Sophia on the web

A Resource Guide for Philosophy Students

Created by Jennifer Leslie Torgerson, MA

This page last modified:  September 14, 2015

© copyright, 1997 - present


School of Athens


Confucius and early Chinese Philosophy

551 – 479 BCE




Robert Audi, General Editor.  The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.  (Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 1995).


Wing-Tsit Chan, Translator.  A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy.  (Princeton, NY:  Princeton University Press, 1973 [1963]).


Thomas Cleary, Translator.  Sun Tzu:  The Art of War.  (Boston, MA:  Shambhala, 1991).


Ingrid Discher-Schreiber, Franz-Karl Ehrhard, Kurt Friedrichs and Michael Diener.  The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion:  A Complete Survey… (Boston, MA:  Shambhala, 1994).


D. C. Lau, Translator.  Lao Tzu.  (London, UK:  Penguin Classics, 1987 [1963]).


_____.  Mencius.  (London, UK:  Penguin Classics, 1970).


James Legge, Translator.  Confucius:  Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean.  (New York, NY:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1971 [1893]).


_____.  The Works of Mencius.  (New York, NY:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1970 [1895]).


Peimin Ni.  On Confucius.  (Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth, 2002).


Burton Watson, Translator.  Chuang Tzu:  Basic Writings.  (New York, NY:  Columbia University Press, 1996 [1964]).


Confucianism (Ju-Chia): “A Chinese school of thought and set of moral, ethical, and political teachings usually considered to be founded by Confucius. Before the time of Confucius, (551-479 BCE), a social group, the Ju (literally, ‘weaklings’ or ‘foundlings’), existed whose members were ritualists and sometimes also teachers by profession. Confucius belonged to this group; but although he retained the interest in rituals, he was also concerned with the chaotic social and political situation and with the search for remedies, which he believed to lie in the restoration and maintenance of certain traditional values and norms. Later thinkers who professed to be followers of Confucius shared such concern and belief and, although they interpreted and developed Confucius’ teachings in different ways, they are often regarded as belonging to the same school of thought, traditionally referred to by Chinese scholars as Ju-chia, or the school or the Ju. The term ‘Confucianism’ is used to refer to some or all of the range of phenomena including the way of life of the Ju as a group of ritualists, the school of thought referred to as Ju-chia, the ethical, social, and political ideals advocated by this school of thought (which include but go well beyond the practice of rituals), and the influence of such ideals on the actual social and political order and the life of the Chinese. As a school of thought, Confucianism is characterized by a common ethical ideal which includes an affective concern for all living things, varying in degree and nature depending on how such things relate to oneself; a reverential attitude toward others manifested in the observance of formal rules of conduct such as the way to receive guests; an ability to determine the proper course of conduct, whether this calls for observance of traditional norms or departure from such norms; and a firm commitment to proper conduct so that one is not swayed by adverse circumstances such as poverty or death. Everyone is supposed to have the ability to attain this ideal, and people are urged to exercise constant vigilance over their character so that they can transform themselves to embody this ideal fully. In the political realm, a ruler who embodies the ideal will care about and provide for the people, who will be attracted to him; the moral example he sets will have a transforming effect on the people. Different Confucian thinkers have different conceptions of the way the ethical ideal may be justified and attained. Mencius (371-289? BCE) regarded the ideal as a full realization of certain incipient moral inclinations shared by human beings, and emphasized the need to reflect on and fully develop such inclinations. Hsun Tzu (fl. 298-238 BCE) regarded it as a way of optimizing the satisfaction of presocial human desires, and emphasized the need to learn the norms governing social distinctions and let them transform and regulate the pursuit of satisfaction of such desires. Different kinds of Confucian thought continued to evolve, yielding such major thinkers as Tung Chung-shu (second century BCE) and Han Yu (768-824 CE). Han Yu regarded Mencius as the true transmitter of Confucius’ teachings, and this view became generally accepted, largely through the efforts of Chu Hsi (1130-1200). The Mencian form of Confucian thought continued to be developed in different ways by such major thinkers as Chu Hsi, Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529), and Tai Chen (1723-77), who differed concerning the way attain the Confucian ideal and the metaphysics undergirding it. Despite these divergent developments, Confucius continued to be revered within this tradition of thought as its first and most important thinker, and the Confucian school of thought continued to exert great influence on Chinese life and on the social and political order down to the present century.”

