Lecture Six

The Hundred Schools

Scope: Although Confucianism and Daoism can be seen as the most enduring schools of thought to develop during the Warring States period, they were only part of a rich field of philosophical activity. In this lecture, we will consider the range of other ideas put forward by Chinese thinkers during the so-called Axial Age. Perhaps the most important beliefs were those of the Legalists, who took an approach to social and political order that was fundamentally at odds with both Confucian and Daoist ideas. Legalism was closely linked to the state of Qin, one of the warring states; indeed, by the end of the 3rd century B.C.E., Oin had succeeded in destroying all the warring states and creating the first unified Chinese empire. Although lasting only 14 years, the Qin laid the institutional foundations for much of later imperial government.


I. Chinese thinkers developed many different answers to questions about life and the nature of things.

A. Chinese have traditionally referred to this period of intellectual ferment as the time of the Hundred Schools.

1. The kinds of concerns dealt with by different schools varied.

2. Some were concerned with questions of knowledge and language and disputed such matters as whether a white horse was essentially “white” or “horse.”

3. Others, such as the strategist Sunzi, were concerned with military affairs.

4. Still others explored cosmology and speculative metaphysics.

5. Two schools stand out in hindsight as having been of particular interest: the followers of Mozi and the Legalists.

B. Mozi and his followers propounded a doctrine of “universal love” and pursued a strategy of defensive warfare.

1. The doctrine of universal love was, in part, a refutation of Confucian ideas about the priority of family relations, which Mozi saw as subverting the equality of all in society.

2. Mozi believed that individuals should treat each other as they would wish to be treated, a teaching quite similar to the “golden rule” in Judeo-Chrislian thought.

3. The Moists developed expertise in defensive warfare in an effort to end the chronic conflicts of the age by making aggression unproductive.

4. Moist technical advisors would offer their services to rulers of states under threat from powerful neighbors.

5. Although Moism flourished during the Warring States period, once the age of warfare came to an end, these doctrines receded in importance.

C. Legalism was a system that proved to be quite effective in gaining power but was problematic for establishing a stable political order.

1. The doctrines of Legalism originated in the practical political operations of the state of Qin, one of the warring states.

2. The prime minister of Qin in the mid-4th century B.C.E. was Shang Yang, who set out the basic ideas of Legalism.

3. The central principle of Legalism was the use of rewards and punishments to produce conformity to the rule of clear and well- developed laws.

4. The law was to be applied uniformly and strictly, to high and low, so that everyone understood their duties and knew the penalties for failing to fulfill them.

5. In the 3rd century B.C.E., the philosopher Han Fei developed an intellectual rationale for Legalism, arguing that human nature was essentially blank and that people needed careful guidance by strong rulers to live in an orderly way.

II. The Qin state, with Legalism as its ideology, succeeded in ending the Warring States era.

A. Under successive kings, Qin grew in military strength and expanded its territory in northwest China.

B. In the middle of the 3rd century B.C.E., a new king began the final campaigns to eliminate other states.

1. The Qin defeated their rivals one by one, sometimes forming an alliance with smaller states to eliminate a larger one, then turning against their former allies.

2. By 221 B.C.E., the last of the other states, the southern kingdom of Chu, fell to Qin power.

3. The king of Qin now assumed the title by which he is best known in history, Qinshihuangdi, meaning the “First Emperor.”

4. His tomb, near the modern city of Xian, is the site of the famous terracotta warriors.

C. The Qin dynasty, as this first unified empire was known, laid the basis for an enduring imperial order but lasted only 14 years.

1. The Qin created a unified administrative system, eliminating many local systems of weights and measures, cart axle width, coinage, and so on.

1. Qinshihuangdi sought to standardize not only material things but the way people thought, as well.

2. In 214 B.C.E., he launched the infamous “burning of books and burying of scholars” to eliminate what he saw as unorthodox ideas.

3. The taxes and labor levies imposed by the Qin led to great resentment and unrest.

4. When Qinshihuangdi died in 210 B.C.E., his son could not maintain the dynasty, which collapsed just three years later.

5. In the aftermath of the Qin collapse, various forces contended for power. We will take up that story in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Burton Watson, trans., Mo Tzu: Basic Writings.

____________, trans., Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings.

Supplemental Reading:

Sima Qian, The Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty.

Questions to Consider:

1. The Qin state grew and flourished for several centuries; why did it finally collapse so suddenly?

2. What was the basis for public morality under the ideas of Legalism?

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