Consciousness: Chinese Thought

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Consciousness: Chinese Thought

Human consciousness in Chinese thought may be seen in three layers, each of which requires the other two for both development and understanding. While these three layers of consciousness are constructed for analytical purposes, in reality they are interconnected. Psychologically, they represent different frames of reference, but they are also different dimensions of the same individual and/or collective human consciousness. The first layer, cosmological consciousness, defines the objective world of being and becoming for the human person. The second layer, consciousness of the human self, provides a world of human distinction based on the self-reflection of the human mind and heart in which a human self can be uniquely identified in the life-world of humanity. The third layer, political consciousness, is where the human self projects or reconstructs an ideal political and practical world of reality in which the human self could realize its desires for power, creativity, and freedom of action. Hence we may regard the three layers as forming an integral part of each other so that any human action and human language could impart and receive meaning relative to these three layers.

Cosmological Consciousness

Chinese cosmological consciousness was first described in the texts of Zhouyi (also called Yijing ). The symbolic realism of the Zhouyi presents a world of changes that are embodied in symbolic forms of what may be called an onto-cosmological consciousness. Later, in the sixth to fifth century b.c.e., the Daoist text Dao de jing presented the development of a cosmogony from the reality as void.

The Chinese metaphysical tradition is distinguished from the Western tradition by a dialectical understanding of reality as a dynamic presentation of events and things in a context of universal and profound interconnectedness. The central idea is creative change (yi, shengsheng ), which manifests itself in the generation of life, in the transformation of states of being, and in the two modes of becoming referred to as yin and yang, the invisible and the visible, the formless and the formed, the soft and the firm, the creative and the receptive. Transformation (hua ) of things in these two modes of becoming is the subtle creative movement of reality in growth and decline, in an interchange of vital forces (qi ), which also embodies relevant forms and principles (li ). Hence any event-thing in reality is both concrete and principled, both phenomenal and noumenal. The phenomenal and the noumenal cannot be separated and their unity is realized in a cosmological process that is also ontologically understood. There is no way to speak of the ontological except by referring to it as the ultimate creative source and origin of the cosmological, the taiji. Based on this understanding, we may observe several features of this onto-cosmological consciousness.

Onto-cosmological reality as a process.

Onto-cosmological reality is a process that has a primordial origin and source of abundant creativity because all the ten thousand things are generated from it by way of yin-yang interaction. This reality is exhibited in the phenomenon of heaven and earth and forms a space-time in which all things take place in the contexts or in the form of a situation: all situations are portents of future development and embody a history. The development of situations follows an implicit ordering of yin-yang interaction, difference, conflict, balance, and harmony.

In this process of onto-cosmology, the human person is conceived to be generated as arising from the best spirits of heaven and earth and thus embodies a nature of goodness of cosmic creativity, which matches heaven and earth by development of culture and morality. The thesis of unity of heaven and man (tianren heyi ) is given an actual meaning and an ideal meaning: a human being is endowed with a nature and a function from heaven and earth in his birth and thus is capable of producing and creating like heaven and earth on the higher level of mind and intelligence. The ultimate goal of human life is to strive for self-realization in moral cultural creativity derived from the onto-cosmological creativity of heaven and earth.

Indeterminate and boundless creativity.

It should be noted that the onto-cosmology of yi (change) is not theological. Unlike the Greeks, who sought a creative force and a motivating value ending in a transcendent deity or power, the Chinese view of reality is creation from an internal creative source called the taiji or the Dao, not an external God. It is also unlike the Hebrew religion, which conceived God as personal and spiritual and absolutely transcendent over and above the human person, in that the ultimate reality is conceived as a spontaneous process called the Dao, and its creative indeterminateness is not confined to any personal qualities.

Perhaps it is because of the early presence of this notion of the indeterminate and boundless creativity that no personalistic religion ever came to predominate. The Chinese believer may take any and all religions as compatible and contributing to a whole of human goodness. It is also due to the early presence of this onto-cosmology that there is a lack of mythology in the early history of Chinese consciousness. This is indeed noteworthy, because almost all main cultural traditions in the world have a rich repertoire of mythological figures.

