The Human Journey
The Axial Age

Axial Age Thought


Pages 1234

Mozi (480 - 390 BCE)

The Shi (or Xie) were the lower aristocracy. Many were specialists in administration as well as scribes. The Chinese classics such as the Classic of Documents were compiled and recorded by this class of minor nobility. Some of them had formerly fought wars in the Chariot units until this style of warfare became outmoded. Many Shi became unemployed during this time of social change, and sought work in the new power centers. Increasingly rulers sought the advice of military experts among the Shi. Among them was a man known as Mozi, the founder of Mohism.

“Others must be regarded as the self” was Mozi’s version of the Golden rule.

Mozi preached active nonviolence. He saw the Zhou dynasty as elitist and the rituals of the Li he viewed as a waste of effort. Mozi made the pragmatic observation: if all, including the poor, practiced the elaborate rites and sacrifices, the economy would fall apart. It was very wasteful and it did not help people here on earth. The Mohists put forth a concept that became important in early Chinese philosophy. It is known as fa, a model of behavioral standards based on the old Sage Kings. These they compared to instruments used in the world, such as the compass or rulers that craftsmen used to guide their work.

One important development by the Mohists was a move away from the traditional style of the analects, which they thought fuzzy and not logical. Mohists argued their points logically and systematically.

Mozi was for a time more highly regarded than Confucius, perhaps because his message of peace was so timely during the warring states period. In 319 BCE Mozi became an official in the state of Qi.

Yangzi (440 - 360 BCE)

Yangzi (Yang Zhu) was an early Daoist teacher identified with naturalism as the best means of preserving life in a decadent and turbulent world. He may be said to have been a rational hedonist living by the creed of: “Every man for himself.”

The Yangists challenged the Confucians and Mohists and rejected the traditional ritual order. The old rituals said that a person’s life was not his own, but Yangists argued that one must preserve one’s own life above all and do only that which came naturally. All beings have a survival instinct, animals relied on their strength but man should rely on his intelligence; to use strength against others would be despicable. Public life was external and ought to be considered mainly in terms of its risks. It is never secure and when it becomes clearly dangerous to seek political office, one had a duty to protect one’s own life by leading a humble, private life, and to refuse to put one’s own or another’s life at risk.

Zhuangzi (370-311 BCE)

Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) was a Yangist and hermit associated with the Mohist, Huizi. The two appear as friendly rivals in the Zhuangzi, an anthology of texts dating from 400-200 BCE. The first seven chapters of the text consists of stories, anecdotes and parables, often called the Inner Chapters, that question conventional wisdom asking whether reason and logic is of much value in trying to understand the Dao.

Ink painting of Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly
Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly.

Zhuangzi taught that enlightenment comes from the realization that everything is one and The Dao is limitless and words cannot describe it. He said that words are like a fish net: once the meaning is caught, one should forget the words, just as the net is only useful for catching the fish, but can be put aside once the fish has been caught. He thought that the world is flux and we must learn to adapt.

When Zhuangzi was about to die, his disciples signified their wish to give him a grand burial. “I shall have heaven and earth,” he said, “for my coffin and its shell; the sun and moon for my two round symbols of jade; the stars and constellations for my pearls and jewels; will not the provisions for my interment be complete? What would you add to them?” The disciples replied: “We are afraid that the crows and kites will eat our master.
Zhuangzi replied: “Above, the crows and kites will eat me; below, the mole-crickets and ants will eat me; to take from those and give to these would only show your partiality.”

Meng Ke (Mencius) (370-288 BCE)

Painting of Mencius walking with the King of Teng
Artist rendering of Mencius walking with the King of Teng,
discussing his philosophy.

Meng Ke, known as Mencius in the West, was born only about eighteen miles from Confucius’ birthplace. He is probably best known for the view that human nature is innately good. Mencius thought that the senses could lead people astray because the senses operate automatically. He saw it as his duty to combat misguided teachings such as Mohism and Yangism as they could do the same.

Mencius was a Confucian who had an ambition to serve in government but was never able to do so successfully. He finally gave up and resolved to write a book about his recommendations for the rulers who wanted nothing to do with him. The main text attributed to Mencius, The Mengzi, was probably compiled by his disciples and later edited by others, leaving us the surviving text.

Mencius emphasized four ethical attributes:
Ren (Benevolence)
Li (observance or rites)
Yi (propriety)
Zhi (Wisdom)

Mencius perpetuated the concept of the transformative power of a person that had cultivated himself and become a Junzi, a fully mature person. He saw this concept as a natural basis for government: the ruler must be fully evolved and practice Ren to retain the loyalty of the people.

Xunzi (340-245 BCE)

Xunzi was a Confucian synthesizer who thought that all the disparate schools of thought each had something to offer. Like Mencius, Xunzi believed that good governance could only arise around a fully realized person. He was repulsed by the materialism and raw ambition that defined the age. Xunzi experienced, firsthand, the effects of applying the legalist system on a statewide level while visiting the state of Qin. Xunzi was impressed with how well Qin was functioning. This fact challenged his belief that true government could only be based on the Ren of a just ruler. Nevertheless, Xunzi never lost faith in that vision. He learnt from the legalists that people needed guidelines to be able to reform.

Xunzi held the view that knowledge depended on the mastery of fa. (Behaviors and standards modeled on the ancient Sage Kings.) He writes in book eight: “The Way (the Dao) is not the way of heaven, and it's not the way of earth: it is the way for guiding people, it is what gentlemen use as their way.”

Xunzi made a distinction between natural phenomena and the results of human effort. He thought that the success or failure of human effort depended on how the individual or group responded to nature. He taught that ancient sages had established The Way and that there was no need to adapt The Way to current circumstances. He opposed superstition and did not believe that worldly expertise was of much value. He argued that military success did not depend on strategy or tactics but on retaining the support of the population by ruling in a virtuous manner.

To Xunzi education was especially significant. He saw education as a process of accumulation; of individual steps that in sum total would bring one to the desired destination.


Legalism, which was in direct opposition to Xunzi’s worldview, also emerged during the Warring States Period. Some rulers turned their back on Dao, relying instead on advisers from the emerging merchant class and from a new school of thought: the school of legalism. This school originated with political scientists known as the men of method. They believed that law and order was paramount in creating a well functioning and efficient state, since people could only be dissuaded from acting selfishly if they were controlled. Once law and order was established, correctly implemented and backed by a harsh penal code, a just, prosperous and contented society would prevail.

“The Legalists had made the important intellectual transition from the person-to-person government of feudalism to an objective legal system, which was not unlike the concept of law in the modern west, except that in ancient China the law was not designed to protect the individual but to achieve control from above.  … it was not a Daoist sage but the Legalist state of Qin that ended the violence of the Warring States and unified the empire. This spectacular success seemed to prove that universal kingship could not be achieved without recourse to military power. It brought a peace of sorts, but spelt the death knell to the Axial hopes for morality, benevolence, and nonviolence. Under the empire, the Axial spiritualities would effect a synthesis and transmute into something quite different.”

(The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong).