Dong Zhongshu (c. 179–c. 104 BCE)

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(c. 179c. 104 BCE)

Dong Zhongshu, probably the most influential Confucian scholar of the Han dynasty (206 BCE220 CE), laid an institutional basis for the Confucian orthodoxy and for the recruitment of able scholars as government officials through the examination system. He was an expert in the Gongyang commentary of the Confucian classic Spring and Autumn, and he gave the classic a new interpretation that combines the ethical and political teachings of Confucius with the supernatural view of the metaphysicians.

After having received the degree of eruditus (boshi ) in the Confucian classics, Dong Zhongshu became a public instructor during the reign (156140 BCE) of Emperor Jing. It has been recorded that he lectured from behind a curtain, and although he had many students, few were admitted to his presence. He was also said to have been so engrossed in his scholarly pursuits that for three years he did not even once visit his garden. As a result of his responses to the written inquiries addressed to the scholars of the realm by Emperor Wu (reigned 14087 BCE), Dong Zhongshu attracted imperial notice and was appointed minister successively to two royal princes. However, he was not successful in his political career and spent the remaining years of his life in teaching and writing. In addition to his several memorials to the throne, he is known for his work on the Spring and Autumn, titled Chunqiu Fanlu (Copious Dew in Spring and Autumn), a curious admixture of moral and metaphysical essays in seventeen chapters. He had numerous followers and his influence lasted well beyond his lifetime.

Dong Zhongshu's main contribution as a Confucian philosopher lies in his study of the Spring and Autumn, which, according to him, teaches "compliance with Heaven's will and imitation of the ancients." To do so is "for the people to follow the sovereign, and for the sovereign to follow Heaven." Thus, the basic principle in government is to subject the people to the sovereign's domination, and the sovereign to Heaven's will. In Dong's concept, Heaven (Tian ) is not the all-mighty anthropomorphic god of the ancient Chinese but the physical universe itself. Somewhat akin to the Western concept of nature, it is nevertheless endowed with intellect and purpose. The ruler, as Heaven's representative on earth, should administer his kingdom in accordance with Heaven's will. As Heaven is inherently good and benevolent, so should the sovereign be. His virtuous rule will be marked by order and harmony in the universe. On the other hand, any evil act of his will cause catastrophes (such as floods and fires, earthquakes and mountain slides) and anomalies (such as comets, eclipses, and the growing of beards on women) sent by Heaven as a warning to men. "The origin of catastrophes and anomalies," he wrote in "Copious Dew," "is traceable to misrule in the state. First, Heaven sends catastrophes to admonish the people. When this goes unheeded and no changes are made, Heaven would then frighten the people with prodigies. If men are still unawed, ruin and destruction will finally befall the empire."

Although he was an avowed monarchist, Dong Zhongshu's strange science of the catastrophes and anomalies had the effect of curbing misgovernment on the part of the ruler. The idea has so embedded itself in the minds of the Chinese people that even in more enlightened and rational times, Confucian scholar-officials found Dong's concept useful as a means of remonstrance against the ruler's misuse of despotic power. But Dong Zhongshu is remembered today chiefly for his historical role in exalting Confucianism as China's official state doctrine, which was to mold the nation for more than two thousand years from the Han dynasty to the present age.

See also Chinese Philosophy; Confucius; Ethics and Morality.


Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Fung Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Translated by Derk Bodde, Vol. 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Gassmann, Robert H. Tung Chung-shu Ch'un-Ch'iu Fan Lu: Üppiger Tau des Frühling-und-Herbst-Klassikers. Frankfurt: Verlag Peter Lang, 1988.

Tain, Tzey-yueh. "Tung Chung-shu's System of Thought: Its Sources and Its Influence on Han Scholars." Ph.D. diss., University of California, 1974.

Liu Wu-chi (1967)

Bibliography updated by Loy Huichieh (2005)