Framing History: Law and Government: Page 62 (Textbook)
Framing History: Patterns of Belief Page 63 (Textbook)
1. Worrall, Simon. “Why Is Confucius Still Relevant Today? His Sound Bites Hold Up.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 25 Mar. 2015,
2. Walter, Damien. “The Tao Te Ching by Laozi: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 Dec. 2013,
3. Chiu, Wai Wai. “Jian Aiand the Mohist Attack of Early Confucianism.” Philosophy Compass, vol. 8, no. 5, 2013, pp. 425–437., doi:10.1111/phc3.12031.
Read the abovementioned articles and answer the Analyze and Interpret Questions.
1. After a generation of contemptuous treatment and proscription, the Chinese Communist government has recently allowed the reintroduction of Confucian teaching and commentary in schools. Why do you think this has happened/ Do you think Confucius has anything to say to modern people?
2.What is the relevance of Daoism today? What application of Daoist thought can you find in your own experiences? Does the paradox of saying that doors and windows can be appreciated only if one keeps in mind the walls of the house strike you as truthful?
3. How was Mohism distinctive in its central doctrine? Why do you think it faded away?
4. Which of the above philosophies resonates most with you? Give reasons for your views.Why Is Confucius Still Relevant Today? His Sound Bites Hold Up
The Chinese philosopher still affects the lives of nearly a quarter of humanity.
8 MINUTE READ
BY SIMON WORRALL,
PUBLISHED MARCH 25, 2015
H E W A S H A I L E D after his death as “The Uncrowned King,” a philosopher whose sound
bites of wisdom became China’s handbook on government and its code of personal morality
for thousands of years. But little is known about Confucius, and what is known is full of
contradiction and myth.
Speaking from Washington, D.C, during a break on his book tour, Michael Schuman, author
of Confucius and the World He Created, teases out fact from fiction; explains why he had to
take bowing lessons before his wedding; and tells us why the influence of a scholar who died
nearly 3,000 years ago is still felt in the boardrooms, bedrooms, and classrooms of nearly a
quarter of humanity.
You say Mao’s Red Guards dubbed Confucius “The Number One Hooligan Old Kong.” But
today Confucius is being ardently embraced by the Communist Party. What’s going on?
The Communist Party has realized Confucius might be useful for them again. But the version
of Confucius they use isn’t the same as the one in The Analects, his most famous collection of
ideas and sayings. Beijing focuses on the imperial Confucius who was all about obedience to
the emperor, hierarchy, and loyalty.
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Fast forward to today. The Communist Party has overseen an incredible surge of wealth in
China in the past 35 years through old-fashioned capitalism. But the old Marxist rhetoric of
the Mao years doesn’t fit anymore. So they went scouring about for a new ideology to justify
And they’ve come back to Confucius, for many of the same reasons the old emperors did.
Here is a political tradition that is uniquely Chinese and can support their type of
authoritarian rule. At the same time, it can be used to fend off all those awful ideas they
don’t want from the West, like democracy and human rights.
By reviving Confucius, they are making the case that China has its own political culture based
on its own political and philosophical history. China therefore does not have to head toward
democracy in the way that Western advocates would like to see happen. It can have a
political future based on what it sees as its philosophical past.
Ordinary people are returning to Confucian ideas in search of the spiritual nourishment they
feel is missing in their lives.
They like using the word “harmony” and harmonious society a lot, concepts the Confucians
also like to use. But what the Communists mean by harmony is a society where there’s no
dissent of party rule. In Confucian thinking, it means something very different. It’s about a
society where everyone fulfills their responsibilities and creates a harmonious situation
where the whole country prospers.
What the Chinese Communist Party is doing is taking a very narrowly defined, carefully
selected version of Confucianism to push ideas they think can help convince the public that
the system they’re running is an extension of a political system that China has always had.
At the same time, ordinary people are returning to Confucian ideas in search of the spiritual
nourishment they feel is missing in their lives. One Confucian scholar said to me that China is
having a moral crisis, and it’s the worst crisis China has ever had. There are incredibly high
levels of corruption, widespread fraud, and counterfeiting. There are incredible problems
with pollution and environmental degradation. People look around and say, “OK, we’ve
gotten rich, but look at everything we’ve lost.”
Confucius is also being used to project China’s “soft power.” Should we be worried about
the rapidly expanding, global network of Confucius Institutes?
