Wang Chong (Wade-Giles: Wang Chong, 王充) (27 – 97 C.E.) was a Chinese philosopher during the Han Dynasty who developed a rational, secular, naturalistic, and mechanistic account of the world and of human beings. He is regarded as one of the most original and independent Chinese thinkers of the Han period (206 B.C.E.– 220 C.E.). Unlike most Chinese intellectuals, Wang Chong was impoverished much of his life. He studied at the academy in the capital, Loyang, and occupied a few minor government posts, but spent most of his life as a teacher in his home town. In private he wrote Lun-Heng (論衡) (first translated in 1911 as Balanced Enquiries, and since as Fair Discussions, or Critical Essays), eighty-five chapters examining and criticizing superstitions and intellectual errors. Eventually his genius came to the attention of the emperor, and he was summoned to court, but was too ill to go.
Wang Chong deplored the degeneration of Confucianism and Daoism into belief in superstition and legend. He declared that human beings could not affect natural phenomena, and that all beliefs should be based on experimentation and solid evidence. He attempted to provide rational explanations for all sorts of natural occurrences, and to dispel myths and rumors. His critical, rational approach to knowledge helped prepare the way for Neo-Daoism.
Wang Chong was born around 27 C.E. in Shang-yu, Kuei-chi, China and was orphaned at an early age. He studied at the academy in the capital, Loyang. According to legend, he was so poor that he could not afford to buy books, but read them standing in the market place and in book shops. In this way, because of his remarkable memory, he gained a broad knowledge of Chinese literature. Eventually he reached the rank of district secretary, a post which he soon lost as a result of his combative and anti-authoritarian nature. He held a few minor government positions, but spent most of his life teaching in his home town.
Wang was an independent thinker, associating with no specific school, although he made use of both Daoist and Confucian principles. Quietly and in private, he wrote his famous work, the Lun-heng (Discourses Weighed in the Balance), 85 chapters and 200,000 words examining and criticizing common superstitions and errors. Eventually, his work came to the attention of the emperor, who invited him to court, but Wang was too ill to go. He died in 97 C.E. in the town of his birth. After his death, his book became widely read and his ideas began to enter the mainstream of Chinese philosophy.
Thought and Works
Wang cannot be placed in any particular school of Chinese philosophy. He developed his thought in reaction to the state of philosophy in China during his era. Daoism had long before degenerated into superstition and magic, and Confucianism had been the state religion for some 150 years. Confucius and Laozi were worshipped as gods, omens were seen everywhere, belief in ghosts was almost universal, and feng shui had begun to rule people's lives. Wang's response to all this was derision, and he made it his vocation to set out a rational, naturalistic account both of the world and of the human place in it. He was also a friend of Ban Gu, the historian who contributed to the Book of Han (Hanshu).
Wang is usually characterized as a rationalist. Though there were other rationalist works, notably fragments of the Hsin-Lung (新論; New Discourses), by Huan Tan (桓谭; c. 43 B.C.E. – 28 C.E.), and other rationalists from the same period, Wang Chong’s Lun-Heng (論衡; Discourses Weighed in the Balance) is the most complete surviving expression of a rationalist point of view. Wang accepted the philosophy of Confucius, but deplored the way in which both Daoism and Confucianism had degraded into superstition. Religious groups were attempting to have Confucius declared an immortal god. Charlatans and sects, ignoring Confucius’ view of the unity between man and nature, were asserting that man and nature could influence each other by magical means and that heaven and earth intentionally punished human transgressions with calamities. Wang declared that natural events occur spontaneously and did not have an ultimate purpose. He strongly rejected the idea that man’s activities influence the workings of nature, and stated that man had no special position in the universe. He insisted that any theory should be supported by concrete evidence.
Wang Chong’s main work was the Lun-Heng (論衡) (first translated in 1911 as Balanced Enquiries, and since as Fair Discussions, or Critical Essays). Wang was a mechanist, denying that heaven has any purpose for man, whether benevolent or hostile. To say that heaven provides us with food and clothing, he declared, is to say that it acts as our farmer or tailor, an obvious absurdity. Humans are insignificant specks in the universe and cannot hope to effect changes in it; it is arrogance to think that the universe would change itself just for us.
