Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy

Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy

by Dainian Zhang

This book is both a good introduction to Chinese philosophy and an invaluable reference tool for sinologists. Comments by important Chinese thinkers are arranged around sixty-four key concepts to illustrate their meaning and use through twenty-five centuries of Chinese philosophy. This unique guide was prepared by Zhang Dainian, one of China's most famous living… See more details below


This book is both a good introduction to Chinese philosophy and an invaluable reference tool for sinologists. Comments by important Chinese thinkers are arranged around sixty-four key concepts to illustrate their meaning and use through twenty-five centuries of Chinese philosophy. This unique guide was prepared by Zhang Dainian, one of China's most famous living philosophers.

Zhang reaches back to include concepts in use before the oracle bones (c. 1350-1100 B.C.)-what could be called a philosophical "prehistory." But the focus of the work is those concepts that gained currency in classical Chinese philosophy, especially those whose meanings are deeper and more difficult to grasp. Translated and edited by Edmund Ryden in consultation with the author, the book also includes helpful introductory commentary by Ryden for each section.

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Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy

By Zhang Dainian

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University and Foreign Languages Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09210-3

Chapter One

A. Ontology

I. Principal Concepts

I. Heaven


Although at times there is an intentional conflict between proponents of one view or the other, one may see the concept 'heaven' as embracing a spectrum of views of which the religious idea of God and the popular use of the word to refer to the sky are but the extremes. The division of opinion regarding the sky or divine or heaven has continued down to the present day. It should be noted, though, that it is never as stark as the Western opposition between a transcendent God and a purely scientific view of the sky. The character for 'heaven' is probably derived from that for 'big man.' This is one reason why a human element has always been present in the Chinese conception of heaven as God. Likewise, the heavenly bodies have not traditionally been seen as objective lumps of matter and energy.

Chinese philosophers of later periods inherited their terminology from the past and did not feel at liberty to abandon ancient concepts, but from the Song dynasty onward thinkers sought to systematize their inheritance. 'Heaven' as the supreme concept of Confucius would be worked into the system, but it is effectivelyneutralized by making it the equivalent of some other more readily available concept such as 'principle' (Cheng Hao), qi (Zhang Zai), 'human nature and principle' (Cheng Yi), or 'mind' (Cheng Hao and Wang Shouren).


'Heaven' is an important concept in ancient Chinese philosophy. It comprises two aspects: on one hand it is an objective infinite reality, the 'sky'; on the other it is 'God,' or the supreme concept. The contrast between these two views is manifest. Ancient religious beliefs maintained that heaven had a will and was the master of the universe. Among the philosophers Confucius held to this belief in heaven as the supreme lord:

If heaven wished to destroy this culture, it would not have given the said culture to a being who will die like me. Since heaven has not destroyed this culture, what can the people of Kuang do to me? (Analects 9, Zi Han #5)

The rise and fall of cultures and the peace and peril of human beings are all decided by heaven. Yet in talking about heaven Confucius also talked about the wide open sky, as when he says,

Oh how great as a sovereign was Yao! How majestic! Heaven alone is great and Yao alone imitated it. (Analects 8, Tai Bo #20)

"Heaven alone is great" cannot be understood as saying that only God is the greatest but rather that heaven is what is broadest. 'Heaven' here means the wide open sky. This may be a late saying of Confucius. Maybe Confucius's thought concerning heaven underwent a change.

In ancient philosophy heaven forms a pair with earth. The Mean and Balance is one chapter of the Record of Rites and was selected to be one of the four texts that formed the basis of China's civil service exams from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries A.D. It says,

This heaven is now only as much as what shines here, yet taken as without limit, the sun, moon, and constellations are bespangled in it, the myriad things covered by it. Now this earth is only as much as a handful of soil, yet taken in its breadth and depth, it supports Mounts Hua and Yue without being weighed down, holds rivers and seas without their seeping away. The myriad things are supported by it. (Mean and Harmony, 26)

The Zhuangzi, a work full of paradox, asks,

Is the azure of heaven its true color? Or is it so far away that its furthest limits cannot be reached? (Zhuangzi 1, Going Rambling Without a Destination, line 4)

Here 'heaven' is in contrast with earth and hence is the sky.

The "canonical" sections of Guanzi may perhaps contain the actual words of Guan Zhong. In the Conditions and Circumstances chapter heaven and earth are paired:

Heaven does not change in its constancy; earth does not vary in its regularity; spring, autumn, winter, and summer do not alter their seasonal characteristics. From of old until now it is the same. (Guanzi 2, Conditions and Circumstances, 1:12)

This passage confirms the regularity and order of heaven and earth.

