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Mohism together with Confucianism was one of the two most influential schools of thought in the warring states period. Mozi, the founder of the school (though most likely not the author of the book of the same name) was well versed in Confucian doctrine, but opposed key Confucian ideas such as adherence to the rites of Zhou, and the importance placed on interpersonal relations such as father-son and ruler-minister, instead advocating whatever courses of action would "benefit all under heaven" (興天下之利), in particular "universal love" (兼愛). The Mohists placed great emphasis on finding objective standards to support their ideas, and ultimately became interested in standards in fields including ethics, debate and the natural sciences.

Though highly influential during the warring states period, the school of Mohism died out completely after the unification of China by the Qin dynasty. Nevertheless, Mohist ideas clearly influenced their contemporaries, and the Mohist emphasis on methodology and standards in reasoning and argumentation had a profound influence upon thinkers of other schools of thought at the time. As Lu Sheng mentioned in the preface to his (now lost) commentary on the Mohist canon, though Mencius vehemently opposed the doctrines of the Mohists, his methods of argumentation were precisely those described in the Mozi (孟子非墨子,其辯言正辭則與墨同).

Textual structure

The Mozi can be clearly divided into several sections according to style and content of the chapters. While authorship of some chapters is disputed, and it seems likely that the book was neither the work of a single individual nor authored over a short period of time, the general ideas presented throughout the work are broadly consistent, and so it is generally accepted that the entire text can be taken as broadly representative of the Mohist school.

Key beliefs and doctrines

Universal love 兼愛

Universal love (or impartiality) is a central belief of the Mohists, and underlies much of their philosophy. Universal love means loving all people under heaven equally, regardless of their status or relation to oneself. People should not aim to benefit only themselves, their family, or their country, but should aim to bring the greatest benefit to all people, regardless how distant they may be from oneself; hence Mohism is often said to be a type of utilitarianism. The Mohists identify the lack of universal love as a key cause of disorder and suffering in the world, and see universal love as a way to 「create benefits for the world and eliminate its calamities」 (興天下之利,除天下之害), a phrase which occurs repeatedly throughout the core chapters of the Mozi and is a central theme of the whole Mohist project. The Mohist approach of weighing up benefit and harm as they apply to all under heaven contrasts starkly with the importance that Confucianism gives to different human relationships. Indeed, the Mohist canon defines righteousness as benefit/profit, whereas Mencius rebukes King Hui of Liang for even raising profit as a topic of discussion. These and other fundamental differences made Confucians and Mohists bitter enemies, with three chapters of the Mozi devoted entirely to opposing Confucianism, and Mencius describing the Mohists along with Yangists as 「beasts」.

Economy and simplicity 節用、節葬、非樂

In accordance with the aim of benefiting all under heaven, the Mohists advocated economy of expenditure, and simplicity in funerals and performances of music and dancing. These ideas make sense in the context of pre-Qin society, particularly when one notes the extravagance involved in many of the ceremonies. A funeral could involve the work of thousands of labourers over many months (consider for example the terracotta warriors, though pre-Qin ceremonies would not have reached this level of extravagance), and might also involve the interment of hundreds of the living along with the deceased. For the Mohist, this is a clear example of failing to benefit all under heaven. Similarly in the case of music, the Mohist does not oppose music per se, but rather the extravagance of the musical performances of the time, which would occupy many hundreds of skilled workers to create and operate the enormous bells used, at a time when ordinary people were often faced with starvation.

Condemnation of offensive war 非攻

Breaking into a man』s garden and stealing his property is wrong; doing so ten times to ten men is surely ten times worse. Murdering a man is a terrible crime; murdering ten men is surely more terrible still. And yet what is war but murder and theft on a grand scale? For the Mohist, knowing that theft and murder are wrong, and yet not opposing offensive war, is a case of 『knowing the small and yet not knowing the great』, 『not knowing classes』, or being one who 『upon seeing little white, says 『white』, yet seeing much white, calls it 『black』』.

It is important to note that the Mohists were not opposed to all war, but only to the initiation of war; defence when attacked was not only acceptable, but actively encouraged, and defensive tactics were a key tool for the Mohists in preventing war from occurring (as in the story of Mozi stopping Chu from attacking Song). This explains the apparently contradictory presence of highly detailed chapters on military technique included in the latter part of the Mozi – if one』s defences are strong enough, an enemy will be deterred from launching an attack, and thus war can be averted.

Rejection of Fatalism 非命

For the Mohist, the problem with fatalism is very simple: it brings the world harm and not benefit. If the people all believe that poverty and wealth are decided by fate and not their own effort, then the people will be lazy and the state will be poor.

Will of Heaven 天志

While explicitly rejecting fatalism, the Mozi repeatedly appeals to the idea of "the will of Heaven". The will of heaven is the ultimate justification for pursuing a course of righteousness and universal love - heaven itself wishes these to be so (天欲義而惡不義). Heaven rewards and punishes all men, even the emperor, in accordance to its wishes, rewarding those who do right and punishing those who do wrong. Hence by following the standard of heaven, we can dispel disorder from the world.

Theoretical Framework

The Mohist's single greatest contribution to Chinese philosophy was their belief in the importance of standards by which doctrines could (and should) be judged. Throughout the core chapters of the Mozi, appeal is made to the "method of the three standards" as a way of justifying the Mohist position on various issues. Later in the so-called "dialectical chapters", the Mohists became interested in generally applicable standards and rules in language and the natural sciences, and developed much more sophisticated theories of standards for sentences and methods of reasoning. While the legalists expanded on the idea of laws as normative codes of behaviour, the Mohists concentrated on the notion of laws as being descriptive of reality.

The method of three standards 三表法

A valid doctrine should pass all three of these tests.

Cause, reason, and class 故、理、類

Aside from the obvious differences in topic and writing style, a key difference between the dialectical chapters and the core chapters of the Mozi is that the dialectical chapters, while retaining and developing the emphasis on standards (including providing a definition of the concept of a standard, 法), appeal to an entirely different system of standards for their justification. In contrast to the "three standards" of the core chapters, the dialectical chapters appeal to the "three things": cause, reason, and class.

The "three things" (三物), cause, reason, and class, are what the Mohist dialectical chapters take as the necessary and sufficient conditions for a sentence or proposition (辭) to be assertable.

Word, sentence, explanation and disputation 名、辭、說、辯

The Minor Illustrations (小取) chapter of the Mozi gives an explanation of how debate and argumentation (辯) should be carried out: "Use words to refer to real things, sentences to express ideas, and explanations to reveal causes; take by class and give by class" (以名舉實,以辭抒意,以說出故,以類取,以類予). An acceptable sentence should "be born of causes, grow through reason, and move in accordance to classes" (以故生,以理長,以類行).


Resource typeLanguageAuthorTitleISBN
BookEnglishGraham, A.C.Later Mohist Logic, Ethics and Science, Chinese University Press (2004)962201142X
BookChineseLee, Hsien-Chung墨學:理論與方法, 揚智文化 (2003)2147483647
BookChinese孫詒讓墨子閒詁, 華正書局 (1994)

See also