All of Chinese thinking is a series of commentaries on Confucius. There is effectively no sort of pre-Confucian philosophic tradition. Confucius is an interpreter and transmitter of past grand institutions, namely, the idealized Zhou rituals and customs which Confucius thought to be the key to social stability. Also Confucius’ thinking came to ground the tradition of Chinese culture for practically its entire intellectual tradition - from the early phases of the Han dynasty in the second century bc to arguably the present day in a decidedly Chinese form of Marxism.
Some basic assumptions of Confucius:
The Master said: ‘Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, will order themselves harmoniously.’
First, Confucius believed in the radical malleability of the nascent human being through education and cultivation. Becoming human is a cultural achievement. Second, the formal instrument for self-articulation is li - ritual practices which include everything from etiquette to social roles and institutions to the rites of life and death. ‘Becoming a quality person’ (ren), where the character which represents this accomplishment is constituted by ‘person’ and the numeral, ‘two’, suggesting its fundamentally social nature. The promise of communal approbation thus is an important encouragement for proper conduct.
Overcoming selfishness is not designed to be altruistic in some extreme sense. The premise here is that selfishness is the greatest obstacle to the realization of one’s social self. Since personal, familial, communal, political and even cosmic order are all coterminous and mutually entailing, commitment to community, far from being self-abnegating, is the road to personal fulfillment.
Virtue (de) is achieved by members of the community empowers them as likely models of propriety for succeeding generations. The authority of community so constructed is internal to it, and the community is self-regulating. In the West, exemplary persons are not typically thought to be ends in themselves, but here the sage Kings Yao and Shun, the Duke of Zhou – and Confucius himself – are self-realized individuals who serve as models.
The notion of propriety or ‘rightness’ (yi) in a Confucian society, since it applies always within a social context, must involve notions of ‘harmony’. Confucian ritualization (li) is not the imposition of external guides to conduct; it is not a purveying of trite moral truisms; but is a founder of a social order which is dependent upon the sort of balanced complexity associated with aesthetic creations.
Daoism is a complex movement in early China (see Daoist philosophy). A proto-Daoist religious sensibility seems to have been a stratum of Chinese popular culture centuries before the emergence of ‘religious Daoism’ as a formal iconoclastic movement in the second century ad. During the late Warring States period, Daoism developed a sublimated and sophisticated intellectual dimension as a response to rival traditions of thought. Because this school of political and philosophical anarchism was articulated in two primary compilations, the Daodejing (or Laozi) and the Zhuangzi, it came to be known as ‘Lao–Zhuang’ Daoism
The central message of this school is captured by the title of the Daodejing – literally, ‘the classic of dao and de’. In fact, the name ‘dao-ism’ itself is an abbreviation of the earliest designation of this tradition as ‘dao-de-ism’, reflecting the core question asked by that tradition: what is the relationship between dao and de? What constitutes excellence (de) and how does one achieve it within one’s particular place (de) in the world (dao)? Since one’s ‘place’ is both spatial and temporal, de is the excellence achieved as one treads one’s ‘pathway’ (or dao) through life.
The Daoists insist that the relational definition of humanity be extended to encompass the world more broadly. The cadence and flow of all of nature’s complex orders. To ignore the responsibility of humanity to participate fully in the harmony of our non-human surroundings leads inevitably to the distortion of our natural impulses by the imposition of often ossified conventions and institutions on the intuitive ground of human experience.
‘The myriad things shoulder yin and embrace yang and blend their energies (qi) together to constitute a harmony (he)’. The ‘myriad things’ denotes the natural world as a complex of unique and particular thing-events (de).
The intelligible patterns created by the many different things which collaborate to constitute the world are all pathways or daos reflexive in that there is no final distinction between an independent source of order and that which it orders. Dao is, at any given time and place, both what the world is and how it is. Any particular event or phenomenon can be understood by mapping out the conditions which collaborate to sponsor it. Once broadly understood, these same conditions can be manipulated therapeutically to anticipate the next moment, and to prescribe for it.
The Daodejing is primarily a political treatise. It is by bringing this anarchic and ecological sensibility to the operations of human governance that government in its relationship to community can become wuwei, free of any coercive activity and free to orchestrate the full talents of its constituent population.
