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4.2: Development of Philosophies

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    The Eastern Zhou dynasty witnessed the emergence of the 'hundred schools of thought', paving the way for the development of numerous belief systems in Asian societies. Despite the constant destructive wars that marked this period, it also led to the birth of new ideas, transforming social consciousness and shaping the behavior of leaders. As various philosophical ideals and concepts took root, philosophers traversed different courts and governmental regions, offering insights on politics, ethics, techniques, philosophy, and religion. Their recorded beliefs were compiled into books, forming the foundational principles of their followers. The new ideas included Confucianism (emphasizing social and family structure), Daoism (following the patterns of nature), Legalism (promoting systematic rewards and punishments),[1] and Mohism (focusing on virtue and caring for each other). The Asian philosophies and practices that influenced beliefs in the past have integrated parts of different belief systems, and many of those concepts are still prevalent today.


    Confucianism was founded by K'ung Fu-Tzu (551-479 BCE) (x.x), who thought about how to govern society properly, how an ideal ruler should reign, and how people could become virtuous. K'ung Fu-tzu was named Confucius by European missionaries who were passing through China. Confucius was born into a wealthy family and was disturbed by the turmoil he saw in the environment as different states were at war. He believed order needed to be restored, and the best way to achieve order was through positive virtues. Confucius said, "Each day, I examine myself upon three points. In planning for others, have I been loyal? In company with friends, have I been trustworthy? And have I practiced what has been passed on to me?"[2]

    Confucius, the renowned Chinese philosopher, emphasized the significance of relationships in life. He believed that the family served as an exemplary model, where family members should respect their elders and adhere to a set of ethics, following the head of state. He advocated for education to control behavior rather than using force or coercion. Many Chinese dynasties have incorporated the principles of Confucianism in their education systems and government processes for centuries. Even today, Confucius is still widely quoted, with numerous sayings or adages attributed to him, although it is uncertain which ideas were his or added by his followers.

    Legend has it that Confucius authored several texts that were included in the Five Classics and Four Books. These works are widely regarded as the fundamental pillars of Confucianism, covering a range of topics such as moral, political, and religious activities. The Five Classics are composed of the Book of Odes, Book of Documents, Book of Changes, Book of Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. Meanwhile, the Four Books include the Doctrine of the Mean, the Great Learning, Mencius, and the Analects, which serve as a defining framework for Confucius' ethical system. A common saying from Confucius was in the book, Analects which said:

    "Tzu Kung asked: 'Is there any one word that can serve as a principle for the conduct of life?' Confucius said: 'Perhaps the word reciprocity: Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you." (XV:23)[3]

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Representation of Confucius (Public domain)



    This great Chinese philosopher believed in everything we ignore nowadays: tradition, institution, obedience and order. That’s why he matters.



    Laozi, also referred to as Lao Tzu (4.2.2), was a Chinese philosopher who is recognized for composing the fundamental text of Daoism. Laozi was a title that meant 'Old Master,' and he was known by different names. However, historians have debated whether he was a genuine person or simply a legend. Many believed that he lived during the same time as Confucius. As Laozi journeyed through the countryside, he observed human behavior and nature. He composed the Dao De Jing, or 'the other way,' which is one of the most significant Chinese philosophical works. The Dao is depicted as the ultimate and source of all existence, and it establishes how things ought to be. It underscores living in agreement and a belief system that is consistent with natural life and how everything interconnects and exists. While individuals possess free will, it is recognized that if they behave unnaturally, it disrupts the Dao.

    Different acceptable methods to approach life were possible, and the practice of Daoism depended on the situations of its adherents. "The order and harmony of nature,…was far more stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human learning. Healthy human life could flourish only in accord with Dao-nature, simplicity, a free-and-easy approach to life."[4] In Tao Te Ching – The Way and Its Power, the eighty-one short poems give guidance for life and the universe. One translation of Lao Tzu's writings states, "Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished."[5]

    Daoism generally avoided government and focused on family and individual harmony. An excerpt from the Dao De Jing says, "They should think their (coarse) food sweet; their (plain) clothes beautiful; their (poor) dwellings places of rest; and their common (simple) ways sources of enjoyment."[6]

    a man wearing multiple robes standing on grass
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Representation of Lao Tzu (Public domain)


    Lao Tzu

    Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism.

    Additional text/introduction.


