Chinese philosophy has a history of several thousand years. Its origins are often traced back to the Yi Jing (the Book of Changes), an ancient compendium of divination, which introduced some of the most fundamental terms of Chinese philosophy. Its age can only be estimated, but it certainly draws from an oracular tradition that goes back to Neolithic times.
Early Shang thought was based upon a cyclic notion of time, corresponding to the seasons. This notion, which remained relevant throughout Chinese history, represents a fundamental distinction from western philosophy, in which the dominant view of time is a linear progression. During the Shang, fate could be manipulated by the great deity Shang Di (上帝; shàngd́), most frequently translated as "Lord on High". Ancestor worship was also present, as was human and animal sacrifice.
When the Shang were overthrown by the Zhou, a new political, religious and philosophical concept was introduced called the "Mandate of Heaven". This mandate was said to be taken when rulers became unworthy of their position, and provided a shrewd justification for Zhou rule. During this period, archaeological evidence points to an increase in literacy and a partial shift away from the faith placed in Shang Di, with ancestor worship becoming commonplace and a more worldly orientation coming to the fore.
In around 500 BC, after the Zhou state weakened and China moved in to the Spring and Autumn Period, the classic period of Chinese philosophy began (it is an interesting fact that this date nearly coincides with the emergence of the first Greek philosophers). This is known as the Hundred Schools of Thought (百家; bǎijiā). Of the many schools founded at this time and during the subsequent Warring States Period, the four most influential ones were Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), Mohism and Legalism. The short founder Qin Dynasty, where Legalism was the official philosophy, quashed Mohist and Confucianist schools. Legalism remained influential until the emperors of the Han Dynasty adopted Daoism and later Confucianism as official doctrine. These latter two became the determining forces of Chinese thought until the 20th century, with the introduction Buddhist philosophy (mostly during Tang Dynasty) negotiated largely through perceived similarities with Daoism.
The respective influences of Daoism and Confucianism are often described this way: "Chinese are Confucianist during the day, while they are Daoists at night". Moreover, many Chinese mandarins were government officials in the daily life and poets (or painters) in their spare time.
When the Communist Party took over power, previous schools of thought, excepting notably Legalism, were denounced as backward, but their influence on Chinese thought remains.
- Confucius, seen as the Great Master but sometimes ridiculed by Taoists
- Mencius, Confucius' follower having idealist inspiration.
- Xun Zi, another Confucius' follower, closer to realism.
- Zhu Xi, founder of Neo-Confucianism
- Wang Yangming, most influential proponent of xinxue or "school of mind."
- Lao Zi, the chief of Taoist school.
- Zhuang Zi, said to be the author of the Zhuangzi.
- Lie Zi, said to be the author of the True Classic of Perfect Emptiness.
- Mozi, the founder of Mohist school.
- Han Fei, one of the theoreticians of Legalism
- Lin-chi, a great Buddhist Ch'an thinker and teacher, essentially shaped what would become one of the largest schools of Buddhism (Rinzai school of Zen)
Although the individual philosophical schools differ considerably, they nevertheless share a common vocabulary and set of concerns.
Among the terms commonly found in Chinese philosophy are:
- Tao (the Way, or one's doctrine)
- De (virtue, power)
- Li (principle)
- Qi (vital energy or material force)
- The Tai Ji (Great Heavenly Axis) forms a unity, from which two antagonistic concepts, Yin and Yang originate. The word Yin originally referred to a hillside facing away from the sun. Philosophically, it stands the gloomy, passive, female concept, whereas Yang (the hillside facing the sun) stands for the bright, active, male concept. Both concepts, though antagonistic, are also complementary and the present domination of one implies the future rise of the other, as moon's phases (this is one of the meanings of the well-known Yin-Yang figures).
Among the great controversies of Chinese philosophies are:
- The relation between matter and principle
- The method of discovering truth
- Human nature
Among the commonalties of Chinese philosophies are:
- Epistemological optimism. The belief that the big questions can be answered even if the answers are not currently known.
- The tendency not to view man as separate from nature.
- The tendency not to invoke a unified and personified supernatural power. Questions about the nature and existence of God which have profoundly influenced Western philosophy have not been important in Chinese philosophies.
- The belief that the purpose of philosophy is primarily to serve as an ethical and practical guide.
- The political focus: most scholars of the Hundred Schools were trying to convince the ruler to behave in the way they defended.