Founding of Mohism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The founding of the Mohist school ushered in ideas and practices involving meritocratic, law-based systems of government that helped shape the development of empire and civil service for twenty-three thousand years.

Summary of Event

Mo Di, referred to posthumously and by his own disciples as Mozi, is renowned as an ethicist, political philosopher, and man of irreproachable behavior. He is the purported founder of Mohism, a school of thought that was perpetuated and developed under the aegis of several main disciples and leaders, or juzi. The various schools of Mohism flourished throughout the Central States (the core group of states that participated in a wide cultural, political, and economic sphere associated with the Zhou Dynasty), rivaling the Confucians for centuries until their sudden disappearance sometime during the late third or early second centuries b.c.e. Mozi

Mozi’s thought and the preoccupations of his school are preserved in a text known as Mozi (fourth-third centuries b.c.e.; partial translation as The Ethical and Political Works of Motse, 1929; known as Mozi). Mozi was written over a period of about two hundred years and reflects the thinking of at least two main phases of the school, commonly referred to as the Early Mohist phase (fourth century b.c.e.) and the Later Mohist phase (third-second centuries b.c.e.).

Early Mohists concerned themselves primarily with ethics, political philosophy, and religion. They advocated a radical ideology of utilitarianism and universal human adherence to objective, heavenly law. This ideology strongly supports a meritocratic system of government, referred to as a politics of “advancing those who achieve” (jin xian) through official appointment commensurate to merit. In addition, early Mohists made an appeal to an original concept known as “universal caring” (jian ai). This concept recommends that individuals show similar concern for those people belonging to the impersonal, public realm as they would for their own loved ones, relatives, and friends.

Their religious views uphold many traditional Zhou beliefs in the efficacy of ghosts and spirits as agents of heaven. Heaven is seen as an absolute moral force that responds directly to individual human behavior through reward and punishment. On the basis of this religious vision of heaven lies the early Mohist belief in utilitarianism. According to their beliefs, since heaven rewards and punishes according to objective standards of what is right and since what is right brings benefit to people, one can make calculations of benefit to establish just, impartial laws that reflect heaven’s wishes.

Early Mohists assembled in groups according to a rigid, authoritarian hierarchy. All disciples paid their allegiance to the group leader, or juzi, who served as the chief commander in military service. As staunch advocates of defensive warfare, the Mohists used their groups to participate frequently in military activity. Groups were called on by lords and kings of states to serve in times of need. Loyalty to the group and juzi was of primary importance, as evidenced in stories about Mohists who made great sacrifices in order to uphold Mohist law and the oaths of allegiance. The structured organization of the Mohist unit lends itself better to the category of “school” than any other early Chinese intellectual group—even more so than the Confucians.

The founding of Mohism is associated with a few main teachers and juzi, some of whom might have been the immediate disciples of Mozi himself. Very little of their lives, including their dates, is known, but early sources suggest that they were leading intellectuals who perpetuated Mohism by setting up separate branches of the organization throughout the Central States. Each branch vied with the others for authority over what they claimed to be an authentic line of Mohist thought. Among the Mohist leaders who are associated with the founding of competing branches of Mohism are Qin Guli (Ch’in Ku-li), Xiang Li (Hsiang Li, also Xiang Liqin/Hsiang Li-ch’in), Deng Ling (Teng Ling, also Deng Lingzi/Teng Ling-tzu), Xiang Fu (Hsiang Fu),Wu Hou, Ku Huo (K’u Huo), and Ji Zhi (Chi Chih).

Early Mohists also became famous for their stance in opposition to certain Confucian practices of the day. Early Mohist precepts include the denunciation of elaborate burial practices and musical performances, which the Confucians deemed critical to the perpetuation of ritual, a key concept in Confucianism. In addition, the Mohist school disagreed with a proclaimed Confucian belief in fatalism. Although this disagreement appears to stem from a Mohist exaggeration of Confucian belief (the textual doctrines associated with Confucianism do not imply the kind of fatalism for which they are accused), it is plausible that there existed Confucians of the period who espoused a fatalistic belief in the ultimate powers of heaven. Lastly, disagreement with the Confucians arose concerning beliefs about the family. Encouraging an attitude of impartiality and transcendence over one’s personal and familial contexts, Mohists directly negated the Confucian belief in the priority of family relations.

