Foreword: Q&A

Q: What is the definition of “philosophy” here?
A: The p-word is rather tricky to define. Since we are talking about old times when people’s minds were not so open and knowledge not so broad, any thought beyond personal affairs is considered “philosophy” in this series. For example “How did the universe come into being?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, “How to bring more order to the society?”, “How should everyone behave?”, etc. In short, if you are thinking “where will my dinner come from”, you are a simple nobody; if it’s “where is EVERYONE’S dinner coming from”, congrats, you are a philosopher!

Q: What defines “classical”?
A: “Classical” in this series refers the time span from the latter half of Zhou Dynasty all the way to the founding of Qin Dynasty (770 – 221 B.C.). This is considered the golden age of Chinese philosophy.

Q: Why bother?
A: Because this “Pre-Qin” age had a burst of philosophy schools. Pre-Qin to China is much like ancient Greek to the rest of the world. It might be interesting for those curious foreign souls to know more about our ancestors and their thoughts.

Q: Will it be science-accurate like I can bring it to the academy?
A: Sadly no. Because A) Pre-Qin philosophies make a rather *massive* topic, clearly beyond my capability B) I don’t want to write a book or something, blog posts would be enough C) The objective is to be informative and fun. Plant the seed of interest and let you guys figure out the rest if you feel it worthwhile.

Q: What if I caught you saying something wrong?
A: Leave a reply, point out the wrongness, and I will do double checking and fix. Your name will be listed in the (yet to come) Special Thanks section.

Q: So where shall we start?
A: It was a long time ago in a galaxy not so far away…


We humans always make clumsy or even laughable attempts on exploring new frontiers. For example, the initial attempt to make fire. For some reason our ape-ancestors decided to make heat by spinning the hell out of a poor twig. If only they could discover (it’s not even an invention!) this “flintstone” earlier, human history would be a little bit faster in pace and much more blister-free.

The same clumsy happened to the Zhou Dynasty of ancient China. Some year in 11th century B.C., the Warlord of the West overthrew the last emperor of Shang Dynasty (one of the most notorious tyrant ever) and founded a new dynasty called Zhou. In China, this is the first time an emperor (as well as the dynasty) got terminated by war. Shortly after that, the emperor of Zhou started assgning his territories to lords and princes, creating a prototype of feudalism. It was a pretty good idea at the beginning. However, no one could have predicted the mighty empire could one day be conquered by “barbarians” (roaming tribes). 771 B.C., the lord of Shen killed the emperor in joint effor with the tribe of Quan Rong (犬戎, “The Hound Warriors”). The royal family was forced to relocate the capital to what is now Luoyang City of Henan Province. Since the capital was moved eastward, the latter half of the dynasdy was then addressed as “Eastern Zhou” (东周). This was when all hell broke loose.

Migrating to the makeshift capital, the royal family (of course including the new emperor) basically lost strand of power, ruling only one single city. On the other hand, those appointed regional lords suddenly found themselves so damn powerful. Most of them was capable of single-handedly crush the emperor. This was also a “first-time-ever” situation. On one hand they were wielding tremendous power, while on the other there was this weak brat sitting on the throne. My guess is that all of them lords were shocked and confused by the contrast, not knowing what to do. Imagine the Superman first discovering his super power. He must be rather confused too, not daring make a move since any move could result in grave consequence. Almost surely some of the lords would want get rid of the emperor while not knowing how to achieve that. An emperor of China was considered the son of the heaven (by primitive religions). Overthrowing him would be challenging the will of gods. Sure this have happened before or else Zhou Dynasty wouldn’t be there at all. However, the rise of Zhou was to get rid of a *tyrant*. With the power of the emperor shrunk to a fraction of a shit of its former self, the throne-kid is simply *not capable* of becoming a tyrant. You’ve got to have somebody weaker to kick in order to get unlock the achievement, right? Or if they keep him there, it’s just wrong the weak ruling the strong.

Thus the whole situation became tricky, ironic and sort of nice. With previous authority crumbled to nothingness and new authorities not knowing how to behave themselves, everyone was trapped in deep thoughts. What is “right”? How does the heaven run its will now that its proxy on earth got confined to a crappy town? More importantly, how should they treat each other? As peers or as competitors? At such time who knew or thought he knew right from wrong was always on the upperhand.  

Thus powers treated each other with utter caution. Fights happen occasionally. However, a good, strong excuse is a must-have before clashing of swords. The situation could be roughly illustrated with the following metaphor:

Let’s say everyone was living in this village. Farmer John made some money selling crops, which made Thug John really jealous. So he set off to give John a good kick and get some money out of him.

Tom: Yo sucker! Give me half of your earning or I’m kicking your ass square!
John: What? Why? Fuck you! You don’t have the right to do this!
Tom (turned to John’s neighbor Jack): Me? The right? Hey! What you say?
Jack: Fuck off moron! Leave the man alone! This is wrong!
Tom: [blushed and ran away]

(Tom spent half a month of patience on seeking John’s wrong-doing, then came back)
Tom: You! You stole 2 ears of corn out of Brown’s field 4 days ago! I’m here on justice’s behalf. Hand out half your earning as compensation to Brown or else I will kick your ass square!
John (blushed for that was true): No! The corns fell off the stalks, and I was just picking them up!
Tom (turned to Jack): What says you pardner?
Jack: Yeah! I saw him taking the corn home!
Tom: Ah-ha! [Gave John a good kick, took half his money. Of course without Brown knowing any of this.]


That’s it, foundamentally “right” was everything. Even warfare happened in a more or less polite way. It’s on such a background the explosion classical philosophies happened in ancient China.

We know when people get basically well fed and have nothing to do, they tend to put brains into actual usage. Starting from Eastern Zhou was just such a time. Agriculture was advanced enough to keep most people fed, and there wasn’t anything much for them to invest their energies in. With the emperor no more than a John Doe, the country fell into an anarchical state, or you can also say it was a demographic state. There was no authority forcing everybody to believe in this or stick to that. As a matter of course the thinkers grew independent.

Meanwhile, lords were lost between right and wrong, that made a demand, then the overflowing energy of scholars naturally formed a supply. Every well-educated gentalman was trying to understand the universe, the will of the heaven, the world, and the society. Those craving power tried to sell their works to various lords; those without ambition tried to preach around in order to make the world a better place. Of course there were more than a few sat in between, wandering around.

Blessed with great thinkers and all kinds of wild thoughts, China then entered an era we now call it “诸子百家”(zhu1 zi3 bai3 jia1, “Myriad Masterminds and Philosophy Schools”). The bloom of wisdom prospered thourgh the first half of Eastern Zhou Dynasty (“春秋”, chun1 qiu1, “Spring and Autumn”), then the latter half (“战国”, zhan4 guo2, “Warring Nations”), survived the final collapse of the dynasty, lived a little longer, till the founding of Qin Dynasty. Brief though it is, its impact lasted through thousands of years. Currently well known terms such as “Confucius”, “Taoism”, “Yin-yang” could all be traced back to that brief moment of history. From next post on, the thinkers (I’d prefer put them as “Our Great Old Ones”) and their thoughts will be introduced one by one.