An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒

Mar 8, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (179-104 BCE) was a Former Han-period (202 BCE-8 AD) philosopher and writer.

He hailed from Guangchuan 廣川 (modern Jingxian 景縣, Hebei) and became an erudite (boshi 博士) for the New-Text Gongyang Commentary 公羊傳 of the Confucian Classic Chunqiu 春秋, the "Spring and Autumn Annals".

His philosophical interpretations were highly appreciated by Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87) and he was nominated a "worthy and proficient scholar" (xianliang zhi shi 賢良之士). In his later years, Dong was appointed counsellor (xiang 相) of the Princes of Jiangdu 江都 and Jiaoxi 膠西. Following his philosophical interpretation of the connection between rulership and the will of Heaven, he criticized Emperor Wu's politics in a time when natural disasters befell China. He was therefore put into jail but soon released. After retirement he dedicated himself to the further study of literature, but he was nevertheless often consulted in important political matters.

Dong Zhongshu's philosophical interpretations of the Confucian Classics just met the needs of the Emperors Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141) and Wu who both tried to concentrate political power in their hands and to deprive the princes of their political significance. The Confucians were, in the words of Dong Zhongshu, the sole philosophers that were able to provide a philosophical base for this kind of politics. Emperor Wu therefore "only venerated the Confucians and expelled all other philosophical schools" (du zun ru shu, ba chu bai jia 獨尊儒術,罷黜百家), at least in the political sphere.

Dong Zhongshu created a solid merger of the Confucian view of society and the structure of an empire with the widespread theory of Yin and Yang and the Five Agents that was very prevalent during the Han period. Daoist and legalist influences are also to be seen in his thought. Any change or process in the world reflected a change in Heaven's stance towards the ruler (tian ren gan ying 天人感應 "mutual correspondence between Heaven and man").

In this shape, Dong Zhongshu united the theory of Heaven as the guardian of rulership as brought forward by the philosopher Mengzi 孟子 with the popular belief that the change of worldy things was related to a change or imbalance in the world of metaphysics. The ruler had to perform the will of Heaven in order to preserve the Heavenly Mandate (tianming 天命) bestowed upon him.

Yet this was not only valid for a ruler, but actually for all persons. Heaven has, Dong said, created man, and man's human nature is rooted in Heaven. The human body is a reflection of Heaven's measures, breath and blood are transformations of Heaven's will and humankindness, virtuous human behaviour is a reflection of the Heavenly order of appropriate behaviour, human good and bad are results of the warmth and pureness of Heaven, man's joy and anger accord to Heaven's cold and warm phenomena.

Like Heaven produces the four seasons, a ruler has four instruments of policy, namely benevolence, reward, punishment and penalty. The Confucian society is even extended to a paternal-filial relation between Heaven and the emperor, in which the latter is the Son of Heaven (tianzi 天子). Like a father answers filiality with benevolence, a ruler obeys Heaven, fulfills its will (tianzhi 天志) and intentions (tianyi 天意), and is rewarded with bless, while he himself is benevolent towards his people. Like a son is allowed to rebel against a cruel father, the people has the right to rebel against a tyrant. Heaven, as the highest father of all, warns a ruler who walks on the wrong path and sends down strange signs and natural disasters.

The phenomena of Yin and Yang are transposed on the Confucian view of society. Heaven is Yang, the earth is Yin. Yang, as virtue, provides, while Yin, the penal element, deprives. In the Confucian world of dualities of upper and lower, the superior position (ruler, father, man) corresponds to Yang, while the inferior position (subject, son, woman) is a Yin position. The superior person in these three relationships (sangang 三綱) is always the guideline (gang 綱) for the lower person.

There are five constancies (wuchang 五常) by which the relationships between superior and inferior persons can be stabilized, namely kindheartedness (ren 仁), appropriateness (yi 義), etiquette (li 禮), wisdom (zhi 智) and trust (xin 信). A ruler has to make use of exemplary virtuous behaviour (de 德) in first place, which can, but has not to be supported by punishment (xing 刑). With the help of his own behaviour a good ruler will be able to educate (jiaohu 教化) his people. Like all animals, man comes from Heaven and has a good nature (shan zhi 善質) endowed by Heaven, but unlike animals, man can be educated and learn to practise the five constancies and the three relationships. He is thus the only being able to follow the Heavenly path (tiandao 天道).

There are, of course, character (xing 性) differences between holies (shengren 聖人) and the most stupid men (xiayu 下愚). The decisive difference is the control of affects (qing 情) which are - as far as possible - not to be express outwards. The character, always naturally inclining to the good, has to control the affects.

Dong Zhongshu even brought forward practical advice for government and suggested a grain tax of ten per cent and a corvée labour of no more than three days a year.

The most important book written by Dong Zhongshu is the Chunqiu fanlu 春秋繁露. In this book, he explains how historical events were related to a cosmologial background. Another short writing by him is the Ju xianliang duice 舉賢良對策 "Answer to my elevation to a worthy and proficient scholar". In this declaration he explains that no philosophy whatever can go without Confucianism, and all moral virtues and thoughts are related to the Confucian way. Dong Zhongshu has also written some rhapsodies, the most famous of which is the Shi bu yu fu 士不遇賦.

The writings of Dong Zhongshu have been collected by the Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Zhang Pu 張溥 (1602-1641) with the title of Dong Jiaoxi ji 董膠西集. It is included in the series Han Wei Liuchao baisanjia ji 漢魏六朝百三家集.

Chen Zhefu 陳哲夫 (1992). "Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhengzhixue 政治學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 65.
Fei Chengang 費振剛 (1986). "Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 121.
Zhang Shancheng 張善城, Jin Chunfeng 金春峰 (1987). "Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhexue 哲學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 166.