Later Mohists lived and wrote from about 300 to 200 b.c.e. Their concerns appear on the surface to diverge radically from those of their predecessors. In reality, they preserved the basic tenets of ethical and political Mohism while adding new interests in specialized matters of defense, “scientific” knowledge, and disputation. Later Mohists organized themselves into three main schools that viewed each other as rivals, or heretical Mohists, rather than in fraternity with each other. The perceived rift was expressed through a claim by each group that it maintained exclusive hold on the correct transmission of Mohist ideals and practices. The many treatises on military science, logic, and language stem most likely from the Later Mohist phase of the school.

Significance

Mohist philosophy had a profound effect on Warring States culture and politics as well as on the political structure of the imperial Chinese state for the next twenty-three hundred years. Several sources hint that Mohists and Confucians dominated the intellectual and political scene of the fourth to third centuries b.c.e. Mohist beliefs in meritocracy and impartial law were absorbed so thoroughly in political discourse that they quickly became associated with non-Mohist intellectual activity involving ideas on statecraft, later referred to as Legalism. Early Mohist influence on Legalistic thought and figures as well as its direct influence on the courts of the day helped shape governments and move them toward the development of the first Chinese empire in 221 b.c.e. Their concern with meritocracy helped fuel policies, and institutions would establish a means by which worthy and able men might be rewarded for their merit through government service. This ideal formed the basis for what later became the Chinese civil service examination system, which dominated the political scene in many states throughout East Asia from the eighth and ninth centuries until the twentieth century.

The disappearance of Mohism coincided with the rise of the Qin (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.) and Han (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.) Dynasties. Some scholars speculate that the group’s sudden demise can be attributed to the wide popularity enjoyed by the Mohists during the roughly two centuries of their existence. This claim states that Mohist ideals became so absorbed into intellectual culture that there no longer was a need for the school itself. However, without more data on the particular contexts and circumstances surrounding their demise, such a claim cannot be confirmed.

Mohist writings were largely neglected for two millennia, until recent Western influence sparked a renewed interest in the scientific and logical foundations of Chinese thought. As a result of this general neglect, the text of Mozi, and especially the work of the Later Mohists, did not receive the scribal recopying, editing and textual reworking, and interpreting and exegesis that its counterparts in the Confucian or Daoist traditions received. It is therefore extremely difficult for any contemporary scholar to gain solid comprehension of the complexities of Later Mohist intellectual concerns.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forke, Alfred, trans. Me Ti des Sozialethikers und seiner Schüler philosophische Werke. Berlin: Kommissionsverlag der Vereinigung Wissenschaftlicher Verleger, 1922. In German. The only complete translation of the entire Mohist corpus in a Western language. While translations of the core chapters of the early Mohist school are acceptable, translations of the specialized, later works are not reliable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fung, Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Vols. 1-2. Translated by Derk Bodde. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. Thorough overview of Chinese philosophy that includes a narrative of the Mohists and their place in the history of early thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989. Provides one of the best discussions of the role of Mohist thought as a radical reaction to contemporary debates of the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, A. C. Divisions in Early Mohism Reflected in the Core Chapters of Mo-tzu. Singapore: Institute of East Asian Philosophies, 1985. Argues for the division of Mohist schools of thought on the basis of apparent differences in the Mohist corpus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, A. C. Later Mohist Logic, Ethics and Science. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1978. The most thorough discussion of the later Mohist “Canon,” its “Explanations,” and other treatises that attest to the depth of later Mohist involvement in science and language, as well as more standard ethical pursuits.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hu, Shih. The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China. 2d ed. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corporation, 1963. A twentieth century Chinese thinker’s restatement of the value of China’s own past. This view makes a claim for the indigenous roots of logic as reflected in Mohist writings of the classical period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mozi. Mo Tzu: Baisc Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia Universtiy Press, 1963. Selected translations of the core chapters of Early Mohist ethical writings. Despite the limited content of this translation, it is still the most used and readable version of the Mohists’ early writings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Benjamin. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. Provides a very good overview of early Chinese thought that includes Mohist concerns and pursuits.
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