Philosophy 50 - 3.3.1 Early Chinese Philosophical Thought prior to Confucius

Philosophical thought in China initially developed during an epoch known as the Spring and Autumn period, between the eighth and fifth centuries BCE. The period gets its name from a historical document attributed to Confucius called the Spring and Autumn Annals. This period was characterized by the rise of a sophisticated feudal system and relative stability in Chinese politics. Despite advances in government, agriculture, art, and culture, the earliest Chinese texts reveal a concern with the supernatural and highlight the connections that were thought to exist between human beings and the spiritual realm. Great rulers governed not only the affairs of human beings but also the spiritual forces that influence human affairs (Fung 1952). Similarly, the arts of divination, astrology, and magic were celebrated as evidence of the capacity of some human beings to manipulate spiritual forces to benefit humanity.

Magical and mystical thinking of this early period was connected to scientific and philosophical thought. For instance, it was thought that there were five fundamental elements: earth, wood, metal, fire, and water. It was believed that there was connection between these five elements and the five visible planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) as well as the five constant virtues (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and trustworthiness). The connections between human virtues, the planets, and the material elements provided some rational basis for belief in spiritual and magical forces (Fung 1952).

Woodcut of a seated man wearing a long, flowing robe. Chinese characters appear above the image at the top of the page.
Figure 3.8 Huangdi of China, a mythical-historical sage from the third millennium BCE, is considered both the first ruler to establish a centralized state in China and the author of the texts that served as the basis for Chinese traditional medicine for thousands of years. (credit: “Chinese Woodcut, Famous Medical Figures: The Yellow Emperor” by Gan Bozong/Wellcome Collection, Public Domain)

Early Chinese writings often refer to the concept of heaven in opposition to the earth, but the word has a meaning that is likely unfamiliar to a modern Western audience. In these texts, the word heaven might refer to a material or physical space, like the sky; a ruling or presiding power, like the emperor; something over which human beings have no control, like fate; nature as a whole; or a moral principle guiding human action. Some of these resemble the familiar Western religious concept, but others are quite different. Nonetheless, records of great speeches in the Zuozhuan suggest that even in the sixth century BCE, leading thinkers of the period encouraged people to move away from a concern with heavenly matters and toward a greater interest in human affairs on Earth (Fung 1952).

Writings from this period also show the beginnings of the theory of yin and yang, the two fundamental forces that are characterized as male and female, or dark and light, or inactivity and activity. The move toward a theory that explains natural phenomena through fundamental forces rather than through spiritual or heavenly forces characterizes a shift from a more mythological and religious age to a more rational and philosophical age.

Another key concern of early Chinese texts is distinguishing between identity and harmony, where harmony is understood to produce new things, while identity does not. The point seems to be that whereas the same matter or form repeated does not generate anything novel, two or more different things, when combined together in a harmonious way, can produce something new. To illustrate, consider the fact that there is no music if there is only one note, but many different notes in harmony with one another can produce beautiful melodies. A wise and powerful ruler combines elements in harmonious ways to influence their citizens and exercise their power. Whether the elements are five tastes; five colors; the six notes of the pitch pipe; the ingredients of soup; the forces of wind, weather, or seasons; or the five virtues, a wise leader institutes a harmonious relation between these elements, and that relation is what is said to be responsible for the leader’s success.

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