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Ancient Chinese Art › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Ancient China covered a vast and ever-changing geopolitical landscape, and the art it produced over three millennia is, unsurprisingly, just as varied. Still, despite continuous indigenous technical developments, changes in materials and tastes, and the influence of foreign ideas, there are certain qualities inherent in Chinese art which make it possible to describe in general terms and recognise no matter where or when it was produced and for what purpose. These essential qualities include a love of nature, a belief in the moral and educative capacity of art, an admiration of simplicity, an appreciation of accomplished brushwork, an interest in viewing the subject from various perspectives, and a loyalty to much-used motifs and designs from lotus leaves to dragons. Chinese art would influence tremendously that of its neighbours in East Asia, and the worldwide appreciation of its accomplishments, especially in ceramics, painting, and jade work continue to this day.


An important difference between China and many other ancient cultures is that a large proportion of Chinese artists were not professionals but gentlemen amateurs (and a few ladies) who were also scholars. Students of Confucius and its sober principles, they were often men of literature who published poetry. Art was, for them and their audience, a means to capture and present the philosophical approach to life which they valued. For this reason, the art they produced is often minimal and without artifice, perhaps sometimes even a little austere to western eyes. Art, throughout most of China's history, was meant to express the artist's good character and not merely be an exposition of his practical artistic skills. Such Confucian principles as propriety or li were looked for by many of those who produced and consumed art.
Naturally, there were professional artists too, employed by the Imperial court or wealthy patrons to decorate the walls and interiors of their fine buildings and tombs. Of course, there were, too, thousands of craftsmen working precious materials into objects of art for the few who could afford them, but these were not regarded as artists in the modern sense. The real arts of merit in China were calligraphy and painting. If the art world today is troubled by a certain snobbishness, then the Chinese were perhaps the first to succumb to questions of what is and what is not art.
There grew up in China a connoisseurship of art so that more and more people became collectors of it. Texts were printed to guide people on the history of Chinese art with helpful rankings of the various merits of past artists. In a certain way, art became somewhat standardised with conventions to be adhered to. Artists were expected to study the great masters, copying their works as part of their training. One of the most famous and long-lasting sources of advice on judging art is the six-point list of the 6th century CE art critic and historian Xie He, originally published in his now lost Old Record of the Classifications of Painters. When considering the merits of a painting the viewer should assess the following (with point 1 the most important and essential):
1. Spirit Resonance, which means vitality.
2. Bone Method, which means using the brush.
3. Correspondence to the object, which means depicting the forms.
4. Suitability to type, which has to do with laying on of colour.
5. Division and planning, that is, placing and arranging.
6. Transmission by copying, that is, the copying of models. (Tregear, 94)
These relatively rigid rules of art creation and appreciation were, then, largely due to the belief that art should somehow benefit the viewer. The idea, or better, the acceptance that art could and should express the feelings of the artists themselves would only arrive in more modern times. Still, that is not to say there were not, just as in any art anywhere in the world, eccentrics who ignored the conventions and created works in their own inimitable way. There are cases in China of artists who painted to music not even looking at the picture, one who only painted when drunk and used his cap instead of a brush, those who used their fingers or toes to paint, and even one action artist who splashed ink on the silk spread out on his studio floor and then dragged an assistant over it. Sadly, the results of these innovations have not survived to be enjoyed today in the world's museums of Asiatic art.

Li Po's Calligraphy


The art of calligraphy - and for the ancient Chinese it certainly was an art - aimed to demonstrate superior control and skill using brush and ink. Calligraphy established itself as one of the major Chinese art forms during the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), and for two millennia after, all educated men were expected to be proficient at it. Some women, or at least certain figures at court, did become known as accomplished calligraphers, most notably Lady Wei (272-349 CE), said to have taught the great master Wang Xizhi (303-361 CE).
Far more than mere writing, the art used varying thicknesses of brushstroke, their subtle angles, and their fluid connection to each other - all precisely arranged in imaginary spaces on the page - to create an aesthetically pleasing whole. A connoisseurship quickly developed, and calligraphy became one of the six classic and ancient arts alongside ritual, music, archery, charioteering, and numbers.
The techniques and conventions of writing would influence painting where critics looked for the artist's forceful use of brushstrokes, their spontaneity, and their variation to produce the illusion of depth. Another influence of calligraphy skills on painting was the importance given to composition and the use of blank space. Finally, calligraphy remained so important that it even appeared on paintings to describe and explain what the viewer was seeing, indicate the title (although by no means all paintings were given a title by the original artist) or record the place it was created and the person it was intended for.Eventually, such notes and even poems became an integral part of the overall composition and an inseparable part of the painting itself. There was a fashion, too, for adding more inscriptions by subsequent owners and collectors, even adding extra portions of silk or paper to the original piece to accommodate them. From the 7th century CE owners frequently added their own seal in red ink, for example. Chinese paintings it seems were meant to be perpetually handled and embellished with fine calligraphy.


Chinese painters painted on various materials in many formats. The most popular formats were on walls (from c. 1100 BCE), coffins and boxes (from c. 800 BCE), screens (from c. 100 CE), silk scrolls which were designed to be looked at in the hand or hung on walls (from c. 100 CE for horizontal and from c. 600 CE for vertical), fixed fans (from c. 1100 CE), book covers (from c. 1100 CE) and folding fans (from c. 1450 CE).

Chinese Eunuchs

The most popular materials with the earliest artists were wood and bamboo but then the following were adopted: plastered walls (from c. 1200 BCE), silk (from c. 300 BCE), and paper (from c. 100 CE). Canvas would only be used widely from the 8th century CE. Brushes were made from animal hair, cut to a tapering end and tied to a bamboo or wood handle. Significantly, they were precisely the same instruments used by the calligrapher. The inks used were made from rubbing a dried cake of animal or vegetable matter mixed with minerals and glue against a wet stone. Each artist had to laboriously make their own inks as there was no commercial production of them.
The two most popular themes of Chinese painting were portraits and landscapes. Portraits in Chinese art began in the Warring States Period (5th-3rd century BCE) and were traditionally rendered with great restraint, usually because the subject was a great scholar, monk or court official and so should, by definition, have a good moral character which should be portrayed with respect by the artist. For this reason, faces are often seemingly impassive with only the merest hint of emotion or character subtly expressed. Often the character of the subject is much more clearly expressed in their attitude and relationship to other people in the picture; this is especially true of portraits of emperors and Buddhist figures.
There were, however, instances of more realistic portraits and these can be seen particularly in the wall paintings of tombs. A branch of portraiture was to paint historical figures in certain instructive scenes from their life which showed the benefits of moral behaviour. Naturally, there were also paintings of people which had less lofty aims, and these include the popular scenes of Chinese family life which are usually set in a garden.

Han Women, Dahuting Tomb.

Landscape painting had been around as long as artists had, but the genre really took off during the Tang dynasty when artists became much more concerned with humanity's place in nature. Typically, small human figures guide the viewer through a panoramic landscape of mountains and rivers in Tang paintings. It should be no surprise that mountains and water dominated landscape painting as the very word in Chinese for landscape translates literally as “mountain-and-water”. Trees and rocks are also featured and the whole scene is usually meant to capture a particular season of the year. Colours were limited in use, either everything in various shades of a single colour (illustrating the roots in calligraphy) or two colours combined, usually blues and greens.
In accordance with the Taoist belief in the benefit of contemplating serene nature, there is rarely anything to disturb the tranquillity of landscape paintings such as farm labourers and no specific location is intended to be depicted. Later periods would, though, see more intimate and abstract scenes of nature concentrating on very specific themes such as bamboo gardens. Detailed paintings of a single animal, flower, or bird were especially popular from the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) onwards, but these were regarded as artistically inferior to the other categories of Chinese painting.
Still, certain animals became symbolic of certain ideas and appeared in paintings just as they had already in other art forms like bronze work. For example, a pair of mandarin ducks denoted a happy marriage, a deer stood for money, and fish for fertility and abundance. Similarly, plants, flowers, and trees had their own meanings. Bamboo grows straight and true like a good scholar should be, the pine and cypress represent endurance, peaches long life, and each season had its own flower: peony, lotus, chrysanthemum, and prunus.

