Chinese classical thought was directed primarily to politics in the wider sense, yet China produced relatively little systematic political philosophy. The Chinese cities of the Warring States period (481–221 bc) were not, like Athens, the home of maritime traders with wide experience of other cultures, but centres of Chinese acculturation of the surrounding areas. China did not experience Christendom's struggle between Church and State, nor the enforced religious pluralism which succeeded the European wars of religion. Feudalism, which in Europe provided the basis for constitutionalism, disappeared from China with the war chariot; indeed it was the collapse of feudalism which created the problems with which China's ancient thinkers were preoccupied. Finally, the emphasis on finding new means of maintaining social harmony led Chinese philosophers to think less in terms of abstract principles and more in terms of the processes of socialization. As a result, China produced a political culture rather than a political philosophy.
The agenda of Chinese philosophy was set by Confucius, and after two centuries of debate Confucianism became dominant in the version created by Mencius (d. 289 bc). However, in the disorder which followed the fall of the Han dynasty (202 bc–ad 220), during which Buddhism, imported into China in the first century ad, became a serious rival, Confucianism suffered a decline. In attempting to attract support away from Buddhism, the Ru (the Confucian scholars) turned their attention to cosmology and metaphysics, and their concern with public values and public service declined. However, after many centuries the commitment began to be revived, paradoxically by giving it a new metaphysical basis in continued rivalry with Buddhism. Zhu Xi (1130–1200), using metaphysical arguments, reasserted the claim of Confucianism as a means to control erring emperors.
Every phenomenon, argued Zhu Xi, is an imperfect expression of its own eternal principle. Good government also expresses such principles. The emperors, however, were quick to make themselves the supreme interpreters of principle. Zhu Xi's philosophy, thus captured by the throne, remained the official orthodoxy until modern times.
Wang Yangming (1472–1529), in opposition to this orthodox view, asserted that moral principles were created by the response of an active conscience to individual experience. He developed the Zen idea that if, through meditation (which to Wang meant essentially introspection) a man can clear his mind of prejudice, fear, and self‐interest, he will be able to act with the speed and strength of the tiger. Wang also argued that knowledge was incomplete until applied in action. There is a clear implication that consciousness thus attained will itself motivate to moral action.
In the late seventeenth century three scholars who had retired from affairs after participating in the popular but unsuccessful guerrilla defence of central China against the Manchu conquest of 1644, sought to explain why the Ming dynasty had collapsed. Gu Yanwu (1613–82) argued that China was at her weakest when the central government was strongest, and at her strongest when her local communities were strong. Huang Zongxi (1610–95) reasserted the belief that the true guardians of morality were the Confucian gentry, and advocated that the emperors should have to choose their councillors from the independent Confucian academies. Wang Fuzhi (1619–92) demystified the ancient idea of the Mandate of Heaven by which successful revolt against a failing dynasty was justified after the event, and the new dynasty said to have received the Mandate. He argued that the struggle for the throne was usually a struggle among rogues, but that the rogue who won was obliged to rise to the responsibilities of empire. He thus secularized China's moral legitimation of government. All three in different ways were asserting the primacy of civil society.