The first names of authors found in Chinese literature belong to philosophers; nevertheless, the Chinese expression for philosophy, zhexue, is a neologism coined on Western languages. The Chinese term zi, which is found in many of the names of ancient Chinese thinkers, is generally rendered as “philosopher”, where it actually means “teacher”.
The first schools of thought arose in China during the third dynasty, that of the Zhou and the first thinker was Confucius (551-479 BC). Confucius more than as an innovator he presented himself as an interpreter of a pre-existing tradition, placing the respect and study of antiquity at the basis of his doctrine. He indicated the way forward in the imitation of the life and works of the wise ancient rulers, hypothesizing a mythical golden age from which humanity would have fallen. Through the practice of the virtues, the individual will have to perfect himself in order to restore an orderly society. The society hypothesized by Confucius is on a strictly hierarchical basis and literature, as in a subsequent age, is conceived as a didactic-didactic means for the elevation of the individual and not as an end in itself. Confucius develops ethics and politics exclusively in his preaching, the former in function of the latter; in his doctrine he always shuns metaphysical problems.
According to intershippingrates, the first great interpreter of the Confucian school was Mencius (Meng Zi, about 327-288 BC), who made the doctrine of Confucius more acceptable for his time. Mencius also gives importance to politics, developing modern theses that lead him to justify regicide against a bad sovereign; the individual appears freer than in the original Confucian statement. In the controversy of the 4th century. on the quality of human nature, Mencius is a staunch defender of the innate goodness of the human soul.
Xun Zi (about 298-238 BC), a heterodox Confucian, insisted instead on the innate wickedness of human nature, which could only be corrected with the study and rigid observance of li, or rather of the rite, of the etiquette, a means of coercion for the inner improvement of the individual. To his school we owe the codification of the rituals of ancient China.
The current of thought that always opposed Confucianism was the Taoist one, which had in Lao Zi, Zhuang Zhou, Lie Zi the first three exponents and, at the same time, the first three philosophical texts.
Lao Zi is a legendary character, who gives his name to a short text, which subsequently took the name of Daodejing (or “Book of the way and of virtue”), in which, albeit succinctly, metaphysical, ethical and political ideas are expressed.
Zhuang Zhou (369-286 BC) is the author of a ponderous work of high literary value in which, in addition to repeating the themes already exposed of the Taoist doctrine, he comes to skeptically doubt everything, even its very existence. There is a recurring reason for the need to leave the nature of the single individual free, because only those who follow their own inclinations can achieve happiness, where laws and society itself are unnatural superstructures, which can only cause pain. In his work there is a first hint of dietary, respiratory and alchemical practices that will later be developed by religious Taoism.
Lie Zi (possibly n. 450 BC) is the supposed author of a book of the same name, certainly later, partially derived from the text of Zhuang Zhou, but of a certain philosophical-religious interest as elements of later magical Taoism abound in it.
The Moist school enjoyed particular fortune, which took its name from its leader, Mo Zi (around 479-381 BC). The theorist of universal love and pacifism, Mo Zi believed in an autocratic state, even more hierarchical than that conceived by the Confucians; he was the first, in China, to link the economy with demography, arguing that a demographic increase would increase agricultural production.
All the philosophical schools of ancient China, which arose in a period of political-economic crisis, envisaged the problem of the state as basic, perhaps denying it as the Taoists paradoxically did; but they all had in mind the mythical golden age of the origins. The exception to this theory was the legalist or legist school (fajia), which had its main exponents in Shang Zi (d. 338 BC) and Han Fei Zi (d. 233 BC). They based their theory on an authoritarian conception of the state, which was to be controlled by a sovereign according to a rigorous observance of the criminal laws; rewards and penalties had to be given according to behavior, which should not refer to the ancient but be appropriate to the present moment. This school, if it had a short life, determined the formation, in 221 BC, of the first Chinese empire and the abolition of the feudal system. In the last centuries of the third dynasty minor schools of thought also operated, such as that of dialectics (mingjia), politicians (zonghengjia), eclectics (zajia) and the school of agriculture (nongjia).
The name of a 3rd century thinker should be remembered from the school of dialectics or sophists. BC, Gongsun Long, who supported a theory that has some affinities with the Platonic one of ideas.
During the Han dynasty, if on the one hand the exegesis of the philosophical texts of the Confucian school began to flourish, on the other there appear some figures of thinkers who define themselves as Confucians, but who in reality deviate from the original thought of Confucius. Typical examples were Dong Zhongshu and Wang Chong.
Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BC) moved away from the theories of Mencius and Xun Zi giving much importance to the relationship between cosmology and politics and essentially basing himself on the doctrine of the Five Elements (wood, fire, metal, water, earth) and on their cyclical rotation. You can start with him that process of philosophical syncretism by which elements derived from other schools that, perhaps, fight each other, but from which one is unconsciously infected, merge.
Wang Chong (about 27-97 AD), in his Lun heng or “Discussions”, tried to combat what was irrational in the theories of the various philosophical schools; if his work of destroying the other systems remains, unfortunately his doctrinal work has been lost.
Around the beginning of the Common Era Buddhism had come to China, not only as a new religious form, but also as a philosophical expression and if, at first, Chinese translations of Pali or Sanskrit texts flourished, they soon followed philosophical-religious treatments in Chinese, all collected in the great Buddhist canon (Sanzangjing). In imitation of the Buddhists, the Taoists also felt the need to collect all their works in a large corpus and thus saw the light of the Taoist Canon (Daozang), in which more than a thousand texts are collected.
With the Song dynasty, the Neo-Confucian school flourished, culminating in the person and work of Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Thanks to the Neo-Confucians, Confucianism was enriched with a metaphysics, derived from the Buddhist and Taoist schools that they too were opposing. Zhu Xi set out to return to a primitive Confucianism, free from later superstructures; in fact, he did syncretistic work beyond his apparent orthodoxy. The last great exponent of the Confucian school was Wang Yiangming (1472-1528), who lived under the Ming dynasty, who tried to oppose Zhu Xi’s interpretation of Confucianism.
The school called Hanxue or Han school arose, as opposed to the neo-Confucian Song school; an attempt was made to re-study Confucian philosophical texts according to the most ancient comments, arriving at philological results of primary importance and giving rise to the first Chinese Sinology.
Between the end of the 19th century. and the first decades of the following China came into contact with Western thought. It was thanks to a great translator, Yan Fu (1853-1921), that TH Huxley, A. Smith, H. Spencer, JS Mill, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Hume were translated into Chinese. Consequence of the aforementioned contact was the diffusion in China of various Western philosophical strands, from Darwinian evolutionism to Nietzsche’s theories, to the Marxist ones. The latter was especially inspired by Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) who, together with Hu Shi (1891-1962), pragmatist and disciple of J. Dewey, developed a strong critique of Confucianism giving life to the New cultural movement whose watchwords they were ‘democracy’ and ‘science’. This attempt to spread the ideals of Western civilization in China was countered, especially after the First World War, by a revaluation of Confucianism and the revival of metaphysical-religious themes by Liang Qichao (1873-1929), a follower of the currents pessimistic, by Liang Shuming, a learned Buddhist, and by Zhang Junmai, a scholar of Bergson and Eucken.
Original contributions to the development of Marxist thought were also elaborated by Li Dazhao (1888-1927) and, in particular, by Mao Zedong who, in the works On the practice and On the contradiction, both of 1937, attempted to graft the Marxist dialectic on the traditional Chinese dialectic..