The Confucius Institutes have been a tremendously successful program for China. What
makes them controversial is that, when a Confucius Institute shows up at a university, the
university is effectively outsourcing its Chinese studies to the Chinese government. Confucius
Institutes are funded by and to a certain extent overseen by an agency of the Chinese state.
In a way, Confucius’s name is employed as a brand.
In academia, this is sometimes seen as an attempt by the Chinese government to control the
discourse about China. The Chinese insist all they are doing is promoting Chinese language
and Chinese culture. But because of the controversies these institutes have provoked, you
have to wonder whether this is actually intensifying the distrust between the West and
China? Some very prominent universities in the United States, like the University of Chicago
and Pennsylvania State University, have dropped their relationship with Confucius Institutes.
It’s going to be interesting how it plays out.
Confucius believed he had devised a doctrine of virtue that could bring prosperity back to
The book starts with Confucius “gate-crashing” your wedding. Set the scene for us.
My wife is Korean American, born in the United States and as American as anybody can be.
But for our wedding she wanted to add in a traditional Korean ceremony called a paebaek,
when we would bow in front of her parents, and afterward they would give us their blessing
and toss walnuts and dates into the skirt of her dress to encourage fertility.
This bow is not just a little nod of the head, is it?
[Laughs] No, it’s the full forehead-to-the-boards kowtow. I found this a little uncomfortable. I
grew up in a Jewish tradition where we’re told to have self-respect and not bow down before
anybody. So I decided to raise my concerns with my wife. Her response was, “Get over it.
You’re bowing to my parents, and that’s that!”
The reason this was so important to her is that filial piety, respect for your parents, is one of
the most basic Confucian virtues. So, on my wedding day, I had to get a bowing lesson from
my brother-in-law. A few hours later, I found myself with my forehead pressed to the floor
with all my friends looking on. [Laughs]
It shows the continuing power of Confucian ideas. That’s why it’s so important for us to know
about Confucius. He still has a dramatic effect on the lives of nearly a quarter of humanity.
Let’s scroll back now to 551 B.C. What do we know about Confucius, the man?
What we know is in bits and pieces scattered across various historical records of somewhat
suspect quality. What we think we know is that he was born to a family of low-level officials.
His father died when he was quite young, and he was raised by a single mother. There’s some
speculation among modern historians that he might have been illegitimate. But we know very
little about his childhood.
What we do know is that he turned himself into an expert on the literature and history and
poetry of an earlier age in China, and with that he created his own doctrine. The purpose of
the doctrine was to restore peace and order. The time in which he lived was a time of war
and conflict in China between numerous feudal states, and he believed he had devised a
doctrine of virtue that could bring prosperity back to China.
In his own life, unfortunately, he failed in that vision, because he could not find the dukes and
kings to adhere to his ideas. But where he did succeed was as a very successful teacher. He
had very loyal students who became his disciples, and they carried on his mission and his
teachings until Confucianism eventually became China’s dominant philosophy.
Confucius regarded the family as the cornerstone of society. Yet he divorced his wife and
spent most of his life living with a group of young, male acolytes. Is there any evidence to
suggest he was gay?
[Laughs] Not that I know of. But it is interesting that, even though he considered the family to
be so important, we know so little about his own family. There are a few mentions in The
Analects of a son and a daughter. But we don’t know much about his wife.
Confucius has value for us today, even though he first uttered these ideas thousands of years
Part of the reason may be the way the records were left. The Analects is really a collection of
snippets of conversation that Confucius had with his disciples. So it’s not surprising that the
texts focus more on his relationship with his disciples than his family. But it is odd that a guy
who thought the family was the foundation of society spent most of his time with his
students, whom he was clearly very close with.
You write that the political consequence of filial piety was to create “a nation of obedient
subjects.” Is Confucianism compatible with Western, democratic values?
If you listen to President Xi Jinping and the Chinese government, they would say you’re
exactly right: It’s not compatible. However, there’s a counter-argument where pro-democracy
advocates in Asia have looked back at the same texts and seen in them the seeds of
democracy in Asia. The most famous was the former president of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung,
who spent decades as a democracy advocate in Korea and believed that Confucius gave
people the right to choose their leadership and also overthrow a leader who was immoral or
Today there are several societies that are highly influenced by Confucianism but are also
democratic, like South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. So I think history is telling us that you can be
both Confucian and democratic.
You say, “The inferior position of women in East Asia is the most damaging legacy of
Confucius.” Tell us about the Analects for Women and how they continue to make it hard
for women to break through the Asian glass ceiling.
Confucius himself did not say a lot about women, though what he said wasn’t all that positive.
