Materialism in Chinese Religious Thought


Chinese painting[This is taken from Herbert A. Giles’ The Religions of Ancient China, first published in 1920.]


Yang Hsiung.—Yang Hsiung was a philosopher who flourished B.C. 53 – A.D. 18. He taught that the nature of man at birth is neither good nor evil, but a mixture of both, and that development in either direction depends wholly upon environment. To one who asked about God, he replied, “What have I to do with God? Watch how without doing anything He does all things.” To another who said, “Surely it is God who fashions and adorns all earthly forms,” he replied, “Not so; if God in an earthly sense were to fashion and adorn all things, His strength would not be adequate to the task.”

Wang Ch’ung.—Wang Ch’ung, A.D. 27-97, denies that men after death live again as spiritual beings on earth. “Animals,” he argues, “do not become spirits after death; why should man alone undergo this change? . . . That which informs man at birth is vitality, and at death this vitality is extinguished. Vitality is produced by the pulsations of the blood; when these cease, vitality is extinguished, the body decays, and becomes dust. How can it become a spirit? . . . When a man dies, his soul ascends to heaven, and his bones return (kuei) to earth; therefore he is spoken of as a disembodied spirit (kuei), the latter word really meaning that which has returned. . . . Vitality becomes humanity, just as water becomes ice. The ice melts and is water again; man dies and reverts to spirituality. . . . The spirits which people see are invariably in the form of human beings, and that very fact is enough of itself to prove that these apparitions cannot be the souls of dead men. If a sack is filled with grain, it will stand up, and is obviously a sack of grain; but if the sack is burst and the grain falls out, then it collapses and disappears from view. Now, man’s soul is enfolded in his body as grain in a sack. When he dies his body decays and his vitality is dissipated; and if when the grain is taken away the sack loses its form, why, when the vitality is gone, should the body obtain a new shape in which to appear again in the world? . . . The number of persons who have died since the world began, old, middle-aged, and young, must run into thousands of millions, far exceeding the number of persons alive at the present day. If every one of these has become a disembodied spirit, there must be at least one to every yard as we walk along the road; and those who die must now suddenly find themselves face to face with vast crowds of spirits, filling every house and street. . . . People say that spirits are the souls of dead men. That being the case, spirits should always appear naked, for surely it is not contended that clothes have souls as well as men. . . . It can further be shown not only that dead men never become spirits, but also that they are without consciousness, by the fact that before birth they are without consciousness. Before birth man rests in the First Cause; when he dies he goes back to the First Cause. The First Cause is vague and without form, and man’s soul is there in a state of unconsciousness. At death the soul reverts to its original state: how then can it possess consciousness? . . . As a matter of fact, the universe is full of disembodied spirits, but these are not the souls of dead men. They are beings only of the mind, conjured up for the most part in sickness, when the patient is especially subject to fear. For sickness induces fear of spirits; fear of spirits causes the mind to dwell upon them; and thus apparitions are produced.”

Another writer enlarges on the view that kuei “disembodied spirit” is the same as kuei “to return.” “At death, man’s soul returns to heaven, his flesh to earth, his blood to water, his blood-vessels to marshes, his voice to thunder, his motion to the wind, his sleep to the sun and moon, his bones to trees, his muscles to hills, his teeth to stones, his fat to dew, his hair to grass, while his breath returns to man.”

Attributes of God.—There was a certain philosopher, named Ch’in Mi (died A.D. 226), whose services were much required by the King of Wu, who sent an envoy to fetch him. The envoy took upon himself to catechise the philosopher, with the following result:—

“You are engaged in study, are you not?” asked the envoy.

“Any slip of a boy may be that,” replied Ch’in; “why not I?”

“Has God a head?” said the envoy.

“He has,” was the reply.

“Where is He?” was the next question.

“In the West. The Odes say,

He gazed fondly on the West,

From which it may be inferred that his head was in the West.”

“Has God got ears?”

