10 Greatest Ancient Chinese Philosophers
From Confucius to Shang Yang, here are brief biographies of the 10 greatest ancient Chinese philosophers.
Zhu Xi (1130-1200) was one of the foremost Neo-Confucian philosophers and writers of the Song dynasty (960-1279). Having been influenced by the writings of Cheng Yi (1033-1107), Zhu Xi is credited with infusing Buddhist ideals into Confucianism and then coming out with a host of Neo-Confucianism ideas.
A devout Confucian scholar, Zhu Xi’s commentaries and interpretations of the Four Books and Five Classics were for a long time (from the 14th century to the early 20th century) the standard study material for applicants into the civil service.
Famed for his passionate encouragement of scholars to always investigate things, Zhu Xi was a leading expert in meditation, the classics, and historiography. His teachings, also known as Shushigaku (School of Zhu Xi), were very popular and were compiled into many books.
Even though he was most famous as a military strategist, Sun Tzu (c. 544 BC- c. 496 BC), the author of The Art of War, is considered by many historians as a brilliant philosopher.
Born Sun Wu, this Chinese general and philosopher is believed to have lived in the second half of the Zhou dynasty of ancient China, which was a period between 770 B.C. and 256 B.C.
Sun Tzu’s greatest accomplishment has to be The Art of War, a military strategy book that has influenced not just Chinese philosophy but also Western philosophy and military warfare. The book delves into many issues, including alternatives to battle, war stratagem, delay tactics, deployment of spies, alternative conflict resolution techniques, the formation of alliances, and the use of deceit to one’s advantage.
In the Art of War, General Sun Tzu also talks about how temporary submission to mightier enemy forces could prove advantageous in the future. Many ancient Chinese emperors relied heavily on Sun Tzu’s teachings. For example, Emperor Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, praised the philosophies and military tactics in The Art of War as very useful in aiding his Qin dynasty (221 BC-206 BC) bring an end to the Warring States period (c. 475-221 B.C.E).
Modern military commanders and generals, including Communist leader Mao Zedong of China, have used the book to secure victories in battles and wars. Sun Tzu’s teachings have also been applied in a host of other modern day industries including stock trading, sports, business management, and music.
Sun Tzu was not just one of the greatest philosophers of ancient China, but he was also a phenomenal military mind revered across East Asian culture and the Western countries.
Read More: 10 Greatest Ancient Chinese Emperors
Known as the ancient Chinese philosopher and politician who founded Legalism, Shang Yang (c. 390-338 BCE) was an influential thinker during the Warring States period of ancient China. Known as Wei Yang, Shang Yang was born in the Zhou vassal state of Wei. His brilliance helped earn him a number of high-ranking positions, first serving as a statesman and later a chancellor in the state of Qin. He is credited with laying the foundations upon which the Qin state used in rising to prominence.
As a reformer, Shang Yang’s policies were instrumental in not just shaping the political landscape but also the economic and administrative fabric of the State of Qin. As result, the State of Qin would rise and conquer the remaining six warring states, uniting China under one emperor known as Qin Shi Huang in 221 B.C.E.
Shang Yang was a firm believer of system that encouraged citizens to place loyalty to the state above their loyalty to their family. He also strongly implemented a meritorious award system in the military, one that saw distinguished soldiers in battle get assigned better property in the state.
His ideas, which formed the basis of Chinese legalism, were the dominant school of thought during the Qin Dynasty. Chinese legalism, also known as Fajia – “house of administrative methods”, was vital in setting up the bureaucratic systems in ancient China.
With the exclusion of the famous legalist reformer Shang Yang, there was hardly any influential thinker in legalism that could rival Han Fei (c. 280-233 B.C.E), a Chinese philosopher and statesman. There are some historians and sinologist that go as far as claiming that Han Fei was the greatest Legalist mind of ancient China.
Han Fei was born into the royal family of the state of Han during the Warring states period. In his work the Han Feizi, arguably his most famous work, Han Fei brilliantly synthesized the ideas and methods of influential legalist philosophers of the past, including Legalism founder Shang Yang, whose ideas on laws influenced Han Fei tremendously.
Some modern historians are quick to compare the ideas of Han Fei to that of 16th century Renaissance philosopher and writer Niccolò Machiavelli as both philosophers encouraged the use of administrative methods or standards/laws to maintain a strong grip, order and security in a nation. Some historians and scholars go as far as saying that Han Fei’s ideas are even more superior to Machiavelli’s.
Han Feizi’s works were a must-read for many Shu Han crown princes, as they were seen as providing deep knowledge about how to rule. His ideas were even picked up by many chancellors and scholars during the early Qin dynasty. China’s first emperor, Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin dynasty, was an avid follower of the teachings of Han Feizi. According to famous Han dynasty historian Sima Qian, King Qin had such a strong admiration for Feizi that he went to war with Han in order to consult with Han Feizi.
Borrowing on the ideas of his predecessors, Han Fei is most famous for highlighting the importance of abiding to a set of ideas pertaining to Fa (law/principle), Shu (method/tactic/art), and Shi (legitimacy, power or charisma). His ideas enabled the Qin dynasty, under the rule of Emperor Qin, to establish a totalitarian society with clear set of strict laws and harsh punishments.
Aside from being one of the most distinguished Confucian philosophers of all time, Xunzi (c. 310 BCE – c. 235 BCE) was famed for having tutored renowned philosophers like Han Fei and Li Si (an influential statesman and chancellor of the Qin state).
Also known as Xun Kuang, Master Xun was born during the Warring States period. His grasp of Confucian ideas and other schools of thoughts made him one of the most distinguished philosophers of the Hundred Schools of Thought period (c. 470-c. 391 BCE). His work, particularly the Xunzi, had a big influence on many Han dynasty rulers. As result, he is often times regarded as the third greatest Confucian scholar of all time, behind Confucius and Mencius.
Coming in fifth on our list of greatest ancient Chinese philosophers is Zou Yan, the naturalist and famous advocate of Yin and Yang School. Zou Yan (c. 305-240 B.C.E.) is most famous for coming out with concepts that synthesize many of the prevailing ideas of the era with the Yin-Yang school. He lived during the Hundred Schools of Thought era (6th century BCE to 3rd century BCE), an era of tremendous intellectual and cultural growth interlaced with bloodshed and conflict among a number of states.
Most likely born in the state of Qi, Zou Yan got most of his training at the Jixia Academy. Since it was an era of immense growth of many philosophies and schools, Zou Yan took to combining different schools of thoughts before he ultimately arriving at his own school of thought. However, he still relied heavily on the School of Naturalists, synthesizing it with a host of scientific thoughts.
According to Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, Zou Yan was one of the greatest polymaths of his era. He was an acclaimed philosopher because of his ability to succinctly explain the universe in simple elements and forces of nature, i.e. the Five Elements– which were wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. As result, many Taoist alchemists took inspiration from his work.
To many historians, Mozi, also known as Mo Di, was the founder of the Mohism School of thought, one of the numerous schools that sprang up during the Hundred Schools of Thought period. Mozi (c. 470-c. 391 BCE) was a big advocate of impartiality and meritocratic governance. He constantly called on state officials to treat everyone as equal since to him, everyone was equal in the eyes of heaven. He noted that true economic growth was the outcome of a meritocratic system and strong aversion to ostentation.
Born in the State of Lu (present day Tengzhou, Shandong Province), Mozi was praised for the manner in which he used simple language to explain early Chinese concepts on logic, technology and defensive warfare.
As the founder of Mohism (or Moism), Mozi thought about universal love and explained to his followers how love for each other was mutually beneficial for the parties. He reasoned that love for each other equally and impartially had the ability to end conflict and war. Slightly against Confucian ritual, Mozi advocated for practical ways of living and farming.
Sadly his Mohist ideas and philosophy started going into decline beginning around the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE-206 BCE), which suppressed all other schools of thoughts except Legalism. That decline of Mohism would continue way beyond the Qin dynasty, even during the Han Dynasty and the Western Han Dynasty.
