Cheng Yi

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CHENG YI (10331107), like his older brother Cheng Hao, was one of the most important figures in the history of Chinese thought. He spent most of his life accompanying his father or brother in their official postings, establishing academies and teaching disciples.

Historical Context

His early years followed the same direction as those of his brother. An essay he composed while still a student at the Imperial Academy in Kaifeng received accolades from examiner Hu Yuan (9931059), who offered him a position there. Cheng soon became noted for his scholarship, and he attained the "presented scholar" (jinshi ) degree in his twenties. This achievement provided him entry into government service, but for most of his life he showed little interest in official rank or the remuneration it offered.

But in his fifties his fame as a learned scholar and person of character earned him for two years the position of lecturer on the classics to the twelve-year-old Emperor Zhezong (r. 10861100)or more accurately, to the boy's regent, Empress Dowager Xuanren (d. 1093). Cheng admonished them to model themselves after the sage rulers of antiquity and adhere to moral values. His uncompromising nature gained him enemies, whereas his writings and lectures attracted many followers from high office and distant places. He spent much of his life in the Luoyang region, but in 1097 he was banished to Sichuan for several years, and his teachings were prohibited. There he completed a commentary on the Book of Changes around 1099 (the only major work he compiled himself), and according to local folk tradition he wrote it while living in a cave in Fuling (near modern Chongqing). He was pardoned a year before his death, but the political situation was still such that only a handful of his followers ventured to attend his funeral.

Influences and Cosmology

Like his brother Cheng Hao, Cheng Yi was much influenced by the classical thought of such texts as the Analects of Confucius, the Mengzi, the Book of Rites (of which the Great Learning and Centrality and Equilibrium, or Doctrine of the Mean, are two chapters), and the Book of Changes. The brothers shared many ideas about cosmology and human nature, but Cheng Yi did not allow that negative tendencies, or evil (o, a term that means "not good" but that does not necessarily carry the sense of moral turpitude or depravity present in some Christian notions of evil), were originally present in human nature. They might nonetheless be present in the qi, or vital energy, that suffused all things. The human mind or heart (xin ) was originally good, and human beings were endowed with moral virtues that allowed them, with effort, to overcome the potential selfishness of human desires that might arise as they interacted with the external world. Through reverent attentiveness (jing ), integrity (cheng ), and adherence to ritual, they could realize their true natures, abide in the Way (dao ), and become sages. Underlying all the multiple phenomena of the universe in its myriad fluctuations was a oneness or common pattern called principle (li) or heavenly principle (tian li ). Principle was a notion present even in early classical texts, but the Chengs made it integral to a system of thought that emphasized an essential commonality between the human realm and the operations of the cosmos.

Sagehood was accessible to all and need not be reached through book learning. In his early essay "On What Master Yan Loved to Learn," Cheng Yi emphasized that thousands of Confucius's disciples had mastered texts, but only Master Yan, or Yan Hui, was lauded for his love of learninglearning to become a sage. For Cheng Yi, learning to be a sage meant looking inward and developing one's own inherent moral potential (which was informed by the same principle that directed the natural growth and fruitfulness of the cosmos) to the point where the process became spontaneous and joyful. One learned by following the Great Learning 's program of attentively "investigating things" (ge wu; "things" meaning material things, living things, and events) to elucidate their principles.

The greatest numinous power in the Chengs' cosmological system was heaven (tian ), which they understood as a life-giving, impartial, and generous source that bestowed on human beings their nature. The human mind was moreover one with the mind of heaven; human principle, one with the principle of all things. Heaven was one term given to a range of ineffable powers that existed in various valences. When once asked about the meaning of the ancient expression "August Heaven, the Lord on High (haotian shangdi) ", Cheng Yi replied that when one spoke of such things in terms of form and substance, one called it "heaven"; in terms of a master, "Lord"; in terms of function, "ghosts and spirits"; in terms of subtlety, "spirit"; and in terms of nature and emotion, "qian," the first hexagram of the Book of Changes, which denoted primal forces of the cosmos.

Cheng Yi was consulted on many matters that in the West would be called religious: people looked to him for answers to their questions about divining with tortoiseshells, selecting burial sites, performing mortuary rites, constructing ancestral temples and sacrificial halls, conducting sacrificial offerings and other rites, avoiding wanton sacrifices and spectral monstrosities, understanding the nature of spiritual beings and souls, and interpreting ancient ritual texts. He was consulted not only for his understanding of archaic rituals but also for his views on how one might interpret ancient models for contemporary needs. Cheng Yi determined a particular usage's appropriateness by the criteria of rightness or righteousness (yi), principle (li), and ritual propriety (li, a character different from the li of principle). He allowed that most, but not all, ancient usages were informed by principle.

