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Front. Philos.

China 2017, 12(3): 408–428


DOI 10.3868/s030-006-017-0030-2
 
 
RESEARCH ARTICLE

ZHENG Kai

Ontology and Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy


Abstract This paper begins with a critique of the uses of the term “bentilun 本
體論 (ontology)” in modern Chinese scholarship by tracing their claim to being
theoretical paradigms for understanding Chinese philosophy as a philosophical
tradition. It is supplemented by a contrastive discussion of bentilun and its
original ancient Greek counterpart, i.e. ontology, to show that the object of
discourse in bentilun does not match up with that of ontology, namely “being qua
being.” This comparative study also demonstrates that bentilun finds its
philosophical significance in connection with the theory of xinxing 心 性
(heart-mind). In the second section of this paper, a comparative study of
“xingershangxue 形而上學 (metaphysics)” and “metaphysics” highlights the
central tenet that the dao essentially transcends language. Daoist philosophy is
used as an example that identifies a unique predilection toward philosophical
concepts that transcend the realm of nameable thoughts and objects in Chinese
philosophy. Textual evidence is provided to show that the conceptual possibility
of xingershangxue is based upon a fundamental difference between you 有
(being) and wu 無 (not-being), in a way that is similar to philosophical
developments in other early civilizations. Nonetheless, in addition to a
philosophical interest in principles and values that transcend the material world,
Daoist xingershangxue exhibits an idiosyncratic attention to notions and theories
whose object of discourse is essentially unnameable. This characteristic
philosophical interest is identified with the aim of locating essential disciplines
within Chinese philosophy, including the theory of xinxing, practical wisdom,
and the theory of jingjie 境界 (state-of-attainment) in a wider framework of
east and west philosophical traditions.

Keywords bentilun, ontology, xingershangxue, metaphysics, wu, logos, being,


Daoism

How is it possible to discuss Chinese philosophy clearly while there is content


 

ZHENG Kai ( )
Department of Philosophy, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China
E-mail: zhengkai@pku.edu.cn
Ontology and Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy 409

relevant to the discussion of the modes and values thereof, as well there also
being so many approaches and methods? Bentilun 本體論 (ontology) is, on the
one hand, the standard Chinese translation for “ontology” as it is used in Western
philosophy, on the other hand, the term is also widely used in interpretations of
Chinese philosophy advanced by modern thinkers, despite the fact that the
meaning of “benti” 本體 (root-body) and “the study of benti” are often unclear
or ill-defined. Such uses, or rather, misuses of “bentilun” serve only to
exacerbate the impression of incommensurability between Chinese and Western
philosophical traditions. In order to make a constructive comparative
investigation of Chinese philosophy more readily accessible to scholars primarily
versed in the Western philosophical tradition, this paper first provides a critique
of bentilun as it is used in the interpretation of Chinese philosophy, before then
turning to xingershangxue 形而上學 (metaphysics) in search of an appropriate
paradigm that might adequately outline the theoretical tendencies of the Chinese
philosophical tradition.

1 The Misappropriation of “Ontology”

(1) For a long time, the scholars of Chinese philosophy, and indeed even the
entirety of the academic world of China, was keen on discussing “benti” 本體
(being qua being), and “bentilun,” not paying much attention to the different
understandings of the term in their respective contexts. In other words, it is
generally the case that what today is called “benti” and “bentilun” refer to words
used to translate Western philosophy. They are different from the “benti” and
“benti zhi xue” 本體之學 (the study of root-body) found in Chinese philosophy.
Now, whether or not ancient Chinese philosophy has a Western philosophical
concept of “to on” (benti) and a field of investigation similar to that of Western
“ontology” (bentilun) are questions that we must answer (Zhang 1996a).
The difference between the “benti” (root-body) of Chinese philosophy and the
“benti” (being qua being) of Western philosophy is very clear, although it is
difficult to pinpoint the point at which researchers into Chinese philosophy began
using the Western concept of “being qua being” to interpret Chinese thought. The
meanings at play here are so rich that is unclear how to make heads or tails of it
all, the situation being such that “this” (Chinese) term “benti” (root-body) was
unknowingly covered by “that” (Western) one of “benti” (being qua being). The
key to the question is: being stuck in the Western conception of “benti” (being
qua being), can we interpret the ben (root, source) and ti (body) in the Chinese
tradition in a better way? In other words, is the wide use of “benti” and
“bentilun” in the field of research into Chinese intellectual history and
philosophy an unintended misappropriation?
410 ZHENG Kai

More strictly speaking, the misappropriation of ontology is not only a question


regarding the accuracy of a technical term in translation, but it also presents more
complex and deeper questions which are worthy of further research.
(2) In the tradition of modern Chinese philosophical studies, Tang Yongtong’s
studies on Neo-Daoism of the Wei and Jin Dynasties initiated a new model. He
deliberately followed Windelband’s “problem-oriented” method of viewing the
history of philosophy (He 2002, 21−22), and maintained that the originality of
Neo-Daoism (especially Wang Bi) lies in the fact that they advanced a kind of
“ontology.” He states:

During the Han dynasty, philosophers understood tiandao 天道 (the principle


of the Heaven) in terms of wuli 物理 (physics). When it came to the Wei and
Jin Dynasty, however, philosophers degraded tiandao, and focused their
interrogation instead on the benti. Thereupon they focused on “the one” to
guide “the many,” and returned to the ultimate darkness of the Dao. Forgetting
the images and grasping the meaning, they freely wandered beyond all things.
Therefore they jumped out of the cosmology of the Han Dynasty and roamed
and rambled in the realm of the truth of ontology. (Tang 2000, 48−49)

