Like the ancient Greece, China has served as a bedrock of ideas and philosophies in the world since time immemorial. The eminence of ideological thinkers could be traced back to the Warring States period (475–221 BC) when the East Asian country underwent so much political instability and social unrest.
During this era of great division, great Chinese philosophers like Confucius, Laozi, Li Kui, Shang Yang, Mozi, and Zou Yan among others laid the foundation of the Hundred Schools of Thought, which functioned as guiding principles of governance in some of China's political dynasties, and to some extent in governments and organizations in the 21st century.
Of the many ideologies that surfaced during the Warring Era, six of them had become the most prominent and had amassed a considerable amount of supporters. These are:
Considered as one of the most recognized and important ideologies in China's politics and culture, Confucianism operates on the belief that men are fundamentally good and teachable and that evil came from the failures of the systems under which people lived. Inspired by the teachings of Master K’ung Fu-Tzu (Latinized to Confucius) during the 551-479 BC, Confucianism focuses on human ethics and virtues to achieve a morally organized world.
“By nature men are similar; by practice, men are wide apart”- Confucius
Between 371-289 BC, Confucianism's disciple Mencius or Mengzi reinforced the ideology by affirming the philosopher’s belief that human nature is inherently good, and that men could become perfectly moral by his own will.
“If you let people follow their feelings, they will be able to do good. This is what is meant by saying that human nature is good.” -Mencius
On the other hand, another Confucian follower Xunzi (c. 300-237 BC) believed on the darker side of the ideology. He preached that man is not born good. Instead, they innately have evil tendencies, and that ethical norms had come to rectify the natural sinfulness of humanity. To be good, man needs to undergo the right training and ethical conduct. In his words,
“The nature of man is evil; what is good in him is artificial.” -Xunzi
Dubbed as Nongjia in Chinese, Agriculturalism in ancient China served as the world's first Communist and Socialist movement. As an agrarian philosophy, it advocated for utopian communism and egalitarianism.
It assumed that human society started with agriculture and that people have a natural propensity to farm. But more than its social and economic concerns, agriculturalism was also a political philosophy. The Agriculturalist believed that an ideal government is led by a benevolent king who tills the fields alongside its constituents.
Fajia or legalism is another classical Chinese philosophy that advocates strict legal control for all classes. It was inspired by philosophers Shang Yang, Li Si, and Hanfeizi, from 300 BCE to 200 BCE, who believed that order was necessary above all human ambitions. It maintained that humans are selfish creatures who had to be governed through strict enforcement of laws to achieve and preserve social order.
But more than just a belief that humans were innately evil, the Legalists expanded vileness and immorality to education. In other words, reading was considered illegal and futile activity. In 221 B.C Qin Shi Huang became the first Chinese Emperor after unifying all the Chinese States. He standardized everything, including thought. Legalism is exactly what it sounds like; do what the law says, or else. This appeals to authoritarian leaders because it forces social cohesion.
This led to the disciples of legalism during the Qin dynasty to burn all books other than those related to farming, weaving, and divination--which were considered the only productive disciplines in ancient China. Those scholars who opposed this philosophy experienced severe punishments, with some of them being buried alive.
In the words of legalist philosopher Han Fei:
“In the state of an intelligent ruler, there are no books. Instead, the laws serve as lessons.”
As a natural philosopher, Lao-Tzu (the Old Master) knew that people could live in harmony if they go beyond their selfish interests. But at a time when he felt incapable of changing people’s incorrigible greediness and corruption, he decided to go into exile. Before that, however, gatekeeper Yin Hsi successfully convinced Lao-Tzu to write a book which then marked the beginning of Taoism.
Taoism, as a philosophy, teaches humanity to adhere to the rhythm of the natural and the supernatural world, to follow the Way (tao) of the universe, and to live in harmony. In governance, Taoism advocates inaction or avoiding excessive interference.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them-- that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever they like.” – Lao Tzu
(Also read our seperate guide to Taoism)
Comprised of a diverse group of thinkers who are known as masters in paradoxes and linguistics, Logicians belonging to the School of Names (ming jia) were likened to the ancient Greek sophists and dialecticians. That is to say, they made a living by their use of rhetoric and wordplay.
Ancient Chinese dictum of the White-Horse Dialogue: “A white horse is not a horse” represented logicians’ use of names and language to solve semantic paradoxes. Although the dictum is sometimes considered nonsense, it is also subject to many interpretations today.
The followers of Mozi who built Mohism during the 5th century embraced the value of love without distinctions (Jian Ai - or universal love). It asserted that men do not lack love. Rather, they are mostly partial in compassion which has become an indispensable source of humanity's downfall.
“Universal love is really the way of the sage-kings. It is what gives peace to the rulers and sustenance to the people.” --Mozi
This ran contrary to Confucius' teachings of love and piety which were primarily within the limits of family members.
Furthermore, contrary to Confucius, Mozi valued frugality and denounced rites ceremonies which were inherent in Confucianism’s practices.
During their heydays, Mohists established a highly structured political organisation that attempted to materialise the teachings of Mozi. The political structure led a by a juzi, had a network of local units in all the major kingdoms of China, comprised of both the scholarly and working classes. All the units also adopted a frugal lifestyle.
Mozi lived in a time of great social turmoil, and he genuinely thought his philosophy was the cure. Ultimately though, Confucianism won out to become the greatest philosophical influence in China.
Composed of medical scholars in ancient China, the School of the Medical Skills is concerned with health and medicine. For instance, during the Han dynasty, Chinese doctors wrote books on medicines and good health. Medical ethics also came into the surface wherein anyone was discouraged from treating others without proper knowledge. Medicine, as a skill, has even started to be formally taught in schools.
The school represented by Zou Yan was based on the theories of Yin-Yang and the Five Elements. These theories interpreted the universe as complementary agents of Yin (dark, cold, female, negative) and Yang (light, hot, male, positive), together with the Five Elements (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth).
Firstly, the School of Naturalists believed that Tao or the Great Ultimate govern the universe. With this, all changes in the universe can be explained by the workings of Yin and Yang -- the two opposing principles in action -- and the progress of the Five Elements as they either produce one another or overcome one another.
In ancient Chinese history and even in popular culture, Yin-Yang and the Five Elements represent the noble qualities of humans, the movements of the stars, the workings of the body, and even the nature of historical change.
Chinese Syncretists paved the way for contemporary ideas about self, society, and government. Generally, it combines the traditions of Ruism, Mohism, Daoism, Legalism, and Yin-Yang naturalism.
Meanwhile, in a book titled Shizi, written by China's first syncretic thinker Shi Jiao during the Warring States Period, the School of Syncretism emphasized the qualities of detachment and objectivity among leaders. Rulers, according to Shi Jiao, needed to maintain self-discipline as well as delegate power transparently. In the same manner, the subjects had to match their leader’s wisdom and virtue to achieve a peaceful state.
Chinese civilization has had a profound impact on the understanding of life, human nature, politics, society, and education. The Hundred Schools of Thought that emerged during the Warring States Period serve as a witness to this rich philosophical dialogue among the greatest Asian scholars, that marked the most significant cultural and intellectual expansion in East Asia. Despite the ever-increasing number of modern knowledge and discoveries in the 21st century, it is undeniable that the Hundred Schools of Thought has left a lasting legacy all throughout the ages, today, and in the many generations to come.