Thought and culture in Ancient China


The foundations of Chinese thought

Developments in thought and religion under the Zhou

Chinese thought under the Qin and Han dynasties

Literature in Ancient China

Art in Ancient China

Further study

The Foundations of Chinese Thought

Ancient China saw the emergence of the three great philosophies which were to influence Chinese thought until the 19th century: Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism. Throughout China’s long history these philosophical strands have never been mutually exclusive. Quite apart from the fact that many educated Chinese have been Confucians in public life, Daoists in the privacy of their own homes, and when serving in an official post have happily pursued legalist policies, the different philosophies have deeply influenced each other so that, for example, the dominant of the three, Confucianism, has had strong Daoist and Legalist elements within it.


Some basic ideas about the universe have always underlined Chinese thought. The most fundamental of all is that it has no beginning and no end – there is no room for a creator-god in Chinese thought – and is made up of both natural and supernatural elements, which are very much a part of the same universe.

All things in the universe function according to “the Path”, or Dao, roughly equivalent in Western thought to the “laws of nature”, the process by which the universe and everything in it functions. It is the result of the interaction between two opposing but complimentary forces, Yin, the male force, represented by the Sun, light, warmth; Yang, the female force, represented by the Moon, dark, cold.

There are many deities and spirits within the universe. They inhabit natural phenomena such as mountains, trees, rivers and so on; or localities, such as towns; and even man-made objects. The most influential of these spirits, so far as any individual person is concerned, are the spirits of ancestors.

Ancestor Worship

The human soul is traditionally thought to be in two parts, with one half going up to heaven on a person’s death, and the other half going down into the earth. The heavenly soul can  be solicited in prayer for blessing and fortune; the other soul has to be appeased with offerings so that it does not come up from the earth and haunt the living.

This ancient belief has given a premium to the family and clan in Chinese attitudes. It probably predisposed them to accept Confucianism, which put loyalty to the family at the heart of its philosophy, as their preferred ideology (and in any case perhaps Confucian thinkers adopted their line of thought because they themselves, though basically rationalists, were imbued with the attitudes this belief gave their society).

Beliefs and practices

Early Chinese religion had a supreme god called Di. Later, in Zhou times this anthropomorphic idea of the supreme being was replaced by the concept of an impersonal, non-anthropomorphic force with overarching power, which the Chinese called Heaven. Although impersonal, Heaven can be worshipped, and does have a will, and is able powerfully to carry this out.

It is above all the ruler’s responsibility to pray to this mighty spiritual force on behalf of all mankind. Other people may deal with lesser deities, and to this end, various practices are available to aide people in their dealings with supernatural forces. Divination – the use of omens and other occult rituals – is used to get an insight into how best to pursue a course of action; sacrificial offerings are made to appease or worship a deity; mediums are used to communicate with spirits; charms and amulets are bought to protect against evil or being luck. A specifically Chinese practice called Feng shui (“Wind and Water”), is used to enable actions to be carried out in harmony with the forces of the universe (Dao – see above). Most notably, feng shui experts are employed to ensure that buildings and graves are located and orientated properly so that they benefit from and do not disrupt the functioning of natural forces.

From the above discussion it can be seen that Chinese thought does not make a hard and fast distinction between natural forces and spiritual forces. This is reflected in traditional Chinese science, and has time and again resulted in a fruitful inventiveness, such as the development of the compass, which came out of efforts to enable architects to align buildings to be in harmony with the universe; and gunpowder, which came from the search for an elixir of immortality.

Developments in thought and religion under the Zhou

Already by Shang dynasty times many elements of later Chinese thought and practice were present, for example divination, ancestor worship and feng shui. As we have seen, the succeeding period of the Zhou dynasty saw the concept of “Heaven” take the place of the supreme god, Di, as the overarching power in the universe, but other than that no major changes in Chinese thought occurred until mid-Zhou times.

The mid-Zhou period is known in China as the “Spring and Autumn” period. It was a time of change, a time when old beliefs and practices came under scrutiny. New schools of thought arose which offered new ideas, to such an extent that the period is known as the “Hundred Schools”.

Practical thinkers considered such matters as military strategy (the most famous example being Sunzu’s “Art of War”); others specialized in teaching the arts of persuasion and diplomacy. Some philosophers, whose works survive only in references in the writings of more famous thinkers, engaged in logical arguments, of little practical application but undoubtedly serving to give ancient Chinese thinking a sharper, more rational rigour.

Of all the schools of thought, four stood out as by far the most influential.


The philosopher Kong fuzi (Confucius, c. 551-479 BCE), and his disciples, the best known being Meng ke (Mencius, 372-289 BCE) and Xunzi (c.300-235 BCE), developed a philosophy on how mankind should live in society at large.

Their teaching is often represented as being authoritarian and supporting a class-based structure to society. To some extent this is true: it was a Confucian virtue to accept one’s place in society and subordinate oneself to one’s superiors. To act otherwise contributed to social disharmony, as everyone would be pushing each other out of the way to get ahead (which was, according to them, the root cause of the turmoil in society of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods).

Social relationships, however, are reciprocal. The son was to show filial piety towards his father, but the father was to act fairly and considerately towards the son; the wife was to obey the husband, but the husband was to love the wife; the subject was to be loyal to the ruler, but the ruler was to place the welfare of his subjects before his own.

At the heart of Confucian teaching, moreover, was the egalitarian idea that everyone, regardless of birth, had the potential to live a good or a bad life. To strive for the good life called for the cultivation of virtue. A key to this was learning the lessons of history and following the examples of the great men (“sages”) of antiquity.

In its application to society at large, Confucian teaching emphasised the importance of family life; only caring and well-ordered family units could produce upright people. It called for rulers and their officials to be well educated, particularly in history; and to strive to follow the examples of past sages. A harmonious society could only exist when such men were in positions of leadership. Confucians emphatically endorsed the ancient idea of the Mandate of Heaven for rulers (see above), and indeed took it a step further: it was not just that an unworthy ruler loses Heaven’s mandate to rule, it is indeed the duty of the righteous man to seek the overthrow of such a ruler.

Confucian philosophy was not very influential for some time, but it would eventually become the dominant Chinese philosophy, and remain so until the 20th century.


This school of thought had its roots far back in Chinese history, but in the late Zhou period Daist thinkers such as Zhuang Zhou set out their teaching clearly and incisively in opposition to Confucianism and the other schools of thought.

According to the Daoists, the is no good and no bad; there is only Nature. If one wants to be happy, then live according to nature: go with the flow, live naturally and spontaneously, relax and let nature take its course.

Striving to do good deeds and change things for the better is futile; it won’t work. The only way to achieve anything is by non-doing. Loyal service to a ruler is a complete waste of time, and in any case government is an obnoxious interference with the operations of nature. Obligations to family and friends are to be renounced.

The best way to practice this philosophy was to withdraw from the world of men and live the life of a recluse. There was certainly no point in trying to change things, either for oneself or for others; just let things be the way they are.

Daoism has been interpreted as a doctrine of escapism, which to a great extent it is. Mpre positively, however, it teaches that people should live in harmony with the deep principles of nature. Daoists have no time for politics, war or commerce; the individual’s relationship to the universe was what counts. The best way to live was to submit to the course of events that the nature throws up, with resignation and dignity.

The Lao-tzu, the great Daosit text, has had a huge impact on the lives of millions of Chinese through the ages; and, indeed, its influence reaches well beyond China’s borders: it is the most translated book into English after the Bible.


The philosopher Mozi (c. 468-382 BCE) was originally a disciple of Confucius but grew disillusioned with this teaching. He came to believe that anything that helped people’s welfare and contributed to peace was good; anything that did not was bad. Because humans were naturally selfish, leading to great harm for all, they must set out to practice universal love – which meant, for example, respecting all men’s fathers, not just their own, and all states, not just their own. He condemned the Confucian emphasis on obeying only one’s own father and being loyal only to one’s own ruler as reinforcing enmity in society.

