Chinese Thought

A Short Survey

The English term Confucianism designates the ideas of Confucius plus those of others who wrote on similar themes over the years. The Chinese term for this school of thought is “rujia” (pronounced roo-jya). Throughout Chinese history, the dominant school of thought at a given time  has alternated between rujia and three other systems: legalism, Daoism, and Buddhism. All of these however existed within the general Chinese worldview, which accepted such concepts as the idea of heaven as a force affecting humans on earth and the ability of ancestors to influence daily life.

No matter which philosophy was in the ascendant, certain other practices have continued through over the years, including “Chinese Traditional Religion” (with over 100 different gods, attempts to contact the dead, and the use of divination; more at footnote 40), martial arts, the duty of the emperor to mediate with heaven through rituals and a high respect for education. (Footnote 47 has more on Chinese Worldview and common customs. Chinese characters and pronunciations for the names and terms in the article are found below the footnotes.)

Confucian thought was one of many competing philosophies during the final years of the Zhou dynasty, called the Warring States period. Confucius (551 to 479 BC) himself did not claim to bring a new philosophy, but advocated a return to the supposed ideal government that was carried out when the Zhou dynasty came to power in 980 BC. He said that in the ancient past, rulers led by example, not force, and each person submitted to others properly according to their position. There were five such relationships: subject to ruler, child to parent, wife to husband, younger brother to elder brother, and friend to friend. The goal of life is to become “truly human.” Serving in government was seen as a high calling. His students collected his sayings into the book called the “analects.” More about Rujia at footnote 43.

Daoism emerged about the same time, and was the opposite in many ways: inner development took precedence over public service; following the natural path of least resistance took the place of determined attempts to improve self and society. Though it is not certain whether there was a man named Laozi, there definitely was a book attributed to him. It is called the Dao de jing. Dao means “the way,” de means “ethics,” and jing means “a classical book.” The book tells rulers that if they are inactive, the people will “of themselves” become prosperous. 10  The Dao means the “way,” and it is a mysterious reality above all categories. 11  More at footnote 42.

In the following century, the time of “100 schools of thought,” there were many competitors to the Confucian way. A man named Mozi opposed the five relationships and advocated universal love.  He looked even further back in history than Confucius had, to legitimize his ideas using the authority of ideal rulers from the distant past. (For a guide to pronounciation of Chinese words when they are written in English letters, go to Read Chinese.) A man named Hui Shi represents the dialecticians, and is known for his “Ten Paradoxes,” such as “to debase someone, elevate him.” Daoism was promoted by a man named Zhuangzi; he is the one who said he was not sure whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is a man.  He says Laozi was his teacher and includes stories and discourse said to be from Laozi. He emphasized direct observation of nature 14 rather than the rujia tradition’s finding of authority in the past, and this began the continujing discovery by Daoists of useful herbs which contributed to Chinese Medicine. Most of these schools of though were disillusioned with the current ruling aristocrats, but another school,  Legalism, assisted the rule of the aristocrats by setting aside the question of the ethics of the ruler and stressing his need to proliferate rules with harsh and inescapable punishments.

During that time, the following two scholars carried on Confucius’ approach, and so they are contributors to the body of thought called “rujia.”. Mencius (Chinese name is Mengzi, lived 371-289 BC) considered himself to be a transmitter of the Confucian way. His book, named after him, includes the idea that a ruler can lose the “mandate of heaven,” so that rebellion against him is justified by the one to whom that mandate has passed. A man named Xunzi (300-230 BC) agreed with Mengzi and about the perfectibility of human nature, but disagreed on how to achieve it. He is one of the few Chinese philosophers who wrote that human nature is essentially evil, though he said enlightened self-interest can motivate people to choose virtue. 31 

The Legalist approach advocated severe punishments for breaking rules, and accounts for the success of the first empire to rule all of China, the Qin dynasty (221 BC to 206 BC). The succeeding Han dynasty kept the administrative apparatus but lightened it by a Daoist way of life focused on individual inner development. In this environment Dong Xhong-shu, called “the Confucian Visionary,” 4 formulated the view that human actions have cosmic consequences, and studied the “five agents” (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth).  Then in 121 BC the Han emperor, though also under the influence of Daoist alchemists, decreed that rujia would receive state sponsorship. Five books were singled out for required study:


