Little Known Stories from History: Hundred Schools of Thought

Bu Ming

PureInsight | May 28, 2006

[] Time flies.
The wheel of history entered around 500 B.C.  At that time, the
oriental China was at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (722 BC -
481 BC).  A golden age of philosophy was about to begin.

The "Tao" of Lao Zi would spread in the world.  Hundreds of
schools of thought bloomed.  Different theories, thoughts and
opinions mushroomed.  This age was the Golden Age of Chinese
thinking.  It was comparable to the ancient Greek times. 
During this period, the Chinese culture, ideas and wisdom saw
significant developments.  It was a grand age comparable to the

Let's have a look at the time when the Hundred Schools of Thought came
to the stage during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods.


Lao Zi is the founder of Taoism.  The scope of his fundamental
thoughts is "Tao."  Therefore people later on refer to the school
of Lao Zi as Taoism.  

Lao Zi wrote the seminal of Taoist work named Tao De Jing ("Jing" means scripture).  Tao De Jing has a total of more than 5,000 characters.  However, later people who studied Tao De Jing wrote millions of words to discuss the work. Lao Zi didn't give his own work a title.  Later people gave it the name of Tao De Jing
because it talked about the issue of Tao and virtue (De).  Today's
Chinese people treat "Tao" and "De" as a single word for
morality.  In fact, in ancient Chinese, each of the two characters
had different meanings. Tao means "the way."  De means
"virtue."  The two characters mean different things.  Lao Zi
expounded on both in his book.  People called it Tao De Jing.  

Many people treat Tao De Jing
as a grand philosophical work.  However, people who are truly
predestined see it as a way of cultivation, a way to obtain the Tao,
and cultivate according to it to return to their true selves.  Lao
Zi said at the beginning of his work,  "You can call the Tao [I
teach] a Tao, but it is not an ordinary Tao."  An extraordinary
"Tao" cannot be obtained casually.   Therefore it is very
precious. When the "Tao" is spread in the world, people treat it
differently. Lao Zi said,  "When a wise man hears the Tao, he will
follow it diligently.  When an average person hears the Tao, he
will do it on and off.  When a low person hears the Tao, he will
laugh at it.  If he doesn't laugh loudly, it is not the
Tao."  (Chapter 41 of Tao De Jing)

In order to help those who are predestined to obtain the Tao to return
to their true selves, Lao Zi wrote in his 5,000 character work the
meaning of the "Tao" and the relationship between the formation of the
universe and the origin of all objects.  The work covered the main
issues of how to be a human beings and how to return to one's true
self.  Any other issues illustrated in his book were for
explaining the main issues.  In order to help cultivators
understand the way of cultivation, Lao Zi mentioned many times how a
sage who has obtained the "Tao" would react to different issues 
as examples for cultivators to follow.

Why did Lao Zi spread the Tao?

Lao Zi said, "Virtue comes after the Tao is lost.  Kindness comes
after virtue is lost.  Loyalty comes after kindness is lost. 
Etiquette comes after loyalty is lost."

No doubt, Lao Zi thought that Tao and virtue were above kindness and
loyalty.  So he said, "When the Great Tao is lost, kindness and
loyalty emerge."  It means that people pursue kindness and loyalty
after the Great Tao doesn't exist any more.  Lao Zi thought that
developments in society caused people's pursuit of fame and interest,
therefore, it disturbed people's xinxing
(mind nature), and caused people to lose their true selves.  The
emergence of kindness, loyalty and piety are signs of the decay of
societal morality.  People move toward  kindness and loyalty
precisely because there are unkind and disloyal phenomena in the
society.  If people all loved each other, and politics were
uncorrupted, nobody would deliberately advocate such things because
they were as natural as other elements of our daily life.  In
order to help people return to their true selves, Lao Zi spread the Tao.

What is the Tao?

Tao De Jing starts with this,
"You can call the Tao [I teach] a Tao, but it is not an ordinary
Tao.  You can call the names [I teach] a name, but they are not
ordinary names.  Nothingness is the beginning of naming the Heaven
and Earth.  Existence is the mother of naming everything."

What is the extraordinary Tao that Lao Zi referred to?  Lao Zi
described it as "something holistic, born prior to the Heaven and the
Earth… It can be considered as the mother of the Heaven and the
Earth.  I don't know its name.  I force it into the name of
Tao."  This Tao cannot be seen, cannot be heard, and cannot be
obtained through fighting.  But it truly exists.  This Tao,
the mother of the Heaven and Earth, is then the origin of everything in
the universe.


