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China Philosophy

Chinese philosophy is the gene of Chinese ancient culture. Much of Chinese philosophical tradition originates in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods (770~221 BC), known as the era of “Hundred Schools of Thought”, when significant intellectual development saw the births of major branches of Chinese philosophy: Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, Mohism, etc. Buddhism, as both a religion and a system of philosophy, was to be imported from India a few centuries later, but soon exerted profound impact on, and was successfully accommodated into, Chinese philosophy and culture.

Confucianism, then relatively conservative of these schools of thought, was molded and adopted by the ruling Han Dynasty as the national ideology, and has since then remained the most prevailing through successive dynasties. Yet challenges from Taoism and Buddhism were constant. And Neo-Confucianism was developed by Song Dynasty scholars represented by Zhu Xi after borrowing inspirations from Buddhism.

Despite numerous differences, the various schools of Chinese philosophy have shared a common general cultural context. The following table is a list (by no means exhaustive) of a few concepts that are keys to understanding Chinese philosophy.



Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy

Concept in ChinesePingyin RomanizationLiteral / Basic Meaning
daothe Way
deVirtue, power
qiVital energy or material force
阴阳Yin & YangDarkness and light, standing for the properties of being dark, passive, feminine, and properties of bright, active, masculine, respectively
太极tai jiUnity of the two complimentary polarities of yin-yang
八卦ba guaEight tiagrams, signifying fundamental principles of reality, seen as a range of eight interrelated concepts
五行wu xingFive elements or Five Phases: wood, fire, earth, metal, water, describing interactions and relationships between phenomena



Distinctive Characteristics of Chinese Philosophical System

1. Oneness of mankind and the natural world. The Chinese traditional conception of tian ren he yi (天人合一, meaning harmony between human and nature) is the one of the defining characters of Chinese philosophy, and cherished by all schools of thought.

2. Coexistence and interchange between various contending schools of thought. Even when a particular school is proclaimed the official dominant ideology, other schools were not banned. Ideas were shared between, and incorporated by, each other.

3. Absence of a monotheistic deity or “Creator”. The Chinese seem to be not so interested in the genesis of nature, but treat everything “as it is”. 自然 ziran, the Chinese counterpart of “nature”, literally means “self-soing”, implying a spontaneity rather than a process of creation.

4. Pre-occupation with earthly, ethical, and political concerns. Though ancient Chinese philosopher did argue over cosmological, metaphysical issues such as the source or origin of things, the ultimate purpose points to such concerns as how society should be organized, how one should behave and act, etc. This partly contributes to impression of “utilitarianism of Chinese culture” on the part of Westerners.

5. Supremacy of philosophy over theology and religion. Unlike in the West where philosophy used to be a “maidservant” to theology, the ancient Chinese let philosophy play the role of religion. As Confucius says, “How can one know about death before he knows clearly about life?” This coincides with the power relationship in ancient China between monarchy and theocracy, in which religions were subject to the earthly regime.

6. Full of dialectical ways of thinking. The Chinese, particularly the Taoists and the Buddhists, would conceive everything as composed of contradictions (two innate opposing and interacting forces that lead to change of its nature), in an ever-changing rather than fixed context. The concepts of yin-yang dichotomy and interchange between five elements are just two examples of this mode of thinking.




Summarized Points on Chinese Philosophy


1. China’s philosophy plays an important role in China’s culture system. In the western culture, religion plays the dominant part, while in China; the religionary function is mainly replaced by philosophy.  


2. The germination of China’s traditional philosophy revealed in the period of Shang and Zhou Dynasties. In the early period of Western Zhou Dynasty, the five-element theory appeared, and in this theory, metal, wood, water, fire and earth were considered as the five basic elements to form this world. 



3. Zhouyi is a divination book. This book is the integration of original religion, original philosophy and social custom at that time. The natural phenomena and social relations were both shown in the Eight Diagrams---an extremely mysterious book in the field of immortality and auspiciousness prediction.  



4. The Eight Diagrams means: Qian( heaven ), Kun( earth ), Kan(water), Li( fire ), Gen( mountain or hill), Dui(swamp), Zhen(thundering), Xun(wind).


Chu HsiConfucius Questioned Laozi about what is rite and morality the center of China in ancient times

Zhu Xi was the great confucian master after Mencius and Confucius

Confucius learnt face-to-face from Lao Zi, who was the founder of Taoism

Forbidden City was the symbol of Chinese ancient architectural techniques and the best place to see the influence of Feng Shui Theory


5. Four thought resources and thought traditions: original Confucianism, original Taoism and Chinese-style Buddhism as well as Neo-Confucianism of Song and Ming dynasties.


