How to Establish Social Order? Three Early Chinese Answers

Author: Henrique Schneider
Categories: Chinese Philosophy, Historical Philosophy, Social and Political Philosophy, Ethics
Word Count: 998

Way, Chaos, and Order are central to (early) Chinese philosophy. The Way is not a metaphor, but a natural structure to be uncovered by thinking and action. Chaos happens when people do not find a Way. Not finding a Way is bad for everyone and everything. But if people and communities follow the right Way, Order arises. Order is not about just solving a political problem: it is about bringing peace, increasing welfare, and finding positive interactions.

The concept of the Way, or Dao, can refer to the natural structure of the cosmos that is uncovered by thinking and action. It can also be the structure and content of the political discourse as well as the principle that creates order. (Early) Chinese philosophy is about the many interpretations of how to harmonize political order, political discourse and the natural Dao. The importance of the way in establishing order becomes clear against the historical background, which was marked by chaos.

Between 771 and 221 BCE, China was torn apart. Wars between competing kingdoms, migration, and poverty. In this climate of insecurity, brutality, and social breakdown, Chinese philosophy began. Ways of thinking – later labelled as Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, among other philosophies, whereby these labels denote at best some fuzzy family resemblance – flourished, all of them seeking to establish order.[1] This essay reviews three influential early Chinese understandings of harmonizing the social with the natural Dao.[2]

The Impressive Battle of Gaixia: Chinese Reunification Emerges from Chaos

1. Confucianism

The teachings of Kong Zi (孔子; Kǒngzǐ, “Master Kong” – “Confucius” is the Latinization of Kǒng Fūzǐ 孔夫子, “Great Master Kong”; 551? – 479? BCE) stress the performance of roles, virtuous behavior, ritual adequacy, and education. The Confucian idea of Order was based on emulating ancient wisdom. This means that each person must perform certain roles. It is not the person who chooses the role: roles are given by the place a person has in the community. In Confucianism, the role constitutes what the person does – and is. So, it is the person that adapts to the role and not the role that adapts to the person. The most important roles are “father, son,” “older brother, younger brother,” “ruler, subject,” “older friend, younger friend,” and “husband, wife.”

People’s following the roles is a necessary but not yet sufficient condition for establishing order. Only if the roles are performed with virtue will people succeed in becoming wise. It takes a lot of effort for a person to perform roles virtuously. Confucius stresses primordial virtues: benevolence, righteousness, ritual property, loyalty, knowledge, and filial piety.

Here the Dao manifests itself as an ordering principle. People are required to make a lot of effort to become educated, virtuous, able to perform the rites and so on. This process of aligning one´s actions with the Dao is called self-cultivation.

2. Daoism

The Daodejing (道德經; Dàodéjīng) and the Zhuangzi (莊子; Zhuāngzǐ) are the bases for Daoism. While the Daodejing is attributed to a possibly unhistorical person called the “old master,” Laozi (老子; Lǎozǐ), the Zhuangzi is attributed to Master Zhuang (369 – 290? BCE).

The central concept of Daoism is Dao. In this discourse, Dao is the process of reality itself, the way things come together, while still transforming. While it cannot be expressed in language what the Dao is, it is not an other-worldly entity. Rather, the Dao is holistic. It is a pattern that shapes reality but at the same time, the structure of reality is the Dao. Those who experience oneness with Dao will be enabled to wu-wei, which might best be understood as letting the Dao of things flow in one’s action. Negatively, it means that human action should not interfere with the natural flow of the Dao. Positively, it means training oneself to understand the particular Dao – natural structure and social adequacy – of one’s action.

Conformity with the Dao automatically leads to order, because the Dao is the natural order of things. The only way of becoming one with the Dao is to detach oneself from lesser preoccupations and exercise wu-wei, or “effortless action.”[3] The Dao, as it unfolds and if left untampered, is always a force of good. Virtue – the ability to navigate reality – comes from the Dao, and not from the rites or self-cultivation.

