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A Brief Guide to the Most Influential
Chinese Philosophers of the Eastern
Zhōu 周 Dynasty
(VIth-IIIrd Centuries BC)
Users of this page may also wish to consult a brief Guide to Chinese Sacred Books and Chinese Philosophical Terms .
Introduction Part I: Chinese Philosophers (Zǐ 子)
The Chinese syllable zǐ 子 (pronounced approximately “dzz,” with no vowel) is used in a variety of ways: (Note for the linguistically curious)
- In modern Chinese it can be a suffix added to monosyllabic nouns (sometimes to make a diminutive)
- It can mean “child” or “son.”
- In Classical Chinese it could mean “you.”
- It was one of several titles of nobility (usually translated “viscount”)
- It can refer to a traditional scholar, and is suffixed to the names of China's most famous early philosophers.
It is in this last usage —as a suffix on names of philosophers— that it has come into English. Unfortunately, the fact that the Chinese sound is not easily represented in Roman letters as they are used in European languages, the syllable has been spelled in some pretty odd ways before it settled down in modern usage as zǐ. The commonest earlier spellings were tzǔ, tzu, tse, and tsze. (The occasional spelling tsu was always a mistake.)
Introduction Part II: Eastern Zhōu 周: The Age of Slaughter
The great majority of the people to whom Chinese accord the title zǐ, “Master,” lived in the bloody and chaotic end period of the Zhōu dynasty. The Zhōu 周 dynasty (period 4) was China’s longest, usually dated as lasting from 1121 to 222 BC. It began as a stable feudal state, which worked well enough initially, with regional “kings” (wáng 王) honoring feudal obligations to a centralized “emperor” (dì 帝) with significant power of his own.
About the year 770 BC there came a kind of breaking point as certain of the feudal “kings” became so assertive that the capital had to be moved eastward out of their reach. Thus there is an earlier “Western Zhōu” (period 4b), the “Golden Age” after which Confucius later pined, and a later “Eastern Zhōu” (period 4c), characterized by continuing strife and increasingly brutal warfare.
The Eastern Zhōu itself is subdivided (in the 400s) into the earlier “Spring & Autumn” or “Springs & Autumns” period (period 4d) —the title is taken from Confucius’ own history of the springs and autumns of rising and falling statelets— and the final, miserable “Warring States” period (period 4e): two hundred years of mayhem and slaughter, as small polities were gradually consolidated into larger ones, ending with the final triumph of the consummately totalitarian Qín 秦 state conquering everybody else and founding of the first “imperial” dynasty, also named Qín (221-206 BC, period 5), one of the most brutal regimes known to human history.
This unhappy period of the Eastern Zhōu, with its constant contention among petty states, proved to be a fertile ground for the development of theories about how to stop the bloodshed, as well as theories about how to kill fewer friends and more enemies. Many of the most influential figures in Chinese philosophy lived at this period and were participants in these discussions. Some of them are listed on this page to help you sort out who’s who.
Surnames are printed entirely in capitals at their first occurrence. Since we don't really know what any of them looked like (except that Confucius was tall and buck-toothed with an oddly shaped head), the picture repeatedly decorating the page is a generic sage who can stand in for any of them.
1. Military Strategists
- Sūnzǐ 孙子
- = SŪN Wǔ 孙武 about 500 BC
- Sūn Wǔ was the author of the still popular Art of War (Bīngfǎ 兵法), with its strong stress upon military discipline, realistic assessment of enemy strength and one’s own, quick and decisive action when conditions are favorable, and the importance of secrecy and techniques of deception to catch the enemy off guard.
- Sūn Wǔ was a native of the feudal state of Qí 齐 (most of modern Shāndōng 山东 province). He was famed for his brilliance in strategy and tactics, and is believed to be the author of China’s most famous manual of military tactics and strategy, a work known to history as Master Sūn’s Art of War (Sūnzǐ Bīngfǎ 孙子兵法). Some people think it was been written specifically for Hélú 阖庐, the monarch of the more southern state of Wú 吴 (in modern Jiāngsū province), but in any case Hélú seems to have read it, for he hired Sūn Wǔ and put him to work as his top commander.
- The full text of Master Sūn’s Art of War is available on this web site (Link).
- Sūn Wǔ is easily confused with his colorful descendent, SŪN Bìn 孙膑, and some writers mix their two biographies together or attribute the Art of War to Sūn Bìn.
- (Click here for more about Sūn Bìn.)
