Chinese Philosophy - The Soul of Traditional Chinese Culture. The Study of the Universe and Man.
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The study of the universe (Heaven) and man is one of the primary themes of Chinese philosophy, particularly of ancient Chinese philosophy. Sima Qian, a famous thinker and historian of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) held that only by studying the relationship between the universe and man and expounding the nature of "Heaven" (universe) and the functions of man and his position in it, could scholars make academic achievements.
The discussion about the relationship between the universe and man focused on whether "Heaven" was regarded as a supreme god with its own will, or whether it was simply nature with neither will nor purpose. If man regarded "Heaven" as a supreme conscious god, he would be destined to worship and obey it with no possibility of changing it. In face of nature, man would have been reduced to nothing, except as appendices and slaves to nature, inevitably leading man toward religious beliefs and superstition. If man took "Heaven" simply as nature, with a close relationship with himself, he would try his best to understand it and its laws, and act accordingly, protecting it and making good use of it, ceasing to be passive in the relationship and gradually become the master of nature. These two different attitudes toward the nature of "Heaven" are products of the consciousness of anthropocentrism, and they also show the development level of such a consciousness.
In ancient China, thinkers began to know "Heaven" through their studies during the Xia (c. 21st century BC-17th century BC) and Shang (c. 17th century-llth century BC) periods. From the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-771 BC) two contradictory concepts of "Heaven" appeared. One regarded it as a supreme god, the mandate of the god, or the manifestation of the god's will. The other regarded it as only a celestial body in the universe, and as the vast and distant sky. The Book of Changes is an example of this. The Book of Changes, which made its first appearance in the period between the Shang and Zhou dynasties, is a book of divination of the changes in nature and society by means of the Eight Trigrams. In its text, Heaven above and the Earth below are described as two opposite celestial bodies and a natural phenomenon. However, few records such as this have been found, and most contents of the records are about the will and Mandate of Heaven, looking upon Heaven as a conscious, supreme god.
In The Book qf HLrtory (a collection of historical documents and works about the events of ancient times), for example, the term "Mandate of Heaven" is very commonly used.
Records such as this indicate that the conception of the Mandate of Heaven was the dominant and prevailing idea in society during the three dynasties of Xia, Shang and Zhou. At that time, the relationship between Heaven and man meant that the Mandate of Heaven determined human events. All that man did was entirely based on the manifestation of Heaven's will; the social order, the rules for human conduct and human ideals were all underlined by the manifestation of this will. From this time onward, Chinese thinkers of different times, under different historical conditions, have constantly challenged the will of Heaven and the manifestation of this will through different modes of thought, as follows:
Firstly, stressing the importance of human activities over the manifestation of Heaven's will. During the late period of the Western Zhou, the corruption and darkness of the government led people to become skeptical about theocracy. This Tradition of "skepticism of Heaven" continued during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and developed into an ideological trend in society.
For example, once, in the State of Song, five meteorites fell from the sky and six aquatic birds flew over the capital against the wind, appearing to be flying backward. Duke Xiang of the State of Song asked Shu Xing, the royal secretary of Zhou, about this phenomenon. Shu Xing replied that this was the interplay of Yin and Yang, and was neither a good or bad omen from Heaven. "Good or evil fortune are determined by man himself," he said. At another time, following unusual astronomical phenomena, fire broke out in the states of Song, Wei, Chen and Zheng. The officials of the State of Zheng hurried to offer jade treasures as a sacrifice to Heaven in an attempt to extinguish the fire. Only Zi Chan, the executive minister, refused to do so, saying "the way of Heaven is farther away than the way of man and is beyond our reach." Refusing to offer sacrifices to extinguish the fire, he at once took a series of emergency measures to prevent further disasters occurring. As a result, no more fires broke out. This is a typical example of the significance of emphasizing man's activity over the will of Heaven. It has produced a profound and far-reaching impact on the following generations, both theoretically and practically.
