The Ancient Chinese Ideas


Mitsuru Onda


      The ancient Chinese ideas were developed greatly by a lot of philosophers called Zhu zi bai jia (諸子百家), who established their own ideas during 770-221 B.C. or the era called Chun xiu zhan guo shi tai (春秋戦国時代). Some of their ideas influenced not only China but many surrounding countries including Japan in those days, and these ideas are still influencing many countries in the world.

      In this paper I would like to describe three important ideas from their philosophy, which were Confucianism (儒教), Taoism (道教) and Legalism (法治主義) by Hanfeicius, associating them with the contemporary world and appending my own idea.


Chapter 1 Confucianism

      Confucianism was established by Confucius (孔子) in 500 B.C. approximately and developed firmly by his successor Mencius (孟子). The idea of Confucius was represented by the word “Ren ()”, which meant human love and its fundamentals were to love one’s parents and elderly people wholeheartedly. In order to put this idea into practice, people had to be faithful and keep the rule of the society.

 Confucius developed his idea “Ren” into the field of politics and set up the thoughts called “Domination by Dharma”, whose idea was as follows: To take the reins of government by “Domination by Dharma” is likened to the way the Polestar is situated in the same place forever and twinkles in the center of many stars which are rotating around it. In the same way, if a leader who has dharma or virtue takes the reins of government, people’s minds will be clean and right.

 Mencius took over the thought of Confucius and advocated “Good Human Disposition”, which meant “Human beings have such minds by nature as they cannot overlook unhappiness of others, so human nature is naturally good. Mencius’s fundamental idea was “Good Human Disposition” and the idea was expanded to the field of politics. He denied “Hegemonism” or politics by force of arms and advocated “Highroad” or politics by human love. He carried out such policies as people having stable jobs and salaries so that they were able to live peacefully with the best minds.

      We are able to bring up eight typical words which represent Confucianism: “Ren () or human love”, “Yi () or right judgement”, “Li () or proper deed”, “Zhi () or wisdom”, “zhong () or loyalty”, “xin () or true heart”, “Xiao () or filial piety”, “Ti () brotherly affection”, which were originally good and right platonic ideas. These ideas were spread accurately or inaccurately at times around many countries, including Japan. These ideas had an influence upon Japan, deeply and correctly, but sometimes incorrectly. Especially in the Edo Period, The Tokugawa Shogunate regarded these two ideas of “Zhong” and “Xiao” very important. The two ideas became the backbone that supported the Tokugawa feudal system and the class system, such as warriors, farmers, artisans and tradesmen, whose hierarchy was very strict. In addition, the two ideas were passed to the following eras (Meiji, Taisho and Showa in succession), and became the fundamental idea of supporting the Emperor system and its absolutism that were the central idea of promoting the offensive war of conquest.


Chapter 2 Taoism

      Taoism also started from Chun xiu zhan guo shi tai (春秋戦国時代), but it exists even now and continues to influence many countries in the world in various forms. For instance, the hippies, who were young and rejected conventional ways of living, behaving, and tried to live a life based on peace and love, were deeply influenced by Taoism in the 1960s and 70s. The ideas of Taoism were mainly presented by two philosophers and their books called “Laozi (『老子』)” and “Zhuangzi (『荘子』)”, but there were some points in common and differences between the two.

 Laozi often used the word “Tao ()”, whose definition of the conception was difficult to explain clearly, but we can suppose that it meant not only the origin of the universe and creation, but also eternal, solitary and absolute existence. “Tao” was often likened to water by Laozi. Water is able to have mercy on all things, but never fights other things. As water is flexible, it is able to defeat solid things. It is Laozi’s fundamental conception of his thought that people will acquire wisdom to live, through behaving like water. In addition, Laozi advocated “Do Nothing and Be Natural (無為自然)” and “Benefit from Emptiness (無用の用)”, which two ideas were as follows: The former is the attitude that people should live as they really are, without any artifice. The latter is the idea that a thing which has its own shape is useful, not because of its visible outer shape but its invisible emptiness, which no one perceives. Laozi cited examples of “Benefit from Emptiness” as chinaware and a room which were able to encase things and useful because the insides of these things are empty.

 In addition to these two ideas, Laozi insisted on the importance of “Small Nation and Few People (小国寡民)” as a political idea. This idea meant that there would be an idealized society only by being self-renunciation, denying civilization, and producing a self-sufficient society. In those days this kind of idea stood in direct opposition to the trend of the times, in which the leaders sought the policy of increasing a nation’s wealth and military, and its expansionism as well.

 Zhuangzi put forward “Wan Wu Ji Tong (万物斉同)” and thought such a society ideal as “Wu He You Zhi Xiang (無何有之郷)”. The first word, “Wan Wu Ji Tong”, meant that all creation was equal. Zhuangzi thought it ideal. To enter into the details, he insisted that right or wrong, good or evil, truth or falsehood, beauty or ugliness, wealth or poverty, life or death and so on, which were regarded as opposite conceptions by other philosophers, were meaningless and relative codes of value. The second word “Wu He You Zhi Xiang” meant the empty world where it was wide but there was nothing shackled. He regarded the world as ideal.

 I would like to quote a short story called “Becoming a butterfly in a dream” from the book “Zhuangzi” and study his idea.


One day Zhuangzi dreamt that he became a butterfly in his dream. He was flitting freely in the sky as a butterfly, before long he woke up and noticed that he was still Zhungzi not a butterfly. He did not know whether he became a butterfly or a butterfly became Zhuangzi in the dream. (My translation)


 In this short story, Zhuangzi described that there was no absolute difference between dream and reality, and that both situations just denoted temporary aspects in the unremitting alteration.

 Taoism influenced Japan widely and deeply from a long time ago. In the field of religion, it was well-known from a long time ago that Taoism had an effect on “Shugendo (修験道)” which had been a mountain religion from the Nara Period. In the field of medical science, we can find its influence in the book “Yojokun (養生訓) written by Ekken Kaibara (貝原益軒) in the previous period of Edo.

 We can say the fundamentals of Taoism were to deny mighty forces and maintain a harmonious balance with others by seeking small happiness with no desire.


Chapter 3 Legalism by Hanfeicius

      Hanfeicius regarded legalism as very important and insisted that a leader should command his subjects by power of law and impel the policy of increasing a nation’s wealth and military (富国強兵政策). There is a story called “Disservice by infringing on the role of others (侵官之害)” in his book “Hanfeicius 『韓非子』”, which said that the regulation was more important than human feeling or love. The short story was as mentioned below.


Long ago, Zhao hou (昭侯), the king of Han () Dynasty, was sleeping after drinking. The dian guan (典冠), or the member in charge of the crown, thought that the king felt cold and he overlaid a jacket on the body of the king. After a while, the king was very pleased after waking up and said to his attendant, “Who did overlay this jacket on me?” and the attendant answered, “The dian guan did”. Then the king punished both of the dian guan and dian yi (典衣) who were in charge of the clothes of the king. The reasons why the king punished the dian yi was that he did not do his job, while the dian guan infringed on the role of others.

The punishment was done because of disservice by infringing on the role of others, which was more dangerous than the problem of coldness that was the problem for the king. (My translation)


 Shi huang di (始皇帝) in Qin () Dynasty changed the former policy by which he had given lands to the feudal lords and made them to govern their people, into a new policy whereby he would govern all the people only by himself as the emperor. He chose the system that all power was centralized to the emperor and all the people were ruled by the emperor as the absolute monarch. The emperor needed a lot of bureaucrats, who worked as his instrument, under this system in order to rule over the whole country. It was very important for him to set strict limits to the bureaucrats’ free will so that they could never exceed their competence and infringe on the role of others.

 Hanfei’s system to control the bureaucrats was adopted by the dictator Shi huang di.

 In the same book there was an interesting short story titled “Er Bing (二柄)” concerning reward and punishment by a monarch. This story described the importance of authority that a monarch must maintain firmly, and insisted that if the monarch lost either of the two powers, or reward and punishment, he was not able to maintain his status as a monarch.

Now, let me cite another example, which was regarded as his central idea.


