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Chinese Philosophy


CHINESE PHILOSOPHY . The major developments in Chinese philosophy during the past three thousand years will be outlined here; ideas that are essentially religious, treated elsewhere, will be noted only as may be necessary to show the religious relevance and historical context of philosophical themes. This overview will be at once chronological and topical, as follows:

  1. The pre-Classical background (to the sixth century bce)
  2. Classical philosophy (late sixth to late third century bce)
  3. The first imperial era (to the third century ce)
  4. The development of Buddhism in China (to the ninth century)
  5. The Confucian revival (Tang and Song periods)
  6. The later empire (since the fourteenth century)

The Pre-Classical Background

China circa 550 bce consisted only of what is now North China; even the states of the Yangtze River valley did not speak the language of what was recognized as the civilized heartland to the north. This known "world" had been in anarchy for more than two centuries, since the overthrow of the last Western Zhou king (in present-day Xi'an) in 771 bce. By about the sixth century bce there was a nominal quasi-feudal hierarchy under a powerless successor Zhou "king" in Luoyang, but in fact, the political landscape was dotted with a patchwork of small quarreling states under local lordlings who themselves often had no real power. China was still emerging from the Bronze Age (iron casting had begun circa 700 to 600), but its civilization was old, stretching back in time beyond memory or reliable record. The Zhou dynasty had begun about five hundred years earlier with a conquest by a western Chinese state. Archaeology has now validated the tradition of a Shang dynasty before that, centered in Henan, which may have lasted another five hundred years. The tradition of a still earlier Xia dynasty, again of almost five hundred years, continues to be debated; it was supposed to have started with three marvelously wise rulers, Yao, who chose his own successor, Shun, who in turn selected Yu, the first ruler of the Xia.

Speculative philosophy was soon to fill the third millennium bce with still more (timeless) civilization-creating emperors. The Chinese venerated their past, cherished what they had, and invented what they needed. In the sixth century bce there existed a modest ancient literature, in large part anonymous: the earliest philosophers often quote the "Odes" (Shi) or the "Documents" (Shu) to make a moral point; some of these still exist. The earliest known writing, discovered on pieces of shell and bone used by Shang royal diviners, dates from about 1200 bce, and a few traditional texts surviving even now may date to the eleventh century bce. There was a wealth of learning for learned men to know. Such persons were among the well born, if not so well born that all their time was taken in ruling or fighting. Most people, then as now, were farmers, and it is said that only the aristocrats kept family records and sacrificed to ancestors.

In the Shang, sacrifices to royal ancestors were often of human beings, and in the Zhou it still was common to bury a lord with attendant sacrifices and to sacrifice war captives at one's local altar to the soil. The earliest philosophers denounced these practices. A high god, called Tian (Heaven), or (earlier) Shangdi, was worshiped by the king who in theory held from Tian his "mandate" (ming) to rule as long as he maintained the "virtue" (de) of the founder of the dynastic line. Increasing population and the growth of urban centers, combined with constant war, eliminated smaller domains, producing a class of unattached petty "gentlemen" (shi) who in an earlier age would have been knights or minor hereditary court officers and who had or aspired to some education. The first philosophers and their disciples are from this group. Dissatisfied with present conditions, they looked back to an imagined better past in which they would have had secure roles, and were critical of the higher aristocrats whose power came from their connections rather than from real ability or character.

The Age of Classic Philosophy: The First Phase

The first philosophers were moralists, motivated by perceived political and social ills. For them the basic ill was disorder, brought about by the greed of local lords or heads of powerful families and by their attempts to seek status to which they had no right. These philosophers were not revolutionary; they accepted the existing authorities, and if they looked for remedies they sought positions for themselves or their students as advisers and ministers. We can distinguish three positions. (1) Confucius (Kong Qiu; traditional dates 551?479 bce) would have real political power in the hands of men of cultivated moral character and sought to train his students (and himself) in traditional morals and etiquette to make them employable in court positions. (2) Mozi (c. 450c. 380 bce), in training his students for office, worked out a specific political program with a supporting philosophical argument that ignores the problem of moral character; for him, an official was "worthy" of his job if he discharged his duties effectively. (3) Yang Zhu (fl. c. 400350 bce) concluded that the times could not be remedied. For him, the only reasonable course was withdrawal and the choice of an optimally satisfactory style of personal life.


Confucius (the Latinized form of Kong Fuzi, or Master Kong) stressed the importance of developing traditional virtues, such as filial piety (xiao), courage, honesty, loyalty, kindliness (ren), and familiarity with the rules of traditional polite behavior and ceremonial (li). In politics he was a legitimist, supporting the Zhou king and the rightful authority of the duke of Lu (his native state), which had slipped into the hands of three collateral ducal families, and deploring any behavior in powerful persons that implied an improper claim to status. The good society of the past was to be restored by making traditional standards and values real again. This was Confucius's concept of "rectifying names" (zheng ming), that is, making the referents of such terms as father and ruler really correspond to their meaning. Accordingly, traditional religious rituals had great value for him and he held tian (Heaven) in genuine awe; but he usually turned aside substantive religious queries. His moral philosophy is self-cultivationist: a good life, he held, is one of constant self-improvement. And it is deontological: the world would be better if we were good and always did what is right but that is not what determines what is good and right. Confucius had devoted disciples, but how to teach virtue was a problem for him. He admitted that he taught only eager students and evinced exasperation when a student grasped his teaching but remained unmoved.


In sharp contrast to Confucius, Mozi (who may have been originally a wheelwright) is utterly "practical." The earliest strata of the Mozi text show him unconcerned with the cultivation of character. He wrote, for example, that officials will be loyal if they are well paid; musicprized by the Confucians for its harmonizing effect on the emotions and the selfhe dismissed as a useless expense. An idea or policy is approvable, according to Mozi, if it promotes one of three basic social goods: order, wealth, and population growth. He devotes a whole chapter to ghosts and spirits and another to "the will of Heaven." These entities must be obeyed and sacrificed to lest they punish or withhold gifts such as long lifecontrast Confucius, who is willing to "die in the evening" if he can "hear the Way" in the morningbut there is no tone of awe in what we read. The fundamental good is order, its antithesis is offensive war (defensive war is approved; the Moists became experts in its techniques). But each human naturally pursues his or her own interest and takes as "right" (yi) that which serves it, fighting with his or her neighbors. It is the function of the state, by meting out rewards and praise or punishments and censure, to impose one standard of right, which is to be the "will of Heaven." And Heaven's will is that people "love one another impartially" (jian ai). If you love your neighbor's family, city, and state as you love your own, then all fighting will cease. Shown the cool advantages of adopting this attitude toward others, it is inconceivable that an intelligent human will not do so; and rulers know well how to get their subjects to comply with their wishes and favor their ends. Condemning fatalisma doctrine that, he says, deceives men into thinking human effort is uselessMozi implies that one can adopt an attitude at will. But his stark logic has at least one flaw: although he demanded absolute obedience and dedication from his followers, nothing in Mozi's system shows them why they should make this sacrifice. Nonetheless, there are accounts of followers giving up their lives for his cause. The Moists were tightly organized and were a force in the world of thought for two centuries, before eventually disappearing by the time of the Qin unification of 221 bce.