Later, during the Tang dynasty, two female scholars created a text based on his ideas, which
became known as the Analects for Women. It enshrined the idea that the roles of men and
women should be highly separated. The outer realm of politics, business, and civic life was for
men. The inner realm of caring for children and managing the home was for women.
This became deeply entrenched in Chinese society, and unfortunately lingers to this day. The
International Monetary Fund did a study in 2012 that showed that only 9 percent of
corporate management positions in Japan and South Korea were held by women, compared
with 43 percent in the United States. This is demeaning for women and a national problem. In
an age where you want to make your economies as competitive as possible, these societies
are marginalizing a lot of their best talent.
You say everyone has his or her own Confucius. Who is your Confucius? And what have you
learned from writing this book that is useful in your own life?
That’s a great question. When I started this project, I’ll be honest, I didn’t know very much
about Confucius. I started by walking around with a copy of The Analects in my bag. But I had
an image of Confucius in my head that was quite negative, which I think many people in
modern times hold: that he was arch-conservative, anti-women, and pro-autocracy.
But in the course of doing this book and reading the Confucian writings, I had a change of
heart. If you go back and read The Analects and some of the early writings, you realize the
way we see Confucius today is really not the Confucius who lived 2,500 years ago. A lot of his
ideas are universal and timeless. He believed that people should do the right thing because it
was the right thing to do. And that trying to do the right thing would have a ripple effect
When you read this positive message, you realize that Confucius has value for us today, even
though he first uttered these ideas thousands of years ago. There are things in the Bible that
we don’t agree with today, like owning slaves. But that doesn’t mean we throw it in the
garbage. We interpret it for our needs today and continue to find value in it. That’s what we
should be doing with Confucius and Confucian ideas.
The Tao Te Ching by Laozi: ancient wisdom
for modern times
The mysterious Laozi’s ancient wisdom may be hard to translate, but the
meaning is clear – learning to be self-aware could improve modern life
Fri 27 Dec 2013 07.00 EST First published on Fri 27 Dec 2013 07.00 EST
Two thousand four hundred years after it was composed, we need the Tao Te Ching’s
lessons in self-awareness more than ever. Little can be said with absolute certainty
about the origins of the Tao Te Ching. Consensus suggests it was written around 400BC
by one Laozi. Laozi translates simply as “old master” – a hint that the author’s (or
authors’) true name has been lost for ever.
Tao Te Ching translates very roughly as “the way of integrity”. In its 81 verses it delivers
a treatise on how to live in the world with goodness and integrity: an important kind of
wisdom in a world where many people believe such a thing to be impossible.
Texts as old as the Tao Te Ching are subject to the problems of both translation and
interpretation. Take this collection of more than 100 versions of the famous opening
The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.
Translated by James Legge (1891)
The Tao-Path is not the All-Tao. The Name is not the Thing named.
Translated by Aleister Crowley (1918)
The tao that can be told, is not the eternal Tao.
Translated by Stephen Mitchell (1988)
If you can talk about it,
it ain’t Tao.
Translated by Ron Hogan (1994)
The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
Translated by Ursula Le Guin (1998)
The third is from the most popular modern translation by Stephen Mitchell. Mitchell
does a remarkable job of interpreting the more abstruse metaphors of the fourthcentury mind for modern audiences – although, this does of course leave the possibility
that it is actually the wisdom of Mitchell, not Laozi, shining through these words.
Many readers derive more anger than comfort from the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching.
If that first line resembles the famous zen koan “what is the sound of one hand
clapping?”, it is because it’s derived from a parallel philosophical tradition, and exists to
fulfil the same purpose. It’s the compulsive need to answer unanswerable questions that
is, in Taoist philosophy, the mind’s great dysfunction.
“The unnameable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things.” The
second line of Mitchell’s translation opens up the nature of the dysfunction. We’re
accustomed to perceiving our world and all the objects in it by naming them. But what if
we stop obsessively naming everything and instead just – pardon me while I slip in to
full on hippy mode for a moment – rest in awareness?
What the Tao Te Ching does, time and time again, is attempt to show us how we might
see things if we could spend more time in awareness, and less in naming. “Practice notdoing, and everything will fall into place.” This, from the third verse, sounds positively
heretical to the work- and productivity-obsessed modern mind. Perhaps if we were more
aware, we would worry less, and could see better what actually needs doing.
