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2. The Works of Wang Ch`ung.
Wang Ch`ung's last work, the Yang-hsing-shu or Macrobiotics in 16 chapters, which he wrote some years before his death, has been mentioned. His first productions were the Chi-su-chieh-yi "Censures on. Common Morals" in 12 chapters and the Chêng-wu, a book on Government, both preceding his principal work, the Lun-hêng, in which they are several times referred to in the two biographical chapters.
Wang Ch`ung wrote his "Censures" as a protest against the manners of his time with a view to rouse the public conscience. He was prompted to write this work by the heartlessness of his former friends, who abandoned him, when he was poor, and of the world in general. To be read and understood by the people, not the literati only, he adopted an easy and popular style. This appears to have been contrary to custom, for he thought it necessary to justify himself (p. 71).
The work on government owes its origin to the vain efforts of the Imperial Government of his time to administer the Empire. They did not see their way, being ignorant of the fundamental principles (p. 70). From the Chêng-wu the territorial officials were to learn what they needed most in their administration, and the people should be induced "to reform and gratefully acknowledge the kindness of the government" (p. 90).
These three works: the Macrobiotics, the Censures on Morals, and the work on Government have all been lost, and solely the Lun-hêng has come down to us. Whereas the Chi-su-chieh-yi censures the common morals, the Lun-hêng = Disquisitions tests and criticises the common errors and superstitions, the former being more ethical, the latter speculative. Many of these errors are derived from the current literature, classical as well as popular. Wang Ch`ung takes up these books and points out where they are wrong. He avoids all wild speculations, which he condemns in others, so he says (p. 91). The Lun-hêng is not professedly a philosophical work, intended to set forth a philosophical system, but in confuting and contesting the views of others, Wang Ch`ung incidentally develops his own philosophy. In this respect there is a certain resemblance with the Theodicee of Leibniz, which, strictly speaking, is a polemic against Bayle. Wang Ch`ung's aim in writing the Lun-hêng was purely practical, as becomes plain from some of his utterances. "The nine chapters of the Lun-hêng on Inventions, and the three chapters of the Lun-hêng on Exaggerations, says he, are intended to impress people, that they must strive for truthfulness." Even such high metaphysical problems as that of immortality he regards from a practical point of view. Otherwise he would not write, as he does:---"I have written the essays on Death and on the False Reports about Death to show that the deceased have no consciousness, and cannot become ghosts, hoping that, as soon as my readers have grasped this, they will restrain the extravagance of the burials and become economical" (p. 90).
From a passage (Chap. XXXVIII) to the effect that the reigning sovereign was contiuuing the prosperity of Kuang Wu Ti (25-57 a.d.) and Ming Ti (58-75) it appears that the Lun-hêng was written under the reign of the Emperor Chang Ti viz. between 76 and 89 a.d. From another remark that in the Chiang-jui chapter (XXX) the auspicious portents, of the Yuan-ho and Chang-ho epochs (84-86 and 87-88) could not be mentioned, because of its being already completed, we may infer that the whole work was finished before 84. Thus it must date from the years 76-84 a.d.
The Lun-hêng in its present form consists of 30 books comprising 85 chapters or separate essays. Ch`ien Lung's Catalogue (Sse-k`u-chüan-shu-tsung-mu chap. 120 p. 1) shows that we do not possess the Lun-hêng in its entirety. In his autobiography Wang Ch`ung states that his work contains more than a hundred chapters (p. 78), consequently a number of chapters must have been lost. The 85 chapters mentioned above are enumerated in the index preceding the text, but of the 44th chapter "Chao-chih" we have merely the title, but not the text so, that the number of chapters really existing is reduced to 84. The chapters exceeding 85 must have already been lost in the first centuries, for we read in the Hou Han-shu of the 5th cent. a.d. that Wang Ch`ung wrote the Lun-hêng in 85 chapters.
Some interesting data about the history of the text are furnished in another History of the Later Han Dynasty, the Hou Han-shu of Yuan Shan Sung of the Chin epoch (265-419 a.d.), who lived anterior to Fan Yeh, the author of the officially recognised History of the Later Han. Yuan Shan Sung's History was in 100 books (cf. Li tai ming hsien lieh nü shih hsing p`u chap. 44, p. 35 v.), but it has not been incorporated into the Twenty-four dynastic Histories. Yuan Shan Sung, whose work is quoted by several critics, informs us that at first the Lun-hêng was only current in the southern provinces of China where Wang Ch`ung had lived. There it was discovered by T`sai Yung (133-192 a.d.) a scholar of note from the north, but instead of communicating it to others, he kept it for himself, reading it secretly "as a help to conversation" i.e. he plundered the Lun-hêng to be able to shine in conversation. Another scholar, Wang Lang of the 2nd and 3d cent. a.d. is reported to have behaved in a similar way, when he became prefect of K`uei-chi, where he found the Lun-hêng. His friends suspected him of having come into possession of an extraordinary book, whence he took his wisdom. They searched for it and found the Lun-hêng, which subsequently became universally known. The Taoist writer Ko Hung of the 4th cent. a.d., known as Pao P`u Tse, recounts that the Lun-hêng concealed by T`sai Yung was discovered in the same way. At all events T`sai Yung and Wang Lang seem to have been instru mental in preserving and transmitting the Lun-hêng.
