Chinese Philosophy Essay by Lukas

The three main Chinese philosophies around the year 500 B.C.E. were Daoism, founded by Laozi,  Legalism, for which Han Feizi is the main writer, and finally Confucianism, founded by Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.). They were similar because they all argued that there was an ideal government; however each one was very different.  The main difference is that legalists are harsher than confucianists. Another difference was in how they treated religion.  Legalism did not seem to support religion at all and confucianism did but did not have a religion everyone had to follow and Daoism was a religion in itself.

 The principles the three philosophies had on government were very different from each other. Legalists believed that there should be rules like Confucians; however laws were much harsher under legalist rule than under confucian rule. The legalists also did not care much for the happiness of their subjects putting the growth of their empire before their subject’s desires; Han Feizi said: “… and below his ministers tremble with fear.” and in five ways a ruler could be blocked he said “When they are able to do righteous deeds…” Legalist principles involved things like decapitation, strangulation and even collective punishment of an entire village or family. This usually resulted in widespread unhappiness eventually leading to rebellion. Confucian principles were much softer and involved the idea of a ruler being a role model, as Confucius said: “He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north star, which keep it’s place and all stars turn towards it.” People had to be virtuous by following the five virtues by being honest, upright, conscientious, charitable and loving to everyone they knew personally. Confucians had to confront their responsibilities and duties they had depending on their position in life. Confucian rule was more popular than Legalist rule but was not as effective for keeping order and creating a prospering society and in the Han Dynasty was accompanied by some Legalist principles in their law enforcement. Daoists unlike both Confucians and Legalists, did not believe in rules and expected people to behave of their own accord, in general they did not have much to say on the subject of governing.

 Of the three philosophies Daoism was the only philosophy that had a religion that everyone shared or a collective religion. Daoists believed in being in harmony with nature, strengthening their life force and finding the elixir of life which would give them immortality. Confucianism did support religion but did not have a master religion that everyone followed allowing people to choose their own like when Buddhism was introduced to China around 300 B.C.E. ( there was no empire in power at that time but Buddhism was practiced under confucian rule after that point). Legalism did not support religion at all and punished anyone who practiced it under their rule because they were afraid it would weaken their government, they also wanted people to forget traditions of the past and this probably included religion.

 Pretty much the only thing all of the philosophies had in common was that they were sexist (aside from daoism which was not directly sexist but was probably influenced by societies that existed at the time). They were sexist by not allowing women to have the same jobs as men, women did not have the same rights or were not considered as important. The whole paragraph “Superior Man” from Kong Qiu (Confucius) quotes is sexist because it always talks about men and does not even once mention women. Also in the textbook it mentions the five relationships it says that men are considered more important than women as in many other societies at the time. (Cranny, Michael. Pathways: Civilizations Through Time. Scarboroughs, Ontario, Canada: Anita Borovilos, 1998.) It deffered in severity but all the philosophies were sexist (besides daoism) to some degree.

 The Qin, Han and Sui Dynasties are examples of how the three different philosophies affect an empire. The Qin Dynasty was the first of the three and was Legalist. It was quite successful at creating districts and forcing the nobles to obey the emperor (so they could not cheat the commoners), improving the economy, waging war to increase the empire’s size and their greatest achievement the Great Wall of China. However as it was Legalist and harsh; the government was not popular and when the first emperor (Shi Huangdi) died the next one was unable to control the empire as the people rebelled. The next empire created was the Han Dynasty; it was Confucian with some Legalist concepts used in law enforcement. The Han kept the same format as the Qin had and further improved the economy and enlarged the empire further. The most well-known characteristic of the Han Dynasty was the silk road that when the empire bordered on Europe brought silk there to trade; the Han were very rich from this trade and the Roman empire almost went bankrupt. Due to natural disasters the people did not believe in the government anymore and the Han were overthrown. After the “period of chaos” which lasted several hundred years the Sui Dynasty was formed. The Sui was Legalist and because of that achieved much in little time like: the Grand canal, finally reuniting china and strengthening it, rebuilding the Great Wall and creating the largest city in the world at the time (Chang’an with a population of around 1 000 000)(Cranny, Michael. Pathways: Civilizations Through Time. Scarboroughs, Ontario, Canada: Anita Borovilos, 1998.)

 These philosophies did not have much in common but they all (aside from Daoism) wanted to create what in their opinion was the ideal empire with the best economy and smallest crime rate, each had a different approach, as well as differing amounts of success at reaching and/or maintaining their goals when they were in power. Confucian and Legalist seem to be the most successful in terms of maintaining order among their subjects  and a combination between the two worked even better because the people did not like harsh legalist rule and confucian rules were not strict enough to keep order. Daoism has not been “in power” as it became a religion (taoism) more than a way of governing (towards the end of the Tang Dynasty Xuanzong the emperor was interested in Daoism but also in Buddhism and he certainly did not rule by Daoist principles).