Zhang Zai (1020–1077)

views updated


Born into a family from Kaifeng in Henan Province, Zhang Zai, styled Zihou, lived in a small town called Hengqu of Mei County in modern Shaanxi Province for the major part of his life and hence was known as Hengqu. After a few years of strenuous study of Daoism and Buddhism, he was encouraged by Fan Zhongyan to study Zhongyong (The doctrine of the mean) when he was only 21. He thus left Daoism and Buddhism behind and returned to the Confucian classics in a quest for a philosophy of the Confucian Way (dao ). Like Zhou Dunyi, Zhang Zai finally set his mind on the Yijing (Book of changes) and change (yi ) as the very essence of the Way. Zhang Zai's main work was Zheng meng (Rectifying the obscure), in which he developed his metaphysics of vital energy (qi ). In this treatise he became the first philosopher to expound on vital energy as the essence of the Way and thus provide a systematic foundation for understanding and developing the cosmology and ontology of change in the Confucian tradition. Included in Zheng meng is the noteworthy essay "Ximing" (Western inscription), which gives a deeply felt statement of his view on the cosmos, human life, and ideal Confucian practice.

In comparison with Zhou Dunyi, who developed a cosmology of change in terms of the abstract notions of the great ultimate (taiji ) and rationality (li ), Zhang Zai sought a more unified and yet more detailed description of the formation and transformation of all things in the world in terms of vital energy. Zhang Zai's metaphysics of the ubiquitous vital energy both inspires and justifies his theory of the human mind as endowed with both cognitive and ethical capacity. Like Zhou, Zhang Zai applied his cosmology to his life and strove to be a Confucian sage. In his mind, the ideal of a Confucian sage was to let morality guide one's heart and mind on earth (and to prepare for heaven) while following the teachings of past sages, all in hopes of improving the destiny of the living and establishing a peace that would last for generations.

In his metaphysics of vital energy and dialectics of the transformation of vital energy, Zhang Zai conceives of vital energy as primarily subsisting in the great void (taixu ) and as the primordial source of the generation of things in the world. The great void gives rise to vital energy, which differentiates yin and yang and the five powers (wuxing ), which then gives rise to all the things in the world. In this process of generation, rationality (li ), as the order and form of things, arises naturally from the vital energy. Unlike Zhu Xi (11301200) after him, Zhang Zai never views rationality as an autonomous or independent category of reality. Instead, he regards rationality as always inherent in the vital energy, and he regards all things as transformations of the vital energy, which alone determines the formation and destruction of things.

In his reflections on human nature, Zhang Zai distinguishes between the nature of heaven and earth (tiandi zhi xing ) and the nature of temperament and desires (qizhi zhi xing ) of a person. The former is rooted in the primary unformed vital energy, and the latter arises from the formed body of a person. The moral virtue in a person consists in grasping one's primary nature and controlling one's secondary nature.

In connection with this distinction of two natures, Zhang Zai also makes a distinction between knowledge of virtues (dexing zhi zhi ) and knowledge of seeing and hearing (jianwen zhi zhi ). The first sort of knowledge comes not from seeing and hearing but from reflection on the nature of heaven and earth until one sees the functions and powers of the Way and understands how one embodies these functions and powers and can channel them to transform oneself into a virtuous sage. For Zhang Zai, cultivating one's nature not only opens one's mind to understanding and knowledge of the ultimate reality but also leads to human goodness (ren ). When the mind understands ultimate reality, it can unify and command one's nature and emotions, because it can relate to and embody ultimate reality as the ultimate ground of unity and integration.

In conclusion, Zhang Zai's philosophy, as presented in his essay "Ximing," embodies a deep cosmic piety of the Confucian tradition that is both ethical and religious in spirit. In lieu of an explicit organized religion, Confucianism reaches for a cosmic sentiment of piety rooted in self-cultivation of a human-cosmic bond that would transcend and dissolve the problems of life and death. Hence Zhang Zai's final statement in "Ximing": "In life I feel at ease; in death I will be at peace"

See also Cheng Hao; Cheng Yi; Chinese Philosophy: Confucius; Shao Yong; Zhou Dunyi.


Zhang Zai. Zhang Zai ji. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1978. Contains Zheng meng (Rectifying the obscure), Jingxue li ku (Treasury of li in the Confucian classics), Hengqu "Yi" shuo (Zhang Zai's discourse on the Yijing ). This is best edition of Zhang Zai's work.

Chung-ying Cheng (2005)