China: Age of Philosophers
6th/5th centure B.C.
China, during the era of the Chou dynasty, consisted of a vast system of little kingdoms who acknowledged a loose allegiance to an emperor, called the 'Son of Heaven'.
The Chinese believed that Heaven had granted rule over earth to a specially selected agent, who was responsible for good harvests and all other terrestial phenomena that might affect human activity. Behavior according to carefully proscribed rituals constituted the essence of imperial duty.
But during the 8th century BC a Barbarian attack from the northern steppes weakened the authority of the emperor and rival local princes fought for power. China's disunity discredited the belief of harmony between heaven and earth and philosophers deperately tried to make sense during the 'Age of Philosophers'.
It was not surprising that men like Confucius looked back with nostalgia to earlier times. His teaching of virtues, deference and respect for ancient rites was his answer to how good men could live in a bad and divided world. But he also taught that proper education should enable talented men to rise toward the top of the social ladder. This was to become an important aspect of traditional Confucian China and constituted a break with the hereditary aristocracy of earlier times.
In the face of confusion and disorder Confucius refused to speculate about spiritual matters. But Confucius' emphasis upon traditional rites could not satisfy everybody. Too many things were left out: the depth of human passion and the mysteries of nature had no place in a well-regulated Confucian world.
Those needs were satisfied by a rival school of thought - Taoism - ascribed to the philosopher Lao-tze. His sayings are recorded in the 'Tao Te Ching'. Lao-tze preached a stoical indifference to the powers of the world and a return to an imaginary simple way of the past. 'Tao' means 'way' and Lao-tze's doctrine could be called the way of nature in contrast to Confucius' the way of man.
The official-minded and conservative north of China became Confucian in thought and spirit; South China, sceptical, artistic and experimental, became Taoist.
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