Early Chinese Philosophy


The Deviant Philosopher provides individual primers for particular schools of early Chinese philosophy. However, there are basic questions someone new to teaching any of these materials may have. The purpose of this more global primer is address some of these general questions and additionally provide sufficient background information and tips useful to philosophers new to early Chinese philosophy. Our goal in what follows, then, is simply to give philosophers some basic information that can help one feel more confident in wading into unfamiliar waters.

Chinese: How do you spell it?

Two systems exist for capturing the pronunciation of Chinese characters:

  1. Pinyin – Used on mainland China and presently the most typical in contemporary English-language scholarship and journals.
  2. Wade-Giles – Used on Taiwan and still evident in scholarship from Taiwan as well as in older scholarship.

The information contained in all TDP documents employs pinyin. The Chinese Text Project has a useful conversion tool that allows you to input one system of spelling to see its counterpart in the other system here: http://ctext.org/pinyin.pl?if=en

It is also important to note that some significant databases for research in philosophy do not yet connect multiple spellings for key figures or terms. In consequence, in doing research in the area, one may need to employ multiple spellings in order to retrieve full listings of available work. Where this is most pronounced is in the two early Confucians, Confucius himself and Mengzi. E.g., when searching The Philosopher’s Index, to retrieve all one might about Mengzi, one will need to search under Mengzi, Meng Tzu, and Mencius (the latinized form of his name). In similar fashion, terms searches may need to employ both pinyin and Wade Giles. In the more specific subject area primers, we have made an effort to list key philosophical terms and both of their spellings in order to facilitate this process.

Chinese Philosophers’ Names

The names of early Chinese philosophers are typically appended with the honorific zi (tzu). Zi is most frequently translated as “Master” and is a designation assigned to particularly notable and esteemed thinkers. E.g., Xunzi = Master Xun [i.e., family name first, with honorific after]. Two of the philosophers most well known in the west, Confucius and Mencius, were given these latinized names by Jesuit missionaries: “Mencius” is but a latinized form of Mengzi and “Confucius” is the latinized form of Kongfuzi, with “fuzi” being an especially high honorific. In Chinese, Confucius/Kongfuzi is most commonly known as Kongzi and western scholarship increasingly uses this in place of the latinized form

Early Chinese Texts

Early Chinese philosophical texts are often titled simply with their purported author’s name. E.g., Xunzi’s work is simply titled Xunzi. Two notable exceptions in the philosophical corpus are the Analects, a text about Confucius and his teachings but of uncertain authorship, and the Daoist classic, the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching). The Daodejing is also generally believed to have multiple authors, though it too is often referred to using its purported author as title (i.e., the Laozi).

It is also important to note that many early Chinese texts were compiled over time, often with additions by later authors, editors, or scribes. E.g., scholars now believe the Analects assumed its present, received form over multiple generations and that there are noticeable differences in the text’s different historical strata.

A Note about Translations of Early Chinese Texts

Scholars largely trained in western historical sources will immediately notice that translations of early Chinese texts exhibit radically more variation than is common in translations of western historical philosophical texts. This largely owes to features of the classical Chinese language in which these texts were written. E.g., classical Chinese does not have a singular/plural distinction, verb tenses, articles, an unambiguous copula verb, or an equivalent to capitalization, and the texts do not carry punctuation. In addition to this, many Chinese characters carry multiple meanings. Responsible translation of classical Chinese thus entails much sensitivity to context and is necessarily more interpretively active. As one would expect, scholars frequently disagree about translation matters and interpretation. Evidence of both differences in interpretation and outright disagreement thus manifest in translation variety.

A caution: By far the most popular early Chinese text among western audiences is the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching). Its popularity and thus sales success with publishers has resulted in there being many dubious translations on the market. Regrettably, some of these translations have been produced by “translators” with no knowledge of classical Chinese – i.e., “translators” may cobble together a “translation” by examining other translations in languages they do know and constructing their own “unique” version of the text. Because of this, it is especially important for interested academic readers to seek out translations produced by recognized scholars and reputable academic presses.

Pronunciation Tips for Chinese Language

Below are some basic tips for pronouncing Chinese language terms and names. Since pinyin is the most often used spelling, it is given priority in what follows, with Wade-Giles given in parentheses. In addition to these tips, a useful set of audio pronunciations may be found here: https://chinese.yabla.com/chinese-pinyin-chart.php

Consonants can be pronounced as in English except for:
c (tz’u) as ts as in the final sound in “cats”)
g always as in gate
h as ch in loch
q (ch’) as ch
x (hs) as hissed sh
z (ts or tz) as d-z
zh as j

ai rhyme with sky
ao rhyme with cow
e like “uh”
ei rhyme with may
i usually as in pin, except: after
C, CH, S, Sh, Z, ZH, and R: as ir
in bird; before E, A, U: as semi-
vocalic y
o oooo-aah
ou as in soul

A Note about “Philosophy” and “Dao”

The term “philosophy” is of course derived from Greek. There is no exact counterpart of this term in classical Chinese. Historically, what we in the west call “early Chinese philosophers” are presented as “Masters” (zi), and, as in many strains of ancient western sources, there is a high presumption that masters are both thinkers and exempla – that is, they are both working out conceptual understandings and seeking to live in accord with the insights they develop.

