An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Huang Zongxi 黄宗羲

Feb 27, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Huang Zongxi 黄宗羲 (1610-1695), courtesy name Taichong 太衝, style Nanlei xiansheng 南雷先生 or Lizhou xiansheng 梨洲先生, was a prominent Confucian scholar of the early Qing period 清 (1644-1911). He is one of the Three Great Confucians of the early Qing (Qing chu san da ru 清初三大儒), the others being Sun Qifeng 孫奇逢 (1585-1675) and Li Yong 李顒 (1627-1705).

Huang Zongxi hailed from Yuyao 余姚, Zhejiang. His father Huang Zunsu 黄尊素 (1584-1626) had been a member of the Donglin Faction (Donglin dang 東林黨) that had a feud with the "eunuch faction" (yandang 閹黨) that collaborated with the powerful Wei Zhongxian 魏忠賢 (1568–1627). Accused of treason, he was put into prison and expected the death penalty, yet when the Chongzhen Emperor 崇禎 (r. 1628-1644) mounted the throne, Huang Zongxi took the chance to pledge for an amnesty of his father, and exchanged threatening letters with the eunuchs Xu Xianchun 許顯純 (d. 1628) and Li Shi 李實 which brought him the name Zhenjing shi 震京師 "Master shaking the Capital". His father was finally released, and Huang Zongxi chose Liu Zongzhong 劉宗周 (1578-1645) as his teacher. He was a member of the Fushe 復社 "Renovation Society" that carried out bloody fights with the eunuchs.

When the Manchus began seriously threatening the border region in the north, Huang Zongxi recruited troops for his "Loyals of the World Brigade" (shizhongying 世忠營) that was to support the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) against the invaders. The Prince of Lu 魯王 (r. 1646) of the Southern Ming 南明 (1644-1661) appointed him Left Vice Censor-in-chief (zuo fudu yushi 左副都御史). When the Manchus had conquered the Ming empire and founded the Qing dynasty, Huang Zongxi retired from all offices, dedicated himself to philosophical studies, and even several times refused the Kangxi Emperor's 康熙 (r. 1662-1722) offer to take over the compilation of the official dynastic history of the Ming dynasty, the Mingshi 明史.

Huang Zongxi had a vast knowledge of all fields of disciplines in the humanities and sciences. In the field of philosophy, he was opposed to the tradition of Neo-Confucianism which said that the Heavenly principle (li 理) had been existing before the matter (qi 氣). Huang was of the opinion that the principle had not been existing for its own, but was always part of existing objects and matters. In other words, the human "vessel" (qi 器) and the Heavenly Way (dao 道) are intricately connected. Without the vessel, the Dao cannot exist. Substance and the human heart (as an expression of the universal principle) are bodies that are merged and combined, they are common matters (gongong zhi wu 公共之物). The human heart, as the highest materialization of the Heavenly principle, was to be found everywhere in Heaven and on earth. The innate wisdom of goodness (liangzhi 良知), of which the Neo-Confucians speak, is not to be perfected by individual persons, but it is extended to all humans, without undergoing a process of self-cultivation.

Unlike the Neo-Confucians, Huang Zongxi was also not of the opinion, that the human character is good by nature, but that each individual looks for his own profits (ren ge zi si ye 人各自私也) and avoids difficulties, but also bad things. Even a ruler, who has the highest responsibility for society, seeks his own profits. An excellent government can only be realized if the rulers gives up his search for own lust and profit. Because this is not possible in reality, the government cannot depend on the dynasty itself, but on competent ministers that care for the welfare of the people. The common people can only be made content if the peasants own a sufficient amount of land to live on, and if taxes are low. Peasantry, merchants, and craftsmen have to be treated equally, and not in the traditional scheme of the peasants as the basis of society, with entrepreneurs as a mere appendix.

The Neo-Confucians had a special interest in the Confucian Classic Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes" that provided them with the necessary metaphysical vocabulary and concepts, like the "highest dimension" (taiji 太極, the infinity of the Dao), the Yellow River Chart and the Inscription of the River Luo (He-Luo 河洛), the Primordial Heaven (xiantian 先天) and the Posterior Heaven (houtian 後天). These speculations have made the Yijing a phantastic book of superstitious beliefs, and thoroughly neglected its philosophical content. Cosmological were preferred to statements about society and man. Even critics like Gui Youguang 歸有光 (1506-1571) were not able to make themselves wholly rid of these speculations. Only at the beginning of the Qing period philosophers gave up this interpretation of the Yijing and returned to its original content. Huang Zongxi was of the opinion that the symbols of the hexagrams were only of minor importance, while the explanation of the "changes" and their meaning for human life, was the most important content of this Confucian Classic.

Huang Zongxi made an important contribution to the history of Neo-Confucianism with his two books Mingru xue'an 明儒學案 and Song-Yuan xue'an 宋元學案, in which he provides biographies of all important scholars and a description of their philosophical teachings. The first book includes more than 200 Ming period philosophers, the latter was only a draft on Song 宋 (960-1279) and Yuan 元 (1279-1368) period Confucians, and was later finished by Huang Baijia 黄百家 (1643-1709), Quan Zuwang 全祖望 (1705-1755) and Wang Zicai 王梓材 (1792-1851).

The most important writings of Huang Zongxi are Yixue xiangshu lun 易學象數論, Shenyikao 深衣考, Mengzi shi shuo 孟子師說, Mingru xue'an, Song-Yuan xue'an, Shouyi suibi 授衣隨筆, Lülü xinyi 律呂新義, Mingshi'an 明史案 (Mingwenhai 明文海) and Mingyi daifang lu 明夷待訪錄.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 194.