An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Wang Fuzhi 王夫之

Mar 20, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Wang Fuzhi 王夫之 (1619-1692), courtesy name Ernong 而農, style Jiangzhai 姜齋 or Chuanshan xiansheng 船山先生, was a philosopher of the early Qing period 清 (1644-1911). He hailed from Hengyang 衡陽, Hunan, and hailed from a family of scholars. His father Wang Chaopin 王朝聘 (1568-1647) was an expert in the Confucian Classic Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals". With the age of 24 sui, Wang Fuzhi and his older brother Wang Jiezhi 王介之 (1606-1686) went to Wuchang 武昌 to participate in the provincial examination.

As a young man Wang Fuzhi was concerned about the inability of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) to take firm control over the local administration, and therefore participated in various societies aiming at reforming the inapt governmental structures. Such were the Xingshe Society 行社, the Kuangshe Society 匡社 or the Xumeng Alliance 須盟. In 1648 Wang Fuzhi participated in a local resistance against the armies of the Manchus that had invaded the Ming empire and founded the Qing dynasty. He later withdrew to Zhaoqing 肇慶 in Guangdong where he became a supporter of Zhu Youlang 朱由榔, Prince of Gui 桂 and member of the house of the Ming. An intrigue at the Prince's court, instigated by Wang Huacheng 王化澄 (d. 1652), caused him to flee to Hunan, where he lived a very unstable life as an enemy of the Qing. Only in his later years he settled down at Mt. Chuanshan 船山 and began compiling a lot of writings.

Wang Fuzhi was influenced by the philosophy of the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126) Neo-Confucian scholar Zhang Zai 張載 (1020-1077), who had focused on the relation between the Heavenly principle (li 理) and substantial matter (qi 氣). Wang argued that Heaven and man were connected by a unified matter. The good parts of substance were nothing else than the Heavenly principle. This principle wasbound to matter and could exist outside of it. He criticized those among the Neo-Confucians who had believed that the principle prevailed over substance.

The brothers Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107), for instance, had been of the opinion that the principle was basically to be found in the immaterial sphere of the Former Heaven (xiantian 先天, the pre-natal existence). Wang Fuzhi did not make a difference between immaterial Former and substantiated Later Heaven (houtian 後天, post-natal existence). For him, both Heavens were material, like all matters on earth. The universal principle therefore was always bound to and an integral part of matter (li ji qi zhi li 理即氣之理 "patterns are patterns of substance"), and not an isolated spiritual force. Heaven was in Wang Fuzhi's eyes even a place of "concentration of matter" (ji qi zhe 積氣者). Unlike the brothers Cheng and Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), Heaven was by Wang Fuzhi not seen as a higher power controlling the universe and the fate of humans. There was nothing like a "superhuman" Saint (shengren 聖人) extraordinarily guided by Heaven and whose words and deeds can be used as a moral guideline.

Similar to the question of matter and the universal or Heavenly principle, Wang Fuzhi stressed that under Heaven, there were only "vessels" (qi 器), i. e. objects or men, in which the Heavenly Way (dao 道) was implanted. The Way was the Way of the vessels, and the vessels were not products or possessions of the Way. A shapeless state of things, as supposed by the Neo-Confucians with their concept of "above or beyond the shape" (xing er shang 形而上), did not exist. Wang Fuzhi also contradicted the brothers Cheng and Zhu Xi, who had been of the opinion that knowledge (zhi 知) came first and would inevitably influence behaviour (xing 行).

Wang Fuzhi also and contradicted Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵 (1139-1193) and Wang Yangming 王陽明 (Wang Shouren 王守仁) who had supposed that knowledge and action took effect in combination (zhi xing he yi 知行合一). Knowledge could, in Wang Fuzhi's eyes, not exist separately and without close connection to things. Without any deep-going investigation of matters, knowledge cound not be achieved. Even a man of noble behavior (junzi 君子) were not able to possess knowledge without experience and practice. Knowledge and action mutually profited from each other (zhi xing xiang zi 知行相資).

Human nature was in Wang Fuzhi's eyes changeable, and transformed with growing experience and age. Unlike the sun, which is complete at dawn and dusk even when it is not fully visible, the human character wasa something that had still to grow out of the universal principle. It was a product of the Later Heaven and not pre-defined in the Former Heaven before a man's birth.

Wang Fuzhi studied many scholarly fields and wrote on politics, economy, philosophy, history, literature, religion, script and phonetics, and astronomy. Because he lived in seclusion his many writings were not published until the late Qing period.

Wang Fuzhi's writings include numerous commentaries on the Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes", like Zhouyi neizhuan 周易内傳, Zhouyi neizhuan fali 周易内傳發例, Zhouyi waizhuan 周易外傳, Zhouyi daxiang jie 周易大象解, comments on other Confucian Classics, like Shangshu yinyi 尚書引義, Shi guangzhuan 詩廣傳, Du sishu daquan shuo 讀四書大全說 and Sishu xunyi 四書訓義, and also such on Daoist writings like Laozi yan 老子衍 and Zhuangzi jie 莊子解, the philosopher Zhang Zai, in Zhangzi meng zhu 張子蒙注, and history, like Du Tongjian lun 讀通鑒論 or Songlun 宋論. His own philosophical writings include the books Siwenlu 思問錄, Sijie 俟解, Huangshu 黄書, Emeng 噩夢 and Xingzong luosuo 相宗絡索. His collected writings are assembled in the collection Chuanshan yishu 船山遺書.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 201.