I am currently in the process of enrolling for a Philosophy major. I would like to balance the amount of western philosophy with eastern philosophy. However, I can only choose Chinese or Japanese studies or even "Southeast Asian" studies, whatever that means.

At the moment I have no clue what the major differences in philosophy between these three cultures are. I know that Japan has, for example, Zen Buddhism and the Chinese are the originators of Tao and Confucius. Beyond that, I am largely ignorant of the philosophies or famous philosophers both countries offer, and Southeast Asia is completely foreign to me in terms of philosophy.

What are some of the major differences between Chinese and Japanese philosophy and how have these differences impacted modern thought?

  • My recommendation would be to take the Chinese Philosophy. It should be a mixture of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Most Chinese Buddhism, including the Chinese Pure Land Buddhism, belongs to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Japanese Zen Buddhism belongs to the same tradition. Southeastern Asian studies (Burma, Thailand, Vietnamese, Cambodia, etc.) would be a study of the Theravedic Buddhist tradition. Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 15:54

1 Answer 1


Chinese philosophy generally will cover first the pre-Qin era schools: legalism, mohism, Confucianism-1 (meaning Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi) and Taoism. Some of the key ideas to consider are the meaning of Dao (道), the role of different virtues such as Ren (仁) and Li "rite" (禮), the relationship between what later became codified as distinct schools, and the relationship between Confucius and the Ruist tradition more generally.

It will then look at the arrival of Buddhism and how this changes the thought landscape of China. Next it should consider how Confucianism-2 develops as a state philosophy for the dynasties of China focusing especially on the 12th Century CE and Zhu Xi in what is called "Neoconfucianism." These views made Li "the principle" (理) a prominent component and provided a cosmogony to respond to the Buddhists.

It will then generally skip forward to the 20th Century and look at contemporary appropriations of these traditions such as Mou Zongsan, Roger Ames, P.J. Ivanhoe, Wu Teiming, Chengyang Li, and others. While doing so, there will be a strong focus on ethics and social philosophy -- though some questions about the nature of mind are generally addressed in terms of Taoism. One major issue is that the ancient texts are a little scrambled in sequence and have been re-edited over time.

Japanese philosophy generally will focus on the native animistic religion of Japan and the reconstructed Shinto, different strains of Buddhism, and somewhat on the Tokugawa appropriation of Confucianism. Here, there will be Dogen, Pure Land Buddhism (Jyoudo and Shinjyoudo), Zen Buddhism (Chan Buddhism as Chinese Buddhism), questions of the compatibility of Buddhism and violence, and the Kyoto School. It may also address questions of the integrability of these different philosophies as was forced under the title Tokugawa regime. Overall, Japanese philosophy will probably look at more Buddhism than Chinese philosophy and in this respect be more "religious" (depending on how we define that term).

In both cases, there should also be coverage of the problems posed by doing comparative philosophy. One of the biggest questions is whether different world views can be commensurate or not. While everyone believes they are at least some what commensurate -- it is not trivial to make them work together in any coherent way. Derek Parfet for instance posits a secular Buddhism that denies there is a self. the New Confucians look at whether Confucianism can be compatible with "rights" and democracy.


  • Any of the numerous translations made by Ames and Rosemont of classical Chinese text
  • Teaching Confucianism edited by Jeffrey L. Richey (Oxford 2008)
  • Sourcebooks for Chinese and Japanese Philosophy
  • From this description I can tell you that Japanese philosophy sounds much more interesting. But I also think it's the one much less chosen because everyone sees the name Confucius and Sun Tsu and then leaps on the Chinese option because they've heard the names before. Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 8:13
  • There are more people doing Chinese philosophy than Japanese philosophy -- and that includes in Japan and China. For whatever combination of reasons, few Japanese universities have a philosophy department and fewer do Japanese philosophy (those some Buddhist universities study it religiously). Similarly, few philosophers do Chinese philosophy in Japan (though some sinologists do similar projects). In contrast, Chinese philosophy departments almost always have at least one person who does Chinese philosophy.
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 8:35
  • 2
    So if you want to be different, choose Japanese. If you want to be able to actually discuss the work with someone else, choose Chinese. Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 8:38
  • Well, you can wind up having discussions with me either way. And many specialists in Chinese philosophy also know some Japanese philosophy.
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 8:40
  • Good to know. But I'm concentrating on the evolution of western thought and I'm especially interested in economic and military theory. One of the benefits of not following a formal qualification is that I can study only what interests me. Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 9:28

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .