Dong Zhongshu

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DONG ZHONGSHU (also Tung Chung-shu, c. 195c. 115 bce) is one of the most important thinkers of Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce) Confucianism. His concept of the relationship between Heaven and humans has been influential for the development of Confucianism. Yet Dong's contribution to the history of religion is a matter of dispute due to diverging evaluations of the sources connected to him. Today, four sorts of sources with possible information about Dong Zhongshu exist.


The Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) written by Sima Qian around 100 bce contains a biography of Dong Zhongshu, the earliest and most reliable source about his life and thought. According to Shiji, Dong in his early years was interested in the principles operating within the forces of yin and yang. On the basis of these principles he created a ritual that should seek and stop the rain, and he attempted to interpret historical and contemporary anomalies and catastrophes as omens.

In the biography of Dong Zhongshu in the Dynastic History of the Han (Hanshu ) written by Ban Gu at the end of the first century ce, Dong is depicted rather as patriarch of Han Confucianism and as a political teacher. Appended to the biography are three memorials, which contain a question-and-answer exchange between Dong and Emperor Wu. In these memorials Dong refers to two ultimate authorities that should serve as guidelines for the Han government: Heaven and antiquity. Dong claims that Heaven responds to human action according to the same principles that Confucius's judgments of praise and blame respond to the action of the historical actors in the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu ). According to Dong, Confucius inserted his judgments in the Chunqiu in correspondence with the laws and the will of Heaven, and has thus proven how Heaven responds to human action. Heaven's response is not a conscious choiceit is mechanical and automatic, but it does not always respond in a one-to-one analogy to the actions. Instead, Heaven appears as a rather lenient and gracious force that starts signaling with small tokens of anomalies as warnings before sending harsh punishments in the form of catastrophes.

The Chunqiu fanlu (CQFL ) is a post-Han collection that was probably edited six centuries after Dong's death. It is a compilation of extremely heterogeneous and contradictory materials, including chapters on Chunqiu exegesis, Huang-Lao philosophy (the philosophy of the Yellow Emperor Huangdi and Laozi which focuses on questions of inner spiritual self cultivation, the void, the dao, the emptying of the mind, non-action and non-being), Confucian virtues, state institutions, cosmological speculations on yin-yang, wuxing, Heaven and Earth, and sacrificial and rain rituals. Which of these materials was written by Dong Zhongshu is highly controversial.

Other Han sources contain many quotations from Dong Zhongshu, but larger fragments of his writing are also transmitted. The "Wuxing zhi" chapter in Hanshu includes Dong's commentaries and explanations to historical and contemporary anomalies and catastrophes. Furthermore, the fragments of the Chunqiu jueyu, a handbook on law cases ascribed to Dong, give an impression of the pragmatic and formal usage of the Chunqiu as a book of legal precedents.

Critical Interpretation of the Sources

The evaluation and interpretation of these sources determines the different reconstructions of Dong Zhongshu's life, religion, and philosophy.

In the sources that most probably stem from Dong's handin Shiji and Hanshu, in the first 17 Chunqiu exegetical chapters and the ritual chapters of the CQFL, as well as any of the above mentioned fragmentsDong Zhongshu is never connected to wuxing or to Huang-Lao thought. He appears as a specialist on prognostication and religious rites employing the theory of yin and yang. Moreover, he is depicted as an important political thinker and instructor who professes Heaven and antiquity as the most important models upon which a state should be molded. In the Chunqiu jueyu he is quoted as an important exegetical voice in legal court cases. These sources present him as a serious traditional scholar whose thought was rooted in the classical Confucian writings and in his belief in a Heavenly way and its signs.