The Emperor Ming Huang Travelling in Shu

Depth was achieved in paintings by introducing mist or a lake in the middle ground giving the illusion that the mountains are further behind. Other devices include using paler ink and fainter strokes to paint more distant objects while foreground objects are rendered darker and more detailed. Painting the scene with several different viewpoints and multiple perspectives is another common characteristic of Chinese painting. One of the most famous of all Chinese landscape paintings is the 8th century CE painted silk panorama known as 'The Emperor Ming Huang Travelling in Shu'. It is a sprawling and detailed masterpiece of mountain scenery in the typical Tang style using only blues and greens. The original is lost but a later copy can be seen at the Palace Museum of Taipei.


Large-scale figure sculpture has not survived well but some monumental examples can still be seen such as those cut from the rock face at the Longmen Caves, Fengxian temple near Luoyang. Dating to 675 CE the 17.4 metre high figures represent a Buddhist Heavenly King and demon guardians. Another celebrated example of Chinese sculpture on a life-size scale are the figures of Shi Huangti ’s “ Terracotta Army
. Over 7,000 figures of warriors, 600 horses and several chariots were set to guard the tomb of the 3rd-century BCE Qin emperor. Much effort was made to render each figure unique despite them all being made from a limited repertoire of assembled body parts made from moulds. Faces and hair, in particular, were modified to give the illusion of a real army composed of unique individuals.
Regarding smaller-scale works, the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE) is famous for its cast bronze work. Common shapes of bronze vessels are three-legged cauldrons, sometimes with the legs made into animals, birds, or dragons. They can be circular or square, and many have lids and handles. Sharp relief decoration includes repeating patterns, masks, and scroll motifs. The Shang artists also produced vessels in the form of three-dimensional animals such as rams, elephants, and mythological creatures.

Shang Dynasty Bronze Zun

In the Han period, small-scale sculpture took the form of stone or bricks stamped and carved with relief scenes and they are particularly common in tombs. Outstanding examples come from the Wu Liang Shrine at Jiaxiang. Dating to 151 CE or 168 CE, there are some 70 relief slabs which carry scenes of battles and famous historical figures, such as Confucius, all identified by accompanying texts and covering a chronological Chinese history in a pictorial record similar to a history book.
Also in the Han period, cast bronze sculptures of horses were popular. These are usually depicted in full gallop with only one hoof resting on the base so that they almost appear to be flying. Earthenware figurines of single standing women, men, and servants are common from the Han period. Cast bronze was used to make small figurines and ornate incense burners. These were often inlaid with gold and silver or gilded. One superb piece is a gilded bronze oil-lamp in the form of a kneeling servant girl, which dates to the late 2nd century BCE.
While the tombs of emperors and important people sometimes had large figure statues set outside them most later sculpture was of Buddhist subjects. By the time of the Tang dynasty, the wealth of the Buddhist monasteries permitted a great production of religious art. The most popular subjects, as ever, were the Buddha and bodhisattvas, and they ranged from miniature figurines to life-size statues. Unlike in previous periods, figures became much less static, their suggested flowing movement even drawing criticism from some that serious religious figures, on occasion, now looked more like court dancers.

Tang Three-colour Glaze Jar


The Chinese were the masters of pottery and ceramics. They produced everything from heavy and functional storage jars in earthenware to exquisitely decorated bowls in the most delicate of porcelain, from vases to garden stools, teapots to pillows.They produced the first glaze wares, the first green celadons and the first underglaze wares painted with cobalt blue. Early developments in techniques and kilns led to both higher firing temperatures and the first glazed pottery during the Han period.Pottery, especially the vessels painted with a grey slip commonly found in Han tombs, very often imitated the shape and decoration of bronze vessels, and this would be a goal of many potters in later periods. Clay was used to produce small unglazed models of ordinary houses which were set in tombs to accompany the dead and, presumably, symbolically meet their need for a new home. Many such models are complete with adjacent animal pen and figurines of their occupants and animals.
Tang potters reached a level of technical proficiency greater than any of their predecessors. New colour glazes which were developed in the period included blues, greens, yellows, and browns, which were produced from cobalt, iron, and copper.Colours were mixed, too, producing the three-coloured wares the Tang period has become famous for. Rich inlays of gold and silver were also sometimes used to decorate Tang ceramics. In the Yuan (1271-1368 CE) and Ming (1368-1644 CE) periods even more famous ceramics would be produced with their distinctive and much-copied blue on white decoration which itself copied earlier Chinese paintings for design ideas.

