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The Philosophies That Shape China

Chinese philosophy is just as fascinating as it is mysterious, and has a profound history dating back to the origins of its civilization. Chinese philosophy isn’t just a way to understand life but is also a guiding principle and way of life. Schools of thought shape the way that governments, families, and individuals behave. With China’s rise to power, the world is now more interested than ever in the wisdom of ancient Chinese thought. 

Need a Chinese philosophy crash course? Here’s an introduction to the three most important philosophies you need to know.

Taoism

2000px-Tao.svg.png 

Some call it a religion, some call it a philosophy. Taoism is one of the fundamental philosophies native to China. In addition to the profoundly abstract yet simple principles, what is perhaps mystifying is that there is no clear and definite record of how it all began. The earliest written record of the history of Taoism is believed to have been recorded by historian Sima Tan in the Record of the Historian written in 2nd century BC, and Lao Zi is regarded as the founder of Taoism.

A classic text that has fascinated the world is the Daodejing, by Lao Zi. You could read the text in an afternoon, and spend the rest of your life trying to understand it. 

A few of the fundamental concepts are:

  • Dao (Tao) is the way in which things come together while still transforming. Change is the most basic character of things. 

  • Wu-wei is core concept and a notion that is often misunderstood as “doing nothing,” which is the literal translation. However, it’s more along the lines of “non-willful action,” acting naturally and effortlessly, rather than complete passivity. The idea is that human interference, in reality, is unnecessary.  

  • Correlatives are not opposites that mutually exclude one another. Instead, they are seen as the ebb and flow of the forces of reality (e.g. yin/yang, male/female, active/passive).  For example, when one has reached success, defeat could be not too far around the corner.

Confucianism

 confucius_sculpture-_nanjing.jpg

Image: Wikimedia

Confucianism has a much more visible influence on Chinese culture, and its impact has reached far beyond its borders, spreading to Korea, Japan, and other Asian countries. It is a system of moral, social, and political thought that still has great prominence even in modern China.

Confucianism is about as old as Taoism, and Confucius (Kong Zi) being the revered founder. Commonly known Chinese beliefs such as filial piety and respect for law and order are rooted deeply in Confucianism.

The key concepts in this philosophy are:

  • Li (ritual propriety) - Li in itself is not the main goal, but it is a highly valuable tool to achieve harmony and order in life. There are three aspects that are emphasized - aesthetic, moral, and social.  The execution of etiquette serves to regulate and uphold order.

  • Ren (benevolence) - Confucianism holds the belief that humans are innately virtuous and benevolent by birth, and that good-heartedness is the virtue of all virtues. Acting with Ren is the top priority when it comes to relationships with self and others.

Buddhism

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Image Credit: Pixabay

Buddhism may not be native to China, but it has certainly been one of the fundamental philosophies and the main religion that has shaped Chinese society, even today. Buddhism originated around 5th century BC and was brought to China by Indian missionaries.

Buddhism flourished from the Han to the Tang Dynasty and by then, various schools of Buddhism had been formed in China, each with its own particular focus.

The essence of Buddhist belief can be found in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. 

The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Suffering exists

  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires

  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases

  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path  

The Eightfold Path is a guide towards the liberation of suffering.

  1. Right View, to gain insight into the true nature of reality

  2. Right Intention

  3. Right Speech

  4. Right Action

  5. Right Livelihood

  6. Right Effort

  7. Right Mindfulness (body-mind awareness)

  8. Right Concentration (e.g. meditation)

A visit to a Buddhist temple in China today is a highly enjoyable affair, as one can witness the blending of Buddhism with Taoist other Chinese cultural elements. For example, one would often come across devotees praying to Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy and a Chinese interpretation of Avalokiteśvara, a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. There are even several temples in the country and in other East Asian countries that are dedicated to Guanyin.

Guanyin_00.jpg

Image Credit: Wikimedia

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About the author

Tilda is a happy sufferer of chronic wanderlust. When she isn't spending a disproportionate amount of time Googling about places and cultures, she's writing, dancing, and navigating a massive career change. She shares stories and photography on Wanderful People, and shares her coffee with no one.

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