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Persons in Chinese History - Fan Zhen 范縝

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Fan Zhen 范縝 (ca. 450-510), courtesy name Fan Zizhen 范子真, was a Confucian scholar and philosopher during the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420~589) . He came from Wuyin 舞陰 in the commandery of Nanxiang 南鄉 (near modern Biyang 泌陽, Henan) from a poor family. When the Southern Qi dynasty 南齊 (479-502) was founded he was appointed assistant magistrate (ningbu 主簿) of Ningman 寧蠻, and later rose to the office of palace attendant (zhonglang 中郎) in the Imperial Secretariat Hall 尚書殿, then chief commandant (? lingjun zhangshi 領軍長史), and finally governor (taishou 太守) of the commandery of Yidu 宜都, then of Jin'an 晉安. With the foundation of the Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557) he was promoted to XXX (shangshu zuocheng 尚書左丞), was then exiled to Guangzhou 廣州 because of an offence, but later returned to the post of XXX 中書郎國子博士.
Fan Zhen was an expert of the three ritual Classics (Sanli 三禮: Yili 儀禮, Liji 禮記 and Zhouli 周禮) of the Confucian Canon, and one disputed with Xiao Ziliang 蕭子良, Prince of Jingling 竟陵, who was an adherent of Buddhism. Fan criticized Buddhism for its concept of retribution of sins and benefactions in a later life. In his treatise Shenmielun 神滅論 "On the expiration of the soul" he attacked the belief of reincarnation, and ignited a fierce debate in the whole empire. Prince Xiao Ziliang was not able to convince him of the correctness of Buddhist beliefs, and therefore began slandering him at the court and machinized his dismission. A further debate took place in 507 that saw the participation not only of Buddhist clerics, but also of high nobles from the ruling family. Fan Zhen did not surrender.
His own philosophical concept centered in the concept that body and soul were so much tied to each other (xing shen xiang ji 形神相即) that it was impossible to separate the latter from the former. The body represented the substance, while the soul provided the motivation. The soul was the crops for the scythe, like the body was the sickle reaping the harvest. In Fan's eyes the Buddhist conception of body and soul did neither reflect about an instrument (body) nor about yields (soul) – and how might there be a harvest without an instrument to acquire it. Fan's problem was then to explain how people might be induced to display filial piety, if it is assumed that the person completely ceases to be after death. According to Confucian teachings, a Way of spirits (guishen zhi dao 鬼神之道) was to be pursued on which instructions were implemented in order to deal with neither-worldy matters like religion, spirits and ghosts. His argument was that sacrificial offerings to a desceased person were an expression of developing a sincere mind for oneself (du qi cheng xin 篤其誠心). Ancestral altars had the meaning of creating an idealized participation of an ancestor's spirit (guishen 鬼神) in the present life of his/her descendants.
Except the treatise Shenmielun, a short writing of Fan Zhen has survived, Da Cao sheren 答曹舍人, which is quoted in the Buddhist book Hongmingji 弘明集.

Source: Pang Pu 龐樸 (ed. 1997), Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, p. 88.

February 6, 2014 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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