The Six Patriarchs of Chinese Humanism

An Abridged and Systematic Reconstitution of Their Words
Author: Peter M.K. Chan
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Table of Content




     Chapter One

The Humanism of 



1.1  Destiny and the Decree of Heaven

1.2  The Importance of Learning

1.3  The Kingly and the Humane

1.4  Humaneness, Propriety, and Righteousness

1.5  Method of Self-Cultivation

1.6  Essentials of Government



Chapter Two

The Religious Humanism of Moh-zi


2.1 The Will of Heaven

2.2 Mutual Love and Benefit

2.3 Condemnation of War and Extravagant Consumption

2.4 The Origin of State and Effective Government

2.5 Ghosts and Spiritual Beings

2.6 Against the Confucians

2.7 Taking Stock



Chapter Three

 The Natural Humanism of Lao-zi


3.1 About Lao-zi

3.2 The Dao of Nature

3.3 The Operation of Dao

3.4 The Sagely Way of Life

3.5 Government by Non-action

3.6 The Contrarian-ism of Lao-zi



Chapter Four

 The Daoism of Zhuan-zi


4.1 Wonderment about Dao and Nature

4.2 Problems of the Human Mind

4.3 Program of Self-Restoration

4.4 The Sagely Way of Being

4.5 Debunking the Legacy of the Sage-kings

4.6 Embrace All without Distinctions

4.7 The Meaning of Death 


Chapter Five
The Romantic Confucianism of Mencius


5.1  The Inborn Nature of Man

5.2  Nourish the Mind and Strengthen the Will

5.3  The “Fixer” of One’s Destiny

5.4  On the Political Economy

5.5  The Mandate of Heaven

5.6 Against Devious Doctrines



Chapter Six

The Pragmatic Confucianism

of Xun-zi 


6.1 Heaven and Man

6.2 The Human Mind and Its Problems

6.3 The Inborn Nature of Man

6.4 Learning to Become a Kingly Person

6.5 On Society and the Economy

6.6 The Ruler and the State

6.7 Methods of Government  





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       The purpose of this book is to bypass all intermediaries so as to allow Confucius, Moh-zi, Lao-zi, Zhuan-zi, Mencius, and Xun-zi to speak directly and systematically for themselves. It is designed for those who would like to know what they had actually said about the problem of man and society, but were not able to get a systematic view from their utterances on various topics scattered here and there in the ancient texts where their actual words are found. It is with this objective in mind that I have decided to reconstitute a more friendly and systematic version of what they had actually said -- by extracting directly from the very documents that are known to contain their words, namely: the Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Book of Moh-zi, the Dao Der Jing, the Book of Zhuan-zi, the Book of Mencius, and the Book of Xun-zi. It is to show that when many of their utterances on one and the same topic are gathered to roost, what these patriarchs of Chinese humanism had in mind were in fact more comprehensive and engaging than any secondary material is able to duplicate.


        For those who are not already in the know, the period in which our six patriarchs had to find themselves is known in Chinese history as the Warring State Period (475 - 221 BC). This was a period of political disorder and unceasing inter-regional conflict, leading eventually to the disintegration of the once glorious Zhou Dynasty (c1027 BC 249 BC). Fortunately though, the flip side of this period was its intellectual diversity. As historians have come to see, this was the most creative and productive period in the intellectual history of China, quite analogous to “the simultaneous blooming of a hundred flowers”. It was in this kind of open intellectual environment that the philosophical seeds of Chinese humanism were sown. It appeared in three styles: represented respectively by the teachings of Confucius (c551-479 BC), Moh-zi(c479-438 BC), and Lao-zi (c550 - 450 BC). The issues with which they were concerned are: What is wrong with man and society? How could world order and social harmony be restored?

As we shall see, despite the fact that Confucius and Moh-zi were rather sore with each other on certain cultural and metaphysical issues, both were of the view that the world had fallen asunder because those who governed had departed from the humane and righteous way of the ancient Sage-kings. As to what could really be done, Confucius’s answer is that the moral character of man has got to be reformed. If those in power were to observe the rules of propriety as instituted by the ancient Sage-kings, world order and social harmony would in due course be restored. Moh-zi implicitly agreed. Only that he also thought that an enlightened kind of authoritarian rule as well as religious sanction would also be required. However, Lao-zi, who was older and supposedly wiser, did not agree. He believed rather that if those who govern would just let people be, and those self-appointed preachers of humaneness and righteousness would just keep their mouths shut, man and society would naturally become well in and of themselves. All that is required is for people to abandon the way of man and live according to the Way of Nature.

This layback and somewhat anarchistic tendency of Lao-zi was further developed by Zhuan-zi (c 369-286 BC) into what could be called a Daoist philosophy of life and society. The life of man, he said, is both troublesome and short. It is troublesome because the human mind is not only obsessed with fame and gain, but obstinate with its pursuits as well. Abandon worldly affairs therefore, he declared, and transform with the Way of Nature. Part of what that entails is to be content with what one has or has not got, and accept death when it arrives. Further, it was Zhuan-zi's contention that in view of the finitude of knowledge, the relativity of all values, and the futility of all arguments, it is better not to alienate anyone, but to embrace all without distinctions. As Lao-zi before him, he was also very critical of the doctrine of humaneness and righteousness, as well as the system of government that was instituted by the ancient Sage-kings.

As it turned out, it was Confucius that had excited the imagination of many bright and younger intellectuals. Among them, Mencius (c371-289 BC) was the first to fortify his teaching on several fronts. Upon the fact that it is natural for everyone to feel empathetic toward the suffering of others, it was his view that the inborn nature of man is good. As such, there is no excuse for anyone for not trying to become humane. However, as he also pointed out, the having of such humane sentiments is something that needs to be preserved. According to him, they would wither if not activated and put into practice. What needs to be done is therefore this: nurture the mind and strengthen its chi of righteousness. It is only by doing so that a morally superior individual (or kingly person) is able to stand alone and fearless in a chaotic world. And biting his own word with his teeth, he was daring enough to tell his listeners that no ruler should take his “Mandate of Heaven” for granted. It is something that had to be earned by winning the hearts of the people. Moreover, he was also very outspoken on how a state and its economy should actually be run. It was for reason of the above that later generations have seen fit to honor him as China’s “Sage #2”, second only to Confucius himself.

Another outstanding promoter of Confucianism was Xun-zi (c298 - 238BC). According to him, the inborn nature of man is not good, but detestable. It is intelligence that has allowed man to become good by learning from the ancient Sage-kings.That put him seriously at odd with the view of Mencius. Another issue that they could not see exactly eye to eye was Xun-zi’s challenge to the anthropomorphic view of Heaven. According to him, Heaven is nothing but Nature itself. As such, it is something to be regulated rather than worshiped or feared. What is also worthy of note was his foray into the epistemological and problematic aspects of the human mind. Even though the mind is the cognitive ruler of the body, he said, it is yet prone to perceptual illusions, delusions of desires, and intellectual blindness. Furthermore, the historical significance of his theory on society and government, including the organizational aspects of public administration, was also more comprehensive than any of his predecessors were able to provide. In short, the contribution of Xun-zi to Chinese philosophy in general, and the development of Confucianism in particular, were actually much more significant than traditional understanding has given him credit for. 

As to the teaching of Moh-zi, despite the effort of his associates and followers, it was not able to find longevity to the same extent as the teachings of Confucius and Lao-zi. The reason could have been this. The turbulent passage of time was such that the notion of Heaven as a moral and caring entity had to take a naturalistic turn in the mind of intellectuals. The devastation of war and human suffering must have something to do with that. It is therefore not surprising to find that Moh-zi’s idea that Heaven loves the people was not able to stand the test of time. But this is not to say that his doctrine of mutual love, ideas about government, and anti-war message were also completely overcome by the ancient gale and dust of his day.

Well, do not take my word for it. The real flavor of the cake is in the eating. It is my hope that by the end of this book, readers will find that the words of our six patriarchs are indeed more engaging than any intermediary is able to convey. That alone will be my greatest reward. 





Finally and at last, we have come to the end of our journey. It is my hope that readers would by now agree that the actual words of our six ancient Chinese humanists are really more engaging than any advertiser is able to convey. It is also my hope that they have found their ideas to be intellectually stimulating. Before we part company, let me further confide that in the process of working on this book, I have also managed to gather the following grains of truth.

To be diligent with one’s human duties is more conducive to interpersonal harmony than asserting one’s human rights. This latter is a modern notion. From our patriarchs’ point of view, or so it seems to me, to champion for one’s rights rather than duties would tend to promote social conflict, which more often than not, is the forerunner of social disorder.

What is also unique about these ancient Chinese humanists is that instead of crying out for individual freedom, they had rather emphasized the importance of self-cultivation, self-rectification, self-transformation, and the like. For them, again it seems to me, when individual freedom of act and expression is decoupled from  an individual's social responsibility (the flipside of one and the same coin), it will bring about more harm to society than good. That, I believe, is the reason why they were more concerned about freeing the individual from himself, than from his fellowmen. 

The future of a society is dependent on the moral character of those in charge. In and of themselves, political systems and laws are not sufficient to prevent those who administer and enforce them to become unscrupulous; and to use these same laws, if not get around them, for their personal benefits. As it takes good men to make good systems and laws, it also takes men with strong moral fiber to administer and enforce them. What this means is that any government that is easy with moral standards, and any society that is slack in moral education, is just too practical for its own good.

Government is for the people. One of its main functions is to regulate the economy and provide a decent livelihood for the people – including education for the young and social support for the disabled and old. Taking too much from the people and great disparity of income are bound to bring about social disorder. Let me also say that if Moh-zi’s idea that everyone should be required to “report on the virtuous as well as the wicked” is also brought into play (the institution of anti-corruption and consumer protection mechanisms as we would now say), “government of and for the people” will be near at hand. 

Ideological unity of some kind is indeed essential for the maintenance of order in a state. This is what is called “shared values” today. Under this light, to have a religion or two (violent ones aside) can also help toward nurturing this same goal. If nothing else, it would make those who are religious to think twice before they do anything under-handed or unrighteous, and thus making things easier for the law enforcement agencies concerned. What this means is that any society that is totally irreligious is perhaps too secular for its own comfort. 

Further, as it takes all kinds to make a world, one must try and embrace all regardless of their views. Be concerned about their welfare without partiality. Accept contrasts and differences, and dwell on complementarities as well as commonalities. In this way, not only would controversies and conflicts be averted, world peace and social harmony may also be realized in the end. 

Last but not least, since the life of a man is not only short but also difficult, it is perhaps wiser not to preoccupy oneself with fame and gain. That would save one the trouble of having to contend with worries and anxieties day in and day out. Do not be a slave to old habits and material things. Contentment is indeed the root of happiness. And good health is more important than wealth. It is also to be appreciated that no blessing is more lasting than the absence of calamities. 

Such are the humanistic springs that generations of Chinese intellectuals have come to drink. It is also these same spiritual undercurrents that have sustained the sanity of their civilization through many of its trails and tribulations.Whether or not the above observation is valid is not the business of this book to decipher. It is something that I would like to leave for readers to think about. The only thing I would like to add is that it is not to be assumed that the wisdom of the Chinese ancients are no longer relevant for us and our world.




Note: ebooks on the above ancient Chinese humanists

are available at