Hongshan Jade Dragon


Gold, silver, copper, bronze, ivory, coloured glass, enamel, precious stones, semi-precious hard stones, silk, wood, and amberwere all materials transformed into art objects by gifted craftsmen, but perhaps the most quintessential Chinese materials of the minor arts were jade and lacquer. Jade was especially esteemed in China for its rarity, durability, purity, and association with immortality. Using circular cutting drills and iron tools, the hard material was carved into all manner of jewellery items, everyday objects and figurines of animals, people, and mythical creatures, especially dragons. Jade was especially used for ritual objects such as the bi disc and zong ( cong ) tubes, both of which were made in large numbers but are of unknown function. One unique but stunning use of jade was the creation of 'suits' to cover the body of the deceased in Han royal tombs.The 'suits' cover the contours of the body and are made from up to two thousand individually carved rectangular pieces of jade stitched together using gold or silver wire.
Lacquer - a liquid of shellac and resin - was used to coat objects of wood and other material since the Neolithic period in China. It was used to colour and beautify screens, furniture, bowls, cups, sculpture, musical instruments, and coffins, where it could be carved, incised, and inlaid to show off scenes from nature, mythology, and literature. The state sponsored and supervised the production of lacquerware, with different schools of lacquer art producing common forms but with recognisably distinct designs. Lacquerware took the form of plates, cups, and jars. Like pottery, they often imitated metal vessels, but they were decorated more elaborately, particularly with scenes of mythical creatures appearing from behind clouds and probably representing the spirit world of the afterlife.

Ancient Chinese Calligraphy › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Calligraphy established itself as the most important ancient Chinese art form alongside painting, first coming to the fore during the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). All educated men and some court women were expected to be proficient at it, an expectation which remained well into modern times. Far more than mere writing, good calligraphy exhibited an exquisite brush control and attention to composition, but the actual manner of writing was also important with rapid, spontaneous strokes being the ideal. The brushwork of calligraphy, its philosophy, and materials would influence Chinese painting styles, especially landscape painting, and many of the ancient scripts are still imitated today in modern Chinese writing.


The highly flexible brushes used in calligraphy were made from animal hair (or more rarely a feather) cut to a tapering end and tied to a bamboo or wood handle. The ink used was made by the writer himself by rubbing a dried cake of animal or vegetable matter mixed with minerals and glue against a wet stone. Wood, bamboo, silk (from c. 300 BCE), and then paper (from c. 100 CE) were the most common writing surfaces, but calligraphy could also appear on such everyday objects as fans, screens, and banners. The best material was paper, though, and the invention of finer quality paper - credited to Cai Lun in 105 CE - helped the development of more artistic styles of calligraphy because its absorbency captured every nuance of the brushstroke.


A connoisseurship quickly developed, and calligraphy became one of the six classic and ancient arts alongside ritual, music, archery, charioteering, and numbers. Accomplished Chinese calligraphers were expected to use varying thicknesses of brushstroke, their subtle angles, and their fluid connection to each other - all precisely arranged in imaginary spaces on the page - to create an aesthetically pleasing whole.

Calligraphy Brushes

The historian R. Dawson gives the following description of the attraction of calligraphy created with an expert brush compared to the printed version:
The printed characters are like figures in a Victorian photograph, standing stiffly to attention; but the brush-written ones dance down the pages with the grace and vitality of the ballet. The beautiful shapes of Chinese calligraphy were in fact compared with natural beauties, and every stroke was thought to be inspired by a natural object and to have the energy of a living thing. Consequently Chinese calligraphers sought inspiration by watching natural phenomena. The most famous of all, Wang Xizhi, was fond of watching geese because the graceful and easy movement of their necks reminded him of wielding the brush, and the monk Huai-su was said to have appreciated the infinite variety possible in the cursive style of calligraphy known as grass- script by observing summer clouds wafted by the wind. (201-202)


There were five main scripts in ancient Chinese calligraphy:
1. Seal script ( zhuan shu ) - in use from c. 1200 BCE
2. Clerical script ( li shu ) - from c. 200 BCE
3. Regular script ( kai shu, zhen shu or zheng shu ) - from c. 200-400 CE
4. Cursive script ( xing shu ) - from the 4th century CE
5. Drafting script - ( cao shu ) - from the 7th century CE
Seal script, as its name suggests, was a formal style used for seals and other official documents because it has strokes of an even thickness and fewer direction changes, which made it easier for carvers to reproduce. Clerical script with its heavy stroke endings was also formal and reserved for record keeping by clerks and officials. Later, it became the common script for inscriptions. Both Seal and Clerical script were revived as artistic scripts in the 17th and 18th centuries CE. Regular script was the standard form for printing and remains the most commonly used today. The more flamboyant Cursive script was the most popular choice for artistic expression and used too in the notes added to paintings. Finally, Drafting script, sometimes also called Grass script, was so called because it was the quickest to produce and 'wildest' in that the artist stretched convention to its limits so that some characters become difficult to recognise immediately.

