The Mohist school was one of the principal groups of the pre-Qin (times before 221 BCE) “hundred schools of thought.” It came into being during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) and was founded by Mo Di. In the history of Chinese thought, it offers a rare insight into the thoughts and requirements of a school originating from the lower classes. In the Warring States period, its ideas often mingled with the Ruist school and when this happened it was termed xian xue (practical learning).
Born in the Lu state, Mo Di (ca. 468–376 BCE), also known as Mozi (Master Mo), was a well-known thinker and military expert in the early Warring States period. He rose from the lower classes to become a senior official in the Song state. Aside from his government duties, he also expounded his theories in writing and instructed his disciples. He was a skilled craftsman and adept at manufacturing weapons for city defense. Of the extant writings that clearly represent the Mohist teachings and thought there are “Shang xian” (Exalting worthiness), “Jian ai” (Caring for everyone), and “Fei gong” (Condemnation of offensive warfare).
The late Spring and Autumn-early Warring States period was a violent and tumultuous time in Chinese history. The conventional social system collapsed, and a new social order had not yet taken shape; this led to a situation where various states vied for supremacy.
As a result, there was the endless chaos of war, and a wide gap between rich and poor. These conditions were ripe for ideas such as equality and mutual aide for building a prosperous and ideal world to develop into a shared desire among the people.
Starting from a commoner’s stance, Mozi put forward a method to free people from suffering:
Jian ai, or Caring for everyone (undifferentiated concern for all);
Fei gong, or Condemnation of offensive warfare;
Tian zhi, or Affirming the will of Heaven;
Ming gui, or Understanding ghosts;
Shang xian, or Exalting worthiness;
Shang tong, or Exalting unity;
Jie yong, or Moderation in expenditures;
Jie sang, or Moderation in funerals;
Fei yue, or Condemnation of music;
Fei ming, or Condemnation of fatalism.
Jian ai is the core that runs through all the various parts of Mohism. Tian zhi and ming gui are the theoretical foundation of jian ai, because tian, or heaven, is an advocate of universal love and against differentiation. Politically, Mozi opposed war, and encouraged the promotion of virtuous men of humble birth; this is the concrete manifestation of universal love. In life, Mozi advocated moderation in expenses, moderation in funerals, and was against music.
Aiding people in hardship is the fundamental starting point of Mohist doctrine; one can understand Mohism as ultimately being based on an ordered state.
Against the chaotic social realities, Mozi put forward his own view of an ideal state—choose a virtuous person as the Son of Heaven to reestablish political authority, and the people and officials will give absolute obedience to him, and thereby form a top-down, state-wide unity of will. Despite differences within the communities, war would naturally cease to exist. The specific method of constructing the ideal state is first to exalt worthiness (this meant to promote virtuous persons rather than relying on the hereditary system) and secondly to condemn offensive warfare (one should give total attention to defense). With his high scholarly reputation Mozi gradually formed a large scholarly community whose members were known as Mohists. They were faithful followers of Mozi’s doctrine and strong advocates of his ideal state. Mohist groups implemented absolute egalitarianism, simplicity of life, strict discipline, and chose a leader known as juzi (great master). All the members must act as advocates of the Mohist school in their respective states, and their official salaries must go back to the community as tribute. A Mohist team also worked as a paramilitary organization, by practical action to prevent a number of wars and by participating several times in defending cities under siege.
Mohism is an encyclopedic type of philosophical school. Its principal text Mozi contains a wide range of content including politics, military strategy, philosophy, ethics, logic, science and technology. Mozi and his followers were mostly craftsmen. With their dexterity and ingenuity, they not only created many elaborate handicraft products, but also promoted scientific theory in physics, geometry, optics, and other fields. Mozi himself was not only an eminent thinker but also an outstanding scientist who had great accomplishments in logic and natural sciences. The Mohist doctrine spread principally because it reflected the desires of the lower classes. Its stance against class distinction, and criticism of the disparity between rich and poor brought it into conflict with the rich and powerful. After the unification of China in 221 BCE, Mohism suffered setbacks from Qin Shihuang’s (First Emperor of Qin) burning of the books and burying of Ruist scholars, and the Han dynasty prohibition against knights-errant. In the end, it went from prominence to near extinction.