Philosophy 49 - 3.3 Classical Chinese Philosophy

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Distinguish the three main schools of classical Chinese philosophy: Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism.
  • Explain the five constant virtues of Confucian moral philosophy.
  • Identify the key principles of Mohism.
  • Evaluate Daoism’s approach to ethics.

In 2013, archaeologists made a remarkable discovery—Chinese characters on a stone axe dating to 5,000 years ago (Tang 2013). Previously, the earliest known Chinese characters had been dated to approximately 1600 BCE. The stone axe suggests that a written language was in use much earlier than previously thought.

The first written records referring to names, dates, and accounts that were part of Chinese prehistory, like the details of other prehistoric periods around the world, are unverifiable. But this discovery of very early writing suggests that what were once considered myths of Chinese history may have a basis in reality. The so-called Five Emperors and the great leaders Yao, Shun, and Yu are frequently referenced in early writings. These great leaders are identified as sages and are said to have invented the key tools for agrarian civilization, including traps, nets, the plow, and river dams to provide a stable water supply.


Read more about the role of sages in the chapter on introduction to philosophy.

That early sages were rulers and inventors of key technological advances is typical of Chinese thought, which emphasizes the practical importance of wisdom. Classical Chinese philosophers were less interested in questions of epistemology and logic; instead, the most enduring impact of classical Chinese philosophy pertained to ethics. Chinese philosophers were less concerned with bridging the gap between internal thought (subjectivity) and the external world (objectivity) than with understanding how the individual fits in a larger social system so that each may act in the best possible way. This section will examine how the main schools of Chinese philosophy—Confucianism, Daoism, and Mohism—address these questions.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax