some prominent characteristics of historical Chinese thought

1. The place of religion in Chinese history:

There have been extensive disputes over whether Confucian learning, or any other learning, in Chinese history, constituted a religion. The definition of religion usually involves a transcendental God and heaven and some form of negation of life, although not necessarily so.  The definition of religion in the Encyclopedia Britannica gives perhaps the vaguest description: religion "encompasses that to which people are most devoted or that from which they expect to get the most fundamental satisfaction in life."  The transcendental element or negation of life is not mentioned.  By this definition, arguably many activities would be religious ones, and a habitual gambler's religion would be gambling if he was totally involved in it heart and soul.  Still, if treated as  referring to somber activities in quest of the meaning of life, this would apply to Confucian learning and several other schools of learning in Chinese history.  As Fung Yu-lan, a prominent philosopher in 20th century China, points out, like Socrates, Confucius was concerned with the fundamental questions of life.  But Fung denies that Confucian learning is a religion.  Fung distinguishes between philosophy and religion.  He defines philosophy as systematic reflections on life.  Although he did not define religion (Fung candidly admitted he believed in no religion), we can infer from his writings that religion for him constituted a way of life that did not require systematic reflections, although each religion had a philosophical system to back it up.  By his definition, Confucianism is a philosophy, and not a religion.  His definition corroborates with the traditional definition of Confucian learning.  Historically, Confucianism was defined as a "state ethic," starting from the Han Dynasty. (See History Timeline)

Of the three major schools of thought in China, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism (Taoism), although the latter two  are traditionally defined as religion, Fung points out that they have often been approached as philosophy (himself being one example). 

2. Self-transcendence in Chinese philosophy

Even though one may argue that philosophy has had a greater prevalence in China than religion, Chinese philosophy shares with religion certain characteristics.  One of them is self-transcendence.  Fung argues that unlike the Western philosophical tradition as defined by Socrates that emphasized the importance of thinking and definition of knowledge, Chinese philosophy focused on the elevation of the mind.  Thus the ultimate concern of Chinese philosophers was ethical, not with the origin or definition of knowledge, but with how human beings could improve themselves, to rid themselves of egocentrism and selfishness. Philosophy was not only knowledge, but something to be experienced. (Fung, 10)   In contrast, Western philosophy was mostly concerned with knowledge.  Although Socrates in ancient Greece differentiated between knowledge and wisdom, and decided that wisdom must also be good, in the West knowledge in modern times has been distinguished from morality. 

3. The worldliness of Chinese philosophy:

While Chinese philosophy tends to emphasize self-transcendence, it also tends to every details of this world.  Confucian learning is said to be a this-worldly philosophy because it revolves around human behavior in this world, and calls for political leadership as the highest ideal of any scholar.  Daoism, on the other hand, encourages following nature and avoiding the hustle and bustle of this world.  But even Daoism does not encourage abandoning society and life, as some other religions do.  Even though Confucius' preoccupation was the restoration of an ideal political system, Confucius was not a pragmatist that would employ any means to achieve his goal.  He  and later schools of Confucian learning all tried to achieve worldly goals through sagely ways, hence the Chinese phrase "sageliness within, and kingliness without," a term somewhat similar to "the philosopher king," an ancient Roman ideal, although by philosopher the Romans here emphasized wisdom and enlightenment, and by sageliness the Chinese emphasized personal moral cultivation and self-transcendence. 

The goal of Chinese philosophy, and Confucian learning in particular, was to bridge the world of the practical and the ethical/ideal.  This in part originated from the Chinese tradition to bridge the gap between the human world and the world of nature, which leads to the topic of:

4. The aesthetics of Chinese philosophy:

Unlike Western philosophy (perhaps especially modern Western philosophy) that pays special attention to the form of knowledge (Aristotle distinguished between form and content, and modern Western thinkers have scrutinized different types of narratives and how these forms inform the content), Chinese philosophy has historically taken a minimalist approach to the form of knowledge, as in the example of Chuang-tzu: words are for holding ideas, but when one has got the idea, one need no longer think about the words.   Thus Chinese philosophy is often suggestive, full of aphorisms and allusions, rather than articulate. (Fung, 12)  This characteristic is also reflected in Chinese art. (Links to Chinese landscape painting: 1, 2) The Western distinction of the form and content of knowledge comes from an early acknowledgement of the distinction between the objective and the subjective: hence knowledge (its content external to the human being) and its representation by the human being (form).  In China, however, there was historically an attempt to erase the gap between the objective and subjective, form an content.  The ideal was the delivery of the content directly to one's experience, as if there was no gap between external knowledge and the subjective human self.  The objective and the subjective were woven into a continuum.  Thus knowledge tended to be intuitive rather than definitions of concepts.  It is similar to the aesthetic experience: in the latter case the goal is also to bridge the subjective human self with the world represented in art.  Thus when Confucius states the simple joys of life, instead of defining what happiness in life was, he used suggestive phrases such as "doesn't it make one joyful when a friend comes from afar?"--linking happiness of life directly with human experience.

5. Chinese philosophy and its environment:

Fung argues that Chinese philosophy originated from its environment as a farming country.  In contrast to ancient Greece, a maritime region where people were often exposed to novel and unexpected things when they traveled from island to island, the farming community in China gave the people a more insular view of the world.  The movement of the sun and the moon and the succession of the four seasons gave to Taoism (Daoism) the concept that when things developed to their extreme, they would reverse, hence the characteristic Chinese would never indulge himself in over-joy or over-grief.  Farmers also, according to Fung, tend to be simple and straightforward, hence their thinking often relies on what they could see, and Chinese philosophy is "suggestive but not articulate" with no room for such abstract reasoning such as whether a table one sees is real or just an idea in one's mind. (Fung, 25) Greek cities, on the contrary, produced many merchants who relied on abstract numbers in their commercial accounts, hence their abstract reasoning and extensive use of deduction.  (Fung, 25)  The difference between Greek and Chinese societies was also reflected in their social organizations: the farming community in China relied largely on the clan system as the basic social unit: family relationships constituted the most profound social relationships.  The Greek communities of merchants, on the other hand, developed communities based on towns and not families because of the demand of their jobs. (Fung, 25)  Thus Fung tried to explain why deduction was never a prominent part of Chinese philosophy from a sociological point of view.

In the following sessions, we will examine specifically various Chinese schools of thought and how they developed and shaped Chinese thinking over the centuries.


Fung, Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (Mcmillan, 1948).