In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ancient Chinese Political Thought

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Political Science Ancient Chinese Political Thought
Sor-Hoon Tan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0346


“Ancient Chinese political thought” refers to the reflections and discussions about politics during the period before the First Emperor established the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE. Although one could also infer some political thought of that period from the other archeological evidence, the main sources of such reflections and discussions are texts believed to date back to that period, some of which became the foundation of Chinese education that began in the Han dynasty (210 BCE–220 CE) and lasted till the beginning of the 20th century. Although disrupted by the turbulent history of China’s encounter with modernity in the early 20th century, the study of ancient Chinese texts has become the center of what is known as “national studies (guoxue 国学)” in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) today, with institutes devoted to it in many Chinese universities, supporting researchers from various disciplines. In the revival of Confucianism coupled with the rise of cultural nationalism in mainland China, many Chinese scholars have turned to ancient Chinese political thought for inspiration in their search for distinctively Chinese perspectives on politics, both local and global, and they advocate Chinese alternatives or models to address contemporary challenges. With limited space, the publications selected for this article make up only a small fraction of the works in English and even fewer in Mandarin that discuss ancient Chinese political thought. (The focus on English works is due to the consideration that not all readers of this article would be able to read Mandarin.) In addition to being studied as part of early Chinese civilization that has influenced Chinese society through subsequent centuries, political theorists and philosophers engage ancient Chinese political thought to address perennial or contemporary political problems, contributing significantly to the growth of comparative political theory and comparative political philosophy.

General Overviews

This section includes historical and philosophical overviews of ancient Chinese political thought, ranging across different schools, texts, and thinkers. Its enduring influence is such that histories as well as nonhistorical surveys of Chinese political thought almost always begin with the ancient period. Its content is rich enough that entire monographs could be devoted to Warring States political thought alone and still be criticized for omissions. Liang 2019 is just one of many recent surveys of ancient political thought in the People’s Republic of China. Liang 1969 is still worth reading for a perspective at a key moment in China’s intellectual history. Hsiao 1978 is still used as a standard text introducing the topic to students who only read English. Graham 1989 covers less ground but has more philosophical depth. Pines 2009 approaches the topic historically. Chang 1988 brings archeological expertise to the topic. New approaches and more contemporary interests are evident in Angle 2016 and Kim 2018.

  • Angle, Stephen. “Social and Political Thought in Chinese Philosophy.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2016.

    One section introduces the key points in the political thought of the most well-known pre-Qin texts. Useful quick introduction for new comers to the ancient Chinese political thought.

  • Chang, K. C. Art, Myth and Ritual. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

    Examines how political authority came to be concentrated in the hands of an elite in Shang civilization, providing important cultural background for understanding ancient Chinese political thought.

  • Graham, Angus C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Thought in Ancient China. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989.

    Political thought is a central part of the chapters on Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, and Legalism.

  • Hsiao, Kung-chuan. History of Chinese Political Thought. Vol. 1. Translated by F. W. Mote. Princeton Library of Asian Translations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

    This has served as the basic text for undergraduate courses on Chinese political thought for several decades. An overview of the various schools of political thought in pre-Qin China is followed by chapters on key thinkers, including Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi, Mozi, Laozi and Zhuangzi, Lord Shang, and Han Fei.

  • Kim, Youngmin. A History of Chinese Political Thought. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018.

    Methodologically very different from most works of this genre, it organizes relevant materials on the basis of major political problems thinkers of different dynasties had addressed with the intellectual resources available to them. Two chapters are about political thought of the pre-Qin period, beginning with the Shang dynasty, but chapters on later dynasties also refer to the political thought of the ancient period, tracing continuity while rejecting any claim of an enduring essence.

  • Liang, Ch’i-ch’ao. History of Chinese Political Thought during the Early Tsin Period. Translated by L. T. Chen. New York: AMS Press, 1969.

    This historical account provides an interesting perspective on pre-Qin political thought by an important contributor to the formation of modern Chinese political thought.

  • Liang Tao 梁涛, ed. Zhongguo Zhengzhi zhexueshi (中国政治哲学史). Vol. 1. Beijing: Renmin University Press, 2019.

    Contributors to this first volume of a three-volume work offer systematic treatments of the political thought of individual thinkers, texts, and schools of the Warring States period, as well as discussions of important themes, including the relationship between ethics and politics, philosophy of a “rectification of names (zhengming 正名),” and comparison of Mencius and Xunzi’s political thought.

  • Pines, Yuri. Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009.

    Discusses political thought of the Warring States period in the context of the relationship between the ruler, the intellectual elite, and the people, which laid the ideological foundation for the Chinese imperial political system that lasted more than two millennia.

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