Etienne Balazs / Fan Zhen

The First Chinese Materialist

The history of Buddhist thought has made remarkable advances during the last two centuries. There has been a fundamental hinge of view on the importance of the Mahāyāna, and the outlines of Chinese Buddhism are gradually becoming clearer. But the interconnections are lost because the total picture still exists in a vacuum. Buddhism is still regarded as an isolated phenomenon, a thing in itself, detached from the historical circumstances in which it arose and unrelated to outside events. At the most, cursory treatment is given to its inner development, to questions such as the proliferation of sects and the increasing sophistication of basic tenets. Yet if historical circumstances are not taken into account, the beginnings of Indian Buddhism are as incomprehensible as are its spread and further development on Chinese soil. And when I urge that “history” should be taken into amount, I do not mean a mere listing of names, bibliographies, translations, and commentaries. Unless it is recognized that a struggle was taking place between the upholders of two opposing world views, the ideas of the protagonists will remain colorless and devoid of significance.

The fifth century was decisively important for the spread of Buddhism in China: China was at that time not only partitioned, but also torn by social contradictions and innumerable and unbridgeable differences of opinion, and full of a desperate longing for salvation. There were two centers of Buddhism, which were at the same time the two political centers of the country, divided as it was between the Northern and the Southern dynasties, and they had an ever-widening circle of


This article originally appeared under the title of “Buddistische Studien. Philosoph Fan Dschen und sein Traktat gegen den Buddhismus,” Sinica, 7 (1932), 220-34.


influence, like me none, dropped into the waters of the Chinese sea of thought. This was a period of adaptation. The foreign words were feverishly taken over and transcribed, and the unfamiliar thoughts busily assimilated to Chinese traditional ways of thinking. When Buddhist ideas were expressed, they were larded with thousands of quotations from the classics and steeped in analogies, in order to make them more palatable to minds brought up on a mixture of Confucianism and Taoism. But it was also a period of ideological battles and terminological disputes, of endless discussions and debates. The propaganda activities of Indian missionaries and Chinese monks brought a breath of fresh air into Chinese ways of thinking, and in the fight against this new world view, Chinese minds became more agile, more flexible, more elastic.

Behind these lively intellectual battles can be discerned the emerging campaign conducted by the Chinese bureaucracy—mainly Confucianist—against monasticism and the growing temporal power of the church. Ever louder became the accusations made against Buddhism: that it was antisocial, unproductive, and parasitical, and prevented the people from carrying out their economic tasks. The condition of the peasantry and the political power of the state were the issues at stake. [1]

It was this hostile attitude toward Buddhism that gave rise to one of the most interesting works produced by medieval Chinese philosophy: the materialist tract Shen-mieh lun, the complete text of which is preserved in the biography of Fan Chen in the annals of the Liang dynasty.

Fan Chen came of an impoverished scholar-official family, and must have been born around 450 in the moth of present-day Honan. [2] At that time, the fame of a Confucian teacher from Anwhei called Liu Huan (ca. 434-489) had spread far and wide throughout the South. [3]


1. To cite one example among many, in Wei, in 504 the Censor Yang Ku wrote a memorial saying that vague and fruitless theoretical discussions about agriculture must cease, and unprofitable expenditure on Buddhist monks must be curtailed; we Tzu-chih t’ung-chien 146.7b.

2. For the biography of his younger cousin Fan Yũn (451-503; see below), who came from the same district, details, see Liang-shu 13.1a-4b. All other biographical details, unless specific reference is given, are from the biography of Fan Chen, Liang-shu 48.42-10a.

3. See Nan-Ch'i shu 39.12-4a; Nan-shih 50.1a-5a; Chung-kuo jen-ming ta-tz’u-tien [???].


The intelligentsia at the capital were all sending their sons to him to be taught, and the young Fan Chen also became one of this distinguished band of pupils. Because of his brilliant gifts, he soon became one of the master’s favorite pupils, and, as a mark of special favor, the master personally placed the cap of manhood on his head at the capping ceremony. Fan Chen remained at Liu Huan’s school for several years, and “acquired a comprehensive and thorough knowledge of canonical literature, being particularly well versed in the three manuals of ritual (Chou‑li, Li‑chi, and I-li)”; he then returned home to his family.

The terse description of his character in the annals is revealing: “He went about on foot through the screens, always in straw sandals and clothes of coarse cloth [a sign of poverty]. There were many land-owning and aristocratic people among Liu Huan’s pupils; but Fan Chen felt no shame in their midst. . . . He was simple and upright in character, and loved making bold statements and discussing serious matters. His fellow‑pupils and his friends felt unsure of themselves in his presence.” In other words, Fan Chen was a brilliant polemicist whom people hesitated to attack. According to the testimony of his cousin, Hsiao Ch’en (478-529)—the only person with whom he was on truly friendly terms—he is said to have “declared that he could get the better of all opponents in discussion, and that he was daily able to convert thousands of people to his point of view.” [4]

Fan Chen entered upon his official career as a scribe, as was then customary, and was posted to the military prefecture known as the “Pacification of the Man barbarians” (Ning‑man fu). He soon mounted the ladder of promotion to reach the post of secretary in the state chancellery. After 489, friendly relations were re‑established between the Wei dynasty in the North and the Ch’i dynasty in the South, and the ambassadors despatched by Ch’i were, for the most part, able young literati. Thus it was that Fan Chen, along with his two cousins, Fan Yũn and Hsiao Ch’en, came to visit Wei.

In the eighties of the fifth century, one of the intellectual centers in the South was the court of Prince Hsiao Tzu-liang (460‑494). The chief pride and boast of this great Maecenas was the guests he entertained. An ardent lover of literature and himself a writer and art collector, and an ardent Buddhist who wrote a number of Buddhist


4. Hung-ming chi 9.29a. On Hsiao Ch’en, see Liang-shu 26.6a‑8a and Chung-[????]


works, he gathered around him all the best known literati and celebrated monks. His Western Palace, in the Chi-lung-shan mountains to the north of Nanking, was filled with all kinds of antiques. Here he provided special occasions for his illustrious guests, organizing learned debates in which he took part personally, without regard for the rules of propriety. In addition to these activities, he supervised the copying of the best works of Chinese literature, and still found time to fulfill his official duties, being the occupant of several high posts. [5] Everyone of any note took part in the entertainments he provided, which offered both corporeal and spiritual enjoyments; among the participants were Shen Yo (441‑513), Hsieh T’iao (466‑501), Jen Fang  (460-508), Wang Jung (467-493), and Hsiao Yen, later Emperor Wu Ti of the Liang dynasty. The prince had an intimate circle, known as the “Eight Friends,” to which Fan Chen’s cousins, Fan Yũn and Hsiao Ch’en, belonged, so naturally Fan Chen could not fail to belong as well. Visits to the luxurious palace of a prince who regarded benevolence and charity as the highest tasks of a Buddhist, where one could mix with learned and glib-tongued monks, could not fail to exercise a considerable influence on Fan Chen the polemicist, who loved above all “making bold statements and discussing serious matters.” This is where his materialist ideas were formed, and this provided the stimulus for the Shen-mieh lun.

A conversation between the prince and his guest, which I should like to quote in full, is preserved in the Liang-shu: [6]

During the time of the Ch’i dynasty, Fan Chen often waited upon the Prince of Ching-ling, Hsiao Tzu-liang. Tzu-liang was a firm believer in the Buddhist faith, but Chen openly announced that the Buddha never existed. Tzu-liang posed the question to him: “If you do not believe in the evidence of facts, how then do you explain the fact that the world contains both rich and high-born people, and poor and ordinary people?” Chen replied: “Man’s life


5. Hsiao Chi‑liang nearly came to the throne, as successor to his father, but the plot failed because of the hotheadedness of his brilliant protegé, Wang Jung, who was forced to commit suicide in prison, in 493, before his powerful protector was able to rescue him. Hsiao Chi-liang  fell into disgrace and died a year later. See Nan‑Ch’i shu 40.1b-11a; Nan‑shih 44.5a‑9a; Tzu‑chih t’ung-chien 136.1a ff.; 138.5a ff.; 139.7b; Chung-Kuo jen-ming ta-tz’u-tien, p. 1642.

6. Liang-shu 48.5a‑b.


is like the blossom of a tree. The branches all grow at the same time, and together the sprays of blossom burn into bloom. But the blossoms fall where the wind blows them. One will be blown against the woven bamboo of a screen, and will sink to the ground on the soft matting. Another is driven against a bamboo hedge and falls into a dung‑hole. Those which sink on to soft matting are high dignitaries such as Your Highness. Those which fall into a dung‑hole are like me, subordinate officials. High-born and low-born certainly go different ways, but what has the evidence of facts got to do with it?” Tzu‑liang could not convince him, and was full of admiration.

After the death of Hsiao Tzu‑liang, the next stage of Fan Chen’s career found him in Hupeh, where he was Prefect of present‑day Ching‑chou‑fu. But he had to give up this post almost immediately became of the death of his mother, which meant that he had to spend the mourning period in his native Honan. Meanwhile, Hsiao Yen was busy preparing the downfall of the short-lived Ch’i dynasty. Rebel coups were gathering throughout the country. The “Righteous Army” came through Honan on their march to Chien-k’ang (present‑day Nanking), and Fan Chen, to the great joy of his old acquaintance Hsiao Yen, went to meet them wearing his black mourning bands: this action, indicated that he was in support of the cause of righteousness and wanted to take up arms before the three‑year mourning period was over. When Chien‑k’ang was captured after a short blockade in 501 and the new Liang dynasty was proclaimed, Fan Chen had good hopes that the way to high office would be opened to him, along with most of his old acquaintances from the Western Palace days, through former friendship with the new emperor. In fact, however, Wu Ti gave him only a provincial post, although it was an important one. He was made prefect of the commandery of Chin‑an (now Min‑hou‑hsien, or Fuchow, the capital of Fukien). For four years (501‑505) Fan Chen looked after the affairs of this province, and the annals praise him for being “honorable and moderate and living only from his official salary”—already at that time an exception proving the rule of official corruption.

From Fukien, Fan Chen was called to the capital to take up the post of first secretary in the state chancellery, and be might have be-


come chancellor had it not been for his fateful friendship with a former head of the chancellery, Wang Liang. Wang Liang, having failed to attend a New Year’s audience on the plea of Blunts, was banished from the capital Said degraded to the rank of commoner. So Fan Chen, in any case disillusioned and dissatisfied with the new regime, felt that the most urgent thing for him to do upon arrival at the capital was ostentatiously to visit his old friend now fallen into disgrace, and to offer him a gift; and at the first opportunity he said openly to the emperor that he could not understand His Majesty’s behavior. Wu Ti, indignant at such bluntness, begged him to explain himself, but Fan Chen stuck to his opinion. Thereupon the censor Jen Fang amused him, in a long-winded memorial of disrespect, ignorance, heretical opinions, being in the pay of Wang Liang, and so on and on, and begged the emperor to remove Fan Chen from office and banish him. [7] Wu Ti accepted the recommendations of the memorial, and Fan did penance for his political presumption in the traditional banishment province of Kuangchow (Canton), probably in the farthest South.

It is not certain how long he remained in exile, and the year of his death is also uncertain. The annals give only the following cursory account: “Fan Chen remained for several years in the South, and then returned to the capital. On his arrival in the capital he was appointed as a Secretary in the chancellery and as a Master of the National Academy (Kuo-tzu po-shih). He died in full enjoyment of honors and of office. It is safe to assume that Fan Chen died some time around the Year 515.

The Shen-mieh lun was a tract written by Fan Chen during the time when be was engaged in the debates at the court of Prince Hsiao Tzu-liang, in answer to the pressing need for an effective theoretical weapon against Buddhism. The intention behind the tract is made quite clear by Fan Chen himself in the last paragraph, in which he discusses the application of the theory he has been expounding. The very title contained an unmistakable attack. Two surviving essays of


7. See the biography of Wang Liang in Liang-shu 16.1a‑4a, and Chung-Kuo jen-ming ta-tz’u-tien, p. 104. Wang Liang was reinstated in 509  after a three-year mourning period and died a year later while holding high office. This indicates that Fan Chen must have been banished in 505 or 506.


the time are entitled “On the Immortality of the Soul (Shen pu-mieh lun)—one by the celebrated founder of the Lotus School, Hui-yũan (333‑416), the other by a certain Cheng Tao-tzu. [8] So the Shen‑Mieh lun, “Essay on the Extinction of the Soul,” maintaining that the spirit did not survive and the human soul was not immortal, was to some extent no answer to them.

Until the spread of Buddhist thought in the Middle Ages, the problem of immortality had never played at great a role in Chinese philosophy as it did in the West. The practical Chinese mind, concerned with the things of this world, was inclined to dismiss the question as unimportant. Confucius had given the agnostic position its classic formulation in the often quoted passage in the Analects: “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?” [9] This attitude went very well with ostentatious funeral ceremonies, with ritualistic display as an end in itself. Mo Ti was the only person to preach survival after death, and he did so precisely because of his opposition to the wasteful extravagance of Confucian funeral customs, which would be tendered entirely unnecessary by the existence of a life beyond the grave. To the Taoists, life and death were merely transitional states of being. Chuang Tzu’s metaphor of the firewood coming to an end while the fire mysteriously goes on burning was susceptible to several interpretations. The Buddhists saw in it (at a much later date, it is true) a belief in immortality, but probably Chuang Tzu himself would have repudiated this with an ironic and forgiving smile. Prior to Fan Chen, the only person to argue consistently against a belief in immortality was the skeptic Wang Ch’ung (27-97).

It was only after the introduction of Buddhism into China that men became concerned with the problem of the immortality of the soul. When that happened, complicated theories requiring a high degree of training in speculative thought were simplified into religious doctrines of salvation, the metaphysical idea of a chain of being was popularized into the moral doctrine of reincarnation, and the void of Buddhist epistemology was solidified into a concrete heaven. The “Pure Land” School founded by Hui-yũan was the chief example of the trend toward religious beliefs that would harmonize both with existing popular beliefs and with the religious needs of the great mass of the com-


8. Hung‑ming chi 5

9. Lun‑yū XI, 11.


mon people, while at the same time answering to the pessimistic escapist mood of the ruling classes. This trend reduced the abstruse theories of the Mahāyāna to their lowest common denominator: salvation, It was against this popular form of Buddhism encouraged by the court that Fan Chen set out to do battle.

His short tract is written in dialogue form—a form that had already been adopted by Mou Tzu, the first apologist for Buddhism in China, and that had been in favor since the fourth century. Fan Chen asks himself the kind of questions that any average Buddhist of the time might have asked, and replies in the capacity of “host” to the questions put by the “guest” (these being the descriptions of the debating partners given in the Chinese text). The thirty‑one questions fall into five sections.

The first section (questions 1‑13) contains metaphors concerning the problem of the relations between body and soul, for which a materialistic, monistic solution is found. The materialist view, strongly reminiscent of Lucretius, is summed up in the thesis: the body is the soul’s material basis; the soul is the functioning of the body.” Fan Chen meets his imaginary opponent’s  arid, mechanistic way of thinking with dialectical arguments stressing developmental factors. In the second section (questions 14-24), the problem of the soul as function is viewed from another angle. The opponent asks about the location of the soul, and Fan Chen replies according to the deep-rooted convictions of his time. The heart had always been regarded by the Chinese as the seat of thought, in just the same way as Aristotle held that the central psycho‑physical organ was not the brain, but the heart. The argument here, however, depends upon a differentiation between thought on the one band, and feeling and perception on the other. Like the ancient philosophers, Fan Chen did not distinguish between perception and sensation. This results in his arriving at a solution with a very modern ring to it: thought is differentiated from feeling only by degree of intensity.

While the first two sections are purely philosophical, the next two enter into the realms of religion and mythology. The style matches the content. Instead of sharp, clear, and concise definitions, we find the habitual indulgence in “historical” quotations front the classics. It was customary in the tracts of the time to prove everything by biblical sayings. The Buddhists themselves were fond of relying on


biblical authority as a heavy defense weapon against their Confucian opponents. Section 3 (questions 25‑27) treats of the like quality of spiritual power in the holy sages of antiquity, the argument being conducted in somewhat unconvincing metaphors. Finally, in the fourth section (questions 28‑30), Fan Chen attempts to come to grips with        the problem of the relation between human and supernatural beings, a problem that arises from the double meaning of shen: “soul” or “spirit,” and “spirits” in the sense of supernatural beings. But he gives confused and evasive answers to the opponent’s questions, the opponent having meanwhile been converted to the belief in the mortality of the soul. On the one hand Fan argues that the ancestral cult has a merely educative value—a point of view that comes very close to Confucianism in its original form—and uses the same arguments as Wang Ch’ung against ghost stories about evil spirits, while on the other he acknowledges the existence of dark spirits and only denies the possibility of men changing into spirits. This is the contradiction—whether conscious or unconscious is an open question—upon which Fan’s materialism founders.

The last section is no longer a discussion. The opening question on the application of the mortality theory is merely a prelude to the great peroration on the harmfulness of Buddhism. Fan Chen here expounds his own beliefs, which combine Taoist naturalism and Confucian social views. He states his preference for the well‑being and happiness of the human family on earth over salvation in the next world. To be contented with one’s lot and resigned to one’s fate are what maintain the upper and lower parts of society in a permanent state of balance.

The Shen-mieh lun had a powerful effect on Fan Chen’s contemporaries. “When this essay appeared, voices were raised at court and among the people, and Hiao Tzu‑liang assembled monks to raise objections, but they could not convince, (Fan Chen). This discussion, which, according to the Tzu‑chih t’ung‑chien, took place in 484, gave rise to two anecdotes that throw light on the character of the character of the argumentative materialist. According to the first, a certain “Wang Yen of T’ai‑yüan wrote an essay in which he mocked at Fan Chen as follows: ‘O‑ho Master Fan! You do not even know where the spirits of your ancestors are!,’ thinking that Chen would find this unanswerable. But Chen replied: ‘O‑ho Master Wang! You do know where the


10. Liang-shu 48.10a.


spirits of your ancestors are, yet fight shy of committing suicide in order to join them.’” It is characteristic of materialists everywhere and in all periods that they go into the attack against their opponents. Fan Chen’s sharp and witty comment on the believers in immortality is reminiscent of a saying of the Indian materialists (the Cārvāka): “We do not believe in Heaven and salvation nor in the soul’s existence in another world . . . If the animal that is slaughtered enters into Heaven, why does the sacrficer not dispatch his own father into the better world?” [11]

The second little story, and less characteristic than the first, runs as follows: “Wang Jung went to Fan Chen on Hsiao Tzu‑Liang’s behalf and asked: ‘Sir, you have such outstanding capabilities, why do you worry unnecessarily lest you should not obtain a post as secretary in the Chancellery? But it is unfortunate that you should have written this essay out of sheer contrariness. You ought to destroy it immediately!’ Chen replied with a loud laugh: ‘If Fan Chen could be persuaded to give up his opinions as the price of obtaining office, he would have been Chancellor and minister, long ago. Why is he now only secretary in the Chancellery?’” [12]

Two polemical  essays of counterargument, apparently also composed at Hsiao Tzu-liang’s court immediately after the appearance of Fan’s tract—around the year 490—and used in the first discussion, are fortunately preserved in the Hung‑ming chi. Sometime after 507, Seng‑yu (died 518) collected together the objections raised by Fan Chen’s opponents and added them to the earlier version of this work of his that is of such inestimable value for the history of Buddhism. [13]” The two pamphlets, which bear the same title, “Objections to the Essay on the Extinction of the Soul by Fan Chen” (Nan Fan Chen Shen‑mieh lun), occupy most of the ninth chapter of the Hung‑ming chi. The first is the work of Hsiao Ch’en, Fan Chen’s cousin; the second is by a certain Ts’ao Ssu‑wen, of whom nothing is otherwise known. Hsiao Ch’en’s objections are particularly valuable, because ahead of each objection, the full text of the Shen‑mieh lun is given paragraph by paragraph, thus enabling us to emend and amplify the


11. Paul Deussen, Die nachvedische Philosophie der Inder (Leipzig, 1894-1920), p. 202.

12. Tzu‑chih t’ung‑chien 136.1a.

13. Cf. P. Pelliot, “Meou‑tseu ou les doutes levés,” T’oung Pao, 19, (1920), 270f.


version given in the annals. Whether the version in the Liang shu goes back to this text is difficult to establish, for the variations in the two texts are almost negligible, and moreover the collected works of Fan Chen were still extant in early T’ang times (the compilation of the Liang annals was completed in 633). [14] The objections of Ts’ao Ssu‑wen also contain a valuable supplement to the Shen‑mieh lun, namely, some of Fan Chen’s replies to these objections, in which he further clarifies his position with regard to the classical books.

The inclusion of this polemic in the Hung‑ming chi was a result of the second discussion, inaugurated by Wu Ti himself. The tenth chapter of the Hung‑ming chi contains the edict calling for the discussion and the replies of sixty‑two high officials. As Pelliot has already established, the names and titles of these officials enable us to fix the date of the discussion. It took place in 507. In all probability Fan Chen was by that time in the far South, and perhaps it was his banishment that prompted the Emperor to open up the question of the immortality of the soul once again. The official replies are without exception brief exercises in literary style condemning the tract as heretical, and most of them conclude with a devout Buddhist greeting formula.

These happenings, which led to a new upsurge of Buddhism, suffice to demonstrate what an influential work the Shen‑mieh lun was. Because of historical circumstances, it had precisely the opposite effect to that originally intended. But the importance of Fan Chen as a materialist thinker goes far beyond the contemporary debate about Buddhism.

His philosophical definitions have a value of their own, and in of spite of containing many of the contradictions and prejudices of his time, which he himself was unable to transcend, his tract is the work of a powerful mind. There is every justification ffr maintaining that no history of Chinese philosophy should fail to include the name Fan Chen.


14. In the bibliographical treatise of the Sui history (Sui‑shu 35.17a) they are listed as “Collected Works of the First Secretary of the State Chancellery of the Liang Dynasty, Fan Chen, in Eleven Chapters.” According to the biography, there were only ten chapters. There is no mention of the work in later bibliographies.

[265/ 266]

 Essay on the Extinction of the Soul [15]


(1) Someone asked me: You say the soul becomes extinguished. How do you know it becomes extinguished?

Answer: The soul and the body are identical. Therefore while the body survives the soul survives, and when the body perishes the soul is extinguished.

(2) Q. “Body” refers to something that lacks consciousness, “soul” to something that has consciousness. Consciousness and lack of consciousness [16] are two different things, therefore soul and body cannot reasonably he treated as one. I have never before heard it said that body and soul are identical.

A. The body is the soul’s material basis; the “soul” is the functioning of the body. Consequently, since “body” refers to the material basis and “soul” to the functioning, body and soul cannot be regarded as separate. [17]

(3) Q. But since admittedly the soul is not the material basis and the body is not the functioning, [18] where is the sense in saying that they cannot be separate?

A. These are separate names referring to a single object.

(4) Q. Since the names are separate, how can there be only one object?

A. The soul is to the material basis as sharpness is to a knife; the body is to its functioning as knife is to sharpness. “Sharpness” does not name knife star “knife” sharpness. Nevertheless, without sharp-


15. The text used is that of Liang‑shu 48.5b-10a, but the Hung‑ming chi version (Kyoto Tripitika XXVIII, 1.29a-31a., has also been consulted. I numbered the questions and divided the essay into sections. (It is difficult to translate shen. In the German version it appears as Geist. “Spirit,” “mind,” and “consciousness” are possibilities, but “soul” has been chosen—in spite of the fact that it differs in connotation from shen—because it is usual to speak of the immortality of the soul.—tr.)

16. Here chi and wu chi must be translated asconsciousness” and “lack of consciousness,” although later the same terms undoubtedly mean “sentient” and “insentient.” See note 23 below.

17. Chi, “matter”; yung, “use,”; “function.” Cf. the similar formulation in Lucretius, III, 168-69, 175, 325-26, 554-62, 798-99

18. The Liang-shu text is corrupt here: “the soul is not the functioning” obviously does not make sense, whereas the Hung‑ming chi version, which I have used, does.


ness, there is no knife; and without a knife, there is no sharpness. I have never heard of sharpness surviving the destruction of the knife; how then can we allow that the soul survives after the body has perished? [19]

(5) Q. It may be admitted that the ratio of knife to sharpness is as you explain it, but the relation of body to soul cannot be interpreted in this way. How shall I put it? Wood is made of insentient matter, man of sentient matters. [20] That is to say, that although man is made of matter just as wood is, yet man also has sentience, which distinguishes him from wood. Is it not plain, therefore, that wood consists of one thing and man of two things?

A. That is a strange way of putting it! If it were true that man were made of matter, as wood is, and that this constitutes his body, while he also had sentience, which wood has not, and this constituted his soul, then your argument might hold. But the matter man is made of is sentient matter, whereas wood is made of insentient matter. That is to say, man and wood are not made of the same kind of matter. So how can you say that man is made of matter just as wood is and yet in addition has sentience which distinguishes him from wood?

(6) Q. Supposing, them that the only thing that differentiates the matter man is made of from that of wood is that it is sentient, what difference is there between a ram and wood if the man happens to be unconscious?

A. The matter man is made of is never insentient, just as wood never has a sentient body.

(7) Q. But surely you would not maintain that a dead man’s skeleton is not insentient matter?

A. This is not the matter man is made of.

(8) Q. If that is the case, that would seem to confirm my argument that man is made of matter as wood is, and is distinguished from wood by having sentience.

A. The dead are like wood, being without the sentience that


19. The extract in Tzu-chih t’ung-chien 136 (year 484), 2a, stops here. It follows the conversation between Fan Chen and Hsiao Tzu-liang quoted above, which is given almost in full. Both the extract and the conversation were handed down, via the T’ung-chien kang mu (28.1a), to de Mailla, Historoire générale de la Chine, 5, 161 ff., and Wieger, textes historiques, 2, 1194f. De mailla adds some baseless inventions of his own.

20. See note 16 above.


distinguishes them from wood. The living have sentience that distinguishes them from wood, being made of matter which is not the same as that of wood.

(9) Q. Is not the skeleton of a dead man the same as the bodily frame of a living one?

A. That a living body is different from a dead body and a dead body from a living body is obvious in the extreme. How is it possible to have, at one and the same time, the bodily frame of a living man and the skeleton of a dead man?

(10) Q. If the bodily frame of a living man is not the same as the skeleton of a dead one, then the skeleton of a dead man does not derive from the bodily frame of the living one; if it does not derive from the bodily frame of the living man, where then does the skeleton come from?

A. The bodily frame of the living man changes into the skeleton of the dead man.

(11) Q. But surely, even if the bodily frame of the living man does change into the skeleton of the dead man, this only means that death has occurred to something that was alive? So that we can assume that the dead body and the living body are substantially the same? [21]

A. The change is analogous to that when the wood of a growing tree changes into the wood used for building material. You would scarcely maintain that wooden building material is substantially the same as the wood of a growing tree?

(12) Q. But when the wood of a growing tree has changed into lumber, it must still be made of the same wood the tree was made of just as when raw silk turns into silk thread, the thread is the same silk as the raw silk was made of. How could it be different?

A. If wood were the same when it is part of a growing tree as when it is lumber, then a tree could be withered while it is growing, and lumber could bear fruits. Moreover, the wood of a tree could not change into lumber, for if the two are the same, then there is no possibility of changing from one state to the other. If the two were really the same, why can the wood not begin by being lumber and then be part of the growing tree? How is it that it must first be part of the growing


21. T’i combines the meaning “body,” “form,” “object” with “substance,” so that when the Chinese says the dead t’i is like the living t’i, it means they are the same in substance.


tree and then lumber? The analogy of the raw silk and the silk thread can be refuted on the same ground. [22]

(13) Q. When life departs the living body, the end might be expected to come suddenly. What is the reason for the process of decay being such a gradual one?

A. The reason is that the change of a living state to one bereft of life inevitably follows a certain sequence. For what has suddenly come into existence must perish suddenly, and what has gradually come into existence must gradually perish. The whirlwind is an example of something that come suddenly into existence. Animals and plants are examples of things that ccome, gradually into existence. That them should be both sudden and gradual ways is simply a law of nature.


(14) Q. If the body is identical with the soul, are separate parts of the body, such as the hands, likewise identical with it?

A. They are a part of the soul.

(15) Q. If all are parts of the soul, then since the soul can think, the hands and other parts must likewise be able to think?

A. The hands and other parts can have sensations of pain and touch, but cannot have thoughts about right and wrong. [23]

(16) Q. Do sensations and thoughts belong to one category or two?

A. Sensations and thoughts belong to the same category. When superficial, they are sensations; when deep, they are thoughts. [24]

(17) Q. In that case, they must be two different things?

A. Since man has only one body, how can his soul be twofold? [25]

(18) Q. If his soul cannot be twofold, how then are there sensations of pain and touch and in addition thoughts about right and wrong?

A. Just as hands and feet, although different, both form part of


22. This is the first place where the two versions diverge in meaning (elsewhere they have differed in minor grammatical points only. In the Hung-ming chi version, this last sentence runs: “The similarity of raw silk and silk thread is not a valid comparison.

23. Here it is quite clear that chih means “sensation” or “awareness.” Shih fei, “right and wrong,” could also be translated as “what is true and what is untrue.”

24. Thought and sensation differ on1y in degree of intensity.

25. T’i is again used here (cf. note 21 above). It might be better to translate: “man’s body is of one substance.”


one single person, so do thoughts of right and wrong and sensations of pain and touch, although also different, form parts of one single soul.

(19) Q. Thoughts about right and wrong have no connection with hands and feet then; with what part of the body are they connected?

A. Thoughts about right and wrong are ruled over by the heart.

(20) Q. This heart is the same as the heart which is one of the five viscera, is it not? (26)

A. That is correct.

(21) Q. But is there any such difference between the five viscera as would explain why the heart alone has thoughts about right and wrong?

A. There is just as little difference between the seven openings, [27] yet their functions are much the same.

(22) Q. Thoughts have no extension; how then do you know that they are ruled over by the heart?

A. If the heart is sick, then thoughts become bad. [28] Each of the five viscera has its function, but none (except the heart) has the capacity for thought. That is why the heart is held to be the root of thought.

(23) Q. How do you know that they do not have their seat in parts of the body such as the eye?

A. If they had their seat in parts of the body such as the eyes, why then should not the eyes [29] have their match in other parts of the body, such as the ears?

(24) Q. The substance of thought has no roots, that is why it could be seated in a part of the body such as the eyes. The eyes however do have roots, and so could not possibly be seated in another part of the body.

A. Why should the eye have roots and yet thoughts not have


26. The five viscera (wu tsang) are: heart, liver, lungs, spleen, kidneys.

27. Eyes, ears, mouth, and nose (ch’i ch’iao).

28. This is where the second important difference between the two versions occurs. The first sentence of the reply (which fits in logically with the argument) is found only in the Hung-ming chi, the second only in Liang-shu.

29. The fuller version of the Hung-ming chi has been used here. At first sight, the Liang-shu version seems to be more correct: “If thoughts had their seat in parts of the body such as the eyes, why should they (i.e. thoughts) not just as well have their seat in the ears?” But the next question makes it quite clear that the Hung-ming chi version is correct.


any roots? If they really had no roots in one’s body and could have their seat in any place anywhere, then it would be possible for the feelings of Chang Someone-or-other to have their seat in Wang Someone-else, and the characteristics of Li Someone-or-other to dwell in the personality of Chao Someone-else. Is it so? No, it is not so.


(25) Q. The body of the sage is similar to the body of ordinary men, yet there is a difference by which the sage is distinguished from ordinary men. From this it can be inferred that body and soul are different.

A. Not at all. Pure gold glitters and unwashed gold does not. Pure gold that glitters surely cannot be made of the same unglittering material as that of unwashed gold. How much less, then, can the soul   of a sage be lodged in a vessel such as the ordinary man? Nor would it be possible for the soul of an ordinary man to dwell in the body of a sage. Therefore Fang Hsün is depicted as having eyebrows of eight colors, and Ch’un Hua eyes with double pupils, [30] Hsien Yüan as having the face of a dragon and T’ai Hao the mouth of a horse; [31] all of which are outward bodily signs of their exceptional nature. All the seven openings were found in the heart of Pi Kan, [32] the gall bladder   of Po Yüeh was as big as a fist, [33] which shows that their inner organs were unusual. Thus we know that certain parts of the bodies of sages are quite out of the ordinary, and that sages are not only superior to ordinary human beings, but also surpass all other creatures in bodily


30 The sage rulers Yao and Shun are also known in the Shu-ching as Fang Hsün (the, Meritorious) and Ch’ung Hua (Doubly Glorious). The legends about the eyebrows of eight colors and the eyes with double pupils come from Han times and are contained in a number of works; cf. P. Pelliot, T’oung Pao, 19 (1920), 355 ff.

31. Hsien Yüan is another name for the Yellow Emperor, Huang T’i’, who is supposed to have been born in the place of this name in Honan; T’ai Hao (Great Brilliance) is used for the legendary ruler Fu Hsi. It is possible, though, that the reference is to Kao Yao, another legendary figure. Cf. R. Wilhelm, Li Gi (Yena, 1940), pp. 281 ff.

32. The tyrant Chou Hsin had his uncle Pi Kan put to death because he had so often been reprimanded by him for immoral behavior,   and had the heart torn out of the body saying: “I have heard that the holy sages have seven openings in the heart.” See Chavannes, Les Mémoires historiques, I, 206.

33.  Po Yüeh was the given name of Chiang Wei, one of Chu-ko Liang’s generals who fell in battle, in 263; the anecdote about his gall bladder is told in the commentary on his biography in San-kuo chih 44.11b.


form. Whether ordinary men and sages are made of the same substance or not is a question I would not dare to attempt to answer.

(26) Q. You say that the bodies of sages are always different from those of ordinary men. May I therefore put the following question: Yang Huo resembled Chung Ni, and Hsiang Chi was like the great Shun. [34] What is the reason for Shun and Hsiang, K’ung and Yang, being different in wisdom yet alike in body?

 A. Alabaster is similar to jade, but it is not jade. A cock resembles a phoenix, but it is not a phoenx. Since such relations obtain among created things, they cannot but obtain among men as well. Hsiang and Yang had only an outward resemblance (to Shun and K’ung), but not an inner one. If the inner organs are not the same, outward resemblances are meaningless.

(27) Q. Let us admit that the difference between sages and ordinary men is that their bodies and organs are not the same. But the sage is absolutely perfect, so there cannot reasonably be more than one kind, and yet Ch’iu and Tan differed in appearance and T’ang and Wen were unlike in build, [35] which is a further indication that soul and outward appearance do not tally.

A. Sages have the same kind of heart, but do not necessarily have the same bodily appearance, just as horses may have different kinds of coat, but all are fleetfooted, and precious stones may be of different colors, but all are beautiful. That is why the precious stones of Ch’ui Chi of Chin and of Pien Ho of Ch’u both had the value of several cities and the chestnut Hua Liu and the black horse Lü Li could both go a thousand miles. [37]


34. Yang Huo (Yang Hu) was steward to one of the three great families who seized power in the state of Lu, and is mentioned in Lun-yü XVII, 1. His resemblance to Confucius—Chung Ni being the given name of K’ung-tzu—is referred to in Mou-tzu: see Pelliot, T’oung Pao, 19 (1920) 318. Hsiang Chi is Hsiang Yü, leader of the feudal lords and the main opponent of the founder of the Han dynasty. In his biography, Ssu-ma, Ch’ien says: “Shun had eyes with double pupils. I have heard it said that Hsiang Yü also had double pupils.” Chavannes, Les Mémoires historiques, 2, 322.

35. Ch’iu and Tan are the personal names of K’ung-tzu and the Duke of Chou; T’ang the Completer was the founder of the Shang dynasty, Wen Wang of the Chou dynasty.

36. In Tso-chuan, Hsi Kung second year, the following story is told: “Hsūn Hsi of Chin begged his prince to allow him to offer the horses from Ch’ü and the precious stones from Ch’ui-chi or gain passage through Yü in order to attack Kuo. The prince replied: ‘These are our most precious possessions.’” The small [continued bottom of next page]

[272/ 273]


(28) Q. I have now accepted your argument that body and soul cannot be regarded as separate. It is certainly reasonable to conclude that upon the death of the body the soul is extinct. But may I ask what it means when the canonical writings say: “They prepare the ancestral temple [to receive the tablets of the departed] and there present offerings to the disembodied spirit”? [38]

A. This is a manner of speaking adopted by the sage for educational purposes, whereby the hearts of pious sons are strengthened and frivolous thoughts kept under control. It is to this that “understanding by spiritual insight” refers.

(29) Q. Po Yu appeared in a coat of mail, and P’eng Sheng appeared as a wild boar. [39] Surely these events were not recorded in the sacred books merely for educational purposes?


state of Yü lay between Chin and Kuo; Ch’ui-chi is an o1d place name. (Cf. James Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5, 135; S. Couvreur, T’ch’ouen Tsiou et Tso Chuan [Hou kien fou, 1914], 1, 234. Pien Ho lived during the eighth century B.C. in the state of Ch’u. He found a precious stone in the mountains which he offered first to Prince Li, then to Prince Wu. The stone was thought to be a fake, and as punishment Pien Ho had first the left foot and then the right cut off. At last, under the third ruler, Prince Wen, the stone was recognized to be genuine, and called “the precious stone of Ho.” The story comes from Han Fei-tzu 472 ff. It was not until the third century that the famous stone came into the possession of the state of Chao, and the ruler of Chin offered fifteen towns in exchange; see Shih-chi 81.1b.

37. Two of the famous horses belonging to King Mu of Chou.

38. Hsiao-ching 18 (Legge, The Sacred Books of China, 1, [Oxford, 1879] 488). The terms kuei and shen have double meanings. In the classics, the compound kuei-shen simply means “the departed,” “the ancestral spirits.” The dualistic theory of the soul (it is not known when it arose) adds to shen, the meaning of the spirit into which the bright Yang part of the soul (hun) changes after death, and to kuei the meaning of the ghost into which the Yin part (po) changes.

39. Liang Hsiao, whose given name was Po Yu, was a grandson of Duke Mu of Cheng. He wanted to force the high dignitary Kung-sun Hei to go as ambassador to Ch’u. (Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5, 551). Kung-sun Hei refused, knowing that the embassy would mean certain death for him, and he attacked the family of his opponent. Po Yu took flight and found refuge in the neighboring state of Hsü. The high dignitaries then met and made a covenant against him, whereupon Po Yu attacked the capital of Cheng and was killed in battle (see Tso-chuan, Hsiang Kung 30th year; Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5, 553, 557; Couvreur, T’ch’ouen Tsiou et Tso Chuan, 2, 550 f.). Ten years later Po Yu appeared to someone in a dream, clad in a coat of mail, and foretold the death

[273/ 274]

A. There is an endless number of stories about the supernatural, some of which get preserved and some not. Many people have come to a violent end without a single one of them turning into a ghost, [40] so why should P’eng Sheng and Po Yu be the only ones capable of doing, so? It cannot have been an exclusive prerogative of a prince of Ch’i or of Cheng to be a man one moment and a wild bear the next.

(30) Q. In the I-ching it is said: “Hence we know how it is with the outgoing and the returning spirits. Insofar as man is thus similar to Heaven and Earth, he will not come into opposition with them.” [41] There is also mention of “a carriage full of ghosts.” [42] What is the meaning of these sayings?

A. The difference between birds and beasts is the difference be‑


of his murderers. The prophecy came true on the very day foretold and the ghost of Po Yi became the terror of the people of Cheng. At lasst, the minister Kung-sun Chiao (Tzu Ch’an) reinstated Po Yu’s son as his father’s successor, and the ghost ceased to haunt the people (Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5, 613, 618; Couvreur, T’ch’ouen Tsiou et Tso Chuan, 3, 140 ff. The fame of this passage is mainly due to the principle contained in the answer given bu Tzu Ch’an when asked whether Po Yu could have become a ghost: “Yes,” he said, “when a man is born, the soul of the first stages of development is the po. Once the po has come into being, its bright side is the hun. The psychological faculties increase along with growing experience of the material world, and the two souls hun and po become stronger, until the psychological faculties become so vigorous that they may even show their true spiritual power. When the ordinary man or woman dies a violent death, their hun and po souls may still hang around people in the form of an evil apparition; how much more might this be expected of someone like Liang Hsiao, a descendent of the former ruler Duke Mu.” K’ung-tzu P’eng-sheng, the half-brother of Duke Hsiang of Ch’i, was to accompany the ruler of Lu on his homeward journey from the feast Ch’i had given in his honor. In the carriage, however, he killed the Duke of Lu, and was subsequently punished by death. Later when the Duke of Ch’i went hunting, there suddenly appeared a boar that looked human, and in which the attendants recognized P’eng Sheng. The Duke shot an arrow at it, and the board raised itself on its hind legs and gave forth human sounds. See Tso-chuan: Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5, 69, 81; Couvreur, T’ch’ouen Tsiou et Tso Chuan, 1, 126, 143.

40. This argument against the existence of ghosts had already been put forward by Wang Ch’ung; see A. Forke, Lun-heng (Berlin, 1907), 1,. 193, 208.

41. I-ching, His-tz’u chuan I, 4. I have retained Wilhelm’s translation, in I Ging (Jena, 1924), I, 222f. (here translated into English), because it conveys both the philosophical background and the etymological factors (shen, “to stretch,” “to move outward”; kuei, “to return home”) that colored the Chinese conception of the soul (although here the reference is to the dualistic soul theory).

42. I-ching, Hexagram 38.


tween flying and walking, and the difference between men and ghosts is the difference between the dark and the light. Whether men become ghosts after death or not, or the other way around for that matter, is something beyond our comprehension.


(31) Q. What is the practical application of the belief in the extinction of the soul?

A. Distressed by the political harm caused by the Buddhists, by the undermining of morals brought about by the Sramana [monks], and by the way in which they continue on their whirlwind course or creep over the country like a rising mist, I pondered how to prevent this calamity from overwhelming us.

Now why do people donate all their wealth to monasteries and become monks, or ruin themselves in worshiping the Buddha, without thought for kith and kin and without pity for the poor and needy? It is because they are full of feelings of self-regard and lacking in concern for others. Thus a stingy look passes over the face of someone who gives a trifle to a poverty-stricken friend, whereas his whole countenance lights up with joy when he contributes a thousand bushels of grain to a rich monk. Surely this is a case of great expectations when the mock is given a large amount of grain, and no hope of reward when the friend is given a mere handful? [43] Deeds of charity are not so much aimed at helping the needy as at making sure of gaining virtue for oneself.

Furthermore, because they have been deceived by vague, dark sayings that threaten them with the torments of everlasting hell, [44] or enticed by meaningless, extravagant statements that promise them the delights of the highest heaven, [45] people discard the wide-sleeved scholar’s robe and don monastic garb, lay aside the square and the round sacrificial vessels and take up the bottle and the begging-bowl, each and all of them forsaking their nearest and dearest and cutting themselves off from their descendants. And this has occurred to such an extent that the ranks of the army lack competent soldiers, govern-


43. The exrepssions to tu and i ping come from the Shih-ching, Sung I, ii, 4, and Hsiao Ya VI, 8.

44. A-pi (avïci), the last of the eight hells, where sinners everlastingly die and are born again.

45. Tou-shuai (tusita), the heaven where Bodhisattvas are reborn.


ment offices are emptied of clerks, grain stocks are used up in feeding lazy vagrants [the monks], and money is all squandered on monastic buildings and images, Thus it is that these rascally monks have become an insuperable nuisance, and Buddhistic songs of praise rise up everywhere.

The reasons I have put forward are the sole reasons that account for the spread of this sect and for the boundless harm that results.

But if it is believed that everything in the universe [46] follows its own natural law and develops according to its own nature, spontaneously springing into being and then later coming to an end, so that it’s arrival cannot be controlled nor its departure retrieved, then everything will find its own completion in following its natural bent. The common people will be happy tilling their fields and the ruling class will be able to lead a life of leisure. And when there is no shortage of food, because there are plowmen to produce it, and no lack of clothing, because there are silkworm-tenders to provide the material, then the 1ower orders will have a surplus for offering [as tax] to their superiors, and the ruling class will not be obliged to impose harsh laws on their inferiors.

If this belief is put into practice, everyone can be assured of a livelihood, [47], the country put in order, and the ruler restored to full authority.


46. The expression t’ao-chen comes from the favorite metaphor of the potter’s wheel upon which all things are molded. Cf. Ch’ien-Han shu (Wang Hsien-ch’ien edition), 51.10b.

47. The Hung-ming chi version    adds here: “parents can be cared for, one can do something for oneself and for others.”

SOURCE: Balazs, Etienne. Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy: Variations on a Theme, translated by H. M. Wright, edited by Arthur F. Wright (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), chapter 15: The First Chinese Materialist, pp. 255-276. Includes English translation of “Essay on the Extinction of the Soul” by Fan Zhen (Chen), pp. 266-276.

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