China: Cultural origins

Education has been an important part of Chinese culture since at least the Han dynasty (206 B.C.- 8 A.D.). From this period to the end of the imperial period in 1912 only the educated held positions of social and political leadership. Emperors of the Han dynasty initiated the practice of selecting educated men for government service. In 124 B.C. the first university was established to train prospective bureaucrats in Confucianism.

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) developed his philosophy during the Chou dynasty (c.1027-256 B.C.), at a time when this dynasty was in decline. States had developed and gained autonomy within the Chou realm and were constantly at war in Confucius' time. It was a time of political anarchy and social change. Confucius believed that the solution to this anarchy was to restore society to its state during the early Chou period. He say society on a hierarchical model with personal virtue the factor which would bring harmony to this whole structure. Confucius' later disciple, Hsun Tzu, brought education to the forefront with his belief that by studying the classics and the rules of propriety man could acquire the virtue necessary to social order.

During the same period another great philosophy, Taoism, developed. Based on the teachings of Lao-Tzu, Taoist thought was opposed to the Confucian desire for a hierarchical society with a strong central government. Taoism taught that harmony will be restored to society once people follow the Way of Nature. Government involvement in society should be minimal and communities should be simple and agrarian in nature.

The state of Ch'in was guided by legalism, a philosophy developed by Hsun Tzu and two disciples. Legalism was based upon the belief that human nature was evil and that strict controls were necessary to create a strong, prosperous state. This philosophy was instrumental to the rise of the Ch'in state and its establishment of the first imperial dynasty of China. This period of extreme government control meant that projects such as the building of the Great Wall could accomplished, but oppressive rule drove the populace to rebellion. In 206 B. C. a rebel leader founded the Han dynasty.

Confucian Philosophers of the Han dynasty expanded on the original teachings in order to the government with a more encompassing philosophy. In the second and third centuries A.D., social and economic conditions brought the downfall of the Han empire. Taoism and Buddhism came to be the dominant philosophies. Buddhism made its way into China from India from the 1st to the 6th century A.D.

The T'ang dynasty (618-907) was a period during which the various religions and philosophical systems coexisted. Confucianism was most suited to the needs of a huge empire, however, and it soon regained dominance.

After the period of the Five Dynasties, reunion under the Sung (906-1274) dynasty brought the revival of Confucianism to a new level. Neo-Confucianism had three schools of thought: the School of Principle, the School of Mind and the School of Practical Learning. In the 14th century the doctrines of the School of Principle were adopted for the imperial civil-service examinations, which remained the same until 1905.

Developments within the School of Mind brought its closer to Zen Buddhism with its characteristic meditation to achieve enlightenment. This trend was associated with the weakening of government during the late Ming period. During the early Ch'ing or Manchu dynasty Confucian scholars returned to the study of the classical texts in an attempt to determine the true doctrines of Confucianism.

In the 19th century it began to appear that Confuciansim was inadequate in meeting the needs of Chinese society. It could not account for the impact of Western contact nor allow for modernization. At the end of the 19th century attempts were made to modernize Confucian philosophy itself. Chiang Kai-shek attempted to revive Confucian ethics during the 1930's. From the middle of the 20th century, it is of course the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of communism which dominates Chinese society. Throughout the ages Chinese culture has been shaped by a guiding philosophy and for much of its history the dominant philosophy was Confucianism.


  1. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials