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5 famous Chinese philosophers you should know about

The Chinese have given us pretty interesting insights and traditions from Chinese philosophers of the past. Their sayings and philosophies have provided us with meaningful and timely messages that are relevant even up to this day. Here is a list of five of the greatest minds in Chinese history.


Confucius (孔子)

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Confucius was born in 551 BC at Zou, Lu State which is the Shandong province of today. His father was a 70-year-old retired warrior named Kong He and his mother was a 16-year-old concubine. When he was three years old, his father died and his mother, together with Confucius, got disowned by Kong He’s wives. With nowhere to go, they set off to go to a prosperous city known as Qufu. Described as unattractive, awkward and shy, Confucius was different compared to the other children. As he still has to help his single mother get by, he also had to help make ends meet by working various jobs from being a cowherd to a clerk, then to a bookkeeper. At 23, Confucius’ mother had passed away and he became alone with no money or family to be with. In deep mourning, Confucius soon immersed himself in libraries and studied history and classical poetry in order to unlock a perspective on China’s future. At the age of 73, unaware of the influence he would soon hold, his last words were, “Will no ruler come forward and take me as their master?”


“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is bitterest.”

— Confucius


He also created the principle, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” He advocated strongly for family loyalty and filial piety. He also believed that “the loving example of one family, love radiates through the state; its kindness becomes the kindness of society.”


Lao Tzu (老子)

The 5 Eastern philosophers everyone should know about — 5 | by Ashutosh Jain | Medium

Lao Tzu, also known as Lao Zi, is considered the father of Taoism and ‘One of the Three Pure Ones,’ together with Confucius and Buddha. 


“To know that you do not know is the best. To pretend to know when you do not know is the disease.”

— Lao Tzu


Some historians are doubtful of Lao Tzu’s existence. Some say that he is a mixture of multiple historical philosophers while others believe that he is a mere mythical figure. Either way, as one of Lao Tzu’s teachings, we shouldn’t worry too much about such things because, “To know that you do not know is the best. To pretend to know when you do not know is the disease.”


Sun Tzu (孫子)
75 Sun Tzu Quotes—Best Sun Tzu Quotes

Image by Art Images via Getty Images

Sun Wu, better known as Sun Tzu, is a military general that served under King Helü of Wu (544–496 BC). Although he was a military general, Sun believes that war must be avoided whenever possible as it is wrong or evil in his eyes.


“If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without jeopardy.”

— Sun Tzu


To win a battle, Sun does not allow his enemy to be able to analyze him as he believes, “All warfare is based on deception. When we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”


Zhuangzi (庄子)

56 Mind-Blowing Quotes By Zhuangzi

Zhuangzi was a follower of Lao Tzu who ridiculed the disciples of Confucius. He is known to be “the world’s first anarchist,” who believes that the world does not need governing nor be governed at all because, “good order results spontaneously when things are let alone.”


“Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone.”

— Zhuangzi


He believes that it is foolish to use something limited (which is life) to pursue something unlimited (which is knowledge). His unique philosophy is best described in one of his most famous sayings, “I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky. Then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”


Mencius (孟子)

Chinese Philosophy – Mencius – Thought Itself

Mencius, also known as Mengzi, is considered China’s “Second Sage” after Confucius. Mencius to Confucius is like Plato to Socrates. Mencius was one of the principal interpreters of Confucianism, and is a student of Confucius’s grandson, Zisi. 


“He who exerts his mind to the utmost knows his nature.”

— Mencius


Following the steps of Confucius, Mencius traveled throughout China for 40 years in order to learn experiences for the benefit of China’s future. His philosophy includes believing that humans are inherently good and society’s influence is the cause of evil actions. One would often hear these two phrases from Mencius: “He who exerts his mind to the utmost knows his nature” and “The way of learning is none other than finding the lost mind.”


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