An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Qing-Period Philosophy and Thought

Mar 19, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

Early and Middle Qing Philosophy: Reproaching Neo-Confucianism (Huang Zongxi, Gu Yanwu, Wang Fuzhi, Dai Zhen)

Early Qing Philosophy: Reproaching Neo-Confucianism

Three great Confucian scholars lived during the transition period from the Ming 明 to the Qing dynasty 清, and all three inherited and developed the thoughts and teachings of Ming Neo-Confucians: Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲, Gu Yanwu 顧炎武, and Wang Fuzhi 王夫之. But not all of them were in accordance with Neo-Confucian principles: In their eyes Neo-Confucianism had too many theoreticizing aspects and had lost its ties to the original Confucian writings. A reinterpretation into the direction of pracicability of Confucianism was therefore necessary, which could only be done by studying the original classics and their first interpretations during the Han period 漢.

Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 (1610-1695) was originally a disciple of Liu Zongzhou 劉宗周 (1578-1645) who propagated the teachings of the Ming Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Shouren 王守仁 (Wang Yangming 王陽明), the great theoretician of the philosophy of the mind (xinxue 心學).
Huang Zongxi's most important writing is the treatise Mingyi daifang lu 明夷待訪錄 "Awaiting a visit like in the daifang hexagram". It contains harsh criticism against each kind of selfish rule and is therefore often seen as a concrete attack against the rule of the Manchu dynasty, with a general proposal for a tripartite government, composed from the ruler, the chancellor and the well-educated official elite. Huang Zongxi resumes the theories of Ming Confucians in his book Mingru xue'an 明儒學案 "Records of Ming period Confucian scholars", and develops his own theories by describing theirs. Universal order or principle (li 理) and matter (qi 氣) cannot be separated, they are two designations for one and the same, the universal principle serves to guide and to shape matter. The universal principle is thus able to create manifold shapes (wanwu 萬物) and human characters (xing 性) that can finally all be traced back to the universal order. The Song philosophers' assumption that the universal order is able to produce beings (li neng sheng qi 理能生氣) has lead them to the conclusion that principle and matter or appearance are two different things. Huang Zongxi's argument is that matter is able to control itself and therefore must be in possession of the universal principle. Likewise, all expressions (wanshu 萬殊) by affections (qing 情) and human character are manifold manifestations of the singulary universal mind (xin 心).

The writings of Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613-1682) are very extensive, the most important book is Rizhilu 日知錄 "Daily Knowledge", important teachings are also found in Tinglin wenji 亭林文集 "Collection of the Pavillion Forest". Under the impression of the weak Ming government that suffered under the permanent struggles of court cliques the late Ming and early Qing philosophers tried to trace back the origin of these circumstances to the philosophy of the mind that was cherished by mid-ming scholars like Wang Shouren. The teachings of these Neo-Confucians, for Gu Yanwu, were hollow, idle talk that had no base in the classic writings and deviated from the true teachings of Confucius; Wang Shouren, he said, was in fact an adherent of Chan Buddhism 禪宗 and only superficially Confucian. Terms like "human character" (xing 性) and "affections" (qing 情) were not important or even unknown to the early Confucians. None of them discussed the relations between Heaven's will (tiandao 天道) and a kind of universal mind (xin 心). Investigations into sciences like the realms of "birds and beasts", like the Song period 宋 Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) had proposed, are only refinement (mo 末), and not basics (ben 本). Instead, Gu Yanwu argued, the true Confucian scholar should study the Classics. The teaching of the universal order (lixue 理學), prevailing from Song to Ming, should be replaced by the teaching of the Classics (jingxue 經學). Contemporarians of Gu Yanwu like Zhu Heling 朱鶴齡 and Fei Mi 費密 likewise stressed that is was important to reinvigorate studies of the traditional Classics, with new methods and new systematics, and thereby to continue the tradition of exegesis that began during the Han period 漢 and was crowned by Tang period 唐 Confucians like Kong Yingda 孔穎達. A vast flood of new interpretations and critical commentaries to the Confucian Classics were published in the second half of the 17th century.
Gu Yanwu combined two sentences from the Confucian Analects (Lunyu 論語) to underline his own understanding of Confucian behaviour and learning: All under Heaven, from one's one person to familiar and state affairs, can and must be based on studying and learning the Classical writings (bo xue yu wen 博學於文). And all social relationships and interactions are founded on the principle of self-restriction and modesty (xing ji you chi 行己有恥).

