MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of People

A Short History of Chinese Philosophy

Authors: Pavel Yudin and Mark Rosenthal;
Written: 1954;
First published: 1954 in A Short Philosophical Dictionary, fifth edition;
Source: https://filslov.ru/
Translated:by Anton P.

Chinese philosophy

At the turn of the first millennium BC in China, during the disintegration of the primitive communal system, spontaneous materialistic views of the world arose. The ancient Chinese believed that everything consists of five primary elements – wood, metal, water, fire and earth, and the common basis of these primary elements is the material Qi, which resembles air or ether. Subsequently, these initial materialistic ideas, thanks to the teachings of Lao Tzu about Tao – about the laws of development and change of things – became the basis of a harmonious philosophical system. The philosophical school of Lao Tzu, according to legend, arose at the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 5th century BC. It opposed the tyranny of the aristocratic nobility. Lao Tzu argued that “the people are starving because their rulers are devouring them with too many taxes.”

The main idea of Lao Tzu is the idea that the life of nature and people flows along a certain path – Tao, without the intervention of any supernatural force. According to the law of Tao, everything in the world is in motion and change, and in the process of change, all things necessarily pass into their opposite. Lao Tzu argued that in the process of endless change, the emerging new always triumphs over the old. At the same time, he believed that a person should not interfere with the natural process of the development of things. Lao Tzu urged people to be passive, taught them not to go forward, but to return to a primitive way of life. Despite its historical limitations, the teachings of Lao Tzu played a huge role in the history of philosophy and culture of China as a whole.

The main merit of Lao Tzu is that he, opposing the “heavenly will” with the natural Tao, put forward a conjecture about the existence of a universal law of the world as the essence of reality itself. The follower of Lao Tzu was the famous materialist Yang Zhu (5th-4th centuries BC), who denied the existence of supernatural forces and opposed the cult of ancestors. In the teachings of Yai Zhu, the main attention was paid to man. He put forward the idea of individual freedom – “everything for oneself,” everything for a person. The materialistic teaching of Lao Tzu and Yang Zhu dealt a strong blow to the idealistic school of Confucius (551-479 BC) and other idealistic trends. Idealists promoted ideas that were beneficial to the exploiting classes, that the world was supposedly governed by a “heavenly will” that tells the “stupid” and “low” to obey the “noble” and “wise.”

The materialism of ancient China found further development in the teachings of Xun Tzu (296-238 BC). Hsün Tzu argued that the sky does not possess consciousness, but represents an integral part of nature. He expressed the idea that a person is able not only to know things, but also to master them and use them expediently. The teachings of Hsün Tzu served as one of the ideological sources of the Fajia (Legalist) school, which fought for the unification of the country, for historical progress. The main idea of the teachings of “fajia” (“legalists”) is that state legislation (“fa”) should serve as a tool for the elimination of clan, patriarchal relations and the transformation of society in ancient China. The largest representative of this school was a student of Hsün Tzu – Han Fei (in the 3rd century BC). By the end of the 3rd century BC the social and political ideals of the fajia were realized. A united China was created. However, an uprising of slaves, free farmers and artisans soon began. There were continuous wars. A new religion of the so-called Tao sect arose, which, monstrously perverting the teachings of Lao Tzu about Tao, elevated the ancient atheist philosopher to a deity. Confucianism found theological justification in the teachings of Dong Zhongshu (2nd century BC).

Religious mysticism was opposed by a number of materialists, among whom Wang Chun (27 BC-7 AD) occupies an outstanding place. Wang Chun believed that the world consists of an eternally existing material substance Qi, where Tao acts as a regularity in the development of reality itself. Man was considered by Wang Chun as a natural being, also consisting of the material substance Qi. Exposing the fable about the immortality of the soul, Wang Chun argued that the soul of a person is his life energy, produced in the process of blood circulation in the body. It disappears along with the cessation of blood circulation. Wang Chun’s teachings represent the highest stage in the development of materialism in ancient China. In the 3rd-6th centuries AD, in the conditions of a deep crisis of ancient Chinese society, the religious mysticism of the Taoist sect, on the one hand, and Buddhism, on the other, flourished.

