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Exploring Chinese History
- Philosophy -

Hundred Schools of Thought



The Hundred Schools of Thought (Chinese: 諸子百家; Pinyin: zhū zǐ bǎi jiā) was an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China that lasted from 770 to 222 BCE. Coinciding with the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, and also known as the Golden Age of Chinese thought and The Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought (百家爭鳴), the period saw the rise of many different schools of thought. Many of the great Chinese classic texts that originated during this period have had profound influences on Chinese lifestyle and social consciousness lasting to the present day. The intellectual society of this era was characterized by itinerant intellectuals, who were usually employed by various state rulers as advisers on the methods of government, war, and diplomacy.

Confucianism and Its Derivatives

Confucianism is the body of thought that has arguably had the most enduring effect on Chinese life. Also known as the School of the Scholars, its written legacy lies in the Confucian Classics, which later became the foundation of the traditional society. Confucius (551- 479 BCE), also called Kong Zi or Master Kong, looked to the early days of the Zhou dynasty for an ideal socio-political order. He believed that the only effective system of government necessitated prescribed relationships for each individual: "Let the ruler be a ruler and the subject a subject". Furthermore, he contended that a king must be virtuous in order to rule properly. To Confucius, the functions of government and social stratification were facts of life to be sustained by ethical values; thus his ideal human was the junzi (or ruler's son), which is often translated "gentleman".

Mencius (371- 289 BCE), or Meng Zi, was a Confucian disciple who made major contributions to the spread of humanism in Confucian thought, declaring that man, by nature, was inherently good. He argued that a ruler could not govern without the people's tacit consent, and that the penalty for unpopular, despotic rule was the loss of the "mandate of heaven".

The effect of the combined work of Confucius, the codifier and interpreter of a system of relationships based on ethical behavior, and Mencius, the synthesizer and developer of applied Confucian thought, was to provide traditional Chinese society with a comprehensive framework by which to order virtually every aspect of life.

There were to be accretions to the body of Confucian thought, both immediately and over the millennia, from within and outside the Confucian school. Interpretations adapted to contemporary society allowed for flexibility within Confucianism, while the fundamental system of modeled behavior from ancient texts formed its philosophical core.

Diametrically opposed to Mencius, for example, was the interpretation of Xun Zi (c. 300- 237 BCE), another Confucian follower. Xun Zi preached that man is innately selfish and evil; he asserted that goodness is attainable only through education and conduct befitting one's status. He also argued that the best form of government is one based on authoritarian control, and that ethics is irrelevant in the context of effective rule.


Xun Zi's unsentimental and authoritarian inclinations were developed into the doctrine embodied in the School of Law or Legalism. The doctrine was formulated by Han Feizi (d. 233 BCE) and Li Si (d. 208 BCE), who maintained that human nature was incorrigibly selfish; accordingly, the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline from above, and to see to a strict enforcement of laws. The Legalists exalted the state above all, seeking its prosperity and martial prowess above the welfare of the common people.
Legalism greatly influenced the philosophical basis for the imperial form of government. During the Han Dynasty, the most practical elements of Confucianism and Legalism were taken to form a sort of synthesis, marking the creation of a new form of government that would remain largely intact until the late 19th century.


The Zhou period also saw the development of Taoism (or Daoism in pinyin), the second most significant stream of Chinese thought. Its formulation is often attributed to the legendary sage Lao Zi (Old Master), who is said to predate Confucius, and Zhuang Zi (369- 286 BCE). The focus of Taoism is on the individual within the natural realm rather than the individual within society; according to Taoism, the goal of life for each individual is to seek to adjust oneself and adapt to the rhythm of the natural (and the supernatural) world, to follow the Way (tao) of the universe, to live in harmony. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian moralism, Taoism was for many of its adherents a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar on duty as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings, but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse.

School of Yin- Yang

Another strain of thought dating to the Warring States Period is the school of yin-yang and the Five Elements. Such theories attempted to explain the universe in terms of basic forces in nature: the complementary agents of yin (dark, cold, female, negative) and yang (light, hot, male, positive) and the Five Elements (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth). In its early days, these theories were most strongly associated with the states of Yan and Qi. In later periods, these epistemological theories came to hold significance in both philosophy and popular belief.


The school of Mohism was founded upon the doctrine of Mozi (also referred to as Mo Di; 470- c.391 BCE). Though the school did not survive through the Qin Dynasty, Mohism was seen as a major rival of Confucianism in the period of the Hundred Schools of Thought. Its philosophy rested on the idea of universal love: Mozi believed that "all men are equal before heaven", and that mankind should seek to imitate heaven by engaging in the practice of collective love. His epistemology can be regarded as primitive materialist empiricism; he believed that our cognition ought to be based on our perceptions our sensory experiences, such as sight and hearing instead of imagination or internal logic, elements founded on our capacity for abstraction.
Mozi advocated frugality, condemning the Confucian emphasis on ritual and music, which he denounced as extravagant. He regarded warfare as wasteful and advocated pacifism. The achievement of social goals, according to Mozi, necessitated the unity of thought and action. His political philosophy bears a resemblance to divine-rule monarchy: the population ought always to obey its leaders, as its leaders ought always to follow the will of heaven. Mohism might be argued to have elements of meritocracy: Mozi contended that rulers should appoint officials by virtue of their ability instead of their family connections. Although popular faith in Mohism had declined by the end of the Qin Dynasty, its views are said to be strongly echoed in Legalist thought.


The Logicians were a school that grew out of Mohism, with a philosophy that is said to have parallels with that of the Ancient Greek sophists or dialecticians. Notable Logicians include Gongsun Longzi.


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