According to Tang, this is the important difference between the Han Dynasty
philosophy and Neo-Daoism. As he says, “To put it simply, Neo-Daoism is about
ontology while the Han Dynasty philosophy is about cosmology and
cosmogony” (Tang 2000, 67).
A good number of scholars started using the concepts of “benti” and
“bentilun” to interpret ancient Chinese philosophy in the twentieth century. For
example, Fang Dongmei repeatedly utilized thorough and comprehensive
comparisons to discuss the connections between cosmology, ontology, and
transcendental-ontology: “If we say that Western philosophy since the ancient
Greeks is an ontology, then the philosophical pursuit of Laozi for the ‘dark and
mysterious gate of a multitudes’ (zhongmiao zhi men 衆妙之門) is a kind of
‘meta-ontology’” (Fang 2012a, 126). He not only says that works of Daoist
philosophy must be appreciated from an ontological perspective, but that it is
even more so the case that we must explain these in terms of a “meta-ontology”
because the philosophical questions Daoists are concerned with are not limited to
ontology. Instead, the course proceeds from “non-being” to “being,” such that “it
takes ontology and inquires upwards, it becomes a ‘meta-ontology’ and also
becomes a ‘non-meta-ontology.’ It conceives that behind, outside, or above any
universe, there is a real source of the universe even further away, even deeper,
even higher” (Fang 2012a, 187). He also says: “The ‘being’ of Laozi’s ontology
and the ‘non-being’ of his ‘meta-ontology’ come together to form a great
combination of ‘being’ and ‘non-being.’ This great combination stands as the
Ontology and Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy 411

highest wisdom of philosophy and a spiritual unification. If one takes it as an


abode, then the whole world, despite being filled with absurdity, can be
transformed into a harmonious and peaceful spiritual realm” (Fang 2012a, 202).
In a similar vein, note how Mou Zongsan agrees in his Xinti yu Xingti 心體與性
體 (Heart-mind-body and Nature-Body) that “ti” 體 (body) has the meaning of
“ontology,” and even claims that the “xinti” 心體 (heart-mind-body), “xingti”
性體 (nature-body), as well as “daoti” 道體 (Dao-body), “tianmingbuyi zhi ti”
天命不已之體 (body that which is sustained ceaselessly by the order of the
Heaven), “yiti” 易體 (Change-body), “zhongti” 中體 (Middle-body), “taiji” 太
極 (highest principle), “taixu” 太 虛 (fundamental entity), “chengti” 誠 體
(sincerity-body), “shenti” 神 體 (divine-body), and “renti” 仁 體 (Humanity-
body), etc., are all types of ontological beings, that are substances in an
ontological sense and thus that Confucian philosophy also became a “system of
ontological beings” (Mou 2003a, 53, 62). The “xingti” that he mentions is a
“moral creative reality,” and his “xinti” is a “metaphysical mind” (Mou 2003a,
44−45). These are fundamental concepts to his “metaphysics of morality,” among
which includes an “ontological statements” and “cosmological statements” or
“onto-cosmological statements” (Mou 2003a, 10−11).
Now, what exactly are the “ben” and “ti” that appear in Chinese philosophy?
Do they correlate at all with the Western concept of “to on?” In fact, the
meanings of “ti,” and “benti” as found in Chinese philosophical sources is very
complex. During the early part of the history Chinese philosophy (pre-Han
Dynasty), “ben” 本 (root), “bengen” 本根 (root), “benyuan” 本原 (root-origin),
yuan” 元 (first) all have the meaning of “root” and “foundation,” especially the
words “ben” and “ti.” Their everyday meaning points to an organism’s (plants
and animals) primary parts, and “ti” also obviously has the meaning of “tiyan”
體驗 (to experience) and “ticha” 體察 (to observe). Also, it must be pointed out
that since Sima Tan of the Han Dynasty, people have gradually been accustomed
to using the characters of “ti” (body) and “yong” 用 (function, use) to consider
and analyze philosophical problems. During the Wei and Jin Dynasties,
philosophical discussion on “ti” and “yong” became prominent, and these
matured into technical terms. Zhong Hui talked about it, and Seng-Zhao
expounded on it explicitly. Fan Zhen discussed the relationship between xing 形
(form) and shen 神 (spirit) using the same language. And within a Buddhist
context, Daosheng and Seng-Zhao studied the problem of Buddha nature on the
same basis. The classics of the Daoist religion of the Six Dynasties and the Sui
and Tang Dynasties contain many discussions on “ben” and “ji” 迹 (traces),
which collectively can be viewed as a development of tiyong 體用 (body and
function).
The brief retrospective analysis above is helpful in understanding all of the
different types of questions to which the “misappropriation of ontology” gives
412 ZHENG Kai

rise. Tang Yongtong’s research into Wei and Jin Neo-Daoism is a rather
representative case of the kind of “ontological” explanation which has
accompanied research into Neo-Daoism for a long time, however, the research
done in recent years makes clear that interpreting Wei and Jin Neo-Daoism’s
“bentilun” as a “meta-ontology” is still worthy of discussion. Zhang Dainian had
already early subtly criticized this interpretation and moreover tried to take it a
step further by organizing and analyzing ancient Chinese ontological concepts
and shedding light on the special characteristics of Chinese ontological concepts
by comparing them with Western ontological concepts (Zhang 1996a, 487−95,
629−46; 1996b, 163−66). Fang Dongmei thinks that Daoist philosophical
discussions about “non-being” indicate a kind of “meta-ontology” which inspired
people to profound thoughts and which was beneficial to spiritual understanding;
however, from the perspective that any “ontology” is just a footnote in regard to
Aristotle’s search for “being qua being,” “meta-ontology” or even “non-meta-
ontology” is already mired in an ontological mode of thought and thus it is
impossible to avoid the nominalism (i.e. mode of thinking based on the workings
of language) implied in the Categories (1a−9b). This is completely opposite to
Daoist philosophy. Mou Zongsan liked to use “ontological being” and “reality”
to explain Song-Ming philosophical concepts such as “xin zhi benti” 心之本體
(the root-body of the Heart-mind), “xing zhi benti” 性之本體 (the root-body of
nature), “qi zhi benti” 氣之本體 (the root-body of the quintessential substance),
etc.; Zhang Zai’s so-called “qi zhi benti” certainly has the meaning of “the
original state of qi”; Zhu Xi’s “xing zhi benti” and “xin zhi benti” both point to an
original state (Zhang 1996a, 631−32). Wang Yangming often used “xin zhi benti”
to point to the “original mind-state or the original state of the mind but not the
internal essence of the mind (Chen 1991, 82−83).” None of these deal with the
relation between “noumenon and phenomenon” of Western philosophy (Zhang
1996a, 632; Chen 1991, 83). Moreover and more importantly, if we say that
Chinese philosophy is a philosophy that discusses dao and li 理 (principle), then
are the dao and li mentioned and sought after in ancient Chinese philosophy each
a kind of substance that exists in reality? If the dao is without sign or form, then
how does li take form? In other words, the non-substantiation of the dao and li
are important characteristics of Chinese philosophy that are not to be neglected.
In conclusion, the discussion of “tiyong benmo” 體用本末 (body, function,
and root, tip) in Chinese philosophy (including Neo-Daoism) does not,
fundamentally, match up with the concepts of “ousia” (substance) or “being qua
being.” It is even more clear that they are fundamentally different if Wang Bi’s
Neo-Daoist concept of “yi wu wei ben” 以無爲本 (take non-being as the root)
(Wang 1980, 110) is compared to the notion of “being qua being.”
(3) I lean towards the opinion that we cannot be more cautious when using the
ambiguous terms of “benti” and “bentilun,” because they are, after all, attached
Ontology and Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy 413