Mozi denounced extravagant wealth and selfish ambition. For society to function properly, people should be totally obedient to their rulers, who in turn should be totally obedient to Heaven. War was the greatest evil of all: everyone suffers, including the victors. The only “just” war was defensive war: Mozi emphasised the need for well-developed defensive tactics undertaken by skilled, disciplined armies.


This taught that the welfare of people is dependent upon the wellbeing of the state in which they live. Legalism therefore focussed exclusively on what would make the state stronger. In a sense, it is not a system of philosophy but a set of guidelines for rulers and ministers.

Rulers should not worry about behaving in an ethical way in their dealings with their subjects, or with other states; they should only act according to what was in the best interests of their state.

Legalism teaches a totalitarian approach to governing. Everyone must obey the ruler without question: the interests of the state should come before the interests of individuals and their families. The state should be governed by a set of laws which apply to all subjects equally, both great and small; that are extravagantly harsh so as to discourage wrongdoing or even slowness to obey the state; and swiftly enforced, to underscore the fact that wrongdoing automatically results in punishment. The ruler must lay questions of morality and mercy aside; they must not trust anyone – especially his close family. He must keep everyone in ignorance of his plans.

One of the most interesting elements within legalism was its interpretation of history. Unlike all the other schools of thought in China, it did not look back to the past as a source of examples to be imitated. Its view was entirely realistic: conditions change, and policies must change too. What was right for the sage kings of old would be wrong now. In those days, the population was small and there was more than enough land to go round. As a consequence, there was therefore little strife between individuals and communities, and little need to government control. Now, however, the population was large, and competition for land was intense. The government needed therefore to enforce strict control. In this examination of underlying economic and social conditions as a driver for history, instead if focussing on the deeds of great men, legalism anticipated modern Western historiography by two and a half millennia.

This system is completely opposed to the teachings of Confucianism in that it put the welfare of the state far above that of the family; of Daoism, in that it regarded the state as of key importance whilst Daoism denigrated it; and of Mohism, in that it emphasised the importance of rulers acting without regard for right or wrong, and war, if not actually glorified, was seen as a valid instrument of statecraft.

Chinese thought under the Qin and Han dynasties

In the later Zhou period no school of thought established a dominant position. This was quite otherwise under the Qin. This regime had come to power through the single-minded application of legalist principles of statecraft, and once it had conquered all the other states it enforced legalist policies throughout China.

The Qin purge

One important element in this was to suppress all the other schools of thought. To this end the Qin regime ordered that all the books of other philosophies be surrendered. Most of these were burnt, with only one copy of each work being stored in the library of the imperial palace for consultation by top officials. Scholars who refused to surrender books were executed.

In the anarchy which followed the fall of the Qin dynasty the palace was burnt, and with it the books in the imperial library.

Once the brief but destructive period of anarchy had ended, scholars of the early Han dynasty set about undoing the damage as best they could. Many scholars, especially Confucian ones, had, at serious risk to their lives, hidden books away from the Qin officials. These books were now brought out of hiding. Other books could not be found, but some scholars were able to recall what they said, word for word.

Textual criticism

The sudden reappearance of this mass of literature led to attempts to synthesise the teachings they contained. Under the Qin, a new standardized script had been introduced, and this was kept in place by the Han. New books were written in this script, and old books were rewritten in it. This was not a simple matter: since the time when the books had been written, often centuries before, the Chinese language had changed considerably. Rewriting or synthesising these old works was by no means a simple task, and in the process the ideas they contained were subtly changed. This came starkly to light when old copies, hidden away from the Qin purge, emerged into the light of day at a later date. The newly-found texts were compared with the rewritten versions and found to be substantially different.

This experience had a deep effect on Chinese scholarship. It made scholars question the authenticity of these ancient texts, and generated arguments which lasted, off and on, into modern times. It stimulated the production of lexicons and dictionaries, and of learned commentaries, to elucidate obscure passages and old works – a major scholarly activity which would endure to the present. Ironically, due the Chinese reverence for ancient learning, it introduced into Chinese scholarship a critical attitude to the actual texts themselves which was generally absent from Western scholarship until the 19th century.

The triumph of Confucianism

The fall of the Qin led to the dethronement of legalism from its dominant place in the ideology of the state. The new emperor, Gaozu, the founder of the Han dynasty, was a man of little education, and indeed deeply suspicious of all scholars, especially the Confucians, whom he considered judgemental and doctrinaire. He explicitly rejected Confucian practices in statecraft and followed the more realistic precepts of Qin legalism in his approach to practical matters of government, though humanizing them to make them more acceptable to the people at large.

Nevertheless, Gaozu knew that if his successors as emperors were to rule effectively, they needed a sound education. Confucianism, as we have seen, had always emphasised the crucial importance of education in the upbringing of rulers and officials, and had developed practical teaching techniques and curricula to a higher level than other schools of thought. It was to the Confucians, therefore, that the early Han emperors turned for the education of the princes. The result was that the Han emperors came to be heavily influenced by Confucianism. Finally, through the influence of the famous Confucian philosopher Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BCE), the emperor Han Wudi established Confucianism as the official ideology of the Han regime. This set a precedent that would last, with very few breaks, right up to the 19th century.


Han Confucianism was markedly different from that of pre-Qin times, however. In the course of the attempts to recover and synthesise Confucian works, astrological and numerological ideas drawn from Chinese popular religion had been grafted onto the rationalistic teachings of Confucius and his disciples. It would be more than a millennium later that these elements would be purged from Confucianism after a careful study of the ancient texts.

Han Confucianism contained the pseudo-scientific idea of the Five Elements. This was that the universe is made up of five elements, in different combinations: wood, metal, fire, water and earth. These fundamental substances dominated the universe in succession, and the interaction between them complimented the interplay between Yin and Yang. These ideas became basic to Chinese astrology and numerology.

Another element within this form of Confucianism was a mystical exaltation of the position of the ruler, who was seen, in his person, as the principle channel of Heaven’s dealings with earth. If through his morality, both as a person and as a ruler, he remained an effective channel, then all would be well; if not, and through his personal unrighteousness the flow was disrupted, disaster would follow. This idea was attractive to emperors as it enhanced their status in the eyes of officials and subjects; on the other hand, it also intensified their personal responsibility when things went badly, such as when floods, plagues and other disasters manifested Heaven’s disfavour.

Trends under the Later Han

In the later Han period, a spirit of pessimistic fatalism seems to have pervaded the intelligentsia. Criticism of government corruption and weakness became common, as did complaints about growing social inequality and the abuses it gave rise to. Others, in despair, ceased to think about political and social issues altogether and focussed instead on textual criticism.

The end of the Han period is notable for trends that would dominate China for centuries to come. The first of these was a revival of Daoism. This would, on the one hand, result in a synthesis of intellectual Daoism with Confucianism; and on the other, in injecting a greater spiritual dimension into Daoism, turning it into a popular religion with adherence amongst all classes of Chinese.

The second trend was the rise of a religion of alien origin, Buddhism. This had been brought to China by traders and missionaries from central Asia in the first century AD. At first it was viewed as an intriguing novelty by the Chinese, but it gradually attracted growing numbers of followers. As it slowly spread amongst the intelligentsia, the new religion was treated with hostility by most educated Chinese. Not only was it a foreign import, some of its teachings were opposed to deeply held Confucian beliefs. Notably, Buddhism preaches renunciation of worldly things, including family ties; Confucianism on the other hand holds that family obligations are of paramount importance.

Nevertheless, during this period Buddhist scriptures began to be translated into Chinese, at this stage by foreign monks and missionaries rather than by Chinese Buddhists. By the end of the Han period small Buddhist communities were scattered throughout the empire.

