CHENG HAO (1032–1085) and his younger brother Cheng Yi were two of the most important thinkers of Song dynasty (960–1279) China, and their writings in such fields as cosmology, philosophy, self-cultivation, ethics, ritual, governance, and classical studies influenced the course of East Asian thought for centuries. Much of their work was transmitted orally and compiled by their students, who did not always attribute a particular saying to either of the brothers but simply credited it to "Master Cheng." Hence one cannot always distinguish between the thought of Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi, who nonetheless shared many ideas in common.
The Chengs spent much of their lives near the capitals of Luoyang and Kaifeng and were personally acquainted with other important thinkers from that region of central China, such as Shao Yong (1011–1077), Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073), and Zhang Zai (1020–1077). The Chengs hailed from a family that had served as scholar-officials for the Song rulers since the beginning of the dynasty. Their first teacher was their mother, nee Hou, who was herself highly educated, and they were later influenced by her attitudes toward folk religious beliefs. One of the official residences the Cheng family occupied was initially believed by the household staff to be inhabited by monstrous apparitions. When Ms. Hou calmly dismissed such notions, the "hauntings" ceased.
In their teens, the Cheng brothers studied for a year with Zhou Dunyi. Zhou understood the universe as a living entity that is always in motion, producing and reproducing creatures endlessly, and he apprehended its energies so intimately that he refused to cut down the weeds that grew outside his window. The Chengs displayed a similar affinity for living things: Cheng Hao, like Zhou, did not clear the weeds outside his window, and Cheng Yi in his early twenties wrote an essay describing his efforts to save small fish from the predations of hungry cats and human beings. (Later in life, however, Cheng Yi deemed his youthful writings overwrought.)
As a young man, Cheng Hao attended the Imperial Academy in Kaifeng. In that city he met the scholar Zhang Zai (who was also his relative) and impressed Zhang with his understanding of the Book of Changes, an ancient and arcane divinatory text that had inspired many layers of philosophical commentaries. In his early twenties Cheng Hao attained the "presented scholar" (jinshi) degree, a mark of scholarly achievement that also facilitated his entry into government service. He served in various official capacities in Shaanxi, Jiangsu, Sichuan, and Henan and earned a reputation as an effective practitioner of good governance who educated the people and promoted their welfare.
Like his mother, he tried to disabuse the common people of folk beliefs he perceived as harmful to their well being. When he first took up his post in Huxian in Shaanxi, for example, rumors abounded of a statue of a stone Buddha whose head emitted rays of light. This at once fascinated and frightened the local populace. But after Cheng Hao ordered a monk to cut off the Buddha's head and bring it to his office so that he, too, could witness it the next time it glowed, the radiance stopped. The Chengs were also critical of some forms of contemporary Buddhism, which they decried as false teachings that intimidated the common people with fears of death. Moreover, they claimed, Buddhists were either too wanton or too rigid, tended to be selfish, were afraid of life and death, and were disconnected from reality.
Cheng Hao served at court in the capital of Kaifeng for a time in his thirties, but his promotion of idealistic models of good governance—sage rulers who embodied humaneness, righteousness, and integrity—eventually clashed with those of reformist political rivals such as Wang Anshi (1021–1086). He was again stationed in various postings outside the capital, and during a sojourn in Luoyang he spent considerable time with his neighbor Shao Yong, who was known for his prognosticatory writings on the Book of Changes. In the later years of their careers, the Chengs focused more on teaching and developed a following of disciples, among them the scholars Lü Dalin (1040–1092), Xie Liangzuo (c. 1050–c. 1120), You Zuo (1053–1123), and Yang Shi (1053–1135). Cheng Hao became known as Master Mingdao, or "The Master who Illuminates the Way."
Cheng Hao's cosmology was greatly influenced by Zhang Zai's Western Inscription (Ximing), a short text that describes the universe as a large family wherein a human being is a child of heaven and earth, all people are one's siblings, and all creatures are one's companions. One's own body is coextensive with the powers of the universe, and one's nature is at one with its operations. Cheng Hao was inspired by this vision but particularly emphasized the role of human values in sustaining the subtle consubstantiality of the individual and the cosmos. In his discussion of humaneness (ren, also translated as benevolence), Cheng Hao asserted that people who could understand this integral virtue of humaneness could do nothing less than form one body with all things and participate fully in the operations of the universe. Following the classical thinker Mengzi, he believed that human beings were also responsible for adhering to the cardinal virtues of righteousness (yi), ritual propriety (li), wisdom (zhi), and trustworthiness (xin) and implementing them with integrity (cheng, or sincerity) and reverence (jing, or seriousness). A profound pattern of an underlying commonality that Cheng understood as "principle" (li, or pattern) permeated human nature (xing ), heaven and earth, the Way (dao ), and, in fact, all things. Principle was one, but it manifested itself in the world in multiple ways.
Human nature was bestowed by heaven, and being in accord with that nature was the Way, an ineffable path beyond the realm of physical form. Human nature was essentially good, but Cheng Hao (unlike his brother) did not disallow that evil (o ) was not part of principle or the nature. Humans were also susceptible to negative deficiencies in their qi (the vital energy, vital force, or material force that suffuses all living things), flaws that were metaphorically described as muddied, turbid, or clouded conditions within what otherwise would be clear water. Desires led one astray, but they could be readily overcome with reverence and humaneness. The Chengs spoke often of Confucius's idea of "controlling the self and returning to ritual" (Analects 12:1), a program that itself constituted humaneness. All solutions to the problem of excessive desires were already complete within one, provided one only made the effort to eliminate selfishness.
The Chengs understood ritual at one level as an innate sense of propriety and decorum that guided daily human interactions; it was also the body of institutionalized, regularized rituals and ceremonies performed at occasions that required communication between human beings and the numinous powers that suffused their world. Cheng Hao warned that one should not become too involved in the external particulars of rites; it was more important that one turn inward and understand their principle. Rites would then channel human emotions in appropriate directions and provide direction for the nature. But Cheng Hao was nonetheless noted for his superb grasp of ritual institutions, and the Chengs were sought out for their expert advice on such matters. They were versed both in historical minutiae and contemporary ritual usages and were consulted on such matters as sacrificial offerings, rites of passage, burial practices, geomancy, monstrosities and prodigies, and the construction of altars and temples to various kinds of spirits.
The Chengs' views on ghosts (gui) and spirits (shen) derived especially from classical texts such as the Book of Changes, the Book of Odes (Shijing ), and the Book of Rites (Liji), particularly the chapter of the Rites that became known independently as the Centrality and Equilibrium (Zhongyong, or Doctrine of the Mean ). They understood spirits as manifestations of the operations of heaven and the transformative powers of creation, which is not to say that spirits were merely depersonalized forces. The Chengs implicitly understood ancestral spirits as individual entities that should be fed and given places to rest during sacrificial offerings. When presenting sacrificial offerings, for example, food must be divided into individual portions, for the spirits cannot merge into one to enjoy them. These two perspectives—that spirits are cosmic powers and particularized entities—are not necessarily contradictory, given Cheng's larger vision that principle is one but its manifestations are many.
Although Cheng Hao's teachings were proscribed for a number of years after his death, his spirit was posthumously elevated in rank in the thirteenth century and was given offerings thereafter in Confucian temples throughout East Asia.
English translations of selected works by the Chengs are included in Wing-tsit Chan's A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, 1963), his Reflections on Things at Hand (New York, 1967), and William Theodore De Bary and Irene Bloom, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition from Earliest Times to 1600, 2d ed. (New York, 1999). Excerpts from their writings on spirits were included in the thirteenth-century text translated by Wing-tsit Chan as Neo-Confucian Terms Explained (New York, 1986), but their views on matters religious have otherwise been little studied in the West. One of the best secondary studies of their work is still A. C. Graham's Two Chinese Philosophers: Ch'eng Ming-tao and Ch'eng Yi-ch'uan (London, 1958), which was republished in 1992 as Two Chinese Philosophers: The Metaphysics of the Brothers Cheng (La Salle, Ill.) and translated into Chinese by Cheng Dexiang as Er Cheng xiongdi de xin Ruxue (The Neo-Confucianism of the Cheng Brothers; Zhengzhou, China 2000). Graham is a philosopher rather than a scholar of religion, and his treatment of spiritual beings reflects that perspective. For biographical information, see Sung Biographies edited by Herbert Franke (Wiesbaden, 1976) and the RoutledgeCurzon Encyclopedia of Confucianism edited by Yao Xinzhong (London, 2003), which includes entries on specific concepts and thinkers noted above. Recent articles include Yong Huang's "Cheng Brothers' Neo-Confucian Virtue Ethics: The Identity of Virtue and Nature," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 30 (2003): 451–467; Wai-ying Wong's "The Status of Li in the Cheng Brothers' Philosophy," Tao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 3 (Winter 2003): 109–119, which explores the notion of ritual; and Thomas Selover's "Forming One Body: The Cheng Brothers and Their Circle," in Tu Weiming and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds., Confucian Spirituality, vol. 2 (New York, 2004 pp. 56–71). For Chinese sources, see the entry on Cheng Yi.
Deborah Sommer (1987 and 2005)