Richard Sprague

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[book] A Short History of Chinese Philosophy

Created: 2022-05-02 ; Updated: 2022-05-02

My rough notes while reading A Short History of Chinese Philosophy by Feng Youlan, Derk Bodde (Editor)

(alternate spelling: Fung Yu Lan) (Goodreads)

I found out about this book via a Meetup announcement from the Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club. Asian Philosophies is hosted by Jason Peng who keeps an extensive YouTube library of his sessions. Also see his Google Docs list of Meetup times and notes

The author, a Chinese scholar visiting U-Penn in the 1940s, writes a non-academic summary of 2500 years of Chinese thought.

The book uses the Wade Giles romanization scheme, and no characters, which is frustrating for remembering some of the terms. Fortunately I find that Wikipedia searches make it easy to find the pinyin versions.

Note that online you can find an interlinear translation of the book and another lengthy summary by Morad Nazari.

Chapter 1: The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy

The author distinguishes between philosophy, which is a self-reflective pursuit of truth, and its superset, religion which also includes superstition and rituals that are, he claims, not compatible with this cold seeking of wisdom.

China only has “religion” in the sense that its main schools of philosophy have forked over time into branches that include superstitious elements. But you shouldn’t confuse Dào jiā 道家 (the school) and Dào jiào 道教 (the religion) or Fo Xie and Fo jiào in Buddhism.

Religion tends to promote “super-moral” values, over the mere “moral” values of philosophy. “The love of man is a moral value, while the love of God is a super-moral value”, presumably because in his view God is an abstract, invisible idea in the sense that it is impractical to make concrete claims about Him.

The goal of Chinese philosophy is to learn to become a sage: “Sageliness within and kingliness without”. Unlike the Platonic theory of the “philosopher-king”, to whom the responsibilities of ruling society are an undesirable though necessary duty, the Chinese king is the epitome of sageliness. To truly understand ethics, you must act upon it, including and ideally as a leader of society.

It follows that “philosophy must be inseparable from political thought”, and I guess I wonder if this explains the appeal of a Mao and his Little Red Book or even Xi Jinping Thought. True leadership and true philosophical/ethical reflection are the same thing.

Chapter 2: Background

Chinese philosophy went in a different direction than Greek because China is not a maritime country, so the people are first and foremost agriculturalists. Farmers are of necessity a “root” occupation, as opposed to merchants (like the Greeks) who are part of the “branch”.

Greeks organized around a city-state, while China organized around “family-state” – using the father-son-sibling-wife-friend organization to describe society.

Chinese remain cautious at all extremes: measured and skeptical in good times; hopeful in bad times.

What is of nature is the source of human happiness, and what is of man is the root of all suffering

Because farming is an immobile occupation, Chinese developed systems that exist when you can’t just get up and leave. This explains their strong emphasis on hierarchy, as opposed to the mobile Greeks who emphasized freedom.

Confucianism and Daoism correspond roughly to classical vs romantic in Western philosophy

Confucianists roam within the bounds of society, while the Taoists roam beyond it.

Professor Northrop distinguishes between intuition (what is immediately apprehended) and postulates (deductively derived). Chinese philosophy is more intuitive, which is one reason they never developed epistemology (to distinguish between the real and the illusory)

Chapter 4: Confucius

rén, yì, and lǐ, and zhì.

(“Jen” or human-heartedess) Rén (仁, ‘benevolence’ or ‘humaneness’) is the essence of the human being which manifests as compassion.

Yì (义; 義) is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good.

Lǐ (礼; 禮) is a system of ritual norms and propriety, aka “etiquette”.

Zhì (智) is the ability to see what is right and fair, or the converse, in the behaviors exhibited by others.


zhèngmíng Rectification of names

“every name contains certain implications which constitute the essence of that class of things to which this name applies”. A father acts best when he is acting as a true father. Problems happen when there is discord between the true name of something and its behavior.


Zhōnghé shù conscientiousness (loyalty) and altruism This is the Confucian Golden Rule: do to others what you wish for yourself. Often described as the principle of applying a measuring square “絜矩之道”

Ch5: Mozi 墨家

sprang out of unemployed warriors (“knights errant” 游侠Yóuxiá ) The first major figure to criticize confucianism for being

  1. Anti-religious by not allowing appropriate allowance for spiritual beings
  2. Wasteful emphasis on meaningless rituals
  3. Wastefulness in other areas like music
  4. Too reliant on fate, rather than one’s one initiative

“All-embracing love” 兼爱

Mohists were emphatic about the principle of Jiān ài, the need to love everyone equally 所谓“三表”,即“有本之者,有原之者,有用之者。

every principle must be examined by three tests, namely: “Its basis, its verifiability, and its applicability

Ch6: Yang Zhu: early Taoism

“The principle of Yang Chu is: ‘Each one for himself.’ Though he might have profited the whole world by plucking out a single hair, he would not have done it.”

Generally there’s an emphasis on avoiding extremes, and not standing out one way or another. Consider that the tree that is “good for” something gets cut down; but the goose that makes no noise is left alone.

Ch7: Mencius 孟子

mengzi Mencius added to Confucian thought by offering an explanation for why human nature is originally good.

All men are born with four original “virtues” (ability to show commiseration, shame, modesty, and right-wrong), so much of philosophy is learning how to draw these innate characteristics out of people.

Mencius, pushing back against Mozi and Yang Zhu, emphasized the Confucian ideas of gradation: don’t assume all of this or that, allow for variation. For example, he resists the idea of “all-embracing love”, pointing out that it’s good to naturally show more love to those in our own family.

Like Aristotle, Mencius believes “man is a political animal” who must live with others. The best form of government is one run by a sage.

Hao Jan Chih Ch’i (“great morale”) hao ran zhi qi 浩然正气 is the goal and is achievable by everyone.

Ch8: The School of Names 名家

These were some very picky pedanticists, often compared to Greek sophists, who obsessed about the meanings and non-meanings of words.

A theory of relativity (by 惠子(Huìzǐ) ), showing there that the difference between “largest” and “smallest” depends on perspective.

Example of some of their sophistry, from 公孫龍 (Gōngsūn Lóng):

“Horses are not allowed to pass.” Kung-sun Lung replied: “My horse is white, and a white horse is not a horse.” And so saying, he passed with his horse.

In contrast to physical objects, names (as with Platonic ideals) are absolute and permanent.

Much of the philosophy is written in Chuang-tzu 莊子 Zhuāngzi .

Ch9: Daoism 2: Laozi 老子

Purported author of the 道德经 (Dàodé Jīng), a book which describes the core of Taoist thought.

There is a tension in all of nature between extremes. The closer you get to an extreme, the more you are pulled from it.

the limit for the advancement of a man remains relative to his subjective feelings and objective circumstances.

“If people of wealth and exalted position are arrogant, they abandon themselves to unavoidable ruin.”

Lots of wise words

When a man eats too much, he suffers. In overeating, what is ordinarily good for the body becomes something harmful. One should eat only the right amount of food. But this right amount depends on one’s age, health, and the quality of food one eats.

The principle of 无为 wúwéi: non-action, but in a deliberate sense of “not overdoing”. 德 de : virtue

Ch10 Chuang-tzu 庄子

Zhuāngzi 莊子 The contrast between what is of nature and what is of man.

In political philosophy, the warning against trying too hard to resist change. Example of the story of a well-meaning Marquis who tried to treat a bird according to the Golden Rule, feeding it wine and meat. But of course it backfires because a bird is not the same as we are; similarly, every human is different.

Laozi emphasizes the essence of reversal: don’t try too hard in one direction or another because it’s counter-productive; Zhuangzi emphasizes the distinction between man and nature.

Buddhism recognizes four human miseries: death, disease, old age, and life itself.

see things from a higher point of view, or, as the Ch’i Wu Lun calls it, to see things “in the light of Heaven.”

Chapter 2 (齊物論 qí wù lùn) “On Arranging Things”, or “Discussion of Setting Things Right” or, in Burton Watson’s translation, “Discussion on Making All Things Equal”.

difference between “having-no knowledge” and “having no-knowledge.

Ch11: The Later Mohists

“Mohist canons” are a set of epistemological observations to refute the ideas in Rectification of Names. Mohists argued in favor of common sense.

classified into four kinds: knowledge of names, that of actualities, that of correspondence, and that of action.

Mohists tended toward a philosophy like Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism: “The beneficial is that with the obtaining of which one is pleased. The harmful is that with the obtaining of which one is displeased”

Ch12: The Yin-Yang School

A classification of “occult acts”.

Some of this represents an inchoate Chinese attempt to explain the physical world in a scientific way.

two distinct lines of thought in ancient China, those of the Y\in and Yang and of the Five Elements, each of which provided a positive interpretation for the structure and origin of the Universe.

The original corpus of this book consists of what are known as the eight trigrams, each made up of combinations of three divided or undivided lines, as follows:
two of these trigrams with one another into diagrams of six lines each, etc., a total of sixty-four combinations is obtained which are known as the sixty-four hexagrams. The original text of the Book of Changes consists of these hexagrams, and of descriptions of their supposed symbolic meaning.

The Appendices

Confucianists extended the Yi Ching with cosmological, metaphysical, and ethical interpretations.

Ch13: Confucian Realism of 荀子

xun zi In contrast with Mencius, Xun Kuang believed human nature is fundamentally evil: “the nature of man is evil; his goodness is acquired training (ch23)”

People require social organization (aka culture), and rituals (礼) are a key way that humans learn to be good.

Some echoes of Girard when he points out the centrality of desire, and the impossibility of everyone being satisfied when we all aim for the same things.

The two aspects of mind, intellectual and emotional, both need cultivation. Otherwise “non-intellectual” situations like death need satisfaction from our emotional side, through cultural phenomenon like funerals or music.

Religion and poetry are both expressions of the fancy of man. They both mingle imagination with reality. The difference between them is that religion takes what it itself says as true, while poetry takes what it itself says as false. What poetry presents is not reality, and it knows that it is not. Therefore it deceives itself, yet it is a conscious self-deception. It is very unscientific, yet it does not contradict science. In poetry we obtain emotional satisfaction without obstructing the progress of the intellect.

Prayer for rain is an expression of our anxiety, nothing else.

Ch14: Legalism 韩非

Hán Fēi;

五刑 Wǔxíng “five punishments”

The Legalist school was not interested in “correct” government, but rather in effective methods that would allow those in power to stay in power. Their ideal was a set of rewards and punishments that would enable a ruler to do nothing, and the state would function well.

Although the Legalists structured intervention in society seems like the exact opposite of Daoism, the two philosophies meet in their ideal of “do-nothing”: for Legalists you set up the rules in a way that the government runs hands-off; for Daoists, the ideal is “no-action”.

Legalism vs. Confucianism: Legalists depend on explicit rules; Confucianists depend on ritual. Confucianists are idealistic in their hope that appropriate training can make all of society harmonious; Legalists are realists, relying instead on direct reward and punishment.

Ch 15: Confucian Metaphysics

中庸 Zhōngyōng doctrine of the mean

In their metaphysics, Confucianists distinguished between Tao (the universal Way of Daoism) and lowercase tao, an atomic semantic unit of which everything is made.

The concept of 和 harmony.

By living in harmony, following the 中庸 (doctrine of the mean), we learn to extend this to others, resulting in the whole world in harmony.

Ch16: World Politics and Philosophy

chūnqiū 春秋 Spring-Autumn 战国时代 Zhànguó Warring States

These two contrasting periods are used as a template for all international conflict, before and since. There is no resolution over which method is better, only that times of change require flipping back and forth among the styles of international affairs.

“Three cords” and “eight minor wires” are principles by which all of society is served when we incrementally focus on smaller units until we reach and work toward change of our own selves. (Reminds me of Jordan Peterson’s idea of “clean your room”)

吕氏春秋 Lüshi chūnqiū is the book

Xunzi’s “On Freedom from Blindness" describes each school, from Confucianist to Legalist to Mohist, as perceiving only one part of a complex whole, the Dao. “the vision and blindness of a philosopher go together”

Chuang-tzu, T’ien Hsia 庄子天下Distinction between

The whole Truth is the Tao of “sageliness within and kingliness without,” the study of which is called “the Tao method.” Partial truth is a particular aspect of the whole Truth, the study of which is called “the art method.”