How does this Tao create everything?  Lao Zi told us, "Everything
comes from something.  Something comes from nothingness." 
"One gives birth to two.  Two gives birth to three.  Three
gives birth to everything."  The evolvement of the entire universe
follows the Tao.  Tao is the origin of the creation and
development of everything in the universe.

Since Tao has created all living beings in the universe, isn't Tao the
highest rule of nature and human society?  Isn't it the highest
law of restricting people's morality and behavior?  If people
follow the requirements of the Tao, aren't they cultivating the
Tao?  Aren't they returning to their true selves?

Then how to achieve it?  Lao Zi gave us the answer.

How can one cultivate the Tao?

As for those who long for the Tao, how can they return their true
selves?  The answer Lao Zi gave was "human beings follow the
Earth.  The Earth follows the Heavens.  The Heavens follow
the Tao.  The Tao follows nature."  (Chapter 25 of Tao De Jing)

Cultivators should assimilate to kindness.  Lao Zi thought "the
best kindness is like water.  Water benefits everything but
doesn't fight for itself.  It resides where people
dislike...  It doesn't fight for itself, therefore it doesn't
worry."  (Chapter 8 of Tao De Jing)

Cultivators should extinguish all kinds of desires and attachments.  Cultivators should be calm and without pursuits.

Cultivators should believe in the Tao firmly.  

Even for people who don't cultivate, they will understand the principles of being a good person after reading Tao De Jing
The difference between cultivators and non-cultivators is that
cultivators do not pursue interests in human society.  They pursue
returning to their true selves.  Non-cultivators are attached to
all interests and desires in human society.  This tells us
precisely the preciousness of the true Tao.

Lao Zi's Tao is deep and inspiring.  It is a way of cultivating
the Tao, just like the Buddha Fa and western divine teachings. When
people are attached to fame and self-interest, they can only see
ordinary principles in his book.


Confucius says, "Rulers should emphasize the way of kings, advocate
kind politics to manage the kingdom well.  Rulers also need to
advocate kindness, loyalty, etiquette, wisdom and faith to educate all

Confucianism advocates kindness and morality.  It has been the
mainstream of Chinese culture for several thousand years.  Those
who have practiced Confucianism exceptionally well have been respected
by the Chinese people.  Confucius created the theory of
kindness.  He required rulers to understand ordinary people's
situations and cherish ordinary people's hard work. He was against
tyranny and arbitrary executions.  Post-Confucian Chinese emperors
respected him as a sage.


Legalism thinks that there is no need for education in kindness and morality and a sound legal system can organize society.

A legal system can play a role in the society, but it cannot adjust all
societal relationships.  In some social fields, morality and
common values are still needed.  Legalism places a lot of emphasis
on punishment and overlooks the function of moral education.  The
result is that people do not genuinely want to be kind.  They are
simply too afraid of being punished to do bad things. When people have
resentment in their hearts, the society is weakly balance.  

Legalism's representative figures are Shang Yang, Han Fei Zi, and Li Si.  None of them had a good ending.


Shang Yang was the Chief Advisor in the state of Qin for ten years, and
started a reform there. Shang Yang's reform was strict and cruel. 
He allocated every ten families as a "shi" and five families as
"wu."  If a family committed a crime, the other nine families had
to report it. Otherwise, all ten families would be punished
together.  This was called "chain punishment."  People didn't
dare to talk about the "new law."  The society was very
stable.  However, this was not due to the improvement of the
people's morality, it was because people's fear of cruel punishment.

Shang Yang was also an untrustworthy person.  One year, he
urged  Duke Xiao of Qin to attack the State of Wei.  Then he
sent a letter to the Duke of Wei and invited him over for a glass of
wine to sign an alliance agreement with Qin.  The Duke of Wei came
and was captured. Soon after, Shang Yang led the Qin army to defeat the
army of the State of Wei.

While serving as the Chief Advisor of Qin, Shang Yang upset many
people.  Zhao Liang once advised him, "You secured your first
audience with the Duke of Qin through corrupt officials, and that is
not the right way.   Not focusing on the people but building
a lot of palaces is not the right way of building your
achievement.  Using torture on the teacher of the prince and
people will accumulate hatred and disaster.  If you continue to be
greedy and suppress people, you will be hurt once the Duke passes away.
You will only be safe if you advise the Duke of Qin to emphasize
etiquette and virtue.  Otherwise, you will soon be
troubled."  Shang Yang didn't follow this advice.

