6 Fangshi and Shi: Hierarchic Power of Knowledge

Hierarchic Power of Knowledge

Emily Leitch

Key Terms

  • Fangshi
  • Shi
  • Spring and Autumn Period (770BCE–476BCE)
  • “Contention of a Hundred Schools”


Throughout early Chinese history, one’s knowledge was generally achieved alongside societal and political power. This is familiar to us, as the power of knowledge implies one is more wise, more familiar with the patterns of life, and overall most sensible. However, we are not as familiar with the idea of a doctor being a king’s right-hand-man, giving that doctor a level of political power. In modern times, we do not see doctors, or astronomers, or scientists, or mathematicians as people similar to a state ruler. However, this power relationship was very common through early Chinese history, giving people such as the fangshi and shi a level of power in society’s hierarchy.

The appearance of powerful scholars in the ruling realm was quite common throughout most of early Chinese history. The fangshi, for one, were very popular around the fourth, third, and second centuries BCE, thus influencing the states at the time greatly. The shi, also, had their own strong influence on the politics and culture of their time, influencing thought during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BCE–476 BCE) into the Warring States period (476 BCE-221 BCE), and being an advising figure for statesmen during the Han and Qin dynasties (221 BCE – 220 CE).

Spring and Autumn, and Warring States periods

However, like many other things at the time, the positions within society and politics shifted at the time of Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods, which lasted from the eighth century BCE through to the third century BCE. Writer Xiao Chang Jin explains this period of Chinese history as such:

“During the period between 771 B.C. and 221 B.C., China entered into an era usually known as Chun-qiu-zhan-kuo [guo] (Spring and Autumn and the Warring States period), which brought about a profound transformation of Chinese social and political structure. The previous centralized state rapidly collapsed into many smaller kingdoms…”[1]


GIF of an animated map depicting the constant shift of competing state powers during the Warring States period.
Warring States period – Wikipedia

These two periods of history were important for the shi as there was “[a] rise of several powerful dukes and marquises, and even ‘shi’, as independent rulers”.[2] Thinking back to the Zhou Dynasty, which was the centralized state before the Spring and Autumn period, there was a clear relevance of power for scholars and intellectuals when it came to connection with the state and the courts. A king was considered powerful if he was able to predict the alignment of the stars (see also the chapter on calendars by Patrick); this could only be predicted with the help of a trained astrologist. A king was also greatly advantaged with the medical training of the fangshi and the general shi. However, when early China fell into the Spring and Autumn period  (and later the Warring States period) with no central ruler and with multiple states fighting for power, the shi became very relevant in different ways.

The power of knowledge was greatly respected throughout the Spring and Autumn period, but it had a less hierarchical structure compared to earlier when it was connected to the centralized state. Instead, the shi were of great importance, more of a desperate need in their knowledge among the competing states (mainly in trying to figure out a consistent ruling pattern, which the people needed greatly at the time).

Alongside other differences from the previous Zhou Dynasty, historian Ge Zhaoguang explains that “different emphases were placed on knowledge and thought within different professions. This differentiation among educated men of culture caused similar divisions in knowledge and thought and resulted in the emergence of various desperate schools of thought.”[3] In addition to competing ideas of political patters, ideologies in culture were challenged too. The Warring States period, within the hierarchic turmoil, challenged people to question what they considered “the art of the Way”, the orders of Heaven and Earths, and other spiritual thoughts. As Ge explains, “that ‘the art of the Way’ was ‘torn apart’ was not really a sad ending, but rather a splendid beginning. After the collapse of former truths, people were forced to ponder things for themselves.”[4] Because of this growth in individual thinking, the period became known for its Hundred Schools of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, which also can be refereed to as the Contention of a Hundred Schools. Because of the shi‘s support in expanding these hundred school’s of thought, they were highly respected and desperately needed by the competing states.

Overall, the competition among states during the Warring States period made shi highly valued. The competing states were also greatly reconsidering new ways of ruling, ways that would aid their state and make them more likely to be dominating against the other state powers. These ideas of spiritual belief and political ruling came about with the help of the shi.

Qin and Han Dynasties

By the end of the Warring States period, the state of the Qin began gaining control and led to the end of the competing state powers, followed by the Western Han. However, how does one unified state go about integrating hundreds of different ways of thought? As Ge describes, “scholars early on summed up the intellectual characteristics of this period as having a tendency towards eclecticism…they [Huang-Lao and Confucian doctrines] both embraced, in their different ways, mutually related phenomena like the Legalist methods of matching names with results, magic arts, preservation of life, immortals, arts of war, Yin and Yang and medical, mantic and numerological arts.”[5]. As these doctrines were embraced, there was more unification in ideologies on society and humanity.

Now, how did the unification of these ideologies affect the shi? Similarly to the early Zhou and the Shang dynasty before that, successful scholars were given a set level of wealth and power from the state. This process of power was much more distinct by the  time of the Han and Qin dynasty, however. Another factor of this unification was the need for shi as teachers. Because of the focus on using classic works for teaching, the shi were given less opportunity to think broadly like they did throughout the Spring and Autumn period. The shi, however, were still greatly respected.


Throughout the fifth century BC into the fourth and third century BC, many early Chinese scholars were referred to as fangshi, which can be translated as “masters of methods.” These people had many trained skills, including medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and even music. When considered legitimate, the fangshi‘s skills were highly respected.

For some, if their skills were called upon by those of political power, they were given this opportunity of political hierarchy through their knowledge.[6]. An example of this would be Guo Yu, a physician from Luo in Guanghan. Guo Yu grew up in an average family, with his father being a fisherman. Guo Yu trained to be a physician and became very skilled. He was an extremely generous man and was always willing to help people in need of his skills. Eventually, Guo Yu was called upon by Emperor He of the Han dynasty, who ruled from 89 to 105 CE. Guo Yu was able to prove his great skills in acupuncture. Despite Guo Yu being hesitant about gaining connections with the emperor (he aimed to keep his acupuncture for the average person, acting as a Robin-hood-esque figure), once his skills were verified by the emperor as legitimate, Guo Yu achieved great power and respect in society.[7]. He is an example of a fangshi who was able to have an influence on the court.

Cases like Guo Yu were common for the fangshi. However, by the later centuries of their appearance in the records, they were considered less legitimate in their skills and more a form of entertainment, in a way. Zuo Ci was a known magician in his time and had the great power to pull fish from the Song River using his magic. Although this skill astonished many people, he was never truly respected and was seen more as an act of entertainment. This goes without mentioning that Ci was convicted of theft when materializing wine and meat for people turned out to be stolen from other stores, which led to Ci being repeatedly imprisoned by the court.[8]. As you can see, Ci was not as respected a figure as Yu was, but a fangshi all the same for his powerful skills.


Black and white line drawing. Zuo stands with his arms on his back, he wears a long-sleeved robe, and has a long goatee. He looks up at a crane.
Illustration of Zuo Ci, the magician; he looks at a crane, a symbol of longevity in Chinese lore.

The fangshi were commonly respected by the people throughout the Shang and Zhou dynasties. However, “[the term of Fangshi], shaped in time by the influence of contending factions at court, came to apply only to the less esteemed or less recognized practitioners in each field.”[9] The term fangshi derives from many meanings, and is also found in “fang books” and “fang theories”. Overall, the term fangshi has strong connections to that of spirituality, medicine, and comparative energies.[10]. Overall, the shi were respected in the courts for the knowledge and skills, like the fangshi. A main difference between the two would be that the fangshi tended to have "supernatural" skills, connecting with the divine and influencing the pattern of life. The shi, though also known for things such as astronomy and medical sciences, were seen as less connected to the supernatural. Either way, the two were both respected with power in society in some way.

The shi, in addition to being informative aid to the courts, were expected to provide a lot of diverse skills for those in power. For example, "a 'shi' during that time should have been able, if needed, to teach nobles art and literature, to manage a household and/or a region, to preside over a ceremony, and even to conduct a war."[11]. With all that the shi were expected to do when working in the palace, it is understandable the level of respect and political power these scholars were given.


From the magical fangshi to the skilled and trained shi, intellectual scholars, scientists, medics, and astronomers were highly respected throughout early Chinese history. This respect granted them not only great reputation, but great social and political power too, via their connections to the emperor and the state. Throughout history, these social and political powers ranged from inspiring hundreds of different styles of thought to leading the conduct of war. As Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin explain,

Chinese scholars undertook scientific speculation as a means of self-cultivation for illumination and always with a view to the moral significance and political relevance of their work. The ideology of astronomy and medicine was centered on the imperial will so that the meaning of any astronomical order was political. The authority of sagely origin, the original revelation to a sage-emperor or other ancient wise man, made scientific endeavor the recovery of what the archaic sages already knew.[12]

Culturally speaking, the fangshi and the shi have left a lasting impact, also. Throughout Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods, the hundred schools of thought emerged, challenging and enhancing previous spiritual and cultural beliefs. All of these new beliefs on "the art of the Way" helped to differentiate each state and culture at the time of competing state power.

Overall, the fangshi and the shi made great last influences on early Chinese culture and politics, granting them great authority and privilege in society. Be it through years of education and learning or through a situational miracle connecting one to divine magic, the fangshi and the shi certainly achieved an important level of power in the society and politics of their time.


DeWoskin, Kenneth J. Doctors, Diviners, and Magicians of Ancient China: Biographies of Fang-Shih. Translations from the Oriental Classics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

“Doctors, Diviners and Magicians”. In An Anthology of Translations: Classical Chinese Literature, Vol. 1: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty. Edited by John Minford and Joseph S. M. Lau, 359-370. New York: Hong Kong: Columbia University Press; The Chinese University Press, 2000.

Ge, Zhaoguang. Intellectual History of China, Volume One: Knowledge, Thought, and Belief before the Seventh Century CE. Brill’s Humanities in China Library 6. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Jin, Xiao Chang. ‘Intellectuals and the State from Ancient China to the Han Dynasty’. Dialectical Anthropology : An Independent International Journal in the Critical Tradition Committed to the Transformation of Our Society and the Humane Union of Theory and Practice 14, no. 4 (1989): 271–79. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01957264.

Lloyd, G. E. R. (Geoffrey Ernest Richard), and Nathan Sivin. The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

  1. Xiao Chang Jin, ‘Intellectuals and the State from Ancient China to the Han Dynasty’, Dialectical Anthropology : An Independent International Journal in the Critical Tradition Committed to the Transformation of Our Society and the Humane Union of Theory and Practice 14, no. 4 (1989): 276.
  2. Jin, ‘Intellectuals and the State from Ancient China to the Han Dynasty,’ 276.
  3. Ge Zhaoguang, Intellectual History of China, Volume One: Knowledge, Thought, and Belief before the Seventh Century CE, Brill’s Humanities in China Library, volume 6 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 120.
  4. Ge, Intellectual History of China, Volume One, 121.
  5. Ge, Intellectual History of China, Volume One, 212
  6. Kenneth J. DeWoskin, Doctors, Diviners, and Magicians of Ancient China: Biographies of Fang-Shih, Translations from the Oriental Classics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 1
  7. "Doctors, Diviners and Magicians," In Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations. Vol. 1, From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty, edited by John Minford and Joseph S. M. Lau (New York ; Columbia University Press, 2002), 359-360
  8. "Doctors, Diviners and Magicians,"  363-364
  9. DeWoskin, Doctors, Diviners, and Magicians of Ancient China, 1.
  10. DeWoskin, Doctors, Diviners, and Magicians of Ancient China, 1[footnote] These skills, often relating spirituality to medicine and other scholarly trades, gives the fangshi their reputation as the "masters of methods". With these derivative terminologies, we can see the fangshi's connections with the shi, who were traditional scholars since the Zhou dynasty.


    Similarly to the fangshi, the shi were common skilled scholars throughout early Chinese history. The term shi itself means intellectual or scholar. This could be compared to other members of society such as nong, or peasants, gong, or artisans, and shang, or merchants. Similar to the fangshi, the shi grew strong connections with the court and those in power because of their skills. As Xiao Chang Jin explains, "by the age of twenty, those called "shi" were subject to serving in the palaces as retainers around kings, dukes and marquises."[footnote]Jin, ‘Intellectuals and the State from Ancient China to the Han Dynasty,’ 272.
  11. Jin, ‘Intellectuals and the State from Ancient China to the Han Dynasty,’ 274
  12. G. E. R. Lloyd and Nathan Sivin, The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 69.


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