Keynotes 5

The Zhou dynasty is divided into two large periods, the Western Zhou (1045 -771 BCE) and the Eastern Zhou (770-221 BCE). In 771 BCE the Zhou moved their capital from the Chang'an (Xi'an) area further to the east to Luoyang after the king had been driven out of his capital by an uprising and the destruction of the capital by former vassals.

The Eastern Zhou saw the deterioration of unity among the feudal vassals and the emergence of separate states (from allegedly 1800 feudal units in the Western Zhou to ca. 140 states). As the Zhou dynasty disintegrated the new states contended for power in frequent warfare. The Eastern Zhou therefore is divided into the period of Spring and Autumn (Chunqiu) (770-4746/ 464BCE) with 44 states which were reduced to seven large and three small states fighting each other during the period of the Warring States (475/463-221 BCE).

Zhou states

The Birth of Chinese Philosophy

Warfare and political crises during the Warring States period inspired the flourishing of new philosophical and religious ideas (‘100 Schools’) which were competing in the attempt to develop the ideal theory and practice of ruling the realm.

In the process of reduction of feudal states the social elite of the conquered states faced a severe social declassification. Their aristocratic background did not count much in the new states.  Members of the aristocracy of the absorbed states became ‘jobless’. Instead of ruling, they now belonged to the ruled. But the centralized governments needed district and prefecture magistrates, military officials, teachers for the clan descendants, envoys and spies. These members of the class of the petty aristocracy (shi ; – the term is later used for the literati in general) often stayed at the court of a ruler as ‘guests’ (ke ) who were supported by the respective court and worked in return as political advisors, teachers, or military officials.

The distinction between the natural and the supernatural world as it exists in monotheistic religions does not exist in Chinese concepts. In China, these spheres are coherent. Cosmos is not divided into secular and non-secular parts. Therefore the distinction between philosophy and religion is not as trenchant as in Western concepts.


In Confucianism the idea of morality as the basis of society dominates. Obeisance and protective care are demanded from every individual in accordance with the 6 relationships:

Within the family:

-         father – son

-        husband – wife

-         elder brother – younger brother

Outside the family:

-         ruler – subject

-         teacher – student

-         friend – friend

These fundamental relationships determine everybody’s life and therefore deserve to be respected by everybody alike. They imply mutual dependency: father, husband, elder brother, ruler, teacher and friend are obliged to support their subordinates with care and benevolence. In return son, wife, younger brother, subject, student, and friend have to demonstrate obedience to their superiors.

 The most important Confucian philosophers were:

 1.  Confucius (551- 479 BCE)

Confucius who lost his father at the age of three, was brought up by his mother and supportive relatives. He gained a low ranking official position as a supervisor of a grainstorage. But soon he lost interest in this ‘job’ in the state of Lu in Shandong. He decided to create a career for himself as an advisor and teacher. Students paid him with money and food etc.


His teachings were collected and written down by his disciples (of which 72 are known to us) between 465 and 450 BCE in The Analects (Lunyu). He based his teachings on his knowledge of antiquity and explained that he did not create a new teaching but transmitted the wisdom of the Zhou rulers, whom he idealized as sage kings.  Their style of government could serve contemporary rulers as a valuable model. He was neither a revolutionary nor very innovative.

Since he did not distinguish between politics and ethics his aim was to convince the rulers of the states in which he worked as an advisor to end the terrible warfare and restore a civil benevolent rule in the style of the first Zhou kings. But different from Zhou times he was convinced that everybody was obliged to cultivate his mind, and that the knowledge required to achieve this aim had to be transmitted in education.

In addition he stressed the importance of ritual: developing one’s humaneness in order to become a gentleman (junzi) was the essential task. Ritual was not empty action, but a way to control one’s sentiments and understand and respect the feelings and thoughts of others. Even when one could not understand the Way (dao) yet, one could approach insight by practicing correct behavior. Confucius developed a code of manners that prescribed how one should behave to one another in the family, in public, how marriages and funerals had to be handled. He discussed matters of politics and stressed the importance that the ruler should act as a virtuous leader who has no need to rely on punishment in his rule but remained unmoved and ‘objective’ in his judgment at all times.


2.     Mencius (370-290 BCE): Educated by his mother, he is said to have been committed to learning from an early age on. His teachings were based on the principle was that the nature of man is good at birth and that this quality needs to be retained through learning.

Mencius' teaching also included the idea that if a ruler is bad and cruel he may be dethroned and even killed.

His comments on the death penalty are famous. When punishing a culprit the ruler should ask the people whether he deserves to be punished with the death penalty. Only when the people agree can the ruler proceed.


3.     Xunzi (ca. 305-235 BCE/ 298-238 BCE): In contrary to Mencius, Xunzi was convinced that the nature of man is bad and that only education and strict laws can regulate people’s lives. Anything good in his behavior is therefore acquired though education. Other than Confucius he thought that heaven is amoral and does not prescribe any laws. The responsibility for one’s actions remain with every individual.


A critic of Confucius was Mozi (480?-400?). Though he accepted the superiority of the sage kings as taught by Confucius, he stressed that family bonds outside of the nucleus-family were too important in Confucius' concept. In order to avoid any kind of nepotism and selfishness he developed the concept of ‘universal love’ (jian’ai), better translated as ‘impartial caring’ (Valerie Hansen).