  1. The Classic of History (Shu jing; shu means book) was about the supposed ideal rule before the Zhou dynasty, stressing its virtue and piety.
  2. The Classic of poetry (Shi jing; shi means songs or poetry) contained ancient poems of communal feeling and mutual responsiveness.
  3. The Classic of Changes (Yi jing; Yi means the dark and mysterious) taught divination and numerology and explained nature as the interplay of two opposite forces, the yin and the yang. More at footnote 41.
  4. The Spring and Autumn Annals  (Chinese Chun Qiu. Chun means spring and Qiu means autumn) is a history of the state of Lu from about 722 Bc to 421 BC.22  Dong Zhong-shu used these annals to interpret calamities of his day as the displeasure of heaven. Writing detailed books of history is a characteristic found throughout Chinese history.
  5. The Record of Rites (li ji) is directions for rituals. One section presents the “doctrine of the mean,” that the truth is not to be found in the extremes.Note that none of these five is written by Confucius, but they express the scope of interests of “rujia” because they adopt his idealization of the past and his goal of self-development towards genuine humanness (The Chinese term is ren).

During the first century, movements began that comprise the religious branch of Taoism as compared to the philosophical branch. The religious branch includes revelations from gods, designations of sacred mountains, and legends about immortals.

Buddhism entered China during the 2nd century. (More on Chinese Buddhism is found at footnote 44.). After the Han dynasty ended in 220, China was not united; there was a succession of different kingdoms in the north and south from 220 to 589. Buddhism became dominant in the northern areas of China because of the influence from India coming along the silk road. There was a succession of 5 kingdoms in the north, most under the rule of Turks, and for a short time one of those kingdoms made Daoism into the state religion. 12 Meantime  in the south, there was a succession of 6 kingdoms ruled by Chinese. Refugees from the north helped Daoism continue strongly in the southern parts of China. There were developments in alchemy. Visions revealed a heavenly kingdom with a hierarchy of divine rulers, matching the earthly administrative system. At least one man, named Xun, ended his life with an alchemical elixir so he could assume his promised seat in the heavenly hierarchy. To see the religions of China in the context of the rest of the world’s religions, see my survey of world religions.

China was reunited by the Sui Dynasty (589-618), which reinstated the civil service exams based on the Five Classics of Rujia.

The founder of the Tang dynasty (618-906) claimed to be descended from Laozi, and the dynasty at first was dominated by Daoism and Buddhism. Daoist books replaced the 5 classics as requirements for the civil service exams. This was the time when many huge Buddha statues and Buddha caves were constructed.  With traders from many countries passing on the silk road, the dynasty at first allowed great freedom of religion. Islam also entered China at this time. (More on Islam in China at footnote 46.)

It was during the Tang that Christianity first entered China. A Nestorian Syrian monk named Alopen arrived in 635 and was allowed to build churches. This period of religious freedom ended in 835. Nestorians and Catholics entered China again during the Mongol dynasty in the 13th century, Jesuits and other Catholic orders arrived in the 17th century, and Protestants in the 19th century.

Some Christian (Nestorian) Syrian scholars assisted in translating Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.20  Daoist terms were often used to translate Buddhist concepts. For example, “enlightenment” was translated as “achieving the Dao.” One concept that Buddhism contributed to general Chinese thought was the idea that there are multiple levels of hell. Buddhists and Daoists shared insights into meditation practices. Confucianism was not dominant during the Tang, but there were scholars who kept it alive, especially a man named Han Yu (768-824), who gained notoriety by is making fun of a Buddhist relic.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) saw the return to dominance of rujia, though Daoist practitioners might be called to court for divination when an invasion loomed.13 The scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200) systematized the rujia traditions in a movement that westerners call “neo-confucianism.” 30 He established a different set of books for study, called “The Four Books:”


1.The Analects of Confucius (lun yu)
2.The Book by Mencius (Mengzi)
3.The doctrine of the mean (zhong yong) (an excerpt from the li ji)
4.The “Great Learning” (da xue) (another excerpt from the li ji)

Starting at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1600’s), 13 books have been considered the foundation for studying Chinese thought. They are: the FIVE CLASSICS listed earlier in this article, with the li ji and the chun qiu each divided into three books, making a total of 9; the first two of the four listed above; plus the book xiao jing (about filial piety32) and er ya (which is like a dictionary).

