Tung Chung-shu

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Man's nature may be compared to the eyes. In sleep they are shut and there is darkness. They must await the awakening before they can see. Before the awakening it may be said that they possess chih, the basic substance or quality to see, but it is not yet awakened. It has to be trained before it becomes good. Before it is awakened, it may be said to possess the basic substance or quality to become good, but it cannot be said that it is already good. . . .

The nature (hsing) of man it like a silk cocoon or an egg. An egg has to be hatched to become a chicken, and a silk cocoon has to be unravelled to make silk. It is the true character of Heaven that Nature needs to be trained before becoming good.

Ch'un-ch'iu fan-lu, 35 TUNG CHUNG-SHU


After years of violent struggle between the feudal chieftains and petty warlords of the Warring States period, the Ch'in Dynasty unified China in 221 B.C.E. by breaking up the old states and replacing them with prefectures under direct imperial control, abolishing the feudal system, completing the Great Wall and building a network of highways throughout the land. Although the boundaries established by the Ch'in Dynasty became traditional China, the forcing of millions of conscripts into nation-building led to a revolt that swept the dynasty aside in 206. The Han Dynasty seized the throne in 202, inheriting the infrastructure of the Ch'in whilst staying free of the hatred heaped upon it. Although authoritarian and militaristic, Han rulers were generally perceived as benevolent, and one man, Tung Chung-shu, sought to make them truly humane.

Tung Chung-shu was born in about 179 in Kuang-ch'uan near present-day Tsao-ch'iang in Hopeh province. Little is known of his early years, though he apparently spent much of his youth immersed in the Spring and Autumn Annals, attributed to Confucius. Later in life he composed the Ch'un-ch'iu fan-lu (Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals), a philosophical commentary. In the reign of Emperor Hsiao-ching (156-141), he earned the respected title po shih, 'Scholar of Wide Learning'. During the reign of Emperor Wu (140-87), he was the chief scholar of the imperial university, and twice appeared before the emperor to answer philosophical and political questions concerning the functions and responsibilities of rulers. For a number of years, he served as chief minister to a provincial king, and when he left that post, the effectiveness of his administration so impressed the emperor that he was soon appointed chief minister to another local king. Eventually, he retired in old age and gave his time to writing. When he died in about 104, he left a legacy which persisted in China for two thousand years.

Tung Chung-shu rescued Confucian thought from the 'burning of the books' which had occurred during the brief rule of the Ch'in Dynasty, when an attempt was made to eliminate all learning except that concerned with law, horticulture and herbal medicine. In doing so, he boldly synthesized Confucian thought and the Yin-Yang school of cosmic, terrestrial and human correlations, providing thereby a practical means of understanding the will of Heaven and the operations of Nature under its guidance. Further, he persuaded the emperor to adopt Confucian rather than Legalist philosophy as the official basis of Han government. This tradition lasted until the Chinese revolution of 1912. Scholars whose views were non-Confucian were dismissed from court and Confucian thought was both exalted and imprisoned in the royal chambers of government. Tung Chung-shu's proposal to establish an imperial college, t'ai-hsueh, was implemented for the training of promising students, and he established a policy requiring all nobles and governors to provide annually lists of morally upright and talented persons for official appointments. The Chinese civil service examination system arose out of these practices, guaranteeing that able individuals might rise to positions of authority and influence regardless of their birth.

Even though he was strictly a Confucian and blocked the advancement of non-Confucian scholars, Tung Chung-shu was enormously respected by thinkers of every tradition. His public life was morally and socially impeccable, and in his personal life he remained withdrawn, despite his onerous official duties. An old biography of major figures prominent in the early Han period reported that he expounded his teachings from behind a curtain, so that some students never beheld his countenance. Once, it is said, he was so absorbed in study that he did not even see his own garden for three years. Altogether, he wrote over one hundred and fifty short treatises and submitted all of them to the emperor, and a number of them, including those constituting the Luxuriant Dew, survive. Later generations would mark the transition from the period of classical philosophers to that of classical scholars by his life. He began, for them, a new era. In 79 C.E. a great assemblage of Confucian thinkers gathered in White Tiger Hall to debate and elucidate all the difficult passages in the classics. Its carefully recorded conclusions very often accord with the teachings of Tung Chung-shu.

Traditionally, Taoists rejected certain elements in Confucian thought, especially the emphasis on li, ritual and adherence to established social forms, as little more than human invention. Taoists spoke of the 'invisible governance of the world' – for example, the legendary Queen Mother of the West, patron of Taoist women seeking spiritual immortality, visited Emperor Wu in 110 B.C.E. – and the visible government of the empire was to them unnatural. Tung Chung-shu attempted to show that a correct social structure is humanity's expression of the same forces that govern Nature. To do this, he integrated the Yin-Yang school's fundamental categories into Confucian philosophy. "Heaven, Earth, yin and yang, and wood, fire, earth, metal and water make nine", he wrote. "Together with man, they make ten. Heaven's number is with this made complete." The five elements, the two opposing yet complementary forces, and the root polarity of Nature are completed by man, the microcosm of the macrocosm, in a kind of Pythagorean decad which includes the fundamental constituents of Man and Nature. Heaven, when distinguished from earth, is part of the substratum of manifest existence. When taken as the whole, whose number is ten, it is Nature possessed of consciousness. Neither, however, is equivalent to the impenetrable mystery from which everything, including Heaven, arises.

What is called the single Origin, Yuan, is the great beginning. . . . It is only the Sage who is capable of relating the many to the one, thus linking them to Yuan. . . . Yuan is like the source (yuan). Its significance is that it pervades Heaven and earth from beginning to end. . . . Yuan is the root of all things, and in it lies man's own origin.

For Tung Chung-shu, the origin of the human being, like that of Nature itself, is to be found in that which was before anything else came to be. Man is inseparably linked to Nature not only by being dependent on Nature and even an indivisible part of it, but also because Man's origin is identical with the source of Nature. Man's social structures, then, when they reflect his inner nature, are resonant with greater Nature because they manifest the same principles. These dynamic principles are subdivisions of ch'i, the ever-moving etheric substratum of the cosmos. Ch'i is ether, when conceived in terms of the ultimate and primordial stuff of existence; ch'i is force when thought of in terms of ceaseless change. The five constituents, wu hsing – wood, fire, earth, metal, water – are, for example, elements and movers, and hsing bears both meanings. The cosmos comes into existence through the differentiation and inter action of ch'i.

Collected together, the ch'i of the universe constitutes a unity. Divided, ch'i constitutes the yin and yang. Quartered, ch'i makes up the four seasons, and further sundered, they constitute the five elements. These elements (hsing) represent movement (hsing), and their movements are not identical. . . . Each in turn gives birth to the next and is overcome by the next but one in turn.

The Yin-Yang school had compiled many sets of correlations indicating the ways forces interacted with one another and are reflected in distinguishable realms of existence. Confucian thought, however, went beyond the catalogues of natural history and sought the chains of causation crucial to natural and physical science. Tung Chung-shu took the classifications of the Yin-Yang school and integrated them into Confucian philosophy by explaining their causal interdependence. For example, with respect to the five elements, wood is the starting point and gives rise to fire, which is latent in it. Fire converts wood to ashes, thereby producing earth. Earth gives rise to metal, for metal is found in the stones which are part of earth. Metal gives rise to water, because metal is correlated with autumn – since both are sterile – when the rains appear. Wood grows in the presence of water. There are only four seasons, however, because earth underlies the entire cycle of change, and so is t'ien jun, the heavenly fructifier, which assists Heaven.

Among the five elements and four seasons, earth embraces all. Although metal, wood, water and fire each have their own particular duties, they could not stand were it not for earth. The case is like that of saltiness, sourness, acridness and bitterness, which could not be tastes were they not enriched by savouriness. . . . That the five elements have earth as their ruler is like the fact that the five tastes cannot but exist when savouriness is present.

In order to explain the change of seasons, Tung Chung-shu causally connected the seasons with the ever-revolving powers of yin and yang. Not satisfied with stating a mechanical cycle of gradual change that had little explanatory power, he developed an ingenious double cycle which allows one to see the invariable complernentarity of yin and yang as the cyclic alteration of their ceaselessly changing proportions produced by their increasing manifestation and withdrawal. For Tung Chung-shu, "Yang is Heaven's beneficent power, whilst yin is Heaven's chastising power", and understanding their perfect interrelationship made possible explanations of irregularities and anomalies in seasonal phenomena.

In Heaven's course, there are three seasons of formation and growth and one season of mourning and death. Death means the withering and decay of various creatures; mourning means the grief and sadness engendered by the yin ether. Heaven has its feelings of joy or anger, and a mind which experiences sadness or pleasure, analogous to those of Man. If a grouping is made according to kind, Heaven and Man are one.

For Tung Chung-shu, it was no accident that Heaven is first and Man tenth in the sequence which completes the whole universe. Physiologically, the human form is found, according to Tung Chung shu, to be a physical microcosm of the physical macrocosm.