    During the Warring States period, Legalism emerged as a popular philosophy. Its supporters believed that humans were inherently selfish, driven by the pursuit of wealth and fame regardless of their social status. They argued that purely moral behavior could not always achieve such aims. As a result, individuals were encouraged to pursue their self-interests, regardless of the impact on others. Strict laws were implemented to maintain order during a period of war and unrest, and an administrative system was established to retain control and the ruler's power. While Legalism aimed to attain order, it faced significant opposition from the ruling elite due to the harsh laws and severe punishments. Although the ideas of Legalism were fascinating in theory and rhetoric, they failed to be permanently instilled.

    Shang Yang (4.2.3) was one of the early supporters of legalism. He was an official in the Qin dynasty and helped dissolve the feudal systems and establish a set of regions ruled by a governor and laws. Shang Yang also set up a new form of taxation and requirements for the military. He wrote, "When the people are stupid, one can become the monarch by means of one's knowledge; when the generation is knowledgeable, then one can become the monarch by means of one's might"[7]

    stone sculpture of a man with a hat
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Statue of Shang Yang (FanghongCC BY-SA 3.0)


    Qin Dynasty Legalism

    The Qin Dynasty was not only the first dynasty, but lasting only 15 years it was also one of the shortest. King Yingzheng or qinshihuang, the first emperor of China, destroyed all rival kingdoms, constructed the terra cotta warriors, built much of the great wall and unified much of the nation. He achieved all of this through a powerful army and the rule of law, but the life of an ordinary Qin dynasty citizen was mostly unrecorded.



    Buddha (4.2.4) was a young prince from a wealthy family in India during the 6th century BCE. As next in line to inherit the position of a mighty warrior prince, he lived in the Himalayan foothills, an area prone to natural disasters and societal divisions. Caste systems were prevalent, with the Brahmanas controlling the economy and imposing poverty on the lower castes. After witnessing extreme poverty outside his palace, Siddhartha renounced his position and wealth to become an ascetic. He introduced a new belief system and way of life that became the foundation of Buddhism, for which he earned the title of the Buddha. His teachings spread throughout India and eventually reached China, where they were embraced by leaders. Buddhism taught people how to gain wisdom and salvation by releasing their desires.

    When Siddhartha was still a prince, he purportedly meditated under a tree by the Ganges River and had a spiritual revelation he called the "Four Nobel Truths which included:

    1. life is suffering
    2. suffering comes from desire
    3. one must limit desire to limit suffering
    4. to limit suffering, one must follow the 'Eightfold Path.'[8]

    The Eightfold Path, as described in the Pali Canon, states:

    And what is that ancient path, that ancient road? It is just this Noble Eightfold Path: that is, [1] right view, [2] right intention, [3] right speech, [4] right action, [5] right livelihood, [6] right effort, [7] right mindfulness, [8] right concentration. I followed that path and by doing so I have directly known aging-and-death, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation [end]. I have directly known birth…existence…clinging…craving…feeling…contact…the six sense bases…name-and-form…consciousness…volitional formations [desires], their origin, their cessation, and the way leading to their cessation. (Gautama, 69).[9]

    The statue (4.2.5) depicting the Eightfold Path emphasized the importance of sincere dedication. Those who adhered to this path, regardless of gender, were ordained as monks or nuns and committed to a life of celibacy, poverty, nonviolence, and meditation. Buddhism challenged the caste system and made enlightenment accessible to all members of Indian society. However, following this path was difficult for most people who were unable to leave their homes or families. To address this issue, Buddhism developed a 'middle path' that incorporated ideas from Confucianism and Daoism as it spread throughout Asia. During a period of continuous wars in China, rulers used Buddhism to unite the people.

    a very large Buddha sculpture in bronze
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Great Buddha statue (Jim EplerCC BY 2.0)


    bronze sculpture of a circle with a wagon wheel form in the middle
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): The Eight-Spoke Dharma wheel symbolizes the Noble Eightfold Path (Chris FalterCC BY-SA 3.0)
    The Buddha

    The Buddha's philosophy teaches us that our desires are at the root of our restlessness - and that calm can be achieved through willpower and spiritual exercise.



    [1] National Museum of Asian Art 

    [2] Khan Academy 

    [3] The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale

    [4] Asia Society 

    [5] Good Reads 

    [6] Khan Academy 

    [7] Shang jun shuStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Legalism in Chinese Philosophy, First published Wed Dec 10, 2014. 7: 53. 

    [8] Khan Academy 

    [9] Khan Academy