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 Chinese||Pingyin Romanization||Literal / Basic Meaning|
|气||qi||Vital energy or material force|
|阴阳||Yin & Yang||Darkness and light, standing for the properties of being dark, passive, feminine, and properties of bright, active, masculine, respectively|
|太极||tai ji||Unity of the two complimentary polarities of yin-yang|
|八卦||ba gua||Eight tiagrams, signifying fundamental principles of reality, seen as a range of eight interrelated concepts|
|五行||wu xing||Five 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
2. The germination of
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).
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
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
16. The relationship between nature and human is the harmonious integration between human and nature.
17. Human in
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
19. Three conditions are basically needed for
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
22. The ethical features of
23. Ethical morality academics are the first core of
24. The positive role of
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
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
27.The vitality of
28. Agglomeration of
29. Assimilation and synchronization of
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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