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Authors: Yu-lan Fung

Tags: #Philosophy, #General, #Eastern, #Religion, #History

A Short History of Chinese Philosophy

BOOK: A Short History of Chinese Philosophy
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A SHORT history of any subject should not simply be an abridgement of a larger one. It should be a picture complete in itself, rather than a mere inventory of names and "isms.' To achieve this, the author should, as a Chinese expression says, "have the whole history in his mind. Only then can he give the reader an adequate and well-rounded account within his chosen limited scope.

According to Chinese historiography, a good historian must have wide scholarship in order to master all his materials, sound judgment to make proper selection of them, and literary talent in order to tell his story in an interesting way. In writing a short history, intended for a general public, the author certainly has less chance to display his scholarship, but he needs more selective judgment and literary talent than he would for writing a longer and strictly scholarly work.

In preparing this work, I have tried to use my best judgment in selecting what I consider important and relevant from materials which I have mastered. I was very fortunate, however, to have as editor Dr. Derk Bodde, who has used his literary talent to make the style of the book interesting, readable, and comprehensible to the Western reader. He has also made suggestions regarding the selection and arrangement of the material.

Being a short history, this book serves as no more than an introduction to the study of Chinese philosophy. If the reader wishes to know more about the subject, I would refer him to my larger work,
A History of Chinese Philosophy.
The first volume of this has been translated by Dr.

Bodde, and he is now translating the second one; also to my more recent work,
The Spirit of
Chinese Philosophy,
translated by Mr. E. R. Hughes of Oxford University. Both works are mentioned in the bibliography compiled by Dr. Bodde at the end of the present book.

Acknowledgements are due to both Dr. Bodde and Mr.Hughes, from whose books I have borrowed some translations of the Chinese texts appearing herein.


In publishing this book, I welcome the opportunity of expressing my thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation for the grant which made it possible for me to come from China to the University of Pennsylvania as Visiting Professor during the year 1946-47, and which resulted in the writing of this book. Also, I wish to thank my colleagues and students in the Department of Oriental Studies for their cooperation and encouragement, and especially Dr. Bodde, Associate Professor of Chinese. I am likewise grateful to Dr. A. W. Hummel,Chief of the Asiatic Division, Library of Congress, for his encouragement and help in making arrangements for the publication of the book.




June, 1947

University of Pennsylvania





1 HE place which philosophy has occupied in Chinese civilization has been comparable to that of religion in other civilizations. In China, philosophy has been every educated person s concern. In the old days, if a man were educated at all, the first education he received was in philosophy. When children went to school, the
Four Books,
which consist of the
Confucian Analects,
Book of Mencius,
Great Learning,
and the
Doctrine of the Mean,
were the first ones they were taught to read. The
were the most important texts of Neo -Confucianist philosophy. Sometimes when the children were just begining to learn the characters, they were given a sort of textbook to read. This was known as the
Three Characters Classic,
and was so called because each sentence in the book consisted of three characters arranged so that when recited they produced a rhythmic effect, and thus helped the children to memorize them more easily. This book was in reality a primer, and the very first statement in it is that "the nature of man is originally good." This is one of the fundamental ideas of Mencius'


Place of Philosophy in Chinese Civilization

To the Westerner, who sees that the life of the Chinese people is permeated with Confucianism, it appears that Confucianism is a religion. As a matter of fact, however, Confucianism is no more a religion than, say, Platonism or Aristotelianism. It is true that the
Four Books
have been the Bible of the Chinese people, but in the
Four Books
there is no story of creation, and no mention of a heaven or hell.

Of course, the terms philosophy and religion are both ambiguous, Philosophy and religion may have entirely different meanings for different people. When men talk about philosophy or religion, they may have quite different ideas in their minds concerning them. For my part, what I call philosophy is systematic, reflective thinking on life. Every man, who has not yet died, is in life. But there are not many who think reflectively on life, and still fewer



whose reflective thinking is systematic. A philosopher must philosophize; that is to say, he must think reflectively on life, and then express his thoughts systematically.

This kind of thinking is called reflective because it takes life as its object. The theory of life, the theory of the universe, and the theory of knowledge all emerge from this type of thinking. The theory of the universe arises because the universe is the background of life—the stage on which the drama of life takes place. The theory of knowledge emerges because thinking is itself knowledge. According to some philosophers of the West, in order to think, we must first find out what we can think; that is to say, before we start to think about life, we must first think our thinking.

Such theories are all the products of reflective thinking. The very concept of life, the very concept of the universe, and the very concept of knowledge are also the products of reflective thinking. No matter whether we think about life or whether we talk about it, we are all in the midst of it. And no matter whether we think or speak about the universe, we are all a part of it. Now, what the philosophers call the universe is not the same as what the physicists have in mind when they refer to it. What the philosophers call the universe is
the totality of all that is.
It is equivalent to what the ancient Chinese philosopher, Hui Shih, called "The Great One," which is defined as that which has nothing beyond. So everyone and everything must be considered part of the universe. When one thinks about the universe, one is thinking reflectively.

