and were constantly at war in Confucius' time. It was a time of political anarchy and social change. Confucius believed that the solution to this anarchy was to restore society to its state during the early Chou period. He believed personal virtue was the factor which would bring harmony to the entire hierarchical social structure. Confucius' later disciple, Hsun Tzu, brought education to the forefront with his belief that by studying the classics and the rules of propriety man could acquire the virtue necessary for the social order.

During the same period another great philosophy, Taoism, developed. Based on the teachings of Lao-Tzu, Taoist thought was opposed to the Confucian desire for a hierarchical society and strong central government. Taoism taught that harmony will be restored to society once people follow the Way of Nature. Government involvement in society should be minimal and communities should be simple and agrarian in nature.

The state of Ch'in was guided by legalism, a philosophy developed by Hsun Tzu and two disciples. Legalism was based upon the belief that human nature was evil and that strict controls were necessary to create a strong, prosperous state. This philosophy was instrumental to the rise of the Ch'in state and its establishment of the first imperial dynasty of China. This period of extreme government control meant that projects such as the building of the Great Wall could accomplished, but oppressive rule drove the populace to rebellion.

In 206 BC a rebel leader founded the Han dynasty. Confucian Philosophers of the Han dynasty expanded on the original teachings in order to provide the government with a more encompassing philosophy. In the second and third centuries, social and economic conditions brought the downfall of the Han empire. Taoism and Buddhism, which filtered into China from India between the 1st and 6th centuries, came to be the dominant philosophies.

The T'ang dynasty (618-907) was a period during which the various religions and philosophical systems coexisted. However, Confucianism was most suited to the needs of a huge empire and it soon regained dominance.

After the period of the Five Dynasties, reunion under the Sung dynasty (906-1274) brought the revival of Confucianism to a new level. Neo-Confucianism developed three schools of thought: the School of Principle, the School of Mind, and the School of Practical Learning. In the 14th century, the doctrines of the School of Principle were adopted for the imperial civil-service examinations, which remained the same until 1905.

Developments within the School of Mind brought its philosophy closer to Zen Buddhism with its characteristic meditation as the means to achieve enlightenment. This trend was associated with the weakening of government during the late Ming period. During the early Ch'ing or Manchu dynasty Confucian scholars returned to the study of the classical texts in an attempt to determine the true doctrines of Confucianism.

During the Sung dynasty, government became centralized, literature and the arts flourished and philosophy continued to develop. In the 12th century, military weakness resulted in the relocation of the Sung empire to the south, where the people experienced economic and cultural prosperity until the invasion of Genghis Khan. During the early Ch'ing or Manchu dynasty, Confucian scholars returned to the study of the classical texts in an attempt to determine the true doctrines of Confucianism.

In the 19th century, Confucianism was unable to meet the needs of Chinese society. It could not account for the impact of Western contact or allow for modernization. At the end of the 19th century, attempts were made to modernize Confucian philosophy itself. Chiang Kai-shek attempted to revive Confucian ethics during the 1930s. Since the middle of the 20th century, the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of communism which has dominated Chinese society.


This page was last modified on 15 May 2003.

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