Cheng Yi believed that commemorative votive offerings (ji si) presented to spiritual beings were not merely a product of human endeavor but were ultimately rooted in heavenly principle, the heavenly nature, and the human mind. Even otters, wolves, and eagles made sacrificial offerings, he asserted, following long-held beliefs about animal behavior described in the Book of Rites, so how much more should one expect humans to show respect to their ancestors and recompense their kindness with food offerings. Votive rites were patterned on the processes of the cosmos itself as manifested in the hexagrams "Dispersion" (huan ) and "Congregation" (cui) in the Book of Changes. Offerings presented at ancestral temples countered the centrifugal forces of dispersion and congregated the minds of human beings into a unified direction. Whereas Cheng Yi acknowledged that the principles of votive offerings were difficult to fathom, he criticized his wealthy contemporaries for enjoying this-worldly pleasures at the expense of properly maintaining ancestral temples. Such people were no better than birds and beasts.

Cheng Yi was often queried about ghosts (gui, a term that in antiquity usually referred to ghosts of deceased human beings) and spirits (shen, which in ancient times might refer to human spirits but could also refer to numinous powers of all kinds). He was well known for stating that they are "creative transformations" (zao hua ), a notion taken from the Book of Changes. This is not to say that for Cheng Yi spiritual beings did not exist, but that they were very subtle. When asked whether one could resonate with and invoke the spiritual and luminous realm (shen ming ), Cheng Yi replied that it was possible; filial piety (xiao ) and sibling amity (di) allowed one to communicate with ancestral spirits. Filiality and amity were precisely the "principle" of the spiritual realm.

Reverence was the proper attitude toward spirits with which one had no kin relationship, such as the spirits of mountains and rivers, which were thought to produce rain. Cheng Yi found irreverent the folk practice of worshipping sculpted anthropomorphic images believed to represent those powers; it was not the wood or clay images that produced rain, he said, but the mountains themselves, and it was they, not the images, that deserved reverence. Cheng Yi criticized other folk, Buddhist, and Daoist practices and beliefs that he believed were far removed from classical antecedents. He derided the Buddhists for "hating things" and attempting to remove themselves from the matrix of continuous creation and found laughable, for example, the Daoist (Daojia ) notion that each sense faculty of the human body has its own spirit.

Cheng Yi's views on matters religious were influential throughout Asia for centuries. By the thirteenth century, both he and his brother were themselves venerated as sages, and they received commemorative offerings in Confucian temples throughout China and East Asia until modern times. Cheng Yi outlived Cheng Hao by over twenty years and left behind a much larger body of work, mostly in the form of oral teachings recorded by his followers.

See Also

Cheng Hao; Li.


One of the most complete studies of Cheng Yi's thought in English is still Ts'ai Yung-ch'un's "The Philosophy of Ch'eng I: A Selection of Texts from the Complete Works" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1950), which contains a chapter on his notions of spirits. For Cheng Yi's commentaries on the Book of Changes, see Tze-ki Hon's "Northern Song 'Yijing' Exegesis and the Formation of Neo-Confucianism" (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1992). Cheng Yi's notion of principle is discussed by Kidder Smith, Jr., in his "Ch'eng I and the Pattern of Heaven-and-Earth," in Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching, edited by Kidder Smith, Jr. et al. (Princeton, 1990). Cheng's Yi's views on sage rulers are examined in Marie Guarino's "Learning and Imperial Authority in Northern Song China (9601126): The Classics Mat Lectures" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1994). For other English sources on the Chengs, see the entry on Cheng Hao.

Selected primary sources by the Chengs are introduced in A Sung Bibliography edited by Yves Hervouet (Hong Kong, 1978). Recent editions of their major writings include the four-volume Er Cheng ji (Collected works of the two Chengs; Beijing, 1981) and the Er Cheng yi shu, Er Cheng wai shu (Transmitted writings of the two Chengs, Miscellaneous writings of the two Chengs; Shanghai, 1992). Although research in English on the Chengs little addresses their thought on religious subjects, some Chinese studies do. See Jiang Guanghui's "Lixue de guishen guan" (Concepts of ghosts and spirits in the School of Principle) in his Lixue yu Zhongguo wenhua (The School of Principle and Chinese culture; Shanghai, 1994): 367384; Li Rizhang's Cheng Yi Cheng Hao (Taipei, 1986); Pang Wanli's Er Cheng zhexue tixi (The Cheng's philosophical system; Beijing, 1992); and Wang Binglun's "Guanyu er Cheng pochu shisu mixin sixiang shiji shuping" (On the Chengs' eradication of folk superstitious thought) in Luoxue yu chuantong wenhua (The Luo School and traditional thought), edited by the Henan Province Philosopher's Association (Henansheng zhexue xuehui; Zhengzhou, 1989): 228239 and Deborah Sommer's "Er Cheng xiongdi lun jisi yu guishen" (The Cheng brothers on sacrifice and spirits) in Cheng Dexiang, ed., Er Cheng xinrujia xinlun (New studies of the Neo-confucianism of the Cheng brothers; Zhengzhou, c. 2005).

Deborah Sommer (1987 and 2005)