Mozi's idea of impartial caring and even self-sacrifice was intended to create peace on all levels of society as well as between states. The way to achieve impartial caring was the abolition of hereditary power and the prevention of a waste of natural and labor-related resources. The distribution of the necessities for life among all members of society was more important to him than the possibility for consumption of a few. Therefore he attacked the Confucians for their support of elaborate ritual ceremonies and celebrations. Music and art as they are involved in state ritual but also in family ceremonies such as weddings and funerals were regarded as superfluous luxury.

The morality of the state as it should show in a well-ordered state would invoke positive response from Heaven. The followers of Mozi also associated sacred powers with certain locations such as mountains and valleys. Shrines devoted to the veneration of guardian spirits of these locations were maintained and cared for by Mohists. When Mohism as a philosophical system disappeared from social practices the shrines remained and were eventually adopted by religious Daoism.


While Confucians were preoccupied with the idea of harmonizing society through political (and judicial) order and stressed the importance of education Daoists taught that education inhibits a life in harmony with nature. Acquired knowledge creates greed: the craving for power and superiority.

Instead of craving for power or even engaging in warfare a wise person should live in harmony with the Way by allowing things to follow their natural cause. Retaining original simplicity, practicing non-interference and spontaneity will keep one’s integrity, taking action will destroy it.

The most important Daoist philosophers were:

1.     Laozi (4th cent. BCE), who was born in the state of Chu


No education and no consistent study of books or travel from teacher to teacher were necessary to achieve integrity and harmony according to the Daoist philosophers. Knowledge corrupts the peace of mind, casts doubt and fosters opposition. To follow one's intuition was seen as the ideal method of following The Way (Dao).

The most important text of Daoism is a book of merely 81 chapters, said to be authored by Laozi, but in fact recorded only in the third century BCE, the Dao De Jing, Classic of [Following] the Way and Virtue.

Bamboo slips were the writing medium before the invention of paper.

Laozi and Confucius playing chess.

Laozi meets the guardian of the pass who requests form Laozi that he records his teachings before leaving beyond the pass.

2.     Zhuangzi (d. ca. 329 BCE), from the state of Song, which was incorporated by the state of Chu

Freedom from desire of any kind makes learning obsolete; knowledge is accompanied by competition, competition by greed. Cultivation of the mind should concentrate on individually achieving peace and tranquility of the mind.

Zhuangzi's butterfly dream 

Daoism is related by some scholars to the shamanism prevalent at the Shang court and the previous Xia kingdom. One od the first shamans was the Great Yu, a legendary ruler who is credited to have channeled the floods by selflessly working day and night until the currents of rivers followed their destined course. Yu was able to change himself into a bear and could also travel to the stars to achieve advice from celestial spirits. These capabilities are associated with shamanism. In addition to travelling to the stars and transforming their shape, shamans are said to be able to travel underground to the spirits of the earth, to danceof power in which they invoke the spirits and communicate with them, usually in ecstatic trance, have revelations. They also have the power to communicate with animals, command the elements, and have a knowledge for healing including herbs and potions. In the Shang and Zhou states shamans were used as diviners and healers. They interpreted dreams, and were called to make rain. In the southeastern states of Chu, Wu, and Yue they used magicals practices and written talismans to ward off evils. Some of these shamanistic practices were taken over by religious Daoism.

Confucius (551-479 BCE) - Plato (427-347 BCE):

Philosophers of an Age of War

- both believed the leader of a good society had to be virtuous and wise
- both believed in an absolute moral truth
- both believed in the possibility of a society living in peaceful harmony
- both stressed the duties of the individual towards family and community

- both distrusted merchants because they fostered greed
- both distrusted laws because they made people devious
- both did not believe in democratic self-government

Confucius thought that man is innately good. If all relations between individuals within a community were harmonious, the entire community could live in peace, from the smallest unit, the family, to the entire state. Civilization needs humaneness, benevolence, and propriety (correct behavior) in order to function. Correct behavior according to etiquette is the way to express or convey attitudes. Education is the way to acquire wisdom and become a gentleman. Dignity will create respect, kindness and benevolence will create loyalty. Only civility can convince the people to follow a leader, human relationships (ruler - minister, father - son, husband - wife, older brother - younger brother, friend -friend) are more important than laws.
Confucius was educated in all disciplines expected from a nobleman: ritual, music, archery, charioteering, arithmetic, and calligraphy. With the foundation of this experience he emphasized self-cultivation through learning from the past and gaining knowledge through the ‘investigation of things’. Both would lead to moral order.

Plato was less trustful with regard to the innate qualities of human nature. He believed that people are easy to deceive by tyrants and greed and therefore need to be controlled. Like Confucius, he grew up during unruly times of war. In the Peloponnesian War, Athenians replaced democratic leadership through an oligarchy, the Thirty Tyrants. Democratic forces overthrew this government after Athens lost the war against Sparta. Just like Confucius the experience of changing governments and war was the impulse for Plato to search for an ideal, good government. Like Confucius who traveled while trying to find a ruler who would accept his teachings and put them into practice, Plato traveled and taught as a tutor at different places. He went to Egypt, Italy, and Sicily. Like Confucius’ teachings, Plato’s ideas are written in the form of philosophical dialogues. Plato was convinced that a harmonious society could only be created when the leaders of government with their philosopher-king at the top, had gained insight into ultimate Truth through their exceptional education, followed rational principles to rule the state and controlled or guarded the military as well as the general population that is engaged in production.

Confucius and Plato, both believed that education is the essential tool to create the ideal society. While Confucius thought everybody needs education, Plato stressed education for the class of leaders.

(Reference: Ken Wolf, Personalities and Problems. Interpretive Essays in World Civilization. New York: McGraw-Hill 2005).

The first empires of China Qin (brown & yellow) and Han (blue)