Confucianists understand the “measures and institutions” but not the principles, while Taoists are the opposite.

Interesting side note from the authors, regarding “the present situation” (i.e. pre-CCP period of the war with Japan and civil war). In response to Dr. Bodde’s position that the many times in which China was subjected to foreign domination shows the limitations of this “Spring-Autumn/Warring States” interpretation of Chinese history, Feng Youlan notes that Chinese culture was still dominant even in periods (e.g. Qing) when ruled by foreigners.

The Chinese never felt threatened by, say, the arrival of Buddhism from India, because they didn’t think of this as a “human” idea. Only the Chinese are human. This is why they initially brushed off the British and other western powers, thinking they were simply another group of uncultured barbarians who (presumably) would eventually succumb to superior Chinese culture. But once they realized the Western culture was at least equal, and in many superior, they felt a serious challenge to their core conception of history. It was a reversion to the “Warring States” period, when there was a clash of equals within unknown results.

Note that although the Qin unified China through repressive, apparently anti-Confucian means, the fact that they lasted only a few years proves the point of that to be an effective state you must not rule arbitrarily.

Ch17: Theorizer of the Han 董仲舒

Dǒng Zhòngshū Largely instrumental in making Confucianism the orthodox belief of the Han Dynasty, he believed that Confucius was the de jure ruler of the Spring-Autumn period that brought peace to China.

He seems to hold a cyclical view of history based on the yin-yang principles.

the difference between Mencius and Tung Chung-shu is reduced to that between two phrases: “already good” and “not yet good.”

“Beneficence, rewards, punishments, and executions, match spring, summer, autumn, and winter respectively, like the fitting together of [the two parts of] a tally.

The Mandate of Heaven decides when a new administration takes power, but it’s important not to associate exterior features (like, say, facism/capitalism/communism) with the unchanging principles – the Tao – behind any effective government.

Ch18: Ascendency of Confucianism and Revival of Taoism

One of the main reasons why Confucianism gained supremacy in the Han dynasty was its success in combining speculative thought with scholarship.

The 213 B.C. Qin burning of all pre-Qin books (except technical works of science) was actually the logical application of a long-standing Legalist idea about the good of unification of thought. But Dǒng Zhòngshū in the Early Han recommended, instead of simply destroying the other schools, the government should make Confucianism the official one. The result was that over time the other schools lapsed.

The newfound emphasis on Confucianism gave rise to an apocryphal literature made by people who claimed to “discover” old documents. The often fantastical ideas that came started to look a lot like religion — stories of miracles, etc.

This resulted in a schism between “Old Text” Confucianists who claimed a “realistic” interpretation and “New Text” who had an idealistic interpretation.

New Text school, headed by Tung Chung-shu, believed Confucius to have been the founder of an ideal new dynasty, and later even went so far as to consider him as a supernatural being having a mission to perform on this earth, a veritable god among men.

The “Old Text” school purged Confucianism of Yin-Yang, and allowed for the emergence later of new Daoism, which hardened further into a quasi-religion as a nationalistic reaction to the advance of Buddhism. Some of this syncretism between Daoism and Buddhism resulted in Zen Buddism.

Ch 19: Neo-Daoism: Rationalists

3rd and 4th centuries A.D., during a dark ages of political disorder.

Everything that exists in the universe needs the universe as a whole as a necessary condition for its existence, yet its existence is not directly produced by any other particular thing.

When society changes, the Dao thing to do is to change along with it.

Great men, such as Plato, are great only due to their nature.If you try to become great yourself, you are merely imitating others and you will fail.

Ch20: The Sentimentalists

风流 feng liu lives “according to himself but not according to others.”

roughly similar to the idea of “romantic” in western philosophy. lived out in the Jin Dynasty

Ch21: Foundation of Chinese Buddhism

Texts of both the Hinayana (Small Vehicle) and Mahayana (Great Vehicle) divisions of Buddhism were translated, but only the latter gained a permanent place in Chinese Buddhism.

Turned into the School of the Middle Path

僧肇 Sēngzhào was a key teacher who wrote “On the Immutability of Things,”

道生 Dàoshēng was another teacher who stressed the Universal Mind

Ch22: Chan 禪 (Zen) Buddhism

The term Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word 禪 (chán), an abbreviation of 禪那 (chánnà)

came to China via Bodhidharma in 520 A.D.