The line between idealistic philosophy and religion was blurred. A number of philosophers appeared who emasculated the materialistic content of the doctrine of Tao and adapted it to the needs of religion. Among them was the greatest Taoist ideologist Ga Hong (4th century), who considered philosophical Taoism as a method of achieving immortality. Mystified Taoism increasingly merged with Confucian idealism. Buddhist theologians started one after another discussion about the nature of the soul, about the relationship between being and non-being. A number of outstanding thinkers came out against mysticism and idealism during this period – Pei Wei (3rd century), Bao Jing-yang (4th century), Fan Zhen (5th-6th centuries) and many others.

In the 7th-9th centuries, during the development of feudalism, Buddhism in China took a dominant position in the field of ideology. Buddhist philosophy penetrated all areas of culture. Confucianism and Taoism were pushed into the background. The militant materialist Lü Tsai (7th century) spoke out against mysticism and idealism. Within Buddhism, there was a fierce struggle between various sects, reminiscent of the struggle between nominalism and realism in medieval Europe. As a result, Buddhism split into two major streams – north and south. This circumstance significantly weakened the strength of the Buddhists and helped their opponents, the Confucians in the first place, to regain their lost positions. In criticizing Buddhist scholasticism, some Confucian philosophers have put forward a number of propositions based on a materialistic tendency. However, in the subsequent period, when the Confucians won a decisive victory over the Buddhists, they began to develop their idealistic philosophy again. The pinnacle of the development of Confucian idealism is the so-called “orthodox school” headed by Zhu Xi (1130-1200).

Zhu Xi believed that the world consists of two principles – incorporeal Li and bodily Qi. Li is an intelligent creative force that shapes the passive matter Qi into concrete things and controls them, Zhu Xi argued that Li, as an ideal beginning, forms a positive quality in a person – a striving for good, and the material substance of Qi gives him a negative quality – submission to sensual temptations. The task of philosophers, according to Zhu Xi, is to develop in every possible way a good quality in a person and curb his evil intentions. Under the conditions of feudalism, this meant that the working people had to resignedly endure all hardships and obediently submit to the ruling nobility, which subjected them to cruel exploitation and inhuman oppression.

However, the “orthodox school” had opponents from both the left and the right. Its left-wing critics were Ye Shi (1150-1223) and Chen Liang (1143-1194), who refuted Zhu Xi’s idealism, in particular his a priori in the theory of knowledge. Ye Shi and Chen Liang urged scholars to abandon sterile scholasticism and engage in useful deeds for the benefit of their people. The criticism of the “orthodox school” from the right was initiated by Lu Chiu-yuan (1139-1192). He criticized Zhu Xi for his assumption of the objective existence of Li and Qi. Subsequently, this criticism from the right resulted in a whole system of subjective idealism in the person of Wang Yang-ming (1478-1528). Wang Yang-ming argued that outside of consciousness there are no things and their laws. My idea is a thing. Human experience, according to Wang Yang-Ming, only leads him to delusion. It all depends on our “I.” On the basis of this thesis, he put forward the theory of “the unity of knowledge and action,” with the goal of saving the feudal system from collapse. Wang Yai-ming and his numerous followers tried to renew the reactionary ideas of Confucianism and distract the masses from the struggle against their oppressors. Subsequently, the Wang Yang-ming school turned into one of the leading ideological currents of feudal China, along with the “orthodox school.”

However, within the school of Wang Yang-ming, various currents arose and a fierce struggle was waged between them. In the course of this struggle, some followers of Wang Yang-ming went over to the position of materialism and openly declared war on Confucianism. Among these anti-Confucian philosophers, Li Zhi (1527-1602) occupies an outstanding place.