Nothing is more refined than the yin and yang ethers, richer than earth, or more spiritual than Heaven. Of the creatures born from the refined essence of Heaven and earth, none is more noble than man. Man receives the Decree (ming) of Heaven, and therefore is loftier than other creatures. Other creatures suffer trouble and distress and are unable to practise benevolence (jen) and righteousness (yi), but man can practise them. Other creatures suffer trouble and distress and are unable to match them selves with Heaven and earth. Only man is capable of doing so.

In providing detailed correlations between human physiology and the structure of Nature, Tung Chung-shu likened the three hundred and sixty-six lesser joints to the three hundred and sixty-six days of the year and the twelve greater joints to the twelve months. The five viscera – heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys – correspond to the five elements, and the four limbs are connected with the four seasons. The opening and closing of the eyes corresponds to day and night, and each physical function represents a corresponding activity in Nature. But other faculties correspond to Heaven. For example, the power to think reflects Heaven's deliberation and calculation, and when a human being's conduct is in accord with the principles of right relationship, it corresponds to the relationship between Heaven and earth.

Although Tung Chung-shu was deeply interested in science, he elaborated the classifications of the Yin-Yang school in order to explain human nature and Confucian social philosophy. For him, psychology deals with human nature (hsing) and human feelings and emotions (ch'ing), and these correspond to yang and yin. Human nature when allowed to manifest freely appears as]en, benevolence and humanity. Feelings, when allowed to appear without restraint, do so as Can, covetousness. If human nature and emotions are lumped together as man's chih, basic nature, then man cannot be said to be basically good. Rather, the capacity for goodness is latent in man's basic nature but must be drawn forth through training and instruction, which is ideally undertaken by the Sage who rules.

Goodness is like a kernel of grain, and the nature (chih) is like the growing stalk of that grain. Though the stalk produces the kernel, it cannot itself be called a kernel, and though basic nature produces goodness, it cannot itself be called good. The kernel and goodness are both brought to completion through man's continuation of Heaven's work and are external to it, and they do not lie within the scope of what Heaven does itself. What Heaven does extends to a certain point and then stops. What lies within that limit pertains to Heaven; what lies outside pertains to teachings of the Sage-kings.

Whilst the teachings of the Sage-kings stand beyond basic nature, when those instructions are rightly applied, basic nature invariably conforms to them. Deftly fusing the teachings of Mencius and Hsun Tzu on human nature, Tung Chung-shu spoke of striking a mean between them which preserved the core of their divergent views.

The Sage can provide chiao, instruction, because he no longer possesses basic nature. He has sufficiently restrained yin and released yang that emotions and sentiments have been subdued, and true human nature has emerged. His instruction deals with jen tao, human morality or the way of benevolence, and teaches means of restraint of t'an, desire. Even though diet and social and occupational regimens can help curb covetousness, the chief restrainer of desire is the mind. Thus, the instruction of the Sages is aimed at nurturing the strength of the mind, and this is achieved when the virtues – and, most importantly, jen and yi, benevolence and righteousness – are brought into actuality. The fundamental message of the Spring and Autumn Annals of Confucius, Tung Chung-shu wrote in his great commentary, is that jen and yi are the means of regulating others and oneself.

By love (jen), others are put at peace; by righteousness (yi), self is regulated. . . . The standard for love lies in showing affection (ai) to others and not to the self. That for righteousness lies in rectifying the self and not in rectifying others.

Tung Chung-shu supported this conclusion by indicating that jen (love, benevolence) has as its homophone jen (others), and that yi (righteousness) is intimately connected with wo (self), because the ideograph for wo is part of the complex ideograph for yi. In addition to jen and yi, Tung Chung-shu added wisdom, chih, as the third great virtue.

Nothing is closer to love or more necessary than wisdom. . . . For love without wisdom means affection without discrimination, whilst wisdom without love means knowledge without action.

Wisdom universalizes benevolence and benevolence translates knowledge into action, thereby expunging evil of every kind.

Social relationships form the pivots upon which the whole social structure turns, and whilst they cannot assure the mature development of human beings without the instruction of the Sage-king, they provide the field which supports that instruction. Although the pa or tyrant can extend his influence to the feudal lords under him, he does not have much influence beyond that, simply because he does not exemplify true teaching. The Sage-king, on the other hand, extends his beneficent influence even to those tribes beyond his rule. The Way of the King, wang tao, is found in Heaven, but appears on earth as the three bonds, san kang – ruler and subject, father and son, and husband and wife. Tung Chung-shu also emphasized the five rules, wu chi, which regulate relations between people. Although he never explained the five rules, since they were well known when he wrote, the six rules of later Confucian thinking included them. These rules governed relations between paternal uncles, elder and younger brothers, relatives of the same surname, maternal uncles, teacher and friends. Following the ethical principles enunciated in the teachings of the Sage-king and implicit in the social order he exemplifies, a human being rises above his animal nature.

