The philosopher Mozi and the school he founded offered a popular alternative to Confucian teachings. Mozi was unique among ancient philosophers in his belief that if an idea has been handed down from the ancient sages but does not benefit the people, it should be rejected.

The philosopher Mozi (Master Mo) was born in the state of either Song or Lu. He later served as a high official in Song. Scholars believe, because he was an artisan and because his philosophy and his images and analogies drawn from technical crafts were practical, that Mozi came from the lower classes. In fact, King Hui of Chu (488–432 BCE) refused to grant Mozi an audience supposedly because of Mozi’s low status. Some scholars believe that when Mozi was young he studied the teachings of the philosopher Confucius; Mozi’s essays clearly attack the major tenants of Confucianism. Ancient texts do not show Mozi in debate with Confucian scholars; rather, they show him in debate with Gongshu Ban, Chu’s chief military strategist, regarding “Cloud ladders,” wheel-driven ramps that could scale city walls. Mozi convinced the king of Chu not to employ the ladder militarily against Song, an act that represents Mozi’s values of loving everybody and defending the underdog.

The Mohist school that Mozi founded was a popular alternative to Confucian teachings. The school developed standards for evidence, proof, argument, and definition but died out by the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). Modern scholars have revitalized interest in the school’s early development of logic.

The Mozi (the philosophical text compiled by Mohists from Mozi’s thought) clearly attacks Confucian values. Mozi and his disciples opposed the extravagant use of rituals and music. They especially opposed elaborate funerals, which were an important part of Confucian ancestor veneration. The Mohists favored a utilitarian approach (relating to a doctrine that the useful is the good and that the determining consideration of right conduct should be the usefulness of its consequences) and denounced elaborate court music, ritual, and funerals because such activities wasted state resources that could be used to benefit the people. The Mohists also denounced offensive warfare. Mozi rejected the Confucian concept of destiny (ming), and his text does not mention the aristocratic Confucian distinction between the “prince of virtue,” or gentleman, and the “petty person.” Mozi especially rejected the Confucian clan value of differing levels of love, instead advocating jianai (love for everyone). Mozi’s idea of love for everyone possibly came from the Confucian ideal of empathy (shu). Love for everyone is based on treating other families, states, and persons as if they were one’s own. However, Mozi’s idea of love for everyone is not correctly translated as universal love because jian implies “for each,” not “for all,” and in this context love is moral concern, not deep emotional affection. Mozi regarded concern for every person as the unifying principle of morality. Later Mohists believed that love for everyone entails a notion of moral equality but not social equality.

The Mohist school was well organized under a grand master during the fourth and third centuries BCE. But by the end of that time the school split into three sects that differed in their interpretation of the teachings of Mozi, and each denounced the others as heretics. The three sects were the purists, the compromisers, and the reactionaries. Mohists who took office were expected to donate money to the organization, and the grand master could remove them from office. The sects taught ten basic principles contained in the ten core essays of the Mozi: elevation (or promotion) of the worthy, conforming upwards, concern for every person, thrift in utilization, thrift in funerals, rejection of aggression, heaven’s intent, elucidating ghosts, rejection of music, and rejection of destiny. Many chapters of the Mozi have three versions, which are probably derived from the three sects.

Because Mohist doctrines were new, Mohists had to argue on their own behalf, a development that began systematic debate in ancient China. The expressions “to argue out alternatives,” “to distinguish,” and “rational discourse” were first used in the Mozi. The Mozi also suggests that the correctness of an idea is not dependent on the person who thought it. Whereas Confucians expect thinkers to both talk about and exemplify the way, Mohists discuss ideas based on the ideas’ merits regardless of who presents them.

Mozi presented three criteria to evaluate arguments: roots, evidence, and use. A position is accepted if its roots can be traced to practices of the ancient sages. A position is assented to if it is in accord with the understanding of the masses and if, when applied in the administration of the state or in the punishment of wrongdoers, it brings benefit to the people. The utilitarian and practical focus of Mozi’s philosophy is notable. He was unique among ancient moralists in the belief that if an idea or practice has been handed down from the ancient sages but does not benefit the people, it should be rejected. Such utilitarian or pragmatic concerns are the basis of many of his criticisms of Confucianism.

Further Reading

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

Fung Yu-Lan. (1952). History of Chinese philosophy, Vol. 1 (D. Bodde, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Graham, A. C. (1978). Later Mohist logic, ethics and science. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press; London: School of Oriental and African Studies.

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

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

Mei Yi-Pao. (1980). The works of Motze. Taipei, Taiwan: Confucius Publishing.

Watson, B. (Trans.). (1967). The basic writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Sellmann, James D.. (2009). Mozi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1525–1526. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Mozi (Mòz? ??)|Mòz? ?? (Mozi)

Download the PDF of this article