3. Legalism

The “Legalist school”, Fajia, (法家; fǎ jiā) is a label applying different philosophers who used the Fa – standard or law – as pivotal concept. Its main proponents are: Shen Dao ( 慎到; Shèn Dào; c. 350-c. 275 BCE), Shang Yang (商鞅; Shāng Yāng; 390-338 BCE), Li Si ( 李斯; Lì Sì c. 280-208 BCE), Shen Buhai (申不害; Shēn Bùhài; c. 400-c. 337 BCE), and Hanfei (韓非; Hán Fēi; c. 280-233 BCE).

Their objective was to create order by making the state strong. They wanted to strengthen the position of the ruler by standardizing the instruments of government and governance. Standardization includes a general set of rules valid and applicable to all people, uniformity in weights, measures, and units of account, as well as predictable administrative processes. With the “two handles” of praise and punishment, rulers would be able to create a well-functioning state-machinery that would lead to order and peace.

Generally, Legalists subscribed to the idea that where the state is ordered, communities are ordered, too. Order leads to strength and strength leads to order. Therefore, they decidedly objected to Confucian virtuosity and Daoist wu-wei. Their ideal of leadership was to govern by standards, or laws. In their discourse, it was the ruler’s task to identify the natural Dao and mold social standards according to it. Then, the state-machinery oversees the compliance with the standards, aligning social actions with the natural Dao via maintaining standards.

4. Conclusion

Against the context of chaos, the three ways of thinking emerged. Confucianism developed a system of role- and virtue-ethics shaped by ritual. In emulating the Dao, the wisdom of the past, Confucians wanted to restore order. Daoists desired to establish order by challenging society’s actions. In achieving wu-wei, the Dao unfolds and creates a natural order. Legalists thought that establishing standards molded on the Dao would automatically lead to order.


[1] This particular context in which all these ways of thinking emerged reveals a lot about Chinese philosophy. For example, philosophy is not interested in stand-alone issues: it is about the relationships of people, community, society, and structures of governance like state and empires. Philosophy is both practical and intellectual. Chinese Philosophy does not distinguish between what is and what ought to be: both are parts of the same. It is Order that unites what is and what ought to be.

[2] There were more than the three “schools” introduced here. The three chosen for this text reflect their relative importance at the time and their continuation until today.

[3] The concept of wu wei (無爲), literally no-doing, philosophically usually rendered as “effortless action” is an intriguing concept in Chinese philosophy. It is especially important to Daoism, but as a philosophical term it has many nuances. It one sense, it can denote an attitude of genuine non-action, motivated by a lack of desire to participate in human affairs. However, it can also refer to an action that is particularly attuned to the Dao of a circumstance. Think of dancing – not a particular ballroom dance or other forms of formal dancing – but just following the rhythm. In this metaphor, the rhythm would be the Dao and the person dancing would effortlessly, naturally be attuned to it. In a more political use, it means identifying the best course of action in a given context. For more discussion, see Cook (1997).


Cook, Scott (1997). “Zhuang Zi and his carving of the Confucian ox,” Philosophy East and West, 47 (4): 521–554.

For Further Reading

Bo Mou (ed.), History of Chinese Philosophy, Routledge, 2008.

Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden (eds.), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, Hackett Publishing, 2005.

Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, Hackett Publishing, 2011.

Cristian Violatti, Ancient Chinese Philosophy (online resource).

Chad Hansen, Chad Hansen’s Chinese Philosophy Pages, a collection of introductory and advanced essays (online resource).

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About the Author

Henrique Schneider is a professor of economics at the Nordakademie in Elmshorn and Hamburg, Germany. His research addresses economics and philosophy, as well as early Chinese philosophy, especially Legalism. His book on a Chinese legalistic philosopher, Hanfei, An Introduction to the Political Philosophy of Hanfei (Cambridge Scholars Press) was published in 2018.

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