Beginning in the Eastern Zhou dynasty (ca. 1071‒ 221 BCE) was the development of the so-called ‘hundred schools’ of philosophy, a creative flowering of genius that laid the foundations for all major schools of Chinese thought with the exception of Buddhism. At this time, philosophers began to travel around from court to court offering advice on everything from how to run the state, how to achieve victory in battle and how to achieve immortality. The most famous systems of thought to develop during this time were Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, and Legalism.
Founded by Kong Fu Zi (ca. 551‒ 479 BCE), known in the west as Confucius. Confucius concerned himself with how society should be governed, what constitutes an ideal ruler, and how people should behave by cultivating virtue. He stressed the importance of relationships, using the family as a model, where individuals obeyed their elders from one’s father and elder brothers up to the head of state. Rather than controlling people through harsh laws or coercion, Confucius stressed education as the vital tool in developing appropriate behavior that would result in an orderly, virtuous society. It is not known how many of Confucius’ ideas can be attributed to him, however Confucianism became the dominant state ideology, with some exceptions, for most of the later dynasties that ruled China up until the last century.
Meng Zi (Mencius) (371‒ 289 BCE) was the most famous follower of Confucius, who upheld the master’s ideals against the competing philosophies listed below. He emphasized benevolence and the important concept of filial piety, and is also known for the idea that people have a right to rebel against tyrannical rulers.
Based on two classic texts, the Tao Te Jing and Zhuang Zi, the first attributed to the sage Lao Zi, whose existence and dates are uncertain; the second written by Zhuang Zi (ca. 369‒286 BCE) The Taoist texts are difficult to decipher because they are written in poems and parables. Taoists deemphasized ambition and greed, seeing these very human tendencies as ultimately leading to oppression. Instead, they advocated non-action and non-interference in the affairs of the world, by following the way of nature. Taoism was to have a profound influence on many aspects of Chinese arts and culture.
Founded by Mo Zi (ca. 470‒391 BCE). Initially a follower of Confucious, Mo Zi rejected selective love based on the family, preaching universal or brotherly love, where everyone is treated equally with the same sense of obligation extended to the family. Similarly, rulers should treat enemies as if they were his own kin, and not wage war. Mohists emphasized engineering and other practical arts, and deemphasized music and ritual.
Legalism assumed that humans are basically greedy and selfish and therefore need to be ruled with a strong hand. The ruler’s job was to promote a set of harsh laws, to provide a system of rewards and punishments, so that everyone would work hard in the interests of the state, and refrain from wasteful discourse. Legalism was adopted by the First Emperor (Qin dynasty) under the direction of the chief minister Shang Yang. Legalism was also promoted by Han Fei Zi, a member of the ruling family during the Han dynasty (206 BCE‒220 CE).