Han Fei, famous scholar and the founder of the Legalist School of philosophy.

During the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) many diverse philosophical systems thrived in China; the expression a hundred schools of thought is used to refer to their sheer number and diversity. The most prevalent schools included Confucianism, Mohism, Legalism, the School of Names, the Yin–Yang School, and Daoism.

The expression a hundred schools of thought was created to convey the idea that during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) there were a large number of diverse philosophical systems, or schools of thought, in China. Records of the Grand Historian (c. 99–98 BCE) by Sima Qian (145–86? BCE) lists the following six: Confucianism, Mohism, Legalism, the School of Names, the Yin–Yang School, and Daoism. Written at about the same time as the Records of the Grand Historian, the Zhuangzi, Chapter 33, provides a Daoist, satirical description of these schools. In the Standard History of the Former Han by Ban Gu (32–92 CE), the “Journal of Literature” written by Liu Xin (d. 23 CE) adds four more groups—namely, Agriculturalists, Diplomats, Eclectic School, and Storytellers. Even a list of ten schools is incomplete because it does not include the Militarists, made famous by Sunzi’s Art of War, or the Pacifists, represented by Song Rongzi. And a school could have subdivisions—for example, there were subschools of Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism. Some of the schools were not strictly philosophical—namely, the Agriculturalists, the Diplomats, and many of the texts classified under the Eclectic School. Numbering the schools at a hundred might be an overestimation, but the expression evokes a period of Chinese history in which philosophical thinking was arguably at its most formative.

Social Changes

When the Zhou overthrew the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE) they gave fiefs to family members and a few local chiefs who assisted them. After the Zhou capital was moved eastward in 770 BCE, the dynastic power began to shift away from the Zhou house, and the feudal lords became more powerful as heads of independent states. During the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE) there were as many as 170 mostly small states. By the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) there were only seven powerful states left on the battlefields. Toward the end of the Spring and Autumn period the feudal lords began to call themselves “kings.” When they competed for power, they created a context that allowed social mobility for commoners.

Iron came to China during the Spring and Autumn period, its use spreading during the Warring States period. Iron tools as well as irrigation, drainage, fertilizers, and new crops revolutionized agriculture. As the kings expanded their territories, they opened new agricultural lands. The surplus food helped grow the population, and the enlarged population provided more soldiers for the warring kingdoms. The use of iron and other developments in metallurgy improved military technology. Improvements in carriages and chariots and the rise of a cavalry changed military strategy and tactics. Surplus produce and expanding tastes opened and maintained new trade routes by land and sea, allowing for more contact among cultures and the spread of ideas. The political, social, economic, and cultural changes that accelerated during the Warring States period provided a context for new philosophies to develop. The practice of universal education, even for commoners, that Confucius (551–479 BCE) had begun in the late Spring and Autumn period became popular during the Warring States period because of the growing need for highly trained knights, scholars, officials, and skilled craftspeople. As that need increased, there were more opportunities for commoners to gain wealth and even status.

Overall, the various philosophers agreed on a few general points. They all agreed that the state needed educated rulers and officials to operate effectively. This need inspired the philosophers to seek the Way (dao), a practical means to achieve desired results. Unlike the Greek philosophers who sought an abstract truth, the Warring States philosophers sought the best path to success. The philosophical tendency inspired a social movement away from privileged aristocratic birthrights to systems of worthy rulers and versatile ministers who were capable of administering the state, ensuring safety and a good harvest. Most of the Warring States philosophers proposed that all people—especially the ruler and ministers—had to adhere to their socially acquired roles. Everyone had to do his or her part for society to function properly. Most of the philosophers looked back to a past golden age to set a standard for complete and comprehensive harmony among people and with nature. Aside from these few general commonalities, for the most part the various philosophers disagreed about the means for achieving harmony and educating the ruler, ministers, and commoners.

Confucius and Disciples

Confucius believed that the Zhou imperial family and the feudal lords had lost the way of the former kings—especially the beneficent way of the Zhou founders: King Wen, King Wu, and the duke of Zhou. For Confucius the dao referred to the way of the former kings, the way of virtue. Confucius built his teachings on the popular idea of a past golden age of perfect social harmony. To reform society, he intended to revive the virtues and values of the past. Reform begins, he argued, in the ruling families and trickles down through aristocrats to commoners. Methodologically, Confucius’s teachings began by instilling filial piety in children. If children could not learn to love and respect their parents, then they would not become loyal ministers. Ontologically, Confucius held that all people are similar at birth—namely, they have the ability to be kind to others. Through improper training, they lose their natural propensity toward kindness. Therefore, childhood training in filial devotion was necessary to develop and maintain the natural propensity toward benevolence. These teachings promoted a type of graded love, in which a person loves close relatives more dearly than distant ones and fellow villagers more than strangers.

Another way to ward off social decay, according to Confucius, was moral education. Ritual action (li) was the proper way to promote human kindness (ren); all people and especially government officials had to demonstrate trustworthiness (xin); people had to follow the correct standards of rightness (yi); they had to practice moral wisdom (zhi). These tenets of moral education were commonly called the “five virtues”; there were many more. Through moral education people learned their role in society and behaved accordingly with virtue. The outcome would be a well-rounded individual and, ultimately, peace in the empire.

The disciples of Confucius emphasized different aspects of his teachings. The third-generation disciple Mengzi, also known as “Mencius” (371–289 BCE), advocated that all people are naturally good at birth. Mengzi interpreted the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, the divine sanction to rule, to include the right of peasants to rebel. As a champion of the Confucian way, Mengzi debated the followers of the individualist Yang Zhu, the Agriculturalists, the Militarists, and the Mohists. His interpretation
of Confucius was revitalized in Song dynasty (960–1279 CE) neo-Confucianism.

Xunzi (c. 300–230 BCE) offered a pragmatic interpretation of Confucius. He proposed that people are born deviant and that education and ritual action are the means to control them. Xunzi argued that ancient records were in error and that a wise ruler should follow the way of the later, more recent kings, not the former kings. His teachings influenced the development of Confucianism in the Han dynasty.

Mozi, or Master Mo (flourished 479–438 BCE), probably began his studies as a Confucian. Trained in military strategy and tactics, he defended the underdog. He attracted many disciples, possibly three hundred in his lifetime, and many subsequent followers. Like Confucius, Mozi believed that the way of the former kings and moral education were the correct means to rectify social decay, but he attacked the details of Confucius’s project. For Mozi social decay was caused by advocating family values and graded love, two concepts praised by Confucius. To correct the social decay, Mozi argued that the way of the former kings led to equal love for each and every person (jianai): If all people love each other in the same manner that they love their parents, then all strife will come to an end, and there will be peace in the empire. To promote the general welfare, Mozi advocated frugality in state functions. He opposed the excesses of aristocratic funerals and musical performances, which the common people imitated. Mozi attacked offensive warfare as the clearest indication of how graded love brings misery to the masses. He argued against fatalism. He supported promotion based on merit. With the meritorious in office, he advocated for deferring to the superior’s opinion.


The Legalists were influenced by the agrarian and military roots of ancient society. They acknowledged that society needed reform so that it could establish peace based on law and order. They argued that Confucianism and Mohism, which promoted morality over the law, were the problem because morality justified protecting special interests, not the law. As the Western Zhou dynasty (1045–771 BCE) incorporated various ethnic groups and expanded economically, the need for legal governance grew. The end of the Spring and Autumn period saw written laws such as Zi Chan’s penal code (c. 536 BCE) and Deng Xi’s bamboo code (c. 496 BCE) cast in iron. Guan Zhong (d. 645 BCE), prime minister to the state of Qi, emphasized the need for a well-ordered state administration. Gongsun Yang, or Lord Shang (d. 338 BCE), stressed the importance of written, objective law applied equally to commoners and nobility. The prime minister of the state of Han, Shen Buhai (d. 337 BCE), taught the importance of statecraft, political techniques, and methods. Shen Dao (350–275 BCE), from the state of Zhao, stressed the importance of strategic position and the contextual circumstances that go into creating and maintaining political power. Shen Dao’s Legalism influenced Han Fei (d. 233 BCE), who with Li Si (c. 280–208 BCE) studied under the Confucian Xunzi. Both Han Fei and Li Si went to the state of Qin to assist Lü Buwe, prime minister to the child king who would become the first Qin emperor. Han Fei’s teachings synthesized earlier Legalist thought—especially the concepts of law, power, and statecraft. Han Fei attacked the Confucians and Mohists for claiming to represent the moral way of the early sage rulers while explicitly differing about the details of that way. He criticized their morality and favored the objective law and legal system.