Perhaps the most natural indigenous term for capturing “philosophy” in early China is dao (tao). Many beginners in the study of Chinese philosophy identify dao exclusively with the “Daoist” tradition of thought or with Daoist religion. However, dao is used much more broadly in early Chinese philosophical sources and it is accurate to say that each philosopher is offering a dao. In this usage, dao denotes a “way” or “path,” and likewise invokes other usages of the term. Dao means all of the following: way, path, to speak, a body of teachings or doctrine. Thinking of early Chinese philosophers as each offering a distinctive dao or way, and as collectively striving to identify the appropriate dao or way can be a useful entry point in considering what these philosophers are up to. Most basically, where much of western philosophy inclines toward sight metaphors for developing insight, knowledge, and wisdom (e.g., the wise person sees uncommonly clearly), Chinese philosophy inclines more toward movement metaphors: The philosopher is seeking to make a wayto tread a path, or to map a route. The work of philosophy thus couples necessarily epistemological features – one needs to discern the way or a well-fitted way – with a joint emphasis on practice and philosophical insight as a kind of know-how. For a very useful discussion of the term dao, see Chad Hansen’s lively short essay, “An Analysis of Dao,” available here: http://www.philosophy.hku.hk/ch/Dao.html

A Note about Orientalist Stereotypes

Students may come to Chinese philosophy with a host of orientalist stereotypes, stereotypes ranging from those derived from kung fu movies to hippie-infused adoration of the “East” to anti-communist sentiments. Regrettably, even academic philosophers are not always immune to these stereotypes. In our experience, some of the more common are:

STEREOTYPE: Chinese philosophy amounts always to mysticism, or to assertions of the oneness of all things, or to a closeness to nature.

CORRECTIVE: Chinese philosophy is no more committed to mysticism, monism, or “nature” than western philosophy. It contains a great variety of views that resist this simplification and while some Chinese philosophy may appeal to unfamiliar concepts, unfamiliarity (to western readers) is not tantamount to mysticism or a (presumably mysterious) unity of all things.

STEREOTYPE: Chinese philosophers, or Chinese people in general, are collectivist and wholly submerge or suppress the individual and demand blank group conformity.

CORRECTIVE: Chinese concepts of the person are diverse. There is, as a general matter, a far more potent assumption that human beings are fundamentally and perhaps irreducibly social. But the sociality of the person in no way implies blunt conformity, nor does social identity entail loss of any individual self in a collective. The stereotype of faceless hordes of conforming Chinese has far more to do with the history of Sino-western interactions and western representations of the “other” than China itself.

STEREOTYPE: Chinese philosophy or culture puts obedience to family or parents above all. It recommends ancestor “worship.”

CORRECTIVE: Given the sociality of the person, family plays a far more pronounced role in much Chinese philosophy. However, this is a far cry from endorsing blunt obedience and, given the intense attention to family in Chinese philosophical resources, the complexity of familial relations is one of the challenges with which some Chinese philosophy grapples. Ritualized memorialization activities are woven through early Chinese culture. However, just what ontological status ancestors enjoyed is quite ambiguous and, at the least, the way students sometimes equate ancestors with western gods is deeply problematic. E.g., the philosopher Xunzi endorses memorialization activity but rather bluntly denies the existence of any spirits.

STEREOTYPE: Chinese philosophers deal in wise or pseudo-wise “fortune cookie” claims.

CORRECTIVE: Fortune cookies were invented in the United States, in the late 19th or early 20th century (depending on which account you believe). This intriguing fact may indicate that the creation of these cookies and their little messages had far more to do with western perceptions of newly immigrant East Asians than Chinese culture. At any rate, fortune cookies and all they symbolically represent are emphatically not a product of China and thus are not reflective of any natural or inevitable mode of presentation for Chinese cultural “wisdom.”

STEREOTYPE: Chinese philosophers are caricatured as wise men sitting atop mountains, either alone or instructing submissive disciples or acolytes.

CORRECTIVE: Among the more commonplace stereotypes, this is one of the oddest for much of Chinese thought. The figure alone or with acolytes on a mountaintop is in contradiction to just how intensely socially and politically involved many Chinese philosophers actually were. E.g., throughout much of its history, the Chinese imperial court was heavily stocked with Confucian advisors; Mohist philosophers worked actively as military advisors to states under siege from aggressive neighbors, literally fighting battles on behalf of vulnerable others. The philosophers were not, in short, the type to retire to mountaintops. Likewise, the monastic air about these images defies a very dominant strain in Chinese thought: interest in family.

STEREOTYPE: Chinese culture sanctions trickery or deception; Chinese people are sneaky or deceptive.

CORRECTIVE: This especially racist stereotype has a long lineage and is perhaps most grotesquely captured in American poet Bret Harte’s “The Heathen Chinee” [http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/roughingit/map/chiharte.html]. For readers of a certain age, it will also be familiar from the 1970s Calgon commercial featuring a Chinese laundry owner deceptively appealing to “Ancient Chinese Secrets” while using Calgon detergent. Here too, the stereotype says far more about early Sino-western interactions than anything inherent to Chinese culture or philosophy. To the extent that some Chinese philosophy favors modes of interaction that employ indirection and social tact, this should not be naively dismissed as trickery. Given the emphasis on human sociality in Chinese philosophy, as well as the need for subtle diplomacy in a historically imperial and autocratic political contexts, navigating interactions with others with subtlety can be understood as an important area for philosophical exploration.

STEREOTYPE: Chinese philosophy is presented in oblique, mystical, or quasi-mystical forms of communication, with the proverbial “wise person” issuing mysterious and yet mysteriously potent instruction to others.

CORRECTIVE: Closely related to many of the other stereotypes, this one is also perhaps most easily captured by reference to popular culture – e.g., Mr. Miyagi’s advice to the “The Karate Kid” to practice karate by waxing a car, moving his hands with the injunction “wax on, wax off.” All of this is presented with the end result that waxing cars has shockingly produced in the “Kid” an extraordinary facility with warding off blows. Early Chinese philosophy does more freely employ metaphorical presentations of ideas and does sometimes recommend bodily practices the purpose of which may not be immediately clear. However, early Chinese philosophy shares a more literary and imaginative mode of presentation with much of ancient philosophy found in the west. In this, it is not distinctive, though the metaphors and analogies employed may register as different owing to unfamiliarity among western readers. That early Chinese philosophers also sometimes recommend bodily practices – e.g., the Analects remarks about issues of dress, posture, and even facial expression – is better viewed as a commendable aspect of philosophies that take our embodiment seriously. Indeed, many contemporary scholars of early Chinese philosophy see Chinese philosophy’s refusal of any easy separation between mind and body as a strong plus in its conceptual orientation.

A FINAL CAUTION: If you employ Powerpoint in your pedagogy and like to couple presentation of text with images, it is important to take care that the images selected do not inadvertently reproduce or reflect stereotypes such as those described above. E.g., images depicting sages on mountaintops will only aggravate the likelihood of students reducing Chinese philosophy to such stereotypes.

What about Women?

Like almost every ancient tradition of philosophy globally, early Chinese philosophy is the work of elite, comparably privileged men. It is largely silent about women and what indications it does contain regarding the status of women are patriarchal. There is no quick and ready way to acquaint readers here with what is distinctive about the patriarchal qualities of early Chinese philosophy, except to observe that the issues here neither straightforwardly replicate western sources nor reduce to easy formulation. E.g., unlike what we find in Aristotle, there are no categorical dismissals of women’s intellectual faculties, no treatment of them suggestive of their being akin to a distinct (and distinctly limited) form of humanity. Yet where the sources are not silent, they are typically troubling – e.g., the relation of husbands to wives is presented hierarchically, with wives subservient. In a more positive vein, some contemporary feminist philosophers of Chinese materials find early Chinese philosophical assumptions regarding human sociality and attendant concerns with relational identities a promising avenue for enriching contemporary theorizing. Most generally, teaching early Chinese philosophical sources requires much of the same sensitivity to gender issues as western philosophical sources. E.g., one can provide instruction that renders the work more egalitarian and one ought seek to do so responsibly, not unlike what teaching Aristotle requires.

Bibliography of Selected Secondary Survey Works

The texts listed here all provide a survey of early Chinese philosophy, covering the major philosophers and movements, as well as noting how they historically interact. All are suitable for classroom use, but are also helpful for philosophers seeking a basic overview.

  • Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Dao. Open Court, 1989. For years a standard in the field and still one of the most engagingly rich overviews, Disputers of the Dao usefully discusses early Chinese philosophy both on its own terms and in connection with western philosophical themes and concepts.
  • Lai, Karyn. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Provides a chapters on all of the major early schools and thinkers, with particular focus on distinctive philosophical values and concepts in each. Additionally includes a chapter on Chinese Buddhism.
  • Liu, JeeLoo. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy: From Ancient Philosophy to Chinese Buddhism. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006. Provides overview with individual chapters given to each major thinker of the early period, as well as chapters covering the major schools of Chinese Buddhism.
  • Van Norden, Bryan W. Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2011. Primarily designed as a course text for introductory level students, this text nonetheless provides a quick and ready reference for key themes and issues, as well as occasionally noting connections to themes in western philosophy.