Confucius: “also known as K’ung Ch’iu, K’ung Tzu, Kung Fu-tzu (551-479 BCE). Chinese thinker usually regarded as founder of the Confucian school of thought. His teachings are recorded in the Lun Yu or Analects, a collection of sayings by him and his disciplines, and of conversations between him and his disciples, and His highest ethical ideal is jen (humanity, goodness), which includes an affective concern for the well-being of others, desirable attributes such as yung (courage, bravery). An important part of the traditional norms governing conduct between along which a critical reflection on such norms and stances. Human conduct should not be dictated by fixed rules, but should be sensitive to relevant considerations and should accord with yi (rightness, duty). Other important concepts include shu (consideration, reciprocity), which involves not doing to another what one would not have wished done to oneself, and chung (loyalty, commitment), interpreted variously as a commitment to the exercise of shu , to the norms of li, or one’s duties toward superiors and equals. The ideal of jen is within reach of all, and one should constantly reflect on one’s character and powers that should ideally be the basis or provide for the people, who will be attracted to him, and the moral example he sets will inspire the people, who will be attracted to him, and the moral example he sets will inspire people to reform themselves.”

jen: “Chinese philosophical term, important in Confucianism variously translated as ‘kindness’, ‘humanity’, or ‘benevolence’. Scholars disagree as to whether the it has the basic meaning of an attribute distinctive of certain aristocratic clans, or the basic meaning of kindness, especially kindness of a ruler to his subjects. In Confucian thought, it is used to refer both to an all encompassing ethical ideal for human beings (when so used, it is often translated as ‘humanity’, ‘humanness’, or ‘goodness’), and more specifically to the desirable attribute of an emotional concern for all living things, the degree and nature of such concern varying according to one’s relation to such things (when so used, it is often translated as ‘benevolence’ ). Later Confucians explain jen in terms of one’s being sensitive and responsive to their well-being. In the political realm, Confucians regard jen as ideally the basis of government. A ruler with jen will care about and provide for the people, and people will be attracted to the ruler and be inspired to reform themselves. Such a ruler will succeed in bringing order and be without rivals and will become the true king (wang).”

li: (1) “Chinese term meaning ‘pattern’, ‘principle’, ‘good order’, ‘inherent order’ or ‘to put to order’. During the Han dynasty (about 136 BCE), li described not only the pattern of a given thing, even, or process, but the underlying grand pattern of everything, the deep structure of the cosmos. Later, Hua-yen Buddhists, working form the Mahayana doctrine that all things are conditioned and related through past causal relationships, claimed that each thing reflects the li of all things. This influenced Neo-Confucians, who developed a metaphysics of li and ch’i (ether), in which all things possess li (and hence they are “one” in quality of their c’hi, things manifest different and distinct characteristics. The hsin (heart/mind) contains all li (some insist it is li) but is obscured by “impure” ch’i; hence we understand some things and can learn others. Through self-cultivation, one can purify one’s ch’i and achieve complete and perfect understanding. (2) Chinese term meaning ‘rite’, ‘ritual’, ‘etiquette’, ‘ritual propriety’. In its earliest use, li refers to politico-religious rituals such as sacrifices to ancestors or funerals. Soon the term came to encompass matters of etiquette, such as the proper way to greet a guest. In some texts the li include even matters of morality or natural law. Mencius refers to li as virtue, but it is unclear how it is distinct from his other cardinal virtues. Emphasis upon li is one of the distinctive features of Confucianism. Critics charge that this emphasis is a conflation of the natural with the conventional or simply naive traditionalism. Others claim the notion of li draws attention to the subtle interdependence of morality and convention, and points the way to creating genuine communities by treating “the secular as sacred”. (3) Chinese term meaning ‘profit’ or ‘benefit’, and probably with the basic meaning of ‘smooth’ or ‘unimpeded’. Mo Tzu (fourth century BCE) regarded what brings li (benefit) to the public as the criterion of yi (rightness), and certain other classical texts also describe yi as the basis for producing li. Confucians tend to use ‘liperjoratively to refer to what profits oneself or social groups (e.g. one’s family) to which one belongs, and contrast li with yi. According to them, one should ideally be guided by yi rather than li, and in the political realm, a preoccupation with li will lead to strife and disorder.”

