This post marks the beginning of a three-part series of essays on ancient Chinese philosophy. I will be covering the historical contexts, key figures, and core tenets of three major Chinese schools of thought: Taoism, Legalism, and Confucianism. Ancient Chinese philosophy has interested me for a while, and I’m excited to delve into this topic with you guys. Sorry if this is a bit rambly and unorganized. Go ahead and drop a comment if you want, even if it’s just to tell me I’m full of shit. I’m learning right alongside you on a lot of this stuff.
China, 475 BC. The Zhou dynasty, a vast and powerful military empire, is finally on its last legs. The royal house of Ji, once an institution of immense political and military authority, is shattering. In the wake of the power vacuum, dozens of regional factions are clambering to secure their spot; the backdrop is war and chaos. This is the beginning of the Warring States period, a time of deep political and ideological upheaval in ancient China. Though the Zhou kings had seen total control for centuries, the inherent difficulties in maintaining such a massive decentralized empire were beginning to show.
When the Zhou initially took over, they legitimized their authority by formalizing the concept of the Mandate of Heaven – the idea that an emperor’s right to rule is handed down directly from Heaven, and that Heaven imparts this mandate only to virtuous and worthy rulers. There were also a number of signs that were said to signify when a ruler had become unworthy – including droughts, pestilence, famine, and natural disasters. If the populace began to notice signs that a particular dynasty had become corrupt or ineffective, it was the duty of that populace to overthrow and replace the unworthy emperor. This was how the Zhou dynasty rulers justified their military takeover of the previous Shang dynasty. Unfortunately for the house of Ji, this framework had the side effect of creating a built-in justification for the eventual removal of the Zhou dynasty itself.
Familial ties were also a major diplomatic tool for the Zhou. Local lords and vassals built relationships with the house of Ji by leveraging mutual blood lines or lineages – when none existed, kinship was built through marriage. The authority of the king was thus legitimized through this functional role as the head of what was effectively a giant bureaucratic family. However, these familial alliances could only withstand so much tension.
As the empire continued to expand, the various regional lords and vassals became increasingly concerned with their own sovereign territory, and less concerned with appeasing the dynasty as a whole. The tension between the regional lords and the royal house came to a boiling point in 770BC, when the capital city of Haojing was sacked by the Quanrong tribe, assisted by the Marquis of Shen. King You, the reigning Zhou ruler, was slain during the conflict, and the seat of Zhou royal power was pushed far eastward, to Wangcheng. This marked the transition from the Western Zhou to the Eastern Zhou, and signaled the eventual decline of the dynasty.
So here’s where we’re at: We’re nearing the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC), wherein more and more regional marquises and lords begin to stake their own claims and scrape self-determination and self-governance back from the Zhou. We are entering the aforementioned Warring States Period (475–221 BC), and the writing on the wall is clear. The Zhou dynasty is collapsing, and a new dynasty will soon take hold. But how will this new dynasty be structured, and what will the new ruling ideological paradigm look like? The need to craft a new framework for a functional and prosperous society became the impetus for the vast majority of Chinese philosophy at this time.
In a race to craft the new ruling philosophy, various political thinkers began to put forth new paradigms, giving birth to the 100 Schools of Thought. This is the period of competing ideologies that gave us our Big Three: Taoism, Legalism, and Confucianism. These different schools of thought arose out of a necessity to create a philosophical framework that would succeed where the Zhou had failed.
Enter my boy Laozi. Laozi is credited with authorship of the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Taoist thought. You know this dude is serious because ‘Laozi’ isn’t even his real name, just an honorific title meaning ‘Old Master’. He is a legendary figure in China, and his origin story is convoluted and debated – mostly as a result of his deification over the course of history. But here’s the hyper-condensed version.
Laozi was a court administrator for the Zhou dynasty during the period of conflict that was the Eastern Zhou. Witnessing the decline of the dynasty, he saw everything crumbling around him. He was living in an extremely volatile time, and change was clearly on the horizon. Now, to many thinkers, this was an opportunity to craft entirely new ideas. The old ways had seemingly failed, and it was necessary to change the way people governed and lived their lives. Laozi didn’t look at things this way. Instead of trying to look towards some bold new ideology, Laozi looked towards the past. He was of the belief that humanity had lost its way, and that in order to regain stability and peace we must return to a life of simplicity and harmony.