Yang Zhu

Although none of Yang Zhu's writings has survived, his views can be gleaned from other books. He was among the many in this period who concluded that nothing could be done to right the world and that no interest of one's own was served by seeking to advance oneself in it. The best course, therefore, was to keep out of harm's way and "nourish one's life," avoiding office. Although some who shared these views with Yang Zhu were hedonists, Yang himself probably was not; he believed that a measured asceticism might well be the wisest way to conserve life and optimize satisfactions. In one account of this type of thought the greatest satisfaction to be enjoyed is yi. It is probably "honor," rather than "righteousness," that is meant here, and to the extent that others' yi meant social dutifulness, it would have to be deemed by the follower of Yang as incompatible with life or nature. But such persons who withdraw from society can be seen as engaging in a kind of self-cultivation; their stance is not far from that of the Confucian-minded person who judges that the Way (dao) does not prevail in his time and so withdraws into private life to cultivate a personal "purity" uncorrupted by the world's temptations. Yang appears in the pages of the Zhuangzi, and there is reason to think that Zhuangzi may have at first been a follower. It is plausibly argued that recluses of this kind were the first Daoists.

The Age of Classical Philosophy: The Hundred Schools

By 350 bce no one took the feeble Zhou king seriously. Sometimes tentatively, in the wake of a military victory, and sometimes by mutual agreement, the stronger of the local "dukes" declared themselves "kings" (wang), each thus implying an intention to succeed the Zhou. By 320 there were at least eight such "kings." One of the most ambitious was the ruler of Qi (modern Shandong Province). Of course, such ambition could only be realized in the end by military action. In the meantime, however, a "king" had to build his prestige by a display of his royal "virtue" (de), and the ruler of Qi ostentatiously opened his ears to the advice of all the wise men he could entice into his court. Hundreds of wandering philosophers and their disciples were housed in a suburb of Jixia, the Qi capital. (An early philosophical encyclopedia, the Guanzi, may be a residue of their work.) Other new "kings" and lesser lords, especially the king of Wei in Daliang (Kaifeng), tried to keep pace. Philosophy thrived in great variety. By the third century bce the main body of Moists had split into three sects, each with its own text of the doctrine. One specialized group developed the science of military defense and had its own texts. Others were experts in the theory of argument; their canons and explanations are, in effect, treatises on logic and epistemology.

Other philosophers, perhaps following the lead of the Moist logicians, made reputations for their ability to baffle audiences with clever arguments for impossible theses. The most famous are Hui Shi ("The sun at noon is the sun setting" and other paradoxes) and Gongsun Long ("A white horse is not a horse"). Proto-Daoists such as Shen Dao argued that a conceptual knowledge impedes real understanding. The Confucians had their schools, which stressed ritual, filial piety, or moral psychology and derived from one or another prominent disciple of Confucius. A school of social primitivists, led by one Xu Xing, held that market prices should be standardized to prevent cheating and that a good ruler must not be supported by his people but should work in the fields with them. Zou Yan amazed his lavish royal hosts with grand speculations about the patterns of history and the geography of the world, based on the theories of yin and yang and the "five powers" (wu de or wu xing). Perhaps for the first time, an old manual of divination was caught up in philosophy, with a (now lost) commentary based on yin-yang wu xing theory. This same manual later acquired a moral commentary attributed to Confucius and, as the Yi jing, became the ranking book in the Confucian classics. In this combination of divination and metaphysics we see a perennial Chinese concept of "resonant causality," one thing in the universe causing something else "like" ita celestial object or an Yi jing hexagramto be activated in response.


This is the setting of the career of Mengzi (Mencius), the ancient philosopher with probably the greatest influence on later Chinese philosophical thought. Mengzi belongs to the moral-psychological line of philosophical descent from Confucius. The Mengzi opens with him, an old man, in conversation with the kings of Wei (known also as Liang) in the year 320, and Qi in the year 319, urging them to desist from warfare and to lighten the burdens on their people. He boldly argues that a bad ruler may be justly deposed or killed, but he is in no way egalitarian, arguing (against Xu Xing's followers) that rulers and educated men deserve their privileged place in society because they "work with their minds," having the duty of caring for the mass of humanity through a government of foreseeing benevolence. Mengzi is best known for his theory of the innate goodness of people: we are all born with psychological "sprouts" implanted in us by Heaven, that if encouraged to grow naturally develop into the virtuous dispositions (xin) of benevolence (ren), dutifulness (yi), sense of propriety (li), and moral "knowledge" (zhi, sense of right and wrong). (Thus, Mengzi solves the problem of the teachability of virtue.) Human evil results from the stunting of our originally good "nature" (xing) owing to harsh conditions. Thus, a good government would restore humanity to goodness by improving the people's lot and educating them.

Mengzi attacked both the Moiststheir "universal love," he argued, denies the special duties we have to parentsand the Yangists, whose "egoism" denies our duties to rulers. He nonetheless draws from both. A life of virtue he held, would be in accord with our nature and would be what we would naturally most enjoy. As for the Moists, by Mengzi's time they were coming to see that their doctrinaire program of universal love required a concession to self-cultivation ethics. One must first develop a capacity for loving, which has a natural "root" in affection for parents; at the bidding of doctrine, one can then apply it impartially. It is to this that Mengzi objects: the "root" of benevolence, he says, is indeed innate, but it has a deep structure and can be developed and "extended" in only one way, diminished in due degree at removes from the self. Against Gaozi, he argues that not only our affective nature but also our sense of duty and respect is "internal" (innate). We can encourage our virtues to grow because we enjoy them; they develop and thrive with practice without being forced.


