Ancient History & Civilisation

3. The Rebirth of Philosophy

Chu Hsi—Wang Yang-ming—Beyond good and evil

These scholars were not all Confucians, for rival schools of thought had grown up in the course of fifteen centuries, and now the intellectual life of the exuberant race was stirred with much argument about it and about. The seepage of Buddhism into the Chinese soul had reached even the philosophers. Most of them now affected a habit of solitary meditation; some of them went so far as to scorn Confucius for scorning metaphysics, and to reject his method of approach to the problems of life and mind as too external and crude. Introspection became an accepted method of exploring the universe, and epistemology made its first appearance among the Chinese. Emperors took up Buddhism or Taoism as ways of promoting their popularity or of disciplining the people; and at times it seemed that the reign of Confucius over the Chinese mind was to end.

His saviour was Chu Hsi. Just as Shankara, in eighth-century India, had brought into an intellectual system the scattered insights of the Upanishads, and had made the Vedanta philosophy supreme; and just as Aquinas, in thirteenth-century Europe, was soon to weave Aristotle and St. Paul into the victorious Scholastic philosophy; so Chu Hsi, in twelfth-century China, took the loose apothegms of Confucius and built upon them a system of philosophy orderly enough to satisfy the taste of a scholarly age, and strong enough to preserve for seven centuries the leadership of the Confucians in the political and intellectual life of the Chinese.

The essential philosophic controversy of the time centered upon the interpretation of a passage in the Great Learning, attributed by both Chu Hsi and his opponents to Confucius.* What was meant by the astonishing demand that the ordering of states should be based upon the proper regulation of the family, that the regulation of the family should be based upon the regulation of one’s self, that the regulation of one’s self depended upon sincerity of thought, and that sincerity of thought arose from “the utmost extension of knowledge” through “the investigation of things”?

Chu Hsi answered that this meant just what it said; that philosophy, morals and statesmanship should begin with a modest study of realities. He accepted without protest the positivistic bent of the Master’s mind; and though he labored over the problems of ontology at greater length than Confucius might have approved, he arrived at a strange combination of atheism and piety which might have interested the sage of Shantung. Like the Book of Changes, which has always dominated the metaphysics of the Chinese, Chu Hsi recognized a certain strident dualism in reality: everywhere the Yang and the Yin—activity and passivity, motion and rest—mingled like male and female principles, working on the five elements of water, fire, earth, metal and wood to produce the phenomena of creation; and everywhere Li and Chi—Law and Matter—equally external, coöperated to govern all things and give them form. But over all these forms, and combining them, was T’ai chi, the Absolute, the impersonal Law of Laws, or structure of the world. Chu Hsi identified this Absolute with the T’ien or Heaven of orthodox Confucianism; God, in his view, was a rational process without personality or figurable form. “Nature is nothing else than Law.”18

This Law of the universe is also, said Chu, the law of morals and of politics. Morality is harmony with the laws of nature, and the highest statesmanship is the application of the laws of morality to the conduct of a state. Nature in every ultimate sense is good, and the nature of men is good; to follow nature is the secret of wisdom and peace. “Choi Mao Shu refrained from clearing away the grass from in front of his window, ‘because,’ he said, ‘its impulse is just like my own.’”19 One might conclude that the instincts are also good, and that one may follow them gayly; but Chu Hsi denounces them as the expression of matter (Chi), and demands their subjection to reason and law (Li).20 It is difficult to be at once a moralist and a logician.

There were contradictions in this philosophy, but these did not disturb its leading opponent, the gentle and peculiar Wang Yang-ming. For Wang was a saint as well as a philosopher; the meditative spirit and habits of Mahayana Buddhism had sunk deeply into his soul. It seemed to him that the great error in Chu Hsi was not one of morals, but one of method; the investigation of things, he felt, should begin not with the examination of the external universe, but, as the Hindus had said, with the far profounder and more revealing world of the inner self. Not all the physical science of all the centuries would ever explain a bamboo shoot or a grain of rice.

In former years I said to my friend Chien: “If, to be a sage or a virtuous man, one must investigate everything under heaven, how can at present any man possess such tremendous power?” Pointing to the bamboos in front of the pavilion, I asked him to investigate them and see. Both day and night Chien entered into an investigation of the principles of the bamboo. For three days he exhausted his mind and thought, until his mental energy was tired out and he took sick. At first I said that it was because his energy and strength were insufficient. Therefore I myself undertook to carry on the investigation. Day and night I was unable to understand the principles of the bamboo, until after seven days I also became ill because of having wearied and burdened my thoughts. In consequence we mutually sighed and said, “We cannot be either sages or virtuous men.”21

So Wang Yang-ming put aside the examination of things, and put aside even the classics of antiquity; to read one’s own heart and mind in solitary contemplation seemed to him to promise more wisdom than all objects and all books.22 Exiled to a mountainous wilderness inhabited by barbarians and infested with poisonous snakes, he made friends and disciples of the criminals who had escaped to those parts; he taught them philosophy, cooked for them, and sang them songs. Once, at the midnight watch, he startled them by leaping from his cot and crying out ecstatically: “My nature, of course, is sufficient. I was wrong in looking for principles in things and affairs.” His comrades were not sure that they followed him; but slowly he led them on to his idealistic conclusion: “The mind itself is the embodiment of natural law. Is there anything in the universe that exists independent of the mind? Is there any law apart from the mind?”23 He did not infer from this that God was a figment of the imagination; on the contrary he conceived of the Deity as a vague but omnipresent moral force, too great to be merely a person, and yet capable of feeling sympathy and anger toward men.24

From this idealistic starting-point he came to the same ethical principles as Chu Hsi. “Nature is the highest good,” and the highest excellence lies in accepting the laws of Nature completely.25 When it was pointed out to him that Nature seems to include snakes as well as philosophers, he replied, with a touch of Aquinas, Spinoza and Nietzsche, that “good” and “bad” are prejudices, terms applied to things according to their advantage or injury to one’s self or mankind; Nature itself, he taught, is beyond good and evil, and ignores our egoistic terminology. A pupil reports, or invents, a dialogue which might have been entitled Jenseits von Gut und Böse:

A little later he said: “This view of good and evil has its source in the body, and is probably mistaken.” I was not able to comprehend. The Teacher said: “The purpose of heaven in bringing forth is even as in the instance of flowers and grass. In what way does it distinguish between good and evil? If you, my disciple, take delight in seeing the flowers, then you will consider flowers good and grass bad. If you desire to use the grass you will, in turn, consider the grass good. This type of good and evil has its source in the likes and dislikes of your mind. Therefore I know that you are mistaken.”

I said: “In that case there is neither good nor evil, is there?” The Teacher said: “The tranquillity resulting from the dominance of natural law is a state in which no discrimination is made between good and evil; while the stirring of the passion-nature is a state in which both good and evil are present. If there are no stirrings of the passion-nature, there is neither good nor evil, and this is what is called the highest good.” . . .

I said: “In that case good and evil are not at all present in things?” He said: “They are only in your mind.”26

It was well that Wang and Buddhism sounded this subtle note of an idealist metaphysic in the halls of the correct and prim Confucians; for though these scholars had the justest view of human nature and government which philosophy had yet conceived, they were a trifle enamored of their wisdom, and had become an intellectual bureaucracy irksome and hostile to every free and creatively erring soul. If in the end the followers of Chu Hsi won the day, if his tablet was placed with high honors in the same hall with that of the Master himself, and his interpretations of the Classics became a law to all orthodox thought for seven hundred years, it was indeed a victory of sound and simple sense over the disturbing subtleties of the metaphysical mind. But a nation, like an individual, can be too sensible, too prosaically sane and unbearably right. It was partly because Chu Hsi and Confucianism triumphed so completely that China had to have her Revolution.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!