Li Po's Calligraphy

Despite these broad types, each calligrapher's writing style was, of course, his or her own. A calligrapher might aim for precision over spontaneity, prefer flamboyance to grace or concentrate on the spaces left blank within the composition.Besides aesthetic results writing was also judged for other purposes, as the historian M. Dillon here explains:
As a person's writing was regarded as a clue to temperament, moral worth, and learning, emperors of the Tangand Song dynasties often selected their ministers on the basis of the quality of their calligraphy…The life of the calligraphic tradition was sustained by the notion that calligraphy could convey the spontaneous feelings of the truly perceptive individual through an outflowing of spirit at a particular instant. (37)


Just like in any other art, the most gifted practitioners of calligraphy became famous for their work and their scripts were copied and used in such innovations as printed books. The most revered of all Chinese calligraphers, as mentioned already, was Wang Xizhi (c. 303 - c. 365 CE), although he was a student of Lady Wei (272-349 CE). No examples of either figure's writing survive, except possibly in extant copies of Xizhi's. Wang Xizhi's son, Wang Xianzhi (344-388 CE), was another famous practitioner, the pair often referred to as 'the two Wangs'. Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322 CE) was another celebrated calligrapher who produced such precise characters placed neatly into square boxes on his paper that printers used his script for their own type blocks.
Examples of the scripts and styles created by these masters were often copied onto wood or stone to preserve them and from which ink rubbings ( bei ) were made. Thus, the paper copies could be distributed and the scripts could be imitated by lesser calligraphers everywhere. Such copies were also useful to emperors who wished to promote one style over another during their reign, and they have become an invaluable record of the evolution of Chinese calligraphy which continues to be consulted and imitated today.
Examples of famous calligraphy survive in the form of letters, introductions to books, pieces of prose, religious texts, notes made on paintings, and engraved stele, tombstones and tablets, where the stonemason faithfully copied the work of a noted calligrapher. Examples of fine calligraphy by famous writers were even collected in ancient times, especially in the libraries of emperors or even buried with them in their tombs. So valued were these pieces that forgeries were made and sold as genuine to collectors. As another indicator of the value put on examples of calligraphy by great past masters, the actual meaning of the text is often irrelevant to prices and collectibility. There are many scraps ( tie ) which may be very old and highly valued but are, in fact, merely comments on the weather or a note for a gift of oranges.

Calligraphy by Wang Xizhi


The techniques and conventions of writing would influence painting where critics looked for the artist's forceful use of brushstrokes, their spontaneity, and their variation to produce the illusion of depth. Another influence of calligraphy skills on painting was the importance given to composition and the use of blank space. Finally, calligraphy remained so important that it even appeared on paintings to describe and explain what the viewer was seeing, indicate the title (although by no means all paintings were given a title by the original artist) or record the place it was created and the person it was intended for.Eventually, such notes and even poems became an integral part of the overall composition and an inseparable part of the painting itself.
There was a fashion, too, for adding more inscriptions by subsequent owners and collectors, even adding extra portions of silk or paper to the original piece to accommodate them. From the 7th century CE, owners frequently added their own seal in red ink, for example, and if a piece changed hands, then the new owner would add their seal so that the history of the work's ownership can sometimes be traced back hundreds of years. Chinese paintings, it seems, were meant to be perpetually handled and embellished with fine calligraphy.

Ancient Chinese Philosophy › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Cristian Violatti

Chinese philosophy is the intellectual tradition of the Chinese culture from their early recorded history to the present day. The main philosophical topics of Chinese philosophy were heavily influenced by the ideas of important figures like Laozi, Confucius, Mencius and Mozi, who all lived during the second half of the Zhou dynasty (8th to 3rd century BCE). Chinese culture as a whole has been shaped by the influence of these intellectual leaders.