6. The Five Classics mean: Classic of Changes, Classic of Poetry, Classic of Rites, Classic of Books and Spring and Autumn Annals.


7. The four Books mean: Great Learning, Doctrine of the Means, Analects of Confucius and the Mencius.  



8. The essence of original Confucianism: the root spirit of creation, the root sensation to human and universe, and the spirit of the means shown in sky-high sagaciousness, namely expressing the greatness in commonness and showing ideality in reality.  


9. The essence of Confucianism is benevolence. Benevolence is the root to be a human.  



10. The conception of Taoism: Tao is an ultimate and realistic conception. Tao is the Tao, but not a common one. The things are things but not the average ones.



11. The localized Buddhism was generally divided into three parts, namely, Taintai Branch, Huayan Branch, and Zen Branch.  



12. The Neo-Confucianism in Song and Ming Dynasties is the new integration between three resources of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The body of this theory is Confucianism, mixed with Taoism and Confucianism and eventually formed the Qi theory and moral metaphysics system centralized with Heart and nature. 



13. Zhuxi was the greatest master of the Neo-Confucianism in Song and Ming Dynasties, and he thought of reason (Li) was the essential regulations of human.             



14. Wang Yangming was the greatest master of heart study of the Neo-Confucianism in Song and Ming Dynasties. The integration of understanding and practice was a characteristic study. 



 15. The universe of China’s philosophy means the infinite time and space as well as all they include.


16. The relationship between nature and human is the harmonious integration between human and nature. 


17. Human in China’s philosophical system was considered as the most-important element among the heaven, earth and human. 


18. Feeling theory is another characteristic of Chinese people’s life philosophy. Such a theory is a spiritual condition of the extreme pursuit for ideal selfhood in China’s philosophy. 


19. Three conditions are basically needed for China’s philosophical formation: Semi-enclosed areas of the mainland, agricultural economic structure and authoritarian and patriarchal social structure. The existence system and relative ethic-style traditional culture of China are both appeared along with. 


20. Morality culture means Chinese culture emphasizes the importance of morality in personal cultivation and social improvement. While in the western community, it emphasizes the intelligence lying on the western religion and philosophy. 

21. The ethical characteristics of China’s Culture are expressed: the ethical view-point was thoroughly extended towards the universe.



22. The ethical features of China’s culture mainly originated from the perfection of China’s ancient social patriarchal clan system and influence, as well as the long-standing impact. 


23. Ethical morality academics are the first core of China’s learning and study.


24. The positive role of China’s ethical culture is to highlight the equality among people in morality and encourage the people to take more notice of the moral cultivation. 


25. Mencius thought that each man could be sage like the ancient saints and Wang Yangming considered the commoners could be sage through self-cultivation.  



26. The general features of China’s culture are ethical style. Besides there are also more like below: powerful vitality and utility, sense of pragmaticism and stability from agricultural culture, collectivistic culture of patriarchal clan system, the political culture harmonized with respecting lord and emphasizing people, breakaway from life faith of divinity arbitrariness, academic liability of paying more attention to interpersonal relationships and neglecting the nature, and the five classics are enjoying the top priority in the cultural region. 


Emperor Zhou Wenwang, the inventer of the Eight DiagramsMenciusWang Yangming

 Zhou Wenwang was said to be another founder of Confucianism

Mencius  was the most influential confucian master inferior to Confucius

Wang Yangming was the greatest master of Neo- Confucianism




The vitality of China’s culture expressed in its assimilation, amalgamation, continuity and coherence. The nationalization of Buddhism is the typical example to show this essence. Meanwhile, China’s culture is based on Han culture and absorbs the cultures of other ethnics  



28. Agglomeration of China’s culture specifically releases in self-identity and boundary-crossing adscription sensation.  


29. Assimilation and synchronization of China’s culture are based on its incomparable life continuity. 


30. China’s culture strictly is an agricultural culture. The dominant and ruling power of whole cultural material basis is the agriculture operating on economic track.  


31. Mencius think that there are four ends for benevolence: heart of compassion, heart of shaming and badness, heart of self-effacement and heart of right and wrong, and four moral characters are formed, that is benevolence, politeness, righteousness and cuteness.         











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