History of Chinese Social Philosophy (Members Only)

History of Chinese Social Philosophy

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Our digital history of Chinese social philosophy focuses mainly on Confucianism. This developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE), who regarded himself as a voice of Zhou dynasty values. His philosophy dealt with ethical behavior and the ordering of social relationships, and emphasized the primacy of personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, traditionalism, and sincerity. His Analects address the importance of ritual and ren (humaneness). Both Confucianism and Legalism synthesized the concept of meritocracy, which held that a person’s status should be determined by learning and character, rather than by ancestral pedigree, wealth, or personal connection. Confucianism became the foundational social ethos of not only China, but Korea and Japan as well (and to a lesser extent, even Vietnam).

Confucianism’s greatest rivals were Legalism and Mohism. While Confucianism became China’s dominant social and political philosophy during the Han dynasty, Legalism fell out of favor because of its association with the brutal rule of Qin Shi Huang. But it continued to influence Chinese philosophy for some time. Mohism became popular on account of its emphasis on brotherly love (in contradistinction to harsh Qin dynasty Legalism). But with the return of Confucian political orthodoxy, Mohism declined in tandem with the rise of Xuan Xue Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism. By the T’ang dynasty, some 500 years after it arrived in China, Buddhism had reinvented itself as a bedrock Chinese religious philosophy. It was dominated by the Chan sect (Zen Buddhism in Japan). Neo-Confucianism became hugely popular during the Song and Ming dynasties with its ongoing synthesis of Confucian and Chan Buddhist beliefs.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese philosophy adopted many of the tenets of Western philosophy. Anti-Qing dynasty ideologues saw Western philosophy as an alternative to the traditional Chinese philosophy that had paralyzed China’s response to the incursions of the West. The May Fourth Movement demanded the abolition of the old imperial institutions and practices. Moreover, Chinese scholars began to embrace Western ideologies such as democracy, Marxism, socialism, liberalism, republicanism, anarchism, and nationalism. They even attempted to synthesize them with traditional Chinese social philosophy. Notable examples of this are Sun Yat-Sen’s “Three Principles of the People” and Mao Zedong’s variant of Marxism–Leninism.

Although the Chinese Communist Party had grown hostile to Confucianism during the Cultural Revolution, its influence is still deeply rooted in Chinese (and East Asian) culture and ideology.

That said, here’s our assortment… please enjoy! When you’re done perusing a map, click the ⇠ back arrow link in the upper left of your screen (not the < link), and you’ll be back here. Any problems, please get in touch at [email protected].

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