Ways of Heaven

An Introduction to Chinese Thought


By Roel Sterckx

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A brilliant history of ancient China’s masters of philosophy — and how they help us understand China today
In Ways of Heaven, leading China scholar Roel Sterckx offers an engrossing introduction to classical China’s world of ideas. Drawing on evocative examples from philosophical texts, literature, and everyday life over centuries of Chinese history, Sterckx introduces major thinkers and traditions, illuminates key concepts like the dao, qi, yin, and yang, and examines questions of leadership, social order, death, nature, and more. He also reveals how these ideas shape contemporary China, from table manners at a traditional banquet, to the Chinese obsession with education and family, to the rhetoric of political leaders and the nation’s grand strategy.
Essential reading for students, travelers, businesspeople, and anyone curious about this rising global power, Ways of Heaven shows that to comprehend China today we must learn to think Chinese.


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China has emerged onto the world scene wielding economic and political power and influence as never before. When the thirteenth-century Venetian traveller Marco Polo reported on the riches of this vast empire, its people and its cities, his stories were bundled together in a book that announced itself as describing the ‘marvels’ of the world (Le Livre des merveilles du monde). Today our encounters and fascination with China are more sophisticated and multifaceted. To an increasing number of students and professionals, China no longer represents that quintessentially ‘other’ civilization, that place where each and every habit, virtue and vice seems to turn upside down everything held dear by a loosely self-identified ‘West’.

The direction of human travel, too, has turned irreversibly. Gone are the days when a handful of missionaries fuelled European curiosity about China during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, or when, a century later, accounts of the achievements and tribulations of a waning Chinese empire were funnelled to Europe by a select group of traders, diplomats and preachers. Today, every respectable university campus in the world recruits and plays host to highly talented Chinese students and researchers. China trades visibly, and invisibly, in every corner of the world. Its goods, services and cultural capital are discernible, audible or edible in every household. Young people explore the Chinese language at school, university or in evening classes with the same curiosity that drew foodies to Chinese cuisine before noodles and Peking duck went global.

Yet our schools, colleges and media have barely begun putting together the elementary curricula needed to introduce aspiring global citizens to the basic outlines of Chinese civilization and Chinese ways of thinking. China, so far, tends to creep into our narrative only from the time it appears on the imperial horizons of the West, or when it enters the international politics of the twentieth century, or when its economy seems unresistingly relevant (or threatening) to us. In university departments, philosophy still sounds mostly Greek; neither does one-fifth of the world’s population appear to have a religion, judging by many course syllabi. Beyond its moments of encounter with the West, to many China remains a land of tea and calligraphy, poetry and porcelain, and the odd imposing emperor. For those still comfortable with intercultural conversation in terms of ‘we’ versus ‘them’, the knowledge that the average Chinese teenager or college student knows much more about ‘us’ than ‘we’ know about ‘them’ should be a gentle wake-up call. To understand China, we need to learn to think Chinese.

This book requires no knowledge of China. Its thematic organization reflects my personal digest as it has grown in conversation with students and audiences over the years. Like myself at the age of eighteen, many of my students did not know what to expect or where to begin when they came to college to study China, its history, language(s) and thought. I hope this book will give readers some useful vantage points from which to begin their own dialogue with Chinese thinkers. Readers who wish to jump straight into the world of ideas can consider skipping the first chapter, which offers background information on Chinese history, geography, the classical Chinese language and the nature of the sources at hand. Busy readers should be able to turn to individual chapters in no particular order.

Historians short of ideas tend to become historians of ideas. A good way to characterize Chinese thought is to spell out what it is not. In the pages that follow, you will find little theoretical reflection on how the human mind works, or whether there exists a world or reality beyond this one. Nor will you be told how matter relates to spirit, what truth is (let alone logic) or whether there exists such a thing called mind or knowledge. Why? Because such questions (known among professional philosophers as epistemology and ontology) did not figure highly on the agenda of Chinese thinkers. The classical Chinese language did not have a term for ‘philosophy’; the modern Mandarin term (zhexue) was imported from Japan in the late nineteenth century (and initially only referred to Western philosophy).

Chinese thought is predominantly human-centred and practice-oriented. The great questions that have occupied China’s brightest minds are not about who and what we are, but rather about how we should live our lives, how we relate to others, how we should organize society and how we can secure the well-being of those who live with us and for whom we are responsible. Human conduct, human nature and the politics of human society will form the bulk of the story here. When comparing philosophical traditions, it is easy to get lost in the many different answers various thinkers give to the enduring questions of life. A more fruitful way into a culture is to focus first on the questions that are asked, before worrying about the answers. In China these questions included: what makes a good person; what type of person is fit to govern and lead others; how can we create order in society; how can past traditions inform the present; what can we learn from those who came before us; what strategies will enable us to outmanoeuvre our enemies and competitors; how do we persuade others; does social engagement make for a fulfilling life, or is it better to retreat from society altogether?

Ancient China’s masters of philosophy – the protagonists of this book – rarely engage in intellectual debate for its own sake. Most ideas are offered as guidance to be lived, experienced and practised. (Ironically, China’s most influential thinker, Confucius, was a failure in office and unable to find a ruler willing to put his ideas into practice.) They reflect on how to live, function better and find harmony with the world. Yet in putting lived experience above theoretical knowledge, their teachings touch the entire person, the brain as well as the emotions. That is why they are as relevant today as they are interesting for their past.


Legendary ages and Xia dynasty

Shang dynasty c.1600–c.1045 BCE

Zhou dynasty c.1045–256 BCE

Western Zhou period c.1045–771 BCE

Eastern Zhou period 770–256 BCE

Spring and Autumn period 770–481 BCE

Warring States period 481–221 BCE

Qin dynasty 221–206 BCE

Han dynasty 206 BCE–220 CE

Western/Former Han 206 BCE–9 CE

Xin interregnum 9–23 CE

Eastern/Later Han 25–220 CE

Six Dynasties period 220–589 CE

Sui dynasty 581–618

Tang dynasty 618–907

Five Dynasties period 902–979

Song dynasty 960–1279

Northern Song period 960–1127

Southern Song period 1127–1279

Yuan dynasty 1271–1368

Ming dynasty 1368–1644

Qing dynasty 1644–1912

Republican period 1912–49

People’s Republic of China 1949 to present

Principal Figures

Table showing the principal Chinese thinkers and other historical figures covered by this book, arranged in approximate chronological order. A comprehensive list of names is included in the index. In Chinese names, the surname appears first, followed by the given name (e.g. in the case of Sima Qian, Sima is the surname and Qian the given name).



China in Time and Space

What do we mean by China? Who are the Chinese? At first sight, you may think these are somewhat superfluous questions (like asking Socrates if Athens is located in Greece). But the issue merits some consideration. The history of China, like that of Europe, is not a linear story of one static, everlasting and stubbornly uniform continent. An oft-repeated line in history books, travel and museum guides and in television documentaries runs: ‘What sets China apart from the rest of the world is the fact that it boasts a continuous civilization running through at least two and a half millennia’ (and preferably longer). It is no surprise to see such cultural pride invoked on occasions by Chinese politicians, diplomats and other public figures. And, yes, many things have an admirably long history in China. But, as the social historian Wolfram Eberhard once pointed out, the greatness of a civilization is established by its achievements, not by claims to the longest history. To be sure, China has achieved a great deal. But claims to being the ‘oldest living civilization’ on the basis of a ‘longest continuous history’ can also offer a licence for veiled or misplaced cultural exceptionalism.

We could, and probably should, be open to alternative views. One would be to point out that the history of China consists of moments of political and geographical union interspersed by centuries of division. In the period from the early third to the mid tenth century CE alone, more than forty-five dynasties ruled over parts or all of its territory. Further back in time, more than ten centuries had already elapsed before China would emerge for the first time as an empire in 221 BCE. China’s historical continuity, therefore, is marked by a striking measure of discontinuity. For large swathes of time, China has been ruled by regimes whose leading elites and officials were not ethnically Chinese. On that account, the Mongols and Manchus alone already take up nearly four centuries on China’s historical chronology (the Yuan and Qing dynasties).

To counter this image of China as a uniform giant – either sleeping, restless or rising – it is more useful to think of its history as a history of regions, to imagine its people as regionally and often ethnically diverse, and to look at those in power as agents charged with the challenging task of keeping the regions in line with the demands of the political centre. The last has been the single most pressing mission of any ruling house that has governed China, be it the imperial courts of the past or the Communist Party and those at the helm today. Throughout China’s long history, a pronounced regional consciousness has never really disappeared. The division between north and south is one of its constants. The gradual southward expansion of the Han Chinese from their place of origin in the Yellow River basin was of key importance. In the north, political, social and economic developments were shaped against the threat of invasions by non-Chinese nomads. The much more scarcely populated western regions were a corridor to Central Asia. At certain stages, these outlying edges of the Chinese empire ranked among the most multi-ethnic and multilingual areas anywhere in the pre-modern world. In today’s China, regionalism continues to be high on the political agenda, reflected, for instance, in renewed interest in local heritage and state-sponsored approaches to the study of local cultures. In short, when we speak of ‘China’, or of people and things as ‘Chinese’, these are to some extent terms of convenience we use to refer to the peoples and geography within the evolving political borders of what has come to correspond roughly to the People’s Republic of China today.

The origins of the term ‘China’ itself remain disputed. One widely held view has been that it is related to Qin, the name of the state that founded the first unified empire. But a Sanskrit term, Cīna, already appears in Indian sources that may go back two centuries earlier. Before the unification of the Chinese empire in 221 BCE and the first long-lasting Han dynasty, few would have identified themselves as ‘Chinese’. If you hailed from the region corresponding to present-day Shandong, for instance, you would have introduced yourself as a person from Qi, or, in the case of Confucius, a person from Lu. As a southerner you would be known as coming from Chu, Ba or Yue. If you were born in the region around today’s Beijing, you came from Yan (the name still figures in the brand name of a popular Beijing beer). As in China today, there is plenty of evidence in ancient texts that people were aware of linguistic diversity. Sources mention the peculiar nature of different dialects and the use of translators. Anecdotes survive that turn multilingualism and speech confusion into a source of entertainment or moral counsel. One story tells of a man from Zhou who tried to sell some freshly dressed rats to a merchant from Zheng. The latter politely declined the offer once he realized that he had mistaken the Zhou word for ‘rats’ for the similar-sounding Zheng word for ‘unpolished jade’ (Zhanguo ce, Qin 100). What you hear is not always what you get. You cannot eat jade (unless you are an immortal), and a rat would make an odd addition to the jewellery box. At the time when China’s major thinkers began to formulate their ideas, the state of Zhou and some of its immediate neighbours in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River came to be identified as Zhongguo, translated in the plural as the ‘Central Kingdoms’. The use of the same toponym to refer to China as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ or nation state would have to wait until Ming, Qing and modern times. More often, the known civilized world that was within reach of the monarch was known as ‘All under Heaven’ (Tian xia). So while philosophers and statesmen often spoke of human nature and human behaviour in a more or less universal manner, there was a sense in ancient China that the region, its soil and local climate influenced not only the way people looked, but also their character. To be born in the Central Kingdoms, according to some at least, came with temperamental advantages:

People who live in regions of hard soil are hard and unyielding; people who live on easily worked soil are fat. People who live on lumpy soil are large; people who live on sandy soil are small. People who live on fertile soil are beautiful; people who live on barren soil are ugly. People who live on level ground are clever… People in the east are tall and large, they become knowledgeable early but are not long-lived… People in the south mature early but die young… People in the west are daring but not humane… People in the north are stupid as birds or beasts but are long-lived… People in the centre are clever and sage-like and are good at government. (Huainanzi 4.9, 4.13)

With these caveats in mind, I refer to the plurality of peoples and the protagonists in this book as Chinese and to the continent on which they lived and live as geographical China.

Historical setting

Chinese civilization began in the loess highlands around the great bend of the Yellow River and the Wei river valley. The Shang dynasty (c.1600–c.1045 BCE), which produced the oldest forms of writing in the shape of oracle bone inscriptions on turtle shells and animal bones, marks the point where history departs from prehistory. The formative phase for the development of Chinese thought starts slightly later, during the Zhou period (c.1045–256 BCE). It culminated in the six or so centuries traditionally referred to as the Warring States and early imperial periods (fifth century BCE to second century CE).

Throughout this book I refer to ‘ancient China’ using a broad brush to cover the period extending from about the ninth century BCE to the second century CE. This thousand-year stretch of history was marked by various stages of state formation. It was a time when China gradually evolved from a confederacy of feudal states into a unified empire, a shape it retained until 1911 (and which, in some spheres of political life, arguably still holds sway over China today). In accounts of Chinese history, this period is also referred to as the ‘classical’ age, because scholars who first studied China compared its influence on Chinese civilization to that of the Graeco-Roman period in the history of the West. In the world of ideas, the Warring States and early imperial period runs parallel to the classical age of Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great in ancient Greece. It ends at the time of the Late Republic and the dawn of the Augustan period in Rome.

China’s classical age has exerted a lasting influence on the socio-political and intellectual development of the Chinese world. It witnessed the birth of popular and anecdotal literature, the development of historiography and the growth of administrative record-keeping. It was the time when China produced some of its greatest philosophers, and when a canon of texts came together that would directly, or indirectly, shape the thinking of every person of influence in China for centuries to come. This was also the age when a number of renowned political figures took centre stage to instigate policies and inaugurate institutions that would leave an indelible mark on Chinese history. Another label that has been used to describe the centuries during which these ideas emerged is the Axial Age, a term coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) to refer to a period of four or five centuries during which philosophical ideas exploded simultaneously, and without direct contact, from the Graeco-Roman world, across Eurasia, to India and China.

Ancient China produced a chain of ideas that was to inform the way in which the Chinese have viewed the world ever since. Some of the individuals we will encounter survive as enduring figures in China’s intellectual and cultural heritage. But to present Chinese thought simply as a history of significant figures, their works and their influence upon the world of ideas would not do justice to its richness. Nor would we be able to account for its diversity and productivity if we relied only on those texts later generations and scholars have dubbed ‘philosophical’ (a term even philosophers fight over!). Much is to be found between the cracks of scholastic philosophy.

When, during the late second century BCE, the historian Sima Tan (d. c.110 BCE) looked back at ancient China’s philosophical landscape, he divided it up into six schools or lineages: the School of Yin-Yang, the Confucians, Mohists, Legalists, the ‘School of Names’ (sophists or logicians) and the Daoists. Together with other masters and specialists, including military strategists, the world of thought in ancient China came to be known as that of ‘One Hundred Schools’ (bai jia) of thought (‘one hundred’ being a common term for ‘many’). Most textbooks, in both the East and West, remain deeply influenced by this paradigm. As a term, the ‘One Hundred Schools’ took on a life of its own. Mao Zedong drew on the image of ancient China’s roaming debaters to launch his Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956 (‘let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend’), only to abort the short-lived movement when he concluded that the criticism offered was unhealthy and damaging to his authority.

Mao aside, the ‘one hundred’ label acknowledges the wide variety of thinkers that were dotted across China during the classical period. And it is correct to identify Confucianists, Daoists and Legalists as the most influential among them. Yet reducing ancient Chinese thought into a neatly defined world of ‘schools’ is problematic. It suggests that ideas are appropriated by one individual or can be attributed exclusively to one particular thinker or text. In recent years, scholars have questioned the very concept of a ‘philosophical school’ as a useful means of understanding how ideas were spread and made part of the canon in ancient China. Ideas tended to be transmitted through lineages of masters and disciples who gathered together around the study of certain texts and commentaries. But, as we shall see, in reality both the ideas and the texts in which they are preserved are messier and, at times, even a hybrid mixture of different concepts. Ideas can bounce off and back into each other in an innovative and unpredictable way. Attributing them to one school rather than another often does little to help us appreciate what they mean. We also need to keep in mind that the historical information we have on the lives and deeds of many, if not most, of ancient China’s key thinkers is very limited. Explaining ideas as direct accounts from the mouth or brush of one particular person often proves problematic.

Nevertheless, some thinkers and strands of thought were clearly reacting to opposing views. In that sense, it is fine to think of a ‘school’ as a retrospective way of grouping together people who have a common stance on certain issues or who draw on the same figures, concepts or texts. The dialogue was one of the main formats in which ideas were transmitted. These could be real or imaginary interchanges between a master and a disciple, a ruler and a minister, a court official and his superior, or between a commentary and a prior version of a text. Dialogues were also choreographed between fictional characters, culture heroes, or figures from the distant and legendary past. Thus ideas in ancient China seem to move like oil patches on the surface of water: they appear cohesive at one moment, only to be pulled in different directions, forming new outlines, until they are scattered around, or bubble up and reconnect to form a new patch. To understand the social and political background that shaped much of this intellectual landscape, a brief review of certain key facts, individuals and events may help by way of historical context.


The oldest written records available in China today are divination inscriptions (formulas seeking to predict the outcome of events) incised onto cattle bone and turtle shell. These brief inscriptions date mostly from the twelfth to the mid eleventh century BCE. Well over two hundred thousand fragments have been attested since they came to the attention of scholars in the late nineteenth century. Oracle bone inscriptions are very short and not reflective in nature, but they do tell us something about the religion of the Shang people and their view of the world. The Shang kings revered as their supreme power a spirit named Di, who presided over a host of nature spirits. The Shang pantheon included spirits that would come to occupy an important role in Chinese religion in later times, such as powers linked to the soil, mountains or rivers. The topics of the oracle bone inscriptions are wide-ranging. They show how the Shang kings sought guidance on all sorts of issues, from the weather, war, hunting and the health of the king and his consorts to the timing of sacrifices to ancestors, the issuing of commands and the offering and receipt of gifts. Priests would crack the turtle shells and cattle scapulae using a hot poker and interpret these cracks, while answers to the questions they posed were written down on the bone.

The Shang people had a ten-day week. Large amounts of livestock (including prisoners of war who were counted by the heads or ears) were set apart to maintain ritual sacrifices to the spirits and the royal ancestors. These meats were offered together with ale. Royal ancestors carried much weight in the scheduling of sacrifices to which their spirits were invited. Tablets that represented their souls were used to receive offerings during rituals. These spirit tablets were housed in temples. The Shang conceived of the world as a central square around which lay four areas or ‘lands’ (east, south, west and north). By the time of the oracle bones, Shang society was primarily agricultural with people living in small settlements surrounded by fields. The Shang could mobilize troops of around three to five thousand warriors, commanded by officers that travelled the battlefield in light horse-drawn chariots. Chariots, along with ceremonial bronzes – vessels that held offerings – and oracle bone inscriptions, continue to be found today.

Several elements that would become important in Chinese thought in the following centuries are already evident in the Shang world. One is the notion that nature is inhabited by spirit powers that need to be placated or beseeched to secure a good outcome for future events. Another is the vital role of ancestors in bridging the gap between the human world and a seemingly distant and whimsical supreme spirit force. Then there is the key role played by the offering of sacrifices to forge relationships with ancestral and other spirits. Shang religion already illustrates that the economic resources needed to sustain such rituals were substantial: soothing the spirits did not come cheap. The need for rituals, paired with calls to justify or moderate ritual expenditure, would become one of the threads that run through ethical discussions of many thinkers in the classical period. At some point during the ninth century BCE, there were already calls for greater austerity on sacrificial occasions. (We must assume that some turned into extravagant feasts.) Bronze ceremonial vessels made to hold alcohol become less prominent in the archaeological record. We can be grateful to the Shang for keeping archives of their inscribed bones. Indeed, Shang diviners may have been China’s first bureaucrats. Record-keeping would emerge as a central activity in China’s courts of power, as would the manipulation of records. After all, by the end of the dynasty the Shang king appears as virtually the sole diviner to consult the spirits. Those who commanded mantic powers in order to solicit the spirits in a way that might elicit the disapproval of the king were unlikely to have a long career.


Around 1045 BCE


  • "An outstanding introduction to the world of thought in classical China. Engagingly written and beautifully argued, Ways of Heaven is an invaluable work for anyone interested in exploring the key ideas and concerns that have animated so much of Chinese civilization."—Michael Puett, authorof The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
  • "Ever wondered why Chinese have valued ritual more than law, harmony more than personal accomplishment? In this engagingly-written book, Roel Sterckx makes these and other central elements in Chinese thought easy to understand and interesting to think about."—Patricia B. Ebrey, professor of history, University ofWashington
  • "We have been waiting for this book for too long. For centuries, the real China has been locked in a distant castle by both the western media and Chinese propaganda. If you are curious about the origin of China's yin and yang, if you want to know more about the roots of Chinese philosophy, if you want to know how to do business with the Chinese, if you want to gain insight into Chinese art, or even if you want to understand the mentality of Chinese people, this book will answer these questions for you. Roel Sterckx's book can be the key to opening that Chinese castle's gate, and help you to understand how Chinese life has taken shape from Confucius to the food menus of today."—XinranXue, author of Sky Burial, The Good Women of China, and ChinaWitness

On Sale
Sep 17, 2019
Page Count
512 pages
Basic Books

Roel Sterckx

About the Author

Roel Sterckx is Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History, Science, and Civilization at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Clare College. The author of several books on early China, he lives in Cambridge, England.

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