Five months later, the Duke of Qin died.  The crown prince
ascended the throne. He immediately sent someone to arrest Shang
Yang.  When Shang Yang fled to the customs, he wanted to stay in
an inn for the night.  The owner of the inn didn't know that he
was Shang Yang.  The owner said, "Shang Yang's law has decided
that allowing someone without an ID to stay for the night is a crime
for the owner of the hotel."  Shang Yang sighed and said, "The law
has gone too far!"  He fled to the State of Wei.  People in
Wei hated him for lying to the Duke of Wei.  They caught Shang
Yang and deported him to the State of Qin.  Duke Hui of Qin killed
Shang Yang and his entire family.

Han Fei Zi advocated punishment and didn't endorse kindness and
love.  He thought that human nature was evil and rooted in
self-interest.  He thought "carriage makers want everyone to be
rich and thus afford buying carriages.  Coffin makers want
everyone to die so they can make more coffins."  To him,
everything was determined by self-interest.  He didn't think the
evil human nature could be changed via morality and education.  He
felt that only authority and punishment could manage it.

In terms of managing a country, Han Fei Zi thought that strict laws
were necessary to force people to work.  He didn't think that he
could rely on people's voluntary work.  As the population grew,
people would fight for their interests.  Only authority and power
could suppress the evilness in human nature.  Only strict laws
could avoid riots and instabilities.  

Li Si's wish was to be a "mouse in the food warehouse."  This
thought determined that he only cared about his own interest and
overlooked other people's interest, or even was hostile to other
people's interests.

His book, Advice Against the Driving Away of Guest Immigrants (Jian Zhu Ke Shu)
was an important work in Chinese history.  In this book, Li Si
emphasized the talent of immigrants and the fact that immigrants all
wanted to be loyal to the Duke of Qin.  However, when Li Si framed
Han Fei Zi, he used exactly the same reason in the opposite way. 
He argued that an immigrant fundamentally couldn't be loyal to the Duke
of Qin.  This was simply common sense.  He advised the Duke
of Qin to kill Han Fei Zi to avoid possible harm to the State of Qin by
Han.  This was only an excuse.  Li Si wanted to kill a
potential competitor out of jealousy.  Li Si wasn't convinced that
the Duke of Qin was determined to kill Han Fei Zi.  So he poisoned
Han to death in jail.  Later on, the Duke of Qin regretted
arresting Han.  But Han was already dead.

Li Si simply cared about protecting his interest.  The state and people were not really in his heart.

The Duke of Qin later became the Emperor of Qin.  After he died,
Li Si and Zhao Gao altered and forged the name on the Emperor's will.
The faked decree ordered Qin Shi Huang's first son, the heir Fusu, to
commit suicide, and named the second son Huhai as the next
emperor.  The decree also stripped the command of troops from
Marshal Meng Tian — a faithful supporter of Fusu — and sentenced Meng's
family to death.  This was the beginning of the collapse of Qin
Dynasty.  Li Si, as the Imperial Secretary, played an important
role in that.

Li Si supported Huhai when the new emperor wasted money and persecuted
royal officials.  When the farmer's rebellion army was close to
the capital of the Qin Dynasty, Huhai asked Li Si for an
explanation.  Li Si advised Huhai, "As an emperor, you should not
serve the country.  The entire country should serve you." How can
you achieve this?  Li Si used an example: Shang Yang imposed
brutal torture on someone who spilled dirt on the road.  When
people see that a small mistake could cause so much pain, they wouldn't
dare not to serve you.  Li Si told Huhai to control everything and
not let anything restrict him.  The Qin Dynasty collapsed soon.

Li Si was loyal only to himself, not to the emperor or the
people.  In the end, he was killed by Zhao Gao.  Li's entire
family was also killed.

The representative figures of Legalism didn't spare any methods to
achieve their goal.  They didn't care about friendship, love,
other people's interests or even other people's lives.  Their
mentality was based on cruelty.  History has proven that this
school of thought doesn't work for human society.  


Mozi was the founder of Mohism.  He advocated thriftiness,
friendship, no wars without a righteous reason and promoting talented


The Logicians' school of thought was similar to western logic. 
They analyzed relationships among different things from the perspective
of philosophy.  

It was purely theoretical and couldn't be directly applied to worldly
events.  However, it could guide people's behaviors from the
thought level.  Hui Shi and Gong Sunlong were two representative
figures of this school of thought.  However, their works have been

Ying-Yang School

The Ying-Yang School focused on ying and yang, the five elements,
astrological calendars, and fortune-telling.  It originated from The Book of Changes
The theory of the five elements came from Hong Fan.  The theory of
ying and yang is part of the Chinese cultural heritage.  It is a
combination of ancient Chinese physics, astrology, calendar-making and

The School of Uniting and Breaking-up

What is the strategy of uniting and breaking up (zong heng)? 
The literal translation of zong heng is horizontal and vertical. 
Chinese people in ancient times thought of North and South as vertical
and East and West as horizontal.  The strategy of uniting and
breaking up was a foreign relations strategy developed by Su Qin and
Zhang Yi during the Warring States period.  Su Qin and Zhang Yi
were the representative figures of this strategy.  Su Dai and Su
Li, the younger brothers of Su Qin, inherited the thoughts.

