Discovering Economics in Chinese Philosophy: Intellectual Searches of the 1910s-1930s

Olga Borokh

Beginning of the article

The path of intellectual exploration of issues in the relationship between philosophy and economics started in China from the 1910s till the mid-1930s. During the Republican period a group of Chinese scholars with Western educational background attempted to find in the ancient Chinese philosophical thought the ideas that correspond to the Western understanding of economics.
In the process of the development of the history of Chinese economic thought as a distinct scholarly discipline, traditional Chinese philosophy was reinterpreted in the light of inquiries about national development. The researchers looked at the ancient canons and sayings of Chinese sages and were looking for possible reasons that could explain why China was lagging behind the Western world, but also for elements that may facilitate economic modernization of China.

Professional economists of the Republican period contributed to the development of Chinese economic philosophy through interpretations of traditional thought. They constructed new explanations of the views of the ancient Chinese thinkers through identifying their economic component along with structuring and systematizing ancient philosophical ideas according to the patterns of modern economic knowledge.

Many Chinese economists turned to doing research into ancient Chinese thought while studying in the United States. There, in PhD dissertations, they explored the economic content of Chinese philosophy. The paper examines the differences in their approaches to the economic ideas of Confucianism and Daoism…


The paper explores the early stages of the development of economic philosophy in China. In the 1910s-1930s scholars with Western economic education applied their knowledge of modern economics to the interpretation of traditional Chinese philosophy. They proposed a new analytical framework for the systematization of ancient Chinese economic ideas focusing on the teachings of pre-Qin sages Laozi, Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Guanzi. Cross-cultural comparisons placed Chinese concepts into the context of Western economics and social thought.
Due to these efforts, a set of “economic” quotations from the ancient Chinese sages was formed in the academic literature and it had long-lasting impact on later research in this field. This intellectual endeavor paved the way to establishing the history of Chinese economic thought as a distinct scholarly discipline. Modern economic reading of ancient Chinese thought was linked to the problems of national economic development. Chinese economists of the Republican period analyzed traditional ethical norms, relations between justice and profit, methods of control of human desires and attitudes to consumption in order to find hidden obstacles to the path of China’s modernization. They also highlighted the achievements of Confucian economic thought that could lay the foundation for future success. Critical arguments were presented by various scholars with respectful recognition of the strong influence of Confucian ethics upon the economic life of the Chinese, as we shall examine here.

The article is based on the study of writings of some major Chinese economists of the Republican era. Chen Huanzhang, Yuan Xianneng and Li Zhaoyi turned to the exploration of traditional Chinese philosophical heritage while pursuing doctorate degrees in the West. Li Quanshi and Tang Qingzeng published books on the history of Chinese economic thought in Chinese language. The comprehensive study of these materials facilitates the task of reconstruction of intellectual searches for an economic interpretation of the ancient Chinese thought. The study of the origins of economic understanding of traditional Chinese philosophy reveals the historical roots of modern economic philosophy in China.


  • Introduction
  • Economic interpretation of Confucianism by Chen Huanzhang (1880-1933)
  • Economic reading of Chinese philosophical schools with a focus on Daoism by Yuan Xianneng (1898-1983)
  • Systematization of Chinese economic ideas at the University of Dijon by Li Zhaoyi
  • Introducing the history of Chinese economic thought to China : the views of Li Quanshi (1895-1982)
  • Advanced economic interpretations of Chinese ideas by Tang Qingzeng (1902-1972)
  • Concluding remarks

Key Words

JEL Codes : A12, A13, B20, B11, B31

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