Now, what I’m not gonna pretend to do here is provide some kind of synopsis of Taoism as a whole. Taoism simply cannot be broken down into one comprehensive summary. It is an incredibly complex and ancient tradition stretching back millenia, with tendrils extending far beyond the scope of this post. What I will try to do is highlight a few important Taoist concepts, beliefs, and practices in order for us to get a better idea of the core messages behind the philosophy, and better understand how it took hold in ancient China.
The most fundamental concept in Taoism is that of the Tao, commonly translated as ‘the Way’. The Tao is typically thought of as the natural order and flow of the universe. I know, super vague – but it’s meant to be. The Tao is actually not a concept that can be entirely communicated through language.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
(Tao Te Ching, Verse 1)
At its core, Taoism is about living a life in harmony with the Tao. This presents an evident difficulty – we should all strive to live in harmony with the Tao, but nobody can actually tell us what the Tao is. This is because the Tao must be intuited through lived experience, and meditation on your place in the universe and the course that your life is meant to take. The Tao changes from person to person, time to time, place to place. This highlights an underlying concept present in much of ancient Chinese philosophy – the notion of reality as non-static and constantly changing.
This concept is further illustrated in the I Ching, ‘The Book of Changes’.
The I Ching is an ancient Chinese divination text, contemporary to the Zhou dynasty. When consulted, it gives the user life advice in relation to a specific question being posed. However, if consulted twice in a row with the same question, it is incredibly unlikely that the user will receive the same answer. To many people, this disproves the divinational power of the I Ching. If it cannot give you a consistent answer, there is no use for it. This criticism is rooted in a Western way of thinking. In ancient China, there is not much focus on trying to posit universalizable theories. In fact, the whole idea is contrary to the core philosophy of the I Ching. It emphasizes that nature is constantly in flux and is not guaranteed to be predictable or communicable, and human attempts to order nature according to a set of rigid laws and rules will ultimately fail. This is why you cannot recreate an I Ching reading just by asking the same question twice. The situation is completely different, as untold numbers of imperceptibly small changes have taken place from the time you did the first reading until now.
If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
(Tao Te Ching, Verse 74)
Laozi was also very concerned with society’s increasing lust for material power and scientific progress. He believed that humans were not particularly special – they did not possess any inherent superiority over the rest of nature, they were simply part of it. We must not, according to Laozi, be blinded by unchecked ambition, material wealth, cultural norms or traditions, and other things that distance us from the natural order. Remember – reality is in constant flux, all power is impermanent, human pursuit and ambition is built on a false sense of superiority over the rest of the world. Material progress is an attempt to disconnect ourselves from what we really are. What we truly ought to do is practice wu wei. Remember this word. It is, like, THE fundamental Taoist concept besides maybe the Tao itself.
Wu wei is typically translated as ‘inaction’, but I like to think of it as ‘effortless action’. This helps differentiate it from the type of ‘inaction’ that entails sitting in your room playing video games and eating Doritos all day. Instead, wu wei is closely related to the Taoist notion of harmony with the natural order. It is about making sure our behavior is as closely aligned with the Tao as possible. This means never trying to force your life in a certain direction, never aggressively asserting your will on the world, never stubbornly maintaining a certain way of thinking or behaving, and straying away from excessive hubris and ambition. Instead, we should swim with the current as it comes – essentially, ‘go with the flow’. This is particularly apt because Laozi uses water as a metaphor for wu wei on a number of occasions.
Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.
(Tao Te Ching, Verse 78)
Like water, we must be fluid, and constantly shifting in the ways we comply to the demands of different problems. Like the nature of reality itself, we must be constantly changing, and cannot be tied down to rigorous ideologies, behavioral patterns, or ways of living. Water is weak and yielding, but through this fluidity, it is able to work around and erode even the largest obstacles. This sense of wu wei can only be achieved when we put our ego to the side, and abandon our long-held ways in favor of whatever is most conducive to the situation at hand.
teach without telling,
allow without commanding,
have without possessing,
care without claiming.
(Tao Te Ching, Verse 16)
Wu wei is about strategic passivity. In many Taoist manuals, it is said that rather than imposing a preconceived solution to a problem, we should let nature take its course, and adjust our own path based on what experience has revealed to be the best course of action. It is a means of reducing rigidity and stubbornness; a way to dissolve strict adherence to singular ways of thinking and doing things.
The nature of reality is constantly flowing and changing, like water. It is the ultimate goal of Taoism to align ourselves with this nature. In the immortal words of Bruce Lee:
You must be formless, shapeless, like water.
When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip, or it can crash.
Be water my friend.