Hundred Schools of Thought: The Dojo of the East (With Kung Fu Grip!)

I keep telling Hunter that all of these Mixed Mental Arts ideas are stuck in books, just waiting to be let out! Well, that’s always been the case, all over the world. The rich people who weren’t farming would sit down and try to figure out the world. As long as they weren’t killed in wars, or executed as heretics, they built up some pretty good ideas. That’s the premise of The Happiness Hypothesis.

In the West, the history of philosophy centers around the Classics. Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, all of these philosophers debated one another in writing. They forged schools of though like Stoicism, Epicureanism, Pythagoreanism, and Cynicism. The culture of the West is built upon these pillars. Similarly, Eastern philosophy went through its own crucible.

The World Before China

Yáo-Shùn Yǔ, Xià Shāng Zhōu
Chūn-Qiū Zhànguó Qín Hàn
Sān Guó Jìn, Nán-Běi Cháo
Suí Táng Wǔdài, Sòng Yuán Míng Qīng

That’s a mnemonic to remember the dynastic progression of China before the Xinhai Rebellion. The Chinese philosophy that permeates East Asian culture was first written down right before the first unification of China, in the later Zhou dynasty; 春秋戰國: the Spring & Autumn and the Warring States periods. During the Spring and Autumn, The Hundred Schools of Thought, 諸子百家(zhūzǐ bǎijiā, literally “Many Sages, 100 Schools), freely and rapaciously spread their ideas to anyone who could read and listen. Now, this was ancient China, so everything was localized around major metropolitan centers, with large swathes of farmland surrounding them on the plains of the Yellow River basin. Grain cultivation and domestication of animals had been around for at least a thousand years, so artisans and scholars could build and write without having to worry about what they were going to eat that day.

This is in no way a comprehensive list, but here are the cliffnotes:

The School of the Way

Daoism is the philosophy of the Way. “Codified“(there really is no orthodoxy in Daoist thought) by Laozi (the old master) and Zhuangzi, Dao is simply a way to describe the world in which we live. The core of the Dao is that nobody really understands what it means, but its provocative. Literally, all motion, all action, and all illness is caused by an imbalance of smaller aspects in larger systems.

Daoism is often miscategorized as “dualistic” or “ontological dualism.” That misconception comes from mainly, bad translations, both linguistically and culturally. There is no good way to translate a lot of Chinese words or concepts into English, and it’s even more difficult to translate Classical Chinese. The first line of the Dao De Jing/Tao Te Ching is translated as “The Dao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Dao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.” Even without translation issues, the whole book is incredibly difficult to understand.

Difficulty understanding aside, the core principle is there. The reality of the world is not what you can see, isn’t always what you name it, and can’t really be understood directly. But you can see the ripples and echoes of the forces of nature, and you can see them everywhere.

The Dao is the foundation of all of the other schools of thought that made it through to today.

The School of the Scholar

Confucianism (儒家) is the philosophy of Confucius (duh). The Chinese name literally means “School of Scholars.” At its core, it is about two things: social relationships and self-cultivation. By filling one’s social obligations and cultivating oneself, society can be harmonious.

Everything else stems from there. There is no submission to a god, there is no blind faith required. Only that one fills their social obligations, and that they spend a lifetime honing their skills and broadening their knowledge. These core principles have carried Chinese (and greater East Asian) cultures to two millennia of flourishing societies.


The School of the Law

Legalism is the way the Son of Heaven controlled All Under Heaven. To put it simply, it was the proverbial stick, with the carrot being that you could keep your hands.

Shang Yang set up this system where the government through its legitimacy, the overall social order, and the power of coercion, could control the people of China. Every perceived crime had a specific punishment. The bureaucrats decided the laws. Punishment was swift and harsh.

The harsh and very rigid system allowed for the unification of China under Qin Shi Huangdi, the standardization of the Chinese writing system, and the standardization of weights and measures. Super cool, but Qin Shi Huangdi, through his minister Shang Yang, order that all scholars be buried alive, and all their works be burned to kill any dissent.

The School of War

The Art of War (兵法, literally Soldier’s Method) and derivative texts get a bad rap. And not without reason; everyone hates war in the end. But the core of the Art of War is nothing more than conflict avoidance and conflict resolution. It was written by a general, though, so it’s through that lens.

The Art of War, the Thirty Six Stratagems, and the Book of Five Rings are all part of this tradition, which started during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods. The lessons in these books are not so much about anything but training and decision making. Choose your field of battle, and prepare yourself.

What Came of It?

China will soon have the largest economy in the world. It already has the highest population of any country in the world. Until the industrial age, it was one of the primary hotbeds for technological, cultural, and intellectual development. From the Edicts of the Qianlong Emperor to the British Ambassodor, Lord Macartney, 1793:

“Hitherto, all European nations, including your own country’s barbarian merchants, have carried on their trade with Our Celestial Empire at Canton. Such has been the procedure for many years, although Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. But as the tea, silk, and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favour, that foreign firms should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence”

Two Edicts of the Qianlong Emperor, 1793

China is now poised to surpass the United States as the country with the highest GDP. And the Chinese people seem to be pretty satisfied with their government.

None of this is to say China doesn’t have problems. They definitely do. (notice that there aren’t a whole lot of women characters in the above clips) But there are different ways that cultures and political entities form around the world, and what China has done for thousands of years has worked pretty well for them. And while I’m not going to kowtow to the emperor (except Bryan Callen, and only after he caresses my hair), there is something to be learned from everything.

Isaiah is a linguist, a student, and a musician. He likes whiskey and showtunes. Check out his music on Soundcloud or Bandcamp. His website is, where he writes personal blogs that aren't too well thought out.


  1. Sean M Reply

    What an excellent way to start my Monday morning. The first clip seemed to exemplify the spirit needed in the ability to listen and have an open mind. Again, great job Isaiah!

  2. James Sullivan Reply

    Great post! I had a 365 Daoist meditation book when I was 16 and loved the wholistic philosophy of it all. I remember trying to meditate and thinking I was One with All. Funny and embarrassing to look back at. I was only exposed to western philosophy for so long I yearn for more information on eastern thought.

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