Get Schooled: Warring States style (100 Schools of Thought)

Ferris wheel, Kaohsiung

Ferris wheel, Kaohsiung

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

The Third Man, 1949. Screenplay by Graham Greene.

No, the Third Man hypothesis is not the one espoused by the Party Congress. At least not since the Cultural Revolution. In the 21st century, the official theory is that stability and unity bring progress; chaos and disunity bring suffering. Historians point to central dynasties such as the Tang—one of China’s golden ages—as a prime example of stability. And those who remember need only look to the disastrous decade of the “Ten Years of Chaos” (1966-1976) for an example of the opposite. Though the textbooks tend to gloss over that part.


Terra-cotta warrior, Qin Dynasty

The exception that proves the rule is the Eastern Zhou, consisting of the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Periods.

During the Spring and Autumn Period, once the Zhou were knocked safely aside, the different Dukes rediscovered the joys of going to war with each other, “duking it out,” so to speak.

“But still, there were rules as to how you conducted your warfare. This was a gentlemanly business, taking place between people who recognized themselves as at least second cousins once removed, so to speak. What the Warring States brought, as its name implies, was a sense that there weren’t really any rules anymore, except to win.”
— In Our Time, BBC – “Warring States” episode

P1060529As states fought with each other and took each other’s lands, a lot of nobles lost their jobs. Or rather, they didn’t have jobs, but their advisers lost their jobs, and just as thousands of grad students are forced to pound the pavement each June, these advisers took to the roads as shi, or ‘scholars’ (also translated as ‘knights’), men in the employ of players still in the game.

The scholars would advise the princes on matters of politics and social order, how to protect, build, and increase the efficiency of their principality. The result was a cross-pollination of ideas known as…


P1070692One theory from the Han Dynasty was that the schools’ adherents stemmed from the defunct Zhou ministries. The Department of Education became the Confucianists. The Department of Justice became the Legalists, the Guardians of the Temple formed the Mohists, the astronomers became the School of Yin-Yang (which for reasons of brevity, we’re not gonna touch with a ten-foot joss stick) and so on.

You can read about the other 96 on your own. Suffice to say, short of Marxism and Buddhism the philosophies that drove Chinese history clear through the 20th century emerged during the Eastern Zhou.

We touched on Confucius and Laozi back in the Spring and Autumn Period. In the Warring States Period we meet their intellectual heirs: Mencius (372 – 289 BC) and Zhuangzi (369 – 286 BC) —each second in importance only to the founders of Confucianism and Daoism themselves.

P1030845We should point out that the philosophical Daoism of this period wasn’t the religious Daoism we know today. And that everybody used the word Dao, which simply means ‘way’ or ‘path’. Even the Confucianists used it. The term Daoist was applied later to describe those who happened to follow philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Same with the term Legalist. In fact, most of these ‘schools’ were codified by Han historians centuries later in order to categorize those espousing like-minded ideologies.

The only organized schools were the School of Confucianism and the School of Mohism…


We don’t know as much about Mozi, founder of the Mohists. Not even his real name. Mozi means “The Inked One.” So either he was the owner of a boardwalk tattoo parlor, or, more likely, a former criminal whose skin had been marked as a life-long punishment. Another story goes he was a student of Confucius who grew disillusioned with the School. The Mohists clashed with Confucianists on a number of points:



  • They opposed the extravagant rituals promoted by Confucianism because they believed these rituals to be a waste of time and money.
  • Whereas the Confucians held the family to be the fundamental unit—and obedience to superiors the ultimate virtue—the Mohists believed in a universal family. They valued the common good, and, thus, they abhorred the hierarchy on which Confucianism depended.
  • The Mohists diagnosed war to be a indirect symptom of such hierarchy. It was the end result of people placing the desires of some over benefits for all. And, to the Mohists, war was the greatest waste of resources imaginable. They were fervently anti-war and unified against aggression.

But before you label them long-haired, free-lovin’ conscientious objectors and ship them off to Canada, the Mohists were militant as all get-out. Defensive war, that is. They were masters of defensive strategy and would hire themselves out to states under attack.

For all these reasons, Mozi would enjoy a resurrection, so to speak, two-thousand years later in the days of the Christian missionaries, who equated the teachings of Mozi with those of Jesus: universal brotherhood, lookin’ out for the little guy…

shane-horizontalI picture Mozi more like Shane, the archetypal ‘skilled gunslinger with a mysterious past.’ The guy who helps the helpless when cattle barons attack. (“Mozi, come back Mozi! Come back!”) He’s a guy you want on your side, who is on your side but only if you’re on defense.

And then, finally, we come to…


Though it didn’t have a wide following, Legalism was the philosophy that would have the most immediate effect on the outcome of the Warring States Period, the philosophy that would allow the Qin to dominate its six neighbors.

Legalism? Geesh, what did they do? Bore people to death?

No, they—

Write everything in triplicate?

No, they—

Let me guess, their founder was So Su Mi. Get it? So Su—

No, if you let me finish!…

The closest thing to a founder may have been a guy named Li Kui of the state of Wei. Li Kui literally wrote the book on law. It was called…The Book of Law.

So…everyone knows about Confucianism and Daoism. Whatever happened to Legalism? Why did it disappear?

P1080430It didn’t. It’s alive and well and a guiding principle of the government of 1.3 billion people, and were there truth in advertising, it would be called the Chinese Legalist Party. Because, whereas the government has shed the outer layers of Marx and Engels’ economics in China’s capitalistic rise, the undergarments of Li Kui never go out of style…

About sinestor

Originally from Los Angeles/Long Beach, California, I'm currently spending a year exploring the amazing world known as China. My main website is Every Day's a Holiday.

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