Wang Ch'ung (27-ca. 100) was a Chinese philosopher who questioned the validity of contemporary belief and applied a new standard of critical inquiry to the problems of the natural world.
Wang Ch'ung may be described as a rationalist in the sense that he sought explanations that were intellectually satisfying to his reason; as a naturalist insofar as he believed in the independent working of the world of nature; and as a protestant as he rejected current beliefs as ill-founded, misleading, and pernicious. Of his several writings the Lun-heng, or Balanced Discourses, survives complete except for one of the 85 chapters. The work set a new standard of ordered systematic thinking in Chinese philosophy, with separate treatment of subjects as diverse and as all-embracing as the creation and working of the universe, the place of man in creation, or the acceptance of dogma.
Wang Ch'ung's clarity of thought is apparent in his application of strict methods of inquiry. He identifies the subject at issue, and while isolating it from extraneous and irrelevant problems he sets it within its main context. He calls on the results of earlier thinkers, citing passages from literature or historical precedents, and indicates fallacies in their conclusions. Both in such refutations and in providing support for his own positive views, he presents his own observations of material evidence together with arguments by analogy; and he invites his reader to conduct experiments which have been shown to produce satisfactory results. For instance, he explains thunder in terms of the interaction of fire and other forces, and he rejects as disproved the view that thunder is caused by divine or supernatural anger.
In seeking a rational explanation of the universe Wang Ch'ung rejected many of the extravagant conclusions that had followed the popularization of a belief in yin and yang and the powers of the Five Elements. While some of his predecessors, notably Tung Chung-shu, had discerned the operation of regularity or design in the creation of the material world by these forces, Wang Ch'ung held that it was only through their impersonal, undirected, and independent action that matter is created, through processes such as rarefaction and condensation. Man is subject to such forces in the same way as are the other parts of the creation; and just as different crops do not possess moral qualities which will save them from the destruction of field fires, so man's practice of moral precepts does not affect his destiny or save him from natural catastrophe.
Wang Ch'ung thus had no place for the active attention by heaven to human affairs, or for its willingness to interfere on behalf of human happiness, such as Tung Chung-shu had postulated. In a number of chapters Wang Ch'ung reverts to this subject, disproving the concept that heaven expressed its warnings to a ruler of men in the form of rare or outrageous phenomena. Similarly he refutes a belief in the power of omens and disparages the guiding influence that they exerted on human decisions.
There was a prevalent belief in Wang Ch'ung's day that the spirits of the dead possessed powers of cognition and that they were capable of utterance; and that if they were left unpropitiated, they would show their displeasure or anger by wreaking malevolent actions on mankind. Wang Ch'ung rejected such beliefs as superstitious and untenable and sought to relieve the human fears and anxieties that they had engendered. He provided a number of reasons to show why powers of cognition and utterance depend on the possession and command of effective faculties and material substances. He cited the many tales of the appearance of ghosts and their acts of revenge for wrongs that they had suffered and exposed such tales as imagined, unfounded, or lacking in significance. In addition he argued against the validity of paying extravagant services to the spirits of the dead as a means of propitiation, on the grounds that such services both failed to achieve their purpose and involved the participants in ruinous expense.
In writings contemporary with Wang Ch'ung's, the force of ethical precept and of historical precedent had been considerably enhanced by referring to personages of a mythical nature or to historical individuals to whom the possession of superhuman powers had been attributed. In addition there had been a tendency to glorify the achievements of China's past, of which wisdom some periods were represented as a golden age in which wisdom and goodness had ruled unquestioned.
Wang Ch'ung criticized such opinions as being unsubstantiated. He denied flatly that some of the mythical sovereigns of long ago had possessed abnormal physical features which corresponded with inspired powers of government. He refused to accept that Confucius possessed superhuman powers or that all his statements were of unquestionable authority; and he would not accept that the decades of the recent past had necessarily been of poorer value or quality than those of earlier ages such as the reigns of the kings of Chou.
Wang Ch'ung's views were evolved before Buddhism had become established in China. His skepticism has sometimes been compared with that of his near contemporary Lucretius (99-50 B.C.), whose writings were partly devoted to the same objective—that of dispelling the unnecessary fears to which mankind had subjected itself. In the surviving Chinese literature of the period the Lunheng is a somewhat exceptional work, owing to its unorthodox contents, its trenchant style, and its ordered argumentation. At the time, its radical point of view was received with small acclaim or popularity, and it is only in the last few decades that interest has steadily increased in the book, both in the East and the West.
Further Reading on Wang Ch'ung
For the place of Wang Ch'ung in the development of Chinese thought see Fêng Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy (trans. 1937; 2d ed. in 2 vols., 1952-1953); Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China (4 vols., 1954-1965); William T. De Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition (1960); and Wing-tsit Chan, ed. and trans., A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (1963).