Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Chinese philosophy part 1, order from chaos, Mohism and legalism

In our class we have exclusively focused on the work and thoughts of the western philosophy. While I understand this decision when trying to cover all of philosophy in one semester, this is still only a small part of humanities quest to find meaning in our lives and the universe. To try and sum up the entirety of eastern thought in these blog posts is a task I do not want to even ponder undertaking so I shall instead limit myself to a philosophical overview of one of the worlds longest lasting cultures and the one that it is probably most important that we understand in this day and age; China.
Wherever there are people there are thinkers and philosophers but just as western philosophy truly formed in the schools of Athens Chinese philosophy truly began during the final years of the Zhou dynasty and the warring states period. During this time of bloody civil war several scholars and thinkers tried to derive meaning from the chaos and deduce what had gone wrong with society and how it could be set right again. This phenomenon was later dubbed chu-tzu pai-chia, or one hundred schools of thought.
The two most enduring of these thinkers were Confucius and Lao Tzu (who will each get there own post later). However many of the other philosophies of the time made a large impact on China and by extension the world.
The first of these is Mohism, which was founded by the 5th century (B.C.) sage Mozi.
Mozi was born around the year 470 B.C his family were very poor and some speculate they have been slaves but Mozi managed to work his way into a government position in the state of Song and opened a school for others wishing to work their way into ministerial positions in the warring states. A vehement pacifist, Mozi spent his later years traveling to different warzones and attempting to end the fighting. Mozi was also preoccupied with engineering and mathematics and combined this with his zeal for peace to invent many devices designed to defend a city under siege. Perhaps due to his back ground Mozi possessed a deep empathy for the poor and told his students to practice equal kindness to all people without regard for ties of state, class, or family. He called this “jian ai” or “impartial caring”. He also strongly opposed over reliance on ritual and tradition to form ones opinions and identity and told his students to learn about the world on their own through trial and error.
Because of his disregard for class Mozi’s ideas were not popular with the nobility, however his followers remained relevant due ironically to their usefulness in attacking and defending cities because they knew many of Mozi’s engineering secrets. His rejection of tradition and ritual also earned him the ire of many Confucian scholars who became the authorities on history and philosophy as the centuries wore on, and though many in China today admire him as a modern thinker who was ahead of his time after the warring states period he was largely forgotten until the 20th century. Instead China took a much different path with the philosophy of legalism.
Unlike the other philosophies of the time legalism has no one founder nor was there ever even a formal school of legalist teaching. Instead legalism is a name used by later scholars to apply to the teachings of several warring states philosophers that were eventually adopted by the Qin dynasty.
While other schools said that the fractured conditions of the warring states came about because former rulers disregarded the gods, the poor, or tradition legalists saw the chaos as merely a result of the weakness of those in power. Just as the English civil war inspired Hobbes idea of the ‘leviathan’ state the legalists supported the idea of a centralized code of law and a powerful autocrat. Shang Yang, an advisor to the kings of Qin, quite literally wrote the book on legalism when he codified it for use by the Qin kings. He said if the laws were clear and strong then even a weaker ruler could be affective. He also had little use for morality or mercy seeing them as impediments to the rule of law. Legalism did have its merits however. Under Qin legalism anyone could rise to a high position through merit as exemplified by Lu Buwei a merchant who rose to become the chancellor Qin. Also legalisms emphasis on standardization and simplification led to the creation of a system of measurements still used today and a large efficient bureaucracy, which would influence all later Chinese governments. However the benefits of legalistic government could not out way the growing tyranny and madness of the Qin emperor and shortly after his death the dynasty was overthrown.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang, 1st (and last) emperor of the Qin dynasty who instituted legalism throughout his united China.

Legalism was shunned by later dynasties for it association with the rule of Qin and it was vilified by Confucian scholars who had face severe persecution under that dynasty.


  1. Thanks for helping rectify the omission of eastern philosophy here, Janie, not only by prompting me to include it explicitly on my syllabus next time but also with your posts. (In the future, when anyone searches "Chinese philosophy" on this site they'll find this!

  2. But wait... is this Janie's report, or Jeffrey's? I recall a brief conversation...

    If you guys post under someone else's authorship, be sure to sign YOUR name.