On the other hand, Mozi, a near-contemporary of Confucius, brought out the religious dimension and wrote of the "will of heaven." The Mozi says,

Those who obey the will of heaven, loving without discrimination, aiding others, will surely obtain a reward; those who oppose the will of heaven, by discrimination and unfriendliness and by doing wrong to others, will surely obtain a punishment. (Mozi 26, Will of Heaven A, lines 22-23)

Heaven has a will and can reward or punish men and women. What the Mozi understands by the content of the will of heaven is loving without discrimination. The will of heaven is the will to love. While the Mozi harks back to belief in heaven as God, it nonetheless remodels the ancient Chinese picture of heaven.

Mencius continued in the tradition of Confucius and likewise held that heaven was the lord of the world. The Mencius records the following:

Wan Zhang asked, "Is it the case that Yao gave the empire to Shun?" Mencius replied, "Indeed no! The Son of Heaven cannot give the empire to anyone." Wan said, "Yes, but Shun had the empire so who gave it to him?" He replied, "Heaven gave it to him." "Heaven gave it to him," Wan said. "Was this with any command to him?" He answered, "No. Heaven does not speak. It simply showed what it did through his [Shun's] conduct and governance." (Mencius 5, Wan Zhang A, #5)

The ruler, or "Son of Heaven," is the one appointed by heaven. It is heaven that is the support of the ruler's authority.

The Han dynasty thinker Dong Zhongshu honored Confucianism, but on the question of heaven he followed the Mohist "will of heaven" and held heaven to be the greatest of the spirits:

Heaven is the great prince of the hundred spirits. (Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals 65, Suburban Talks, p. 398)

Opposition to this religious attitude came from Wang Chong, who held that heaven was simply the "heavenly body" containing sun, moon, and stars.

In the Tang dynasty Liu Zongyuan wrote of heaven in contrast to earth, saying,

That which is above and is dark the world calls 'heaven'; that which is below and is yellow, the world calls 'earth.' (SKQS 1076, Collected Works of Liu Hedong 16, Speaking of Heaven #1, p. 155a-b)

Liu Yuxi wrote in a similar vein:

Heaven is the greatest of things having form; human beings are the most excellent of animals. (SBCK: Collected Works of Liu Mengde 12.4, Discourse on Heaven I, p. 7a)

This contrasts heaven and human beings. Both Lius are talking of the heaven of astronomers.

Heaven and Humans

As well as trying to pin down the nature of heaven itself, Chinese thinkers were concerned with the relation between heaven and the human being. Mencius believed that heaven was the source of the human mind and of human nature:

To the mind pertains the role of thinking. By thinking it obtains its object. If it does not think it does not obtain its object. This is what heaven has given to me. (Mencius 6, Gaozi A #15)

The mind's ability to think is "what heaven has given," and what the mind is principally concerned with is "principle and respect":

What is it that our minds feel sympathy for? It is principle and it is respect. (Mencius 6, Gaozi A #7)

Principle and respect are what please the mind, and Mencius considers this feature to be the defining characteristic of what it is to be human. Human nature and heaven communicate with each other.

Those who exert their minds to the full know their nature, and those who know their nature know heaven. (Mencius 7, Exhausting the Mind A, #1)

Human nature is in the mind and has its origin in heaven. Human nature can be understood by the mind, and in the same way so too can heaven. Mind, human nature, and heaven are all of a piece. Mencius affirms the commonality of human nature and heaven, and although he states it only in simple and unclear fashion, yet it was to have enormous influence on philosophy in the Song and Ming dynasties, giving rise to the use of 'heaven' as the highest philosophical category.

The Guanzi, in a statement about the constancy of heaven and earth, contrasts heaven and earth as a pair. It also contrasts heaven and the human person:

Upholding plenitude pertains to heaven; providing security in the face of danger pertains to human beings. If one exceeds the measure set by heaven, though the country be full it will surely dry up. If superior and inferior are not in harmony, though one be secure, one will surely come to danger. (Guanzi 2, Conditions and Circumstances, 1:16)

This saying is also found in the Sayings of the States, in which Fan Li addresses King Goujian of Yue (496-465 B.C.):

Upholding plenitude pertains to heaven; making firm what is unstable pertains to human beings; regularizing affairs pertains to earth. (Sayings of the States 21, Sayings of Yue B, p. 641)

Both the Sayings of the States and the Guanzi put heaven and human beings on a par. It is not until the Zhuangzi that heaven and human beings are put in opposition, with the Zhuangzi favoring heaven and the Xunzi giving the preference to the human realm.

