Saturday, January 10, 2009


Number 13 in a series of dialogues on Chinese philosophy from
a Marxist perspective.

by Thomas Riggins

“Well Fred, that was a nice lunch. Are we ready to discuss our next Chinese thinker?”

“You mean Wang Ch’ung? I am, but maybe you should put him in context. I’m not really familiar with the historical background. Chan speaks of the ‘Western Han’ period from 206 BC to 8 AD and the ‘Eastern Han’ period from 25 to 220 AD. Wang was living in this latter period, but there is a gap of sixteen years! “

“I’ll give you a brief update from where we left off in the Ch’in Dynasty. “

“I remember the Ch’in Dynasty from our discussion on the Legalists.”

Karl walked over to his book case and pulled down a blue paperback. “I’m going to base this on Jacques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization. I read this book a few years ago when my TV was in the shop.”

“Fill me in.”

“Basically it goes like this. In the 3rd Century BC the Ch’in Kingdom expanded and conquered the six or seven other major independent states in China and by 221 BC had established the first historical empire in Chinese history. The Ch’in ruler, Prince Cheng, then called himself huang-ti or ‘august sovereign.’ Notice the word ‘august.’ By choosing to translate huang based on the title of Augustus Caesar we assimilate Chinese reality to a Western understanding. But no harm done in this instance. Huang-ti is the title of the Chinese supremo so we translate it ‘emperor.’ Prince Cheng is known as the first [shih] emperor so we call him by the name Shih Huang-ti. He lived from 259 to 210 BC. He died prematurely, please note, from taking Taoist [religious not philosophical ] elixirs for youth and longevity so this should remind us, especially the Taoists among us, not to mess with Mother Nature!”

“Get on with it!”

“The Legalists, as you remember, influenced Shih Huang-ti who was fairly intolerant. He thought that in order to hold his empire together everyone should basically think the same way-- his way.”

“We’ve seen how successful that tactic is!”

“In 213 BC Shih Huang-ti ordered the destruction of all books (he kept copies for his files) in order to get rid of different ways of thinking. So there was a big bonfire in his capital city Hsien-yang. He also wiped out all his critics that he could find. But he overdosed on his Taoist potion three years later and his son became emperor (Second Emperor). By the way, that big terra cotta army that has become so famous of late, as a big Chinese tourist attraction, that’s from the recently discovered tomb of Shih Huang-ti.”

“Oh yeah! That’s a famous discovery. You see stuff about the terra cotta army everywhere.”

“To make a long story short, after the death of Shih Huang-ti all sorts of revolts and insurrections broke out against Second Emperor and the Ch’in state was gone by 202 BC. It was replaced by the Han Dynasty founded by Han Kao-tsu (Liu Chi, one of the rebels). This dynasty lasted until 220 AD with one interruption by a usurper named Wang Mang who ruled from 9 to 23 AD. Wang Ch’ung lived right in the middle of this period, more or less, from c. 27 to 100 AD or so.”

“Are we ready to get into his philosophy now?”

“Almost Fred. I just need to point out that after the book burning of 213 BC a new script for writing developed and all the texts that survived were copied or reconstructed with this script. This was called ‘new text’ and, please note, that Tung Chung-shu’s philosophy was developed on the basis of the new texts.”


“So this. Under the Emperor Wu Ti (147-87 BC) a big discovery was made of a cache of the ancient Chinese classics from before the Ch’in period. They were found hidden in Confucius’ old house! These were written in the old script and a school grew around them called the Old Text School.”

“I see. There were differences between the same works depending on whether they were old texts or new texts.”

“That is exactly right. The upshot of all this is that the mystical magical tendencies of Tung derive from the new texts. Wang Ch’ung based himself on the old texts and these became the orthodox version of the classics. Here is what Gernet says (p.165)-- i.e., ' that the victory, after the Han period, of the old texts ‘was to cause the almost total disappearance of the vast esoteric literature of the Han period, and it was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that certain scholars and philosophers took it into their heads to rehabilitate the forgotten tradition represented by the works of Tung Chung-shu’ and others.”

“So Tung really is only of historical interest.”

“Yes, and I should note Wang Ch’ung was dormant as well until a couple of centuries ago. Now, Fred, what have you got there on Wang Ch’ung?”

“Here is what Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] says, and I’m glad for the digression into history-- it makes Chan a little clearer. He lists six characteristics of Wang’s intellectual environment. 1.) Dominance of Confucianism-- thanks to Tung Chung-shu by the way. 2.) The Yin-Yang mysticism had corrupted Confucianism into less than rational positions-- also thanks to Tung. 3.) Man and Nature were reciprocally influencing one another. 4.) Omens and unexplained events were to be interpreted in the light of #3. 5.) Heaven had ends and purposes but it was ‘not anthropomorphic.’ Its ‘will’ could be determined by omens and such. 6.) Spiritual beings abounded and could also influence us by means of signs and wonders. ‘Wang Ch’ung rose in revolt against all these prevalent beliefs.’”

“Yes, he is considered a rationalist or a naturalist according to what I’ve read. But I don’t think he surpasses Hsun Tzu.”

“OK. The quotes I’m going to read to you all come from Wang’s book The Balanced Inquiries, or Lun-heng.”

“Lets hear them!”

“This is called ‘On Original Nature’-- chapter 13: ‘Man’s feelings and nature are the root of government by men and the source of ceremonies and music. Therefore as we investigate the matter, we find that ceremonies are employed to check the excess of the nature and feelings and music is used to regulate them. In man’s nature there are the qualities of humbleness, modesty, deference, and compliance. Hence ceremonies have been instituted to adjust them to their proper expression. In men’s feelings there are the qualities of like and dislike, pleasure and anger, and sorrow and joy. Hence music has been created to enable their feelings of reverence to be expressed everywhere. Nature and feelings are therefore the reason why systems of ceremonies and music have been created.’”

“Good explanation.”

“He continues: ‘Shih Shih of the Chou ( Chou Dynasty: 1111-249 BC) maintained that in nature some are born good and some are born evil. Take the good nature and cultivate it, and goodness will develop. Take the evil nature and cultivate it, and evil will develop. Thus in nature some belong to yin (passive cosmic force) and some belong to yang (active cosmic force), and some are good and some are evil. It all depends on cultivation.’”

“ Shih Shih was a third generation Confucian, but I don’t go for some are born good and some evil. I’m holding out for nurture not nature. I agree with Wang about ‘cultivation’ but I think in general we are born neutral and we turn out as we are cultivated in whatever society we are born into.”

“Well Wang seems to like Shih Shih as he goes on to maintain that both Mencius and Hsun Tzu are wrong about human nature being at birth one (good) or the other (evil). He also attacks Tung Chung-shu’s position that Mencius and Hsun Tzu were both correct as the former was talking about yang (nature) and the latter about yin (feelings). But Wang thinks its more complicated as both nature and feelings are a mixture of yin and yang.”

“How does Wang resolve all this?”

“His thesis is: ‘The truth is that in nature, some people are born good and some born evil. It is just as some people’s capacity is high and some people’s is low.’ And so he concludes, ‘At bottom I consider Mencius’ doctrine of the goodness of human nature as referring to people above the average, Hsun Tzu’s doctrine of evil nature of man as referring to people below the average, and Yang Hsiung’s (53 BC - AD 18) doctrine that human nature is a mixture of good and evil as referring to average people.’”

“Yang Hsiung?”

“Chan has a little three page chapter on him right before Wang. He is mostly remembered of the theory that Wang mentions.”

“There seem to be a lot theories about this Fred, and they all seem non-verifiable. Anyway, since all the sages agree that it is education that brings about the correct activity all the theories are practically equivalent. A pragmatist would think they are all the same in the long run.”

“Chan has a comment on this as follows: ‘Wang’s own theory is new but it is not a real advance, for the presence of either good or evil is not explained. In accepting Yang Hsiung’s theory of mixture as referring to average people, he seems to believe in three grades of human nature.... However, his main thesis is dualism. Inasmuch as the Western Han period is characterized by a dualistic approach to human nature, in terms of good nature and evil feelings, Wang’s own dualism, in terms of good and evil natures, shows little progress.’”