Questions about these 13 books were on the government exams right up to the end of the last dynasty in 1911.

The Yuan dynasty (the Mongols) seriously damaged the scholarly community2 but some scholars continued the rujia, in hopes it could be revived in the future. Some of them accepted positions in the government of Kublai Khan, and others refused to.

The Ming Dynasty (1328-1644) again made rujia into the ruling and official doctrine. The Ming Dynasty was against foreign influence, prohibiting the Christianity which had seen a resurgence during the Mongol period.  A man named Yang Wang Ming (1472-1529) is called “the most influential Confucian thinker since Zhu Xi.” 3 His primary concern was moral education, to be grounded in the innate primordial awareness of every human being.4  Since the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) was another time of rule by foreigners (the Manchu), it made a special point of proving its loyalty to Chinese-ness by keeping rujia as the official basis for the government examinations.

The Unequal Treaties19starting from 1842 gave western Christian missionaries free reign to evangelize throughout China. Missionaries brought all the western denominational differences into China, and also established western hospital and schools. Western science and philosophy came into China. One of those philosophies was Marxism, which led to the founding of the Communist Party in 1920.

Foreign missionaries were deported by the Mao regime in 1950.  Since the 1980’s foreign Christians have been allowed to visit and donate but not to have any positions of authority. More on Christianity in China at footnote 45.

After the Communists took control in 1949, Mao Ze Dong ridiculed rujia along with other Chinese traditions as part of the “four olds” that had to be discarded.  However, in recent decades the Communist rulers have seen it advantageous to promote Chinese nationalism by reviving admiration for Confucius. Some think that reviving Confucius is also a way for the government to appeal to the Chinese tradition of respect for elders and authorities. Representatives of the government have set up centers in many American cities to offer lessons in the Chinese language and to host cultural events. These canters are called  Confucian Institutes.

Each individual today might be influenced by any of these traditions of the past, plus the concepts behind the traditional stories, the proverbs, and the festivals.. This survey then does not enable you to know what your Chinese friend is thinking, but rather encourages you to ask your friend about his thoughts.

Written by Jim Found, 2017


  1. Volume 16 page 658 of Encyclopedia Britannica edition of 1989, University of Chicago
  2. EB Volume 16 page 660
    3. EB Volume 16 page 660
    4. EB Volume 16 page 658

10. EB Volume 28 page 395
11. EB Volume 28 page 396
12  EB Volume 28 page 403
13 EB Volume 28 page 404
14 EB Volume 28 page 405

19. The Unequal Treaties refer to England making money by selling opium in China, and when Chinese began to reject this war was the consequence, but when England won after fighting for the right to sell what it wants to sell in China, England made China accept very unfair treaties. These treaties harmed China and have wounded the spirits of Chinese to this day.

20. The Lost History of Christianity. © 2009. by Philip Jenkins, Page 15 .  The Syrian’s name was Adam.

22.. Chinese Thought by H.C Creel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1953. Page 147.

30. Quotations from the handbook to Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition, © 2011 by The Teaching Company, Chantilly, Virginia, written by Grant Hardy of University of North Carolina at Asheville.  Page 71 says, “Han Yu was a sort of founding father to the neo-confucian movement, but Zhu Xi synthesized and systematized the tradition.”

31. Hardy, page 28

32. Filial piety means the responsibility of the eldest son to his parents, including providing for them after they die by burning paper representations of things they need in the world that they go to when they die.

