Early chinese philosophy Essay Example

  • Category:
  • Document type:
  • Level:
  • Page:
  • Words:

Early Chinese Philosophy

Tian, sometimes written as “Tien” ,literally means heaven or sky in Tao or Confucian thinking, but can actually mean a god, a supreme ruler, Shangdi, reigning over both mankind and lesser gods. In Chinese script it combines the characters for great or large with that for one. This is a concept which goes back over several thousand years. The idea of tian can be linked to ideas about power and authority on earth. As to what tian actually consisted of there were different ideas. Zhou Bi Suan Jing put forward the idea of Gatian shuo (說蓋天), with tian being a canopy over the earth. This is described in ‘The Arithmetical Classic of the Gnomon and the Circular Paths of Heaven’ (Development of Mathematics in Ancient China, undated). Another idea was Huntian shuo (說渾天) in which the earth is surrounded by a tian egg shaped sphere rotating around it ( Ng , undated). A third idea was that tian was an infinite space, as described in the Book of Jin, (2014).

Tian is also linked to the concept of world order as tian xia, literally ‘all under heaven’ and referring to all on earth that the Chinese of the time knew or could imagine (Tong, undated). This, according to Tong ( undated) was where heaven and mankind interacted in ancient Chinese thought. To some tian refers to a deity, but others would say it is a more impersonal power (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2014). There is some evidence which suggests that ‘tian’ was originally used originally to refer only to the sky, whereas Shangdi was the name given to the Supreme Ancestor who lives there, although there are instances where these two terms were used interchangeably.

This idea of a separation between heaven and earth for the Chinese, especially for Taoists and Buddhists, would fit into the widely held idea that everything is made up of contradictions. This means that they think of two innate, opposing forces which interact constantly in a way that leads to change. The concepts of the yin-yang dichotomy, darkness and light, male and female, passive and active, also fit into this idea ( Chinese philosophy, 2012), but they are often seen as not being direct opposites, but rather as complementary forces. Doyle ( 2012) claims that even the most irreligious Chinese person will hold to this yin yang idea, so dominant is it in Chinese thought from ancient times to the present.

Tong sees tian xia as having three aspects:-

  • A geographical aspect which refers literally to “all the lands under heaven”. It amounts to the “di” (earth) part of the traditional Chinese triad of “tian , di and ren ”, that is heaven, earth and people, so it consists of the whole earth which is inhabited by humanity. Only having power in the geographical sense was not considered as having the world in any sense of fullness. The other aspects are also required.

  • Secondly it has a psychological sense, which refers to the mentality, the ‘min xin’ ( popular sentiments) of all people living upon the earth.

  • Thirdly tian xia has an ethical and political sense. This sees everybody under heaven treating other people as being fellow and equal members of one human family. This fits in with the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights (1948) article one which states that :-

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

The earliest mention of tian comes early in the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE). To the ancient Chinese tian and Shangdi were important because they were thought to have an impact upon fertility of humans, but also animals and crops, a similar idea to those of other ancient people as in the Roman worship of Flora, and Egyptian worship of Min ( Seawright , 2012) Sacrifices were offered to these powers at first by local rulers king and, later, this was done only by the emperor. In Confucian thought the emperor was the son of heaven, in a filial relationship with the god of heaven, and so perhaps the most worthy, the only possible person, to offer such worship. The Chinese Buddhist Encyclopaedia describes how such sacrifices continued throughout the Shang and Zhou dynasties, that is from the 17th century B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E. This would be because these rulers were by tradition known as the ‘Son of Heaven’, (tianzi 天子), and the authority they held was thought to come from heaven. From the the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 B.C.E.) onwards, leadership as sovereign was bound up with the idea of the mandate of heaven (tianming). This was a grant of authority that was determined by virtue, rather than upon the idea of divine right. Tian allowed the emperor to rule, and gave support to him in this position of great responsibility. On the other hand the ruler was also obliged to take over this rule with the necessary feeling of responsibility. He had to avoid making his people suffer by negatives such as devastation, exploitation and natural disasters. Such negative events were seen as being warnings sent from heaven to remind its son, the emperor, to behave correctly ( Theobald, 2011). The emperor also had to offer worship in the proper way , and with the right attitude ( Doyle, 2012). This meant that if the ruler was found not to be virtuous any power he held would be revoked. This was justified as being within the will of heaven. Virtue in the emperor was important because it was believed that the ruler’s virtue, or lack of it, was believed to be reflected in the degree of harmony within the whole empire. According to Hall and Ames (1998) the principal interests of Chinese philosophers “lie in the establishment and cultivation of harmonious relationships within their social ambiance.”. From this idea it followed that if there was social or political unrest, it was generally thought that the then ruler no longer had the authority of heaven, and a new dynasty could be expected. It was considered in the most ancient times that life and death, as well as good fortune or poverty, depended upon tian, the will of heaven (Theobold, 2012). This is described in the teachings of the philosopher Mengzi 孟子, who saw the people as being seen as Heaven’s eyes and ears, a way of telling heaven what was happening on earth. It was the utmost duty of a ruler to serve his people, and whenever the people moaned or rebelled, it was high time to change politics ( Theobold, 2012). Mengzi saw it as being the emperor’s responsibility to protect his people from problems, and this even included providing protection from natural disasters. The Qin dynasty
秦(221-206 BCE) for example was very short lived because it was seen as being a form of government which did not fit into the will of heaven and so it fell, overcome because under this rule the poor were exploited. He is quoted as having said

Moreover, I know Heaven loves men dearly not without reason. Heaven ordered the sun, the moon, and the stars to enlighten and guide them. Heaven ordained the four seasons, Spring, Autumn, Winter, and Summer, to regulate them. Heaven sent down snow, frost, rain, and dew to grow the five grains and flax and silk that so the people could use and enjoy them. Heaven established the hills and rivers, ravines and valleys, and arranged many things to minister to man’s good or bring him evil. He appointed the dukes and lords to reward the virtuous and punish the wicked, and to gather metal and wood, birds and beasts, and to engage in cultivating the five grains and flax and silk to provide for the people’s food and clothing. This has been so from antiquity to the present. (Will of heaven tr. Mei 1929:145, Cited by Total War Centre, 2012)

By the first millennium B.C.E., early in the time of the Zhou dynasty, tian was thought of as a powerful anthropomorphic deity. Later however these ideas were considered to be mere superstition and the concept becomes more abstract, rather than a definite deity with a will. Philosophy therefore came to play the role of religion for many Chinese. From this time onwards tian was rarely personalized, and was thought of more like fate, or to nature in general. In some instances it is not clear which of these is being referred to in the available texts. Scholars of the time were generally in agreement that moral law was derived from tian, but there was no such accord as to whether or not tian was merely a matter of an established order and a set of principles, or whether tain really interacted with humans and listened to their pleas for help, and whether or not human actions were judged and then punished or rewarded. The ancient Chinese philosophers did discuss cosmological and metaphysical ideas such as the source of creation or origin of mankind, but they tend to have been rather more concerned with how society should organize itself and how individuals should behave. Doyle (2012) describes this as being part of the pragmatic Chinese character, more concerned with practical matters than heavenly ideals. Confucius, born 551 B.C.E., probably the best known of Chinese philosophers outside China, had his doubts as to whether heaven really had an influence upon, or interest in, life on earth. He is quoted by Theobold ( 2012) as having said :-

Does Heaven speak? The four seasons pursue their courses, and all things are continually being produces, but Heaven does not say anything.

In this he followed teaching found in Shijing
詩經»Book of Songs, a collection of poems from the Zhou dynasty (Chinese Virtual Tours, 2006).

Xunzi was another important philosopher, a follower of Confucius, who lived during the period known as Warring States (479–221 B.C.E) (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2007). It was also a time known as the ‘Hundred Schools of Thought.’( Chinese philosophy, 2012) Xunzi made clear distinctions between, “tian”, heaven and “di”, the earth or ground. Derong ( 2009) defines ‘Di’ ‘ as being the emperor, sometimes as the earthly ruler, and at other times as the heavenly emperor. Together they make up the cosmos or nature. Often people are seen not as being part of earth or heaven, but as a distinct third entity. According to Chinese Philosophy(2012) humanity within the Chinese philosophical system was thought of as being the most-important part of the triumvirate of heaven, earth and mankind. This is rather different from western thought based upon Judeo/Christian scriptures, in which mankind is very much part of the creative acts of God ( Bible , N.I.V., 2010, Genesis chapters 1 and 2) . There is however also the idea of tian ren he yi (天人合一 which refers to a
oneness, a harmony, of the whole natural world including mankind. This idea has been described as one of the defining characteristics of Chinese philosophy, whatever the school of thought (Chinese philosophy, 2012).

In the period of the Warring States and afterwards, astronomy, as opposed to astrology, became important in China, and this helped to bring an end to these ideas as believed facts, as it was gradually realised that the heavens had little or nothing to do with the earth. According to Theobold (2012), this is why Xunzi came to believe that whether or not rulers were good or bad had no connection with any supposed heavenly influence.

Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒(179-104 BCE) ( Theobold, 2011) held to the old idea of links between the heavens and the earth, which he refered to as “a mutual correspondence between Heaven and man” ( cited by Theobald, 2011). Heaven created mankind according to Dong Zhongshu, and therefore a person’s human nature is bound up with heaven. Dong Zhongshu managed to combine the teachings of Confucius together with cosmological thinking and so re-established the concept of there being a clear connection between the emperor and heaven (Theobald 2012). Doyle (2004) expressed the same idea as heaven and earth being joined in reciprocal relationship. Events in one of these, whether in heaven or earth, have an affect upon the state of the other, either for good or ill. Doyle ( 2004) states that despite many mentions of tian, because the earliest Chinese were basically a simple agricultural people, they tended to focus their attention upon the earth, crops and farming rather than the heavens. Earthly gods were a major object of worship, nationally and regionally, and in every small locality, with shrines varying in size and richness according to those who worshipped there and their importance in society. Only later in Chinese history did purely philosophical ideas about heaven and earth come to dominate. By the time of the Shang dynasty, 1600 to 1050 B.C.E., during China’s bronze age, religion involved ideas about placating, or controlling heavenly spirits , who were seen as being capricious. When the Zhou Dynasty came to rule the rebellion against the earlier rulers was justified on the grounds that the previous emperor had lost any right to rule, because he had broken the moral laws which prevailed in the universe ( Doyle, 2004). In this newer point of view, the connection of heaven and earth was an intimate and ethical one with tian or heaven standing for what was just and right. If people on earth, especially rulers, violated Dao, the heavenly Way, meant that the disasters which ensued were seen as being a deserved punishment.

Dong Zhongshu revived the old idea that the emperor had to carry out the will of Heaven in order to maintain the Heavenly Mandate. In Dong Zhongshu’s case those ideas were extended beyond the emperor right down to the expected behaviour of ordinary people, something seen as their natural duty (Tong , undated). Tian xia , world order, is the ideal towards which ordinary humans approached heaven, and is how their everyday acts are judged. The idea is that a person knows how to protect and uphold tian xia will be able he to protect his guo or state, which would include his family, and was considered to be only an institutional duty. The former duty was seen as being the more important. According to Tong ( undated) this made China vulnerable as other states did not understand the concept. Because of this more modern Chinese leaders have tried to stress a sense of dignity and identity in being Chinese.

During the Tang dynastic period
唐(618-907) the writer Liu Yuxi
劉禹錫was able to make a clear distinction between a political idea of heaven from one concerned with nature.

In the Song period
宋(960-1279) the Neo-Confucians proclaimed that heaven was a natural element, but was a place where virtue was of the highest order and that it sought to impose such high ideals upon creation. While Confucius had been of the opinion that only the elite, the few, had been able to correspond to the will of Heaven, the later Neo-Confucians made the interpretation of the heavenly mandate as being valid for all humanity. At the same time they felt so removed from heaven that there gradually built up a group of lesser deities, a pantheon of subsidiaries who were believed to be able to act as intermediaries and messengers, perhaps somewhat akin to the development of the idea of angels with Judaism, and later in Christianity, although the latter are never seen as gods, even in a very minor way.

Moving on in time, Tong (undated) cites 20th century leaders such as Liang Shuming (1893-1988) who referred to the traditional tian xia idea as a means of reminding the Chinese people of the need to developing something that could come somewhere between tian xia and jia (family) . This would be the need to respect the values of both and stress the importance of developing Chinese modern “group life”.


Over time ideas certainly changed or were modified, but on occasions older ideas on this topic would be revived. This perhaps depended upon what was actually happening in Chinese society, whether or not there was good governance, and also upon scientific ideas which came to be developed. The old ideas though still have their uses. Each and every dynasty who took over power in China’s long history has made in some form the claim that the rulers, emperors or otherwise, that they replaced were corrupt, incompetent and unjust, and that it followed that their rebellion was tian’s way of restoring the mandate of authority upon a new and worthier regime. This even applies to the atheist and Communist 20th century rulers, so much is this concept a major part of the Chinese philosophy of life, just as it was all down the centuries.


Bible, New International Version, 2010, London, Hodder and Stoughton

Book of Jin – history of the Chinese Dynasty Jin Dynasty, Cultural China, Available from <http://history.cultural-china.com/en/174History8681.html > [Accessed 26th May 2014]

Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia, Tian Heaven, 2007, Available from <http://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php?title=Tian_天_Heaven> [Accessed 25th May 2014]

Chinese Philosophy, 2012, Available from <http://www.absolutechinatours.com/china-travel/China-Philosophy.html> [Accessed 26th May 2014]

Chinese Virtual Tours, 2006, Shi Jing, Available from <http://www.chinavista.com/experience/shijing/shijing.html> [Accessed 26th May 2014]

Derong, C., 2009, Di and Tian in Ancient Chinese Thought : A critical analysis of Hegel’s view, Available from <> [Accessed 26th May 2014]http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11712-008-9096-3#page-1

Development of Mathematics in Ancient China, undated, Available from <http://britton.disted.camosun.bc.ca/china%5Cdevelopment.htm> [Accessed 26th May 2014]

Doyle, G., 2004, Chinese popular religion, Global China Center, Available from <http://www.globalchinacenter.org/analysis/chinese-history-culture/chinese-popular-religion.php > [Accessed 26th May 2014]

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014, Tian, Available from <> [Accessed 25th May 2014]http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/595239/tian

Hall, D, and Ames, R., 1998, Chinese philosophy, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Available from <http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/G001> [Accessed 26th May 2014]

Ng., S., undated, Ancient cosmologies, Available from [Accessed 26th May 2014]www.physics.hku.hk/~phys3034/tutorial1.pdf

Seawright, C., Egypt: Min, God of Fertility, Power and the Eastern Desert, 2011, Available from <> [Accessed 26th May 2014]http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/min.htm#ixzz32jyMb0cz

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2007, Xunzi Available from <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/xunzi/> [Accessed 25th May 2014]

Theobold, U., Persons in Chinese History — Dong Zhongshu
董仲舒,Chinese Knowledge, 2011, Available from <http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Han/personsdongzhongshu.html> [Accessed 26th May 2014]

Theobold, U., 2012, Chinese Mythology — Tian Heaven, Available from <>http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Myth/personsheaven.html [Accessed 25th May 2014]

Tong, S., undated,Chinese Thought and Dialogical Universalism Available from <>http://www.escsass.org.cn/adm/UploadFiles/200611693147377.doc [Accessed 25th May 2014]

Total War Centre, 2012, Original monotheism and the decline into polytheism and idolatry, China, Available from http://www.twcenter.net/forums/showthread.php?647110-Original-monotheism-and-the-decline-into-polytheism-and-idolatry> [Accessed 26th May 2014]

United Nations, 1948, Declaration of Human Rights, Available from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ [Accessed 25th May 2014]