When we think about knowledge or speak about knowledge, this thinking and speaking are themselves knowledge. To use an expression of Aristotle, it is "thinking on thinking"; and this is reflective thinking. Here is the vicious circle which those philosophers follow who insist that before we think we must first think about our thinking; just as if we had another faculty with which we could think about thinking! As a matter of fact, the faculty with which we think about thinking is the very same faculty with which we think. If we are skeptical about the capacity of our thinking in regard to life and the universe, we have the same reason to be skeptical about the capacity of our thinking in regard to thinking.

Religion also has something to do with life. In the heart of every great religion there is a philosophy.

In fact, every great religion is a philosophy with a certain amount of superstructure, which consists of superstitions, dogmas, rituals, and institutions. This is what 1 call religion.

If one understands the term religion in this sense, which does not really differ very much from common usage, one sees that Confucianism cannot be considered a religion. People have been accustomed to say that there were three religions in China: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. But Confucianism, as we have seen, is not a religion. As to Taoism, there is a distinction between Taoism as a philosophy, which is called
Too chia
(the Taoist school), and the Taoist religion
{Too chiao).
Their teachings are not only dif—



God is really the universe. Strictly speaking, the love of God in Christianity is not really super-moral.

This is because God, in Christianity, is a personality, and consequently the love of God by man is comparable to the love of a father by his son, which is a moral value. Therefore, the love of God in Christianity is open to question as a super-moral value. It is a quasi super-moral value, while the love of God in the philosophy of Spinoza is a real super-moral value.

To answer the above queslions, I would say that the craving for something beyond the present actual world is one of the innate desires of mankind, and the Chinese people are no exception to this rule. They have not had much concern with religion because they have had so much concern with philosophy. They are not religious because they are philosophical. In philosophy they satisfy their craving for what is beyond the present actual world. In philosophy also they have the super-moral values expressed and appreciated, and in living according to philosophy these super-moral values are experienced.

According to the tradition of Chinese philosophy, its function is not the increase of positive knowledge (by positive knowledge I mean information regarding matters of fact), but the elevation of the mind—a reaching out for what is beyond the present actual world, and for the values that are higher than the moral ones. It was said by the
To work on learning is to increase day by day; to work on
(the Way, the Truth) is to decrease day by day." (See ch. 48.) I am not concerned with the difference between increasing and decreasing, nor do I quite agree with this saying of
I quote it only to show that in the tradition of Chinese philosophy there is a distinction between working on learning and working on
(the Way). The purpose of the former is what I call the increase of positive knowledge, that of the latter is the elevation of the mind. Philosophy belongs to the latter category.

The view that the function of philosophy, especially metaphysics, is not the increase of positive knowledge, is expounded by the Viennese school in contemporary Western philosophy, though from a different angle and for a different purpose. I do not agree with this school that the function of philosophy is only the clarification of ideas, and that the nature of metaphysics is only a lyric of concepts.

Nevertheless, in their arguments one can see quite clearly that philosophy, especially metaphysics, would become nonsense if it did attempt to give information regarding matters of fact.

Religion does give information in regard to matters of fact. But the information given by religion is not in harmony with that given by science. So in the West there has been the conflict between religion and science. Where science advances, religion retreats; and the authority of religion recedes before the advancement of science. The traditionalists regretted this fact and pitied the people who had become irreligious, considering them as having degenerated. They ought indeed to be pitied, if, besides religion, they had no



other access to the higher values. When people get rid of religion and have no substitute, they also lose the higher values. They have to confine themselves to mundane affairs and have nothing to do with the spiritual ones. Fortunately, however, besides religion there is philosophy,which provides man with an access to the higher values—an access which is more direct than that provided by religion, because in philosophy, in order to be acquainted with the higher values, man need not take the roundabout way provided by prayers and rituals. The higher values with which man has become acquainted through philosophy are even purer than those acquired through religion, because they are not mixed with imagination and superstition. In the world of the future, man will have philosophy in the place of religion. This is consistent with Chinese tradition. It is not necessary that man should be religious, but it is necessary that he should be philosophical. When he is philosophical, he has the very best of the blessings of religion.

Problem and Spirit of Chinese Philosophy

The above is a general discussion of the nature and function of philosophy. In the following remarks I shall speak more specifically about Chinese philosophy. There is a main current in the history of Chinese philosophy, which may be called the spirit of Chinese philosophy. In order to understand this spirit, we must first make clear the problem that most Chinese philosophers have tried to solve.

There are all kinds and conditions of men. With regard to any one of these kinds, there is the highest form of achievement of which any one kind of man is capable. For instance, there are the men engaged in practical politics. The highest form of achievement in that class of men is that of the great statesman.

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