Although the Chinese onto-cosmological consciousness is not about a god, it can be described as a divine consciousness in so far as the divine (shen ) suggests creativity from what is given to what is not given and from what is not to what is. It is in this sense that the Chinese notion of heaven and the taiji could also be said to be transcendent, either continuously or noncontinuously. Continuous transcendence is creativity based on what is given to produce what is not given, without excluding what is given in the new states of being. As it always links the created to the source of the creative, it is both internal and inclusive. Noncontinuous transcendence is external and exclusive in the sense that it creates things from a prior unrelated source and supervises what is created without being an integral part of it.

This may lead to the question of creation from the non-being and void, which is explicitly developed in the Daoist texts. It must be pointed out that the development of the Daoist cosmo-ontology in the Dao de jing is not separable from the Yijing onto-cosmology. In so far as the Yijing stresses the movement from the internal ontology of creativity to a dynamic and harmonious cosmology of universe, the Daoist sees the process of creative change as a comprehensive way of balancing all things and forces and as a process of return to the origin. This process and totality is called the Way (the Dao). The first Daoists were motivated by a desire to seek peace and tranquility of mind and spirit in the human person after witnessing the corruption of human cultures and morality and the destructiveness of wars. They wished to go back to a starting point where desires and greed in the human person had not yet been provoked and where people could appreciate the value in taking no action. For them, natural and spontaneous action embodied a morality, which is creative and harmonious for human life. It is in this light that they came to see the importance of understanding the void (wu ). The void is without determinateness of being and is yet full of creativity of being. It is also the formless source from which all things will return. With this notion of the void, we can see how the void gives rise to being by nonaction or spontaneous action (ziran ) in so far as being can be seen to arise out of spontaneity.

We must of course distinguish this view of nonbeing giving rise to being from the argument creatio ex nihilo in Christian theology on one hand and from the argument of dependent co-origination (yuanqi ) from emptiness (sunyata ) in Buddhist philosophy. The nihilo is absolute nothingness, and God simply creates everything from this absolute nothingness by his powerful act of creation. The sunyata is not absolute nothingness but a state of nonclinging and no-desires in the human mind. The formation of mind is from delusion of mind, so that all things we come to know come from a co-origination, which needs to be dissolved in sunyata.

Natural realism.

Compared with these two forms of creation, we must recognize in the Yijing and in Daoism a sense of natural realism that stresses different aspects of the creativity of a natural reality. The Chinese concept of consciousness is radically different from the Western scientific materialism, which reduces mind to matter, and from the Western transcendent dualism, which bifurcates the human from the divine and which separates the bodily from the spiritual. In the Chinese onto-cosmology there is no reduction but holistic correlation, no dualism but comprehensive organicism. The cosmic consciousness is not separable from the human consciousness but exists as a part of it. There is a sense of the origin and a sense of the way of development and return. There is also a sense of a potentiality for creative development from internal creativity that is both transcending and inclusive, both transforming and harmonizing. This natural realism is to be experienced as a result of comprehensive experience based on both observation and reflection. This experience is also practical and pragmatic, as what one has experienced could be applied for furthering one's life and enhancing one's pragmatic and moral actions.

Consciousness of Human Self

The development of morality in Confucianism and Mohism heightened the development of human consciousness of humanity as both individual and community. We can explain this first in terms of the formation of the li (ritual) as an institution that links the human individual development to the development of a society or community and to the state.

Li serves to maintain a social order founded on family relations. It is therefore a particularistic and concrete practice of relating people so that the society not only becomes ordered but also becomes affectively consolidated. In a deeper sense li is the sentiment showing practical care for concrete people in particular contexts and thus becomes a matter of ren (benevolence, humanity, human-heartedness, human goodness). But when li becomes merely a form without the concern or the feeling, it loses its meaning. This is the background against which the Confucian Analects and Records of Li (Liji ) called for the reform of li and an awakening to ren.

Ren is the deep feeling of a person beyond desires, a feeling of the unity of humanity, and a consciousness of an underlying bond among human persons that would lead to the love, care, and regard of one for the other. This deep feeling of unity is experienced as inherent in human existence. Confucius (551479 b.c.e.) believed that the practice of li based on the feeling of ren would render li a meaningful and living force that would both regulate oneself inside and harmonize human relationships outside. On this basis, the world would be ordered, and the well-being of people would be secured.