In the 17th century, amid a deep crisis of feudalism and the intrusion of foreign invaders, the struggle of progressive leaders of Chinese society against idealistic teachings unfolded on a broad front. At the head of this struggle were Huang Tsung-hsi (1610-1695) and Wang Chuan-shan (1619-1693). Huang Tsung-hsi was an ardent patriot and a fearless warrior in the struggle against the Manchu conquerors. After failures in armed resistance to the enemy, he took up scientific work and promoted anti-feudal democratic ideas. Huang Tsung-hsi called on civil servants and intellectuals to serve not the emperor, but the people. In solving the main issue of philosophy, Huang Tsung-hsi took a materialistic position, arguing that in the endless change taking place in the world, there is only a material substance (Qi) that fills all space.

He believed that land, which is considered the property of the emperor, should in fact belong to the people. Unmasking the mysticism of that time, Wang Chuan-shan comprehensively worked out questions about the eternity of matter, about the primacy of matter, and about the objective nature of its laws. He put forward the theory of “the unity of body and movement.” In the 18th century, during the period of the strengthening of the Manchu dynasty, the prominent scientist and materialist philosopher Dai Zhen (1723-1777) spoke out against the dominant ideology, the so-called “orthodox school.” Dai Zhen argued that in the material world there is a continuous process of change, which “constantly gives birth to new and new life.” All this is a natural law of Tao, inherent in reality itself. To learn this law, according to Dai Zhen, a specific analysis of things is required down to their smallest details.

In the middle of the 19th century, when China was turning into a semi-colonial country, a peasant movement, the Taiping rebellion (1850-1864), developed widely. The ideologist and organizer of the Taiping rebellion, Hong Xiu-chuan (1813-1864), hiding behind Christian teachings brought to China by Europeans, tried to carry out land reform in the “heavenly state of great prosperity” created by the Taiping. The Taiping Revolution was suppressed. But the Taiping idea of equality was of great importance for the peasant movement of the subsequent period. By the end of the 19th century. Under the influence of a new tide of the revolutionary wave in response to the intensification of feudal-colonial oppression in China, two ideological and political currents arose, in their programs defended various ways of “renewing” China.

The one was the revolutionary-democratic trend, headed by Sun Yat-sen, which demanded a radical breakdown of the feudal-bureaucratic order in China, the elimination of Manchu domination in the country and the establishment of a republican system; the other was a reformist one headed by Kang Yu-wei (1856-1927), which set itself the task of weakening social contradictions by means of some transformations “from above” and restoring the power of the state while maintaining the foundations of the feudal-monarchical regime. One of the foremost reformist ideologists was Tan Si-tong (1865-1898). He took the position of materialism. Refuting Confucian idealism, Tan Si-tong believed that different things are formed from a different combination of 73 chemical elements. Their uniting basis is the inherent force or energy “itai” in the bodies. The universe, according to the teachings of Tan Si-tong, is constantly changing, and in accordance with this, the history of human society also develops.

He argued that human society in its development will inevitably come to a time when on the whole globe “there will be no states, there will be no wars ... there will be no domination and despotism,” when every person will be free and society “will not exist the difference between the noble and the vile ... the poor and the rich.” The materialistic teaching of Tan Si-tong is imbued with the idea of a decisive struggle against feudalism; it represented the theoretical foundation of the reformers’ left in the struggle against the Manchu dynasty.

The most prominent revolutionary in China at the end of the 19th century. and the first quarter of the 20th century. is Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925). Even on the eve of the Chinese revolution of 1911, Sun Yat-sen developed the political platform of the Chinese revolutionaries, which was highly appreciated by V. I. Lenin. “Militant, sincere democracy permeates every line of the Sun Yat-sen platform,” wrote V. I. Lenin in 1912 in his article “Democracy and Populism in China.”

