Tuesday, November 21, 2006

It has been said numerous times that the Chinese are a practical minded people and that this is reflected in the development of their thought. While this is often said in defense of the argument that Chinese does not have speculative philosophy per se as the ancient Greeks (the inventors of the word) did, the idea that the Greeks themselves were not a pragmatic people would be a false one. Greek philosophy gave birth to speculation on the principles of nature, which in turn led to the development of a scientific tradition in the west that is very practical in nature. What many scholars do contend is that the Chinese tradition of speculative thought grew out of an attempt to bring back order in a chaotic situation that was the Warring States period in China. The Greeks too had to deal with constant war and strife among its many city states, but the philosophy of the polis was only one aspect of the development of thought, while it could be contended that the development of Chinese thought was solely concerned with establishing social order. Aristotle contended that philosophy was a leisure activity and that only the aristocrat who had the time and wherewithal could dedicate himself to the pursuit of abstract thought. Chinese thinkers, on the other hand, while mainly coming from the upper echelon of society, would think it anathema to say that thought would be borne out of leisure time. The Chinese thinker devoted himself to finding a system to bring order back to society, and would find little use in sitting around mulling on first principles unless they could lead to this end.

Thus for the Chinese, it was paramount for a thinker to advance his system to bring about these practical ends. The Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period in Chinese history was also one known their “hundred schools of thought.” The school of thought that came out of this period to become the most influential throughout Chinese history was unarguably Confucianism. The master Kung Fu Zi founded the school by refining the culture of the state of Zhou, especially in the example of the Duke of Zhou, whom he found to be the most moral of sages. Confucius wanted to bring back the morality of the Zhou as a basis for governments in his troubled times to rectify the chaos that was rampant in the Warring States Period. Lao Siguang contends, however, that it would be a mistake to consider Confucius merely a conveyor of ancient tradition. Lao Siguang write that the Zhou were a people who changed the direction of their government from a ancestor worship based system prevalent with the previous Yi people and geared it toward a more humanistic approach. It was this humanistic aspect that Confucius reflected on and tried to bring back into vogue during his times. Lao Siguang says that as the founder of a new school of Ru, Confucius brought the thought of the Zhou into maturity, disavowing other earlier schools in the process. The harkening back to the earlier sage kings Yao and Shun was something that later Confucian scholars did, but not Confucius himself. He felt that effective government could be brought about by reestablishing the principles of human relationships from the top with the king all the way down to the familial relationships that constituted the basic bonds of society. As it often is with influential thinkers, it takes a while for their ideas to take hold. Confucius was not taken seriously by the leaders of his time and he lamented his relative lack of influence to bring about his ideal society. The Qin Dynasty, though it did unite all of China for the first time in its history, was an oppressive regime that relied on the realpolitik methods of the Legalist school to carry out its brutal objectives. Consequently all other schools of thought were banned during this time, including the thought of Confucius as well as later Confucian thinkers such as Mencius and Xun Zi. It wasn’t until Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty instituted Confucianism as the state philosophy that it became the orthodox thought of the state and began its long reign over the minds of the Chinese people. Emperor Wu made Confucian ethics the basis of his empire and took it one step further by beginning a school for administrators to study the classics, which was also the beginning of the state exam system for those who wished to serve in the emperor’s court. This system has had a long-ranging influence on Chinese society and is still very much alive today.


While Confucianism has taken hold in China, that does not necessarily mean that all other schools have been eliminated along the way. Some of the other main schools during the Warring States Period included Mohism, Legalism (as mentioned above), the School of Names and probably the most famous Chinese school of thought in the west along with Confucianism: Daoism. The name Daoism as a school came into vogue during the Han Dynasty, but the seeds of the school were planted much earlier with the two main contributors being Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. While Daoism itself did not become the official state philosophy during the Han Dynasty, its influence starting from this time has nonetheless been as important on the development of Chinese thought, The modern 20th Century Chinese philosophy scholar Wing-tsit Chan states succinctly in the opening of his translation of the Dao De Jing that:

“Chinese civilization and the Chinese character would have been utterly different if the book Lao Zi had never been written. In fact, even Confucianism, the dominant system in Chinese history and thought, would not have been the same, for like Buddhism, it has not escaped Daoist influence. No one can hope to understand Chinese philosophy, religion, government, art, medicine and even cooking without a real appreciation of the profound philosophy taught in this little book.

Chan’s statement implicitly states that although Daoism has been more or less relegated to the background of the development of Chinese thought, its influence has nevertheless been just as important. Perhaps some of the central ideas of Confucianism and Daoism have to do with this arrangement. While Confucius and later Confucian thinkers advocated a “hands-on” approach to rectifying social relationships to bring about good government and the ultimate goal of “peace under the heavens,” early Daoist thinking, especially as laid out in the Dao De Jing, emphasized a more subtle approach by calling for a philosophy of “non-action.”

A closer look reveals the crux of Chan’s assessment lies in the underlying push of the Dao De Jing in the two other schools that have played a major part in Chinese thought: Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It still too long for a paragraph.

11:18 PM  

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