Confucius thus suggests that li can be restored and instituted as part of social and community life. With ren, old forms could be modified and new forms of conduct could be adjusted and made to fit particular relationships and situations. The individuating principle of yi (righteousness/rightness) enables us to see how differences in situations and relationships exhibit a need for relating, which is only fulfilled by the formation of the concrete rules of li.

Hence, Confucius proposed three sets of virtuous relationships: the relationship between ren and yi is one of generalization and particularization; the relationship between ren practice and li is one of a general content and general form; the relationship between li and yi is one of concrete form and particular content. These three relationships represent a challenge to the old order of morality that depended exclusively on the particular forms of li. The principles of these relationships also form an endowment for the human mind to define its own forms of understanding and conduct. The power of seeing right and acting right is wisdom (zhi ), which is native but which needs to be refined by practice and experience. Having attained zhi, a person will not be perplexed, just as having attained ren, a person will not have anxiety. Confucius also speaks of moral courage (yong ) as absence of fear. When one acts right with genuine heart for ren, there is natural absence of fear, and there is moral courage.

Ethics and morality.

Confucius takes ren as the basis of both ethics and morality. If ethics means norms governing human relationships, it is clearly founded on ren in consideration of human relationships. It is ren embodied in yi (righteousness) and li (propriety) as guided by zhi (wisdom). There is a dimension of ren that reveals the deep bond of universal humanity with heaven conceived as the ultimate metaphysical source of humanity. Confucius says the ultimate truth, or Dao, may be found in light of the experience of this ultimate source.

This deepened and heightened sense of ren as a vertical and uplifting force contrasts with the horizontal and expanding sense of ren, which includes a family, a clan, a community, and a whole world of people. We can see ren in either sense as a form of transcendence, a transcendence of inclusion and absorption as earlier described. In the ideal state the vertical uplifting sense of ren may even include the horizontal and expanding sense of ren (while the latter may not include the former). It is in this ideal state that we can see how the moral consciousness in Confucianism comes to a full realization of the humanity in a person.

Mencius and Zhongyong, Daxue and Xunxi.

Confucianism developed in two distinct ways: Mencius (Mengzi; c. 371c. 289 b.c.e.) and Zhongyong emphatically expounded the upward-transcending aspect of ren (or ren in a vertical uplifting sense), while Daxue and Xunxi (c. 298c. 230) expounded the across-transcending aspect of the Confucian ren (or ren in a horizontal expanding sense).

The uplifting sense of ren leads Mencius to explicitly define the essence of a human being as a moral being, with four root feelings of morality: sympathetic care, self-restraint, reverence, and distinction between the right and wrong. Zhongyong explicitly recognizes human nature as derived from heaven or from the mandate of heaven (tianming ) and hence capable of participating in the creative and ceaseless creation and preservation of being. Zhongyong further identifies the uplifting sense of ren as a sense of reality by holding that if one is sincere (in the sense of having full reflection of oneself without self-deception and without withholding oneself to the openness to reality) one's mind will become illuminated.

Unlike Zhongyong, who relates the self to ultimate reality, Daxue confronts the self with the extended world of things, so that the self has to have an experiential understanding of the real world before one can relate to things and then relate to other people. Whereas the bright virtue (mingde ) of Daxue focuses on one's ability to love and renovate people with one's self-cultivation and the cultivation of moral relations, the daqingming (great purity and clarity) of Xunzi focuses on renovating people with institutional design for education and governmental organization. In other words, Xunzi's approach to renovation of the people is political and economical rather than merely moral and moralistic.

It is obvious that classical Confucianism developed a system of morality that integrates humanities, education, and even religion. It is a unique system based not on a single idea of value, but on a unity of principles and ideas of ren and li. This system is truly both knowledge and value. It includes both the theoretical and the practical. As this system is continuous and coterminal with the onto-cosmology described in the first section, it can be regarded as a human development of the onto-cosmology, which leads to the unity of the heaven and the human (tianren heyi ) through a unified process of self-reflection, self-cultivation, and self-practice (zhixing heyi ).

Philosophical Daoism and Mohism.

Two alternative systems exhibit equivalent consciousness of totality and human action. Both are critical of the Confucian system: the Daoist system rejects the practice of li and together the invention and development of culture and knowledge. The Mohist philosophy sought to redefine yi in order to achieve a standard of social justice.

Two great classical Daoists who respectively represent the initiation and development of the school of philosophical Daoism were Laozi and Zhuangzi. Laozi presents the Dao as a source of being from which things rise and to which they would return. He urges a simple style of living that is consistent with the primordial dao. His vision of reality is in fact a partial adaptation from the Yijing 's onto-cosmology with an emphasis on the principle of receptivity and passivity as the ground and as reason for the natural creation of the world. Hence he sees human culture as a blocking of the Dao. But for Zhuangzi (c. 369c. 286 b.c.e.), the emphasis is not on a variant of onto-cosmology, but on how one may practice the nonseparation between oneself and the Dao where the Dao is to be embodied in all things in the world, large or small. The whole world of being is to be understood by an open and creative mind, which would link the out-world of nature to the inner world of human spirit.

The Mohist philosophy as represented by Mozi (468?376b.c.e.) criticizes Confucianism for its excessive engagement with li and thus for lacking a sense of universality and a sense of productivity. In the spirit of li, the Confucians practice ren as self-control and graded love, which Mozi sees as leading to a society of hierarchy of difference and circles of dissension. Further, Mozi sees Confucianism as dividing social classes into the ruled and the ruling, which lack a common base for solidarity. He sees the continuous wars of his time as an inevitable result of an inequitable society that lacks a sense of social justice. What then is social justice? According to Mozi, social justice must be founded on one identical standard. He uses the same word, yi, that Confucius used, but he intends a meaning that is objective. To establish this identity and objectivity of yi, Mozi appeals to the will of the heaven (tianzhi), with which everyone should comply. But his doctrine of identity compliance (shangtong) is also hierarchical, as he assumes a hierarchy of ranks that enforce the compliance. This would amount to enforcing the ideology of those upper-class leaders in the name of the tianzhi and this no doubt assumes or leads to a political dictatorship or totalitarianism that Mozi would build on the foundation of selection/election of the talented who are devoted to the government and consequent meritocracy.

Mozi diagnoses the cause of continuous wars as the lack of love among people. In order to reach peace among warring states, he advocates the doctrine of universal love (jian-ai ). Love is universal (jian ) if it can be shared on an equal basis. Thus one should love other people's family as one loves one's own family. The point is that we should not love our own family to the exclusion of other families in consideration of benefits to be shared. (But later Mencius misinterprets this as meaning treating another's father as one's own father and thus denies the unique status of one's own father). The doctrine of universal love if universally practiced would eliminate wars because it allows each group of people or state to care for its own land and property without trying to ravage lands of other states and other groups of people. There is also the more desirable consequence of this doctrine: namely the mutual benefit of states and peoples. This leads to the ultimate ideal of Mozi: every person, every people, and every state would live on an equitable basis, and a society of human life would flourish just as a society of natural life flourishes under the compassionate will of heaven.

This social idealism of Mozi is criticized for its unrealistic and utopian projections. But a more serious difficulty is the contradiction between his prescription for social justice on the basis of identity compliance and his argument for equitable love of mutual benefit. The problem results from his lack of consideration of the feelings and moral freedom of the individual, which the Confucians make great efforts to evince as the natural basis of society and government.

Political Consciousness

Since the Daoist and the Mohist philosophies did not become the guiding principles for the development of political governance in Chinese history after the Warring States period (475221 b.c.e.), one may ask why Confucianism became the dominating and received political ideology in the early Han period, and hence the mainstream moral and political axiology in post-Qin Chinese history. In order to answer this question, we have to understand how Legalism (fajia ) and legalist politics failed during the Qin period, which preceded the Han. Legalism refers to a trend of thought focused on administrative power and punitive laws and regulations that culminated in Han Fei Zi (c. 280233 b.c.e.). In this system the notion of law (fa ) as a tool of punishment is too narrow a representation of the actual use of law, which was generally to the exclusion and at the expense of social morality. Legalism was based on an understanding and manipulation of human desire for reward and fear of punishment, with total disregard for human needs for freedom and trust. Because of this narrow instrumentation of the law, Legalism is identified with strict authoritarianism, which is couched in laws and regulations set by the ruler's own desire for power and wealth. Its failure to address equally fundamental and important needs in human nature doomed the Qin power to a short span despite its great work in unifying China. It also laid the foundation for a need and desire to return to Confucianism as a tradition of human nature in the trust of moral virtues.

Return to Confucianism.

The return to Confucianism and especially to the political consciousness of Confucianism in the early Han period thus is not surprising, especially as there were no better alternatives as far as political governance is concerned. Confucianism more than any system presented an axiology of well-related and integrated values that were rooted in history and that could be defined or redefined as norms of a political ideology to be used to regulate the behavior of the people. Dong Zhongshu (179104 b.c.e.) developed the Confucian justification and promotion of political ideology for political rule. Dong speaks of the harmonization and preservation of humanity and community as the primary concern of a ruler, who should extend his ren from the moral to the political domain. Thus Dong transforms the values of five virtuous relationships into three basic norms of organization and leadership: the people obey the ruler, the son obeys the father, and the wife obeys the husband.

This set of norms, based on Confucian virtues and a vision of a grand unity and harmony among different groups of people, worked in Chinese society for the next 2,000 years but collapsed confronting the demands for openness, equality, and individual freedom in the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, the rejection of the three norms did not lead to the rejection of the five virtuous relationships among people. Instead there arose the opportunity to examine the political significance of the primordial Confucian proposition on the unity of inner sageliness (neisheng ) and outer kingliness (waiwang ) as a core of political consciousness in Confucianism and hence as the everlasting feature in Chinese philosophy.

Righteousness and the ability to rule.

To rule or to govern (zhi ) is to have power to cause others to follow or obey an order. To be aware of and practice ren is the first and foremost requirement for a self-cultivating person to be able to rule or to govern. A good ruler must know both what the people want and what is really good for them, and he must be worthy of their trust. The second requirement is that a ruler be led by zhi (wisdom) to make enlightened decisions and policies and avoid mistakes of ignorance and short-sightedness. A man of ren of course further requires ritual (li ) to make his action sustainable, but this must be made on the basis of the presence of ren. To have ren and to conduct oneself right in terms of wisdom and the moral form of appropriateness, one can be said to set a good example for people to follow and emulate so that people can be satisfied with their leaders.

Rectification of names.

Another essential requirement of successful governance is the Confucian doctrine of rectification of names. In the Zilu chapter of the Analects Confucius says:

If names are not rectified, then language will not be smooth, if language is not smooth, things will not be done. If things are not done, then rituals and music will not flourish. If rituals and music will not flourish, then punishments will not meet their target. If punishments will not meet their targets, then people do not know what to do.

Thus, names and language reflect reality but they also determine what reality is, particularly with regard to social and political matters. One may interpret this observation of Confucius as requiring a system of correct names and language that would order social and political relationships as the basis for political administration.

Once basic moral and social relationships among people are set in order, a political order should ensue. In order to reach such a state, the ruler has to set things right beginning with himself as a moral example. This does not preclude the institution of laws of punishment to ensure the moral order. However, the Confucian vision is that once basic order is established, then political order will be easily implemented without necessarily appealing to laws of punishment.

This point needs to be made clear: Confucius is not opposed to laws for any state. Rather, he holds that we should aim at going above the requirement of law and reach for the Dao. The political consciousness of a moral ruler is to hold oneself to the standard of the Dao so that one would not deviate from the Dao. Of course, one could still find that what one does with the intention to do good may still be wrong-doing. Rather than an intentional wrong, that would be a factual mistake, which one must conscientiously be willing to correct.

Compatibility with democracy.

