On Ethics and History: Essays and Letters of Zhang Xuecheng


Zhang Xuecheng (1738–1801) has primarily been read as a philosopher of history. This volume presents him as an ethical philosopher with a distinctive understanding of the aims and methods of Confucian self-cultivation. Offered in English translation for the first time, this collection of Zhang's essays and letters should challenge our current understanding of this Qing dynasty philosopher. On Ethics and History also contains translations of three important essays written by Tang-dynasty Confucian Han Yu and shows...

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On Ethics and History: Essays and Letters of Zhang Xuecheng

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Zhang Xuecheng (1738–1801) has primarily been read as a philosopher of history. This volume presents him as an ethical philosopher with a distinctive understanding of the aims and methods of Confucian self-cultivation. Offered in English translation for the first time, this collection of Zhang's essays and letters should challenge our current understanding of this Qing dynasty philosopher. On Ethics and History also contains translations of three important essays written by Tang-dynasty Confucian Han Yu and shows how Zhang responded to Han's earlier works. Those with an interest in ethical philosophy, religion, and Chinese thought and culture will find still relevant much of what Zhang argued for in his own day.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[T]hanks to Philip Ivanhoe's painstaking translations, English readers can now have a glimpse of Zhang's expansive and at times also enigmatic writings." — Q. Edward Wang, Dao

"The greatest value of On Ethics and History is that is gives English language historians an opportunity to gain direct insight into Zhang's philosophy of history. Unknown and overlooked in his own day, Zhang is now viewed by scholars in both China and the West as the most original, innovative historians of the Qing period."—Jie Gao, Canadian Journal of History

"Philip J. Ivanhoe's elegant translations of some the most philosophically percipient and coherent essays by Zhang Xuecheng fill a gaping hole in the existing literature by drawing attention to the extra-historicist aspects of the Qing savant's richly textured thought, especially its ethical iterations and dimensions."—On-cho Ng, The Pennsylvania State University

"In this first English translation of the philosophical works of Zhang Xuecheng, normally treated as an intellectual historian, Ivanhoe has exhibited an unusually good judgment in selection. The rich notes provided, in addition to the general introduction, are extremely helpful to readers. The translation is highly readable and accurate."—Yong Huang, Kutztown University

"The publication of this book is the event of the year in the study of Chinese philosophy in the English-speaking world. Ivanhoe's meticulous translation, as well as his extremely perceptive introduction and tremendously helpful notes, show us that Zhang Xuecheng, who died six years before Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit was published in Europe, has given us the first philosophical system that reconciles truth with history. Thanks to Ivanhoe's tour de force translation and commentary, we can now finally engage fully with Zhang's invigorating ideas."—Yang Xiao, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Kenyon College

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804761284
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2009
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip J. Ivanhoe is Reader-Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Public and Social Administration of City University of Hong Kong. A specialist in the history of East Asian philosophy and religion and its potential for contemporary ethics, he has written, edited, or co-edited more than a dozen books and published more than thirty articles and numerous dictionary and encyclopedia entries on Chinese and Western religious and ethical thought.

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Read an Excerpt

On Ethics and History



Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6128-4

Chapter One

On the Dao

Section One

1. [Dong Zhongshu said,] "The great source of the dao came from Heaven." [One might ask, though,] Did Heaven actually "ordain it explicitly and in detail?" My reply is that I am unable to know anything about how things were before there was Heaven and earth; when, however, Heaven and earth produced human beings, the dao existed but had not yet taken shape. As soon as there were three people living together in one house, the dao took shape but was not yet plainly manifested. When there came to be groups of five and ten and these grew to hundreds and thousands, one house could not possibly accommodate them all, and so they split into groups and separated into classes, and the dao became manifest. The concepts of benevolence and righteousness, loyalty and filial piety, and the institutions of penal and administrative laws, ritual, and music were all things that could not but arise thereafter.

