Chinese Philosophy

Chinese philosophy differs radically from Western philosophy. Until the late 16th century, China and the Western world were almost completely unaware of one another. Therefore, describing Chinese philosophy in Western terms is difficult.

European philosophers tend to seek out the essence behind appearances. The focus is on materialism and idealism. Chinese thinkers are mainly interested in the establishment of harmonious relationships. Chinese thinking is more concrete and practical. China's isolation allowed it to focus on peaceful interactions within communities, instead of concerns about how to reach compromise among people of different cultures.

The different origins are demonstrated by variances in reasoning, analyses and speculation. The West values logical reasoning while the Chinese use less formal analogies and literary discourse. Westerners seek to obtain a perspective of objectivity while the Chinese choose to put man at the center. The Chinese do not speculate about the nature of things, instead choosing to focus on the goal of social harmony. Furthermore, ideological conflicts were viewed as threats to the well-being of society.

The three main traditions of Chinese culture -- Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism -- contained diverse themes. So anathema was conflict to the Chinese that the three were combined into Neoconfucianism, a way of thought that lasted from the 11th century to the modern period. Even in modern China, traditional Chinese values have prevailed.

Chinese philosophy surrounds the concept of one unified world with two elements. It can be compared to one mother's body pregnant with twins. The oneness of the world is referred to as dao or taiyi while the two elements are called yinyang. As philosophy advanced throughout the years, the positive and negative of the yinyang evolved into being and non-being, then shape and spirit, then principle and vital force. Eventually, the one world with two elements became construed as xinwu, which means mind and thing, or spirit and matter.

Wang Chong of the Han dynasty maintained that a human being includes two parts, the spirit and the physical state. Once a person dies, the spirit will ascend to the heavens while the physical skeleton will be placed under ground. Fang Yizhi, who lived between the Ming and Qing dynasties, observed that mind and things are interdependent. Existence and nonexistence are part of the same order. Later, Dr. Sun Yat0Sen described the symbiosis of spirit and matter.

The model behind the thinking is holistic. The world cannot be defined by one element, such as earth, wind or fire. Reducing the world to purely material or purely spiritual principals is ineffective. The materialistic and the idealistic, the holy and secular are not in conflict; rather, they are two parts of the same whole.

The concept of interdependence is vital to Chinese philosophy. Things such as "strong and weak," "life and death," "male and female" are both opposite and complementary to each other. Most fundamental concepts and categories in the philosophy are paired in mutual dependence.

Ceaseless generation is a central idea of Chinese philosophy. The origin of objects is not God, atom or matter. Rather, it is the concrete processes wherein objects originate. They believe that things are produced as a result of the interaction of two opposite elements within the unified world. For example, change produces the positive and the negative, which produce the four seasons, which then produce the eight diagrams of heaven, earth, wind, thunder, water, fire, mountain and lake. Ancient Chinese philosophy took its cues from human reproduction, extending the idea of man and woman producing a child to the formation of everything from two opposite forces.

In the modern period, Marxism inherited the tradition of Chinese philosophy. Mao Zedong transformed Marxism by making economic principles and social structure interdependent. Even within Marxism, Chinese thinking makes room for the development of individual skills. Under communism, the functioning of the nation as a harmonious family remains. The absence of human rights is consistent with the view of community. Respect for governmental power is indicative of the filial piety demanded of all citizens.

Democracy cannot be readily accepted in China, because individualism is considered a symptom of selfishness. Freedom of speech is difficult to accept because Chinese philosophy views ideas or thoughts as precursors to action. The shape of modern culture is inexorably shaped by the viewpoints of ancient China.

Chinese Philosophy: Selected full-text books and articles

A Short History of Chinese Philosophy By Hsueh-Chin Li; Chi-Chih Chang; Ying Lin; Chau Yang; Wai-Lu Hou Foreign Languages Press, 1959
Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy By Philip J. Ivanhoe; Bryan W. Van Norden Seven Bridges Press, 2001
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
An Introduction to Confucianism By Xinzhong Yao Cambridge University Press, 2000
Chuang-Tzu for Spiritual Transformation: An Analysis of the Inner Chapters By Robert E. Allinson State University of New York Press, 1989
Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi By Paul Rakita Goldin; Xunzi Open Court Pub. Co., 1999
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.