Wang Fuzhi 王夫之 (1619-1692) lived a quiet life of studies in the Confucian Classics as "Master from the ship-[shaped] hill" (Chuanshan xiansheng 船山先生) after he had for long years supported the last princes of Southern Ming against the intruding Qing armies of the "barbarian" Manchus. He last of the Ming had renounced his support and he therefore spent 40 years on the countryside somewhere in the southwest of China. While Huang Zongxi and Gu Yanwu only criticized selected aspects of Neo-Confucian philosophy, Wang Fuzhi's studies were deep enough to systematically undermine the building of Song-Ming philosophy. For his theories he is often said to be the first materialist in Chinese philosophy and therefore became an object of intensive studies by Communist theoreticians.
In his metaphysical theory, Wang Fuzhi, like the early Song period 宋 philosopher Zhang Zai 張載, assumed that matter or "breath" (qi 氣) is the only existing substance of all things existing within the universe. A univeral principle or "order" (li 理) is no separate force or power, but is only attached to matter; it cannot exist separately. What is generally called hollownes or "vanity" (xu 虛 or taixu 太虛) is not really vain, but is filled with matter. Taixu is therefore better interpreted as "space". There does not exist a really "nothing" (wu 無). Reality is what all eyes can see and all ears are able to hear, truth (or sincerity, cheng 誠), is therefore, was really exists (shi 實). The Neo-Confucian concept of the universal order (li 理) is here totally replaced by a kind of quasi-materialistic and apparently more practical concept of reality and substance. All under earth, Wang Fuzhi argues, is a "tool" (qi 器) that contains and dominates the Heavenly way (dao 道). The Heavenly way is not able to dominate the "tool", or shape of things and behaviour. Both, the "tool" and the "way" (matter and principle) can not separately exist.
Within the universe there is only the principle, or in a Confucian sense, virtual power (de 德), that is endlessly and constantly prevailing. All material aspects - even if all matter contains the universal principle - are subject to an ever-changing flux. Even if man never perceives these small changes and only perceives a general outer shape, all things daily change their appearance and character (the principle of daily change, ri xin zhi hua 日新之化; or permanent change, qi hua bu xi 其化不息). All these changes are part of a life's fate (ming 命), like the necessary biological process from childhood to youth, adultship and old age. Even if anything seems to be completed, it still can be changed (yi cheng ke ge 已成可革). This kind of relativism can also be extended to human character that never ceases to be on the way to perfection neither on the way to total degradation. The traditional assumption by the Confucians and Neo-Confucians that the human character is by nature good and can be lead back to this natural goodness even by a most depraved person, is here reinterpreted by a skeptic view that there is no absolute goodness that can be acheived by anybody. Wang Fuzhi is clearly influenced by the theory of the old Book of Changes (Yijing 易經). The state of affairs on the day of production (ri sheng 日生) might seem a daily completion (ri cheng 日成), but will be totally different the next day.
Wang Fuzhi accuses Lu Jiuyuan and Wang Shouren of misunderstanding the Confucian concept of knowledge (zhi 知) and an eventually resulting activity (xing 行). Both Neo-Confucian concepts of "knowledge before action" (zhi xian xing hou 知先行後) and of the natural unity of knowledge and action (zhi xing he yi 知行合一) cannot truly be applied in the world of Wang Fuzhi. Men of knowledge, he says, are able to act positively because they act, while men without knowledge are likewise able to obtain positive results. Acting can supersede pure knowledge (xing ke jian zhi 行可兼知), while pure knowledge is unable to obtain any active results (zhi bu ke jian xing 知不可兼行). Wang Fuzhi applies a theory of utilitarism that lays more stress on acting then on intensive studies. Even a perfect man (junzi 君子) cannot obtain good results in his behaviour unless he acts in a positive manner and is able to confirm the correctness of his knowledge. The example for the Neo-Confucians' sterile type of learning, in Gu Yanwu's eyes, is the invention of the eight-legged essay (baguwen 八股文) that did more harm to the world of thought than the burning of books undertaken by the First Emperor of Qin.
Wang Fuzhi's most important writings are Zhang Zai Zhengmeng zhu 張載正蒙注 "A commentary to Zhang Zai's 'Correcting the Ignorant'", Zhouyi waizhuan 周易外傳 "The outer commentary to the Book of Changes", Shangshu yinyi 尚書引義 "Evoking the meaning of the Book of Documents", Du Tongjian lun 讀通鑑論 "Notes on reading the Comprehensive Mirror", Siwenlu 思問錄 "Thoughts and questions", Du Sishu daquan shuo 讀四書大全說 "Thorough explanation for reading the Four Books", Huangshu 黃書 "The Yellow Book", Emeng 噩夢 "Nightmares", and Songlun 宋論 "About Song [philosophers]".

