Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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The Contention of A Hundred Schools of Thought

In the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), in order to attract distinguished scholars from other states to his own, King Wei of Qi ordered the construction of a grand mansion for their accommodation outside the gate of Ji (also named Jixia) at the capital, Linzi. Then a plate bearing "Jixia Palace of Learning" was put up, so that those scholars cold lecture or hold debates there in a free atmosphere.

King Wei's son King Xuan had a special liking for men of letters and itinerant strategists who traveled about trying to persuade state rulers to accept their ideas and service. He treated them as honored guests, and built a number of magnificent houses to be given to some of the well-known scholars.

In those days, about a thousand people came to the Jixia Palace of Learning. This made it the center of contemporary scientific and cultural research. Scholars of the Confucian school, the Taoist school, the Legalist school, the Logician school, the Mohist school, the school of Positive (Yang) and the Negative (Yin) Forces, political strategists, eclectics, agronomists and military strategists met here and debated with one another. Besides giving lectures, these people wrote pamphlets and treatises to propagate their viewpoints and refute those of others. Thus, a situation of free academic discussion was brought about. It was under such historical conditions that The Book of Mencius, The Book of Zhuangzi, The Book of Mozi, The Book of Xunzi, The Book of Hanfeizi, and essays of  the exponents of other schools were written.

The famous thinker mencius, who lived at that time, often led his disciples on lecture tours to propagate the Confucianist doctrine of "benevolence." On their arrival at Jixia Palace of Learning, they were warmly received by King Xuan of Qi who thereafter consulted Mencius on the proper ways of governing a country and its people.

One day, King Xuan said to Mencius, "I have heard that when King Wen of Zhou staked out a piece of land a full of seventy li in circumference for purposes of hunting, his people considered it not big enough. I have now got mine which is no more than forty li round, yet my people are complaining a lot. People are really getting unreasonable nowadays." To this, Mencius replied, "Though King Wen of Zhou staked out that much land, the common people were free to cut and gather fuel or go hunting there. King Wen shared the land with his people. That is why they considered it small. On my arrival at Qi, I heard that the common people are forbidden to enter Your Highness' hunting grounds, and poaching would be punished by decapitation. Though you have enclosed only a relatively small piece of land, it is of no benefit to them. So isn't it natural for them to think it too large?" King Xuan felt that there was much sense in Mencius' words, so he decided to let the people use the land together with him.

Zhuangzi of the Taoist school was against the doctrine of humanity and decorum advocated by Confucianists. Therefore, he wrote the following store. On a dark moonless night, two Confucian scholars went grave-robbing for jewelry. They went on digging till it was about dawn and were upset for having found nothing valuable. Nevertheless, they still quoted lines from their poetry books in the way of talking The senior scholar looked about and asked in verse, "Day is beginning to break in the east, and how are matters now?" The junior scholar replied in a similar manner while busy stripping the clothes off the dead person, "The undressing of the deceased reveals a jewel in the mouth." On hearing this, the senior one said hastily, "Oh, hurry! Take it out." Then he began to chant an ancient poem, "Green is the wheat that grows on the southern hillside; those who worked not when alive, have no right to keep jewels in their mouth when dead." When the song was finished, the two of them set to work immediately. One grabbed hold of he dead man's hair, while the other prized open the mouth vigorously with a knife and carefully retrieved the jewel. Though only a joke, this story exposes and criticizes the hypocrisy of Confucianists who may appear to be very learned and polite but actually care little about decorum.

As different schools of thought confronted one another, debates grew more and more intense, and people's minds more and more active. Hanfeizi put forward a new legalist theory on the basis of the actual conditions of the development of society. He used the word parasite to designate all the Confucian scholars, political strategists so fond of high-falutin talk, clever strategists who went about selling their ideas, those who eschewed military service and the miserly merchants of his day. He criticized those who refused to adapt themselves as society changed and developed, comparing them to the foolish man in the fable who waited by a tree for hares to come and dash himself against the trunk.

The free debating of different schools of thought promoted the development of ideology and culture in ancient China. Nowadays, people often use the proverb "Let a hundred schools of thought contend" to describe the free discussion of different schools of thought and contending ideologies.  


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