40. More about Chinese Traditional Religion. The book titled Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors by David K. Jordan (1972) provides a good way to begin to explain it. If no one is worshipping someone after death, that person becomes a hungry ghost. During ghost month in late summer, people set out food offerings with burning incense sticks, so that the hungry ghosts do not bring them harm. If you are a deceased father who receives offerings from your sons, the offering ceremony is called in English “ancestor worship.”  This happened because the action of bowing with incense to a statue is called bai-bai, and that same term is used for the bowing action in ancestor worship. Whether or not ancestor worship is worship in the same sense as the worship of a god is a matter of dispute. The Jesuits in the early 1600’s saw no problem, but the other Catholic missionaries considered the practice to be against the first commandment, and the pope at that time agreed with them. Protestants in general forbid ancestor worship. Today’s Catholic church allows ancestor worship. From the standpoint of the eldest son, the action is necessary to meet the physical needs of the deceased person. These needs are also met by burning paper money and burning cardboard replicas of household items like clothing and cell phones. If your family is having problems, you may ask a specialist to go into a trance to find out if your ancestor is unhappy because of lacking some item, and you can then provide it by burning a model of it. If the same ancestor is worshipped by many people, and especially if the requests made to the ancestor get results, that ancestor might be termed a god. Different parts of China worshipped different gods already during the Zhou dynasty, and lots of those were brought to Taiwan after 1950 because immigrants came from many parts of China. Chinese traditional religion temples are ornate and include one or mare statues of a god,  and thus easily distinguished from Confucian temples, which have yellow roofs and no statues, and Buddhist temples, which do not have ornate roof decorations, but do have statues of Buddha and sometimes of historic figures who are near to Buddahood. (Chinese: Laohan).  Chinese tourists typically make it a point to stop at a traditional religion temple and make obeisance to that local god. Outside the temple might be a place to burn items to be sent to the spirit world. Within the temple, it is possible to take wooden pieces and throw them on the floor after asking a question. The way they land would provide the answer. On the god’s birthday, there might be a procession through the streets, and a banquet through which the people of that neighborhood by eating the food declare that they place themselves under the protection of that god.

41. More about the Yi Jing. It includes the “8 trigrams” These are ways of arranging sets of three broken and unbroken lines to explain phenomena and tell fortunes.

42. More about Daoism. The traditional division between philosophical and religious daoism is no longer considered valid by scholars, according to EB volume 28 page 395, because there was so much mutual influence among the practitioners. The same article reminds that Daoism and Confucianism share a common worldview that existed prior to either of them (ideas about man and heaven). I however advocate studying the many different strands that have developed within Daoism: alchemy, elixirs for long life, revelations of gods, and more.

43. Rujia. The word “jia” here means “school of thought,” and the “ru” means the legacy from the sages.

44. More about Chinese Buddhism. A difficulty in conversing about the topic is that the same term, “fo,” 佛, is used both for statues of the Buddha and statues of the traditional-religion gods. Buddhism took on Chinese characteristics over the years. China adopted mahayana Buddhism, and some of the schools in this tradition were actually invented in China, like the pure land school and the chan school (which in Japan is called Zen). Mahayana has many Buddhas. Some whose statues were thin and serious in India became filled-out and jolly in China. A personage who was male in India became female in China: guan yin, 观音 [ 觀音] the goddess of mercy.   In Tibet, the tantric schools in India combined with local gods to become Tibetan Buddhism.

45. In 1950 all Protestant denominations were combined into one single church, administered by the China Christian Council (CCC) and the Three-self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), organized at various levels (provincial, county, city). When they meet together, they are called the “combined committee” (Chinese: liang hui 两会). Some churches have registered with the government and take part in this single Christian denomination. Other churches have not registered, and are commonly called “house churches.” Roman Catholics have a separate governmental organization, the Catholic Patriotic Association; again some churches have registered and some have not. In 2019 Pope Francis agreed to regularize some bishops that were chosen by the Chinese government. For more about Christianity in China, these links take you to other pages on this website. Catholics in Asia.      Protestants in China.

46. More on Islam in China. Several times in history the Chinese people have occupied the Turkish lands to the west, and so brought Muslim peoples under their sovereignty. Muslim peoples also arrived in China on the silk road.. A number of people groups, including one called the Hui, are Muslims.

