The Human Journey
The Axial Age

Axial Age Thought


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The Hundred Schools of Thought

During the chaos and confusion of the bloody battles and the social disruption of the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods, a new and vital cultural and intellectual movement emerged that to this day profoundly influences the lifestyles and social consciousness of millions of people. It became known as The Hundred Schools of Thought. It was the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy when thoughts and ideas were discussed and refined by itinerant scholars, often employed by various state rulers as advisers. This period endured until the rise of the Qin dynasty.

These philosophers expressed an entirely new ethic for the region, though each would synthesize and interpret it in his own way. Instead of simply serving one’s own interests or even the interests of friends, family, clan and nation, they suggested that as human beings we should accept responsibility for our own life, actions and thoughts, and that we are capable of a higher morality, the achievement of which is our obligation.

Confucius (550 - 479 BCE)

Text: The analects of Confucius
The Analects of Confucius

Confucius (or Kongzi – Master Kong) represented himself as a transmitter who invented nothing. A hallmark of his teaching was his emphasis on education and study. He wanted his disciples to think for themselves and study the world.

The most reliable information we have of him comes from the Analects (Lunyu), a collection of his sayings, conversations and anecdotes compiled posthumously by his disciples, some of them long after his death.

During his lifetime he was a teacher of history, a public official, and for his final twelve years wandered the states of China with a few disciples.

Confucius, by Tang Dynasty
artist Wu Daozi (680-740).

Confucius was a traditionalist. In a time of division, chaos, and endless wars between feudal states, he wanted to restore the Mandate of Heaven. He respected authority and believed that a humane society depends on respect for one’s superiors. He was interested in politics not for its ability to wield power but for its ability to work for the good of the realm and the well-being of all citizens. China’s problems could be resolved by a return to the traditions of the legendary Sage Kings of old: if the leader is virtuous, the people will follow his example.

His ideas were not founded on religion or a vision of the divine, but on human potential. Ren, or the essence of being human (“humaneness”) was achieved through self-cultivation and was central to his teaching. It focused on the development of one’s character: moral improvement he saw as part of our very humanity, manifested in the way we express and fulfill our deepest natures.

This involved following a version of the Golden Rule: “by understanding our own wishes, we may image what others desire.”

Junzi originally in pre-Axial times simply meant a gentleman or nobleman. A Junzi lived by a code of conduct that defined correct behavior.

The junzi or “gentleman” according to Confucious, was an independent thinker who was not only compassionate but wise, acting to promote the success of others, and more concerned about appreciating others than of other’s failure to appreciate him.

Confucius believed that religious rituals were useful if they enabled individuals to cultivate the qualities of Ren, such as reverence, gratitude and humility.

Li originally meant the correct observance of ritual sacrifice and ceremonies performed for the gods, ancestors and other spirits; now Li, in Confucius’s view referred to all occasions of human interaction.  In all our dealings with others, we ought to comport ourselves with the same dignity appropriate to a sacred act, banishing acts of violence, rudeness and maintaining sincerity and social etiquette. Even manners – which could be thought superficial - when practiced with the proper inner disposition had the potential to make us more human.

Li now became a way to transform a person, any person, not just the elite. Confucius channeled what had previously been a kind of magical thinking into something transcendent, available to all of humanity.

His disciples found his path difficult and saw that striving for goodness was a lifelong process that might be unattainable. Unlike the Buddha, Confucius had no goal of liberation or the ending of samsara. His disciples aspired to goodness or Ren in this lifetime and for its own sake. Confucius believed that through the cultivation of Ren people could achieve social harmony in this life and that this would have a salutary effect throughout society.


Daoism was the second most influential philosophy to emerge in China at this time. And like Confucianism, philosophical Daoism developed as a response to the same political, social and economic pressures, but probably not as a result of one person’s vision and effort. Tradition, however, claims that Daoism was the work of Laozi (or Lao-tsu). It was primarily concerned with two classic texts: the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi, and provided a comprehensive view of the world including the sacred and the ultimate.

Laozi (The Dao De Jing – The Classic of the Way and the Virtue) (ca. 300 BCE)

The Dao (The Way)

The Axial concept of Dao is found in all forms of Chinese philosophy, usually translated as the “way” or “path.” Confucians connected the way to culture, the observances of tradition, ritual and li. To Confucius the Dao meant avoiding excesses, applying conscious self-restraint and self-awareness in word and deed. The Daoists also understood Dao as the appropriate way for humans to order and live their lives. But for them following the way was participating in the Dao of nature, the changes and rhythms of the universe, the mystery, intuition, and enigma of the natural world.

The Dao De Jing refers to the Dao as the mother of the universe, the source of all things: the way of nature. The Dao is the named and the nameless; it is primordial, stable, constant, eternal and ineffable, yet it is the source of change and the cycle of life. Human understanding is limited and there are aspects of the Dao that cannot be spoken.

Click here for the earlier pre-Axial concept of Dao.

Laozi (“Old Master”) lived in the fourth century BCE during the Hundred Schools of Thought era. He is traditionally believed to have been a record-keeper at the Zhou Dynasty court.

In the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) Laozi describes the Dao as a source of all existence. The main focus of the text is to lead human beings back to their natural way of life in harmony with the Dao. According to the Dao De Jing humans have no special place within the Dao. They are seen as having desires and free will and are instructed to act in accordance with nature and in harmony with the Dao. The Dao De Jing uses paradox, analogy and ancient sayings to convey its message.

A central theme is the concept of nothingness which is used to describe the Dao and three other concepts:
virtue (de)
natural behavior (ziran)
non-action (wuwei)

De, has been translated as virtue, potency, efficiency, integrity or power. The concept of De seems to be a Daoist response to the question of human nature and much of the Dao De Jing concerns how to reconcile and meld the Dao and De. Human beings are said to be born of heaven and earth and therefore are modeled after both.

The Dao De Jing describes the ideal Sage Kings as someone who understands ziran.

“He who knows much about others may be learned, but he who understands himself is more intelligent.
He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.”

This is the concept of being at all times in harmony with the Dao. Wuwei is also central to the Dao De Jing; it is a complex concept which is not understood as purely a passive form of non-action but as effortless action.

Although much uncertainty remains around the authorship and the dating of what we today know as the Dao De Jing, there is no doubt of its enormous influence on Chinese culture. Throughout Chinese history a large number of commentaries have been devoted to it. In 1973 the discovery was made of two Dao De Jing manuscripts at Mawangdui Hunan, China, found in a tomb that was sealed in 168 BCE.  In 1993 another tomb dated approximately 300 BCE was excavated at Guodian, Hubei province. It yielded some 800 bamboo slips, some of which are inscribed with characters that match the text in the Dao De Jing.

Painting of Laozi

According to legend, Laozi leaves China on his water buffalo (left). This incident has its origin in Sima Qian's biography of Laozi, where he states that Laozi was the author of the Dao De Jing and that it was a text of his teachings, written down around the time of Laozi's journey to the West. This version has him as a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BC).

The debate over what the Dao De Jing represents will probably never end. Some people say it's a mystical text. Others claim that it is a work of philosophy and some people claim it to be the text of a religion. It remains open to diverse interpretations.

Some other philosophers of this extraordinary time in Chinese history are listed next.

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