to the meaning of “ontology” which makes it so hard to avoid the connotation of


“ousia,” “substance,” and “substantiation.” Li Zehou once brought up the
concept of “qinggan bentilun” 情感本體論 (the ontology of emotion), and he
also brought up the concept of “historical ontology.” Both of these are unclear
and easily lead to misunderstandings (Li 2005, 248). Chen Lai created “renxue
benitlun” 仁 學 本 體 論 (Ontology of the Study of Humanity). Although he
undertook a great deal of much needed conceptual organization and analysis, it is
still hard to clearly draw lines between his use of the term “bentilun” and
“ontology” in the Western sense of the word, such that the term is ultimately
unable to free itself from the theoretical hold of ontology (Chen 2015, 115−26).
This theoretical approach therefore cannot transcend the limits posed by the
presumption that “benti” is an object of epistemology. Is it possible to find a
mode of philosophy within the history of Chinese philosophy that is similar to
ancient Greek ontology? As a matter of fact, Wang Bi’s so-called “ben” is
precisely opposed to “mo” (tip); his so-called “ti” is precisely opposed to “yong.”
Supposing that our goal is to comprehend and compare how “benti” and
“bentilun” are used within the horizon of Western philosophy, we must then limit
them to serving fundamental philosophical theories and accordingly comprehend
them on the level of philosophical thought of the source of the wanwu 萬物
(myriad things). Zhang Dainian said that in Chinese philosophy, ontology has the
following three characteristics: the first is that ancient philosophers did not
discuss tiyong in terms of real and non-real. This is different from the Western
distinction of observable phenomenon and its underlying substratum. the second
is it specially focuses on the unification of cosmology and ontology (this is
especially clearly expressed in the modern philosophy of Xiong Shili); the third
is that ontology and ethics are inseparable (Zhang 1996a, 636). This passage
makes an extremely important point. To take the analysis one step further, the
discussions of “ben” and “ti” in Chinese philosophy, especially Wei-Jin
Neo-Daoism and Song-Ming philosophy, precisely express the special
characteristics of their philosophical arguments. In other words, the concepts of
benmo, tiyong mainly only appear in the context of xinxingxue 心性學 (the
theory of Heart-mind-nature) theories. At the same time this also suggests that
the most important form of Chinese philosophy is the theory of xinxing. This is
because it (the theory of xinxing) assimilates epistemology, ethics (including
political philosophy), and even logic. Its intellectual pedigree is very complex
and it can be said that it contains a great deal of spirituality and practical
wisdom—this is different from the “wisdom” that the ancient Greeks sought.
There is no harm in quoting Wang Yangming’s famous dictum of “Watching
flowers in the mountains” in order to discuss this topic further. Chuanxi lu
records:
414 ZHENG Kai

While traveling in the southern hamlet and a friend pointed to a flowering tree
among the stones and asked: “If there is nothing which is outside my mind in
all under Heaven, then what relation does this flower which blooms and falls
by itself deep in the mountains have to my mind?” I replied: “When you had
yet to see this flower, both your mind and the flower make stillness their abode.
After seeing this flower, then its appearance becomes immediately clear. Thus
you know that this flower is not outside your mind.” (Wang 2011, 122−23)

Chen Lai has offered an interpretation of this saying: “Here, Yangming did not
say that not having the idea is not having the flower. He only said that: ‘both
your mind and the flower make stillness their abode.’ Stillness is the opposite of
words which proceed from emotions, just like it is said: ‘that which is affected
and then moves is called idea,’ at the time that the mind has yet to be moved by
the flower, it has yet to have the idea thereof, but this does not mean we can say
the mind is a non-being; before the flower has entered into the structure of
perception it exists as an image in the state of ‘stillness,’ however, this does not
mean that the flower does not exist. Since Yangming did not bring up any
opposition to ‘blooms and falls by itself’ means that which he said is not about
the existence of the blooming and falling” (Chen 1991, 58−59). Since the main
point of Yangming’s philosophical reflections is not the “question of existence,”
then what reason do we have to continuing following the ontological approach in
asking the question of ontological being? Using phenomenological theories to
explain the theories of Yangming’s philosophy is very insightful. However, I
think that what is more important is the need to explain and understand it from
the perspective of the theory of xinxing. This is the same as Yangming’s remark
that “When Heaven and Earth, ghosts and spirits, and the myriad things leave my
spirit then there is no Heaven and Earth, ghosts and spirits, or the myriad things”
(Wang 2011, 140−41). This is also to say that theoretical paradigm of
Yangming’s philosophy is in the end a theory of xinxing. Now, this paradigm
cannot but be incompatible with a view that examines it from an
epistemological-ontological perspective. This is because these two different
philosophical paradigms simply do not have a common measure. Benti, the
relation between mind and matter, and the relation between knowledge and
action in the theory of xinxing or jingjie xingershangxue 境 界 形 而 上 學
(metaphysics of state-of-attainment) all possess special characteristics. The
example of “this flower [being] not outside your mind” given above, Yangming’s
position that “sincerity is the benti of the mind,” and even the very common
concepts of cheng 誠 (sincerity), zhong 中 (equilibrium), ren 仁 (humanity)
etc., can only be understood and comprehended on the level of xinxing—spiritual
metaphysics. Without this there is no means to advance.
In brief, “benti” in Chinese philosophy touches upon the theory of xinxing and
Ontology and Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy 415