A prominent follower of Confucius, Mencius (c. 385-c. 302 BCE) was an ancient Chinese philosopher often described as the “Second Sage”. This means that he is considered the second most important figure in Confucianism, that is, after only Confucius himself.
An idealist, Mencius was member of Confucius’ fourth generation of disciples. He is credited with adopting and then developing Confucius’ ideas to make them more applicable to his era and subsequent eras.
Mencius took to the task of journeying across China and offering his ideas and advice to numerous rulers. The interactions he had with those rulers was very beneficial, as it formed the basis of his famed book Mencius. His ideas mainly covered topics on political philosophy, ethics and morality. Mencius at all times encouraged his followers to practice the habit of cultivating the innately good aspects of their lives. He is most known for claiming that human beings are innately good and that it was through ethical cultivation that a healthy environment could be attained.
Laozi was an extraordinary thinker of ancient China most known for coming out with the central tenets of Daoism (Taoism) – one of the three main thoughts of ancient China. Known as the “Old Master”, Laozi lived in Chu, a southern state in the Zhou dynasty. The exact year of his birth is unknown as historians often place his life between the 6th century and 4th century. However, modern historians and sinologists have stated that he lived during the Warring States period, which was in the 4th century B.C.E.
According to the Shiji (Records of the Historian) – written by Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. -220 C.E.) historian Sima Qian (c. 145-86 B.C.E) – Laozi was born Li Er and worked in the records department at the court of Zhou. Such was his eminence in philosophy that the Great Sage Confucius (551-479) once consulted him on ritual matters. According to Qian, Confucius even had enormous praise for Laozi, meaning that he may have been a senior contemporary or tutor of Confucius.
Laozi is believed to have been encouraged to put down his teachings in writing by Yin Xi, a border official at the northwestern border. The work contained about five thousand Chinese characters and was divided into two parts. It primarily focuses on the meaning of Dao (the “Way”) and de (virtue). The philosopher is believed to have spent his life seeking virtue through Ziran (virtue) and wuwei (“nonaction”). It is worth mentioning that in the religious aspect of Daoism, the daojia, Laozi is revered as a supreme being. Thus, his work Tao Te Ching and other teachings have had tremendous influence on the entirety of Chinese culture, influencing spirituality, ethics and political philosophy.
Known as the “Old Master” – Old and Master
Philosophical tradition and organized religion – the philosophical side is known as daojiao while the religions part is known as daojia
Born around 551 BCE, Kong Fuzi, known to the West as Confucius, was undoubtedly the greatest ancient Chinese philosopher. He is credited with coming out with teachings that make up the philosophical school known as Confucianism. This school was so widely accepted by the ancient Chinese simply because Confucius was able to embed the core elements of Chinese culture into his teachings and philosophy. As a result, his ideas, which were developed during the political turmoil during the Warring States period, resonated very well with the ancient Chinese.
The core concepts that make up Confucius’ philosophy include rén (‘human-heartedness’), xiao (filial piety – respect for one’s family member, elders and ancestors), zhong (loyalty), li (ritual), and zhengming (rectification of names and calling things by their proper names).
Drawing inspiration from ancient Chinese masters of the Zhou state and the prevailing Chinese religion and culture of his era, China’s Great Sage, Confucius (551-479 BCE), was able to fashion out a philosophy that went beyond social and political constructs to include moral and religious thought. Confucius regarded himself as the retransmitter of Zhou values. His ideas could flourish due to the fact that the Warring States period was characterized by increased literacy and attention to ethics, personal and governmental morality. Confucius simply crafted a philosophy that allowed the people at the time to pursue things like justice, sincerity, and correctness of social relationships while still not losing interest in traditionalism.
Since its birth in the sixth century BCE, Confucianism has largely remained the most dominant philosophical thought in China. With the exception of a few periods in ancient China’s history, for example during the Qin dynasty, Confucianism was the closest thing to a state religion that the Chinese had. Confucianism, rebranded as Neo-Confucianism, reached its peak particularly during the Tang and Song Dynasties.