- (Click here for an interesting ancient account of both Sūns.)
- = WÚ Qǐ 吴起 370 fl.
- Wú Qǐ 吴起 was a famous military strategist roughly contemporary with Sūn Bìn, the descendent of Master Sūn. Wú Qǐ was himself from the tiny state of Lesser Wèi 卫, located on the border between the states of Qí 齐 and Greater Wèi 魏, but his wife, like the Sūns, was from Qí. He entered the service of the monarch of the state of Chǔ 楚, a large southern area covering the area of several modern provinces in the Lower Yangtze River area. The Chǔ monarch ordered him to attack Qí, his wife’s homeland. He began by slaying his wife to avoid a conflict of interest and was apparently widely admired for this act of loyalty to his new employer.
- Wú Qǐ is sometimes called Wúzǐ 吴子, or “Master Wú.” and is the author of his own military treatise, “Master Wú’s Six Chapters (Wúzǐ Liù Piān 吴子六篇 or Wúzǐ Bīngfǎ 吴起兵法), now lost.
- (Click here for more about the phrase Sūn-Wú.)
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Kǒngzǐ 孔子 (Confucius)
- = KǑNG Qiū 孔丘, KǑNG Zhòngní 孔仲尼 ("KǑNG's second son") 550/551-479
- The name “Confucianism” designates a long and evolving tradition that has long been central to Chinese ideas about citizenship, governance, and social relations, including family morality. A separate web site is devoted to terms used in discussing Chinese philosophy. (Link) It is the thought of Confucius that gives its name to this school. So influential was the tradition that even today some writers refer to the societies of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam as collectively "Confucian."
- Confucius was born in the tiny state of Lǔ 鲁, on the southwestern border of the bigger and stronger state of Qí 齐 (both in what is today Shāndōng 山东 province). Confucius' distinguished father had a physically and mentally challenged son whom he judged unfit as a successor, so he impregnated a teenage girl. She gave birth to Confucius, who was a very large and very ugly child. (The name Qiū means "hill(s)," apparently a nickname referring to the odd shape of the top of his head.)
- The father died soon afterward, and Confucius and his mother were disowned by the family immediately upon his death. Growing up scorned for his appearance, for his parentage, and for his poverty, he found his companionship in the books of earlier ages and his amusement in performing rituals based on the rites he found in them. As an adult, he developed the conviction that the troubles of his time were due to people abandoning the ways (especially the rituals) of those same earlier ages.
- This evolved into a full-blown theory of the fortunes of the people being a function of the virtue of their rulers, an insight he applied from the level of the state clear down to the level of the family or even the psyche of the individual. This is the underlying principle guiding Confucians to the present time.
- Although this attractive philosophy drew followers to Confucius, most of whom seem to have been very devoted to him, the rulers of the states to whom he offered his advice considered it too impractical to adopt.
- Confucius is considered to have compiled or composed:
- The Book of Odes or Book of Songs (Shī Jīng 诗经), a group of presumably popular verses from earlier times reflecting life in the Golden Age. Four of the brief poems are available on this web site. (Link)
- The Book of History (Shū Jīng 书经), an unimpressive listing of historical events which modern scholarship considers to have a good deal of intrusive material.
- The "Spring & Autumn Annals" (Chūn-Qiū 春 秋), another spare listing usually printed with the more expansive commentaries of Confucian writers who followed him. We tiny example is available on this web site. (Link)
- But by far his most famous work is a more or less randomly ordered list of “sayings” compiled by his students after his death. It is called the Lúnyǔ 论语 in Chinese and the " Analects" in English. (As far as I know, in no other phrase is the word lún given the second tone in Chinese, and the word "analects" has no other application in English. Obviously Confucius is pretty special.) Although the disorder of the Analects makes it a rather annoying book to read today, individual lines work as aphorisms and have had the status of proverbs in China for two thousand years. A small extract is available on this web site. (Link)
- (The English name “Confucius” is borrowed from an early Latin transliteration of the honorific title Kǒng fūzǐ 孔夫子, "Master Kǒng." Unfortunately, in modern Chinese fūzǐ often means "pedant.")
Mèngzǐ 孟子 (Mencius)
- = MÈNG Kē 孟轲 371-289.
- Mencius was the author of a book titled with his name. He was a student of Kǒng Jí 孔伋, Confucius’ grandson, himself the author of The Middle Way (Zhōng Yōng 中庸). Both books are part of the Confucian canon of later centuries. Mencius’ work is considered by many to be the most readable and rewarding work in the canon, for its style is simple, the logic flows much better than in some other parts of that corpus, and it is filled with illustrative anecdotes.