it is only within the context of the theory of xinxing that its actual meaning can
appear. Moreover, the “benti” of ancient Greek philosophy certainly has more to
do with epistemology and logic, which exhibits an essentialist way of thinking,
i.e. it proceeds from considerations of “phenomenon” and “essence.” That
“benti” is more like “substance” is expressed in Aristotle’s philosophy. In
reflecting on thoughts on “benti” expressed in Chinese philosophy, what is
essential is that “benti” attempts to avoid turning the fundamental “dao” or
“principle” or “non-being” into a substance, but instead, it leans more towards
using the unification between the subjective and the objective, mutual
completion of dao and things and ti and yong as one in order to explain the
relationship between being and phenomenon. If we say that the fundamental
theoretical paradigm of Western philosophy since ancient Greece is tied up in
epistemology and logic, then the theoretical paradigm of the theory of xinxing
that was founded in the Chinese philosophical tradition in the aftermath of the
Warring States period; if we say that the former is based in the “separation of the
objective and subjective,” then the latter leans more towards breaking down the
barrier between the objective and subjective in order to enter into a spiritual state
of “zhuke hunming” 主客渾冥 (murkiness of the subjective and objective).
(4) It is of utmost importance to seek a greater understanding of Chinese
philosophy introspectively—that is to say, within its own self-given framework,
from an inward insight, instead of an outward circumspection. Why is this so?
Viewed from the paradigm of Western philosophy, Chinese philosophy is full
of the ludicrous and the bizarre. Terms such as shengren qixiang 聖人氣象 (the
idiosyncrasy of the sage), jingshen jingjie 精神境界 (the spiritual state-of-
attainment), tianren heyi 天人合一 (the inseparability of Heaven and humans),
zhixing heyi 知行合一 (the inseparability of knowing and doing), xinwu heyi 心
物合一 (the inseparability of mind and things), tiyong heyi 體用合一 (the
inseparability of body and function), and also youwu shuangqian 有無雙遣 (the
double disposal of being and non-being), dao qi zhi guantong 道器之貫通 (the
penetration of Dao and things), yuzhou-benti zhi buer 宇宙−本體之不二 (the
oneness of the cosmos and the origin), all seem rather “unphilosophical.” And yet,
these “unphilosophical” doctrines are precisely what constitute the important
characteristics of Chinese philosophy.
The problem thus is as follows—how should we proceed with the confluence
of Chinese and Western philosophy so that Chinese philosophy can gain broader
acceptance and deeper understanding? In other words, if the transposition of
benti and bentilun in interpreting Chinese philosophy does not lead to a clearer
understanding of its way of philosophizing and its theoretical bearing, then how
do we proceed constructively, such that we can locate Chinese philosophy in a
wider frame of philosophical traditions, allowing the essential characteristics of
the Chinese tradition to become comprehensible in their own right, which could
416 ZHENG Kai

in turn make a comparative study of east and west philosophy truly possible?
Here I would like to use an example from studies of Zhuangzi. In my humble
opinion, Zhuangzi’s philosophy consists of two parts, i.e., the world of thoughts
and the spiritual realm. “The world of thoughts” refers to the issues that can be
grasped and expressed by concepts and language, including cosmology,
epistemology, ethics (including political philosophy), and even logic. These
topics receive a detailed discussion in the Zhuangzi. For example, the chapter of
On Equalizing Things manifests the work’s characteristic strictness, depth, and
also its logical propensity. However, the spiritual realm goes beyond the world of
thoughts. It is beyond any naming and image, outside of words and language.
Therefore, any revelation of the truth of the dao cannot appeal to naming, zhi (知
knowing) or zhi (智 knowledge) but instead make use of insights, enlightenment,
and practice, in order to point to an inwardly and subtle spiritual experience. To
take one step further, the one who embodies the dao can only be presented
through his/her spiritual realm. By the same token, the question of “What is the
dao?” can only be answered through this answer that is in itself not an answer.
Seen from this perspective, we can appreciate the centrality of the free
wandering shenren 神人 (godly human), zhenren 真人 (true human), zhiren 至
人 (ultimate human) and shengren 聖人 (sage) in Zhuangzi’s philosophical
thinking. It is exactly through these philosophical figures that Zhuangzi
presented to us a free and broad spiritual realm. I believe that the division of the
world of thoughts and the spiritual realm can be said to correspond to “the world
of things” and “the world of the dao” in Zhuangzi’s and Laozi’s texts. Through
the clarification of the world of thoughts, it might be possible for us to find an
approach, a bridge, a jumping board through which the spiritual realm might be
comprehended and grasped.

2 Metaphysics and “Xingershangxue”

A profound suspicion is cast over the ubiquitous and misplaced use of bentilun in
the previous section. The purpose of giving voice to such a misgiving is not to
place an unnecessary obstacle in front of comparative study of eastern and
western philosophical traditions, but rather to establish a valid comparative
structure where philosophical dialogue between separate traditions could fall into
place. If we come to view Chinese philosophical writings sympathetically and set
aside the Hegelian idea of there being only one philosophy in the world, a
foundation for our comparative investigation becomes tenable: Chinese
philosophy is a distinct philosophical tradition that is independent from its
counterpart in the west. However, as one of many traditions within a multivalent
philosophical landscape, Chinese philosophy is still in need of justification. In
Ontology and Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy 417

