Home
Writings
Interests
Photo Gallery
Contact
Links

WANG CHUNG

 

  

CONTENTS

 

 

INTRODUCTION..........................................................1

PHILOSOPHIES AND METHODOLOGY....................2

CRITICISMS..................................................................3

CONCLUSION...............................................................6

BIBLIOGRAPHY...........................................................8

 

 

  

 

 

 

PREFACE

 

 

           This being my first excursion into the world of philosophy I was, at first, somewhat skeptical and unimpressed. After all, who really cares, and what difference does it make in the grand scheme of things if  a white horse is or is not a horse? Well, after struggling my way through the basics of Chinese philosophy and coming to understand many interesting ideas that all seem about as non-pragmatic as the white horse argument, I finally stumbled upon a pillar of reason standing head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd, a bastion of logic so out of place among his contemporaries as to seemingly be from a different dimension. I finally discovered, Wang Chung.

           What initially struck me was his grasp of logic and reasoning in an era that stressed metaphysical explanations for all manner of natural phenomenon, secondly I was impressed by his courage in condemning the major thoughts of his time and lastly I was impressed by his similarity to one of my favorite authors, me! He, like another famous agitator, Syngman Rhee seems to have made professional agitation a full-time job and both seemed to suffer the similar fate of not having their brilliant contributions recognized until after their deaths, several hundred years after death in the case of Wang Chung. Hopefully my writings can avoid the same fate!

           Although he was not a modern scientist by any means and could not completely shed some of the residual superstitious thoughts of his time, his thinking is still progressive even by todays standards, particularly when compared with that of certain parts of East Asia. Considering the progressive nature of his thinking, his ideas and propositions must have seemed nothing short of unfathomable in the time that he lived, and go a long way towards explaining why his works were virtually ignored for so many years.

          

           As the nature of computers is evil, I have had to number my pages by hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

 

           Wang Chung (AD 27-97) was perhaps the most significant yet underrated philosophers of his time; only in the past several hundred years are his ideas and forethought beginning to become recognized. He was born a poor orphan and had to read books in book stores as he could not

afford to buy them. In spite of the less than ideal conditions under which he read those books, he was extremely intelligent and possessed a tremendous memory, it was said he could recite anything he had ever read verbatim. His political life paralleled that of Confucius in that he strove to attain a high position in government but was only awarded a menial post as a secretary of a district and eventually resigned in disgust. Later in his life he was recognized by Emperor Chang Ti, who was told Wang Chung outshines both Mencius and Hsun Tzu,[1] and was invited to court, but by then he was too sick to make the journey and had to decline. Also like Confucius his works did not have an impact on Chinese thought until long after his death.       Apparently his works were not published after his death but were discovered by a scholar in Wangs province on the Southeast coast who used them to enrich his own conversation, they then passed into the hands of a district official who used them for the same purpose and who did eventually publish them but by this time several hundred years had passed since Wangs death.

           Wang Chung did not belong to any of the major schools of thought but his ideas were an eclectic mix of Taoism, Confucianism and Moism. Chinese philosophers at the time generally produced one of two types of writing; prophetic and exegetical, Wangs was primarily of the latter type and his 85 existing essays uniformly attack superstitions and other un-proven theories with satirical wit. His relentless attacks on mainstream thought no doubt contributed to his inability to gain a high post. His arguments in his critical essays (particularly on death) were perhaps some of the most analytical of the time and ran so contradictory to other accepted works that he must have seemed to be a heretic. In retrospect we see that he generally based his arguments on observation and was one of the forerunners of the scientific principle of creating a theory to fit the observable facts unlike others of his age who manipulated their ideas of reality to fit their theories. He was the first to use another principle of science, the compelling argument, but it was lost on an audience versed in the unconditional acceptance of the classics as fact. Alas he was human and not infallible, he did at times resort to analogy to explain some ideas and even used older (established) texts to justify others.

           Many today quite correctly criticize him as being only a destructive critic with no constructive ideas of his own. They claim his lack of original ideas make his work insignificant in the development of Chinese thought. Others say he did not promote the growth of rational thought in China but served to deter it by disproving the existence of a higher being directing the universe. Accusations are made that his ideas on the nature of man shows little progressive thought; but it is idle talk[2]: He did contribute to the incipient move towards rationalism so prominent in the Wei-Chin period (220-420).

 

 

PHILOSOPHIES AND METHODOLOGY

 

 

           Of Wang Chungs philosophies the most significant seems to be his belief in the spontaneity and natural order of nature. He often used the comparison of mans position in nature being  like that of a flea or Louse hidden in the folds of the garment of the universe[3] and asked how could such an insignificant creature expect to influence all that surrounds him. Another major vein seen throughout his works is his belief in the randomness of fate. Although on some occasions he seems to hint at a predetermined fate he generally felt that all that happens is purely random, and ones luck, or lack of it, will be the only factor in determining how events affect any particular individual (much the same as is commonly believed today).

 

           The most striking feature of Wangs works is his reliance on observation and the careful consideration of that which he observes. Contrary to popular methods of his day which included citing ancient texts as evidence of somethings validity. Wang used observation of the facts as evidence to support theories which he had built based on those observations; his most pronounced and clear use of this technique can be seen in his Treatise on Death.

           He also used analogy, as most of the thinkers of his day, to explain phenomena and quite falsely assumed that two things being analogous in one respect would also be analogous in all others. This line of thinking led him down the wrong path on occasions but his mistakes were generally overshadowed by his overall brilliance.

           He did try to make a break from the trap of using old texts and ideas as evidence but suffered from lapses in original thought as can be seen in his thoughts on the structure of the universe, before his time there were two major theories on the shape of the Earth and sky; heaven was like an egg and the earth was like the yolk, was the first, and the second which Wang Chung accepted with a few modifications was that the sky was like an umbrella and the earth like an overturned dish. His infallibility can further be seen in his use of the ideas of Yin and Yang, the five agents, the five major organs and the five grains. It was these simplistic beliefs which erroneously led the thinkers of the time to believe that they had mastered understanding the entire universe. They didnt know what many know today (although some still refuse to admit it) that the more one knows of the structure of the universe the more apparent it becomes how little one really knows!

 

 

CRITICISMS

 

 

           Wang Chung gained his reputation as a destructive critic for his brutal attacks on some of the commonly held beliefs of the time. Some of the most common were that: The union of man and nature was one of mutual influence, heaven was pro-active and asserted itself through natural phenomena like weather, and mans spirit continued after death. Wang, using his keen analytical abilities could find no evidence supporting these ideas and he denounced them in the strongest terms.

 

           Shih Shih said that some men are born good, and some are born evil. If the good in ones nature is developed he will be good, but if the evil is developed he will become evil. Mencius thought that all men are originally good and if they become evil it is the result of the material world affecting them. Kao Tzu felt that man is neither good nor evil. Confucius said men are essentially the same and only through different practices do they become good or evil. Hsun Tzu disagreed with what Mencius wrote and said that man is evil and only learns to be good through his teachings. Tung Chung-shu read what Mencius and Hsun Tzu wrote and came to the conclusion that each person has yin, evil, and yang, good and so each contains good and evil. Liu Tzu-cheng thought that mans nature is inborn and cannot be seen, only mans emotions are exposed and they determine ones appearance as good or evil.

           Wang Chung felt they had not investigated the matter and said they were all wrong. All things are created with some innate characteristics, a rock is hard and a flower is fragrant, in the same way, each man has his own character, some are born good and some are born evil. Similarly, some men are born with a high capacity and some low. To say that all men are good or all men are evil is like saying all have a high or all have a low capacity.

 

           By Wang Chungs time Confucianism had evolved into a mystical philosophy in which man and nature exerted equal force on each other. It was said that the five grains were produced by heaven to feed man, and silk and hemp was produced by heaven to clothe him. The natural calamities, weather and storms were said to be created to punish man and even sickness was attributed to ones immorality being punished by heaven. Wang Chung on the other hand believed in spontaneity; he said the grains are produced spontaneously and man seeing that they are edible eats them. Silk and hemp too are produced spontaneously, and man seeing that they make good clothing wears them. The forces of nature likewise are spontaneous and man can no more have an effect on the forces of the wind, rain , storms and floods than can a flea hidden in the fabric of the universe. Heaven is like the wife of the Earth and the earth is made of dirt; how can dirt have intentions, how can the wind have thought or desires? No, it is idle talk[4], when a calamity strikes, it happens spontaneously and heaven and Earth cannot do it, and cannot know it.

 

           One of Wangs most scientific arguments was that against the existence of spirits. Man and other creatures are all creatures he said, if other creatures dont leave a spirit when they die why should man alone become a spirit? Man (and all other creatures) can only live because of the vital force in their blood, when they die the vital force is gone from their blood and their is nothing left to sustain the body, the body then decays, becoming ashes and dust, What is there to support a spiritual being? The human body is like a sack full of grain, when it is full it stands upright and can be seen as full, if it has a hole in it the grain spills out and the bag collapses to the ground and can no longer be seen. A mans body is the same, when the vital forces run out of it, it collapses and eventually decays until it too can no longer be seen. When the body decays the clothes rot and decay too, so why would a spirit be seen with clothes? Clothes have no spirit, a spirit would appear nude. Since the beginning of time millions and millions of people have died, many more than are now alive, why dont we see a spirit at every pace in the road and spirits filling every room and hall instead of only one or two? No, it is idle talk, a mans death is like the extinguishing of a candle, there is no more flame, only the candle, after a mans flame is extinguished there is no more life, only a body.

