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What Is Chinese Philosophy?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Chinese philosophy includes ideas about existence embraced by millions of people from China and other nations, some for thousands of years. The systems of Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Confucianism are among the primary schools of Chinese philosophy. Writers and thinkers such as Lao Tse, Sun Tzu, and Confucius himself contributed to the culture of China and the world at large. Chinese ideas include a preference for established order and a spirituality that is not easily defined in words. These concepts have been a source of fascination and study for Western philosophers for centuries.

The origins or Chinese philosophy are in the 6th century B.C., when Lao Tse and then Confucius established their traditions. A century later, the soldier Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War, a philosophy of armed combat that is still in use today. In the 1st century A.D., Indian missionaries brought their Buddhist faith to China, where it evolved into the path of Zen Buddhism. These and other Chinese approaches gained credence in Western society, where they influenced many thinkers, writers, and artists. In recent years, China as a nation has embraced the ideals and philosophy of communism.

Taoism is the Chinese philosophy based on the teachings of Lao Tse. The philosophy teaches that life is meant to be experienced rather than objectively observed and that objectivity itself is neither possible nor desirable. Instead, people should attempt to live in harmony with the world around them through a variety of spiritual and mental practices and activities. This philosophy jibed well with Buddhism, which cautions against material desires. Zen Buddhism, the distinctively Chinese version of Buddhism, advises meditation and abstract states of mind to achieve enlightenment, a kind of wordless wisdom.

By contrast, the teachings of K’ung Fu’tzu, also known as Confucius, hold that there are attainable human virtues. Both individuals and human society as a whole can be improved if people work at attaining these virtues, which can be broken down into a rigidly structured system. Ritual behavior, politeness, and deference to authority all have their places within this system. This Chinese philosophy and its later offshoots have influenced Chinese and Asian thinking in general throughout history to the present day. Some have argued that the philosophy dovetails with the rigid structures of the communist state or that Confucianism otherwise remains a dominant philosophy in modern-day China.

Western society has historically alternated between suspicion of Asian people and cultures and fascination with Chinese philosophy and lifestyles. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese, Asian, and Indian philosophy influenced Western historical figures such as Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lennon. Chinese beliefs have appeared in such popular Western mass media as the television series Kung Fu and The Karate Kid film series.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By ysmina — On Jul 05, 2014

I also don't understand how Communism and Buddhism can coexist in China. Isn't Communism against religion or spiritual beliefs?

By stoneMason — On Jul 05, 2014

Most people think of Confucianism or Buddhism when they think of Chinese philosophy. But Chinese philosophy has actually gone through many different stages.

As far as I understand, during the Dynasty period, there were new ideas and philosophies emerging during each dynasty. Not all of them left a lasting impact on Chinese philosophy as a whole. Those that resonated with the people continued and each dynasty added new ideas or "layers." This is why Chinese philosophy is so rich. It would take years for an individual to study everything.

By ZipLine — On Jul 04, 2014

I do not know anything about Chinese philosophy. But I did have a Chinese roommate for one year and I did learn some things from her. Actually, anyone who spends some time with the Chinese will immediately learn about the importance of balance and harmony in Chinese philosophy. These beliefs have impacted every aspect of life in China and the Chinese continue to practice these philosophies wherever they may be.

For example, I learned a lot about harmony from foods from my roommate. She told me that foods must be eaten in certain forms for balance. For example, raw foods are avoided, everything is cooked even if for a short time. And cold water is avoided in winter, while hot water is avoided in the summer. All of these are ways to establish and maintain balance in the body.

Likewise, there are many other ways to maintain psychological and spiritual harmony as well. I think it's all very fascinating and beneficial.

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