other words, unless we can supply a clear formulation of the theoretical paradigm
employed in the Chinese philosophical tradition, any discussion of the meaning
and value of Chinese philosophy will be in vain.
The reason that this essay searches for a theoretical paradigm within Daoist
philosophy is that a unique xingershangxue lies at the heart of Daoism—one that
is to be distinguished from the idea of metaphysics in ancient Greece. This
distinction is key to deepening our understanding of the theoretical paradigm and
value of Chinese philosophy. Another point is also important: existing studies
have paid close attention to Daoist philosophy, and their achievements provide a
firm ground for us.1
If it is possible to summarize Daoist philosophy as a conception of the study of
metaphysics, i.e. xingershangxue, we must ask: is it reasonable to identify
relevant Daoist doctrines and discourse as “metaphysical”? To answer this
question we must turn to a comparison between metaphysics as it is conceived in
the western tradition and xingershangxue before highlighting similarities and
differences between the two. By doing so we will also pinpoint the characteristics
unique to Daoist xingershangxue. This endeavor shall set an important
foundation upon which we might further apprehend the theoretical paradigm of
Chinese philosophy.
(1) The most important concept in Daoist philosophy, the dao becomes a
philosophical concept only after being distilled from wu. The discovery of wu is
an important foundation for Laozi’s philosophy; it also sets an important
measuring stick for the philosophical breakthroughs made by scholars in the
pre-Qin period.2 Without this intellectual discovery, ancient philosophers could
not have been able to “venture from the world of ordinary objects to the world of
the dao,” nor to venture “from the world of you to the world of wu” (Wang 2011,
3−11). It was precisely the discovery of wu and Laozi’s creative interpretation of
the dao through wu that endowed philosophical meaning and significance to the
dao. By doing so, Laozi greatly enriched the meaning of “dao” while setting it
completely apart from previous meanings of the word (Zheng, 2014).
In other words, “dao” went through a process of conceptualization under Laozi.
The dao as a philosophical concept is distinct from ordinary, vernacular
                                                             
1
Mou Zongsan’s point that Laozi’s philosophy is “a kind of metaphysics of
state-of-attainment” is very insightful. For more details, see Mou (2003b, 108). Also, Wang
Zhongjiang, Zheng Kai, Ma Delin, Wang Bo have all written on this topic. For more details,
see Wang (2001), Zheng (2003), Ma (2003a), and Wang (2011), etc.
2
Zhang Dainian once said: “Laozi’s so called ‘wu’ can be analyzed to have three different
meanings. The first points to the empty part within individual things; the second points to what
comes before there are individual things and to the situation thereafter; the third points to the
highest source that transcends all individual things.” For more details, see Zhang (1989,
73−74). 
418 ZHENG Kai

meanings of the word (including “daolu” 道 路 [road], “discourse” and


“principle”). Similarly, one must not attempt to look for the meaning of “dao”
through its vernacular or lexical meaning (e.g. through analysis of the glyphic
composition of “dao”). This is because the primary meaning of the dao is “wu.”
Daoist philosophers following Laozi gives meaning to the dao” through “wu.”
The use of “wu” was first found in oracles bones. Represented by the character
, it signifies a lack of “you,” meaning “something is not here or there, not
found in this moment or any particular moment (not appearing in space or time)”
(Bu, 2007). “Being born from non-being” is a proposition entertained by thinkers
of several early civilizations. Apart from the obvious example of Cosmos born
out of Chaos, the Rgveda also includes a hymn that start with:

(Rgveda 10, 129, 1).


Then there was neither existence nor non-existence (translation by Yu 1987,
181−84).

Ancient thinkers (Chinese or otherwise) often interpreted “wu” through the


absence of “you.” Examples of intersubstitutable uses of “wang” 亡 (elapse) and
“wu” often found in ancient Chinese text support this proposition, as “wang”
represents the state or process of vanishing or dying away.3
However, the meaning and significance of “wu” in Daoist philosophy is not
exhausted by “not-having” or “not-being-there.” If we concentrate on the
formlessness of the dao and compare it against the concept of “being” in ancient
Greece, then “you” takes the meaning of existent beings, i.e. objects that are
found in space and time. Laozi’s “wu” primarily refers to what lacks form,
phenomenon, or object, as well as what is without name or action. While “being”
in ancient Greece is thought of in terms of its verbal representations, Laozi’s dao
is an x which is not any “thing”, or that which is wuming 無名 (nameless).
Laozi’s “you and wu” therefore must be understood in terms of “xing 形 (having
form) and wuxing 無形 (formless),” “ming 名 (having name) and wuming 無名
(nameless),” “wei 爲 (action) and wuwei 無爲 (non-action),” “yu 欲 (having
desire) and wuyu 無 欲 (desire-less).” Wu does not signify an absolute
nothingness or nothing-at-all, rather, it represents a philosophical negation and
deconstruction and it points towards a dialectic reflection.4 Therefore “fanzhe
                                                             
3
The Shuowen Jiezi says: “Death means to escape. It is composed of ‘to enter’ and the ya
brush stroke” (“Wang, tao ye. Cong ru, cong ya”).
4
Wang Zunji says that Laozi “advanced the dialectical concept of ‘the theory of
being-nameless (wuming)’ which does well in summarizes this negative concept, which is the
existential principle of ‘wu.’ Laozi’s so-called ‘wu,’ as a ‘negating form’ and logical ‘negative
concept,’ is both an absolute substance as well as a mutual co-dependent.” For more details,
refer to Wang (1958, 44−45).
Ontology and Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy 419