But the central thing the Tao Te Ching asks us to be aware of is not the world, but our
self. Self-awareness. We all know the term, but do we really know what it means? “Love
the world as your self; then you can care for all things,” closes verse 13 of the Tao Te
Ching. What would it be like to care for all things as much as we cared for our self?
In the words of David Foster Wallace, whose literary philosophy is a natural mirror of
Taoist thought, the default setting for people is to be “uniquely, completely, imperially
alone day in and day out”. Not because we are physically alone, as we know loneliness
hits heaviest in crowds. But because we are mired in a deep-seated and near-universal
delusion. Despite knowing that we are part of a vast universe, on a massively complex
planet shared with seven billion other human lives, we continue with the truly insane
perception that we are the center of the world.
“When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a
leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised. If you
don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy. The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!'”
Verse 17 of the Tao Te Ching reflects on one of the text’s consistent themes, how to lead
others with integrity. Today we seem to actively select against leaders who demonstrate
self-awareness. Instead, in political figures such as Tony Blair and Boris Johnson, the
mass-media landscape favors survival of the biggest and most monstrously deformed
“If you over-esteem great men, people become powerless.” Perhaps what we need to
learn from phone-hacking scandals and other modern corruptions is that the Bullingdon
Club and Chipping Norton set are over-esteemed as leaders. They’re an unavoidable byproduct of power, a scum of pure ego that forms on the surface of society and imitates
the appearance of leadership.
The Tao Te Ching is a 2,400-year-old reminder that today, as then, every one of us has a
choice to practice self-awareness and exercise our own power in and over the world.
That might come as more of a nasty wakeup call than a comfort to some of us. As
Wallace said: “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult
world day in and day out.” As hard as it is, for the moments we read it, the Tao Te Ching
makes it seem at least possible.
Indiana University, Early Chinese Thought [B/E/P374] – Fall 2010 (R. Eno)
“Mohism” is the name given to the philosophical school founded by a man named Mozi 墨
子 (Master Mo, his actual name was Mo Di 墨翟), who lived during the fifth century BCE
Mozi was the first man to offer a strong intellectual challenge to Confucianism. His
followers became a highly disciplined band of men committed to certain extreme doctrines
of political and ethical action. They were very influential during the Warring States period,
but the school died out during the decades following the Qin conquest of 221.
We know very little about most non-Confucian Classical thinkers, and Mozi is no
exception. Some sources tell us that he was a disenchanted Confucian from the state of Lu,
whose early training in ritualism later made him an effective adversary to Confucian
doctrines. Other texts say he was from the state of Sung and do not speak of any Confucian
connection, but note instead that the surname “Mo,” which means “ink mark,” is a very rare
one, and may refer not to Mo Di’s family but rather to the fact that he had been subjected to
“tattooing,” a punishment often meted out to criminals in the Classical era. This account
interprets “Mozi” as meaning “the tattooed master.”
The notion that Mozi was a commoner who had fallen afoul of the law fits with the
rhetoric of the text that he and his followers compiled: the Mozi, which is unstylish and even
crude (this shows through even in translation). Moreover, the analogies, metaphors, and
examples offered in Mozi’s book are frequently connected with the activities of the common
soldier or of the members of the artisan class. At the least, we may say that it is likely that
most of Mozi’s followers were commoners, perhaps principally the sons of peasants and
artisans who had been drafted into the endless wars of the era.
During the Warring States period, the Mohists were organized in tight-knit
paramilitary bands. They were specially trained in what we may call the arts of defensive
warfare. One of the major doctrines of Mohism was that offensive warfare was evil and the
cause of most of the suffering of the time. Mohists were famous for matching their actions
to their beliefs, and Mohist groups made careers of racing from one area of China to another,
offering their services to rulers whose states were under attack. Rulers who accepted Mohists
into their service found them skilled in engineering devices designed to repel attacks on
walled cities and fortresses.
Mohism’s rejection of offensive warfare was one of a set of clearly defined and
argued doctrines that distinguished this cult from all others. These doctrines rested upon the
belief that the good was whatever produced the greatest well-being among the people.
Mohists argued that this was, indeed, the standard that Heaven used when rewarding the
righteous and punishing the wicked, and they also claimed that the sage rulers of the distant
past had used this criterion to rule effectively, rather than the ritual patterns of Confucianism.
Mohist doctrines advocated thrift in government, the elimination of extraneous ritual
and music, and the enforcement of a strict political hierarchy under the ruling Son of
Heaven, whom, Mohists believed, was always selected by Heaven and in close touch with
that ethereal being. Mohists were enthusiastic supporters of the belief in ghosts and spirits.