- We know little of his personal history. He was apparently a descendant of earlier nobility of the state of Lǔ 鲁, Confucius’ own home state, and his mother is famous for having moved three times to ensure that he would have appropriately uplifting playmates. He has been honored by history as the second great sage of Confucianism after Confucius himself. As such, certain of his views are regarded as those of Confucius. Perhaps his most famous difference, whether or not it was an innovation, was Mencius’ increased emphasis upon the underlying goodness of human beings, a goodness that allows them to be perfected by the moral example of their leaders, just as Confucius argued, and would, in a perfectly ordered state, make punishments, and perhaps even laws, quite unnecessary. Arguably this stress on goodness went further than some Confucians were willing to go, and it was famously opposed by Xúnzǐ 荀子, below.
- (The English name “Mencius” is borrowed from an early Latin transliteration of the honorific title Mèng zǐ 孟子, "Master Mèng.")
- = XÚN Qīng 荀卿 or XÚN Kuàng 荀况 298?-238
- Xúnzǐ was a native of the state of Zhào 赵 who moved to the state of Qí 齐, where he founded a school derivative from the Confucian tradition, if not necessarily central in it. He is famed today for rejecting Mencius’ claim of the inherent goodness of all people. People are, he argued, quite selfish if left uncultivated, guided only by their whims and desires. That would be why cultivation of virtue was so stressed by Confucius, after all. He had little difference with Mencius about what virtue consisted of —Confucianism is pretty clear about that. The issue was how ready people were to embrace it. Accordingly, he sought a kind of middle ground between the view that in an ideal world virtue would prevail automatically, and the view that people still need restriction.
- Among Xúnzǐ's students were two who abandoned all hope of the perfectibility of ordinary people, and became two of the most famous totalitarian “Legalists” of antiquity, namely Hán Fēi 韩非 and Lǐ Sī 李斯 (both discussed below), whose unsavory behavior has stained their teacher’s reputation for the last two thousand years. (If you become a totalitarian screwball after reading this web site, please don’t tell posterity that you ever knew me.)
- (Confusingly, the name Xún was a part of the name of an emperor in the later Hàn 汉 dynasty (period 6), making its mundane use taboo throughout the emperor's lifetime. Xúnzǐ’s name was therefore “temporarily” written with the character 孙 (normally pronounced sūn). Unfortunately that usage has continued to be followed in some copies of his works —even today!— so that only context differentiates it sometimes from Sūnzǐ 孙子, the unrelated military master listed above.)
- Brief extracts from Xúnzǐ’s book are available on this web site. (Link)
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Lǎozǐ or Lǎo zǐ 老子
- =LǏ Ěr 李耳 500? died
- Lǎozǐ is the name traditionally used for the author of the most important Daoist classic, titled simply “Lǎozǐ,” which can be translated “the Old Master” or even “the Old Masters.” It is said that he was an archivist in the Zhōu dynasty capital who retired, and despairing at the terrible state of the dynasty, resolved to retire to the countryside. He was sufficiently known that as he left, a gatekeeper persuaded (compelled!) him to write down the brief text we now know as the “Classic of the Way and Its Virtue” (Dàodé Jīng 道德经), regarded by some as mind-opening, by others as unintelligible, and by most people as the first item in the vast library of texts that came to constitute the (sometimes mind-opening and often unintelligible) canon of Daoism. (Modern scholarship argues that the text was probably largely composed a couple of centuries later.)
- Briefly, Lǎozǐ (or more exactly the tradition attached to that name) stressed the insuperability of the actual nature of things (the Dào 道 or "Way"), and the folly of seeking to act in ways that were contrary to it.
- Dào is not just "natural law" or the "nature of nature" in any modern sense, however, for Lǎozǐ also saw it as inherently moral, and hence not purely "mechanical" the way most modern theories assume.
- Subsequent generations were dependent upon the more accessible writings of two later writers, Lièzǐ 列子and Zhuāngzǐ 庄子 (below) for much of their understanding of what Lǎozǐ (may have or perhaps should have) had in mind. For a brief introduction to the Dàodé Jīng and the interpretive challenges it poses, click here.
- = ZHUĀNG Zhōu 庄周 350 fl.