dao zhi dong” 反者道之動 (the movement of the dao by contraries proceeds)
(Laozi Ch. 40) offers an important interpretive hint for our understanding of wu.
More specifically, “wu” is not “being anything,” but rather an “x that is not any
thing” (e.g. “wuwuzhe fei wu” 物物者非物 [that which makes things things is
itself not a thing], “shengshengzhe bu sheng” 生生者不生 [that which gives life
to life is itself not living], and “xingxingzhe bu xing” 形形者不形 [that which
gives form to form is itself formless]). Far from being an empty signifier, this
“being which is not any thing” is represented concretely by wuxing, wuming,
wuwei, and wuyu (Zheng 2014).
The concept of wuming is a fundamental feature of the dao that marks the
latter’s profound divergence from the ancient Greek concept of logos. Laozi’s
poetic narration and Zhuangzi’s intentional zhiyan 卮言 (incredulous account)
employ an indirect, philosophical language that points at the xingershang 形而上
(metaphysical, “above-form”) truth of the dao. One of the intellectual resources
for Wangbi’s successful explication of the idea of “tiandiwanwu yi wu wei ben”
天地萬物以無爲本 (wu is the root of the myriad things under heaven) comes
from the neo-Daoist methodology of “deyiwangyan” 得意忘言 (forget words as
soon as the meaning is grasped). Buddhists (especially Zen Buddhists) argue for
truth that transcend names and forms, and believe that “the highest truth dwells
above name, words, and thought and is graspable while also indescribable” (Xu
2007, 112). This Buddhist tenet and corresponding Daoist notion wuming support
one another. Recent self-critical developments in Western philosophy including
the writings of Heidegger have called “logic-language-centrism” into question.
The fact that Heidegger finds intellectual resources in the writings of Laozi
should not be seen as a coincidence (Ma 2003a, 137−92).5
(2) It was the Japanese philosopher Inoue Tetsujirō who first translated
“metaphysics” as “xingershangxue” and his elegant choice of words has since
been universally adopted (Wang 2001, 7−8). Since these two words tell of an
obvious relation, similarities and differences between Daoist xingershangxue and
ancient Greek metaphysics deserve our attention. As such, a comparative study
shall reveal some of the core characteristics of Daoist philosophy.
Metaphysics was originally an untitled work of Aristotle’s. It was Andronikos
of Rhodos, who, in the 1st century BCE, gave this work its famous title for its
bibliographical position immediately after Physics. Metaphysics deserves to be
an independent philosophical work, for it deals with subject matters distinct from
those pertaining the study of natural phenomena, or physis. Physics prescribes
the investigation of laws that govern natural occurrence, whereas Metaphysics

                                                             
5
Ma Delin expertly discusses Daoist “linguistic metaphysics” in this chapter of his book; see
also Ma (2003b).
420 ZHENG Kai

sets out to question “being qua being.” In this light, neither Plato’s conception of
eidos nor Aristotle’s conception of substance is exempt from influences from the
physical way of thinking. Aristotle’s treatment of the problem of participation
gives us a good example.
It seems that in the ancient Greek “logos” could be viewed as an intellectual
parallel for our understanding of the dao.6 The word “logos” as used in the 5th
century BCE has meanings that must be referred to by multiple words in modern
language, including discourse, narration, thought, cause, reason, justification,
measure, standard, analysis, and definition (Lü 1992, 21−26).7 Logos is the
articulation of rational thought and a representation of things as they are: cosmic
principles are identified with principles distilled from verbal articulation.
Following Heraclitus, Parmenides of Elea proposes a theoretical standpoint
founded upon logos, for example, he writes:

Χρὴ τὸ λέγειν τε νοεῖ ν τ ́ ἐ ὸ ν ἔ μμεναι·


ἔ στι γὰ ρ εἶ ναι, μηδὲ ν δ ́ οὐ κ ἔ στιν· (Parmenides Frag. 6).
It is necessary that saying and thinking actually are.
For being exists, and nothing does not exist.

In this particular fragment “are” and “being” serve as the origin of the
quintessential concept of being that later found its indispensable place in Western
philosophy. Wang Taiqing points out that the various forms of the verb “to be”
means “to effect or to actuate” and effectively function as the foundation of both
the verb “to be” and the noun “being” (Wang 1993). The double meaning of “to
be” implies that “that which is” is precisely “that which is represented in
language” or “that which is cognizable.” Parmenides’ theory of “to on” was then
absorbed by Plato who later developed his theory of eidos (form), where “eidos”
stands for objective “being” as well as “that which is cognizable.”
Aristotle’s discussion of “being qua being” follows Heraclitus and Parmenides’
intellectual footsteps and analyzes ousia in terms of a theory of predication.8 For
Aristotle, ousia, closely connected to the verb “to be,” means “essence.” In the
Categories, protai ousiai, or primary substances, are defined as “that which is

                                                             
6
Daoism clearly excluded knowledge and intention as being outside the essence of the dao,
moreover, it also different from Western philosophy. Xu Fancheng pointed out: “Knowledge
and intention” are both “logos.” That is to say, “logos” within Western philosophy mainly
includes the two aspects of knowledge and intention. Refer to Xu (2006, 170).
7
Lü cites the theory of W.K.C. Guthrie (1979, 422−24), and also analyzes it. This can be
referred to here.
8
Wang Taiqing also says: “This philosophy that investigates ‘on’ is called ‘ontologia,” it uses
“onta (being)’ for its name and we translated it as ‘bentilun’” (Wang 1993).
Ontology and Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy 421

neither said of nor in any subject (Lü 1992, 106−7).”9 The incessant emphasis
placed upon language and conceptual analysis in the Western philosophical
tradition has its roots in a predicative logic typified by “being” and the verb “to
be.” This explains why Heidegger would go on to state that “language is the
home of being.”
(3) Daoist xingershangxue is a well-articulated and unique theoretical
paradigm.
Both “Logos” and “dao” could refer to “discourse.” Insofar as they both
signify immaterial entities, they pertain to thoughts that transcend limits
circumscribed by the study of material objects, i.e. physics. However, apart from
its similarities to “logos,” the dao is fundamentally unnameable. The passage
“dao yin wuming” 道隱無名 (the dao is hidden and has no name) (Laozi Ch. 41)
clearly states the non-verbal feature of the dao; whereas “logos” sets a
cornerstone in the tradition of identifying thought (language) with being. Indeed,
the dao can never be subsumed under an analytical vein that revolves around
language. This is to say that even though the dao may amount to a conceptual
equivalent to “being” or “that which is,” it shall certainly not be explicated
further by means of the verb “to be” —an inherent and indispensable component
of “logos.”
From a comparative point of view, the Chandogya Upanishad of ancient India
also provides an important point of reference. Let us look at this line from the
Rgveda once more:

(Rgveda 10, 129, 1).