47. More on Chinese worldview and customs. These are listed here because they are not limited only to those who practice the discrete religions listed above.
♦  Feng shui means placement of structures in a way that blocks evil spirits and encourages good spirits.
♦  The Chinese Zodiac consists of 12 animals. People are conscious of the animal that belongs to the year of their birth — for example, I am a dragon.  The change of animals happens at:
♦  Chinese New Year, which is determined by the lunar calendar, and typically falls in February of the western calendar.  Even if a Chinese person is not very religious at other times of the year, many still deem it important to acknowledge the ancestors in some way on Chinese New Year eve. More about Chinese New Year
♦ Chinese people value education, avoid direct criticism, avoid making the other person lose face, bring a gift when visiting a home,  feel under obligation to gift someone in return for a gift, and many have expertise in choosing appropriate food for the season, in using traditional medicine, and using traditional health and healing practices.

This video is in Chinese but has English subtitles. It presents 6 ways that today’s westerners are different from today’s Chinese. See video

See more at these web pages:

These words are listed according to their order of presentation in the article. The   spellings in the article are in the pinyin system. (See How to pronounce Pinyin). The spellings in brackets are in the Wade-Giles system, which would be the system used in older reference books.  The Chinese characters are the simplified characters, and if the traditional characters are different they are put in parentheses. The words in curved brackets {}are my personal approximation of the sounds.

Rujia  [ju chia] 儒家
legalism  fajia  [fachia]  法家
Daoism daojiao [tao chiao]  道教 {dow jee-ow}
Buddhism  fojiao  佛教 {foo-awe jee-ow}
Confucius kongzi [k’ong tzu]  孔子
The Analects of Confucius. lunyu  论语  ( 論語) {loo-uhn ü}
being truly human.  ren [jen] 仁
Daoism  道教
Laozi [Laotzu]  老子
dao de jing (The Way) [tao te ching]  道德经 [dow duh jing}
Mozi [Motzu]  墨子 {moo-awe dz}
Hui Shi or Huizi  惠施  (惠子){hway sh or dz}
Zhuangzi [chuangtsu]  庄子  [莊子](joo-ang dz}
Mencius. mengzi [mengtzu]  孟子
Xunzi [Hsüntzu]  xunzi  荀子 {Sü-een dz}
Dong Xhong-shu  董仲舒 {dohng johng shoo}

THE FIVE CLASSICS Wu Jing [Wu ching]  五经 {oo jing}

  1. The Classic of History (Shu jing) [shu ching] 书經 [書經]{shoo jing}
  2. The Classic of poetry (Shi jing) [shih ching]  诗经  [詩經]{sh jing}
  3. The Classic of Changes (Yi jing) [I ching]    易经 [易經]
    the yin and the yang.  阴阳 [隂陽]{ee jing}
  4. The Spring and Autumn Annals (chun qiu)  [ch’un ch’iu]  春秋  {choo-uhn chee-oh}
  5. The Record of Rites (li ji) [li chi]  礼记  {lee jee}
    “doctrine of the mean,”  zhong yong 中庸 {johng yohng}

Buddhism  佛教
Alopen  啊罗本    [啊羅本]{ah loo-awe-bun}
Han Yu  韩愈  [韓愈]{hahn ü}
Zhu Xi  [Chu Hsi]  朱熹 {joo see}


  1. The Analects of Confucius  lun yu    论语  [論語]
  2. The Book by Mencius    mengzi    孟子
  3. The doctrine of the mean (an excerpt from the li ji)  zhong yong 中庸
  4. The “Great Learning” (another excerpt from the li ji)  da xue  大学 [學]{da sü-yeh}

Yang Wang Ming  王陽明 [王陽明]
Mao Ze Dong  毛泽东    毛泽東 {ma-ow daze dohng}


There are some similarities between Chinese thought and Christian thought that make it easy to enter into a conversation. A Chinese person would not find it strange that Christians devote time to studying ancient texts, use quotations from them for inspiration and guidance, and use them as authorities to validate proposals for reformation and renewal, since Chinese thinkers do the same thing with their own texts. Both look back to a more ideal distant past (the Garden of Eden and the mythical rulers of China) as a template for a desirable future  Both value development of character and putting virtue to use in meeting social needs. The commandment “Honor your Father and Mother” resonates well with the Chinese value of sons caring for parents (filial piety — in the Chinese case, this includes sacrificing to one’s father  after he has died.)  The end result of the Chinese schools of thought is a strong character that is not disturbed by setbacks. Seeing this kind of character in a Christian is meaningful and admired. This author likes to say that Jesus can help a Chinese person fulfill the ideals of his Chinese tradition.