- Tradition holds that Zhuāngzǐ was born to an aristocratic family in Ānhuī 安徽 province and held a bureaucratic post for a time. Like Lièzǐ 列子 (below), Zhuāngzǐ was an advocate of Daoism, and the author of a book that bears his name, containing engaging anecdotes illustrating the general triumph of the Way (Dào 道) over attempts to resist it. Among the most famous stories is one in which Confucius meets the older Lǎozǐ and acknowledges him as master. (The tale is today regarded as a fantasy.)
- Although Zhuāng is a common Chinese surname, it also means “village,” and the name Zhuāngzǐ could mean simply “Village Sage(s).”
- Five brief passages from Zhuāngzǐ's writings are available on this web site: Link.
- = LIÈ Yùkòu 列御寇 400 fl.
- Like Zhuāngzǐ 庄周, Lièzǐ was an advocate of Daoism and the author of a book that bearing his name and containing engaging anecdotes illustrating the general triumph of the Way (Dào 道) over attempts to resist it.
- Little is known of him, with estimates of his life ranging from the 600s to the 400s BC, and his existence doubted by some, since the book associated with him seems likely to have been composed about AD 300. Chinese readers generally consider this work more accessible than other Daoist texts. He is sometimes known as the "sage who rides the wind" because of an anecdote recounting that when he had learned all his teachers were able to convey, he mounted the wind (yùfēng ér xíng 御风而行 and flew back home.
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Shāng Yāng 商鞅 (Yāng from Shāng [part of the state of Qín])
- = GŌNGSŪN Yāng 公孙鞅
= Wèi Yāng 卫鞅 (Yāng from Lesser Wèi)
= Shāng jūn 商君 “Lord of Shāng”. 338 died
- Shāng Yāng was initially employed by the state of Lesser Wèi 卫, but was dismissed. He subsequently received employment by the aggressive state of Qín 秦 (destined later to unify all of northern China under the first emperor). There, in 356 BC he received a Qín fiefdom called Shāng 商, and hence the names Shāng Yāng and Lord Shāng. With the general goal of strengthening state power, his policies involved strict laws and severe punishments combined with state monopoly over iron production, limitations on commerce, and a general prohibition on travel.
- Facing strong opposition, he was forced to flee for his life, but was captured under his own prohibition on travel and subsequently mutilated and then executed following his own strict laws.
- He has been honored in recent decades for his integrated policy goals and unforgiving methods designed to achieve them, which some historians believe to have been an important step toward the kinds of legal systems we have today.
Hán Fēi(zǐ) (Fēi from Hán) or HÁN Fēi(zǐ) 韩非子 280?-233
- A student of the Confucian Xúnzǐ 荀子 (above), but an admirer of Shāng Yāng’s 商鞅 totalitarianism, Hán Fēi was sent as an envoy to Qín 秦 from the state of Hán 韩 (which may or may not also have been his surname), and there he could see Shāng Yāng’s project close up.
- He seems to have been invited to remain, but tradition holds that an envious minister named YÁO Jià 姚贾 persuaded the Qín sovereign (the future first emperor of China) that Hán Fēi was a secret spy from Hán, and he was forced to take poison (supplied by his former classmate Lǐ Sī 李斯, who just happened to have some on hand and whose motivations make interesting theatre).
- His writing on Legalism is considered to be its best exposition.
LǏ Sī 李斯 280?-208
- Like Hán Fēi 韩非, Lǐ Sī was a student of the Confucian Xúnzǐ 荀子 (above), but an admirer of Shāng Yāng’s 商鞅 totalitarianism. Originally from the state of Chǔ 楚, he entered the service of the ruler of the rapidly expanding state of Qín 秦, which became the Qín dynasty (period 05). The ruler selected for himself the title First Emperor of Qín (Qín Shǐhuángdì 秦始皇帝). When the First Emperor was criticized for abolishing ancient fiefs (with Lǐ Sī’s enthusiastic encouragement), it was Lǐ who persuaded him to have most ancient books burned and anyone supporting or concealing them buried alive.
- Lǐ Sī was executed in palace intrigues after the emperor’s death as the “empire” quickly disintegrated. We have no writings from his hand, but he is perhaps the best known of the Legalist school because of his prominent political position and probable role in formulating many centralizing policies.
- Much of what we know about Lǐ Sī is from a biography by the Grand Historian SĪMǍ Qiān 司马迁 (145-86± BC), whose biography of the First Emperor is available on this web site (link) and includes information about Lǐ Sī. (Sīmǎ Qiān also wrote a biography of Lǐ Sī.)
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