Then there was neither existence (is) nor non-existence (is-not).10

We can see that, both the Chandogya Upanishad and the fragments of
Parmenides deal with ontology, especially the problem of homogeneity between
reality as it is and human cognition as centered on the is/is-not distinction.
Certain monistic schools of Hinduism identify Brahman (the ultimate reality)
with Atman (self, soul) and are therefore radically different from Parmenides, but
nevertheless, the word representing ultimate existence and truth (also good and
beauty), सत (sat) is also the present participle of the root of the verb “to be.” The
                                                             
9
Lü quotation of Aristotle’s Categories is slightly different from Fang Shuchun’s translation
thereof. Cf. Fang (1959, 12). Fang Shuchun translates ousia as “shiti” (substance) and
hypokeimenon (grammatical subject) as “subject” (i.e. as opposed to object); however the
word “hypokeimenon” at least has this double connotation: on the one hand it is grammatical,
on the other it is existential.
10
Wu Baihui translates this line as “wu (not) is non-being (feiyou), you (being) is also
non-being (feiyou)” (Wu 2012, 52). This line was translated by Bai Gang in accordance with
Müller’s 1965 version of the Rgveda. For more details refer to Bai (2009, 76). 
422 ZHENG Kai

implication is that “truth,” from its etymological beginning, represents “that-


which is” or simply “is-ness.” The identification of being and truth methodically
advanced by Parmenides finds resonance with ancient Indian thinkers (Bai 2009,
76−77). This is a point where both the ancient Greek and Indian traditions differ
from Daoism.
(4) However, the dao differs from notions of “logos” and “existence,” for the
dao finds its place beyond language and rationality. The dao also differs from
“that which is” because “is” is a subject-matter for logical deduction and can be
represented in language.
The idea that the proper study of nameable entities exhausts the contents of
philosophy is a fundamental tenet that runs deep in the Western philosophical
tradition. The history of philosophy shows that concepts and names that emerge
in language have the tendency to find their referent in reality. Perhaps this could
also explain why Aristotle’s ousia incorporates elements of existing entities.
Whitehead writes, “[t]he excessive trust in linguistic phrases has been the
well-known reason vitiating so much of the philosophy and physics among the
Greeks and among the mediaeval thinkers who continued the Greek traditions”
(Whitehead 2010, 17). In contrast, the Daoist espousal of wuming guards against
this problematic intellectual inclination. As such, the paradigmatic profundity of
Daoist philosophy is not to be neglected.
Aristotle’s Metaphysics is intended as a new pathway separate from the study
of natural science, i.e. Physics. In this regard, Aristotle resonates in spirit with
Daoist philosophy. However, the subject of ontology, as it is pursued by ancient
Greek philosophers, does not find its parallel in Daoism. If we were to view the
development of ontology from natural science, i.e. physics, as being analogous to
the development of daolun 道論 (the study of the dao) from wulun 物論 (the
study of objects), then one may suggest that whereas ontology is a logical
extension of physics insofar as it retains intellectual tendencies characteristic to
physics,11 Daoist xingershangxue takes up a path that transcends material objects
and severs all ties with wulun. I believe that Daoist xingershangxue is as
intellectually profound as the study of metaphysics in ancient Greece.
Xingershangxue could even be termed “the study of that which transcends
entities with form” in its true sense. In comparison, “metaphysics” ought to be
properly understood as being “after-physics,” for metaphysical investigations in
the Western philosophical tradition since ancient Greece have been all too

                                                             
11
Actually, parts of Aristotle’s Physics and his Metaphysics are the same, for example, Scrolls
A and B of Physics discuss the questions of the motion of substances and generation. This
discussion is related to the content of Scroll A of Metaphysics. It can be said that Metaphysics
strongly presents the characteristics of “post-physics.”
Ontology and Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy 423

“physical.”12

3 Concluding Remarks

In previous sections, this essay discussed the “misappropriation of ontology”


within the discipline of Chinese philosophy and proceeded to elaborate upon
paradigmatic features of Daoist xingershangxue. In the following passage, I
intend to share thoughts that will open up new possibilities in our research, such
that we may gain a richer and deeper understanding of the paradigm and value of
Chinese philosophy.
Here, I proceed along the line of thoughts developed by Thomé Fang. On the
topic of the dao as it is discussed by Daoist thinkers, Fang quotes the British
philosopher F. H. Bradley, who says that the fundamental philosophical question
is to portray “really real reality.” Fang then notes that the portrayal of “really real
reality” has been attempted via language in Western philosophy since its roots in
ancient Greece. Taking inspiration from “dao ke dao fei chang dao” 道可道非常
道 (the dao which can be put in words is not the enduring and unchanging dao)
(Laozi, Ch. 1) and “dao yin wuming,” Fang proposes a new phrase, “mysteriously
mysterious mystery,” to parallel Bradley’s locution. Fang maintains that “this
phrase serves no more than a signpost. If you were to aspire to look for the true
image of the universe, then there are infinitely many levels of attainment in your
upward search…to understand this, one must realize that the root of Laozi’s
philosophy is not to be summarized with bentilun, but rather one must proceed
with the understanding that there is a so-called meta-ontology above
bentilun—this is a philosophical insight indicated by Laozi Ch. 1. A new
philosophical pathway ought to be forged from this insight” (Fang 2012b, 188).
This passage is incisive and clear and deserve our close attention. I think,
however, instead of inventing a separate branch of philosophical inquiry under
the heading of “meta-ontology,” it is perhaps more prudent to concentrate our
efforts on the comparison between xingershangxue and metaphysics, for such a
comparison will help highlight paradigmatic and intellectual features
characteristic of Daoist and Chinese philosophy. For the same reason, Chen Lai’s
renxue bentilun could use the more precise and appropriate term
                                                             
12
Looking back at the pre-understanding of translating “metaphysics” as “xingershang xue”
we will thus discover that the “metaphysics” of the ancient Greeks is different from the
“xingershang xue” of the Book of Changes. Actually, the ancient phrase “xingershang xue” is
even more abstract, Inoue Tetsujirō noted this point and later he not only continued to use the
name “xingershang xue,” but he also used two other translations: “pure philosophy”
(chunzheng zhexue) and “the philosophy of transcending the principles of things” (chao wuli
xue). For more details, refer to L. Wang (2001, 7−8; 2015, 7−8). 
424 ZHENG Kai

