The Importance of Unearthed Manuscripts for Chinese Philosophy – Outlier Linguistics

The Importance of Unearthed Manuscripts for Chinese Philosophy

The Importance of Unearthed Manuscripts for Chinese Philosophy

by Dr. Sam Goldstein

This is a guest post by Dr. Sam Goldstein, an expert on early Chinese thought and excavated texts. Dr. Goldstein is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Academia Sinica in Taipei. He's teaching our intro to Chinese philosophy course, Philosophy and Practice in Early China. It's going to be an amazing course, covering both the traditional "six schools of thought" model and recently unearthed texts that give us a much richer insight into the history of Chinese thought. Join us in the course!

Introduction: Traditional Pedagogical Model in Chinese Philosophy

Most Chinese philosophy introductory survey courses follow a well-worn pedagogical model. According to this model, we first introduce pre-Warring States thought and history through the lens of the Zuǒzhuàn 左傳, a text supposedly written as a commentary on a history of the Spring and Autumn period, the period immediately preceding the Warring States period. Both Confucius and Laozi are purported by later sources to have lived during this time.

Following an introduction to early China based on the earliest Chinese narrative history, the Zuozhuan (written and compiled just following the Spring and Autumn period), the pedagogical model traditionally introduces the six schools of thought that, again according to later sources, formed the basis of Warring States period philosophy.

The Six Schools of Thought

The six schools, in the order articulated by Sima Qian in another important but later historical text, the Shǐjì 史記, are:

  1. Naturalism  (aka Yin-Yang School 陰陽家 yīnyángjiā)
  2. Confucianism (aka Ruism 儒家 rújiā)
  3. Mohism  (墨家 mòjiā)
  4. Legalism  (法家 fǎjiā)
  5. School of Names  (名家 míngjiā)
  6. Daoism  (aka Taoism 道家 dàojiā)

Each school formed a distinct intellectual tradition of political philosophy. Members of each school debated each other and competed for favor at the various royal courts of the Warring States.

We could say that these “disputers of the Dao” as Angus C. Graham calls them, were basically loyal to their respective philosophical traditions. Each philosophical tradition, each “school of thought,” produced written works distinctive to their tradition and reflective of their respective political philosophies. Here are some of the best-known texts from each school:

  1. Naturalism: the Huángdì Nèijīng (黃帝內經), a medical treatise
  2. Confucianism: the Analects (論語 lúnyǔ) and the Mencius (孟子 mèngzǐ)
  3. Mohism: the Mòzǐ (墨子)
  4. Legalism: The Book of Lord Shang (商君書 shāngjūn shū) and the Hánfēizǐ (韓非子)
  5. School of Names: the Gōngsūn Lóngzǐ (公孫龍子)
  6. Daoism: the Dàodéjīng (道德經, aka Tao Te Ching) and the Zhuāngzǐ (莊子)

What the Six Schools Promoted According to Historical Texts

According to the Shiji, the Yin-yang school supposedly promoted the following of calendrical cycles in order to avoid misfortune, although we do not have any Warring States texts directly attributed to this “school.”

The Confucian school promoted the “six disciplines,” ritual propriety, and the proper relations of “ruler and servant, father and son, … husband and wife, and adult and young.”

The Mohist school promoted frugality, economy, and the simplification of mourning rituals.

The Legalist school promoted equal enforcement of the law regardless of social status and rank, as well as the authority of the state over the populace.

The School of Names promoted the correct designation of names for all things in line with reality, although in the Warring States period we only see their writings in works from other “schools.”

The Daoist school promoted a technique of “emptiness and nothingness” without any “fixed tenets.”

The Concept of "Schools"

Later scholars would use the concept of “school” to refer to genealogical traditions of masters and disciples who passed knowledge down through texts. However, references to jiā or “schools” in the Shiji tend to refer to particular approaches to policy-making, as part of a critique of “the ruinous effect of state sponsorship on the enterprise of learning” in the early Han period. Nevertheless, the association of “schools” with master-disciple textual traditions has persisted to this day.