The Zhuangzi is now recognized to be composite, the later syncretic parts perhaps actually dating to early Han, and other parts, such as a primitivist stratum, dating to the end of the third century bce. It is usually held that the first seven chapters are by a man named Zhuang Zhou, about whom almost nothing is known. In any case, these chapters seem to be the earliest. It is necessary to date them after Mengzi (the opening of chapter 4 contains an obvious parody of the opening of book 2 of Mengzi) ; they were probably written in the early third century bce (chapter 2 satirizes Gongsun Long without naming him; he was a client of a prince of Zhao active as late as c. 250 bce). The Zhuangzi uses a novel medium in philosophy. Whereas the Lunyu (Analects) and Mengzi are collections, over time, of conversations and sayings, and the Mozi a series of reasoned treatises (a mode shortly to be copied by Xunzi and Han Feizi), the Zhuangzi makes its points through the use of fiction, sometimes fantastic and often quite funny. Confucius himself is often stolen as a fictional character. It is reasonably argued (by A. C. Graham) that Zhuang Zhou began as a follower of Yang Zhu's school of egoist withdrawal but then had a traumatic "conversion experience." This seems to have shown him that literal withdrawal from the world is merely another posture of involvement; genuine withdrawal must have the form of detachment while one plays the game of life, "walking without touching the ground." In this spirit one may even accept political, social, and familial commitments.

Zhuangzi carries this attitude to the deepest philosophical level. According to him, we must use language, but we must not suppose that our words really fit, for there is nothing absolutely right about them. This is true of all of our evaluative concepts that we articulate in words; the moral concepts of the Confucians are prejudices, time determined. This applies even to such distinctions as dreams versus reality or life versus death (which may be better than life, for all we know). The favorite word of the moral philosophers, dao, or "way," becomes for Zhuangzi the Way of all nature, of which the wise man sees himself a part in both life and death. He accepts both joyfully, using his mind as a mirror to reflect reality just as it is, without any distorting preconceptions or preferences and "without injury to himself." The book has been perennially popular; the most important philosophical commentary (by Guo Xiang or Xiang Xiu) dates to circa 300 ce. Zhuangzi's epistemological-metaphysical outlook anticipates that of the Mādhyamika Buddhist philosophy, which was transmitted to China in the early fifth century ce. Later still, Chan Buddhism inherited his provocative blend of humor and paradox.


The active life of Xunzi extends from the early third century bce to 238, when he was forced to retire from a magistracy in Chu. A native of Zhao, he twice spent time in the philosophical center of Jixia in Qi, where he was recognized as a successor to and rival of Mengzi. Explicitly Confucian, Xunzi was actually eclectic. One probably early essay ("Dispelling Obsessions") describes the mind as a mirror, but unlike Zhuangzi, Xunzi believed that the mind not only reflects but also stores and, if properly used, leads one not to an uncommitted attitude but to the truth, which is the Confucian Way. As in Mengzi (6A.15), one can be "obsessed" (bi) if one does not reflect carefully; but unlike Mengzi, Xunzi held that such obsession is likely to be an unwise intellectual commitment rather than an unevaluated sense appetite. Accordingly, Xunzi is authoritarian; he believed that one must be protected from wrong ideas. This, he maintains, is the business of the state. The moral order itself (li yi, "rites and right," for Xunzi) was created by the sage-kings, on whose teachings we therefore depend if we are to be moral.

Xunzi directly opposes Mengzi not only in this but also in his related view that "human nature is evil": we are composed, according to Xunzi, of an appetitive "nature" (xing) that if uncontrolled causes men to quarrel for satisfactions (as in Mozi), as well as a capacity for intelligent action (wei), which enabled the wisest (the sage-kings) to see that rules must be ordained if a tolerable social life is to be possible for humankind. Mengzi has the problem of explaining convincingly how evil is possible given the goodness of human nature; Xunzi has the converse problem of explaining how morality is possible at all. The sages' li yi are justified by their utility, but to be moral we, and they, have to accept them as right. Mozi solves this problem (perhaps he did not recognize it) by requiring that the state-imposed yi shall be what Heaven wills; Xunzi's Heaven, however, is merely the sky above and the order of Nature, and only the uneducated believe it has divine power. What Xunzi says is that humans differ from animals in having yi not, it seems, in the Mencian sense of an innate disposition to particular duties, but in an innate capacity to be socialized. The wise person will calculate, at a metamoral level, that only a life according to the Confucian Way can give optimum satisfaction; seeing this, the individual will necessarily choose it, and will choose to be educated so as to become the sort of person who can live it. At the same time, one sees that it really is right that there should be such standards: given the order of all nature, they are the only solution to the human predicament. Thus the "rites" can be seen as the continuation in the human realm of the natural order of the heavens, and Xunzi writes fervent passages to this effect, religious in tone if not in content. In this way the problem implicit in (and ignored by) Mozihow we can make a calculated choice of our own attitudesis avoided without recourse to Mengzi's solution to the paradox of virtue (that virtue cannot be taught unless one is virtuous already, as Mencian man is).

Xunzi can be called the first Chinese academic philosopherreviewing his predecessors, criticizing, picking and choosing, solving problems. He was much appreciated in the ensuing Han era, but by the time Han Yu read him and wrote about him in the ninth century, Xunzi had almost become a curiosity. Still, the more authoritarian of the Neo-Confucians in following centuries are often closer to him than they realized.

Han Feizi

Two of Xunzi's students were Li Si, later prime minister to the First Emperor of Qin, and Han Fei, a prince of the Han state and last of the major preimperial philosophers. The last two Zhou kings had been deposed by Qin in 256 and 249 bce, and after three more decades the last of the resisting states were absorbed. The political philosophy that guided the new order was what Chinese bibliographers call Legalism (Fa jia), the doctrine that the function of the state is to maximize its strength in agricultural production and in military power by eliminating useless classes (including philosophers) and regimenting the population with a rigidly enforced code of law, using rewards for desired behavior and severe punishments (mutilation or worse) for violations. This would benefit the people and give them order: standing in fear of the state they would behave so that its terrors need never be used. The power of the ruler was to be exalted, but at the same time the ruler was advised to avoid action, keeping his officials in doubt about his intentions lest they combine against him. Thus a curious, quasi-Daoist philosophy of inaction, what H. G. Creel, in his What Is Taoism? (Chicago, 1970), calls "purposive Taoism," was the basis of a philosophy of power.