In the History of the Sui dynasty (580-618 a.d.), Sui-shu chap. 34 p. 7 v., an edition of the Lun-hêng in 29 books is mentioned, whereas we have 30 books now. The commentary to this passage observes that under the Liang dynasty (502-556 a.d.) there was the Tung-hsü in 9 books and 1 book of Remarks written by Ying Fêng, but that both works are lost. They seem to have been treatises on the Lun-hêng, of which there are none now left. The Catalogue of the Books in the History of the T`ang dynasty (Ch`ien T`ang-shu chap. 47 p. 8) has the entry:--- "Lun-hêng 30 books."
At present the Lun-hêng forms part of the well known collection of works of the Han and Wei times, the Han Wei tsung-shu dating from the Ming dynasty. The text of the Lun-hêng contained in the large collection of philosophical works, the Tse shu po chia, is only a reprint from the Han Wei tsung-shu. In his useful little biographical index, Shu-mu-tang wên, Chang Chih Tung records a separate edition of the Lun-hêng printed under the Ming dynasty. I have not seen it and do not know, whether it is still to be found in the book-shops, and whether it differs from the current text. In the many quotations from the Lun-hêng of the T`ai-p`ing Yü lan (9th cent. a.d.) there is hardly any divergence from the reading of our text. A commentary to the Lun-hêng has not been written.
In the appreciation of his countrymen Wang Ch`ung does not rank very high. Chao Kung Wu (12th cent. a.d.) opines that the Lun-hêng falls short of the elegant productions of the Former Han epoch. Another critic of the 12th cent., Kao Sse Sun is still more severe in his judgment. He declares the Lun-hêng to be a medley of heterogeneous masses, written in a bad style, in which morality does not take the place it ought. After his view the Lun-hêng would have no intrinsic value, being nothing more than a "help to conversation." Wang Po Hou and others condemn the Lun-hêng on account of the author's impious utterances regarding his ancestors and his attacks upon the Sage Confucius. That he criticised Mencius might be excused, but to dare to find fault with Confucius is an unpardonable crime. That mars the whole work.
In modern times a change of opinion in favour of Wang Ch`ung seems to have taken place. In his Prefatory Notice to the Lun-hêng, Yu Chun Hsi pours down unrestricted praise upon him. "People of the Han period, he remarks, were fond of fictions and fallacies. Wang Ch`ung pointed out whatever was wrong; in all his arguments he used a strict and thorough method, and paid special attention to meanings. Rejecting erroneous notions he came near the truth. Nor was he afraid of disagreeing with the worthies of old. Thus he furthered the laws of the State, and opened the eyes and ears of the scholars. People reading his books felt a chill at first, but then they repudiated all falsehood, and became just and good. They were set right, and discarded all crooked doctrines. It is as if somebody amidst a clamouring crowd in the market-place lifts the scale: then the weights and prices of wares are equitably determined, and every strife ceases."
To a certain extent at least the Ch`ien Lung Catalogue does him justice, while characterising his strictures on Confucius and Mencius and his disrespect towards his forefathers as wicked and perverse, its critics still admit that in exposing falsehoods and denouncing what is base and low he generally hits the truth, and that by his investigations he has done much for the furtherance of culture and civilization. They conclude by saying that, although Wang Ch`ung be impugned by many, he will always have admirers.
I presume that most Europeans, untramelled by Chinese moral prejudices, will rather be among his admirers, and fall in with Mayers speaking of Wang Ch`ung as "a philosopher, perhaps the most original and judicious among all the metaphysicians China has produced, ... who in the writings derived from his pen, forming a work in thirty books, entitled Critical Disquisitions `Lun-hêng,' handles mental and physical problems in a style and with a boldness unparallelled in Chinese literature" (Reader's Manual N. 795).
The first translator of the two chapters on Confucius and Mencius and of the autobiography, Hutchinson, says of the Lun-hêng:---"The whole book will repay perusal, treating as it does of a wide range of subjects, enabling us to form some idea of the state of the Chinese mind at the commencement of the Christian era.
The subjects (treated) are well calculated to enlist the interest of the student and would most probably shed much light upon the history of Chinese Metaphysics" (China Review vol. VII, p. 40).
In my opinion Wang Ch`ung is one of the greatest Chinese thinkers. As a speculative philosopher he leaves Confucius and Mencius, who are only moralists, far behind. He is much more judicious than Lao Tse, Chuang Tse, or Mê Ti. We might perhaps place him on a level with Chu Hsi, the great philosopher of the Sung time, in point of abilities at least, for their philosophies differ very much.
In most Chinese works Wang Ch`ung is placed among the Miscellaneous Writers or the Eclectics "Tsa Chia," who do not belong to one single school, Confucianism, Mêhism, or Taoism, but combine the doctrines of various schools. Wang Ch`ung is treated as an Eclectic in the histories of the Sui dynasty and the T`ang dynasty, in Ch`ien Lung's Catalogue, and in the Tse-shu-po-chia. Chang Chih Tung, however, enumerates him among the Confucianists, and so does Faber (Doctrines of Confucius p. 31). Although he has not been the founder of a school, I would rather assign to him a place apart, to which his importance as a philosopher entitles him. It matters not that his influence has been very slight, and that the Chinese know so little of him. His work is hardly read, but is extensively quoted in dictionaries and cyclopedias. At any rate Wang Ch`ung is more of an Eclectic than a Confucianist. The Chinese qualify as "Tsa Chia" all those original writers whom they cannot place under any other head. Wang Ch`ung seems to regard himself as a Confucianist. No other philosopher is more frequently mentioned by him than Confucius, who, though he finds fault with him here and there, is still, in his eyes, the Sage. Wang Ch`ung is most happy, when he can prove an assertion by quoting the authority of Confucius. This explains how he came to be classed by others with the Confucianists.
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|Published by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia|