An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Gong Zizhen 龔自珍

May 6, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Gong Zizhen 龔自珍 (1792-1841), also called Gong Yijian 龔易簡 or Gong Gongzuo 龔鞏祚, courtesy name Seren 瑟人 or Boding 伯定, style Ding'an 定盦, was a late Qing period 清 (1644-1911) philosopher and writer. He hailed from Hangzhou 杭州, Zhejiang, and was a grandson of the famous philologer Duan Yucai 段玉裁 (1735-1815). Duan Yucai put a lot of hope in Gong Zizhen and began educating him in the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) old-text classics. Later on Gong studied the new-text tradition under Liu Fenglu 劉逢禄 (1776-1829), a specialist in the Gongyang Commentary 公羊傳 to the Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals", as well as Tiantai Buddhism under Jiang Tiejun 江鐵君.

Although Gong Zizhen struggled hard to pass the state examinations he only obtained the jinshi degree with the age of 37 sui. He was appointed secretary of the Grand Secretariat (neige zhongshu 内閣中書), secretary in the Court of the Imperial Clan (zongrenfu zhushi 宗人府主事) and secretary in the Ministry of Rites (libu zhushi 禮部主事) and retired from office in 1839. Only two years later he died in the Yunyang Academy 雲陽書院 in Danyang 丹陽, Jiangsu.

Gong Zizhen criticized the persisting tendency of his contemporarians to adhere to the Neo-Confucian tradition of the brothers Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107) and Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and the eminent philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200). Instead of adopting their metaphysical speculations, Gong believed, the new-text classics had to be investigated because each small word in these texts had a deeper meaning (wei yan da yi 微言大義). He followed the historical view of the new-text classics that there were three possible stages that a state could occupy, namely the "age of order" (zhishi 治世), the "age of decline" (shuaishi 衰世), and the "age of chaos" (luanshi 亂世). He was of the opinion that Qing China was at his time in a stage of decline, in which the outer appearance still gives the impression of strength, while important parts of the political and social system were already in considerable decline. This was due the government's negligence of competent advisors and its disregard for the personal qualities of all humans. Individual value was therefore not estimated, fettered and coerced by the constraints of society and politics.

Gong Zizhen brought forward the opinion that it was important to honour the individual value of everyone and to appreciate his mind (zun xin 尊心). Society, the state and the whole world in which one lives can only be built up by a combinated effort of each personal contribution. This is only possible, he said, if the individual is liberated from all social ties and so able to liberate his or her personal character (xing 性).

The traditional political system with its rituals, the penal law and social order, he stressed, was the result of a development that took place under the rule of one dynasty that modelled state and society according to its needs. In such a system, imperial power was interpreted as granted by Heaven, rituals and etiquette were seen as inventions of Saints, and the Confucian morale was thought as a reflection of Heaven's will. Such a system could not survive in eternity, Gong Zizhen said, but had to be modernised and adapted to the needs of new times.

Concerning the human character, Gong Zizhen said that it can neither be purely good nor purely evil by nature, but the human character of each individual has the potential to drift into the one or other direction, according to the circumstances under which a person grows up and lives. In contrast to the Neo-Confucians, Gong Zizhen did not assume that the human character is wholly owed to a natural endowment, but has a great part of individuality (si 私) for each person, even in such persons that fully accord with the Confucian concept of highest moral.

Gong Zizhen's main field of Confucian research were the new-text interpretations of the Classics, especially the Gongyangzhuan. Yet he also stressed that it was important to have an understanding of the other Confucian texts in order to have a chance to "save the world" (ji shi 濟世). The establishing of "guidelines for the world" (jing shi 經世) was the final aim of government with the help of the Confucian writings (zhi jing 治經). In his eyes, therefore, the smaller Classics Erya 爾雅, Xiaojing 孝經, Lunyu 論語 and Mengzi 孟子 were not to be included into the Confucian canon because they were of a later date and not books predating Confucius.

Confucius, he said, would never had ordered his disciples to note down his words for eternity. There are therefore only six classics, like in the Han period bibliography Yiwenzhi 藝文志, and not more. These classics were in the end nothing else than historiographical books, like the philosopher Zhang Xuecheng 章學誠 (1738-1801) had already stressed, and in this function only the ancestors of all other books.

Zhang and Gong denied the sacral character of the Confucian Classics. Gong Zizhen also doubted that the book Zhouli 周禮 reflects the real structure of the early Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) government and brought forward the argument that it must have been a compilation made in the late Zhou period. It incorporation into the Confucian Canon only happened under the reign of the usurper Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-22 CE) who favoured the old-text classics.

In real life, the character and mind of each individual had to be respected in Gong Zizhen's eyes. Similarly, he was of the opinion that in the field of literature, affects (qing 情) had to be respected and not to be suppressed. Poems were especially valuable because they were the most efficient method to express affects.

The writings of Gong Zizhen are so profound and comprehensive that they have their own value. His poems are of an intriguing rareness, so that scholars speak of the "school of Gong" (Gong pai 龔派). His most important writings are included in the book Gong Zizhen quanji 龔自珍全集.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 267.