“God sits on high,” replied Ch’in, “but hears the lowly. The Odes say,

The crane cries in the marsh,
And its cry is heard by God.

If He had not ears, how could He hear it?”

“Has God feet?” asked the envoy.

“He has,” replied Ch’in. “The Odes say,

The steps of God are difficult; This man does not follow them.

If He had no feet, how could He step?”

“Has God a surname?” enquired the envoy. “And if so, what is it?”

“He has a surname,” said Ch’in, “and it is Liu.”

“How do you know that?” rejoined the other.

“The surname of the Emperor, who is the Son of Heaven, is Liu,” replied Ch’in; “and that is how I know it.”

These answers, we are told, came as quickly as echo after sound. A writer of the ninth century A.D., when reverence for the one God of ancient China had been to a great extent weakened by the multiplication of inferior deities, tells a story how this God, whose name was Liu, had been displaced by another God whose name was Chang.

The Hsing ying tsa lu has the following story. There was once a very poor scholar, who made it his nightly practice to burn incense and pray to God. One evening he heard a voice from above, saying, “God has been touched by your earnestness, and has sent me to ask what you require.” “I wish,” replied the scholar, “for clothes and food, coarse if you will, sufficient for my necessities in this life, and to be able to roam, free from care, among the mountains and streams, until I complete my allotted span; that is all.” “All!” cried the voice, amid peals of laughter from the clouds. “Why, that is the happiness enjoyed by the spirits in heaven; you can’t have that. Ask rather for wealth and rank.”

Good and Evil.—It has already been stated that the Chinese imagination has never conceived of an Evil One, deliverance from whom might be secured by prayer. The existence of evil in the abstract has however received some attention.

Wei Tao Tzu asked Yu Li Tzu, saying, “Is it true that God loves good and hates evil?”

“It is,” replied Yu.

“In that case,” rejoined Wei, “goodness should abound in the Empire and evil should be scarce. Yet among birds, kites and falcons outnumber phoenixes; among beasts, wolves are many and unicorns are few; among growing plants, thorns are many and cereals are few; among those who eat cooked food and stand erect, the wicked are many and the virtuous are few; and in none of these cases can you say that the latter are evil and the former good. Can it be possible that what man regards as evil, God regards as good, and vice versa? Is it that God is unable to determine the characteristics of each, and lets each follow its own bent and develop good or evil accordingly? If He allows good men to be put upon, and evil men to be a source of fear, is not this to admit that God has His likes and dislikes? From of old until now, times of misgovernment have always exceeded times of right government; and when men of principle have contended with the ignoble, the latter have usually won. Where then is God’s love of good and hatred of evil?”

Yu Li Tzu had no answer to make.

The Tan yen tsa lu says, “If the people are contented and happy, God is at peace in His mind. When God is at peace in His mind, the two great motive Powers act in harmony.”

Where is God?—The Pi ch’ou says, “The empyrean above you is not God; it is but His outward manifestation. That which remains ever fixed in man’s heart and which rules over all things without cease, that is God. Alas, you earnestly seek God in the blue sky, while forgetting Him altogether in your hearts. Can you expect your prayers to be answered?”

This view—”For behold, the kingdom of God is within you,” St. Luke xvii. 21,—has been brought out by the philosopher Shao Yung, A.D. 1011-1077, in the following lines:—

The heavens are still: no sound.
Where then shall God be found? . . .
Search not in distant skies;
In man’s own heart He lies.

Conflict of Faiths.—Han Wen-kung, A.D. 768-824, the eminent philosopher, poet, and statesman, who suffered banishment for his opposition to the Buddhist religion, complains that, “of old there was but one faith; now there are three,”—meaning Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. He thus pictures the simplicity of China’s ancient kings:—

“Their clothes were of cloth or of silk. They dwelt in palaces or in ordinary houses. They ate grain and vegetables and fruit and fish and flesh. Their method was easy of comprehension: their doctrines were easily carried into practice. Hence their lives passed pleasantly away, a source of satisfaction to themselves, a source of benefit to mankind. At peace within their own hearts, they readily adapted themselves to the necessities of the family and of the State. Happy in life, they were remembered after death. Their sacrifices were grateful to the God of Heaven, and the spirits of the departed rejoiced in the honours of ancestral worship.”