In the first place, the reason why the lion can make the dog obedient is that the lion has claws and fangs. If the tiger gave up its claws and fangs and the dog used them, the tiger would obey the dog. The monarch should rule his subjects by authority of reward and punishment. Therefore, if the monarch released authority and the subjects used authority, the monarch would obey the subjects. (My translation)


In this short story, we can find the idea of “Xin Shang Bi Fa (信賞必罰)” meaning that a monarch will give a reward to the subjects who achieved good jobs, while he will severely punish the subjects who did wrong or betrayed him.

 This idea was adopted often by many leaders during warring states periods in Japan as well in order that the leaders treated their followers. In recent times, we can find the instance where the premier Bismarck of Germany adopted a similar idea, which was called “carrot-and-stick policy”, or the policy of compromise and punishment. Moreover, in the modern world, we can cite many examples of this idea not only in America but in major nations. The idea of “Xin Shang Bi Fa” became the methodology of the policy of increasing a nation’s wealth and military in the world of politics. To make matters worse, it often came to lead to expansionism and aggressive policy. I dare to give a name to this policy as “Exvandalism”, a coinage from “Expansionism and vandalism”.


Chapter 4 Conclusion

       People say human beings have five desires: appetite, sexuality, sleep, fame and wealth. Moreover, I would like to add intellectual curiosity, and make them six desires. First three desires are essential for human beings to live or leave offspring. The fourth desire is very important in order that human beings live humanly unlike other creatures. We can never deny that all of these desires, called libido by Freud, have advanced civilization, advanced our society, developed our economy and improved our condition. Of course, we are allowed to let out these desires within reason.

 Human beings are the only creatures that have desires for fame and wealth. In some cases these two desires will be dangerous for us, if we have a strong passion for fame or wealth. For instance, some strong leaders or dictators invaded other countries or embarked on wars because they had these two desires strongly. Some politicians wanted to become a great leader in a big country, others wanted to have a lot of land in another country. Desires for fame and wealth never cease till they are granted. We should know how to receive satisfaction within reasonable bounds.

 I would like to cite a short story called “Takasebune,” written by Ogai Mori who was one of the most famous writers in Japan and express myself in relation to the story. “Takasebune” was a ship that sent prisoners under guard to a distant island in Edo Period. An officer Shobei and prisoner Kisuke was on board. Kisuke killed his brother, who had been seriously ill and tried to commit suicide, but the brother could not die after cutting his throat by himself. Kisuke granted his brother’s request “Please kill me. My throat is very painful.” and cut his brother’s throat. Thus Kisuke became a criminal. Shobei wondered why Kisuke was smiling happily and asked Kisuke, “What are you thinking now?” Kisuke answered “I suffered from extreme poverty till now. I had no experience to have money inside my kimono. Howsoever I worked hard, I couldn’t have my own money. The authorities gave me 200 mon as the money for hard work at the island, which is probably small money for ordinary people, but it’s enough for me.” Shobei was very surprised to learn that Kisuke didn’t have any desire and thought Kisuke knew “Contentment represents great riches” or to know sufficiency even if it’s not enough. Then Shobei speculated as to the life of human beings and noticed that we have many kinds of desires, which don’t cease in every point, but Kisuke could stop his desire and felt happy.

      In my point of view, it is not easy to know “Contentment is great riches” but important to realize. Many kinds of desires have advanced civilization and improved our condition doubtlessly, but we should know how to control our desires before long.

 Consequently, I will give support to Taoism for the reasons mentioned above. I will stand for selflessness. It is not easy for the rich or the famous to do so, but I am not either of them. In addition, I am not young by now and able to be contented with honest poverty.


A list of References:

1.         “Encyclopaedia Britannica 2002” (Written by Britannica Editors)

2.         “Japan An illustrated Encyclopedia 1993” <Edited by Edwin O. Reischauer, Ichiro Kato and others> (Kodansha)

3.         『儒家の思想』<諸橋 轍次・鎌田 共編>(大修館 1983)

4.         『道家・法家の思想』<諸橋 轍次・鎌田 共編>(大修館 1983)




Copyright 2002 Mituru Onda. All rights reserved