Quick Reference Timeline of Chinese History and Chinese Philosophers

Xia Dynasty

ca. 2205-1766 BCE

First of the “Three Dynasties” and purportedly founded by the Sage King Yu, the Xia Dynasty is considered the earliest dynasty. However, historians and archeologists have as yet been unable to verify its existence.

Shang Dynasty

ca.1766-1045 BCE

The earliest documented civilization in China, the Shang (also known as the Yin) apparently employed a lineage based system of rule and frequently employed divination in matters concerning decisions of state. The earliest strata of the divination text, the Book of Changes (Yijing), date from this era.

Zhou Dynasty

1045-256 BCE

The Zhou Dynasty is typically subdivided into what are called the Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou periods. The designations of “Western” and “Eastern” have no special significance other than to indicate the location of the Zhou capital during each period.

Western Zhou Period

1045-771 BCE

The Western Zhou begins when the Zhou family, led by Wen and his son Wu, conquer the Shang. King Wen died before the stabilization of the dynasty and Wu died soon after. Wu’s son and heir to throne is Cheng, who was still a young child at the time of his father’s death. Because of this, Wu’s brother, the Duke of Zhou, acts as Regent until Cheng attains his majority. (Admiring references to the Duke of Zhou are found in some early Confucian texts.) The Zhou rulers are the first to appeal to the “Mandate of Heaven” (tianming) to establish the legitimacy of their rule. The Western Zhou is widely revered as a “Golden Age” of peace and wise rule. The Zhou governed by delegating authority to regional rulers who owed fealty to the Zhou king. This period also saw the production of several important cultural documents, including the Book of Odes (Shijing) and the Book of Documents (Shujing).

Eastern Zhou Period

770-256 BCE

During the Eastern Zhou, the dynasty begins and completes its collapse. This period is further sub-divided into the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period.

Spring and Autumn Period


The Zhou Dynasty fell into decline as its regional rulers became increasingly autonomous, desirous in particular of preserving their positions as hereditary. Many of these provincial rulers began to assume the title wang (“king”) and began to vie with each other for power and territory. Some measure of order was preserved as some of these rulers, called ba (hegemons), consolidated their power to lead alliances of smaller states. The period is called “Spring and Autumn” (Chun qiu) after an historical text from this era that bears this name. This period produces the famous history entitled the Zuozhuan (The Commentary of Zuo) and begins the philosophical era.

551-479 Confucius

Warring States Period

403-221 BCE

This era witnesses the complete collapse of Zhou authority. The titular rule of the Zhou and the tenuous alliances of the ba devolve into chaos. During this period, interstate warfare is so common that historians estimate that no single year would have been free of warfare. This period also produced new technological developments that significantly impacted the contours of ordinary experience, as well as the nature of the prevalent conflicts over territory, e.g., increasingly meritocratic systems of bureaucracy, the development of iron tools, the invention of the crossbow, and the rise of the use of mass infantry as the core fighting units in warfare. It is also widely considered the period in which philosophy best flourished in China, sometimes described as the period of the “100 Schools” of philosophy. Though many of the works of this era are lost, evidence suggests the presence of an extremely robust and active philosophical dialogue during this time.

Dates Unknown: Sunzi
480-390: Mozi
ca. 350: Yang Zhu
371-289: Mengzi
369 – 286: Zhuangzi
ca. 370-310: Huizi
ca. 380: Gongsun Long
298-238: Xunzi
280-233: Hanfeizi

Qin Dynasty

221-206 BCE

Founded by Qinshihuangdi, the Qin is considered the dynasty that unifed all China, owing both to Qinshihuangdi’s decisive conquest of all rival states and his establishment of, for example, a common writing system and common system of weights and measures. Organized along Legalist principles, Qin rule has historically been viewed as brutal. The Qin emperor achieved order by suppressing dissent, ordering mass executions of scholars and the burning of books containing rival philosophies. While Qin rule did unify China, it was short-lived and quickly supplanted by the Han. For those interested in recent popular culture, the Qin emperor is the subject of Zhang Yimou’s film “Hero.” It’s worth pointing out, however, that Zhang’s treatment of this bit of Chinese history and this emperor in particular is unusually sympathetic.

221-210 Reign of Qinshihuangdi
213 Classics burned

Han Dynasty

206 BCE-220 CE

Founded by Liu Bang, the Han ushers in a time of relative peace and stability.

141-87 Han Wu Di makes Confucianism official state ideology
1st century CE Introduction of Buddhism to China