Han Feizi and Li Si were both Legalists. The one recommended philosophically, and the other eventually carried out, the infamous "burning of the books" of proscribed philosophical schools, including especially Confucian texts, in 213 bce. Legalism strongly influenced the development of Chinese law, but as a philosophy it was usually condemned by the Confucians, who became dominant a century later. Han Feizi continued to be read and was esteemed highly for his literary style.


The Daoist bent in Han Feizi is genuine. The book that collects his writings includes a Legalist commentary to selections from a short text that stands first among the Daoist classics: the Dao de jing. It is ascribed to a certain Laozi, alias Li Er or Li Dan, supposed to have been an elder contemporary of Confucius and an archivist in the royal Zhou court. In fact, a myth was invented sometime in the third century bce that Confucius had made a trip to Luoyang to consult him. Although these things are still believed by some scholars, many now take the book to be a third-century work, probably later than the earlier parts of the Zhuangzi. The most radical view, that of D. C. Lau (Tao-te Ching, Hong Kong, 1982), sees it as a collage of short fragments of Daoist "hymns" and other lore that got assembled in an editorial tradition into the present booklet of brief, sometimes rhymed sections. According to this view, Laozi is a complete fiction, yet he has become the patron saint of Daoism, even a god. The Dao de jing has become incredibly popular in the Westthere are more translations of it than of almost any other book in the worldbut no two interpretations are alike. Although Han Feizi saw Legalism in it, Arthur Waley (The Way and Its Power, London, 1935) sees it as the work of a late Warring States "quietist" who was opposed to Legalism. The dominant view is that it is filled with the profoundest wisdom concerning life and being. It is conventionally ordered in two parts, the first opening with a meditation on Dao, the second, with one on de, hence the title; however, archaeology has now yielded Han texts that reverse the order.

In the Dao de jing we find again Zhuangzi's conceptual relativism: the Dao itself is nameless; contrasting concepts generate each other. Many of the sections recommend inaction, nonstriving, not reaching for too much (lest from success one fall back to nothing: "reversion is the order of the Dao"), and adopting a "female," seemingly nonresisting, posture in life and in state policy. The desirable society is one in which the people are kept ignorant and simple. Often the book deals explicitly with the way a ruler should govern his state, suggesting that the way to effective power is inaction. A theme echoing Shen Dao condemns cleverness and "knowledge": "He who speaks does not know; he who knows does not speak." The first virtue is simplicity, like that of a newborn baby or of an "uncarved block" of wood. "The highest virtue (de) does not 'virtue' [de i.e., display itself as virtue]; therefore it has virtue" (cf. Zhuangzi, chap. 5). The book teems with such simply stated teasing paradoxes.

The First Imperial Era

The late Zhou era of contending states was terminated by the Qin conquest, complete by 221 bce; Qin disintegrated after the death of its first emperor. The succeeding Han dynasty, from 206 bce to 220 ce (interrupted by Wang Mang, 922) but ineffective after about 190, was followed by a division into Three Kingdoms (221279). An unstable reunification was ended in 317, when defeats by non-Chinese northern "barbarians" drove the Jin court south to the Yangtze River valley, then still a border area with only a tenth of China's people. At the beginning of the Han dynasty, Legalist political ideas were defended, sometimes vigorously, by some court officials into the first century bce. Daoism as a personal and political philosophy continued in favor and is represented by the Huainanzi (c. 130 bce), an encyclopedic book assembled under the support of Liu An, one of the Han princes. A syncretic Daoism, drawing from all of late Zhou thought, is represented by chapter 33 of the Zhuangzi (second century bce). Prominent early Han Confucians include Jia Yi (200168 bce) and, especially, Dong Zhongshu (179104 bce). With the latter, Confucianism gained imperial favor under the emperor Wudi. A system of recruiting scholars for official service was decreed, and court scholars on the Confucian classics were established.

The New Text school

The Qin burning of the books left Confucians with the task of recovering their revered texts. This produced a rich scholarship of commentary (much of it now gone) on various textual traditions of this or that classic. It also, more significantly, led to a lasting division between the so-called New Text schools, which used texts existing only in the "new" reformed Qin-Han script, and the Old Text traditions, which were based on manuscripts in antique script that (allegedly) had survived the Qin suppression. The two sides had opposed philosophical orientations, as well as their own favored texts. The New Text partisans favored the Gongyang Commentary on the Chun qiu (Spring and autumn annals of Lu, ascribed to Confucius). They held that Confucius had been a "throneless king," founder of a theoretical "dynasty" intervening between Zhou and Han. In his Chun qiu, New Text thinkers claimed, Confucius had actually used "subtle" language to lay down the moral and ritual rules of an ideal world order and had predicted the rise of Han. This theory was fitted into a speculative philosophy of history in Dong's Chun qiu fanlu, further developed by the later Han writer He Xiu (129182), according to whom history goes through three great stages, culminating in an era of "great peace" (tai ping). A similar idea occurs in the classic called the Li ji, composed of short prose pieces probably by Han court ritualists; as a millenarian concept, it has repeatedly surfaced in philosophy, religion, and popular rebel ideology during the past two thousand years.

The New Text persuasion saw Heaven as a personal deity. Any unusual celestial phenomenonsuch as a comet or unpredicted eclipsewas Heaven's sign of displeasure with the behavior of the ruler. Heaven and human affairs were intimately linked by way of yin-yang and Five Elements (wu xing) metaphysics, which grouped all aspects of the world in groups of fives (into which fours were forced); thus, water, black, winter, north, anger, and storing are in the same interacting category. The middle and late Han "apocrypha" (wei shu), representing Confucius as quasidivine, are also the result of this type of thought, which was markedly numerological; for example, the Shiqu and Bohu imperial conferences on the classics, 51 bce and 79 ce, were convoked on the five hundredth anniversary of Confucius's supposed birthdate (and probably the one thousandth anniversary of the supposed date of the beginning of the Zhou) and on the eight hundredth anniversary of the first year of the Chun qiu chronicle, respectively. Divination was in great vogue; this was the age when the Yi jing became the foremost classic. In moral philosophy and moral psychology, Dong Zhongshu and his persuasion were more or less in accord with Mengzi, holding that we are at least potentially "good" by nature.

The Old Text school

The Old Text faction in scholarship includes Liu Xin, court librarian in the Wang Mang era, who was later charged with forging some of these texts (notably the Zuo zhuan commentary to the Chun qiu ). A type of philosophy contrasting with the Dong and He Xiu sort is usually typed Old Text. Naturalistic and skeptical, its major writers were Yang Xiong, who held that human nature is a mixture of good and bad, and, especially, Wang Chong (27c. 100), who thought that Mengzi, Xunzi, and Yang were each right about the natures of some people. Like Xunzi, these thinkers take Heaven to be a natural entity, not a being with intentions intervening in human affairs. Wang's Lun heng admits that portents foretell important historical changes but holds that they are the spontaneous effect of qi (matter-energy); Heaven's Way is "nonactivity." Wang holds a bleak fatalism: to him, nothing we do can alter what will happen in our individual lives or in history (here he is unlike Xunzi). He does not hesitate to criticize Confucian doctrines and texts, and explicitly approves the naturalism of philosophical Daoism.


Daoism in this age and later was of two sorts. One, which became a religion, shared with New Text Confucianism the correspondence metaphysics of yin-yang and wu xing but was aimed at individual survival. For the person who could afford it, this Daoism meant adopting a regimen of life, breathing exercises, diet, and alchemy designed to make one's physical body immortal. For others, there was the possibility of getting one's life prolonged as a reward for good deedsan idea found in early Zhou bronze inscriptions, in the Shang shu, and in Mozi but not in the work of other Zhou philosophersor of getting reborn as an immortal after death. In time, this cult developed a system of gods, rituals, heavens, and hells.

A second, quite different type of Daoist thought continues or revives the Daoism as personal philosophy found in early Han texts and in the Zhuangzi. The naturalistic skepticism of Wang Chong moves in this direction, but whereas Wang's thought was a fatalism of despair, the revived interest in Zhuangzi and Laozi of the end of Han and following centuries was a naturalism of detachment. Wang Bi (226249) is the author of the standard commentary to Laozi and of a commentary to the Yi jing (Zhou yi yueli). An important philosophical commentary to the Zhuangzi is attributed to both Xiang Xiu (late third century) and Guo Xiang (d. 312). These and others who applied themselves to "the study of the Mysterious" (xuan xue) actually continued to take Confucius as the greatest sage, but he became for them a Daoist in fact (in the Zhuangzi he had been a Daoist in humorous fiction). He surpassed even Laozi in his attainment of "nothing" (wu), that is, "nonattachment" and "desirelessness," since he had passed beyond the desire even for these things.

The interest in semantics and metaphysical paradoxes of the early third century bce was also revived; most of the extant text attributed to Gongsun Long was fabricated at this time. These interests were expressed in a fashion of precious philosophical conversation that came to be called "pure talk" (qing tan). Other important additions to philosophical literature, probably from the third century ce, are the Liezi, another Daoist classic similar to Zhuangzi and pretending to be a Zhou work, and the forged Old Text chapters of the Shang shu. The Liezi, like the Xiang-Guo commentary, praises an ethic of following one's nature, which, when practiced among the aristocracy, led from aestheticism to eccentric hedonism. Ge Hong (c. 250330) criticized this ethicfrom a Confucian point of viewas well as the Daoist philosophical anarchism of his contemporary Bao Jingyan. Ge, however, was eclectic, and his own book Baopuzi is, among other things, an important work on alchemy as a method of attaining immortality.

The Development of Buddhism in China

There is evidence of a Buddhist presence in China from as early as the late Western Han dynasty. In the Eastern Han period there were centers of Buddhism in a few cities, including Luoyang, where a Parthian, An Shigao, arrived circa 148 and began translating texts in meditation in the Hīnayāna tradition of escape from psychic causation (karman). More popular among philosophically minded Chinese Buddhists and their Daoist friends were "wisdom" (prajñā) treatises, and later texts, in the Mādhyamika tradition of Nāgārjuna (second century ce), which teach that the elements of phenomenal existence and our concepts of them are conditioned, relative, and impermanent and thus "empty" (śūnya). Realization of this concept leads to a saving mental detachment; thus this kind of thought converged with philosophical Daoism. Early Chinese philosophical Buddhists of this kind include Zhi Dun (314366) in the South and Sengzhao (384?414) in the North.

Six Dynasties period

Sengzhao was a disciple of Kumārajīva (344413), a Central Asian who was brought to Xi'an in 401 and is famous as a translator, especially of Mādhyamika texts. Another important northerner was Dao'an (312385), who was learned in all aspects of Buddhism and philosophical Daoism and the author of an early catalog of translations. Among Dao'an's many disciples was Huiyuan (334416) in the South, a believer in Amitābha and his Pure Land (jingtu) paradise and the author of a treatise on immortality.

By the sixth century, cults of salvation by faith came to assume a "three ages" theory of history, in which the present epoch was regarded as a final, degenerate age in which men can no longer save themselves by adhering to the pristine Buddhist message as taught by Śākyamuni Buddha. This idea combined with the Mādhyamika concept of multiple truth (see, for example, Jizang, 549623), which holds that the mind must move through stages of ordinary thought before it can grasp emptiness, greatly increasing the speculative range of Buddhist philosophy. Huiyuan's most famous disciple was Daosheng (c. 360434), another southerner, whose theories anticipate important ideas in the Tiantai and Chan schools of the Tang era and prefigure central issues in Neo-Confucianism. Drawing on the Mahāparinirvāa Sūtra, Daosheng argued that all beings have the "Buddha nature," which he identified with "emptiness" (śūnyatā) and with the "true self" (zhen wo). Enlightenment has to be "sudden" (but after gradual training), since ultimate wisdom cannot be analyzed. Another major translator was Paramārtha (499569, arriving at the southern court of Liang in 548), who rendered important Yogācāra (idealistic) texts of fully developed Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Since Buddhist thought in China of this period flows in large part from the introduction and translation of texts, texts themselves rather than great teachers are often the focus of schools. These schools did not endure as distinct ideological traditions but represented a major intellectual development toward the sort of "systematic theology" found in the great schools of the Tang era. Mādhyamika thought is the focus of the San-lun (Three Treatises) school, based on three treatises translated by Kumārajīva, and noteworthy for its concept of three levels of truth at successively more complete stages of negation. The Niepan, or Nirvāa, school, based on the Mahāparinirvāa Sūtra, developed out of the interests of Daosheng, until it was absorbed later into Tiantai. The so-called Dilun school was based on the Shidi jinglun, a translation, popular in the North, of a treatise by Vasubandhu on a sūtra describing the ten stages of a bodhisattva. The Dilun school merged in the Tang with Huayan. The Shelun school was based on Asaga's Mahāyānasagraha through Paramārtha's translation in 563, and was later superseded by the Faxiang, or "mere ideation," school. Another well-known philosophical text in this tradition, widely read even by non-Buddhists, is the Dasheng qixin lun (Treatise on awakening of faith in the Mahāyāna), which was important both for Faxiang and Huayan adherents.

During the long period of North-South division (317588), Buddhism became the dominant religion in China, but it developed differently in the two areas. In the North, Buddhist institutions were wholly under the control of the state and were even used as a means of control of the populace. In the South, temples were lavishly patronized by emperors (especially Wudi), but monks maintained much independence, and there was a more active climate of debate between Confucians and Daoists; of special interest is the debate over the immortality of the soul. A Confucian, one Fan Zhen, wrote Shenmie lun (On the mortality of the soul, c. 500), an essay attacking the Buddhist view (for example, that of Huiyuan) and arguing that the soul is to the body as function (yong) is to essence/structure (ti) or as sharpness is to a knife. (Buddhists continued to deny the permanence of the phenomenal self, regarding it as mere appearance or "function" [yong], as distinct from the real self which is "essence" [ti], or Buddha nature; popular faith, however, ignored the distinction. Here, Fan provocatively alters the categories ti and yong.) Many vigorous replies to Fan are preserved. In the South, critics of the new religion warred with words; in the North, however, there were episodes of state repression, instigated by Confucian and religious Daoist advisers to the emperor, in 446 and between 574 and 577. The most severe of these came later, in 845, under a Daoist Tang emperor.

Sui-Tang period

It was under the reunified empire of the Sui (589618) and Tang (618907) that Buddhism reached its greatest strength. The Sui emperors used Buddhism as an official ideology to support the throne, while the Tang emperors claimed descent from Laozi and favors to Buddhism were made more cautiously. But it is in the philosophical schools that flourished in the Tang that fully developed Chinese Buddhism is seen best. The Sanjie jiao, a sect based on the concept of the three ages, started in the Sui by Xinxing (540594), was suppressed in 713. One of the most important schools of doctrine was Tiantai, systematized by the monk Zhiyi (538597). Tiantai synthesizes the great variety of Buddhist sūtra s and doctrines by holding there are different levels of truth and that the Buddha went through different stages of teaching offering different means to salvation. For followers of Tiantai, the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra) is said to represent the final and most complete teaching of the Buddha. The school is often characterized as holding that the world is universal mind, comprising both a universal, pure (Buddha) nature (compare Daosheng) and an impure nature that produces ordinary phenomena, attachment, and evil. Zhiyi himself, however, was much more a Mādhyamika than an idealist. He emphasized that mind and object are both "ungraspable" (i.e., empty), and that delusion is not ultimately different from enlightenment; perhaps the most famous metaphysical dictum of Tiantai is that "all phenomena are (ultimately) real" (zhu fa shi xiang). A later master, Zhanran (711782) held that even inanimate things have the Buddha nature.

Another master, Xuanzang (596664), was the most famous of the Chinese who went to India, brought back texts, and recorded their travels (others were Faxian, who left in 399, and Yijing, who traveled in the seventh century). With his translations, Xuanzang and his disciple Kuiji (632682) started the Faxiang ("dharma-appearance"), or Weishi ("mere ideation"), school, based on the views of Asaga and Vasubandhu that the external world is illusory. There has been a recent revival of this idealist philosophy in China led by Ouyang Jingwu (18711943) and the monk Taixu (18891947.)

The important masters of another prominent Tang school, the Huayan (Avatasaka), were Fashun, or Dushun (557640), Zhiyan (602668), Fazang (643712), and Chengguan (738?820?). Huayan thinkers held all reality to be a blend of a "world of principle (li) " and a "world of things (shi)," all phenomena being manifestations of one ultimate principle. Even more than the Tiantai scheme, this suggests the dominant metaphysics of the Neo-Confucianism of the following dynasties. The usually dominant Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism, however, tended toward a metaphysical dualism; monistic varieties of Neo-Confucianism are, perhaps, closer to Huayan, which appeals to the fundamental "non-obstruction" of li and shi (lishi wuai). The last master of Huayan was Zongmi (780841). Another tradition of dualistic monism that leaves its mark on Buddhist art, if not on wider philosophy, is the Zhenyan (Tantric) school, whose maalas and sexual imagery represented wisdom and compassion in a female-male (yin-yang?) relation.

The most important schools, after the persecution of 845, were the Pure Land (Jingtu) and Chan. The former, preaching that one can be reborn in paradise by reciting the name of Amitābha, had as its early master (after Huiyuan) the northern monk Tanluan (476542); important Tang masters were Daochuo (562645) and Shandao (613681). The Chan school represents itself as deriving from an Indian monk, Bodhidharma, said to have come to China about 520, who was a master of meditation (dhyāna, hence the name Chan); the school also sees itself as preserving a "mental transmission" of true insight from the Buddha himself. The school recognized a series of "patriarchs," the sixth, according to some northern texts, being Shenxiu (seventh century); his status was challenged by a southern monk, Shenhui (670762), who claimed that the actual sixth patriarch was a certain Huineng (638713). The Platform Sūtra attributed to Huineng is one of the most widely read and influential texts in and beyond Buddhism. All of the major Neo-Confucian masters from the Song dynasty onward were probably familiar with it, and many had experimented with Chan early in their careers. The Chan religious goal is enlightenment rather than rebirth in a ("Pure Land") paradise, and the Huineng episode marks a division between "northern" and "southern" Chan, the alternatives being final insight reached gradually through meditation and a direct and sudden insight into the real nature of the self and phenomena in the midst of ordinary activity. Two schools have been prominent since 845, the Caodong and the Linji. (Of three others, the Yunmen was active in the Northern Song dynasty.) Linji makes use of physical shocks and baffling, often humorous puzzles to break the mind loose from ordinary thinking; while iconoclastic, it actually owes much to Mādhyamika and to the Daoism of Zhuangzi.

The Confucian Revival

Han Yü (768824) strongly criticized Buddhism as socially parasitic, and in eloquent essays and letters regarded as models of style he represented himself as reviving the pre-Buddhist Confucianism of Zhou times. Confucians of the Song dynasty (9601279) regarded him and Li Ao (d. 844) as their precursors. A revival of Confucian thought, as the primary philosophy of social and political participation, was stimulated by the reconstitution of the imperial state in Sui-Tang and the development of the modern civil service examination system, which from the Song onward required a thorough knowledge of the Confucian classics. Other factors contributed: the growth of cities, the invention of printing, and especially the development of the Confucian "academies" (shuyuan, perhaps on the model of Buddhist temple schools), which began to appear in the Five Dynasties period (906959) and multiplied in Song and later. Funded both by the state and by private donors, the Confucian academies were the primary forums of philosophical discussion, and in the late Ming (13681644) they became partly political, with famous lecturers drawing huge audiences from distant parts. In the Song the new Confucianism took two forms: One was political, social, and reformist; the other, speculative and metaphysical.

Since the new Confucian thought identified itself as a revival of very ancient ideals, in its reformist aspect it was simultaneously both antiquarian and radical. Fan Zhongyan (9891052) is known for his adaptation of the bodhisattva 's vowto be the first to suffer hardship and the last to be "saved"to social service. Ouyang Xiu (10071072), best known as a historian, criticized Buddhism as a foreign intrusion and a sickness in society that must be cured by the revival, by the state, of ancient customs, communal spirit, and "rites." In this way "government and doctrine" would once again proceed from the same source: state and society would revitalize each other by recombining. This vision of a benevolent and selfless, albeit totalitarian, utopia has bewitched major Confucian philosophersamong them Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming, Zhang Xuecheng, and Kang Youweito the present. Wang Anshi (10211086), when directing the government, was the center of a storm of controversy over his reform program. Zhu Xi (11301200) too had his reformist side (neglected in later attention to his thought), arguing for a complete revision of the examination and education system.

The other aspect of Song thought was its speculative metaphysics and moral psychology. The fertile eleventh century has three who can be called cosmologists. Zhou Dunyi (10171073) offered the Taiji tu (Diagram of the supreme ultimate), showing all things as evolved from a first principle that differentiates itself into the yin and yang, then into the "five elements," and so on. Zhang Zai (10201077) saw all things as continually condensing out of and dissolving back into a primordial qi and drew the moral conclusion that we and all things are one family. Finally, Shao Yong (10111077) tried to explain the universe through Yi jing binary numerology. Moral psychology includes monists Cheng Hao (10321085) and Lu Jiuyuan (Xiangshan) and dualists Cheng Yi (Hao's brother, 10331108) and Zhu Xi. The latter tried to synthesize the work of his precursors, and his system became orthodox for the imperial civil service examinations in the Yuan and later dynasties.

The preeminence of Zhu's thought was confirmed by the imperial publication of the encyclopedia Xingli daquan in 1415. Zhu's idea resembles Huayan metaphysics: there is a realm of "principle" (li) and a realm of "embodiment" (qi, literally, "vessel," but in effect "matter," as in the homophonous graph qi). In the human individual, our moral "nature" (xing) is our principle, identified with Dao, so that (with Mengzi) we are by "nature" good; evil and selfish tendencies in us are the consequence of "impure" qi, different in different individuals, which must be purified by moral cultivation. Long study, for example, of the classics, increases the sum of principle in the mind until a moment of synthetic moral illumination is attained (here is the Cheng-Zhu adaptation of the Buddhist "gradual attainmentsudden enlightenment" problem). Later philosophers debated endlessly on the relation between these entities and their relation to the mind, which Lu and later Wang Yangming identified with principle. Whatever their metaphysics, such thinkers were moral self-cultivationists who saw the primary moral-religious "task" (gongfu) as the "correcting of the mind," following the Li ji chapter Da xue (Great learning). This became for them the foremost of the classic texts. The usual program was to "watch oneself" and to scotch each "selfish thought" (si yi) as it arose, recalling the Buddhist anxiety about thoughts of "attachment" being the source of (bad) karman. Noteworthy after Zhu are his student Zhen Dexiu (11781235) and the Yuan moralist Xu Heng (12091281). This "mind learning" was pursued in some form by all the leading moralists of the ensuing Ming dynasty.

The Later Empire

The most important Ming philosopher was Wang Yangming (14721529, personal name, Shouren). His most arresting ideas, simple but puzzling enough to provoke a century and a half of controversy, are as follows. (1) We all have, or share, a mental faculty of moral intuition (liang zhi), and there are no "principles" (li) other than the renditions of this faculty, if we only learn to let it operate without "obscuration" (bi), which is the source of evil. Thus, "mind" (xin) is "principle" (li), and ethics is situational. (2) Complete experience and fully engaged practice involve the operation of this faculty. We do not first apprehend something and then (perhaps consulting a set of rules) decide how to judge it; thus, there is a "unity of knowledge and practice" (zhi xing heyi). (3) A "four-sentence teaching" (based on the Da xue ) explains that the mind in "essence" (ti) is uninvolved in good and evil and that these predicates apply only to its activities of thought and judgment.

Was Wang really a Buddhist? No, but his liang zhi was the "sun," and "obscuration" was the "clouds" (the images are Huineng's). For Wang mind is Mind, universal, as in Tiantai. And it is in the context of ordinary activity that liang zhi reveals to itself a "principle" that eludes abstraction; but the context, and the revelation, are moral. Indeed, as Feng Youlan suggests, if the Chan Buddhist could have accepted family and social relationships as the ordinary activity that is the locus of his Dao, he would have become a Neo-Confucian. But the problematic of Buddhism continues to be played out within Wang's Confucianism. Moralists after Wang were split, some calling for a moral cultivation of strict discipline and others holding that intuition must be allowed to function without forcing or intervention, "here and now" (dangxia). Among the latter were Wang Ji (14981583), and also Wang Gen (14831540) and his followers of the Taizhou school, including He Xinyin (15171579) and Li Zhi (15271602), both of whom were so boldly individualistic that they died in prison.

China concurrently was experiencing one last intellectual revival of Buddhism, prominent teachers being Zhuhong (15351615) and Deqing (15461643). There was a marked syncretist tendency everywhere, and experiments in combining the Three Teachings (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) were thought interesting. (It was perhaps for this reason that Matteo Ricci, himself a friend of Li Zhi, was easily accepted in Chinese intellectual circles.) Some, on the far "left" among post-Wang Confucians, whose dangxia ethics tended to be antinomian, were known as "mad Chanists." Li himself actually donned monk's garb and played with Legalist ideas. The last decades of the Ming were scarred by factional strife, especially involving the Confucians of the Donglin Academy group, many of whom lost their lives in their conflict with court eunuchs.

After the Manchu conquest and establishment of the Qing dynasty in 1644, the freewheeling Ming style of philosophy ceased. The academies were absorbed into the government school structure, and at first the outstanding thinkers were men who avoided government service. Such were Huang Zongxi (16101695), noted historian of Song, Yuan, and Ming philosophy and advocate of limitations on imperial power; Gu Yanwu (16131682), a philologist who accepted Zhu Xi's views but favored "search for evidence" ("the study of li is the study of the classics"); Wang Fuzhi (16191692), recluse and anti-Manchu philosopher of history; and Yan Yuan (16351704), a "pragmatist" who rejected Song-Ming metaphysics as impractical and meaningless. Gu set the intellectual tone for the next two centuries, which prized philological scholarship (often patronized by the imperial court or by wealthy officials who financed expensive projects of compilation, drawing many scholars together) and tended to disparage mere "empty words," that is, speculative philosophy. But the Qing emperors vigorously promoted Cheng-Zhu moral philosophy for its disciplinary value, and they were assured by flatterers that at last, as in the golden age of antiquity, "government" (zhi) and true "doctrine" (jiao) were again one.

This echo of Ouyang Xiu stirred the imagination of a genuinely independent thinker of the next century, Zhang Xuecheng (17381801), a local historian whose philosophy of history pictured antiquity as a concrete "unity of knowledge and practice" ("the Six Classics are all history") or of Dao and qi. Zhang much admired the experiments in Mencian ethics of his contemporary Dai Zhen (17241777), but he censured Dai for his impatience with Zhu Xi. Intellectualist and not at all self-cultivationist, the famous philological scholar Dai held that principles and human desires are not antithetical and that to become a sage one must feed the mind with knowledge, testing candidate principles by applying the Confucian golden rule (shu) until what is only "natural" (ziran) is seen to be "necessary" (biran). For Dai, the prime form of evil is to mistake one's own mere "opinions" (yijian) for true principles and to force them on others.

What had happened in the Qing dynasty turn in thought was both a reaction against the speculative and introspective temper of earlier Neo-Confucianism and, at the same time, a further development of its implications. Wang Yangming had insisted that principles cannot be grasped abstractly apart from concrete moral experience; the Qing intellectualist translation of this idea was that philosophical insight cannot be separated from historical and philological "solid learning."

Neither Zhang nor Dai received philosophical recognition until the twentieth century. Meanwhile, another intellectual movement was gathering force: Qing philology. Leading many to reject "Song studies" (Song xue) for "Han studies" (Han xue), Qing philology in time led to a reassessment of the Han era New Text philosophy of history of Dong Zhongshu and He Xiu. Their ideas were taken up by Kang Youwei (18581927) and others among the group of Confucian intellectuals pushing radical political reforms at the end of the nineteenth century. Kang urged a revisionist view of the classics (in which the Han court librarian Liu Xin figured as villain, forging half of them) that portrayed Confucius as a reformer, holding a historical, Western-style theory of progress. Confucianism was to be a religion, since the model of the West showed that a lively religious faith was necessary for progress and national strength. This idea lingered into the twentieth century, naturally enough among the Chinese, for whom the West for generations had been represented by missionaries, and who failed to see that the Western faith that sent the missionaries to China was already waning.

The Twentieth Century

The 1920s saw the first real impact of American and European contemporary academic philosophy, notably in the lively controversy on "science and philosophy of life" in 1923. A primary problem for twentieth-century thinkers was how to reconcile their commitments to historical Chinese values with Western intellectual temptations. Thus, Hu Shi (18911962), a student of John Dewey, hunted through Chinese philosophy for examples of pragmatism and logical method. Thus also, Marxists of the Liberation period (c. 1949) wrote one another little essays on "how to study" (xuexi), and on how to reform "individual nature" (ge xing) into "party nature" (dang xing), picking into ancient Confucian (and even Buddhist) self-cultivationist literature. Those who saw Communism as a new religion, and the hallmark of religion as the desire for self-change, should not have been surprised. Twentieth-century thought sometimes continued the past and sometimes merely used it, but it seldom ignored it. There have been the non-Marxists (Xiong Shili, Confucian-Buddhist; Feng Youlan and He Lin, Neo-Confucian; Hu Shi, pragmatist; Zhang Dongsun, Neo-Kantian), the Marxists (Li Dazhao, Chen Boda, Liu Shaoqi, Mao Zedong himself), both at once (perhaps, Liang Shuming), and both by turns (Feng again). Such deeply thoughtful men as Xu Fuguan and Mou Zongsan (students of Xiong) and the late Tang Junyi can genuinely be called contemporary religious philosophers within the Confucian mold.

See Also

Afterlife, article on Chinese Concepts; Alchemy, article on Chinese Alchemy; Buddhism, article on Buddhism in China; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Chinese Buddhism; Buddhist Books and Texts, article on Exegesis and Hermeneutics; Cheng Hao; Cheng Yi Chinese Religion, overview article; Confucianism, overview article; Confucius; Dai Zhen; Dao and De; Daoism; Dong Zhongshu; Ge Hong; Guo Xiang; Gu Yanwu; Han Fei Zi; Kang Youwei; Laozi; Legalism; Li; Liu An; Mappō; Mengzi; Mozi; Nāgārjuna; Qi; Shangdi; Taiji; Taiping; Tian; Wang Bi; Wang Chong; Wang Fuzhi; Wang Yangming; Xian; Xiao; Xunzi; Yao and Shun; Yinyang Wuxing; Yu; Zhang Xuecheng; Zhang Zai; Zhou Dunyi; Zhu Xi; Zhuangzi; Zhuhong.


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David S. Nivison (1987 and 2005)

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