Wang Chong

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WANG CHONG (27100? ce), critic and skeptic who proposed naturalist explanations for the relation between Heaven and man. Born into a poor family in Guiji (in modern Zhejiang), Wang studied in the Imperial Academy but then held office for a brief period only. Most of his life he lived in seclusion, devoting himself to writing. He wrote three works, Zhengwu (The conduct of government), Lunheng (Critical Essays), and Yangsheng (On the cultivation of life). Of these only Lunheng has been preserved.

According to Wang himself, the spirit of his Lunheng may be summed up in one sentence: he detests what is fictitious and false. The fiction that Wang detested most was the theory of "mutual response between Heaven and man," which had dominated the mind of Han China since Dong Zhongshu had first propounded it 150 years earlier. According to this theory, aberrant natural phenomena (such as floods or the appearance of strange creatures) were omens, Heaven's comments on man's behavior. Wang wholly rejected this teleological cosmology, arguing instead that the Way of Heaven is one of spontaneity (ziran ) and nonactivity (wuwei ). "Heaven," he wrote, "does not desire to produce things, but things are produced of their own accord; Heaven does not desire to create things, but things are created of themselves." Because he defines Heaven in terms of spontaneity and nonactivity, Wang's philosophy usually has been characterized in modern times as naturalistic, even though he was traditionally classified as an eclectic (zajia ).

Wang's definition of Heaven led him to a thorough denunciation of all theories that claimed conscious interactions between Heaven and man. He compared man's place in the universe to a louse in the folds of a garment: if a louse cannot, by its actions, affect the movements of the man who wears the garment, then how can a man who lives on the earth's surface affect, much less cause, by his actions, the movements and changes of Heaven? For this reason, it is simply false to suppose that a causal relationship exists between auspicious or calamitous natural events on the one hand and good or bad government on the other. All the seeming coincidences between natural phenomena and human actions must be understood as pure chance.

Another area of Wang's philosophy that has been influential is his conception of life and death. Several of his essays are devoted to a vigorous refutation of the popular belief of his time that the soul can survive the body. He maintained that a man's soul exists within his body and that at death, when the body decomposes into dust and earth, his soul also disintegrates. He used a famous metaphor to illustrate this body-soul relationship: human death is like the extinction of a fire; when a fire is extinguished, its light ceases to shine, and when a man dies, his consciousness also ceases to exist. To assert that the soul survives the body is like saying that the light survives the fire. Wang also argues against the existence of ghosts, another form in which the human spirit was believed to survive the body. According to Wang, since all accounts of ghosts report that like living persons they wear clothes, and since clothes certainly have no souls that can survive decomposition, how then can ghosts be seen with clothes on? In taking this atheistic position, however, Wang follows the Confucian rather than the Daoist tradition. In the Daoist thought of Han times, the soul leaves the body at death and returns to its "true home," where it continues a mystical existence.

Writing against the predominant beliefs of the day, Wang was indeed a bold thinker in his attempts to demolish a great variety of unfounded superstitious beliefs. But in other respects he was very much a product of his time. He accepted without question some of the fundamental assumptions of the yin-yang dualism and the theory of the Five Elements. He shared the contemporary view that life, whether cosmic or individual, arises out of the interaction and combination of the basic vital forces (qi) of yang and yin, and all things are made up of the five elements of wood, fire, soil, metal, and water. What essentially distinguishes Wang's cosmology is the absence of a cosmic purpose.

In Wang's naturalism is also grounded his theory of predetermined fate. Success or failure in the life of an individual or even of the whole state is, according to Wang, determined by what he called "fate" (ming). Fate, to Wang, controlled even precise areas of life. He held, for example, that a man's longevity, intelligence, social position, and wealth is fixed at birth by the kind of qi with which he is endowed. Order or disorder in the state is also predetermined. Thus Wang did assume a connection between celestial phenomena and human fate. However, he interpreted auspicious or calamitous natural events merely as signs of a predetermined fate, not purposive expressions of Heaven's pleasure or displeasure.

Wang was relatively obscure during his life, but his Lunheng was rediscovered in the early third century and paved the way for the growth of neo-Daoist naturalism during the Wei-Jin period (220420).

See Also

Afterlife, article on Chinese Concepts; Soul, article on Chinese Concepts; Yinyang Wuxing.


Fung Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 2. 2d ed. Translated by Derk Bodde. Princeton, 1953. See pages 150167 for a concise treatment of Wang's thought and its historical context.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2, History of Scientific Thought. Cambridge, 1956. See pages 368386.

Wang Ch'ung. Lun-heng. 2 vols. 2d ed. Translated by Alfred Forke. New York, 1962. A complete English translation with a useful introduction.

YÜ Ying-shih (1987)