Shortcomings of the Traditional Model

There are two important shortcomings with this model.

Doesn't align with the reality of Early China

The first is that it does not necessarily align with reality for Warring States period culture. While there very well may have existed master-disciple traditions during the Warring States, we should not rely on a misinterpretation of a much later Han period historical work in order to determine the nature of these traditions.

Whatever traditions did exist may not have necessarily even been based on textual transmission, they could have been based on the transmission of any type of knowledge or practice. It just so happens that textual sources have been preserved for us to read. But what other practices besides political philosophy writing permeated the cultures that produced these texts?

Doesn't take unearthed texts into account

Second, the “school” model entirely fails to take into account newly unearthed manuscripts that have come to us in recent years from tombs in central China, mostly from what is now Hubei province, which was part of the state of Chu during the Warring States period. These texts have the potential to revolutionize the way we think about Warring States period culture, including presuppositions about the “school” model.

Our conception of the Daoist “school” for example changes when we introduce a text like Tài yī shēng shuǐ 太一生水 “The Great One Gives Birth To Water,” which introduces an entirely unprecedented cosmogony—a story of the creation of the universe—with the Dao at its basis. It is clear that whatever culture existed that produced the Daodejing was also the culture that produced Tai yi sheng shui, and not only did this culture maintain the political philosophy and culture of practice associated with apophatic contemplative practice found in the Daodejing, but they also maintained a cosmogony with the Dao at its basis as the primary generative force behind the creation of all things.

Case Studies: How Unearthed Texts Change Our Understanding of Daoist and Confucian Schools

What happens to the Confucian “school” when we introduce a text like Xìng zì mìng chū 性自命出 “Human Nature Comes via Mandate?” This text complicates the debate surrounding human nature as exemplified by Mèngzǐ 孟子 and Xúnzǐ 荀子, two Warring States-period Confucian thinkers.

Mengzi argued that at its basis human nature is fundamentally good, and therefore the key is to access our inherent goodness, while Xunzi argued that human nature is fundamentally bad, and therefore we must put great effort into cultivating goodness.

Xing zi ming chu portrays human nature as value-neutral. According to the text, humans have the potential for an infinite array of possible emotional responses, with the text using the metaphor of music to describe how these various emotional affectations can be stimulated within the human psyche. Xing zi ming chu goes beyond the debate over human nature to present a more complex idea.

Manuscripts that Don't Fit into Existing Categories

Moreover, some unearthed texts do not fit easily into any existing category. For example, the text titled Yīn Gāozōng wèn yú Sān Shòu (殷高宗問於三壽) “The High Progenitor of Yin Questions the Three Venerables” makes a philosophical argument for mantic practices like divination, an argument entirely unrelated to the Confucian, Daoist, or any other known philosophical tradition.

While we have had access to divination manuals and divination records for centuries, most notably in the form of the Yì Jīng (易經, aka the I Ching), San Shou is the first text that provides a philosophical argumentative basis for the maintenance of these practices in elite Warring States period society.

While there is no solid evidence that a Yin-Yang school existed during the Warring States period, San Shou comes closer than any other text to the description of the Yin-Yang school found in the Shi ji.


The six schools model serves as a convenient tool to organize the thought and practice found in received textual sources like the Analects of Confucius or the Daodejing. But how can we go beyond this traditional model, especially considering the wealth of newly unearthed sources that have been uncovered in large numbers continually in recent years?

This is precisely what we will explore in my upcoming course. In addition to readings from the important received texts like the Analects, the Mozi, and so on, we will also explore such fascinating unearthed texts as the Tai yi sheng shui with its Dao-themed cosmogony, the Xing zi ming chu with its enchanting description of how music draws out our various emotions, Yin Gaozong wen yu San Shou which takes us in an unprecedented philosophical direction to argue for the efficacy of divination practice for the maintenance of political order, and many more!

Dr. Goldstein's course, Philosophy and Practice in Early China, begins on October 2, 2023. Be sure to sign up now!

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