They held that religious belief was essential to a well ordered society; the more cautious
approach of the Confucians on the issue of the existence of the spirits they saw as socially
Like Confucianism, Mohism was a type of radical conservatism. When the Mohists
searched the distant past for a model for the present, they discovered not Confucian
precedents of ritual rule, but a meritocracy that raised to power people who resisted the lure
of personal enrichment and showed the ability to treat the masses of common people with
fairness and courage. Their philosophy reflects the spirit of the warriors whom the
Confucian Mencius described as models for nurturing the vital energy, or qi 氣 (see the
Glossary). Mohists were no respecters of high rank, but they were arduous in demanding
discipline of themselves, fair treatment of others according to their deserts, and dedication to
the restoration of political order under a single Son of Heaven.
What Mohists shared with Confucianism and other conservative philosophies was a
faith in the bedrock foundation of Zhou political culture: social order is dependent upon the
personal virtue of the ruler.
But the most dramatic and famous doctrine of Mohism, one which the Mohists
viewed as the essence of their beliefs, was their doctrine of universal love. What the Mohists
meant by “universal love” was this: an attitude towards all others that viewed each of them
as of equal value with oneself, with no distinctions of affection made among any. Under
such an imperative, an individual was charged to have no special regard for parents, spouse,
or children, nor for his or her own person. The demand was to cultivate an attitude where
the needs of any stranger would have as strong an impact upon you as the needs of your
family or friends, and your response to that stranger would be as immediate, generous, and
unreserved as it would be to your intimates. (The Mohists used the term “love” to denote a
responsive sensitivity towards others, rather than in the sense of romantic love.)
The following anecdote, recorded about 250 BCE, conveys the radical emotive
commitment that Mohists were viewed as making in taking the public good rather than
personal feelings to be so absolute an imperative:
There was in the state of Qin a Mohist master named Fu Tun whose son
murdered a man. King Hui of Qin (r. 337-311) said, “You are old, Sir, and you
have no other sons. I have already ordered the officers not to execute your
son. I pray that you will permit me to spare your boy.”
“The laws of the Mohists,” replied Fu Tun, “say: ‘Murderers shall die
and those who inflict injury shall be maimed.’ This law prevents people from
committing murder and assault. Preventing the commission of murder and
assault is an act of great righteousness. Your Majesty may wish to grant me the
gift of sparing the life of my son, but I cannot do other than carry out the laws
of the Mohists.” And so he refused the King’s offer and his son was executed.
A son is one’s dearest personal possession. To bear to have what is
dearest to one killed in order to implement righteousness — Fu Tun may
indeed be termed one who acted in the interests of all.
Needless to say, non-Mohists found such radical ethical demands outlandishly
incompatible with normal human psychology. But for Mohists, to value all other people as
highly as one spontaneously values those within one’s private sphere was the pivot of their
entire philosophy. They allowed no emotional issues to cloud their closely reasoned position
that there was neither a logical nor an ethical basis for regarding some people differently
Unlike almost all other types of early Chinese philosophy, Mohism exhibits a deep
commitment to the power of Reason. In fact, Mohists were in some ways the only true
rationalistic thinkers in Classical China (some would say in the entire history of traditional
China). As you will be able to see very easily in the translation of “Universal Love” below,
the Mohists argued in a rational fashion, always attempting to justify their claims through
careful arguments. What is more, they clearly believed that the power of rational “proof” was
so overwhelming to the intellect that it was almost inconceivable that people could fail to
accept and act upon the doctrine of universal love once it was explained to them.
It is possible to argue that the greatest significance of Mohism lay not in its various
explicit doctrines, but rather in the fact that through the Mohists, Chinese culture was
presented with the option of making Reason the pivot of intellectual inquiry, as it was in
Greece, Rome, and their later cultural descendants. Many of the fundamental differences
between the cultures of China and of Western Europe are reflected in the fact that Mohism
did not find an enduring audience in China, whereas the generally rationalistic approaches of
Plato and Aristotle became fundamental to Western traditions.
Reason vs. authority in the Mohist School
Although the reputation of the Mohist School is dominated by the doctrine of universal love,
the school actually elaborated an impressive number of clearly articulated and distinctive
positions. These are all presented in a very straightforward and accessible style in the Mozi,
but it is not always easy to see how the individual doctrines fit together. The basic barrier to
their overall coherence, is that Mohists tried to combine two approaches to the quest for
certain knowledge that do not easily complement one another: a reliance on the individual’s
power of reason to discover certain truths on his own, and a demand that people equally rely
on knowledge from authority, specifically the teachings that are reported to reflect the ethical
values of the ancient sages and of Heaven itself.