Humanism has been the chief attribute of Chinese philosophy. The role of humans and their place in society has always been the main focus of Chinese thinkers. Practical, moral and political concerns have been favoured over metaphysical speculation as Chinese philosophy tends to be concerned with worldly affairs.
This does not mean that metaphysical ideas are absent from Chinese thought. An example of an important text of metaphysics in the Chinese tradition is the obscure document named Yi Jing ( I-Ching ), or “Book of Changes”. Some Chinese used the Book of Changes as a manual of divination. Those who could understand its message, it was believed, would grasp all the laws of nature.
Rather than expressing their thoughts in a logical and systematic prose, Chinese thinkers tended to be more poetical. They do not display a strong concern in providing strict rules; the ideas tend to be guidelines only. Texts on Chinese philosophy are often filled with aphorisms, allusions and parables. The general tendency is to be suggestive: the more an expression is articulated, the less suggestive it is. The sayings and writings of Chinese philosophers are, therefore, often vague so that their meaning is almost boundless.


The basis of this tradition originated during 800-200 BCE, a time of deep political and social change and intellectual awakening in China. The 500-200 BCE period was the zenith, sometimes referred to as the 'Classical Age', of Chinese philosophy.During this time, China saw the gradual disintegration of the Zhou dynasty, which ended in 256 BCE, when the Qin army took control of the city of Chengzhou. As the end of the Zhou dynasty approached, the central authority disintegrated. This scenario encouraged a long struggle between states competing for the control and unification of China.

Map of Western Zhou

During much of the Zhou dynasty, the political organization of China closely resembled a feudal system, with the King of the royal house of Zhou at the head of the social structure and hundreds of princes under him, each of them ruling a state. The land of these states was also divided into different fiefs, each of them controlled by a feudal lord who reported to a prince.Under the feudal lords were the common people who were not part of the aristocracy. This structure was secured by family relations linking all the different rulers with the royal house of Zhou. If family relationships did not exist, they were arranged by marriage. Ultimately, the local lords were expected to accept the authority of the king as the head of a large family.
Under this system, education was only available to aristocrats. While the common people had no access to formal learning, the houses of the feudal rulers were centres of education. As the Zhou dynasty started to deteriorate, many aristocrats lost their lands and titles. As a result, many former court officials, who had training in different branches of learning and art, became unemployed and dispersed among the population. In order to make a living, they would use their specialized skills and teach in return for a fee. For the first time in Chinese history, we see the birth of the professional teacher, different from the court official.


The breakdown of the social order produced a diverse set of ideas as Chinese thinkers were trying to address and respond to the challenges that society was experiencing. The mix of ideas was so vast, that some ancient writers refer to this time as the 'Hundred Schools' of thought. Sima Tan (c. 165-110 BCE), the Grand Astrologer of the Han court, wrote a summary classifying the main schools of thought in Ancient China. His list presents just a fraction of the schools of thought that were active in ancient China.
Yin & Yang School (Yin-Yang jia)
Also known as the School of Naturalists, the Yin and Yang School derives its name from the Yin-Yang principles, which in Chinese tradition are regarded as the two major principles of Chinese cosmology: Yin, being the female principle, and Yangthe male principle. The combination and interaction of these two opposites is believed by the Chinese to cause all universal phenomena.

Yin and Yang

It is possible that this school had its origin in those court officials who practised occult arts. Some of these obscure practices included astrology, divination and magic. All aristocratic houses relied on the services of officials trained in several of these occult arts, who were regularly consulted by the rulers.
Confucianism (Ru jia)
Also known as the School of Literati, Confucianism was originally composed of a set of political and moral doctrines with the teachings of Confucius as its basis. Later on, the teachings of Mencius (Meng Zi) and Xunzi (Xun zi) also became part of this school. The humanistic emphasis in Chinese philosophy is largely owed to the enormous influence of Confucianism. During most of Chinese history, Confucianism was seen as the preserver of traditional Chinese values and the guardian of Chinese civilization as such.

Commentaries of the Analects of Confucius

It is believed that this school originated with those court officials who specialized in teaching the classics and the execution of traditional ceremony and music. After struggling during the Qin dynasty, Confucianism emerged as the final and permanent victor during the later Han period and, thanks to the patronage of the Han rulers, it would dominate Chinese thought ever after.
Mohist School (Mo jia)
The leading figure of this school was Mozi, also known as Mo Tzu or Mo Di, who was the first opponent of Confucius. The followers of this school were organized as a close-knit organization and there was a strict code of discipline in place. The contrast between Confucius and Mozi is one of the most interesting in Chinese philosophy. Confucius was very respectful of traditional institutions, rituals, music, and literature of the early Zhou dynasty, and he tried to rationalize and justify them in ethical terms. Mozi, on the other hand, questioned their validity and usefulness and tried to replace them with something that was simpler but, according to his view, more useful. Confucius is seen as the keeper, rationalizer and justifier of the old ways, while Mozi was its critic.
The military specialists that were at the service of the royal families during the feudal Zhou dynasty are believed to be the origin of this movement. The strict discipline practised by the Mohists and the fact that their leaders often had the power to kill school members, might be considered relics of the military origin of the school. As the feudal lords lost their lands, the knights became unemployed, turning into knight-errants. Knights were commonly recruited from the lower class: for this group, the typical values of Confucianism (ritual and music) were meaningless. This could help to explain the negative attitude which the Mohists had for the values of Confucianism.
School of Names (Ming jia)
Sometimes referred to as "sophists" or "logicians", this school focused its attention on the relation between ming (the name) and shi (the actuality), something like the subject and the predicate. Its members were well known for leading any discussion into paradoxical problems, they were ready to dispute with others and purposely affirmed what others denied and denied what others affirmed.
A famous passage in a book written by Gongsun Long (Kung-Sun Lung), a member of the School of Names, describes the kind of paradoxes that are created when the logicians practised their intellectual tricks:
[...] while riding horseback one day he [Gongsun Long] was stopped by a gatekeeper, who told him that horses were not allowed beyond. Kung-sun [Gongsun Long] announced, “This is a white horse, not a horse!”
(Hucker, 74)
According to Wing-tsit Chan 'they [the logicians] represent the only tendency in ancient China toward intellectualism for its own sake'.
The origin of this group is difficult to identify. Even the school itself is hard to distinguish form other schools: the legacy of its ideas had little impact on Chinese history, and the opinions of its members do not have a homogeneous basis. Some scholars believe that this school originated with the 'debaters', who were officials specialized in the art of speaking.
Legalist School (Fa jia)
The word fa means pattern or law. This school was solely concerned with what must be done and how people should and should not behave in order to ensure the flourishing of the state. Because this school is not interested in moral considerations, it is sometimes seen as the opposite thought to Confucianism, which is based on moral principles. From the Legalist standpoint, moral institutions are not a good guide for society and good government should be based entirely on a fixed code of law and practices.
During the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), Legalism became the official state policy, reaching its peak of influence. The bad reputation that later Chinese historians gave to the Qin rulers and the many brutalities that they were accused of ended up undermining the respectability of the Legalist school.
Before the Zhou dynasty began its decline, the feudal society had in place two different principles of conduct: an unwritten code of honour regulating the behaviour of the aristocrats and another code of punishments which applied to the common people. Punishments were used by the rulers to ensure the obedience of their subjects. The origin of the Legalists is believed to be in those ministers responsible for managing these principles of conduct.
Taoism (also Daoism or Dao jia)
As the Zhou dynasty began to collapse, there were those who became so skeptical of the aptitude of rulers and society itself to put an end to the growing chaos and restore order, that they became hermits and recluses, withdrawing from society and leading a simple life in solitude. The offshoot of this escapist attitude, some scholars believe, resulted in the development of Taoism. It challenges many of the ideas of Confucianism by focusing on individual life over social duty and spirituality over worldliness. In fact, Confucian texts describe many episodes where recluses would mock Confucius and his useless efforts (in the recluses' views) in trying to improve society. The Taoist way of life follows simplicity, spontaneity and non-action or inactivity (letting nature do her job).

Confucius, Buddha and Lao-Tzu

Taoist philosophy is centred around a concept hard to define, the Tao (Dao) or Way, described by Wing-tsit Chan as 'the One, which is natural, eternal, spontaneous, nameless and indescribable'.
The number one work of this tradition is the Laozi (Lao Tzu) or Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), sometimes translated as Classic of the Way and of Virtue. Taoist tradition credits the creation of this text to Laozi, an older contemporary of Confucius, but scholars today believe that the work had multiple authors.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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