School of Names

The School of Names, or Logicians (sometimes called “Sophists”), originated among the officials who allocated rewards and punishments to the lower officials and common people. They assessed people’s job titles and performance. Assessing job titles and performance transformed linking name and reality into a philosophical concern. Because debate at court was the means by which philosophers gained fame and a livelihood, argumentation and rhetoric were emphasized by all the schools, but the Logicians took rational inquiry into the nature of language to the paradoxical realm. Hui Shi (c. 380–305 BCE) served as prime minister to King Hui of Liang (reigned 373–320 BCE). Hui Shi with his friend Zhuangzi argued that all things form a grand unity. Hui Shi sought to know that unity through reason and language; Zhuangzi, through direct experience. Gongsun Long (c. 310–250 BCE) was born in Zhao. Favored for a time by Prince Pingyuan (d. c. 251 BCE) in Zhao, Gongsun Long acquired fame by arguing that a white horse is not a horse. He might have meant that people ought not to confuse primary qualities (horse) with secondary qualities (color), or he might have been making a part/whole, individual/category distinction.

Yin–Yang School

In grappling with the forces of nature, people demarcate bipolar, interconnected yet opposing phenomena such as high/low, heavy/light, dry/damp, hot/cold, bright/dark. This kind of correlative thinking underlies most Chinese philosophy. In early Zhou literature the term yin referred to the shadow and the term yang to the sunlight. By the Warring States period yin and yang were used as philosophical concepts in the written works Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi to refer to the interconnected yet opposing forces of the universe. Yang is associated with heaven, light, movement, the male gender, and life-giving forces. Yin is associated with earth, darkness, tranquility, the female, decay, and death. These two forces are interconnected and contain each other such that when yin is exhausted, then yang arises and vice versa. Yin and yang are not a duality. They constitute a nondual energy force very similar to the positive and negative charges in the electro-magnetic spectrum. Yin and yang are used to explain why and how things change. They are coupled with the Five Phases (wuxing)—namely, wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

Little is known about the founder of the Yin–Yang School, the scholar Zou Yan (305–240 BCE) from the state of Qi. He attempted to rectify the inferior virtue of rulers by instructing them in the processes of change through yin, yang, and the Five Phases. He linked his naturalistic philosophy to the Confucian virtues to develop a political theory, based on the study of natural phenomena, that culminates in the ruler’s cultivation of virtue.


If the Confucians established the cultural tradition, then the Daoists formed the counterculture movement. Whereas most philosophers sought fame for themselves, the Daoists wanted to be anonymous. Daoist philosophy originated in ancient shaman—that is, priestly, magical—practices in which the shaman wanders in the spirit realm and merges with the forces of nature. In the Zhou dynasty these shamanic practices were modified into breathing and meditative techniques.

The Laozi and the Zhuangzi are the two extant texts from the Warring States period that form Daoism’s core. Laozi, also known as “Lao Dan” or “Master Lao,” was born in the state of Chu in the sixth century BCE and is the alleged author of eighty-one poems that bear his name. The text of Laozi was written by court officials who sought to advise their ruler and other officials on the proper way to govern by means of self-cultivation that connects humans to the forces of nature. Along with the dao, sky, and earth, the king is one of the four great things in existence. People take earth as their model; earth follows sky; sky follows
dao; and dao follows self-so (spontaneity). The ruler is encouraged to behave like the dao by taking no purposive action; as a result nothing will be left undone. Laozi’s contribution to ancient philosophy was his ability to abstract the dao into the most general and ultimate category.

Zhuang Zhou (370–301 BCE) was a minor official in the state of Song. According to his biography in the Records of the Grand Historian, he rejected an invitation by King Wei of Chu (reigned 339–329 BCE) to serve as prime minister. He is the alleged author of the first seven, or inner, chapters of his namesake book, the Zhuangzi. Those chapters focus on the theme of self-cultivation by embracing the flow of natural transformation, which ultimately leads to entering the silent oneness of the sky, a mystical union. Living in harmony with the forces of nature and the dao and then dying in harmony with nature lead to the ultimate mystical experience of forming one body with the universe. Zhuangzi emphasized the importance of the human role in living in harmony with the flux of life. He recognized that people are preoccupied with others’ opinions, so they work hard, live in distress, and die young. He proposed that people engage in meditative practices that purify their hearts and reduce stress and conflict, bringing them into harmony with the dao of nature. The text is written in fable and anecdote, making it difficult to interpret.


