Soul: Chinese Concepts

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An early reference to the Chinese theory of the "soul" records an explanation on human life offered by a learned statesman in 535 bce: the earthly aspect of the soul (po ) first comes into existence as the human life begins; after po has been produced, the heavenly aspect of the soul (hun ) emerges. As generally understood, hun is the spirit of a person's vital force that is expressed in consciousness and intelligence, and po is the spirit of a person's physical nature that is expressed in bodily strength and movements. Both hun and po require the nourishment of the essences of the vital forces of the cosmos to stay healthy. When a person dies a natural death, his or her hun gradually disperses in heaven, and the po, perhaps in a similar manner, returns to earth. A violent death may cause the hun and po to linger in the human world and perform evil and malicious acts.

Underlying this theory of the two souls is the yinyang dichotomy, which is often associated with the Book of Changes, one of the most ancient and philosophically sophisticated wisdom books in human civilization. Yin and yang symbolize the two primordial forces of the cosmos. Yin, the receptive, consolidating, and conserving female element, and yang, the active, creative, and expanding male element, give rise to the multiplicity of things through their continuous and dynamic interactions. The relationship between yin and yang is competitive, complementary, and dialectic. Furthermore, there is always a yang element in the yin and a yin element in the yang; the yang element in the yin also contains yin and the yin element in the yang also contains yang. This infinite process of mutual penetration makes an exclusivistic dichotomy (such as a dichotomy between creator and creature, spirit and matter, mind and body, secular and sacred, consciousness and existence, or soul and flesh) inoperative as a conceptual apparatus in Chinese cosmological thinking.

A natural consequence of the nonexclusivistic yinyang dichotomy is what may be referred to as the thesis of the "continuity of being." F. W. Mote (1971) has characterized the uniqueness of the indigenous Chinese cosmological thinking as the lack of a creation myth. As Mote points out, the idea of a god who creates the cosmos ex nihilo is alien to the ancient Chinese mode of thought about the universe. Since there is no notion of God as a creator, let alone a notion of the "wholly other" that can never be comprehended by human rationality even though it is the ultimate reason of human existence, the Chinese take the world as given, as always in the process of becoming. This becoming process, known as the "great transformation" (dahua ), makes every modality of being in the universe a dynamic change rather than a static structure. A piece of stone, a blade of grass, a horse, a human being, a spirit, and Heaven all form a continuum. They are all interconnected by the pervasive qi (vital force, material force) that penetrates every dimension of existence and functions as the constitutive element for each modality of being.

Qi, which means both energy and matter, denotes, in classical Chinese medicine, the psychophysiological strength and power associated with blood and breath. Like the Greek idea of pneuma, or its more intriguing Platonic formulation of psuchē, qi is the air-breath that binds the world together. Indeed, its expansion (yang ) and contraction (yin ), two simple movements each containing infinite varieties of complexity, generate the multiplicity of the universe. This distinctively biological and specifically sexual interpretation makes the Chinese explanatory model significantly different from any cosmology based on physics or mechanics. To the Chinese, the cosmos came into being not because of the willful act of an external creator or the initial push of a prime mover. Rather, it is through the continuous interaction of Heaven and Earth, or the mutual penetration of yin and yang, that the cosmos (youzhou ), an integration of time and space, emerged out of chaos, an undifferentiated wholeness. Implicit in the differentiating act of chaos itself are the two primary movements of qiyin and yang. Since the cosmos is not fixed, there has been continuous creativity. Thus change and transformation are the defining characteristics of the cosmos, which is not a static structure but a dynamic process.

The "continuity of being" that exists because of the nature of qi, the cosmic energy that animates the whole universe from stone to Heaven, makes it impossible to imagine a clear separation between spirit and matter and, by implication, flesh and soul. Understandably, a form of animism and its corollary, panpsychism, are taken for granted by the Chinese. To the Chinese, there is anima, mana, pneuma, or psuchē in stones, trees, animals, human beings, spiritual beings, and Heaven. Precious stones, such as jade; rare trees, such as pines more than a thousand years old; unusual animals, such as the phoenix, the unicorn, and the dragon, are all, in a sense, spiritual beings. There is no matter devoid of spirituality. Human beings, spiritual beings, and Heaven are, in a sense, material. Totally disembodied spirit is also difficult to envision.

The Problematik of soul, in the Chinese context, must be approached by a cluster of key concepts centered around the idea of qi mentioned above. If we try to find the closest approximation of a functional equivalent of the notion of soul in Chinese, the word ling seems to work in some cases. After all, the modern Chinese translation of the English word soul is ling-hun, a compound made of ling and hun, earlier referred to as "the heavenly aspect of the soul." Ling is a spiritual force; the term especially refers to the inspirational content of a spiritual force. Ling is often joined with the word shen, which is commonly rendered as "spirit." In both classical and modern Chinese, the two words are, in most cases, interchangeable. Strictly speaking, however, ling is more localized and suggests a more specific content. Shen can be mysterious to the extent that its functioning in the world is totally beyond human comprehension, but the presence of ling is likely to be sensed and felt by those around. Soul, in the Chinese sense, can perhaps be understood as a refined vital force that mediates between the human world and the spiritual realm.

From the perspective of qi, the uniqueness of being human lies in the fact that we are endowed with the finest of the vital forces in the cosmos. Human beings are therefore the embodiments of soul. One manifestation of the human soul is human sensitivity. Even though the idea that man is made in the image of God is not applicable to the Chinese perception of humanity, the Christian notion that humanity is a form of circumscribed divinity may find a sympathetic echo in the Chinese concept that human beings mediate and harmonize the myriad things between Heaven and Earth. In an anthropocosmic sense, human beings are guardians, indeed co-creators, of the universe. The reason why man forms a trinity with Heaven and Earth is that his soul enables him to bring himself into a spiritual accord with the creative transformation of the cosmos. Strictly speaking, man is not the measure of all things; if he should become so, it is because he has earned the right to speak and judge on behalf of Heaven and Earth. Man's ultimate concern, then, is to harmonize with nature and enter into a spiritual communion with the cosmos.

In the spiritual realm, the idea of soul is closely associated with two related concepts, gui and shen (rendered by Wing-tsit Chan as positive and negative spiritual forces). Shen, commonly translated as "spirit" in modern Chinese, etymologically conveys the sense of expansion; gui, on the other hand, means contraction. The soul that expands belongs to the yang force and is associated with heaven; the soul that contracts belongs to the yin force and is associated with earth. In popular religion, shen refers to gods that are good and gui refers to demons (or ghosts) that are harmful. When the two words are joined together, they may simply refer to spiritual beings in general. In sacrifices, guishen may refer to ancestors. The flexible use of these concepts suggests the complexity of the spiritual realm in Chinese religiosity. It should not prevent us from noticing an underlying pattern that is applicable to virtually all situations.

Obviously, the negative spirit (gui) and positive spirit (shen ) are manifestations of the two vital forces, yin and yang. It may not be farfetched to suggest that the negative spirit is the bodily soul (po ) and the positive spirit is the heavenly aspect of the soul (hun ) in us. We as human beings, according to the thesis of the continuity of being, are integral parts of Heaven and Earth and the myriad things. The two souls that are in us are microcosms of the cosmic forces. We are thus intimately connected with nature on the one hand and heaven on the other. In actuality, a person is not an isolated individuality, but a center of relationships. It is not our own souls that constitute what we are. There are numerous souls, individual and communal, that make humans active participants of the cosmic process. We, the living, are not separated (or indeed separable) from the dead, especially from our ancestors, those to whom we owe our lives. The biological nature of our existence is such that we do not exist as discrete temporal and spatial entities. Rather, we are part of the cosmic flow that makes us inevitably and fruitfully linked to an ever-expanding network of relationships. Human selfhood is not an isolated system; on the contrary, it is always open to the world beyond. The more we are capable of establishing a spiritual communion with other modalities of being, the more we are enriched as human beings.

Nevertheless, the power and potency of the human soul is determined by a variety of factors, especially political factors. For example, the soul of the emperor is the most exalted among the human souls; because of his high status he alone may offer sacrifices to Heaven and to the most sacred mountains and rivers. The soul of an ordinary person is such that he can only establish an intimate spiritual communion with his deceased parents and grandparents. However, this bureaucratic differentiation of the social functions of souls is not rigidly fixed. It is possible for people from the lowest echelons of society to cultivate themselves so that the quality of their souls can match the genuineness of Heaven, an accomplishment no worldly power, wealth, or reputation can approximate.

Before the introduction of Buddhism to China, both the Confucians and the Daoists had already developed indigenous traditions of immortality. For the Confucian, one achieves immortality by establishing one's moral excellence, by performing unusual meritorious political deeds or by writing books of enduring value. These three forms of immortality are deeply rooted in the historical consciousness of the Chinese, but they also point to a transcending dimension that makes morality, politics, and literature spiritual (or soulful) in the Confucian tradition. The individual soul achieves immortality through active participation in the collective communal soul of the moral, political, and literary heritage. Soul is not only inherent in natural objects; it is also present in cultural accomplishments.

In the Daoist tradition, immortality is attained through inner spiritual transformation. In a strict sense, what the Daoist advocates is not the immortality of the soul but longevity of the body. Yet the reason why the body can age gracefully (or elevate itself to a state of agelessness) is that it has become translucent like the soul without desires or thoughts.

The Indian notion of the transmigration of the soul that entered East Asia with the introduction of Buddhism has provoked heated debates in China since the fourth century. Partly because of the Buddhist influence, the notions of karman, previous lives, hells, and journeys of souls are pervasive in Chinese folk religions. Fan Chen's essay "On the Mortality of the Soul," viewed in this perspective, may have been a successful Confucian refutation of the Buddhist belief in the separation of body and soul; but as a rationalist-utilitarian interpretation of the soul, its persuasive power was greatly undermined both by sophisticated Buddhists who denied the permanence of the phenomenal self and by lay people who were under the influence of Buddhist devotional schools.

Since there has been continuous interaction between the great traditions and folk traditions in China, the folk belief that souls are spiritual beings that float around the human world, on the one hand, and the naturalistic, organicist interpretation of souls as expressions of the vital force, on the other, are not conflicting perceptions of the same reality. In fact, there are enough points of convergence between them that they can well be understood as belonging to the same religious discourse. To the Chinese, souls are neither figments of the mind nor wishful thoughts of the heart. They have a right to exist, like stones, plants, and animals, in the creative transformation of the cosmos. The malevolent, negative souls can harm people, haunting the weak and upsetting the harmonious state of the human community. However, by and large, human beings benefit from the positive aspects of the soul, for through the "soul force" they are in touch with the dead and with the highest spiritual realm, Heaven.

See Also



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