The Zhuangzi is one of the richest and most celebrated pieces of philosophical literature. It uses a collage of anecdotes, parables, provocative images and other such rhetorical tropes and strategies to defend creativity as a fundamental value. A somewhat “anarchic” understanding of order in the world lies in overcoming any fear of personal injury or death by recognizing the discernible regularity and continuity in the world.
Daoism, like Confucianism, becomes porous and eclectic as it enters the Han dynasty, and serves as a freewheeling counterpoint to the Confucian state ideology throughout the two millennia of Imperial China. In the Huainanzi, an early Han compendium of knowledge representative of this syncretic turn, Daoism serves as a primary ore, being alloyed with the concerns and perspectives of competing schools to produce a more malleable and practical amalgam.
There were also ‘Huang–Lao’ Daoists in late Qin and Eastern Han dynasties who[U2] combined the seemingly incompatible bureaucratic and technocratic designs associated with the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) with Daoistic sensibilities as a strategy for participating effectively in the political order. These thinkers coupled the institutional structures and institutions of centralized government with Daoist notions of sagely government to constitute a kind of instrumental Daoism.
The esthetic concerns which pervade Daoism continued to have an important influence through painting, calligraphy, poetry, ceramics and so on. The vocabulary of Daoism was also instrumental in transforming imported Mahāyāna Buddhism from an exotic religion into a source of spiritual growth with largely indigenous aspirations.
In the approximately one hundred years intervening between the death of Confucius in 481 bc and the birth of his most influential disciple, Mencius, in circa 380 bc, a complex variety of philosophical schools developed - the ‘Hundred Schools’.
The period of the conflicting schools began when Mo Di, the founder of Mohism, called Confucian ideas into question. Mohist thinking, generally characterized as a kind of utilitarianism, constituted a significant challenge to the ritually grounded traditionalism of Confucius (see Mohist philosophy; Mozi; Logic in China). Legalism, associated with Shang Yang (d. 338 bc) and Han Feizi, differed from both Confucianism and Mohism by beginning its social thinking not with the people but with positive laws and sanctions presumed to be external devices necessary to bring order to the turmoil of its day. With the Legalists came a theory of rational political order. During the succeeding centuries leading up to the founding of the Han dynasty, a plethora of alternative schools emerged and court-sponsored academies were established in different parts of the empire reminiscent of the great academies of classical Greece. There were fierce debates among the Confucians, Daoists, Mohists, Sophists and Yangists (and many others) concerning the goodness or evil or neutrality of human nature. Thinkers such as Zhuangzi, Sophists such as Hui Shi and Gongsun Longzi and the later Mohist logicians began to argue about the meaning of argument itself, and to worry over standards of evidence. Mohism and the School of Names developed a complex and technical vocabulary for disputation, and puzzled over the linguistic paradoxes which advertise the limits of language.
One of the most puzzling questions in Chinese intellectual history is why the rational and proto-scientific activities illustrated by the disputations of the late fourth and third centuries bc had virtually vanished by the early years of the Han dynasty. Perhaps the most plausible explanation for this phenomenon is one best couched in terms of the sociology of knowledge. As noted above in our discussions on the transmission of knowledge in China, the civilizing process in China was not one of urbanization as in the West, where the very word ‘civilization’ means ‘citification’. Politics was explicitly concerned with the polis, and thus had to confront the complex patterns of trade and commerce associated with interactions among diverse languages and ethnicities, along with the growth of a plurality of institutions – banks, universities, trading companies – each with its own ideological axe to grind. Politics then became the art of compromise applied essentially to pluralistic urban centers. But the bare bones logical propositions, bereft of subjective forms of feeling, cannot be ‘true’ for Chinese people. This logical tools threaten the community of affect which guarantees social harmony.
Incipient rationalism of Xunzi: nominalist stances and thus importance of logical necessity (bi). “Bi” is invulnerable to time. But there is no metaphysical, linguistic or behaviourial determinant in the ideas of Xunzi. Rationality for him is formed dialectically amid cultural, social and natural forces. ‘Reasoning’ (li) and historical analogy are inseparable for him.
Xunzi’s nominalism is a tropic, not a metaphysical device quite similar to the sophistic nominalisms of the early Greek rhetoricians.