Su Qin initially went to the State of Qin to lobby the Duke of
Qin.  His advice was not accepted.  Upon returning home, he
studied Yin Fu Jing, the book
of Jiang Taigong, for several years.  Whenever he was sleepy, he
used an awl to sting his legs to keep himself awake.  The legend
of "awl stinging legs" came from Su Qin.  After several years of
hard work, he further studied the situation in China.  A new
strategy emerged in Su's mind.  He was confident that he could
successfully lobby Dukes in China.  His strategy was uniting (zong). 
He lobbied six states, Yan, Zhao, Han, Wei, Qi, and Chu, to form an
alliance to resist Qin.  He became the chief of the
alliance.  This strategy held Qin soldiers inside of the
alliance's boundary for 15 years.  

When Zhang Yi and Su Qin were young, they were classmates under the
same teacher, Guiguzi.  Once Su Qin died in the State of Qi, Zhang
Yi started lobbying for the strategy of "breaking up."  (heng
He lobbied the six states to abandon the alliance, but become dependent
on the State of Qin.  This "breaking up" strategy gave people some
time to take a break from the civil war.

The School of Uniting and Breaking Up is equivalent to today's foreign
relations strategy.  It is very practical.  The strategy of
Uniting and Breaking up maintained peace in China for 29 years. 
It brought benefits to the Chinese people.

However, the strategy of uniting and breaking up was a temporary
solution.  The fundamental motive was for personal fame and
gains.  It was not ultimately for world peace.  Therefore,
the school of uniting and breaking up was only popular for 2 or 3
decades and its contribution to China is not as great as that of
Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.  Su Qin and Zhang Yi are
considered great strategists but not sages.  The difference
between ordinary people and sages lie in whether they pursue personal
interests or interests of the masses.

The Miscellaneous School

The Miscellaneous School combines many schools of thoughts such as
Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, Logicians, and Legalism.  It doesn't
have its own unique principles.  The book Lu Shi Chun Qiu by the
chief advisor to Duke of Qin in the Warring States period was a work of
the Miscellaneous School.


The Agriculture School

Books of the Agriculture School usually dealt with agricultural
technologies.  They were beneficial for Chinese agricultural
development.  The representative figure was Xu Xing.

The Novel School

The Novel School isn't like today's novelists.  It simply meant
that people in the Novel School expressed themselves in a way that
people found easy to understand.  They didn't have their own
theories, but used a specific style to convey existing theories. 
So the name of the Novel School didn't touch upon the essence of a
theory, but a form of expression.

So among the 10 schools mentioned, there were indeed 9 schools. 
The ancient Chinese called all schools of thought the "three religions
and nine schools."  The three referred to Confucianism, Buddhism
and Taoism.  The nine referred to Taoism, Confucianism, Legalism,
Mohism, Logicians, Ying and Yang, Uniting and Breaking Up,
Miscellaneous, and Agriculture Schools.

The War School

Actually, aside from the nine schools, there were other schools, such
as the War School.  Ancient Chinese didn't count them in the term
of "three religions and nine schools."  Sun Wu during the Spring
and Autumn period and Sun Bin and Pang Juan from the Warring States
period were representative figures of the War School.  Sun Wu (Sun
Zi) and Sun Bin both wrote their versions of the Art of War.

Sun Bin and Pang Juan were both students of Guiguzi, who was also the
teacher of Su Qin and Zhang Yi.  Sun Bin and Pang Juan studied the
art of war.  Su Qin and Zhang Yi studied strategies.  They
were highly influential to the military and politics during the Warring
States period.

Pang Juan and Sun Bin took an oath to treat each other as
brothers.  Pang Juan swore that if he betrayed Sun Bin, he would
be shot to death by arrows.  Sun Bin was from the family of Sun Wu
(Sun Zi).  After they left their teacher, Pang Juan became an
official in the State of Wei.  Out of jealousy, he framed Sun Bin
and caused him to be tortured severely and become disabled.  Sun
Bin worked for the State of Qi.  Sun Bin used what he learned to
completely defeat Pang's army in Ma Ling Tao (Ma Ling Passage). 
Pang was shot to death by many arrows.

 Translated from:

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