Stressing the way of man over the way of Heaven, means that man should on the one hand negate such superstition as the will of Heaven; and on the other, he should bring his talent into play, making use of favorable conditions provided by nature and the earth, to realize his anticipated target, and to gradually emancipate his mind from the fetters of the deification of nature to become the master of his own destiny, in this respect, the military strategists of the late Spring and Autumn Period made important contributions. One such strategist, Sun Wu, first proposed the use of favorable climatic, geographical and human conditions in his book Sun Zi's Art of War. By favorable climatic conditions he meant the principles of Yin and Yang, hot and cold weather and the four seasons rather than the consciousness or will of Heaven. By favorable geographical conditions he meant the span of distance, the coverage of area, the importance of position, and favorable or adverse circumstances. By favorable human conditions he meant the support of the people and knowledge of one's own strengths as well as those of his enemy. He believed that only by the avail ability and making good use of these three conditions, could one possibly win a war. Similar ideas can be found in the later book, Sun Bin's Art of War.
In another example, Fan Li, a high-ranking minister of Gou Jian, the king of the State of Yue (r. 497-465 BC), also paid particular attention to the three conditions in war, on which he founded his profound military theory. He held that whether a State was strong or weak, in safety or in danger, and whether it could succeed or fail in a war or win or lose in a military action, were related to the proper or improper use of these three conditions. He once advised Gou Jian that if he wanted to maintain a powerful state, he must adapt himself to favorable climatic conditions. If he wanted to turn the situation from danger to security, he must win over the support of the people. If he wanted to achieve accomplishments, he must observe the actual geographical conditions. Gou Jian, however, turned a deaf ear to the advice and rashly acted against these laws. As a result, he was defeated by the State of Wu. In later years, Gou Jian repented his mistakes, beginning to follow Fan Li's strategies and tactics. He also worked hard to make his country strong, and led a self-imposed life of severity, sleeping on brushwood and tasting bitter gall every day in order not to forget the national humiliation. Eventually he conquered the State of Wu.
During the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), Mencius advocated that the three conditions were integrated as a whole, in dispensable with each other. But the human condition was the most important. In a book of ancient military science, the significance of the human condition is also expounded repeatedly. The Taoist school of Huangdi and Lao Zi (the legendary co-founders of Taoism) regarded the human condition as the key link of the three conditions. All these new conceptions about the relation ships between Heaven and man have shown that during the period from the Western Zhou to the Warring States, many philosophers had been aware of the values of man himself, signifying the awakening of man's consciousness of being the master of his own, Secondly, the natural law of Heaven. Good or bad fortune is determined by man, not by Heaven. But what is after all the nature of Heaven? Confucius made a study of the nature of Heaven. He held that Heaven was something without will and its nature was like the changes of the four seasons and the endless growth and development of everything. Therefore, man's survival must be based on his own hard work. This conclusion was the beginning of the theory of "the natural law of Heaven."
Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism, was the ftrst to propose the natural law of Heaven. He believed that the nature of Heaven was natural. According to him, "being natural" is the theoretical summary of all natural phenomena, and is known as Tao (the Way). Heaven, Earth and Man are all natural beings unified within Tao. Giving a representation of Tao, he says: '"Something' has been mixed up to first produce Heaven and Earth. Still and solitary as it has always been, it evolves endlessly, operating as the parent of everything in the world. I know not its name. So I call it 'Tao."' Tao, as nature, is every natural being and phenomenon including Heaven, Earth and Man. Heaven, as a natural thing, is not necessarily to be worshipped. Mankind is also a natural being, and so Heaven and humanity are equal. This idea of "the natural laws of Heaven" not only has provided a noumenal basis for the belief that good or evil fortune is determined by man himself, but also regarded man as an independent part relieved from the fetters of Heaven.
Zhuang Zi inherited the tendency of Lao Zi's thought, believing that Heaven was the largest of all the perceivable things m the universe. In most cases, by Heaven, he meant nature or the natural environment. He maintained that, by acting against the laws of nature, Man would lose the freedom of action. Man should there fore act according to the laws of nature. He gave the example of a skilled butcher. The butcher dismembered an ox for Lord Wen Hui with skill and almost magical craftsmanship. His knife was operated at a pace as if in accord with the dance steps to the beat of the movement of "Shuang Lin" and to the rhythm of the movement of "Jin Shou." The butcher said that he was able to dismember the ox so dexterously only because he had a thorough understanding and knowledge of the veins, texture and structure of its body, "according to the natural laws of Heaven" and "its intrinsic constitution." He could adroitly use his knife between its joints and bones without contacting them and smoothly dismembered it. Zhuang Zi told this story to show the fact that only by observing the objective and natural laws when dealing with human relations and affairs, could people achieve their goal successfully with satisfactory results. This idea further developed the concept of "the natural laws of Heaven" conceived by Lao Zi.