The opening line of Chapter 6 of the Zhuangzi reads,

The highest knowledge is to know what heaven does and to know what human beings do. (Zhuangzi 6, The Teacher Who Is the Ultimate Ancestor, line 1)

Heaven's doing is spontaneous and natural; the doing of human beings is purposeful. The Zhuangzi argues for a clear distinction between the two spheres:

Do not let the human mind harm the Way; do not let human beings abet heaven. (Ibid., line 9) One should trust to nature and not impose on it. The person who lives out this ideal is called an "extraordinary person":

Extraordinary persons are extraordinary in the sight of human beings but normal in the sight of heaven. (Ibid., line 74)

Unlike the normal run of people, such persons go along with nature. A later chapter from the Zhuangzi corpus, Autumn Floods, speaks of heaven and human beings as follows:

What can be said to be of heaven; what can be said to be of human beings? ... Oxen and horses having four feet is of heaven; putting a halter on a horse's head and piercing an ox's nose is of human beings. (Zhuangzi 17, Autumn Floods, lines 51-52)

Heaven is what is naturally so; human beings alter this natural order. Thus for the Zhuangzi heaven is the natural order, which also includes the earth. It can be called the natural heaven.

The Xunzi also affirms a distinction between heaven and the human sphere. In chapter 17 the following conclusion is drawn:

Hence the one who understands the distinction between heaven and human beings is the perfect man. (Xunzi 17, Discourse on Heaven, line 5)

Heaven and human beings are distinct but the Xunzi is opposed to following nature; rather, it emphasizes transforming nature. Instead of admiring the greatness of nature, it is better to transform and use it:

Instead of magnifying heaven and admiring it why not treat it as a thing and manage it? Instead of obeying heaven and praising it, why not control the Decree of Heaven and use it? (Ibid., line 44)

The upshot of this is that human beings must grasp responsibility for their affairs and not indulge in star gazing:

Therefore to neglect human measures and think of heaven is to lose the nature of the myriad things. (Ibid., line 46)

Thus in the Xunzi heaven is always the natural heaven.

A Philosophical Concept

In the Song dynasty the notion of heaven developed to include new aspects. 'Heaven' is the supreme concept, the highest reality. Zhang Zai thinks that heaven is ultimate space and ultimate space is the state of qi when it is scattered and not yet bound together:

From ultimate space there comes the name of heaven. (SKQS 697, Correcting the Unenlightened 1, Great Harmony, p. 99a)

The congealing and scattering of qi is to ultimate space as the freezing and melting of ice is to water. If we know that ultimate space is qi then there is no such thing as 'beingless.' (Ibid., p. 98b)

He also says that heaven is "great without anything outside it" (p. 100b), meaning that 'heaven' is the collective name for qi, a limitless material world.

Zhang Zai's cousin Cheng Hao speaks of heaven as principle and identifies the two:

Heaven is principle. (SKQS 698, Surviving Works of the Two Chengs 11, p. 105b)

Cheng Hao's younger brother, Cheng Yi, believed that principle, human nature, and heaven are all the same:

Human nature is principle. (Ibid. 22a, p. 235a)

The Way and human nature are one ... the natural order of human nature is called heaven; what comes from nature and has form is the heart-mind; what comes from the nature and moves is called feelings. All these different elements are one. (Ibid. 25, p. 255b)

Heaven is simply the principle of the natural order. The Cheng brothers held both 'principle' and 'heaven' as the highest concepts and thus underlined the unity of heaven and principle.

Cheng Hao also says that "only the mind is heaven" (SKQS 698, Surviving Works of the Two Chengs 2a, p. 19a) and thus equates the mind and heaven. This idea was taken up in the Ming dynasty by Wang Shouren:

The mind is heaven. In talking of the mind one refers to heaven and earth and all the myriad things. (Complete Collected Works of Wang Yangming: Reply to Ji Mingde, p. 214)


The mind is the Way; the Way is heaven. To know the mind is to know the Way and to know heaven. (Instructions for Practical Living A #1, p. 23)

Zhang Zai understood heaven as ultimate space. This is a materialist point of view. The Cheng brothers understood heaven as principle. This is the point of view of objective idealism. Wang Shouren understood heaven as mind. This is the point of view of subjective idealism. In ancient Chinese theories of heaven there was opposition between materialist and idealist points of view. Materialism held that heaven was an unlimited objective entity. Idealism held that heaven was either the supreme spirit or supreme concept. Opposition between these two fundamental points of view is very clear.

2. The Way, The Way of Heaven


The concept dao is perhaps the most important concept in Chinese philosophy. Although its later and more philosophical meanings may develop far beyond the original significance of the word, nonetheless the original image is never wholly lost; hence we can justifiably translate it as the "Way." The most important text for understanding the Way is the Laozi. It portrays the Way as prior-since Chinese grammar is ambiguous here the priority can be logical or temporal-to heaven and earth. In other texts, such as the Four Chapters of the Guanzi, the Way is immanent in heaven and earth rather than prior to them. Of these four chapters the oldest is the one titled Inner Exercise, and at least two of the others are commentaries on it. The two in question are Technique of the Heart parts A and B. In Song-Qing philosophy the key problems are how the Way relates to other important terms. Thus we may note two stages in the discussion of the Way. In the early period the problem is to situate the Way with respect to the formation of heaven and earth. In the later period the question is one of the relation of the Way to other leading terms, notably 'principle' and qi.


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