li-ch’i: “technical term in Chinese Neo-Confucianism primarily used in the context of speculative cosmology, metaphysics, and ontology for accounting of changing phenomena and their ethical significance. Li is often rendered as ‘principle’, ‘order’, ‘pattern’, ‘reason’; ch’i as ‘material force’, ‘ether’, or ‘energy’. Recent Neo-Confucian scholarship provides no clear guide to the li- ch’i distinction. In ethical contexts, however, the distinction is used to explain the origin of human good and evil. In its impure state, c’hi presumably explains the existence of human evils. This perplexing distinction remains a subject of scholarly inquiry.”

tao: “Chinese term meaning ‘path’, ‘way’, ‘account’. From the sense of a literal path, road, or way, the term comes to mean a way of doing something (e.g., living one’s life or organizing society), especially the way advocated by a particular individual or school of thought (“the way of the Master,” “the way of the Mohists,” etc.). Frequently, it refers to the way of doing something, the right way (e.g., “The Way has not been put into practice for a long time”). Tao also came to refer to the linguistic account that embodies or describes a way. Finally, in some texts the tao is a metaphysical entity. For example, in Neo-Confucianism, tao is identified with li (principle). In some contexts it is difficult to tell what sense is intended.”

Tao-hsin, jen-hsin: “Chinese terms used by Neo-Confucian philosophers to contrast the mind according to the Way (tao-hsin) and the mind according to man’s artificial, selfish desires (jen-hsin). When one responds spontaneously without making discrimination, one is acting according to the Way. One is naturally happy, sad, angry, and joyful as circumstances require. But when one’s self is alienated from the Way, one works only for self-interest, and the emotions and desires are excessive and deviate from the Mean. In the Confucian tradition sages and worthies take Heaven (t’ien) as their model, while common people are urged to take chun-tzu (the superior man) as their model.”

Taoism (Tao-chia): “A Chinese philosophy identified with Tao-chia (School of the Way), represented by Chuang Tzu (between 399 and 295 BCE) and Lao Tzu (6th or 4th cent. BCE). The term may also refer to the Huang-Lao School (c. 3rd cent. BCE); Neo-Taoists, such as Wang Pi(226-49 CE) and Kuo Hsiang (d. 312 CE); and Tao-chiao, a diverse religious movement. Only the tao-chia is discussed here. The school derives its name from the word tao (Way), a term used by Chinese thinkers of almost every persuasion. Taoists were the first to use the dynamic of the cosmos. Taoists believe that (1) there is a way the world should be; (2) human beings can understand this and need to have and follow such knowledge if they and the world are to exist in harmony; and (3) the world was once in such a harmony. Most early Chinese thinkers shared similar beliefs, but Taoists are distinct in claiming that the Way is not codifiable, indeed is ineffable. Taoists thus are metaphysical and ethical realists, but epistemological skeptics of an unusual sort, being language skeptics. Taoists further deny that one can strive successful to attain the Way: Taoist self-cultivation is a process not of accumulation, but of paring away. One must unweave the social fabric, forsake one’s cultural conditioning, and abandon rational thought, to be led instead by one’s tzu jan (spontaneous) inclinations. With a hsu (tenuous) mind, one then will perceive the li (pattern) of the cosmos and live by wu wei (non-action). Though sharing a strong family resemblance, the Taoisms of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are distinct. Lao Tzu advocates a primitive utopianism in which people enjoy the simple life of small agrarian communities, indifferent to what is happening in the neighboring village. Having abandoned cultural achievements such as writing, they keep accounts by knowing cords. Lao Tzu blames human “cleverness,” which imposes the “human” on the “Heavenly,” for most of what is bad is in the world. For him a notion like beauty gives rise to its opposite and only serves to increase anxiety and dissatisfaction; extolling a virtue, such as benevolence, only encourages people to affect it hypocritically. Lao Tzu advocates “turning back” to the time when intellect was young and still obedient to intuition and instinct. To accomplish this, the Taoist sage must rule and enforce this view upon the clever, if they should “dare to act.” Chuang Tzu emphasizes changing oneself more than changing society. He too is a kind of anti-rationalist and sees wisdom as a “knowing how” rather than a “knowing that.” He invokes a repertoire of skillful individuals as exemplars of the Way. Such individuals engage the world and display all the Taoists virtues. Their minds are hsu (empty) of preconceptions, and so they perceive the li (pattern) in each situation. They respond spontaneously and are so tzu jan; they accord with the tao, they lead a frictionless existence; they “walk without touching the ground.” “

t’ien: “Chinese term meaning ‘heaven’, ‘sky’. T’ien has a range of uses running from the most to the least anthropomorphic. At one extreme, t’ien is identified with shang ti (High Ancestor or God). T’ien can be spoken of as having desires and engaging in purposive actions, such as bestowing the Mandate of Heaven (t’ien ming). T’ien ming has a political and ethical use. It can be the mandate to rule given to a virtuous individual. It can also be the moral requirements that apply to each individual, especially as these are embodied in one’s nature. At the other extreme, thinkers such as Hsun-Tzu identify t’ien with natural order. Even in texts where t’ien is sometimes used anthropomorphically, it can be also used as synonymous with ming (in the sense of fate), or simply to refer to the sky. After the introduction of Buddhism into China, the phrase ‘Hall of Heaven’ (t’ien t’ang) is used to refer to the paradise awaiting some souls after death.”

yin, yang: “metaphors used in the classical tradition of Chinese philosophy to express contrast and difference. Originally they designated the shady side and the sunny side of a hill, and gradually came to suggest the way in which one “overshadows” another is some particle aspect or relationship. Yin and yang are not “principles” or “essences” that help classify things; rather they are ad hoc explanatory categories that report on relationships and interactions among immediate concrete things in the world. Yin and yang always describe relationships that are constitutive of unique particulars, and provide a vocabulary for “reading” the distinctions that obtain among them. The complementary nature of the opposition captured in this pairing expresses the mutuality, interdependence, diversity, and creative efficacy of the dynamic relationships that are deemed immanent in and valorize the world. The full range of difference in the world is deemed explicable through this pairing.” “Ch’ien, k’un , in traditional Chinese cosmology, are the names of two most important trigrams in the system of I-Ching (the Book of Changes which focused on i-li or meaning and principles). Ch’ien is composed of three undivided lines, the symbol of yang, and k’un, three divided lines, the symbol of yin. Ch’ien means Heaven, the father, creativity; k’un means Earth, the mother, endurance. The two are complementary; they work together to form the whole cosmic order. In the system of I-Ching there are 8 trigrams, the doubling up of the two trigrams forms a hexagram, and there are a total of sixty-four hexagrams. The first two hexagrams are also named ch’ien and k’un.”

yang: ch'ien


yu, wu: “Chinese terms literally meaning ‘having’ and ‘nothing’, respectively; they are often rendered into English as ‘being’ and ‘non-being’. But the Chinese never developed the mutually contradictory concepts of Being and Non-Being in Parmenides’ sense. In Chapter 2 of Tao-te-ching Lao Tzu says that “being (yu) and non-being (wu) produce each other.” They appear to be a pair of interdependent concepts. But in chapter 40 Lao Tzu also says that “being comes from non-being”. It seems that for Taoism non-being is more fundamental than being, while in Confucianism the opposite is true. The two traditions were seen to be complementary, by later scholars.”

Source of quotes:

Audi, Robert, editor, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.


For a paper I wrote about early Chinese Philosophy, see The Relation Between Metaphysics and Ethics in Mencius and Plato