Man holds a place in the universe like that of a flea or a louse under a jacket or robe. (Lun-Heng)
Wang maintained that the words of previous sages should be treated critically, and that they were often contradictory or inconsistent. He criticized scholars of his own time for not accepting this, as well as what he called the popular acceptance of written works. He believed that the truth could be discovered, and would become obvious, by making the words clear, and by clear commentary on the text.
Wang spoke in scathing terms about the popular belief in ghosts. Why should only human beings have ghosts, he asked, and not other animals? We are all living creatures, animated by the same vital principle. Besides, so many people have died that their ghosts would vastly outnumber living people; the world would be swamped by them.
People say that spirits are the souls of dead men. That being the case, spirits should always appear naked, for surely it is not contended that clothes have souls as well as men. (Lun-Heng)
Wang’s attitude to knowledge was rational and uncompromising. Beliefs should be supported with evidence and experimentation. One example of Wang's rationalism was his argument that thunder must be created by fire or heat, and was not a sign of the heavens being displeased. He argued that experimentation should be tried and repeated before adopting the belief that divine will was involved in natural phenomena. Wang’s arguments were rational, but he suffered from the lack of any scientific tradition in China. His attempts to explain natural phenomena sometimes sounded almost as implausible as the superstitions he was trying to dispel.
If the heavens had produced creatures on purpose, they ought to have taught them to love each other, and not to prey upon and destroy one another. One might object that such is the nature of the five elements, that when the heavens create all things, they are imbued with the matter and energies of the five elements, and that these fight together, and destroy one another. But then the heavens ought to have filled creatures with the matter and energy of one element alone, and taught them mutual love, not permitting the forces of the five elements to resort to strife and mutual destruction. (Lun-Heng)
There is a belief that by the doctrine of Lao Tsu one can transcend into another existence. Through quietism and absence of desire one nourishes the vital force, and cherishes the spirit. The length of life is based on the animal spirits. As long as they are unimpaired, life goes on, and there is no death. Lao Tsu acted upon this principle. Having done so for over a hundred years, he is said to have passed into another existence, and became a true Taoist sage. (Lun-Heng)
Who can be more quiet and have less desires than birds and animals? But birds and animals likewise age and die. However, we will not speak of birds and animals, the passions of which are similar to the human. But what are the passions of plants and shrubs, that cause them to die in the autumn after being born in spring? They are dispassionate, yet their lives do not extend further than one year. Men are full of passions and desires, yet they can become a hundred years old. Thus the dispassionate die prematurely, and the passionate live long. Hence Lao Tsu's theory to prolong life and enter a new existence by means of quietism and absence of desires is wrong. (Lun-Heng, No.26)
After his death, Wang’s ideas became well known and had an influence on the resurgence of a new form of Daoism, sometimes called "neo-Daoism," which developed a more rational, naturalistic metaphysical account of the world, free from most of the mysticism and superstition that had infected Daoist thought for so long.
In the twentieth century, his critical spirit, experimental scientific method and rejection of the past earned him new respect.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Conference on Seventeenth-Century Chinese Thought and William Theodore De Bary. 1975. The Unfolding of Neo-Confucianism. Studies in Oriental Culture, No. 10. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231038283 or ISBN 9780231038287; ISBN 0231038291 or ISBN 9780231038294
- De Bary, William Theodore, and Irene Bloom. 1979. Principle and Practicality: Essays in Neo-Confucianism and Practical Learning. Neo-Confucian studies. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 023104612X or ISBN 9780231046121; ISBN 0231046138 or ISBN 9780231046138
- Vergilius Ture Anselm. 1950. A History of Philosophical Systems. New York: Philosophical Library.
All links retrieved May 3, 2023.
- Wang Ch'ung – Peter J. King's introduction.
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Paideia Project Online
- Project Gutenberg
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