On the side of reason, the Mohists, apart from their relentlessly logical style of
argumentation, formulated a set of explicit criteria for justification (the brief discussion of
these in the Mozi appears among the briefer text passages translated in this coursepack). The
Mozi tells us that for an argument to be accepted, it must pass three tests: (1) it must
conform to the evidence of past pronouncements by sages (there must be some basis in
preserved texts); (2) it must conform to “the eyes and ears of the people” (it should
represent what ordinary commonsense or experience confirms); (3) acceptance must have a
good social effect.
Now if a contemporary philosopher wanted to persuade us that Mohists were the
most modern thinkers in Classical China, he or she might revise these three criteria by telling
us that (1) essentially means that arguments must be tested against textually recorded
evidence, that (2) means that we must confirm arguments according to the experience of our
own senses, and that (3) means that a good ethical argument must propose courses of action
that may actually be put into effect. All of these proposals are consistent with a rational
approach to truth-seeking, that links logical reasoning with careful assessments of different
kinds of evidence. And, in fact, the Mozi’s position has often been interpreted this way.
But when we look more closely at the statement of these criteria, and at the way these
tests are actually carried out in many of the arguments the Mozi makes in other places, it is
very clear that the Mohists were actually not licensing individuals to employ reason in sifting
evidence on their own, but rather to make our judgments accord with authority in three ways.
First, we should only accept arguments that are confirmed by records of legendary figures
whom Mohists regard as sages; second, we should only accept arguments that accord with
facts that ordinary people believe to be true; third, we only accept arguments that will
promote the Mohist ethical agenda in practice. In other words, don’t use your own reasoning
powers or challenge commonly accepted facts, rely on cultural legend, popular belief, and
The force of these intellectually authoritarian positions is most evident in one
particular Mohist doctrine — the Mohists insisted that it was imperative that we believe in the
existence of ghosts. The underlying reason for their insistence was that Mohists wished to
set up Heaven as an ultimate authority figure in their philosophical system, and for this to
have persuasive force, it was necessary that people possess a strong belief in the supernatural.
Now Mohists never claim that they themselves have experienced ghosts, not that the existence
of ghosts can be explained. Instead, they make three arguments: (1) The records of the sages’
words clearly show that they believed in the supernatural; we should accept their authority. (2)
Many people have reported encounters with ghosts, and their accounts are accepted by
ordinary people; majority belief rules. (3) Belief in the supernatural promotes community
togetherness through religious ritual and ethical responsibility through fear of divine
retribution; the argument must be so because accepting it will lead to good social results.
Mohists use this sort of reasoning in very tightly constructed arguments in support of
two major doctrines:
1. Illuminating the nature of ghosts. The position that ghosts exist.
2. The will of Heaven. A doctrine that Heaven communicates its will to
mankind, that it wills that people act righteously, and that righteousness
is precisely conduct in accordance with universal love.
In addition, this type of argumentation is used to supplement other, better reasoned
positions, in particular:
3. Anti-fatalism. A doctrine designed to refute a supposed Confucian belief
that all important events in life are determined by fate.
The authoritarian strain in Mohist thought reaches its highest pitch in a separate
chapter devoted entirely to a justification of aligning one’s thoughts and actions with
4. According with one’s superiors. A chapter in the Mozi by this title
portrays an ideal society as a strict command structure, composed of
commoners ruled by officers who are in turn ruled by the king’s
ministers. The ministers follow all instructions from the king, who
receives his own instructions directly from Heaven (the instructions, of
course, are for universal love).
It is a remarkable paradox that the most rational of all early Chinese schools of
thought was also the most authoritarian, but it should be recalled that Mohist
authoritarianism was not confined to its doctrines. Because the Mohists were a paramilitary
group that relied on strict discipline to attack the social crisis of a multi-century civil war,
responsiveness to authority was a key to their practical success.
In the context of the Mohist social enterprise and the authoritarian tendencies of
Classical Chinese society as a whole, it is not at all surprising that Mohist thought should
reflect a belief that knowledge derived from authority could be accepted with certainty. What
is more impressive is that despite this, Mohists virtually invented the method of rational
argument in China and were profoundly moved by the power of reason to generate certainty.