It has often been asked whether Confucianism is compatible with the modern Western concept of democracy, or rule by the people. The answer can be ambiguous depending on what is perceived as the goal of political rule. If the goal is social and moral order, in so far as modern democracy will lead to such a desirable state of society, democracy is compatible with the Confucian moral patriarchy. On the other hand, if democracy is geared toward achievement of basic freedom of the people to decide how to rule themselves, then the moral patriarchy of Confucian political consciousness is indeed a problem. The basic assumption of Confucianism is often that people are incapable of making such decisions and therefore require a wise and benevolent leader to take care of them and to put their lives in order. Hence the ruler is given the whole and sole responsibility to take care of the people for the benefit of the people. On the other hand, it is believed that people can tell a good ruler from a bad ruler and that people could complain about their rule and even rise up to remove a ruler, as Mencius makes clear.

This implies that the people can also rise to choose a new ruler. The morally superior person (junzi ) can be said to be a potential candidate for becoming a ruler. It may be argued that if he continues to develop himself in moral superiority by acquiring all the moral powers of relating to all people, he could be elected to the position of ruler. Since Confucius urges and educates all people to be morally superior persons, it logically follows that everyone can become a candidate for political rulership and could be considered engaged in a competition for successful development of oneself as a moral person in order to be eventually selected or elected to be the ruler. We must note that for the implicit mandate of the people to develop into the democratic consciousness of a modern nation-state, the major step of entrusting people to make a popular election must be made.

We may also note that the Confucian idea of the moral cultivation of a junzi suggests the presence of a potential democracy, because the junzi must win the people's trust as a good ruler. The moral requirement for political rectitude suggests that a rational understanding is needed to transform the implicit moral democracy into an explicit political practice. This transformation would represent a new development of the moral-political philosophy of Confucianism. This would amount to a revolution in the Confucian political consciousness by way of a deep rational reflection.

Two further observations of the Confucian political consciousness can be made. First, in comparison with the Greek city-state, where people were more actively concerned with the political affairs of the community, the Chinese society was primarily based on agriculture, and the people, having little time for self-governance, relied on their leaders to impose order. Once China became industrialized and people became better educated, the demand for democratic government was greater, and democracy will eventually prevail. Historically, China as a political entity has been involved in a process of consolidation of political power and integration of large groups of people for purposes of defense, so that the demand for democracy did not even arise. There is also a lack of rational reflection and understanding on the process of succession of political power to the extent that the inevitability of dynastic cycling by way of intrigue or force has become a historically conditioned belief among the large mass of people.

Second, when Confucius wrote his historical Annals of Lu (Lu Chunjiu ) in which he praises moral and condemns immoral actions of dukes and ministers, he established a tradition of moral critique of political figures in light of their individual actions instead of their institutional practice. This suggests that the political consciousness of Confucianism subjected a rational consideration of institutions to a moral consideration of personal action. But we do, however, see in Confucius a critical awareness of a need for adaptiveness of a ritual system and hence a critical awareness of the question of appropriateness and timeliness of a given ritual system or institution in the governance and personal action of a ruler.


We have dealt with the mainstream schools of Chinese philosophy in the classical period and their contributions to human consciousness in a threefold structure. In the development of these schools a fundamental consciousness of reality emerges as the leading force of influence, namely the consciousness of the ultimate reality that is the incessant source and foundation for the building of a system of morality and a system of politics in later times. But this consciousness of the ultimate that is rooted in a human person can also be described as an original consciousness of reality as a body of truths or a system of truths (benti ) as experienced by self-conscious individuals. This idea of benti has its own inner logic of development as described on the three levels of human consciousness in Chinese philosophy. In later history we see projects of realizing emptiness and achieving enlightenment in Chinese Buddhism. We also witness efforts to incorporate Buddhist insight into a Confucian framework as well as efforts to integrate various strains of thought in new syntheses and formulations of the world and the self. These efforts have continued into the twenty-first century while facing a still larger challenge: the integration of the Chinese and the Western.

See also Chinese Thought ; Confucianism ; Cosmology: Asia ; Daoism ; Humanism: Chinese Conception of ; Humanity: Asian Thought ; Justice: Justice in East Asian Thought ; Legalism, Ancient China ; Mysticism: Chinese Mysticism ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia .


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Chung-ying Cheng

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