The teachings of Zhu Xi and Lu Jiuyuan-Wang Shouren seemed to be unconciliant against each other. But late Ming scholars like Sun Qifeng 孫奇逢 (1584-1675) saw no large antagonism between Wang Shouren's theory of innate knowledge of good and Zhu Xi's investigation of matters. All Neo-Confucians, from the brothers Cheng (Er Cheng 二程) to Wang Shouren, he argues, had different interpretations, but no deepgoing contradictions. Sun Qifeng compiled a history of Neo-Confucianism, Lixue zongzhuan 理學宗傳 "Biographical Account of the Masters of Neo-Confucianism" that can be seen as an overview of a period of history of philosophy that just ended in Sun's own time.

There was a large group of 17th century philosophers that started to attack the ideals of the Song and Ming Neo-Confucians. In their eyes, theory had too much weight among the teachings of people like Wang Shouren. The new Confucians instead wished to emulate a more practice-oriented philosophy that could help to correct the many faults that scholars of the past centuries had done.
Li Yong 李顒 (1627-1705) was one of the "three great early Qing philosophers" (Qing chu san da ru 清初三大儒), together with Sun Qifeng and Huang Zongxi. Li Yong interpreted the Confucian writings as handbooks for a practical policy, to "rescue the world" (jiu shi 救世) and "to support all the living" (kang ji qun sheng 康濟群生). All different Neo-Confucian theories, he said, come to the ideal of repenting the faults (of the present) and renewing one-self (hui guo zi xin 悔過自新) to go back to the good times of the past.

Yan Yuan 顔元 (1635-1704) was head of a group of philosophers of the late 17th century, including Li Gong 李塨 (1659-1733), that criticized the Song-Ming Neo-Confucians for the uselessness and impracticability of their teachings. The discussion about human character and the relation between a personal mind and the unversal order, was of no use for daily life and the practice of government. All of the Neo-Confucian scholars like the brothers Cheng, Zhu Xi, Lu Jiuyuan and Wang Shouren had misinterpreted the teachings of Confucius, the Duke of Zhou and the exemplary virtue of the mythological emperors Yao and Shun. From the Han period on Confucian scholars had lost the true meaning of the practical Confucians teachings like the "three actions" (sanshi 三事: zhengde 正德 "rectifying virtue", liyong 利用 "usefulness", housheng 厚生 "improve living conditions"), the "six virtues" (liude 六德: zhi 智 "wisdom", ren 仁 "humanity", sheng 聖 "saintness", yi 義 "righteousness", zhong 忠 "loyalty", he 和 "harmony"), the "six acts" (liuxing 六行: xiao 孝 "filial piety", you 友 "friendship", mu 睦 "peaceful neighbourhood", yin 姻 "wedding", ren 任 "duty", xu 恤 "sympathy"), and the "six techniques" (liuyi 六藝: li 禮 "ritual", yue 樂 "music", she 射 "shooting", yu 御 "driving", shu 書 "calligraphy", shu 數 "mathematics"), Song and Ming Neo-Confucians were effeminated because they did not learn practice (xi xing 習行) in politics and military affairs, but instead only sat down quietly and read books (jing zuo du shu 靜坐讀書). The perfect ruler, proposed Yan Yuan, had to act as a Saint with all his virtues, and as a king with all his exemplary power. Opening wasteland, equalizing possession, and caring for dykes and canals, were the basis for a rich state. All people being soldiers, and all state officials being generals, will be the basis for a powerful state. Employing people of ability, rectifying the six classical writings, and undertaking the right rituals and ritual music will eventually lead to peace and harmony. Li Gong, Yan Yuan's disciple, likewise voted for more studies in practical things (shishi 實事)
like rites, ritual music, military, agronomy, medicine, geography, and so on. Many of Li Gong's writings therefore concentrate on the interpretation of pracical arts in the classics (rituals, shooting, sacrifices, lexicography).
The goodness of the human character, Yan Yuan says, is dependent of the actual quality of matter (qizhi 氣質) that can be defiled or stained, but that is, according to the teachings of Mengzi, good by nature. Natural order (li) and matter (qi) are therefore two different things that can by no means be seen as one and the same, as some Neo-Confucians like Lu Jiuquan and Wang Shouren had done.
Yan Yuan's most important writings are the Sicunpian 四存篇 "Four Existences", and a Zhuzi yulei ping 朱子語類評 "Critique on Zhu Xi's Categorized Talks (Zhuzi yulei)".

In the 18th century a new generation of Confucian scholars produced a new wave of critically commenting the Confucian classics. These studies of the Classics (jingxue 經學) was the third layer of commentaries, extending and replacing the Han period commentaries (zhu 注) and Tang period commentaries (shu 疏). This new wave of learning was called "scholiasm" (xungu zhi xue 訓詁之學). Many of these commentaries and critical apparatuses were compiled on imperial order, and the publications obtained the prefix "imperially fixed" (qinding 欽定) or "compiled by the emperor" (yuzuan 御纂). The first three scholars of this group of commentators are Mao Qiling 毛奇齡 (1623-1716), Yan Ruoqu 閻若璩 (1636-1704), Yao Jiheng 姚際恒 (1647-1715); further the geographers Hu Wei 胡渭 (1633-1714) and Gu Zuyu 顧祖禹 (1631-1692) who participated in the compilation of the imperial geography of the Qing empire, Da-Qing yitong zhi 大清一統志, and studied the allegedly earliest geographical description of China, the Yugong 禹貢 "Tribute of Yu" (part of the Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents"); and the publishers Zhu Yizun 朱彝尊 (1629-1709) and Xu Qianxue 徐乾學 (1631-1694). Different interpretations of the classical writings lead to the development of two different schools, the Jiangsu Shool (Wupai 吳派), and the Anhui School (Wanpai 皖派). Head of the Jiangsu School was Hui Dong, head of the Anhui School was Dai Zhen.
Hui Dong 惠棟 (1697-1758), carried on the studies by his father and grandfather who assumed that the interpretations of the Confucian Classics by Tang or Song period commentaries are not reliable - they are too far away from the times of Confucius, King Zhou Wenwang, and the mythological emperor Fuxi (Fu Xi; still seen as an historical person in the 18th century). To perceive the truth behind the words in the classics, the good scholar has therefore to discard all later interpretations and commentaries, and only then will be able to find the truth behind the old words. The main object of the scholars of the Hui family was the Classic of Changes (Yijing), with the Han period commentaries taken as the most reliable base for a reconstruction of the original meaning. Han scholars, Hui Dong argued, had still a knowledge of the original meaning of the Classics.
Dai Zhen 載震 (1724-1777) saw his task in the purification of Confucianism from non-Confucian elements borrowed from Daoist and Buddhist philosophy. Like Hui Dong, he doubted that a Song period scholar like Zhu Xi should be able to correctly interprete the meaning of the ancient Classics. The fault of the Neo-Confucians, as was Dai Zhen's interpretation, was that they had neglected the classical writings and the study of their meaning. The Neo-Confucians purely discussed about singular concepts without considering the true meaning of the wording in the context of the Classical writings. Only intensive philological studies of each word would reveal the true meaning of the old writings. Even the interpretations of the Han scholars, into whose commentaries Hui Dong trusted, interpreted the old Classics under the influence of their own time and their own philosophies.
One focus of Dai Zhen's own philosophy was "human desire" (renyu 人欲). The Neo-Confucians had human desire seen as opposite to the Heavenly order (tianli 天理); human desire will destroy the natural order within ordinary men (xiaoren 小人), but if one comes back to the original natural order, one's destructive desire will vanish, and man will be a perfect (junzi 君子). This interpretation was seen as inappropriate. Dai Zhen replaces the term "desire" by "affects" (qing 情) and says, desires or affects are part of a human nature and can by no means be reduced to nothing and are not able to entirely swallow up the Heavenly order. The most positive affect is, to care not only for one's one life, but also for the life of other humans: this affect is "humanity" (ren 仁). There are only good and bad affects, and not the strict dualism of "desire" and "order", because all positive and negative expressions character are combined; it is not possible to separate a natural principle or order from affects. Having no affects, will mean to have no natural order at all, and the theory of destroying any affects is clearly of Daoist and Buddhist origin.
The fundament of all relationship between Heaven and Earth, and between man and man, as Dai Zhen explains in his book Yuanshan 原善 "The originary goodness", is "goodness" (shan 善). The three guideropes of human life are humanity (ren 仁), righteousness (yi 義) and ritual (li 禮). The right application of these virtues is expressed in wisdom (zhi 智), courage (yong 勇), loyalty (zhong 忠), trust (xin 信), and benevolence (shu 恕). A person utilizing all these principles, follows the demands of the natural way (dao 道), the good virtue (de 德) and the natural principle (li 理). The most important manifestation of the great virtue of Heaven and Earth (tian di zhi da de 天地之大德) is, to care for life (sheng sheng 生生).
Among Dai Zhen's disciples are Lu Wenchao 盧文弨 (1717-1795), Ji Yun 紀昀 (1724-1805; took part in the compilation of the Siku quanshu 四庫全書), Duan Yucai 段玉裁 (1735-1815; studies in early lexicography), and Wang Niansun 王念孫 (1744-1832).