 

           The common belief that those who suffer misfortune had done something wrong to deserve it is also attacked. If a man walks across the ground he crushes ants under foot, is this to say that the ants deserved their fate as payment for some heinous misconduct, and the un-crushed were guilt free? If men go to war and some get hit and some do not is it the ill fate of those who get hit? No, it is pure chance! What the feet do not step on and who does not get hit by the projectile are not necessarily good. The lifting of the foot and the flying of projectiles is purely accidental. Some times good men are struck by calamity. This is a case of good nature but unlucky fate. Some people do evil but are blessed with good fate. This is a the case of evil nature but lucky fate.

 

           Many philosophers alluded to the ancient sage kings who were the most virtuous rulers ever and were blessed by the virtue of heaven. But the heaven of the past and the heaven of the present are the same. The people of the past and the people of the present too, are the same. The past did not have a monopoly on good men while the present is filled with only the evil. The material forces of heaven have not changed and the material forces (nature) of man has not changed, they are the same. In ancient times there were unrighteous people and today there are men of great virtue, good and evil always co-exist, in any age.

 

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

 

           Wang Chung published a book on Macrobiotics, censures on Morals and Government and over one hundred essays. Of his surviving eighty five essays he covered a wide range of subjects while shattering many of the commonly held beliefs of the day. From our privileged perspective in an era where much of the operation of the universe has been explained we can look back and clearly see the genius of his work. If we take a retrospective journey into the thoughts of his contemporaries we find their ideas to be quaint but wholly lacking in logic. To be sure, some of them had occasional brilliant points but generally were operating at the level of superstition and magic. Wang Chungs ideas have stood the test of time considerably better, he too, thinking in an age marked by superstition, occasionally lapsed into analogous thought, but unlike to his contemporaries, Wang Chungs theories have proven to be mostly true.

           Though the jury is still out on the question of mans nature, it would seem some are indeed evil and some are indeed good but the majority are products of their environment. Wangs theories were not only ahead of his time, but seem to be ahead of our time in which a good percentage of the population still believes that heaven is directed by a supreme being. Again the verdict is not in but with all of modern thought applied to the question, nobody has put forth a compelling argument that suggests mans actions affect the heavens. He didnt go quite as far as Darwin in his explanation of the spontaneous creation of things, but went considerably farther than anyone else. In his explanation of death and his reasons for the absence of spirits he offered more reasons than any other Chinese thinker, and to this day no one has been able to refute him. His idea of the blood containing the vital force was particularly advanced. His attributing fate to the randomness of the universe was the same as is believed today, and the modern saying the good old days (which really werent) shows us that he could add amateur psychiatry to his list of other talents.

           While there is no doubt about the foresight of his thought some still question his influence on Chinese thought. Wang Chung however, did not suppress the adoption of scientific method by disproving the existence of a divine force but instead propagated it. The growth of rationalism and naturalism of the Wei-Chin period, which began in the early third century, is a direct result of Wangs writings which were not published until the third century.

           His great influence did not come through the introduction of new ideas and philosophies as we have already seen but occurred because he cleared out the old superstition based ideas and by so doing made room for the new line of rational thought. In the same way a forest fire can burn the dead trees and make room for new growth, so too can the destruction of old ideas make room for new ones. Some scholars suffer from the delusion that the destruction of old and the creation of the new must occur at the same time, in reality Wang was helping to advance Chinese thought above the level of magic and superstition by proving other philosophers ideas as false.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

Creel, H.G. Chinese Thought From Confucius to Mao Tse-Tung. New York.           Mentor Books and The University of Chicago Press. 1953.

Bauer, Wolfgang. China and the Search for Happiness. New York. The          Seabury Press Inc. 1976.

Chan, Wing-Tsit (Ed). A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton.       Princeton University Press. 1963.

Baskin, Wade. Classics in Chinese Philosophy. New York. Southeastern        State College Philisophical Library. 1972.

De Bary. Wm. Theodore et.al. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York.       Columbia University Press. 1960.


[1] Wade Baskin (Editor). Classics in Chinese Philosophy. New York. Philosophical Library. 1972. (pg 277).

[2] Wade Baskin (Editor). Classics in Chinese Philosophy. New York. Philosophical Library. 1972. (pg. 283).

[3] Wm. Theodore de Bary (Editor). Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York. Columbia University Press. 1960. (pg 251).

[4] Wade Baskin (Editor). Classics in Chinese Philosophy. New York. Philosophical Library. 1972. (pg 285)