An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zhou Period Philosophy and Thought

The Zhou culture is apparently a mixture of different cultures of peoples that lived in the Wei River 渭水 valley. After leaving the Wei River plain to expand their realm, the Zhou people adopted keenly the culture of the subdued Shang 商 people. Oracle bone divination, bronze casting for sacrificial purposes and burying rites were almost the same as the Shang rulers used to impose. Writing was first used to comment divination results on bones and to write down investitures and events of great importance upon bronze vessels that were buried together with deceased nobles. But the Western Zhou also developed their own style in decorating vessels. In the first few centuries of the 1st millenium BC ornaments and vessel types became quite different from the Shang motifs earlier. See ritual bronze vessels.
But historical events during the Western Zhou period were also written down upon bamboo strips (jian 簡, ce 策 or 冊), that did not survive, but whose texts were transmitted through the centuries. The most important texts to the Zhou tradition became also the core texts of the later Confucian classics: The "Book of Documents" (Shangshu 尚書 or Shujing 書經, literally "Texts of the Old") is a collection of speeches and discussions from the mythical Xia 夏 and the Shang Dynasty to the end of Western Zhou period. The "Book of Songs" (Shijing 詩經) is a collection of hymns, critics and popular songs from the Western Zhou and Spring and Autumn periods. The third great text is the "Book of Changes" (Yijing 易經), a manual for milfoil divination said to have been compiled by King Wen or the Duke of Zhou.

The Hundred Schools of Thought (baijia 百家)
In a time of warfare and state reforms, practical advisors were the most wanted teachers. Very successful were the Legalists (fajia 法家) who were the most respectless to enforce the ruler's authority. Almost all of them were engaged in the state of Qin who should be the winner of the great war centuries: Guan Zhong 管仲, Lord Shang Yang 商君鞅, Li Kui 李悝, Shen Buhai 申不害, Shen Dao 慎到 and finally Han Fei 韓非.
Another practical school was that of Military treatises (bingjia 兵家), with the examples of the famous Sunzi 孫子 "The Art of War" Bingfa 兵法, Sun Bin 孫臏, Wuzi 吳子, Yu (Wei) Liaozi 尉繚子, the books Simafa 司馬法 and Liutao 六韜.
The third practical school was that of Coalition persuaders (zonghengjia 縱橫家), meaning geographical vertical coalitions and horizontal coalitions, with or against the state of Qin in the west. The most important book is the "Stratagems for the Warring States" Zhanguoce 戰國策 (also translated as "Intrigues"), including many anecdotes of persuaders, making it a novel-like work of very attractive character. The book Yanzi chunqiu 晏子春秋 "Spring and Autumn of Master Yan" is also a book of this category.
The most known school outside of China is the Confucian school (rujia 儒家). Confucius (Kongzi) 孔子 did not create new things, but he said his duty is to hand down old good knowledge and customs. In his eyes, the sage rulers of old (Yao 堯, Shun 舜, King Zhou Wenwang 周文王) had enough humanity and righteousness to gather the people in their domain and to rule without weapons and punishments. His follower Mengzi 孟子 assumes that man is good by nature. Nonetheless, social division in upper and low, reigning and serving is the only way to avoid chaos and war. The youngest Confucian, Xunzi 荀子, on the contrary, assumes that mankind is naturally evil and therefore has to be guided by ritual and rules. The collection of Confucius' sayings is called the Analects or Lunyu 論語.
Rivals of the Confucians were two schools of thought, that are not very known outside of China. The first is the school of Mohists (mojia 墨家) with the only representative Mozi 墨子. Mozi castigates not only the lavishness of his contemporaries, fighting against expenditures for burials, rites and music. His greatest merit as "the oldest socialist" was the proposal of an all-sided love that would overcome murder and war, poverty and envy. The second school is that of the Divine Farmer (nongjia 農家), proposing the equality of everyone, thus forcing even a king to engage in farming.
The second great philosophical school of China, after Confucianism (means ancestral ritus), is Daoism (daojia 道家), whose most important philosophical pre-Han books are the Daodejing 道德經 of Laozi 老子 and the book of Zhuangzi 莊子. All of them show as an integral concept of Daoism the withdrawal from the worldy affairs and the self-cultivation. The latter concept results in the seek for eternal life with different methods like herbal drinks or meditation, leading to the development of alchemy. The Zhuangzi even sees a throughout relationship in every existing thing that one has to overcome, making the Daoism similar to Buddhism.
The many other schools of thinking like the Sophists (mingjia 名家) Hui Shi 惠施, Deng Xizi 登析子 and Gongsun Long 公孫龍 or the Hedonist Yang Zhu 楊朱 cannot be separated from either Mohist thinking nor from Daoism. Most of their theories are only scattered (three examples of Sophist debating: "A white horse is not a horse", statements of Hui Shi and "Zang has three ears"; examples for Hedonist thinking) in different books like the collection Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋, whose structure shows the Correlative Thinking of the two principles Yin and Yang 陰陽 and the Five Phases or Elements (wuxing 五行). The relationship between the Hundred Schools and their difference is mostly shown in their unlike interpretation and emphasis of underlying terms like dao 道 ("way"), de 德 ("virtue"), ren 仁 ("humanity"), yi 義 ("righteousness"), li 禮 ("etiquette") and li 理 ("order").
Recently many unknown books have been unearthed from Warring States tombs. These texts evidently show how important philosophical schools were to help a ruler to survive in a difficult time.
Except the Hundred Schools, there is still existant an abundant library of books from the period of Warring States. Almost all books said to have been composed during the Zhou Dynasty, were only written down in the last centuries of it. Among these are geographies (the book Shanhaijing 山海經 refers to many magical beings in different regions), books of ritual, historical and poetical character (like most of the so-called Confucian Classics, the Book of Documents Shujing 書經, the Book of Poetry Shijing 詩經, the Book of Changes Yijing 易經 and the Book of Etiquette and Rites Yili 儀禮. A very interesting book is the Poetry of the South (Chuci) 楚辭 (ascribed to Qu Yuan 屈原), that shows the mystical, nature-bound character of the southern thinking.