Two Chinese Philosophers: Ch`eng Ming-Tao and Ch`eng Yi-Ch'uan


The Ch'êng brothers left only a few writings, the chief of which is Yi-ch'uan's commentary on the Book of Changes. Their philosophy is known to us mainly through the sayings recorded by their disciples, who did not always indicate which brother was the speaker. Until recently it was assumed that both shared the same ideas, those of the tradition which we may call "objectivist", according to which we discover moral principle by studying external things. But modern scholars, for example Fêng Yu-lan and Ch'ên Chung-fan, agree that there were considerable differences between them, and that in some ways Ming-tao is closer to the "subjectivist" school, according to which we can learn to distinguish right and wrong merely by looking into our own consciences. The absence of contemporary references to these differences may be explained by the piety of disciples and by the fact that, although later they led to bitter controversy, in the thought of the Ch'êngs they were hardly more than differences of emphasis. In any case the brothers taught together for less than ten years, ended by Ming-tao's death (1085), and Yi-ch'uan's characteristic views are most prominent in the sayings of the remaining twenty- two years of his life.

The monism and subjectivism of Ming-tao are not his own inventions; they are implicit in predecessors such as Chou Tun-yi and in his contemporary Chang Tsai, although it was only in reaction against the rise of dualism and the "Investigation of Things" that it became necessary for later thinkers to push them to the forefront. What distinguishes Ming-tao from his predecessors is his replacement of the Supreme Ultimate by Principle, on which point there is no difference between him and his brother, except that the latter draws conclusions from it which undermine monism and subjectivism. Indeed, there is one saying of Ming-tao which suggests that he began to think in terms of Principle before his brother:

"Although some of my doctrines were taken from others, the two words 'Heaven's principle' are the fruit of my own experience."

(WS, 12/4A/9) . . .

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • London
Publication year:
  • 1958


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