There is little theoretical innovation in his work. It is rather mainly important in the history of thought because of decisive selections and new evaluations of traditional concepts like the will of Heaven, the law of stimulus and response, correspondence between human action and Heaven, love for the people, cyclical change of institutions, and human nature. Dong is not developing these concepts further but rather applies and combines old traditions in new contexts like text exegesis, modification of cosmological cycles, devaluation of yin (punishment) against yang (education), or the introduction of a lenient aspect in Heaven's clockwork of mechanical resonance. Innovative is Dong's connective approach through which he interrelates different areas such as prognostication, human nature, politics, cosmology, and text exegesis on the basis of a singular Heavenly scheme that reaches into all of these realms. However, he therewith does not intertwine these realms into one unified system that could function as a universal organism, but rather establishes structural parallels and analogies in order to defend his moral, political, and philosophical position against Legalists, Mohists, and Huang-Laoists.

Critique on Traditional Interpretations of the Sources

Dong Zhongshu appears rather differently under the premise that he is the author of the whole CQFL, a premise which has been upheld by the mainstream of traditional scholarship. As the material of the CQFL is so abundant, complex, and comprehensive, Dong, as the assumed author, has subsequently been depicted as the architect of Han Confucianism, the founder and theorist of Han cosmology and Han political philosophy who ingeniously created the great synthesis of yin-yang, wuxing, and exegetical scholarship on the Confucian classics in a great unified theological and teleological system.

Further research shows that this picture can not be upheld. Han Confucianism is a collective term covering highly complex and contradictory philosophies of very different synthetic teachings, which vary strongly from thinker to thinker. Dong's philosophy is neither theological nor teleological, but rather a traditional philosophy of a balance of extremes. Heaven as a willful institution plays a crucial role in Dong's philosophy; however, this institution is strictly subdued to the working rules of yin and yang and should not be compared to a deity. Dong's Chunqiu scholarship is nowhere connected to or mixed with cosmological theories. It rather develops from concrete text exegesis to a theory of abstract political and moral principles. Although historical Chunqiu precedent cases are sometimes taken to illustrate cosmological principles, theories of cosmology and of Chunqiu scholarship remain strictly disconnected.

The central position of Heaven as a model and argumentative foundation of the design of the imperial position within the political philosophy of the CQFL, and, moreover, the interpretation of the CQFL material as a systematic whole, has led Chinese reformers at the end of the nineteenth century to declare Dong Zhongshu's Confucianism to be the correct and pure form of Chinese Confucianism. Accordingly, this ostensible systematic and religious Confucianism, constructed as an indigenous form of unified Chinese national state religion, was used to oppose Western religion and culture. In a counterreaction, Chinese Marxist histories of Chinese thought evaluate Dong's philosophy as feudal idealist theology because of this alleged fixation on Heaven as the systematic center of his thought. It is correct that Heaven in Dong's writings is revived as a central philosophical authority. However, the way in which Heaven is brought into the argumentation is far from "theology" in the sense of a unified religious system founded in something like theos. Dong's theories, and even the theories concerning Heaven in the later chapters of the CQFL, merely reflect a cosmo-political discourse and nowhere show an attempt to unify or systematize different models of Heaven's operations. Therefore, they should not be regarded as an innovative outline of a Chinese theology, but rather be read in the context of other cosmo-political writings of Dong's time contained in the Lüshi Chunqiu, the Huainanzi, and the Xinyu. Religious theory in Han times developed rather in the realm of the search for immortality in the fangshi, Huang-Lao, and Mohist spheres. Dong Zhongshu used the concepts of Heaven and yin and yang for political, prognostication, and ritual purposes. He did not formulate a religious theory of his own.


Arbuckle, Gary. "Restoring Dong Zhongshu (bce 195115): An Experiment in Historical and Philosophical Reconstruction." Ph.D. diss., University of British Columbia, Dept. of Asian Studies, Vancouver, 1991.

Bujard, Marianne. "La vie de Dong Zhongshu: enigmes et hypothèses." Journal Asiatique 280 (1992): 145217.

Queen, Sarah A. From Chronicle to Canon: The Hermeneutics of the Spring and Autumn, according to Tung Chung-shu. New York, 1996.

Joachim Gentz (2005)

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Dong Zhongshu

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