Schools of Thinkers

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The tradition was that there were a "Hundred Schools" of philosophy that grew up during the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481) of the Zhou Dynasty (1027-256 BC). Later in the Former Han Dynasty (206-25 AD), the historian Sima Qian (145-86 BC), in the Shiji "Historical Records", the first great systematic Chinese history, identified "Six Schools". This classification contains the schools of historical importance but may also artificially construct "schools" out of disparate doctrines and thinkers.

The Yin-Yang School, or the "Cosmologists", is where the theory of the fundamental opposites, yin and yang, was developed. Like the theory of the gunas in India, the theory of yin and yang was eventually adopted in all Chinese thought, and the Yin-Yang School ceased to be a separate entity (if it ever had been).

School of Names, the "Debaters" or "Sophists", contains a variety of thinkers who were concerned with issues of language, logic, and meaning. Gongsun Long (320-250 BC) was once supposed to have replied, when told that he could not travel on a certain road with his horse, that his horse was white and that because the rule mentioned horses and not white horses, it did not apply to him, "A white horse is not a horse." This leaves us in no doubt why some members of the School of Names are called "Sophists".

School of Mo Zi (479-381 BC), Mohism. Mo Zi was an early critic of Confucius. Although Confucius taught both righteousness and love, Mo Zi believed there was far too much emphasis on duty and too little on love. Mo Zi also rejected Confucius' distant attitude towards religion. That is somewhat ironic, since Confucianism actually became a religion precisely by absorbing traditional religious practices. Mo Zi advocated a kind of utilitarianism, called mutual profitableness: righteousness is that which yields profit; mutual love produces mutual profit; common good arises from loving and profiting others; god must like to see men loving and benefiting one another. Confucius might not have rejected this himself, but his references to profit are mostly disparaging and the Confucian tradition came to strongly disapprove of profit as a motive or of its pursuit as an activity. Even Mo Zi did not advocate any sort of individualistic pursuit of profit. He saw it all, like utilitarianism itself, as a matter of producing "the greatest good for the greatest number".

The Legalist School. The Legalists rejected the Taoist and Confucian ideas that government must be based on morality and that good government must foster, in one way or another, moral dispositions in the people that will then automatically make them behave well. The Legalists thought that government was simply a matter of laying down laws and then punishing people, mostly by execution, who did not obey them. This school achieved great historical significance when its views were adopted as official policy by the "First Emperor", Qin Shihuang of the Qin Dynasty (255-207 B.C.)

Taoism. The philosophical beginnings of Taoism in the Tao De Jing and the Zhuang Zi (named after Zhuang Zi, c.369-c.286 BC) later curiously led to Taoism growing into one of the three classical religions of China (the "Three Ways"), as Taoism picked up many popular, especially magical beliefs (things like Chinese geomancy, feng shui, the art of discovering auspicious positions and orientations for homes, furniture, businesses, and graves), monastic practices from Buddhism (to the disgust of Confucians), and especially a body of alchemical research whose purpose was to bring about immortality. Taoists thus worshipped a group of deities, the "Immortals", who were supposed to dwell on distant blessed islands. The idea that mercury, because it preserved bodies so well in embalming, would be part of an elixir of immortality led to many deaths, including perhaps that of Shih-huang-ti himself, from mercury poisoning.

School of the Literati, Confucianism. Confucius (551-479 BC) becomes, long after his death, the dominant Chinese philosopher both morally and politically. Mencius (Meng Zi) (390-305 BC) extended and systematized Confucius's ideas; but with Confucius's adoption in the Han Dynasty as the official moral and political doctrine of the State, the Confucian tradition became so broad that "Scholar" or "Literatus" became all but synonymous with "Confucian". And as one of the "Three Ways", together with Taoism and Buddhism, Confucianism grew into one of the traditional religions of the Han Chinese. Confucius himself had a simple moral and political teaching: to love others; to honor one's parents; to do what is right instead of what is of advantage; to practice "reciprocity"; don't do to others what you would not want yourself to; to rule by moral example instead of by force and violence. Confucius thought that a ruler who had to resort to force had already failed as a ruler. This was not a principle that Chinese rulers always obeyed, but it was the ideal of benevolent rule. During the Tang Dynasty, the canon of Confucian Classics became the basis for the great civil service examinations that henceforth provided the magistrates and bureaucrats for the Chinese government. This system is still impressive, but it was not always to good effect. The founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Zhu Yuanzhang, illiterate peasant who rose to expel the Mongols and won the throne, was suspicious of the influence of the scholars. He tried to balance the scholarly with the military establishment so that the scholars would not dominate the government. Later, when the Chinese sent Admiral Zheng He, a Moslem eunuch who started out as a war prisoner slave, on seven great naval expeditions into the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433, it was the scholars who powerfully opposed engaging in anything so lowly as trade and dealing with such uncivilized barbarians. The expeditions, indeed, visited not only Indonesia and India, but penetrated into the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and far down the east coast of Africa. The fleets were large, heavily manned, well armed, and contained, reportedly, ships of nine masts that were more than 400 feet long. But when the court faction of the scholars triumphed and ended the expeditions, they also destroyed their records and made it a capital offense to build anything larger than a two-masted ship. This crippled Chinese trade and foreign involvement; and one is left to wonder just how world history would have been different had Vasco da Gama arrived in the Indian Ocean in 1498, just 65 years later, to discover an overwhelming and technologically equal or superior Chinese naval presence. In China itself, the scholars indeed went on to dominate the government and tip the balance against the military, which left the country so unprepared that in 1644 the last Ming emperor was forced to call in Manchuria to deal with a rebellion. The Manchus took advantage of this to take over the country; and so the final Chinese Dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912), wasn't Chinese at all. This was probably not what the scholars would have wanted, but they had certainly brought it about. Curiously, the Qing adopted scholarly sensibilities and retained Ming naval and maritime policy xenophobia. This left China once again helpless when forces technologically superior to the Portuguese, especially the British, eventually arrived, irresistibly pressing for commercial access to the country. The scholars never did adapt, and the examination system was eventually abolished rather than modernized.