DAI ZHEN (zi, Shenxiu; hao, Dongyuan; 1724–1777), the most illustrious representative of the kaozheng school of evidential research and one of the leading philosophers of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911).
Dai Zhen was born into a modest mercantile family of Xiuning, Anhwei Province. He pursued his earliest education by borrowing books from neighbors. He learned very quickly and astonished his teachers by questioning the authority of everything he read. For a brief period he was apprenticed to a cloth merchant, but in 1742 he was sent to the home of a wealthy scholar and there studied with Jiangyong (1681–1762).
The scholar Jiangyong provided the formative influence during the first period of Dai Zhen's adult life. He was a specialist in the Li ji (Record of Rites) and in mathematics and phonology; the training he gave Dai Zhen in these areas became the foundation for much of Dai Zhen's later scholarship in the kaozheng tradition. This side of his education fitted him for the mainstream of Qing intellectual life. Jiangyong, however, also steeped his pupil in the philosophical systems of Song neo-Confucianism, inculcating the notion that practical scholarship and moral philosophy were the two legs of Confucian learning.
In 1754, Dai Zhen moved to Beijing, where he mingled with representatives of the kaozheng school of evidential research, notably Huidong (1697–1758). Kaozheng scholars accused the Song neo-Confucians of pointless speculation influenced by the Buddhists; such learning, they claimed, was disdainful of the practical problems of the real world and neglected solid scholarship in favor of subjectivism. Although during his early years in Beijing Dai Zhen defended the need to ask larger questions about morality and meaning, his writings published between 1758 and 1766 show the influence of kaozheng on his thinking. Some scholars interpret this period as a repudiation of his past philosophical training. It is certain that Dai Zhen brought to Beijing ideas that ran counter to the consensus of his peers, but whether his colleagues in Beijing convinced him to change his orientation, or whether he simply emphasized the nonphilosophical side of his work to gain acceptance at the capital, is a question that remains unanswered.
However superficial or profound his conversion to evidential research, Dai Zhen succeeded in gaining entry to the most illustrious intellectual circles. His publications in mathematics and waterway engineering earned him high renown. In 1773 the emperor appointed him to the elite board of compilers of the Imperial Manuscript Library (Siku Quanshu). He had risen to the very pinnacle of scholarship, yet even during his tenure at the library he continued to write books on philosophy.
His colleagues and peers tended to view his philosophical writings as incidental digressions from his scholarly work. Although one or two of his closest disciples recognized the importance of philosophy to Dai Zhen's intellectual life, none of them was able to carry on his philosophical work. Hu Shi revived Dai Zhen's philosophy at a memorial conference in 1923–1924, claiming that Dai Zhen, fully steeped in the empirical scholarship of his day, had attacked and transcended the errors and excesses of Song neo-Confucianism, laying the groundwork of a new Confucian vision. Others, notably Yu Yingshi, have argued that Dai Zhen's thought is in fact profoundly indebted to neo-Confucianism and is a continuous development of that heritage. Yu maintains that Dai was never fully converted to the antiphilosophical prejudices of his peers. He saw scholarship as a handmaiden to the larger task of philosophy. Arguing from Dai Zhen's letters and conversations, Yu contends that the real target of his philosophy was not the Song school, but his narrow and pedantic contemporaries in evidential research.
Dai Zhen's philosophy was based on a monism of qi ("ether"). He argued against the Song neo-Confucian distinctions between metaphysical and physical, between heaven-endowed nature and material nature. Such dualism, he claimed, led Confucians to neglect the empirical world and to believe that there was in human beings a dichotomy between nature and feelings. On the grand scale, Dai argued that the Dao was nothing other than the orderly patterns of the movements of ether; it was not a metaphysical principle. Analogously, he held that the realization of human nature was nothing other than the orderly patterns of one's feelings. As the sages had channeled the floodwaters to restore the order of Dao in the world, so feelings, properly channeled, are the manifestations of human nature. Human life in the material world is made up of feelings or response. When feelings are healthfully expressed and fundamental needs satisfied, both the body and xin, or mind and heart, of the person can be healthy and whole. To channel feelings and understand the order and movements of ether, the mind must weigh (quan ) its perceptions and responses carefully. Weighing requires accurate and informed perceptions that take account of all the evidence and, carefully comparing the evidence, come to a balanced response.
An organic connection ran between Dai Zhen's scholarship and his philosophy. Only the former aspect of his work was appreciated during his lifetime, whereas the latter area is the subject of continued debate among Confucian scholars.
Although during his lifetime Dai Zhen was best known for his essays on mathematics, waterworks, and phonology (Liang, pp. 58–59), he is today highly regarded for his philosophical writings. His Yuan shan, composed in 1763 and revised in 1776, has been translated by Cheng Chung-ying as Dai Chên's Inquiry into Goodness (Honolulu, 1971). In it Dai developed his monism of ether and his views of human nature and feelings. Meng-zi zi i su cheng (Elucidation on the meaning of words in Mencius) in 3 chüan (Beijing, 1956) was composed in 1769, but revised during his final years at the Imperial Manuscript Library. The Elucidation is his most systematic philosophical work and grounds his monism and his view of human nature in the writings of Mencius.
Fang Chao-ying has written a very useful biography of Dai Zhen in Eminent Chinese of the Qing Period, 1644–1912, vol. 1, edited by Arthur W. Hummel (Washington, D.C., 1943), pp. 695–700. Regarding the thought of Dai Zhen, Hu Shi's Dai Dongyuan di zhexue (Shanghai, 1927) makes the case that the originality of Dai's philosophy lays the groundwork for a new Confucian school. Yu Yingshi's Lun Dai Zhen Yu Chang Xuecheng (On Dai Zhen and Chang Xuecheng; Hong Kong, 1976) argues that Dai's thought develops organically out of his deep knowledge of the neo-Confucian tradition and in dialogue with the concerns of the greatest minds of the kaozheng school. Hou Wai-lu, in volume 5 of his Zhongguo sixiang tongshi (Beijing, 1963), pp. 430–464, provides a lucid analysis of Dai Zhen's thought and a succinct account of the twentieth-century revival of his philosophy.
Three English-language works provide a brief introduction to Dai Zhen's philosophy. Cheng Chung-ying discusses the philosophical system in the introduction to his translation (above). Liang Qichao provides an appreciative introduction to Dai's thought and scholarship in Intellectual Trends of the Qing Period, translated by Immanuel C. Y. Xu (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), pp. 54–62. Fung Yulan provides a critique of his philosophical position in A History of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 2, 2d ed., translated by Derk Bodde (Princeton, 1953), pp. 651–672. Finally Yu Yingshi's article "Some Preliminary Observations on the Rise of Qing Confucian Intellectualism," Tsing-hua Journal of Chinese Studies, n.s. 11 (1975): 105–146, provides a larger picture of the rise of evidential research that shows that Dai Zhen's moral philosophy motivates his evidential research.
Judith A. Berling (1987)