An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Wang Chong 王充

Jan 15, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Wang Chong 王充 (27-97 CE), courtesy name Zhongren 仲任, was a philosopher of the early Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE).

He hailed from Shangyu 上虞 (modern Shangyu, Zhejiang) and grew up in a poor family but had the opportunity to study in the National University (taixue 太學) in the capital. One of his teachers was the historian Ban Biao 班彪, father of the Ban Gu 班固. He loved studying all kinds of books in the capital libraries. For a while he returned to his home town where he had the post of a clerk in the labour section (gongcao 功曹) and retainer (congshi 從事), and also worked as a teacher.

His critical standpoint towards his contemporaries impeded him from climbing the ladder of career further on. In the following years he wandered around in the southeastern region of China, where he always occupied minor posts in the local administrations. During that time he began writing his famous book Lunheng 論衡, a harsh analytical critique to contemporary superstition and misinterpretation of the Confucian Classics by the New-Text School and the apocryphal writings (chenwei 讖緯).

In Wang Chong's eyes, the world of man and that of nature had no natural connection, and he repudiated the tendency of his contemporaries to interprete natural disasters or strange events as a response of Heaven to human behaviour. He even dared criticising the elevation of Confucius from a simple teacher to a saint (shengxian 聖賢) and questioned some propositions of Confucius and the great Confucian philosopher Mengzi 孟子. Wang Chong asked if the promotion of Confucianism to a quasi-sacred state doctrine by Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) had not been an fault that had led to the detriment of other philosophical schools. In his eyes, even the propositions of Confucius might contain errors, and those of other philosophers might be more adequate to reality. Exaggeration had been a political means especially of Mengzi, and the historical circumstances of the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods, in which the ancient Confucians lived, were different from that of the present age.

The schools interpreting the Classic Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals" were accused by Wang Chong of not seeing the Chunqiu as a simple chronicle but construeing it as a philosophical book in which small words had a deep meaning (wei yan da yi 微言大義). The contemporary interpreters of the Classics (what he calls rusheng 儒生 "Confucian scholars") were, in the words of Wang Chong, stubborn in their concentration on one single Classic and its interpretation. They did neither know the historical past nor the present circumstances, nor did they know the overarching context of the canon of the Confucian Classics.

Even those professing in the whole Confucian Canon (tongren 通人) were scholars in an ivory tower that did not know how to apply the teachings of the Confucian Classics to policits. Wang Chong compared them with parrots that could utter words but are not able to speak logically. In that respect, scholars not concentrating on the Confucian Classics (wenren 文人 "literati") were somewhat better. For Wang Chong, scholars of the highest standing (ronghu 鴻儒 "scholars with profound knowledge") were those that discussed the political matters of the day, tried reconciling it with the ancient Classics and developing new ideas, like the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) writers Lu Jia 陸賈 and Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒, or the philosopher Yang Xiong 揚雄 who created a thoroughly new model of the universe in his book Taixuanjing 太玄經.

Wang Chong was accordingly not very loved by the traditional Confucian scholars, and his book Lunheng was only rediscovered at the very end of the Later Han period by Cai Yong 蔡邕 who helped it to attract a wider attention. Except the Lunheng, Wang Chong has also written the books Yangxingshu 養性書, Jisushu 譏俗書, Zhengwushu 政務書, and a commentary to the Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes", the Zhouyi Wangshi yi 周易王氏義, that are all unfortunately lost. Of the latter, some fragments have been collected by the Qing-period scholar Wang Renjun 王仁俊. Yan Kejun 嚴可均 detected a verse of the rhapsody Guofu 果賦 that is included in the collection Quan houhan wen 全後漢文.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 61.