During the Warring States period most public and private wealth derived from grain and silk. Though the Agriculturalists’ works no longer exist, given that Mengzi debated the followers of Xu Xing (c. late fourth century BCE), the Agriculturists were a force to be reckoned with. They advocated a well-rounded agrarian philosophy, dealing with the best means for planting, weeding, and harvesting; promoting cottage industry and price controls; and organizing people in small agrarian work forces. Two of their lasting contributions to the economics of agriculture are the ever-ready granary system and the principle of acting (buying/selling) at the right time.


The Diplomats, or Strategists, were concerned with political alliances during the Warring States period. The name of the school refers to vertical versus horizontal alliances. For the Diplomats the way of the former kings was political and military strategy. Zhang Yi (flourished third century BCE) supported a vertical, south-to-north alliance between the states of Qin, Han, and Wei to attack Qi in the east and Chu in the south. Su Qin (flourished third century BCE) supported an alliance in the east to control Qin in the west. The Diplomats were criticized by the Confucians for proposing violent means instead of virtue and ritual to mediate conflict.

Eclectic School

The first three texts—the Shizi, the Lüshi chunqiu, and the Huainanzi—listed under the “Eclectic School” label in the “Journal of Literature” are philosophical works that employ a syncretic, unified eclectic philosophy, drawing from the other schools. The subsequent texts under that label are a miscellany. Therefore, confusion led some scholars to discredit the first three texts as a mere hodgepodge of literature. Yet the Shizi (c. 300 BCE), surviving in fragmentary form, displays a unified philosophy built on synthesizing other philosophies. The syncretic, unified philosophy of the Lüshi chunqiu (238 BCE) and the Huainanzi (130 BCE) is more obvious. The former organizes the philosophical systems under the seasonal calendar such that Yang Zhu’s individualism, Daoist nonaction, and Mohist love are practiced in the spring; Confucian education, ritual, and music are studied in the summer; military and legal affairs are reserved for the autumn; and Mohist frugal funerals as well as Legalist administrative matters and executions are suited for the winter. This eclectic trend influenced Han dynasty literature and philosophy.


Because rhetoric is sometimes more persuasive than logical argument, some scholars became adept storytellers. Confucians criticized their rhetoric for leading rulers astray from the way of the former kings. All of the philosophers employed stories as examples to make their point.

The Militarists are not listed among the other schools in the Han histories. But the military thinkers were given the honorary title of “master” (zi), which is bestowed on the philosophers. Sunzi (Sun Wu) lived during the end of the Spring and Autumn period. He was born in Qi but led the Wu troops. He is famous for his work on strategy, the Art of War, which is studied at military academies today. In 1972 another text called the Art of War, this one by Sun Bin, was excavated at Yinqueshan in Shandong Province. Sun Bin (flourished 350 BCE), a descendant of Sun Wu, emphasized military tactics. Both texts recognized the importance of developing moral virtues in the troops to bolster their loyalty, and both emphasized the importance of engaging only in just wars.

After the Warring States Period

The Warring States period was a turbulent yet important developmental stage for Chinese culture. Aspects of the various schools were absorbed into Han dynasty Confucianism, making it comprehensive and viable. Although Confucians disdained Legalism, the imperial Confucian state sponsored by the Han and subsequent dynasties could not have prospered without a legal system in addition to the system of ritual for controlling the masses and for diplomacy with other countries. Given the eclectic character of the subsequent development of Confucianism and Daoism, the Eclectic school left a lasting impression on Chinese philosophy.

Further Reading

Ames, R. T., & Rosemont, H., Jr. (1998). The analects of Confucius: A philosophical translation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Chan Wing-Tsit. (1963). A source book in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fung Yu-lan. (1952). History of Chinese philosophy (Vols. I & II, D. Bodde, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Graham, A. C. (1989). Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Hsiao Kung-Chun. (1979). A history of Chinese political thought (F. W. Mote, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ivanhoe, P. J. (2002). The daodejing of Laozi. New York: Seven Bridges Press.

Roth, H. D. (1999). Original tao: Inward training (nei-yeh) and the foundations of Taoist mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Sellmann, James D.. (2009). Hundred Schools of Thought. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1126–1131. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Mozi, the founder of the Mohist school, a popular alternative to Confucian teachings.

Confucius and Laozi at their legendary meeting. Confucianism and Daoism, their respective philosophies, have dominated Chinese thought for more than two thousand years.

Hundred Schools of Thought (B?iji? Zh?ngmíng ????)|B?iji? Zh?ngmíng ???? (Hundred Schools of Thought)

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