Chinese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

8. First millennium syncretism

With the emergence of a Confucian orthodoxy in the Han dynasty based on the Xunzi branch of Confucianism, scholarly dispute was tempered by a fundamental commitment to mutual accommodation. In the exercise of criticism the ritual basis of order comes into play, since rituals serve as patterns of deference which accommodate and harmonize differences in desires, attitudes and actions. Ideally, ‘dispute’ is a cooperative exercise among responsible participants that proceeds beyond obstinacy to search for alternatives on which all can agree. There is a fundamental dis-esteem for coercion of any kind, because aggressiveness or violence threatens to disrupt rather than reinforce or improve upon the existing social order. The goal of protest is not victory in contest, which is necessarily divisive, but the strengthening of communal harmony.

The interest in logic and rationality as tools of disputation which had emerged briefly in the pre-Qin days of the Hundred Schools, along with the analytical and dialectical modes of discourse attendant upon these methodologies, soon faded into the counter-current of Chinese intellectual culture. With the ascent of a Confucian ideology, China emerged as a culture grounded in the immanent aesthetic order of a ritually-constituted society, in large measure precluding the kind of rational conflict familiar in the Western tradition. With the Han thinkers came the emergence of a fortified Confucian orthodoxy, complete with canon and commentary.

By the beginning of the first century bc, Confucianism had become the clear and enduring victor over all contending voices, a success due in important degree to its ability to accommodate within a ritually-grounded intellectual society the most profound elements of Daoism, Legalism and Mohism, a pattern that would be repeated in Confucianism’s gradual appropriation of Buddhist elements by its medieval adherents. It is generally recognized that the intellectual orthodoxy which came to dominance in the Han dynasty was a river fed by three powerful streams: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. The stress here is upon the harmony of the three traditions. Though Confucianism remains dominant, the three sensibilities provide distinct foci in accordance with which one can construe one’s life.

Confucians are often distinguished from Daoists by the observation that though both seek aesthetic harmony, the Daoists seek harmony with nature while Confucians are concerned with harmony in the social sphere. ‘Nature’ (‘the ten thousand things’) and ‘society’, as contexts, are both aesthetic products whose order is a creation of the elements of the contexts (see Aesthetics, Chinese). In the Daoist text the Zhuangzi, there is the statement that each of the ten thousand things comes into being out of its own inner reflection and yet none can tell how it comes to be so. The Confucian version of this claim is that ‘it is the person who extends order in the world (dao), not order that extends the person’ (Analects 15/29).

In China, the phrase ‘the continuity between man and Heaven’ (tianren heyi) has been construed to mean that personal, societal, political and cosmic order are coterminous and mutually entailing, and that from the human perspective, this order is emergent in the process of one’s own self-cultivation and articulation. If we think of the various contexts which are to be harmonized as concentric circles, we can see that there is an interdependence between one’s self-realization at the center and world order at the outer extreme. Classically, this is expressed through the notion of the Sage as exemplar both of tradition in its broadest sense and ‘the will of Heaven’ – that is, the specific environing conditions that set up the viable possibilities in a particular social situation or historical epoch. This is the sense of Mencius’ assertions that ‘all of the myriad things are complete here in me’ and ‘one who applies exhaustively his heart-and-mind realizes his character, and in thus realizing his character, realizes Heaven (tian)’ (Mengzi 7A/4 and 7A/1).

There are continuous and dynamic patterns discernable in the developmental flow of Chinese philosophy that provide us with a way of organizing the tradition beyond its consolidation in the Han dynasty. First, the membrane that divides Chinese intellectual culture into ‘schools’ and ‘traditions’ is highly porous. Intellectual diversity, like political diversity, follows a pattern of being absorbed and assimilated into a harmony dominated by some central doctrine, and then precipitating out of this same harmony in periods of disunity. When the centre is strong, the dominant school draws into itself and co-opts competing elements, thereby fortifying itself against opposition. When, over time, the centre weakens, disintegration sets in and those intellectual resources that have been marginalized by the dominant centre move in to reshape the core.

As noted above, Confucianism, fortified by precepts and concerns drawn from the ‘Hundred Schools’ of the pre-Qin period, emerges as the prevailing Han ideology. As the Han dynasty declines in the second century ad, religious Daoism and Buddhism move in from the periphery to recolour the intellectual ideology, transforming state-centred Confucianism into the more esoteric and reclusive ‘pure conversation’ (qingtan) and neo-Daoist (xuanxue) movements of the Northern and Southern dynasties. However, the influence is mutual. As Buddhism takes root and flourishes in Chinese soil, it is interpreted through indigenous categories which overwhelm many of its original concerns, gradually translating it into a religion and philosophy consonant with the assumptions of the Sinitic world view. By the time the Huayan and Chan sects of Buddhism appear in the Tang dynasty (see Buddhist philosophy, Chinese), doctrinal affinities with Daoism and Confucianism have transformed an erstwhile foreign doctrine into a Chinese institution.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. First millennium syncretism. Chinese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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