|[Life & work] | [On-line texts]
|LIFE & WORK
Born in 27CE in K'ue-chi, Wang Ch'ung is said to have been poor — so poor, in fact, that when studying in the capital, Luoyang, he had to do his reading standing at bookstalls. Also unusually, he could be said to belong to no school or tradition (indeed, his work suffers in part from the absence of an adequate intellectual infrastructure of the right sort). He nevertheless achieved a wide-ranging knowledge of literature (as a result, it's said, of his excellent memory), and achieved the rank of secretary of a district, though his argumentative, non-conformist, and forthright nature lost him the job. Despite this, his work came to the attention of the emperor, who invited him to court; Wang Ch'ung was too ill to go, however. He died in 97CE in the town of his birth.
The work for which he's known is the Lun-Heng, variously translated as Balanced Enquiries, Fair Discussions, or just Critical Essays. Confucianism had become the state religion in 136BCE, and had rapidly degenerated into a mass of superstition, joining Daoism, which the same fate had befallen long before. K'ung fu-zi was worshipped as a god along with Lao-zi, prodigies and omens were constantly being seen and acted upon, ghosts and spirits were said to walk the Earth, and people had begun to order their lives according to feng shui. Wang Ch'ung rejected all of this with undisguised scorn, and set out to argue for a rationalist, naturalistic, mechanistic account of the natural world and the human place in it.
His central claim was that Heaven is spontaneous; that is, it's not purposeful, so doesn't act for or against human beings. Those who insist that Heaven provides us with food and clothing are saying that Heaven becomes a farmer or a weaver for the sake of human beings, which is surely absurd: "Man holds a place in the universe like that of a flea or a louse under a jacket or robe", so how can we think that we can bring about changes in the universe, or that it orders itself for our benefit?
Human beings don't become ghosts at death. For example, why should only they have ghosts, not other animals? They share the same principle of vitality, after all. And, given how many people have died since the beginning of the world, the ghosts would vastly outnumber the living, and we'd be surrounded by them all the time.
Wang Ch'ung's epistemology was equally straightforward and hard-headed: beliefs need evidence, just as actions need results. It's all too easy to rattle off whatever nonsense comes into one's head, and the right sort of audience will believe it, especially if it's dressed up in the right sort of clothes of superstition. What we need, though, are reason and experience.
Wang Ch'ung's arguments are certainly rational and straightforward, but he suffered from the lack of any real tradition of science in China, which meant that his attempts at a naturalistic account of the world often strike us as only a little less peculiar than the views against which he was arguing. Nevertheless, his ideas became well known, especially after his death, and had an influence on the resurgence of a new form of Daoism, sometimes called "neo-Daoism", which developed a more rational, naturalistic metaphysical account of the world free from most of the mysticism and superstition that had infected Daoist thought for so long.