Chinese Axial Age philosophers expressed a new ethic in response to social and cultural upheaval. Instead of simply serving our own interests or the interests of friends, family, clan and nation, we should accept responsibility for our own life, actions and thoughts. They taught that we are capable of a higher morality, the achievement of which is our obligation. To this day, Chinese, East and Southeast Asian cultures are shaped by the philosophies that emerged out of the chaos of this time 2,500 years ago.
The Chinese Axial Age began around 530 BCE. In common with the inception of all Axial Age transformations, it was against a background of social and cultural change and turmoil which forced people to question their traditional beliefs.
As a solution, their most honored Axial sages would attempt to move the Chinese worldview from selfishness to selflessness. These philosophers still recognized the value of the old rituals for their beauty and transformative power, but a new creative era of reflection and responsibility would emerge, ushered in by Confucius (the “Master Kong”).
Since Confucius was inspired by the ideas of the Duke of Zhou, whom he saw as a visionary ahead of his time, we will begin the story of the Chinese Axial Age over 500 years before its generally accepted start date, with the rise of the Zhou Dynasty.
The Fall of Shang and Rise of Zhou Dynasty (1045–221 BCE)
The last Shang ruler was a despot who was defeated on the battlefield by King Wen of the Zhou at Mu-Ye, north of the yellow River. The Zhou was a frontier tribe that ruled the Wei Valley. Half a millennium later, the philosopher Mozi (472–391 BCE), wrote:
“During the reign of the last Shang Emperor, heaven could not endure his failures, neglect and immorality. Heaven brought strange cataclysmic events down on the Emperor and his empire. A red bird arrived bearing a message: “Heaven decrees King Wen of Zhou to punish Yin [the Shang capital] and possess its empire.”
In 1045 BCE King Wen of the Zhou attacked the Shang. The King was killed during the invasion, and his son Wu assumed leadership and eventually defeated the Shang.
The Zhou lived a not dissimilar life to the Shang. Their cities and lifestyle melded easily, and not untypically for ancient times, having defeated the Shang they combined their own sky God, “Tian,” with the Shang God, “Di” who became “Tian Shang Di,” Heaven Most High.
When King Wu died only a few years later, the heir to the throne, Prince Cheng, was still a minor. So the Duke of Zhou stepped in as Regent and effectively ruled until Prince Cheng could assume his role as monarch.
|Zhou Dynasty (1045–221 BCE)
Around 1045 BCE, The Duke of Zhou introduces ethics into religion with the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven.
|Hundred Schools of Thought Period (770–21 BCE)||Spring & Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) Confucius (551–479 BCE)
Warring States Period (476–221 BCE)
The Mandate of Heaven
In order to legitimize their conquest, the Duke of Zhou introduced the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. It declared that the Shang had lost the battle because they had become corrupt and unjust. Heaven had nominated the Zhou due to their “deep commitment to justice” to rule in their place. The Duke claimed that this mandate had been given by Heaven to all the Zhou people, but he was outvoted by his brother and the young king.
So the Zhou reverted to the old, established pre-Axial idea, and the king retained his position of unique representative of Heaven on Earth but one with a significant difference: the king should be virtuous and rule with justice.
Karen Armstrong writes in The Great Transformation, “It was an important moment. The Zhou had introduced an ethical ideal into a religion that had hitherto been unconcerned about morality. Heaven was not simply influenced by the slaughter of pigs and oxen, but by compassion and justice. The Mandate of Heaven would become an important ideal during the Chinese Axial Age.”
The Mandate of Heaven was based on four principles:
- The right to rule is granted by Heaven.
- There is only one Heaven therefore there can be only one ruler.
- The right to rule is based on the virtue of the ruler.
- The right to rule is not limited to one dynasty.
