An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zeng Shen 曾參 or Zengzi 曾子

Jan 4, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Zeng Shen 曾參 (or Zeng Can, 505-436), courtesy name Ziyu 子輿, as a philosopher called Zengzi 曾子 "Master Zeng", was a famous disciple of Confucius. He was a descendant of Qulie 曲烈, a son of King Shao Kang 少康 of the Xia dynasty 夏 (17th-15th cent. BCE) who had been made regional ruler of the state of Zeng 鄫. His father Zeng Dian 曾點 was also a friend of Confucius who loved their natural and proper mind ("I give my approval to Dian.").

Zeng Shen became a disciple of Confucius when the latter was already and old man. He was a very sincere person but quite hesitating in his conduct, so that Confucius called him "dull". Yet on the other side, he praised him as someone who penetrated the all-pervading unity of the Master's doctine and rightly perceived the principles of human nature and their benevolent exercise towards others. Zeng Shen paid great attention to the cultivation of the self and each day laid austerity on his own mind, in order to achieve the perfect loyalty towards others and the right trustfulness towards his friends. "Each offer by him", the Master said, "may not be without breadth of mind and vigorous endurance.

Perfect virtue is the burden which he considers it is his to sustain." A man of superior virtue was, in Zengzi's mind, an individual who can be intrusted with the charge of a young orphan prince and can be commissioned with authority over a state of a hundred miles. Zengzi himself described how the man of superior virtue was to behave: "In his deportment and manner he keep from violence and heedlessness, in regulating his countenance he keep near to sincerity, and in his words and tones he keep far from lowness and propriety. In his thoughts, the superior man does not go out of his place."

The core concept of Zeng Shen's philosophy was filial piety (xiao 孝) that was to be observed beyond the parents' lifetimes. He is therefore credited with the authorship of the book Xiaojing 孝經 "Classic of Filial Piety" that reached prominence, together with the Lunyu 論語 "Confucian Analects", during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). The imperial bibliography Yiwenzhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 mentions a book Zengzi 曾子 in 18 chapters. It is believed that ten chapters of the ritual Classic Da Dai Liji 大戴禮記 were taken from this book. The rest is lost, and only some fragments are preserved.

After the death of his Master, Zeng Shen assembled disciples around him and preached the way of Confucius. Together with Zisi 子思 he was the founder of that Confucian tradition that would later become so famous under Mengzi 孟子. Because of his young age he was in the beginning not one of the ten wise disciples (Kong men shi zhe 孔門十哲) and could only enter this exclusive circle when Yan Yuan 顏淵 was elevated to a "second" Confucius. During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) he was given the honorific title of Earl of Cheng 郕伯. When the status of Mengzi rose under the influence of the Neo-Confucians during the early Song period 宋 (960-1279), Zeng Shen also became one of the highest saints in the "Heaven" of the Confucians. Emperor Huizong of the Song 宋徽宗 (r. 1100-1125) bestowed on him the title of Marquis Wucheng 武城侯, Emperor Duzong 宋度宗 (r. 1264-1274) as Duke of Cheng 郕國公. Under the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) he was given the title of Duke Zongsheng 宗聖公 "Elevating the Saint (i.e. Confucius)" and became the third Confucian saint, only after Yan Yuan and the Master himself.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 22.