The Philosophers of the Warring States

Three competing belief systems (Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism) came to prominence.


Confucius wanted to rethink notions of status, class, and hierarchy in society. He taught respect for one’s parents or elders via a philosophy of respect for the past and its traditions.

Confucius urged ethical and upright behavior, framing responsible government as a moral duty similar to parenthood. He believed providing a good example of moral conduct to the people would motivate them to obey the law. Confucianism emphasized the idea that people could be made to be good if they followed moral instruction and performed rituals that venerated the gods and honored the ancestral dead.


During the Warring States Period, China was divided into seven competing nations. A key influence on the Qin Dynasty was Legalism, which promotes the notion of strict law and order and harsh, collective punishments. These ideas led to despotism and centralized rule. Shang Yang recommended harsh punishments for light offenses, hoping to deter more serious crimes. For example, farmers who did not meet growing quotas were forced into slave labor.

The state of Qin consolidated power and land under one royal family. Trade with other states was discouraged, and peasant activity was restricted to military service or agriculture.

During King Zheng’s time, the focus on conscripting troops and increasing agricultural production turned Qin into a military powerhouse. Zheng declared himself first Emperor of Qin. He divided China into regional administrative zones. Common people were conscripted into forced labor, and punished or disfigured for petty infractions.


“The one who knows [the Dao] does not speak; the one who speaks does not know. The wise man shuts his mouth and closes his gates.”

The Dao is hard to describe. It asserts that the best life is one of willful ignorance, avoiding involvement in politics or public life. Silence is valued above words; inaction and stoicism are valued above action and outrage.

Daoists focused their attention on individual human behavior and how to achieve harmony with the Dao.

The Dao represents the natural order of the universe, and Daoism stipulates that human beings are the only species that disobeys the Dao. Daoists practiced inaction, giving in to thoughtless, effortless, and natural action. Daoists believed that if all people gave up the quest for glory and riches, there would no longer be war, envy, or suffering.

Source: The Philosophers of the Warring States
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