2. (When human beings came into being, the dao existed.) dao [within themselves].> However, because they did not fully understand themselves, it did not yet take shape. When threepeople were living together in one house, then each morning and evening they had to open and shut the doors and gates and they had to gather firewood and draw water in order to prepare the morning and evening meals. Since they were not just one single person, there had to be a division of responsibilities. Sometimes each attended to his or her own work; sometimes work was alternated and each took a turn. This indeed was a situation that could not have been otherwise, and there developed the principles of equality, peace, structure, and order. Then, fearing that people would quarrel over the delegation of responsibilities, it became necessary to bring forward the one most advanced in years to keep the peace. This too was an inevitable state of affairs, and as a result the distinctions between old and young and between honored and humble took shape. When there came to be groups of five and ten and then hundreds and thousands and these split into groups and separated into classes, it became necessary for each elder to have charge of his own group of five or ten. When these groups accumulated to hundreds and thousands, such a large number of people required management and direction, and so it was necessary to advance the one most outstanding in talent to order the complex relationships among them. The situation became complicated, requiring leadership to employ the people effectively, and so it was necessary to advance the one greatest in Virtue to control the development of things. This too was an inevitable state of affairs; as a result, the idea of setting up a sovereign appeared, along with the ideas of establishing teachers, of marking off fields and dividing the country into provinces, as well as the notions of the well-field, feudal investiture, and schools. The dao thus is not something the wisdom of a sage can [simply] manufacture; it is in every particular instance gradually given shape and manifested and inevitably develops from the nature of the state of things. Therefore, it is said to be "of Heaven."

3. The Book of Changes says, "The alternation of the yin and the yang is called the dao." This indicates that the dao already was present before human beings existed. The Book of Changes also says, "That which continues it is goodness, that which realizes it completely is human nature." This shows that Heaven is manifested in human beings and that principle (li [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is attached to qi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Therefore, those matters for which one can describe the form or name the name are all the detailed effects of the dao but they are not themselves the dao. For the dao is that by which all things and affairs are as they are (suoyiran [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); it is not how they should be (dangran [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). However, all that human beings are able to see is how things and affairs should be (the dangran). From the beginning of humankind, to groupings of five and ten, on to hundreds and thousands, and up to the creation of sovereigns and teachers and the distinguishing of provinces and the marking off of fields, it appears always that, "There was first some need and then the meeting of it, first some anxiety and then the expression of it, first some abuse and then the remedying of it." The institutions of the sage-emperors Fuxi, Shennong, Xuanyuan, and Zhuanxu were, in their first conception, merely like this. Their laws accumulated and [over time] became good and perfect, and with the reigns of Yao and Shun the goodness in them was brought forth fully. The Yin dynasty inherited the Xia's review of this tradition, and by the time of the Eastern Zhou, there was nothing to regret in [any detail] of it. It was like some water spilled from a goblet that gathers volume little by little and eventually becomes a great and mighty river, or like little mounds of earth that accumulate to form hills and mountains. This was simply due to the nature and logic of the situations these rulers were in. We cannot thereby conclude that the sageliness of Yao and Shun exceeded that of Fuxi and Xuanyuan, or that the spirit-like genius of Wen and Wu was superior to that of Yu and Tang. The later sages modeled themselves on the earlier sages, but they did not model the earlier sages themselves; rather, they modeled that about them through which the dao gradually took shape and was manifested. The Three Sovereigns "exerted no effort and the world was transformed of itself." The Five Emperors "explained things and accomplished undertakings." The Three Kings "established institutions and transmitted a model to their posterity." The differences in their ways of governing and in their transforming influence, which are apparent to men of later times, are only of this sort: When a sage at any given time created an institution, it was like wearing linen in the summer and fur in the winter. Their institutions are not instances of their giving rein to their fancy, saying, "I must do such-and-such in order to be different from men of former times," or "I must do such-and-such in order that I may make my fame equal to that of the former sages." These things were all necessary results of the alternation and revolution of the yin and the yang, but they themselves cannot be considered the dao, which is the alternation of the yin and yang itself. The alternation and revolution of the yin and the yang are like the wheels of a cart. The sage's fashioning of institutions, just like the wearing of linen in the summer and fur in the winter, is like the tracks of such wheels.

