The Hundred Schools of Thought (Chinese: 諸子百家) were philosophies and schools that flourished from the 6th century to 221 BC, during the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period of ancient China.

An era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China, it was fraught with chaos and bloody battles, but it was also known as the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy because a broad range of thoughts and ideas were developed and discussed freely. This phenomenon has been called the Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought (百家争鸣; bǎijiā zhēngmíng; “hundred schools contend”). The thoughts and ideas discussed and refined during this period have profoundly influenced lifestyles and social consciousness up to the present day in East Asian countries and the East Asian diaspora around the world. The intellectual society of this era was characterized by itinerant scholars, who were often employed by various state rulers as advisers on the methods of government, war, and diplomacy.

Confucianism

Confucianism (儒家) is the body of thought that arguably had the most enduring effects on Chinese life. Its written legacy lies in the Confucian Classics, which later became the foundation of traditional society. Confucius (551–479 BC), or Kongzi (“Master Kong”), looked back to the early days of the Zhou dynasty for an ideal socio-political order. He believed that the only effective system of government necessitated prescribed relationships for each individual: “Let the ruler be a ruler and the subject a subject”. Furthermore, he contended that a king must be virtuous in order to rule state properly. To Confucius, the functions of government and social stratification were facts of life to be sustained by ethical values; thus his ideal human was the junzi, which is translated as “gentleman” or “superior person”. Mencius (371–289 BC), or Mengzi, formulated his teachings directly in response to Confucius.

Legalism

The School of Law or Legalism (法家) doctrine was formulated by Li Kui, Shang Yang (d. 338 BC), Han Feizi (d. 233 BC), and Li Si (d. 208 BC), who maintained that human nature was incorrigibly selfish; accordingly, the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline from above, and to see to a strict enforcement of laws. The Legalists exalted the state above all, seeking its prosperity and martial prowess over the welfare of the common people.

Legalism greatly influenced the philosophical basis for the imperial form of government. During the Han Dynasty, the most practical elements of Confucianism and Legalism were taken to form a sort of synthesis, marking the creation of a new form of government that would remain largely intact until the late 19th century.

Taoism

Philosophical Taoism or Daoism (道家; Dàojiā; Tao-chia; “School of the Way”) developed into the second most significant stream of Chinese thought. Its formulation is often attributed to the legendary sage Laozi (“Old Master”), who is said to predate Confucius, and Zhuangzi (369–286 BC). The focus of Taoism is on the individual within the natural realm rather than the individual within society; accordingly, the goal of life for each individual is seeking to adjust oneself and adapting to the rhythm of the natural (and the supernatural) world, to follow the Way (tao) of the universe, and to live in harmony. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian morality, Taoism was for many of its adherents a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar serving as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings, but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse.

Mohism

Mohism or Moism (墨家) was developed by followers of Mozi (also referred to as Mo Di; 470–c.391 BC). Though the school did not survive through the Qin Dynasty, Mohism was seen as a major rival of Confucianism in the period of the Hundred Schools of Thought. Its philosophy rested on the idea of impartial care (Chinese: 兼愛; “inclusive love/care”): Mozi believed that “everyone is equal before heaven”, and that people should seek to imitate heaven by engaging in the practice of collective love.
Mozi advocated frugality, condemning the Confucian emphasis on ritual and music, which he denounced as extravagant. He regarded offensive warfare as wasteful and advocated pacifism or at the most, defensive fortification. The achievement of social goals, according to Mozi, necessitated the unity of thought and action. His political philosophy bears a resemblance to divine-rule monarchy: the population ought always to obey its leaders, as its leaders ought always to follow the will of heaven.

School of Yin-yang

The School of Naturalists or Yin-yang (阴阳家) was a philosophy that synthesized the concepts of yin-yang and the Five Elements; Zou Yan is considered the founder of this school.His theory attempted to explain the universe in terms of basic forces in nature: the complementary agents of yin (dark, cold, female, negative) and yang (light, hot, male, positive) and the Five Elements or Five Phases (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth). In its early days, this theory was most strongly associated with the states of Yan and Qi. In later periods, these epistemological theories came to hold significance in both philosophy and popular belief.

Logicians

The School of Names or Logicians (名家) grew out of Mohism, with a philosophy that focused on definition and logic. It is said to have parallels with that of the Ancient Greek sophists or dialecticians. The most notable Logician was Gongsun Longzi.

School of Diplomacy

The School of Diplomacy or School of Vertical and Horizontal [Alliances] (纵横家) specialized in diplomatic politics; Zhang Yi and Su Qin were representative thinkers. This school focused on practical matters instead of any moral principle, so it stressed political and diplomatic tactics, and debate and lobbying skill. Scholars from this school were good orators, debaters and tacticians.

Syncretism

Syncretism, or the School of Miscellany (杂家) integrated teachings from different schools; for instance, Lü Buwei found scholars from different schools to write a book called Lüshi Chunqiu cooperatively. This school tried to integrate the merits of various schools and avoid their perceived flaws. The (c. 330 BCE) Shizi is the earliest textual example of the Syncretic School.
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