Knowing himself to be nobler than other creatures, he comes to know love and righteousness. Knowing them, he comes to value propriety and its regulations. Valuing them, he comes to dwell at peace in goodness. Dwelling there, he joyfully comes to conform to right principles. Joyfully conforming, he may be called chun tzu, the superior man.

For Tung Chung-shu, the entire social order centres on the king, just as the entire order of Nature revolves around Heaven. The king should be a Sage, because he is the staff which unites Heaven, Earth and Man. By modelling himself on Heaven, his preferences, attitudes and expressions – which in ordinary men would be likes, dislikes and moods – are the human equivalent of the terrestrial seasons, germinating, growing and bringing to fruition human affairs. In modelling himself on Heaven's numerical categories, the Sage-king chooses three higher ministers, each of whom chooses three lower ministers, making nine altogether. The lower ministers each choose three great officials, totalling twenty-seven, and they each select three first-class officers, making eighty-one. Ideally, the Sages (sheng jen) alone are eligible for the highest group, with superior men (chun tzu), men of goodness (shan jen) and upright men (cheng jen) constituting the next three classes of eligibility. To the degree that the ideal is in place, the beneficent influence of the Sage-king is spread throughout the country, uplifting all human beings. The Sage-king is in harmony with the will of Heaven and therefore expresses true love to all beings under him, for, Tung Chung-shu said, "Heaven is love." He labours to equalize the balance between wealth and poverty, not because everyone should have exactly the same things, but because excess and deficiency produce misery and discontent, whilst the ceaseless flow of yin and yang suggest a changing series of balances that encourage economic growth and social stability.

Since he held that the relationship between Heaven and Man is an intimate one, perhaps most fully represented in the analogy of macrocosm and microcosm, Tung Chung-shu departed from the thinking of his Confucian predecessors in one significant respect. If disharmonious or abnormal events occur in the human realm, he wrote, they will be reflected in irregular or unusual phenomena in the natural worlds as tsai or yi, visitations or marvels. The distinction between these abnormal phenomena is one of degree, lesser abnormal phenomena being visitations, which usually precede greater ones or marvels.

Visitations are the reprimands of Heaven; marvels are its warnings. . . . The source of all such visitations and marvels lies in faults that exist within the nation.

Whilst other thinkers dismissed attempts to interpret unusual natural and celestial events as superstition, Tung Chung-shu argued that they represented the abiding goodness of Heaven, which warned before visiting calamities upon the nation. Because both Heaven and Man possess yin and yang, if either is aroused in Man, it is necessarily aroused in Heaven. The Sage who understands them can change the weather by inducing changes in his own internal balances. Ordinary men fail to perform supernormal feats because their uninformed efforts cancel one another out. But when there is an abnormal collective drift towards disharmony and evil, Heaven sends visitations and marvels as warnings, and calamities if they go unheeded. Yet they were caused by men, out of their own unregenerate natures.

Tung Chung-shu read the whole of history as the cyclic play of harmony and disharmony, and so it would always be, he held, until the Sage-kings gained permanent ascendancy and history, as human beings know it, comes to a stop. The way the Sage-king models himself on Heaven is the guide, he thought, for all human beings, who could reflect the virtues of love, righteousness and wisdom in their own spheres of duty.

By his shame for shallow superficiality and empty surface glitter, and his esteem for solid genuineness and loyal good faith, the Sage-king wishes to harmonize himself with Heaven, which remains silent and without speech, yet brings its task of virtue to a successful conclusion. By his refusal to assent to partisanship or selfishness, and his praise of comprehensive love and the common good, he wishes to harmonize himself with the way in which Heaven, by giving a minimum of frost and an abundance of dew, brings things to their completed growth.


And know that the manifestations of purity (sattva),
passion (rajas) and inertia (tamas) are from Me alone. Verily,
I am not in them, but they are in Me.

All this world, deluded by the manifestations of the three
gunas, knows Me not as transcending these and as indestructible.

Verily, this divine maya of mine constituted of the three
gunas is difficult to surmount. Those who take refuge in Me
alone transcend this

Bhagavad Gita VII.12-14 SHRI KRISHNA