Chinese philosophy

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

6. The ‘Hundred Schools’

Granted the disposition on the part of the Chinese to promote a harmonious narrative of China’s cultural development, a closer look at the actual events yields a slightly greater sense of conflict. In the approximately one hundred years intervening between the death of Confucius in 481 bc and the birth of his most influential disciple, Mencius, in circa 380 bc, a complex variety of philosophical schools developed. In the Daoist work the Zhuangzi, this growth in diversity is referred to as the period of the ‘Hundred Schools’. Far from seeing in this a healthy pluralism of opinion, the Mengzi (3B/9), as a representative of the Confucian tradition, described this phenomenon in the most negative of terms: ‘Sage-kings do not arise, the various nobles do as they please, scholars without position speak freely on any number of topics, and the words of Yang Zhu and Mo Di fill the empire.’

The period of the conflicting schools began when Mo Di, the founder of Mohism, called Confucian ideas into question. Mohist thinking, generally characterized as a kind of utilitarianism, constituted a significant challenge to the ritually grounded traditionalism of Confucius (see Mohist philosophy; Mozi; Logic in China). Legalism, associated with Shang Yang (d. 338 bc) and Han Feizi, differed from both Confucianism and Mohism by beginning its social thinking not with the people but with positive laws and sanctions presumed to be external devices necessary to bring order to the turmoil of its day. With the Legalists came at least the adumbration of a theory of rational political order (see Legalist philosophy, Chinese; Law and ritual in Chinese philosophy). During the succeeding centuries leading up to the founding of the Han dynasty, a plethora of alternative schools emerged and court-sponsored academies were established in different parts of the empire reminiscent of the great academies of classical Greece. The most famous representative of these academies during the fourth and early third centuries was Jixia at the Qi capital of Linzi, attracting over time a range of such notables as Zhuangzi, Song Xing, Shen Dao, Mencius, Gaozi, Xunzi and Zou Yan.

In the beginning, the competing schools engaged primarily in debates over doctrine, although they were also quite ready to offer commentary on the ever changing political situation. Conservative Confucians who sought the meaning of life by appeal to family and social obligations were opposed by those Daoists who sought to attune the human world to the regular rhythms and patterns of nature. There were fierce debates among the Confucians, Daoists, Mohists, Sophists and Yangists (and many others) concerning the goodness or evil or neutrality of human nature. In due course, as the contest became increasingly complex, the debates took a procedural and logical turn. Thinkers such as Zhuangzi, Sophists such as Hui Shi and Gongsun Longzi and the later Mohist logicians began to argue about the meaning of argument itself, and to worry over standards of evidence. Mohism and the School of Names developed a complex and technical vocabulary for disputation, and puzzled over the linguistic paradoxes which advertise the limits of language (see Logic in China). Thus, as was the case in the history of early Greek thinking, a second-order rationalism developed in China primarily as a means of adjudicating doctrinal conflict.

One of the most puzzling questions in Chinese intellectual history is why the rational and proto-scientific activities illustrated by the disputations of the late fourth and third centuries bc had virtually vanished by the early years of the Han dynasty. Perhaps the most plausible explanation for this phenomenon is one best couched in terms of the sociology of knowledge. As noted above in our discussions on the transmission of knowledge in China, the civilizing process in China was not one of urbanization as in the West, where the very word ‘civilization’ means ‘citification’. Politics was explicitly concerned with the polis, and thus had to confront the complex patterns of trade and commerce associated with interactions among diverse languages and ethnicities, along with the growth of a plurality of institutions – banks, universities, trading companies – each with its own ideological axe to grind. Politics then became the art of compromise applied essentially to pluralistic urban centers.

In China, civilization was effected by the contextualizing power of a common written language. Thus, the same logical tools which could effectively serve the cause of adjudicating disputes in a pluralistic urban society such as developed in Europe would be unacceptably disruptive in a society whose stability was dependent upon the existence of communal affect associated with a common literature which both shaped and was shaped by a common language. The art historian George Rowley once remarked that for the Chinese, truth is not truth unless it is subtle. This is but to say that the bare bones logical propositions, bereft of subjective forms of feeling, cannot be ‘true’. The affective and connotative features of language must always be present if language is to serve its function of harmonizing and stabilizing social interactions.

Herein lies a productive illustration of the greatest of contrasts between the politics of China and of the West. For the Western cultures, which are characterized by a pluralism of beliefs and practices, logical tools are essential as instruments of conflict resolution. For the Chinese culture, characterized by a far greater homogeneity of language and ethnicity, those same tools threaten the community of affect which guarantees social harmony. Thus in China, the seeds of ‘rationalism’ and the contentiousness it entails could be expected to have fallen upon rocky soil, and indeed they did.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. The ‘Hundred Schools’. Chinese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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