While stressing the significance of the natural laws of the universe, Zhuang Zi, however, negated the role of the subjective activity of man, regarding man's subjective endeavors as a destructive force against nature, in his opinion, the relationship between man and nature is similar to that between a piece of iron and a blacksmith. The blacksmith can produce whatever he wants with the piece of iron, and the iron cannot have its choice. Heaven and Earth (the universe) are a large melting-pot, nature is the master blacksmith and man is nothing but a piece of iron. Man's whole life is completely subject to nature. He denies that man's efforts can reform nature, but attempts to bring about the return of man to and his identification with nature through recognizing that "man is no match for 1 leaven." In fact, this is utterly impossible. The following story told by Zhuang Zi suggests that he him- self might have been conscious of this. Zi Shang was starving and tried to find out the cause of his suffering: "Is it caused by my father? ()r mother? ()r [ leaven, or man? Ite thought that it could not be his parents. Nor could it be Heaven. Could it be possibly be man? He had raised the question, but he could not find out the real cause of man's activity in his answer. He concluded that starvation had been caused by man's fate. Thus Zhuang Zi negates on the one hand the will of Heaven, while on the other preaching the inscrutable "fate" of man. Nature, or Heaven, as the final target, after which he had strenuously sought, proved nothing but the irresistible "fate."
Thirdly, man independent of Heaven's will. During the late Warring States Period, Xun Zi first established the philosophical doctrine proposing that "man is independent of Heaven's will," on the basis of summing up the doctrines of various schools, absorbing their strengths while discarding their weaknesses.
He particularly disagreed with Zhuang Zi's glorification of heaven (nature) and rejection of human endeavor. By "man being independent of Heaven's will," Xun Zi by no means intended to separate man completely from nature, or "Heaven." Man, he said, apart from having the general properties of a natural being, also has other different properties transcending a natural being. He said: "Water and fire have qi (vapor or energy) but no life. Grass and plants have life but no senses. Animals and birds have senses but no yi (morality, or what is right or in order). Man has qi, life, senses, and yi, and is the most valuable under heaven." He classified the material world into four categories: Water and fire, grass and plants, animals and birds, and man. Man is not only endowed with intelligence, but also has rules for proper conduct. In the relationship between man and Heaven, man is the primary and key aspect of the two opposing parts. Therefore, Xun Zi repeatedly stressed the significance of human activity, rejecting the idea that a state’s order or chaos, prosoperity or decline was determined by the will of Heaven. He also rejected the idea that an individual's good or bad luck, poverty or fortune were determined by the will of Heaven. He further pointed out clearly: "Heaven cannot impose, if man develops agriculture and practices thrift, poverty on him. t leaven cannot impose, if man is adequately clothed and fed, and works and plays in time, illness on him. Heaven cannot impose, if man always observes the rules of government whole-heartedly, disaster on him." Heaven, he said, has no will. It takes its own course in its movement and change. The important thing for man to do is to know, control and make use of it. In his philosophical teaching that man's will, not Heaven, decides, he said: "Rather than exaggerate the functions of Heaven and admire it, treat it as a thing and control it. Rather than submit to it and laud it, master its laws and make use of them. Rather than sit idly, waiting for providence to bring provisions, make use of the four seasons and till the land. Rather than leaving animals and plants to reproduce and grow by themselves, develop the ability to promote their growth. It is better to have a deep understanding of the nature and properties of everything under Heaven so as to control it than conjure up the control of all. In other words, to worship Heaven and disdain the role of man was irrational.
Fourthly, the reciprocity and interaction between Heaven and man. Before the Tang Dynasty (618-907), thinkers confined their arguments to the themes of "the unity of Heaven and man," "the natural laws of Heaven" and "man independent of Heaven."
Liu Yuxi (772-842), a thinker and writer of the Tang Dynasty, free from the bondage of traditional thought, discussed the relationship between Heaven and man from a different point of view.He proposed a new approach, of "reciprocity and interaction" between man and Heaven, based on the differences and interelatedness between them.
According to Liu Yuxi, although both Heaven and man exist in the material form, and are the most distinguished of all things, yet they have their own special strengths, and one cannot replace the other. Their properties and nature are different. Of all the material things, Heaven is the largest. But it is also the smallest in terms of its material form of existence, l fence Heaven is the universe, a unity of both infinite and finite materiality. Man is the most intelligent and most distinguished of all creatures. Moreover, he is able to create in society something more than he has heen endowed by nature, a system of laws. Therefore, "man cannot do everything that Heaven can, and Heaven also cannot do everything that man can." Heaven and man must play their respective roles. Addition ally, the law (or way) of human society is different from the laws of nature. Natural laws embody the birth, development and variations of all the things in the world. This process is realized through the strong preying on the weak, or becoming weak them selves. Human society is different from nature. The productive and social activities of human creation embody the establishment and perfection of various institutions. The function of such institutions is to set up criteria in law for what is right and what is wrong in people's conduct. All these show that man is man, Heaven is Heaven and they cannot be the same. Man should not impose his will on nature. What is right and what is wrong are to be determined by man himself, and have nothing to do with Heaven. Liu Yuxi wished to take universal laws and social functions to illustrate the distinction between "the way of Heaven" and "the way of man." This is a further development of Xun Zi's concept of "man independent of Heaven."
Another new idea conceived by Liu is the reciprocal relationship between Heaven and man. He believed that man could choose to act according to natural laws. Man could sow seeds in spring, till the land in summer, harvest crops in autumn and preserve them in winter. He could also fell trees, tunnel through hills and smelt metal. He could reshape nature in the process of production to meet the needs of man. On the other hand, natural changes could bring about good or bad effects upon man's production and livelihood. Man's task was to understand and master the internal and external interrelations in nature and their tendencies so as to reduce the risk of harm inflicted upon man by nature.
In Liu Yuxi's view, man himself had imposed a veil of mystery over Heaven, and this was a mistake in cognition. As far as social conditions were concerned, he classified the legal system or social order into three categories: good order, bad order and a complete failure of order. He said that in a society in which good order prevailed, rewards and penalties will be meted out properly and right and wrong will be treated with justice. "Goodness and decency will be surely rewarded with happiness, but wickedness does not go altogether unpunished." People are confident of their own strength and capability, without having to deify "Heaven," and they will not be ensnared by theism. If the legal system is partly demolished, then right and wrong will be confused, resuiting in unjust punishments and rewards. Under such circum stances, people are diffident of their own strength and capability and are liable to believe in Providence. If the legal system is to tally demolished, then right and wrong are reversed and sycophants will be rewarded, while upright people will be punished and the laws on rewards and penalties will be invalid. In such a society, people will be diffident of their own capability and will be forced to entrust their destiny to the so-called "Heaven" or Providence, becoming a theist. Therefore, Liu came to the conclusion that man created gods for worship only in times when he was unable to control his own fate. The truth is that there are no gods that can determine man's destiny.
So far as the level of man's knowledge of objective reality at that time was concerned, Liu Yuxi believed that the situation could be divided into two parts. One was that man knew the laws of nature and could make use of them. The other was that man did not yet know the laws of nature, which remained incomprehensible to man. Under such conditions, it was not surprising that man did not trust his own strength and was resigned to the control of the will of "Heaven." To illustrate this contradiction, he gave the example of travelling by boat. On a small river, a boat can be controlled easily. If there is a storm, there is no swell or high waves. The boat may sail smoothly and fast through man's correct handling. If it capsizes or gets stranded, this is due to improper handling on man's part. Passengers on the boat would not attribute any of this to the will of Heaven because man has had a good knowledge of it. However, when a boat sails at sea, it becomes harder to control. A breeze can create a swell and dark clouds can blur the view from direction. So a misled perception arises that the boat's safety depends on the will of Heaven. Whether it sinks or survives after undergoing all manner of hardships and risks depends on the will of Heaven. All the passengers on the boat believe this because man does not have sufficient knowledge of the laws of nature.
To sum up, Liu Yuxi, applying his new concept of the ‘ the recip rocity and interaction between Heaven and man," studied the relationships between man and nature, between society and natural laws, and the leading role of man in the understanding and remaking of nature. In particular, he surveyed the epistemological origin of theism and atheism, making a great contribution to the philosophical problem in China of the relationship between Heaven and man.
More about Chinese Philosophy
- The Study of Changes
The Study of Changes The study of changes is another important subject discussed in Chinese philosophy.