Sun Yat Sen embodied his main ideas in the “three popular principles” – nationalism (the struggle for national independence), democracy (the creation of a republican system) and the people’s welfare (the transfer of land to the peasants and the limitation of capital). Sun Yat-sen’s economic program objectively opened the path of capitalist development for China, although subjectively Sun Yat-sen believed that with the help of his economic program in China, due to feudal backwardness, capitalism could be “prevented.” Sun Yat-sen fully shared Darwin’s materialistic theory of the origin of the world, expressed a number of materialistic thoughts on the theory of knowledge. However, in some issues (classification of people into three groups according to intellectual data, the vitalistic doctrine of the so-called “vital element,” etc.) he made serious concessions to idealism.

Sun Yat-sen’s teaching, despite its contradictory and bourgeois limitations, was a big step forward in the history of China. A characteristic feature of this doctrine was that in the course of the development of the revolutionary struggle, it was constantly enriched, freeing itself from its conservative elements. “Sun Yat-sen all his life fought for his ideas, for the development of his teaching, and never deviated from these ideas, constantly replenishing and developing his teaching on the three popular principles” (Mao Tse-tung). Under the influence of the October Socialist Revolution in Russia, Sun Yat-sen revised his views, further developed his doctrine of the Three Popular Principles, supplementing it with three political foundations: support for workers and peasants, an alliance with the communists, an alliance with the USSR. Sun Yat-sen was a sincere friend of the Soviet Union.

After the death of Sun Yat-sen, the reactionary elite of the Kuomintang raised the reactionary and conservative sides in the teachings of Sun Yat-sen on the shield and, hiding behind his name, embarked on the path of national betrayal. Only the Chinese working class and its vanguard, the Communist Party, are the legitimate successor to the ideological legacy of Sun Yat-sen. The Chinese Communist Party, criticizing the petty-bourgeois utopian and conservative views of Sun Yat-sen, carefully guards and develops the revolutionary democratic core of its political and economic program. Under the direct influence of the Great October Socialist Revolution in China, a powerful anti-imperialist and anti-feudal movement “May 4th” (1919) arose. At the head of this movement were the first Chinese Marxists, who in those years waged an intense struggle against the feudal-imperialist ideology.

Formed in 1921, the Chinese Communist Party in the struggle against its ideological enemies revealed the socio-historical roots of the colonial policy of the imperialist Powers and the treacherous role of their servants, the Chinese militarists. The main philosophical works of the classics of Marxism-Leninism were translated into Chinese: Anti-Dühring, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Dialectics of Nature by F. Engels; Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism; “On the Foundations of Leninism” by J. V. Stalin and others. Marxist-Leninist literature, despite the repression of the Kuomintang reaction, became widespread throughout the country. In 1934, the ruling clique of the Kuomintang, fighting against the Communist Party, organized the so-called “movement for a new life,” the main goal of which was the restoration of reactionary Confucian morality and the strengthening of the fascist dictatorship of the Kuomintang reaction.

A hardened enemy of the Chinese people, a disciple of the reactionary American idealist philosophers, Chen Li-fu, came out with a theoretical “substantiation” of the notorious “movement for a new life.” The Chinese communists, exposing the reactionary essence of the ideology and politics of the ruling clique of the Kuomintang, launched a widespread propaganda of the philosophy of Marxism. Outstanding philosophical works of Mao Tse-tung of this period – “On Practice” and “On Contradiction” – dealt a crushing blow to both dogmatism and empiricism, which was the ideological basis of right and “left” opportunism within the Communist Party. Mao Tse-tung, one of the first Marxists in China, began to defend and consistently implement the teachings of Marxism-Leninism. Already his first works, dating back to 1926, are Marxist.

The victory of the Great Chinese Revolution means the triumph of the idea of Marxism-Leninism and the defeat of bourgeois philosophy in China. Marxism-Leninism is becoming the property of broad circles of the progressive intelligentsia and active political figures in China. In their struggle against bourgeois idealist philosophy, for a Marxist worldview, for materialistic science, Chinese Marxists make extensive use of Soviet literature on various issues of science. In China, Pavlov’s materialist doctrine on higher nervous activity, Michurin’s ideas and other representatives of Soviet natural science are actively promoted.