It seems quite likely that Mohists were led in this direction because their ranks were
largely filled by individuals drawn from the lower classes of ancient society. Without the
prestige of high birth and good connections, Mohists would have needed a tool such as
rational argumentation to establish their authority in trying to persuade rulers and others to
adopt their beliefs. In any event, judging from the nature of later Mohist writings, the
philosophical history of the Mohist school shows a gradual progression towards an everdeepening interest in reason and critical thought for its own sake.
Later Mohist philosophy
Mohism is the only Classical school that did not outlive the Classical era in China. When we
speak of “later Mohism” we mean a group of chapters included in the Mozi that seems to
reflect a new direction Mohism was moving during the fourth and third centuries BCE That
direction was towards a highly technical analysis of the nature of language, logic, and validity
in argumentation. It is possible that some of this interest was spurred by the logician Huizi,
Zhuangzi’s friend, who lived during the fourth century and who seems to have adopted
many Mohist positions (without, apparently, risking his security by joining the Mohists’
paramilitary organization). But whether or not Huizi contributed to this new direction in
Mohism, its accomplishments were unique. They reinforce the impression that Mohist
thought offered China an invitation to reorient its philosophical enterprise in directions
closely aligned with those taken by major Greek schools.
Consider, for example, the following features of later Mohist writings:
1. Great effort was made to assign precise, unambiguous definitions to words,
and where ambiguity could not be eradicated from ordinary terms, new
words were coined.
2. A technical vocabulary meant to clarify grammatical and logical features of
discourse was devised.
3. Logical paradoxes in ordinary speech were analyzed in order to discover the
linguistic ambiguities that gave rise to them, and so resolve them. (For
example, Mohists worked on explaining why you can say, “A boat is
wood,” but you can’t conclude that, “Entering a boat is entering
4. Mathematics and geometry were explored for clarification of basic concepts
that pertained to philosophical concepts and paradoxes.
5. A simultaneous exploration of scientific fields of engineering and optics was
undertaken in a search for clarification of the nature of empirical
These philosophical directions are remarkable for their analytic quality, and the text chapters
that include them are so rigorous in their terse and highly technical explications that they
remain the single most challenging group of ancient Chinese texts.
The accomplishment of the Mohists in these areas alerts us to the fact that no
constraints of language, culture, or history in ancient China dictated that Chinese thinkers
could not undertake as an enterprise the construction of a well grounded system of critical
analysis. Rather, it appears that the early demise of the Mohist school and the enduring
influence of practice-based Dao schools was a matter of conscious selection. In the context
of early Chinese society, the Daos of schools like Confucianism and Daoism seemed to
promise more important results than the analytics of the Mohists.
More than with any other school, Mohism was inspired by a determined opposition to
Confucianism. Among the most prominent of Mohist doctrines are a number that were
directed solely at discrediting the Confucian school through arguments for frugality.
Economy in expenditures. Mohists regarded Confucian valuation of ritual as both
arbitrary and socially dangerous. They viewed the expenditure of state resources on
ritual as a waste of public resources, and promoted the ideal of the thrifty society,
unconcerned with superfluous ritual ornamentation.
Economy in funerals. Mohists bitterly attacked Confucian pronouncements that
lavish funerals were an appropriate expression of filiality. In one of the most
entertaining passages in all early literature, Mohists depict Confucian advocacy of
lavish funerals as a device to persuade rich people to give Confucian morticians huge
fees for the garish funeral displays they orchestrate.
Rejection of music. Stressing arguments of frugality, Mohists dismissed Confucian
arguments for the aesthetic and morally transformative value of music, and picture it
as an extravagance promoted by Confucian music masters solely out of economic
Apart from these arguments, other key doctrines incorporate substantial antiConfucian dimensions. Mohist belief in the supernatural is cast as opposition to Confucians,
whom the Mohists portray as atheists. The doctrine of anti-fatalism is also directed against
the Confucians, who, the Mohists quite cogently argue, habitually rationalized their social
failures with specious appeals to the power of fate. Even in the Mohists’ famous rejection of
offensive warfare they were cast as adversaries of Confucian doctrine. Confucians held that
there were instances where offensive war was justifiable as the action that a virtuous state
must take against a neighboring evil ruler who oppresses his own people. Mohists were
(rightly) suspicious that such arguments would be manipulated by unscrupulous rulers for
ends that no moral person could approve.
In only one major area were Mohists and Confucians aligned. Both schools
energetically supported the free promotion of people of worth to high position, without
consideration for issues of high birth. This valuation of “meritocracy” (the distribution of
power according to merit) was, in fact, a common feature of every philosophical school of
the Classical period. However, the definition of “merit” was different for every school.
While Confucians envisioned their position as promoting the advancement of people
transformed by ritual training, the Mohists pictured ritualists as little better than criminals.
For them, meritocracy meant the advancement of people who demonstrated a universalist
ethic in their actions.
Action vs. virtue as an ethical foundation
Mohist texts convey a fundamentally different feeling from Confucian or Daoist texts. They
are relentless in their argumentation, and often very formulaic in their prescriptions for
society. They tend to impress readers as highly impersonal texts. Most important, although
they are very clear in telling us how we should act, they virtually never tell us how to become
the ideal type of person they exhort us to be. In fact, this is because Mohist ethics belongs to
a fundamentally different genre of ethical enterprise than Confucianism and Daoism.
Confucianism and Daoism both hope to persuade people to act in good ways (if the
Daoists will allow us to attach the value word “good” to their ideals), but they see the
process leading to that outcome in terms of transforming people rather than in terms of
transforming their actions. For these schools, the pivot of good social behavior is to cultivate in
society’s members strong virtues and the skills to apply them appropriately in the everchanging contexts of actual life. Although Confucians and Daoists have different visions of
virtue, for both schools, nurturing virtue and skills in people is the key to making the world
Ethical philosophies such as Confucianism and Daoism can be called “virtue ethics,”
because they see identifying and cultivating the proper virtues as the basis of their
The Mozi is generally much more concerned with the question of determining what
sorts of actions are right. Its philosophy is largely anchored on a single formula for
determining right action: “Always act in such a way as to create the greatest benefit for
mankind at large, without regard for the specific benefits to yourself or those you love.” This
formula is an action rule rather than a virtue, and the most philosophically interesting
features of Mohism are its selection and justifications for action rules that can guide us
towards creating a good world. Ultimately, the relevant question to ask about an action in the
world is whether its consequences promote an ethical outcome, not whether the actor was a
An ethical philosophy that is focused on identifying cardinal rules that can guide our
action choices can be called an “action ethics,” because it sees the key to goodness as lying in
generating right actions. An action ethics will not tend to ask whether people are virtuous; it
will identify good people as people who do good.
The great strength of Confucianism and Daoism, as virtue ethics, lies in the complex
and interesting visions they have of human excellence and the paths to attain it.
Confucianism, in particular, is also very strong in the specificity of the path it prescribes for
the attainment of excellence. A weakness common to both is that neither school offers us
firm rules that we can rely on in making action choices. Both suggest that right action is
ultimately an interplay between a trained virtuous actor and a unique situational context.
Every act must follow a unique rule, and the thread that strings them together is the practical
wisdom of the sage. Such an approach gives tremendous authority to those who claim
sagehood, and deprives us of firm grounds to argue that specific acts of self-claimed sages
may be immoral.
The great strength of action ethics like Mohism is that the action rules they propose
can usually be attacked or defended through rational arguments accessible to anyone, and
their rules can immediately be put into action and subjected to the complex tests that real life
provides. No extended initiation period of study is necessary before one is able to take an
informed position vis à vis the doctrines of such an ethical school. All that’s necessary is an
effort of logical reasoning. A weakness of such an approach is that action ethics often tend
to reduce the complexities of ethical life to a small number of rules that often seem
inadequately to reflect our deepest feelings about what is ethical and what is not in real life.
Rules are also subject to distortion through self-justifying arguments by people who pretend
to morality while acting out of self-interest. Perhaps most important, action ethics very often
prescribe rules that we agree we ought to follow, but do not tell us how to build the strength
of character that will actually enable us to follow these rules in the face of the complex
desires and pressures that real life involves.
While Mohism contrasts strongly with Confucianism and Daoism in being structured
as an action ethics, in fact any ethical philosophy will involve elements of both styles. For
example, Mohism always discusses its good actions in terms of the consequences that
“people of humanity” wish to promote, and the ultimate ground of the Mohist system is the
highest authority of virtue: Heaven. Confucianism, despite the fact that its doctrine of
“timeliness” states that the rightness of an action is always determined by specific contexts
rather than rules, still does use rules in important ways. The virtuous actor is trained through
conformity with the very narrowly defined rules of ritual, and important action guides, such
as the rule “never do to others what you would not want done to you,” serve as broad
guideposts for those whose insight has not yet reached the idealized (and in real-life
unattainable) level of sagehood.
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