Brief facts about Chinese philosophical courses

Kung Fu Tzu, or Confucius (551 – 479), lived during Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. He established a rigorously ethical philosophy that eschewed speculative thinking on metaphysics. Confucius goal was to reform government so that it could better take care of the welfare of the people. Another philosopher, Lao Tzu (Old Master) also sought to reform government, but his was a less hard-headed philosophy. He is credited with being the founder of Taoism, which was a much more passive and metaphysical approach to the ethical universe. Taoism is, along with Confucianism, the most important strain of Chinese thought through the ages. It is almost entirely different from Confucianism, but not contradictory. Taoism is based on the idea that behind all material things and all the change in the world lies one fundamental, universal principle: the Way or Tao. Taoism is frequently called in China, “The Teachings of the Yellow Emperor and Lao Tzu” or “The Teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu”.

As in Confucianism, its central tenet is living according to the Way (Tao) of Heaven. Confucianism, however, construed the Way of Heaven as involving an active moral life. Lao Tzu on the other hand advised non-interference and non-striving. While there may not actually have been a real person called Lao Tzu, the second founder of Taoism, Chuang Tzu or Zhuang Zhou, certainly did exist. He taught largely the same philosophy. The two, however, did not believe that the Tao could be spoken of in language; therefore their writing is paradoxical and often impenetrable.

The third major school of the period was founded by Mo Tzu, who also sought to reform government so that it guaranteed the welfare of the people. He, however, believed that the root cause of human misery was “selective love,” and so he preached a “universal love.”  Mo Tzu believed that we owe all humans the same obligations we owe to our closest relations. If we all observe those obligations, such things as warfare and starvation would disappear.

Finally, the last of the major schools were the Legalists. In reality an off-shoot of Confucianism, the Legalists believed that humans were basically evil and selfish. The best form of government, that is, the government that best contributed to the welfare of the people, would be one that strictly held humankind’s base instincts in check. This government would be ruled by strict and harsh laws; punishment would be severe and swift. This belief in rule by law is why this school is called “Legalist.” None of these schools of thought, which all had government reform as their target, ever influenced the Zhou government. The first government to adopt any of these theories of government was the Qin who adopted Legalism. The result was brutal, but the Qin Legalist inventions became absolutely central to later Chinese governments.

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