4. The dao is what it is of itself; sages do what they do of necessity. [One might ask,] Are these things the same? My reply is that they are not. Dao does not act and is so of itself; sages see what they see and cannot but do as they do. Therefore, one may say that sages embody the dao, but one may not say that sages and the dao are one in body. Sages see what they see, and hence they cannot but do as they do. The multitude sees nothing, and so do what they do without being aware of it. [One might ask,] Which is closer to the dao? My reply is that to do as one does without being aware of it is the dao. It is not [so much] that the multitude sees nothing, but rather that the thing cannot be seen. Doing as they do of necessity is how sages accord with the dao, but it is not the dao itself. Sages seek the dao, but the dao cannot be seen. And so the multitude's doing as it does without being aware of it is what sages rely upon to see the dao. Doing as one does without being aware of it is the trace of the alternation of the yin and the yang. Worthies learn from sages; superior people learn from worthies, but sages learn from the multitude. This does not mean that they study the multitude itself; rather, it means that the dao must be sought in the traces of the alternation of the yin and the yang. [In the period of time stretching] from the beginning of Heaven and earth down through the reigns of [emperors] Tang and Yu and the Xia and the Shang [dynasties], these traces were already numerous and in the course of historical adaptation, principles had become complete. The Duke of Zhou, being a sage endowed by Heaven with pure knowing, and happening to live at a time when the accumulated wisdom of antiquity had been transmitted and preserved and the Way and proper models were complete, was able to sum up, in his principles and policies, the "complete orchestra" of all past time. This came to be simply as a result of his position in time; it was not that the Duke of Zhou's sagely wisdom caused this to be so. As I see it, all the sages of remote antiquity studied the unself-conscious nature of the people, but the Duke of Zhou also had a comprehensive view of what the sages since antiquity had done of necessity and he understood their actions [as well]. The Duke of Zhou was of course a sage endowed by Heaven with pure knowing, but [his unique accomplishment] was not something that his wisdom could cause to be so. It was caused to be so by his position in time. It is comparable to when there was an officer in charge of each of the seasons, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, but the Director of Winter announced the results for the entire year. This, too, was because of his position in time and does not mean that the Director of Winter was superior in rank to the directors of the other three seasons. And so, while various periods of antiquity have been alike in having creative and illustrious sages, the position of summing up the "complete orchestra" of the past is the Duke of Zhou's alone. This was so because his position in time happened to be what it was; not even the Duke of Zhou himself realized that this was the case.

5. Mengzi tells us, "Kongzi may be said to have summed up the 'complete orchestra.'" Now I have said that it was the Duke of Zhou who summed up the "complete orchestra." Does this not seem to contradict Mengzi's claim? Well, the meaning of the expression "to sum up" is to collect together all of a group and unify it. From the beginning of Heaven and earth down to the emperors Yao and Shun and the Xia and Shang dynasties, sages always had attained the position of emperor; their government and their care of the people derived from the working out of the dao as required by circumstances. The Duke of Zhou, in fulfilling the Virtue of kings Wen and Wu, happened to live at a time when the work of emperors and kings was complete and when one dynasty had profited from the experience of another to the point where nothing further could be added. And so, he was able to rely on this past accumulation to form his own institutions and to "sum up" in the dao of the Zhou [dynasty] the "orchestra" of the ancient sages. This in fact is what is meant by "summing up the complete orchestra."