His mind seems to have been open on the subject of a future state. In a lamentation on the death of a favourite nephew, he writes,

“If there is knowledge after death, this separation will be but for a little while. If there is no knowledge after death, so will this sorrow be but for a little while, and then no more sorrow for ever.”

His views as to the existence of spirits on this earth are not very logical:—

“If there is whistling among the rafters, and I take a light but fail to see anything,—is that a spirit? It is not; for spirits are soundless. If there is something in the room, and I look for it but cannot see it,—is that a spirit? It is not; spirits are formless. If something brushes against me, and I grab at, but do not seize it,—is that a spirit? It is not; for if spirits are soundless and formless, how can they have substance?

“If then spirits have neither sound nor form nor substance, are they consequently non-existent? Things which have form without sound exist in nature; for instance, earth, and stones. Things which have sound without form exist in nature; for instance, wind, and thunder. Things which have both sound and form exist in nature; for instance, men, and animals. And things which have neither sound nor form also exist in nature; for instance, disembodied spirits and angels.”

For his own poetical spirit, according to the funeral elegy written some two hundred and fifty years after his death, a great honour was reserved:—

Above in heaven there was no music, and God was sad,
And summoned him to his place beside the Throne.

His friend and contemporary, Liu Tsung-yuan, a poet and philosopher like himself, was tempted into the following reflections by the contemplation of a beautiful landscape which he discovered far from the beaten track:—

“Now, I have always had my doubts about the existence of a God; but this scene made me think He really must exist. At the same time, however, I began to wonder why He did not place it in some worthy centre of civilisation, rather than in this out-of-the-way barbarous region, where for centuries there has been no one to enjoy its beauty. And so, on the other hand, such waste of labour and incongruity of position disposed me to think that there could not be a God after all.”

Letter from God.—In A.D. 1008 there was a pretended revelation from God in the form of a letter, recalling the letter from Christ on the neglect of the Sabbath mentioned by Roger of Wendover and Hoveden, contemporary chroniclers. The Emperor and his Court regarded this communication with profound awe; but a high official of the day said, “I have learnt (from the Confucian Discourses) that God does not even speak; how then should He write a letter?”

Modern Materialism.—The philosopher and commentator, Chu Hsi, A.D. 1130-1200, whose interpretations of the Confucian Canon are the only ones now officially recognised, has done more than any one since Confucius himself to disseminate a rigid materialism among his fellow-countrymen. The “God” of the Canon is explained away as an “Eternal Principle;” the phenomena of the universe are attributed to Nature, with its absurd personification so commonly met with in Western writers; and spirits generally are associated with the perfervid imaginations of sick persons and enthusiasts.

“Is consciousness dispersed after death, or does it still exist?” said an enquirer.

“It is not dispersed,” replied Chu Hsi; “it is at an end. When vitality comes to an end, consciousness comes to an end with it.”

He got into more trouble over the verse quoted earlier,

King Wen is on high,
In glory in heaven.
His comings and his goings
Are to and from the presence of God.

“If it is asserted,” he argued, “that King Wen was really in the presence of God, and that there really is such a Being as God, He certainly cannot have the form in which He is represented by the clay or wooden images in vogue. Still, as these statements were made by the Prophets of old, there must have been some foundation for them.”

There is, however, a certain amount of inconsistency in his writings on the supernatural, for in another passage he says,

“When God is about to send down calamities upon us, He first raises up the hero whose genius shall finally prevail against those calamities.”

Sometimes he seems to be addressing the educated Confucianist; at other times, the common herd whose weaknesses have to be taken into account.