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Classical Age of Chinese Thought

The period from about 500 BC to about AD 500, or from the age of Confucius until the establishment of Buddhism as an integrated element of Chinese life, may be characterized as the classical age of Chinese thought. The philosophers of this age asked the questions, and gave the outlines of the answers, that subsequent Chinese thinkers would, by and large, consider important and correct. By AD 500, Chinese civilization had broadly speaking acquired the character which it continued to display down to this century, and which, perhaps--under the veneer of Maoism--it still retains.

This classical period of Chinese thought coincides strikingly with that of the West, stretching from Plato to Augustine. The main stream of Chinese thought also resembles that of Western thought--in spite of their vast differences in practically every detail--in that political philosophy was very central to both traditions. Even moral philosophy was in large measure considered as a necessary precondition for political philosophy: how could one pursue the good in public life until "the good" was adequately defined. Confucius shared with Plato and Aristotle an overriding concern with the construction of a just political order, and relatively apolitical streams of thought (Taoism in China, Stoicism in the West) were in both traditions relegated to a somewhat secondary role.

The tradition begun by Confucius, however, differs dramatically in one crucial respect from that associated with any classical Western political philosopher. The ideas of Confucius were adopted as a basis of policy and institutional order by the Han Dynasty, and Confucianism remained in large measure the official philosophy of government throughout the imperial era. In contrast, no Western philosophical school attained so close an association with government. The distinction is due in large measure to the supremely practical prescriptions of Confucianism itself. Confucianism gav...

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