Topics that are more difficult to converse about include the fallen nature of man (most Chinese philosophers have looked at man as fundamentally good), and the need for a savior. Most Chinese thought has emphasized self-reliance. although Chinese Buddhism does include a savior-figure, Amitofu (the Sanskrit Amitabha), but calling on his name does not lead to eternal life with God, but only promises reincarnation in a temporary “pure land”.   Christian missionaries sacrificed to bring schools and hospitals to China, but unfortunately some Chinese saw their attitude as one of superiority, and this hampers friendship-building.

Here are some terms whose Bible usage would not be self-evident to a Chinese person, and so would require explanation.
♦ The word “god” 神 in Chinese is used for over 100 supernatural personalities, most of whom are departed persons. while the God of the Bible is “only true God,” creator, and comprised of Father Son, and Holy Spirit.
♦ The word “heaven” in Chinese is the same as the word for “sky.” 天 I have heard Chinese people who are ashamed of something say “I have offended heaven.” In Bible usage, the Kingdom of Heaven means the same as the Kingdom of God and means the rule of God.  When Jesus said “your father in heaven” he was using the word heaven to refer to the supernatural world. Heaven is also commonly used by Christians to  refer to eternal life.
♦ In Chinese Buddhism, hell 地狱 [地獄] has seven layers and all of them are places to be purged in between reincarnations.  In the Bible, Hell is the place of eternal punishment for Satan and those who reject Jesus.
♦   In the Chinese Bible, the word used for demon is the same as the word used for ghost 鬼, a departed human who is unfriendly. You would need to explain that in the Bible, a demon is  a fallen angel, not a departed human.
♦ Way is translated by the chinese word dao 道. Dao is the common Chinese word for path.  Dao also became a technical term in rujia and in daoism. In rujia, it means the principles of action of a virtuous gentleman.  In Daoism, it means the unknown foundation of the universe. In the Chinese Bible, the word dao is used for many different purposes, so each verse may need to be explained. 1) Dao translates the “walk” of a believer. 2) Jesus said “I am the dao (way)” in answer to the question “how shall we know the way to God?”  That “way’ is Jesus himself and not any kind of behavior. 3) “The Way” is an early term for the followers of Jesus. 4) The Chinese word Dao is used to translate the Greek word “logos” in John 1:1, because that Greek term, which means “word,” was used by Greek philosophers to refer to the unseen personality through which God created the universe.
♦ The word used to translate sin 罪 in the Chinese Bible is the word usually used for crime, so without further explanation a listener may think you are accusing him of being a criminal. You would need to explain that the Bible word “sin” means anything against God’s will, whether in thought, word, or behavior. Saying that mankind is sinful by nature would be a new thought for Chinese, because most of the philosophers taught that man is essentially good.

On the other hand, there are some biblical terms that require explanation to an English-speaker, but are immediately understandable in the Chinese Bible. That is because the translators chose to translate the everyday Greek of the New Testament into everyday Chinese. Here are some examples:

♦  Justify in Chinese is cheng yi 称義 [稱義], which means “named righteous.” And that word for righteous is the same word used by Confucius.
♦  Sanctify in Chinese is cheng sheng 成圣 [成聖], which means “become holy.”
♦  Apostle 使徒 is ambassador, angel 天使 is heavenly ambassador.

Some words are not translated in either language, but just duplicate the sounds of the Hebrew originals: Immanuel, Hallelujah, Messiah, Amen.


Go to History Menu   (helps for studying history)
Bible studies in simplified  characters; traditional characters.