It is tempting to indulge in the visual insights that the ancient Chinese world of thought is permeated with, a spirit like the crooked tree branch looming through the mountain mist above a lone fishing boat on the contemplative lake in the painting of Ma Yuan 馬遠 (ca. 11th century). This philosophical resonance with the poetic landscape is very much a self-imposed illusion indeed. Chinese philosophical thinking emerged and developed during a long time of warfare known as the Period of Warring States or pre-Qin (481-221 B.C.), in which, however, the most widely circulated texts were not philosophical or religious treatises but military and political strategies.

Unlike the time of rationality of the Greek reflection in the lucid light and clear sky of the Mediterranean, it was a time of ‘ferocious contemplation,’ marked by the disintegration of the clan communes and consanguinity, witnessed the most violent changes in ancient Chinese society. Men fought less for individual honor, as their Greek contemporaries did, but more for the survival of the states. However, the internecine warfare seethed with mounting ferocity among the warring states, generation after generation death became a way of life. The blood and flesh of men irrigated and fertilized the yellow earth where the “hundred schools of thoughts” sprouted and contended for intellectual dominance.

Chinese philosopher Li Zehou, a US resident and member of Collège International de Philosophie, confirms that the period of pre-Qin was the most boisterous and creative time in Chinese history, and in the realm of Chinese ideology as well. However, Li Zehou contends that rationalism as a fundamental thread ran through the “hundred schools of thoughts”. He says that this “pre-Qin rational spirit” 先秦理性精神 initiated the transition that disaffiliated from the tradition of shamanistic-religious ideology on one hand, and formed a rational cultural-psychological structure for the Han Chinese on the other.[1] Li Zehou did not make clear if this rationality is the same to the Greek rationality. Whatever the case may be in such "pre-Qin rational spirit", the “hundred schools of thoughts” contended for intellectual dominance clearly.

Following the Confucian orthodox historiography, the Columbia University trained philosopher Fung Yu-Lan makes the Neo-Confucian milestone of Chinese philosophical origins by suggesting the “hundred schools of thoughts” divide into six categories: “Members of the ju (ru Confucian) school had their origin in the literati. Members of the Mohist School had their origin in the knights. Members of the Taoist school had their origin in the hermits. Members of School of Names had their origin in the debaters. Members of the Yin-Yang school had their origin in the practitioners of occult arts. Members of the Legalists had their origin in the ‘men of methods’.”[2]

Etymologically, the character ru 儒 (Confucian) is made up a semantic element person, and the character xu, which is defined as “waiting in the rain,” or “waiting for” in the early dictionaries. In turn, the character xu depicts a person in rain. Xu, also stated in I Ching as “clouds ascending in the sky,” was the ritual of rainmaking. A number of Chinese scholars contend that the original meaning of ru is wu 巫 or shaman, namely the shaman who makes rain.[3] This notion apparently resonates in Confucius's own claim: “I am on the same way with wu 巫 and shi 史, but to different destinies.”[4] In this light, Confucius is “secular as sacred.”[5]

On the other hand, it is well known that Laozi was shi 史, a librarian or keeper of the Archives of the Zhou Court. The recently unearthed texts indicate that the term shi characterizes the person in the court, who is in charge of noting down histories and events, and seeking to understand tiandao 天道, or “the way of heaven” by consulting oracle, divination, and astrological calculation. The conclusion, or rather the question, may be: Were Confucius and Laozi from the same origin as wu and shi, or shamans? Then again, were wu and shi, or the early Chinese shamans were the shamanic officials, or what Mircea Eliade calls “priest-shaman”? In any case, it is more clear to see that the wu shamanic officials were earthly-affairs involved with the rites and rituals, thus they were called diguan 地官, or the earthly-affair-officials. The shi shamanic officials were heavenly-affairs associated with oracle, divination and astrological calculation, thus they were called tianguan 天官, or the heavenly-affair-officials. Evidently, the earthly-affair-officials (Confucians) were becoming dominant in Chinese history socially and politically.

The original meaning of mo 墨 is “the captive who engages in hard labor.” The indication is that Mozi was, most likely, from the lower class of the society. It explains why Moists were the experts of mechanics and weaponry and the early guards of the ancestral temples. It also makes sense that both Confuius and Mozi shared their common concerns in social, moral values, and organizational issues. According Zhu Ziqing 朱自清, the early Chinese philosophers were the professionals with knowledge or special skills, whom are often described in English as “literati”. They were a class below aristocracy and above common people, patronized by feudalist lords in the Spring and Fall Period (841-481 B.C.). By the Warring States Period (481-221 B.C.), these professionals were out of job as a result of the collapse of feudalistic system. According to Zhu, if Confucius represented the “jobless persons” of the aristocratic class, Mozi stood for the “jobless persons” of the working class.[6]

While the Yin-Yang school shared the broad background with Confucianism and Taoism, namely, the shamanic origins, the School of Names and the School of Legalists were the professional debaters and purveyors of military, social, and political strategies. In sum, as Roger T. Ames observes, most of those "philosophers" traveling from court to court were vendors and purveyors of wisdom guaranteed to lead their patrons to social and political, or military victories.[7]

[1] Li, Zehou, The Path of Beauty, A Study of Chinese aesthetics, (Tianjin: Tianjin Shehuikexueyuan Chubanshe, 2002), p. 64.
[2] Fung, Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy,(New York: The Free Press,1966), p. 37.
[3] Ge, Zhaoguang 葛兆光, The World of Knowledge, Thought and Belief before the Seventh Century in China-A History of Chinese Thought I, Zhongguo sixiang shi diyijuan 中國思想史 第一卷, (Shanghai: Fudan University Press, 1998), p. 171.
[4] Silk Scroll Texts of Mawangdui Han Tomb, Interpretations of the Lost Ancient Texts of Laozi A B Versions 馬王堆漢墓帛書, 老子甲乙本卷前古佚, (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1974), p. b.
[5] Fingarette, Herbert, Confucius, the Secular and Sacred, (Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, Inc, 1998), p. 3.
[6] Zhu, Ziqing 朱自清, Lectures on the Classics, Jingdian changtan 經典常談, (Beijing: Beijing Press, 2004), p. 80.
[7] Ames, Roger T. and David L. Hall, Dao De jing, “Making This Life Significant,” A Philosophical Translation, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003), p. 1.