As Tianzi, or “son of Heaven,” the king alone administered the rights that ensured the natural order of the universe; he “opened the Way (Dao)” for heaven on earth and was responsible for the harmonious relationship between heaven, earth and all the natural world. To the Chinese there was no chasm separating heaven and earth but a continuum maintained by complementary partners, both divine and equal to each other. Life here should be heavenly. All ancestors had once lived on earth and could be reached through oracles and rituals, so people were united with their ancestors, even in their everyday actions. At death a supreme monarch would become a supreme ancestor.
The king’s function therefore was to follow the Way or Dao (or Tao). And he did this by performing his ritual duties exactly as prescribed, so that his power (diode) would maintain a state of divine stability – the Great Peace (tai-ping).
The pre-Axial concept of The Dao revolved around the king, who was the son of Heaven. Heaven was the provider of a mandate to the earthly kings who in turn must serve Heaven in order for harmony to prevail on earth. The king was an intermediary between heaven and earth, and thus a divine person.
Court rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices were exactly defined and perfectly carried out in order to mirror the court of Heaven. As the Axial philosopher of the third century, Xunzi, would later recognize, the effect of these ceremonies could be transformative: “Through the performance of music the will is made pure, and through the practice of rites the conduct is brought to perfection, the eyes and ears become keen, the temper becomes harmonious and calm, and customs and manners are easily reformed.”
Thus, later in the Axial Age, The Dao became something beyond expression but knowable: The Truth. Confucius would make very little reference to The Way of Heaven and referred to The Dao as something absolute towards which an individual could progress.
The Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE)
This period took its title from The Spring and Autumn Annals, collections of sayings attributed to Confucius.
In order to manage the administration of the widespread Zhou kingdom, hereditary fiefdoms were given to tribal chiefs in exchange for providing the king with military assistance. These fiefdoms were then divided into smaller counties. The system functioned well for a few hundred years, but gradually the chieftains became more independent and started to behave like warlords rather than subjects. Over time this splintered the domain into many small kingdoms; at one point these numbered around 150.
The power and influence of the Zhou king was eventually reduced to the area of the capital with the petty kingdoms now engaged in almost perpetual warfare. Eventually the stronger and more efficiently run kingdoms conquered the smaller ones. Approximately ten independent kingdoms survived with their nobility more and more refined. The rest of the population was increasingly oppressed; burdened by debt, farmers were forced to become sharecroppers and serfs under the nobility or soldiers in the military.
In 679 BCE Prince Huan of Qi established a league of defense to fill the power vacuum left by the weakened Zhou king. This league suffered a premature demise when Huan died in 643 BCE and his sons, competing for power, pitched Qi into a Civil War.
The principality of Chu became increasingly aggressive, so a new alliance was formed against it under the leadership of the Prince of Jin. But Chu defeated this new alliance in 597 BCE and by doing so completely overturned the long-established belief that aggressive states would be punished by the spirits and that Heaven would favor those that practiced moderation and followed the rules and rituals.
Chu’s success clearly challenged the notion that in order to retain the Mandate of Heaven, a state and its leader had to conform to tradition and treat even an enemy with respect. Moreover, it challenged the concept of a supreme ruler for all the Chinese people: a ruler that was The Son of Heaven, who alone had the right to perform the sacrifice to Tian Shang Di or Heaven Most High, at the Royal domain.
By 500 BCE the Zhou king no longer had the political and military power to assure the allegiance of the various principalities. Over the centuries, the princes who ruled the peripheral city states had gradually usurped many of the holy functions of the king. Now one of them, the Prince of Chu, appeared to be favored by Heaven Most High, despite flaunting the rules of warfare, and performing the traditional rites at his own temple shrine! How could this be? Nothing seemed to make sense.
What had happened to the harmony between Heaven and Earth?
The Warring States Period (475–221 BCE)
The harmonious relationship between Heaven and Earth traditionally maintained by the King had disappeared, replaced by crass efficiency and brutality. This period, which must have seemed disastrous for so many, would finally stimulate the surge of creativity that was the Axial Age for China.
The Zhou dynasty and its traditions were now entirely overwhelmed. A struggle began for military supremacy over China by the main players: Chu, Qi, Qin, Han, Wei, Zhao and Yan.
Warfare became brutal as states fought to wipe each other out. No longer reserved for the fighting elites, warfare now involved entire populations, including peasants. Women and children were murdered; honor and ritual were replaced by discipline and effectiveness. A new cavalry was introduced, more efficient weapons such as cross bows were created, and stronger defenses like the mobile towers which could be pushed up against a city’s walls were used for surprise attack.
The economies of the various kingdoms were greatly stimulated by the need to fund ongoing warfare. Campaigns were expensive and their success depended on new strategies, innovative weaponry and the ability to produce in large numbers all that was necessary for battle. If a kingdom failed to do this, it would be overrun and cease to exist.
By the 4th century BCE, the transition from bronze to cast iron was widespread in China. The production of iron tools gradually improved farming methods. Soil cultivation became widespread and more sophisticated: manure was used and a schedule for plowing, sowing and harvesting was systematized. As trade rapidly increased, merchants became a force to be reckoned with. Some established networks that reached far beyond China – to the north, to the western steppes and even to India. This increased mobility may well have contributed to the spread of ideas between cultures. Cities that had been small, centered on kings, princes and their palaces, now grew rapidly and became centers of trade as well.
Social turmoil was everywhere: the sudden increase in trade, changes in farming methods and the dislocation of large segments of the population disrupted by war destroyed the Chinese version of feudalism in which everyone knew his or her place in society. Now inequalities became increasingly obvious. Peasants were particularly hurt and while some adjusted to the new terms of commerce, many more were forced into indentured servitude.
To this day, Chinese, East and Southeast Asian cultures are shaped by the philosophies that emerged out of the chaos of this time 2,500 years ago. During roughly the same period and against a similar tumultuous background, ancient Greek philosophers developed ideas that would influence the West in a similar manner. Neither were religious nor would become religions, although their fundamental notions are shared by all Axial Sages and other sages, many of whom we know in the context of a religion.
Edward Harper Parker writes in Ancient China Simplified, “All through these five centuries of struggle, between the flight of the Emperor with the transfer of the metropolis in 771 BCE, and the total destruction of the feudal system by the first August Emperor of Ts’ in 221 BCE, it is of supreme interest to note that religion in our Western sense was not only non-existent throughout China, but had not yet even been conceived of as an abstract notion; apart, that is to say, from government, public law, family law, and class ritual. No word for religion was known to the language; the notion of a church or temple served by a priestly caste had not entered men’s minds.”
“Prayer was common enough, … sacrifice was universal; in fact, the blood of a victim was almost inseparable from solemn function or record of any kind. But such ideas as conscience, fear of God, mortal sin, repentance, absolution, alms-giving, self mortification, charity, sack cloth and ashes, devout piety, praise and glorification – in a word, what the Jews, Christians, Mussulmans, and even Buddhists have each in turn conceived to be religious duty, had no well defined existence at all.”
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)
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 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 (reincarnation). 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. 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, or personal transformation. 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.
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, “Old Master”) who 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.
Daoism was primarily concerned with two classic texts: the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching), The Classic of the Way and the Virtue (ca. 300 BCE) and the Zhuangzi. It provided a comprehensive view of the world including the sacred and the ultimate.
The Dao De Jing uses paradox, analogy and ancient sayings to convey its message. It refers to the Dao as the mother of the universe, the source of all existence: 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.
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.
A central theme is the concept of nothingness which is used to describe the Dao and three other concepts: virtue (de), natural behavior (ziran), and 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.
Ziran is the concept of being at all times in harmony with the Dao. The Dao De Jing describes the ideal Sage King 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.”
Wuwei is a complex concept which is understood not 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.
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.
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 (sayings of Confucius), 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.
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 or Mencius (370–288 BCE)
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), and 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.
In The Great Transformation Karen Armstong says, “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.”