Kongzi had Virtue but lacked position. In other words, there was no one from whom he could acquire the power to create institutions. He could not even take his place as a single instrument, so how could he possibly sum up the complete orchestra? This does not mean that Kongzi's quality as a sage was in any way inferior to that of the Duke of Zhou; it is simply that the time in which he lived caused things to be like this. In saying that Kongzi "summed up the complete orchestra," Mengzi was actually comparing him to Bo Yi, Yi Yin, and Liuxia Hui. Mengzi knew that these three men all were sages, but he feared that his disciples might wonder if Kongzi's status as a sage were the same as theirs. When Gongsun Chou asked if Kongzi was like these men, Mengzi had no satisfactory way to express Kongzi's complete perfection, which distinguished him from the limited excellence of these three. And so he compared the situation to a musical orchestra. Therefore, the statement about Kongzi and the "complete orchestra" applies only in regard to these three sages; it is not a thorough or adequate description of Kongzi. To take it as a thorough or adequate description of Kongzi would actually belittle Kongzi. Why? Because the Duke of Zhou, in summing up the complete orchestra of Fuxi, Xuanyuan, Yao, Shun et al., had actually studied these successive sages. Had the Way and proper models of these sages not existed, he of course could not have come to be the Duke of Zhou, as he was. Kongzi did not "sum up the complete orchestra" of Bo Yi, Yi Yin, and Liuxia Hui [in this way], for he never studied Bo Yi, Yi Yin, and Liuxia Hui. Are we to say that had Bo Yi, Yi Yin, and Liuxia Hui not lived, Kongzi would not have come to be the sage that he was? Mengzi's words make sense only when taken in their proper context. We must not "let language injure meaning."

6. A man from the village of Daxiang once said, "Great indeed is the philosopher Kong! His learning is extensive and yet his fame does not depend upon any [particular] accomplishment." Modern scholars all are scornful of the villager for not understanding Kongzi, but do they themselves understand the true basis of Kongzi's fame? They hold that a sage endowed by Heaven with pure knowing may not be appraised in word or thought or be conceived to have one definite sort of greatness. Thus they invoke the notions of "Heaven" and "divinity" and regard the sage as unknowable. How then does their view differ from that of the villager? [The Doctrine of the Mean says that,] "The greatness [even] of Heaven and earth may be expressed in one statement." Although Kongzi is great, he is not greater than Heaven and earth. Is his greatness nonetheless not capable of being expressed completely in one sentence? Should someone ask [me], How may it be expressed in one statement? I would respond by saying, He simply studied the Duke of Zhou. [And were I further asked,] Did he study nothing else? I would say, There is no branch of learning in which Kongzi was not perfect. Since the Duke of Zhou summed up the "complete orchestra" of all the sages, it follows that outside of the Duke of Zhou there was no true learning [to be found]. The Duke of Zhou summed up the achievements of all the sages, and Kongzi studied and grasped completely the dao of the Duke of Zhou. This one statement is sufficient to describe Kongzi completely. "[He] venerated and transmitted the dao of Yao and Shun"-and this was the Duke of Zhou's goal. "[He] took as his paradigm kings Wen and Wu"-and this was the Duke of Zhou's life's work.

At one point Kongzi said, "Since the death of King Wen, has not true culture lodged here within me?" On another occasion, he said, "Extreme is my decay! It has been a long time since I dreamed of seeing the Duke of Zhou." [Kongzi] also said, "I study the rituals of Zhou that are now in use," and "How elegant a culture! I follow the Zhou!" When Duke Ai asked about government, the master said, "The government of Wen and Wu is set forth on tablets of wood and bamboo." Someone asked, "Under whom did Kongzi study?" [To which] Zigong replied, "The doctrines of Wen and Wu have not yet fallen to the ground." The reference [for the lines,] "A transmitter and not a creator," is the ancient statues of the Duke of Zhou. [In the line,] "I am one who is fond of antiquity and earnest in seeking knowledge therein," Kongzi refers to the records left behind by the Duke of Zhou.


Excerpted from On Ethics and History Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


PART I INTRODUCTION....................1
1. On the Dao....................25
2. On Learning....................45
3. A Treatise on Teachers....................52
4. Conventional Convictions....................56
5. The Difficulty of Being Understood....................59
6. The Analogy of Heaven....................64
7. Breadth and Economy....................68
8. Virtue in an Historian....................76
9. Virtue in a Litterateur....................82
10. The Principles of Literature....................86
11. Distinguishing What Only Seems to Be....................93
1. Letter on Learning to Zhu Cangmei of the Grand Secretariat....................103
2. Letter on Learning to My Clansman Runan....................111
3. Reply to Shen Zaiting Discussing Learning....................118
4. Letter on Learning to Chen Jianting....................126
1. On the Dao....................133
2. A Treatise on Teachers....................138
3. Letter in Reply to Li Yi....................140
Selective Bibliography....................185
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