The full tide of both these trends – the re-emergence of Daoism and the rise of Buddhism – would come well after the Han period had ended, and will be discussed more fully in the next essay.

Literature in Ancient China

The Zhou period, as we have seen, was crucial to the development of Chinese philosophy. Consequently, the books associated with these philosophical breakthroughs was deeply influential on all subsequent Chinese literature. Many of these had to be reconstructed after the Qin purge of books, as discussed above, but this only increased their status in the eyes of future generations.

All the Classics of Chinese literature date from the Zhou period. The original “Five Classics” were so designated because they were particularly esteemed by Confucius. They were thus revered above all other works by Chinese scholars, and became the literary foundation of Chinese civilization. They were:

  •  The Book of Changes (I-ching), a collection of rituals and spells, with commentaries drawing out  their mystical meanings;
  •  The Book of Documents, a collection of speeches supposedly from the early Zhou period;
  •  The Book of Songs, a collection of early poetry, which set the tone for all that came later;
  •  The Spring and Autumn Annals, a sparse and unadorned chronicle of major events from 722 to  481 BCE – plus three classic commentaries which go with it, elucidating the cryptic comments on  the original work;
  •  The Book of Rituals, a collection of handbooks on government organization, gentlemanly  behaviour and court ritual.

Other works of the period were later elevated to “Classic” status, including the Analects of Confucius, the Book of Mencius, and two works of history, the Intrigues of the Warring States and the Bamboo Book Annals – bare chronicles of the period which are linked together by semi-fictional narratives which act as a form of commentary.

Highly influential works of Mohist, Legalist and Daoist philosophers also survived from the later Zhou period.

Literature under the Qin and Han dynasties

The standardization of the Chinese script under the Qin dynasty laid the groundwork for the rise of a uniform nation-wide literature in later centuries. While variations in spoken language meant that people from different parts of China could not understand each other, they could all read the same texts. Moreover the rise of a gentry class in all parts of China under the Han and subsequent dynasties, which was educated in the same Confucian curriculum – one designed to equip tits members for success in a government career – gave it access to a common literary tradition.

The hiatus of the Qin period and the following project to rediscover ancient Chinese thought, intensified respect for the ancient writings, especially the Confucian Classics. In Han times, members of the ruling elite began to steep themselves in these Classics, learning them be heart and bringing them into discussions on all matters, as well as into their everyday conversation. Mastery of the Classics became key to success in a government career, and they came to mould the mindset of the Chinese gentry for two thousand years. All Chinese literature before the late 19th century was profoundly influenced by these ancient texts.

This did not mean that Chinese literature was to remain static and hide-bound. It was constantly drawing on a vast stock of oral folk literature from all parts of the huge country and so was constantly being refreshed by new strains of narrative and style.


One of the Five Classics, the Book of Songs, is generally regarded as the greatest collection of poetry of ancient China, cited more often than any other work by later Chinese writers. It consists of hundreds of short poems in a compact style in tightly disciplined verses, on a huge range of subjects and in moods ranging from tragic to joyful. This style of poetry is called Shih.

Another collection of poems dating from late Zhou times consists of poems in a different style – longer, more florid and ornate. They originated in southern China, and represent a poetic tradition whose roots go back to the days before this part of China was fully absorbed into the Zhou culture area. This style is called Fu.

In Han times, the two poetic traditions, Shih and Fu, strongly influenced one another. Shih gained greater flexibility and expressiveness, while retaining its simple, disciplined, understated qualities. It borrowed stylistic elements from Fu, such as the caesura. This was a mark denoting a pause, which interrupted the rhythm, making a poem less monotone and adding interest and drama. The best poems of the Fu style became imbued with the more disciplined quality of the Shih to become amongst the most admired poetry from Han times.

Under the Han, writing poetry became a skill required of every gentleman.  The poetry of the period covers every conceivable subject matter and form: descriptive, narrative, though mostly quite short – there are no epic works such as those of Homer of Virgil.


Pre-Han literature contained no independent works of fiction, but many fictional or semi-fictional anecdotes – well-plotted short stories, often amusing and highly imaginative, not to say fantastical, appear in the Zhou chronicles and commentaries, presented as history, and had a great influence on later story-telling. In Han times it apparently became popular for members of the gentry to write short stories, none of which survives.


We have discussed above the great project of the early Han years to recover the writings of earlier periods in the wake of the Qin purges. This activity had stimulated an intense interest in history which would never fade amongst educated Chinese.

Much historical writing of the later Zhou period was in the form of chronicles, made up for the most part of cryptic accounts of events accompanied by fuller commentaries often containing semi-fictional anecdotes. Greatly adapted, this form of history writing was followed by all later Chinese historians. Terse but forceful descriptions of historical events were greatly admired and commonly emulated.

The Han period set the bar very high indeed for history writing. Sima Qian (c. 145-87 BCE) has a claim to being the greatest Chinese historian of all – perhaps the greatest in world history. The impressive breadth of his Histories (which attempted a history of the world known to the Chinese), his concern for accuracy and teasing out linkages between events and processes (in a way not generally found in the West until the 18th century), his very readable style, and his highly original organization of his varies subject matter, make it the landmark work of Chinese historiography. Its organization and style were followed (but seldom if ever equalled) by all subsequent dynastic histories (the publication of a history of the previous dynasty became one of the ways in which a new dynasty would establish its legitimacy). His work would be read, for leisure and instruction, not just by educated Chinese, but by Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese as well.

The other outstanding historian of the Han period, this time from the later Han, was Ban Gu (32 – 92 CE). His work, the History of the Former Han, was the first major application of the pattern laid down in Sima Qian’s work to the history of a single dynasty. (Ban Gu came from a remarkable family; his brother, Ban Chao, was probably the most famous general of the Han period, and his sister, Ban Zhao, was one of the few outstanding female scholars of Chinese history).

The works of Sima Qian and Ban Gu ensured that historical writing would be one of China’s finest literary genres.

Although producing no works on a par with those of the great historians, Han scholars began the long and honourable tradition of descriptive geographical writing with the first gazetteers of the empire. 

Art in Ancient China

The Shang and Zhou periods produced many fine examples of what later Chinese would regard as craft work – unglazed pottery, jade carvings, lacquerwork and above all bronze castings. Modern critics, however, have universally regarded many pieces produced at this time as some of the finest artworks ever produced.

This is particularly true of the bronzes. These included a great variety of forms – hollow-legged tripod cookers, four legged cauldrons, deep bowls, shallow basins, narrow bottle-shaped goblets and so on, all presumably used in religious and court rituals.

The bronzes fall into three broad phases. The Shang and early Zhou phase (there was a strong continuity between the two dynasties in this respect) produced pieces characterised by restraint in shape and decoration which resulted in a lightness and elegance unmatched in other periods. The middle Zhou saw a decline into over-decorativeness and bulbous shapes; and a late Zhou phase produced a renewed elegance, sometimes ornate, sometimes refined, which neared the perfection of the first period.

The decorative patterns on all these bronzes were often very elaborate and highly stylised, so that even when animals and plants were represented they are hardly recognizable. In the later Zhou, in both bronzework and pottery, more realistic depictions of plants and animals, and even sometimes humans, begin to appear. By Han times the bronze tradition is over and pottery, sculpture and painting (though little of this has survived) comes into their own as art forms. These are mainly concerned with representing animals, plants, humans and artefacts such as houses and furniture (for example in funerary pieces). They are naturalistic in style, and many have a lovely flowing quality to them.

By the end of the Han period, painting had become associated with literature, especially poetry, and was therefore seen as a gentlemanly pursuit rather than a craft. Pottery, metalwork and sculpture, on the other hand, were becoming viewed as craftwork, unworthy of a gentleman.

Further study

Click here for more on the civilization of Ancient China

UPGRADE for more great content – and remove ads