Ch23: Neo-Confucianism Cosmologists

Sui Dynasty and then the Tang unification led to a interest in synthesizing Confucianism and Buddhism through cosmology.

A training process to achieve Confucianism Sagehood, like Buddhist Enlightenment.

For the Neo-Confucianists, too, how to achieve Sagehood is one of the main problems, and Chou Tun-yi’s answer is that one should “be quiescent,”

A long detailed description of the theory of trigrams

Ch24: Neo-Confucianism: Two Schools

Are the laws of nature determined by the mind or not? This is the distinction of interest between Platonic realism and Kantian idealism.

The concept of Qi (“life force”) vs. 理 lǐ (“principles”) determine when a leaf is a leaf and a flower a flower.

(Ming-tao Wen-chi or Collected Writings of Ch’eng Hao, chüan 3.)

emotions without ensnarement: It’s natural to feel emotion, but the true sage sees this in a detached manner as just part of the universe.

Treat an emotion like anger the way a mirror does: it processes a reflection but doesn’t itself contain what it processes.

Ch25: Neo-Confucianism Platonic Ideas

“Dominant figure in Chinese thought” 朱熹 Zhū Xī (aka Chu Hsi) wrote Commentary on the four great books of Confucianism: Confucian Analects, the Mencius, the Chung Yung or Doctrine of the Mean, and the Ta Hsüeh 大学 Dàxué or Great Learning.

Codified in 1313 as the official texts required for the State Examinations.

程朱理學 Chéng Zhū lǐxué school aka rationalist

The highest possible li is “The Supreme Ultimate” 太极 (Tàijí), corresponding roughly to Plato’s Good or Aristotle’s God.

气 gives shape and substantiates the Li.

The Ch’i that moves is called the Yang; the Ch’i that rests is called the Yin.

Yin is receptive; Yang is active

Very similar to Plato’s idea that physical real things are inherently less than perfect, this is the explanation of Evil, which originates because although Li is perfect, it must be instantiated in each human by Qi, resulting in slight imperfections in each of us.

“The extension of knowledge through the investigation of things,” and “the attentiveness of the mind.”

Includes Plato’s theory of innate/previous knowledge, which we can gain by sufficient concentration on the Li , through attentiveness of the mind, to achieve Sudden Enlightenment.

Ch26: Neo-Confucianism Universal Mind

Wang Shou-jen (Wang Shouren ) (1472-1528) 王阳明 Wáng Yángmíng took Zhu Xi’s ideas and consolidated Li into a single “Mind” “Thus the mind is the legislator of the universe and is that by which the Li are legislated.”

Criticize Buddhism for not acknowledging that Li is present even in Emptiness.

Ch27: Introduction of Western Philosophy

康有为 Kāng Yǒuwéi (1858-1927) led a movement that believed Confucius predicted an eventual unification of the entire world. He led some of the aborted attempts at reform in 1898.

Yen Fu (1853-1920) 严复 Yán Fù was a popular translator of Western philosophy, but was a limited interpreter who thought, for example that Herbert Spencer was the greatest western philosopher of all time.

Bertrand Russell and John Dewey were the first philosophers to visit China, but neither made much of an impression because they propounded mostly on their own ideas rather than survey the entire history of Western thought.

Buddhism and Taoism both use the “negative method”, but Western philosophy’s use of the analytical method was a major new innovation.

The negative method attempts to eliminate distinctions and to tell what its object is not, whereas the positive method attempts to make distinctions and tell what its object is.

The Chinese were especially interested in Western logic.

Ch28: Chinese philosophy in the modern world

the author throughout the book uses the concepts of “negative” vs “positive” approaches to philosophy

The essence of the positive method is to talk about the object of metaphysics which is the subject of its inquiry; the essence of the negative method is not to talk about it. By so doing, the negative method reveals certain aspects of the nature of that something, namely those aspects that are not susceptible to positive description and analysis.

Conclusion: the positive aspects of philosophy (for which the West is especially strong) are a necessary part of truly understanding the negative aspects (of which China is strong) and of course you can’t understand anything unless you understand both.