“So we have a dualism of some sort-- either of natures or of nature versus feelings?”

“Thus far Wang hasn’t particularly distinguished himself. I will now turn to ‘On Spontaneity’-- his chapter 54.”


“He says, ‘When the material forces (ch’i) of Heaven and Earth come together, all things are spontaneously produced, just as when the vital forces (ch’i) of husband and wife unite, children are naturally born. Among the things thus produced, blood creatures are conscious of hunger and cold. Seeing that the five grains are edible, they obtain and eat them. And seeing that silk and hemp can be worn, they obtain and wear them. Some say that Heaven produces the five grains in order to feed man and produces silk and hemp in order to clothe man. This is to say that Heaven becomes a farmer or a mulberry girl for the sake of man. This is contrary to spontaneity. Therefore their ideas are suspect and should not be followed.’”

“This must be the aspect of his thought that leads to his being called a naturalist.”

“I think you are correct Karl. He continues, ‘Let us discuss these concepts according to Taoism. Heaven (T’ien, Nature) gives forth and distributes material force universally into all things. Grains overcome hunger and silk and hemp save people from cold. Consequently people eat grains and wear clothing of silk and hemp. Now, that Heaven does not purposely produce the five grains and silk and hemp in order to feed and clothe man is very much like the fact that there are calamities and strange transformations but not for the purpose of reprimanding man. Things are spontaneously produced and man eats them and wears them, and material forces spontaneously change [in strange ways] and people are afraid of them. To talk otherwise may be agreeable to the minds of people. But if lucky influences from Heaven are intentional. where would spontaneity be, and where would non-action (wu-wei) be found?’”

“It looks like his naturalism stems from his study of Taoism. But this is also the Confucianism of Hsun Tzu or at least very similar to it .”

“Listen to this: ‘Someone asks: Man is born from Heaven and Earth. Since Heaven and Earth take no action [that is, Karl, they just are as they are] and since man is endowed with the nature of Heaven [and Earth] , he should take no action either. And yet he does take action. Why?’”

“A good Taoist question Fred. What does Wang say?”

“He says, ‘I reply: A person who is rich and pure in perfect virtue is endowed with a large quantity of vital force and is therefore able to approximate Heaven in being spontaneous and taking no action. Those who are endowed with little vital force do not follow moral principles and do not resemble Heaven and Earth. They are therefore called unworthy. By that is meant that they are not similar to Heaven and Earth. They are therefore called unworthy. Since they do not resemble Heaven and Earth, they do nor belong to the same class as sages and worthies and therefore take action.’ And he concludes, ‘Heaven and Earth are like a furnace. Their work is creation. Since the endowment of the vital force is not the same in all cases, how can all be worthy?...’”.

“I have a problem with Wang about this Fred.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t like the idea of transmission of virtue or worthiness being based on Nature. I understand that people are worthy and unworthy but I’m not going to grant that it is due to their original vital force given at birth by Heaven or some such idea. I don’t see that the view that some people are born good and some evil is actually an advance on Mencius or Hsun Tzu. They at least don’t break humanity into two contrary groups-- the worthy and the unworthy based on what we today would call hereditary principles. Except in rare and unusual instances Mencius and Hsun Tzu at least hold to the basic unity of humanity. We can all be sages with the right education in both of their systems. But in Wang’s I don’t see that this is the case. There is a ‘class’ of sages and worthies based on an original endowment of vital force. However progressive Wang is with regard to rejection of spirits and omens, etc., he is definitely a social reactionary with regard to his ideas on the origin of a ‘class’ of worthies.”

“I tend to agree with you about this Karl. But lets see what else Wang has to say.”

“Go on.”

“He says, ‘The way of Heaven is to take no action. Therefore in the spring it does not act to start life, in summer it does not act to help grow, in autumn it does not act to bring maturity, and in winter it does not act to store up.... When we draw water from wells or breach water over a dam in order to irrigate fields and gardens, things will also grow. But if rain falls like torrents, soaking through all stalks, leaves and roots, in an amount equivalent to that in a pond, who would prefer drawing water from wells or breaching water over a dam? Therefore to act without acting is great. ‘”

“I get it Fred. If we just follow nature things will work out for us. But, you know, sometimes we are forced to act whether we like to or not. Wang’s Taoist view, however, does have a lot of merit. Look what our economic system based on private profit is doing to the environment!”

“Here is Chan’s comment about all this. ‘The net effect of Wang Ch’ung’s naturalism is to depersonalize Heaven and to deny the existence of design in any form. One would expect that his rationalism and naturalism would promote the development of natural science in China. Joseph Needham, however, has suggested that instead of fostering the development of science, Wang actually deterred it, for according to Needham [Science and Civilization in China], there must be a lawgiver before there can be natural laws. If Wang Ch’ung were alive, the first question he would ask would be, “What is your evidence to prove it?”’”

“And quite rightly so Fred. Needham misses the ball here. Hsun Tzu had the same idea about Heaven and Naturalism before Wang came along so why didn’t he get blamed for retarding science? The reason is that major intellectual events such as the growth and development of science are not due to this or that individual but to the circumambient cultural forces of a given historical environment in toto.”

“So you don’t need a ‘lawgiver’?”

“I don’t think so, but at least the notion of regularity such as the nonpersonal nous postulated by Anaxagoras. ‘Spontaneity’ may be a confusing concept from the scientific point of view if it implies that there is no regularity involved, which I don’t think is what Wang and the Taoists mean.”

“Now we come to his ‘Treatise on Death’, his chapter 62. We have a view similar to that of Epicurus! Wang says, ‘People today say that when men die they become spiritual beings (kuei, ghosts), are conscious, and can hurt people.... If a man has neither ears nor eyes (senses), he will have no consciousness.... When the vital forces have left man... [The whole body] decays and disappears. It becomes diffused and invisible, and is therefore called a spiritual being (kuei-shen, earthly and heavenly spirits).... When a man dies, his spirit ascends to heaven and his flesh and bones return (kuei) to earth, and that is why an earthly spiritual being (kuei) [and a heavenly spiritual being (shen) ] are so called. To be an earthly spiritual being (kuei) means to return (kuei) .... To be a heavenly spiritual being (shen) means to expand (shen). When the expansion reaches its limit, it ends and begins again. Man is born of spiritual forces. At death he returns to them. Yin and Yang are called kuei-shen. After people die, they are also called kuei-shen).... After a man dies he does not become a spiritual being, has no consciousness, and cannot speak. He therefore cannot hurt people.’”

“Today we would call that a secular humanist position.”

“Chan also has additional selections of Wang’s views. This one, from Chapter Five, concerns ‘Accidence vs. Necessity’: ‘Crickets and ants creep on the ground. A man lifts his foot and walks across it. Those crickets and ants he steps on are pressed to death, whereas those he does not step on remain completely alive and unhurt. When fires sweep through wild grass, that which has been pressed down by wheels does not burn. Some ordinary folks are delighted and call it lucky grass. Now, what the feet do not step on and what the fire does not reach are not necessarily good, for the lifting of the foot and the spread of the fire are accidental.’”

“So what goes down, goes down not as a result of Heaven’s ‘plan’ its just sort of random-- i.e., accidental. He doesn’t mention necessity at all in what you read Fred. This more than anything might explain the failure on his part to have stimulated the growth of science, not, as Needham said, the lack of a ‘law giver’. We are like crickets and ants in the face of Nature.”

“This is his view on ‘Strange Phenomena’ -- chapter 43: ‘As the ruler acts below, the material force of Heaven comes after man accordingly. But I say: This is also doubtful. For Heaven can activate things, but how can things activate Heaven? Why? Because man and things are bound by Heaven and Heaven is the master of man and things.... Therefore man living in the universe is like a flea or louse being inside a garment or a cricket or an ant inside a hole or a crack. Can the flea, louse, cricket, or ant, by being obedient or disobedient, cause the material force inside the garment or the hole to move or to change? Since the fleas, louse, cricket, or ant cannot do so, to say that man alone can is to fail to understand the principle of the material force of things. As the wind comes, trees’ branches swing. But trees’ branches cannot cause the wind.’”

“Crickets and ants again! This is pretty good in some respects for the first century AD. Just think of the kinds of superstition about things like this even today. But there is a down side.”

“And what might that be Karl?”

“The science problem again. It's this passive attitude towards Nature or Heaven. Humans are different from crickets and ants in the Western tradition. We are rational animals says Aristotle. Bacon set out to understand Nature and control it. ‘knowledge is power,’”Nature to be commanded must first be obeyed,’ etc. So we learn about the material force, unlike the crickets and ants, and use it to our advantage. Failure to think in these terms inhibited the development of theoretical science more than a lack of a ‘law giver.’”

“You have a point Karl. Now, another question. Have you ever wondered why bad things happen to good people?”


“Well then, here is Wang on ‘Fate’ (Chapter Six): ‘With respect to man’s appointment of fate, when his parents give forth their vital forces, he already gets his fortunes and misfortunes.’”

“Sounds like genetic determinism! Don’t tell me Wang is a nature over nurture determinist.”

“Hold your horses Karl. Let me finish with Wang’s ideas here. ‘Man’s nature is different from his fate. There are people whose nature is good but whose fate is unlucky, and there others whose nature is evil but whose fate is lucky. Whether one is good or evil in his conduct is due to his nature, but calamities and blessings, and fortunes and misfortunes, are due to fate. Some people do good but get calamities. This is a case of good nature but unlucky fate. Some people do evil but get blessings. This is a case of evil nature but lucky fate.”

“So what can this mean? The transformative power is neglected here-- good and evil is by nature he says. And fate is due to the vital force from the parents? I think I know where he is coming from here, but I see you only have one quote left so let me return to this with a little end presentation I have here.”

“OK. I think we see the philosopher kings putting in an appearance in this last quote. It's from chapter 56 ‘The Equality of Past and Present.’ Here is what he says, ‘The world was well governed in earlier ages because of sages. The virtue of sages earlier or later was not different, and therefore good government in earlier ages and today is not different.... In ancient times there were unrighteous people, and today there are gentleman of established integrity [as in olden times]. Good and evil intermingle. What age is devoid of them?’”

“And that is the end of Chan on Wang?”


“Well, before we say goodbye to Wang, I want to be sure we have him down pat, as it were, so I will make a few concluding remarks.”

“Go ahead.”

First, I just want to list here the five ‘Major Ideas’ that are attributed to Wang. This list is from Randall L. Nadeau’s article on Wang in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World. The list sums up our discussion.”

“So list the list.”

“OK. 1. Natural events have natural causes. 2. Beliefs in gods, ghosts, and supernatural phenomena are superstitious falsehoods. 3. There is no correspondence between human events and natural phenomena; the processes of nature are not influenced by human behavior and have no moral significance. 4. There is no correspondence between moral virtue and personal destiny; fortune and misfortune are the result of fate. 5. Human nature may be good or evil; those of good nature can become evil, and those of evil nature can become good.”


“Just about. Our discussion and my list indicate that Wang Ch’ung was pretty much of a rationalist, but he had one weakness of his era.”

“Such as?”

“It appears that number three on the list above may have to be modified since he had a weakness for astrology. Jacques Gernet writes, ‘Criticizing the notion of individual destiny (ming)... he sees the diversity of human destinies as the result of three independent factors: innate physical and intellectual aptitudes, the chance combination of circumstances and accidents, but also-- and here Wang Ch’ung shows how much he remains a prisoner of his age-- the astral influences which acted on the individual at his birth (p.165).’”

“Well then, as they say, ‘his virtues were his own, his vices those of the age.’ Lets go have dinner. Then whom shall we discuss?”

“Take Chan along to bone up. We’ll talk about the Taoist Lieh Tzu or Liezi whose work dates from around 300 AD.”

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