“xingershangxue of ren.”
Indeed, the Chinese philosophical tradition does not include the disciplines of
metaphysics or ontology as they are conceived in ancient Greece, i.e. the
philosophical tradition that relies upon logic and language to investigate “being”
with an analysis of the predicative verb “is.” On the other hand, even though the
ubiquitous use of the verb “to be” as found in western languages is evidently
absent in ancient Chinese texts, this does not mean that ancient Chinese thinkers
had not investigated philosophical questions that are otherwise pursued in the
quest for metaphysics.13 On this topic, Ye Xiushan points out, “the ‘limit’ (or
characteristic) of [the Chinese] language did not prohibit ancient Chinese
thinkers from contemplating ‘that-which-is-but-is-not-any-thing,’ it served only
to formulate our ‘way of thinking,’ which is markedly different from the ‘way of
thinking’ that stems from the ancient Greek tradition” (Ye 1994). The Daoist
xingershangxue theoretic paradigm is succinctly characterized by the ancient
definition, “xingershangzhe weizhi dao 形而上者謂之道 (the dao is that which is
above form),” which can be viewed in contrast to metaphysics and ontology from
ancient Greece. The former emphasizes wuming and transcends names and
definitions, while the latter incorporates a predilection towards logic and rational
thinking as exemplified by the study of logic, epistemology, and ontology.
One may summarize the pluralistic and complex theoretical structure of
Daoism with an elucidation of “wu” (not) and its related concepts, around
which central Daoist tenets converge. Concepts stemming from “wu” (not)
include: (1) “wuxing” (formless) (also “wuwu” 無物 [not-object] and “wuxiang”
無相 [without-representation]) is involved with theories of physics (i.e. natural
science). It is characteristic of Daoist thought that dao and its qualities are
grasped through a delicate unraveling of the contrastive relationship between
being and non-being; (2) “wuzhi” (knowledge-less) and “wuming” are concerned
with epistemological problems, these concepts provide a cutting criticism of
conventional veneration of knowledge and doctrinal values while also
highlighting a special kind of wisdom (comparable to “shenming” 神明 [divine
enlightenment]) above our rational capabilities that is necessary for our quest for
“the truth of the dao”; (3) “wuming” and “wuwei” are essential qualities of
                                                             
13
From a comprehensive perspective, the linguistic and philosophical research on the copula
“shi” (to be) is both interesting and meaningful. For detailed research on this topic, refer to Z.
Wang (2015, 237−97); A.C. Graham (2003, 444−89); Shi (2010, 12−32). However, I must
point out that the Daoist metaphysical concept of “the dao” or “non-being” does not have any
connection to the verb “to be” that is commonly seen in Western literature and philosophical
contexts. In other words, Daoist philosophers opened a new style or method of their own and
developed a philosophical mode of thinking that has special characteristics. At the same, this
also explains clearly that the brand of Western philosophy that came out of ancient Greek
philosophy is not unique and unparalleled.
Ontology and Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy 425

“xuande” 玄德 (mysterious excellence) and they are the cornerstones of Daoist


ethics and political philosophy; (4) “wuwei” and “wuxin” 無 心 (not-heart)
transcend the conceptual world and help set a philosophical framework for a
theory of spiritual state-of-attainment that begins with a theory of heart-mind and
practical wisdom (Zheng 2016, 1−2). From wuxing to wuxin, the advancement
from intellectual to spiritual philosophy demonstrates the how the Daoist
philosophical paradigm operates.
To conclude, Daoist xingershangxue comprises the study of physics (natural
science), epistemology, ethics (including political philosophy), and ultimately a
jingjie xingershangxue 境界形而上學 (transcendent theory of spiritual state-of-
attainment), based on xinxinglun. Among these subjects, xinxinglun, practical
wisdom, spiritual philosophy, and the characteristic theory of state-of-attainment
are idiosyncratic Daoist disciplines, quite in contrast with the three core subjects
of the western tradition, namely logic, epistemology, and ontology. If the core
theoretical paradigm of the Western philosophical tradition rests in logic,
epistemology, and ontology, then its counterpart in Chinese philosophy could be
summarized by the terms xinxinglun, practical wisdom, and
jingjiexingershangxue.
Lastly, I want to highlight two topics of discussion and humbly ask for the
advice and opinions of my colleagues:
A. the most fundamental and ultimate concepts in Chinese philosophy, such as
“dao,” “de” 德 (virtue), “li” 理 (principle), “ming” 命 (command), “xing” 性
(nature), “xin” 心 (heart), “cheng” 誠 (sincerity), “zhong” 中 (middle), “shen”
神 (divine), and “ming” 明 (enlightenment) are not to be understood as “ousia”
or “substance” (especially in the Aristotelian sense) that exist in external reality.
On the contrary, their “non-existentiality” is their chief quality and merit.14 In
contrast, both Plato’s eidos and Aristotle’s ousia incorporate elements from a way
of thinking that focuses on “real existence” that can be seen as residue of a
preceding investigation into physics. Laozi precludes any possibility of
apprehending the dao in a concrete, substantial way when he states that “the dao
is hidden and has no name.” This theoretic move also traverses and eliminates
the limits posed by various forms of “nominalism” (namely, the idea that
nameable entities represent the fact of the matter in reality and their investigative
study must exhaust all possible findings within the discipline of philosophy).
More importantly, the “non-existentiality” of the dao is uncontained by any

                                                             
14
It should be said that, “non-substantiality” is indeed the special characteristic of the “dao.”
Huang Kejian said: “The “dao” which is the result of Laozi is one of metaphysics. This type of
metaphysics is a value metaphysics and a metaphysics of non-subtantiality; it appears as it is
intertwines with Heaven and Earth and the myriad things, yet it finds is ultimate end in the
highest realm of man.” For more details, refer to Huang (2010, 292).
426 ZHENG Kai

intellectual territory marked out by names and concepts. It also opens up a


spiritual realm of philosophical contemplation that is more magnificent and
profound. Insofar as the dao is apprehended through wu, “mujidaocun” 目擊道存
(the dao is apparent as soon as eyes are lighted upon it), “daowuwuji” 道物無際
(non-separation of dao and wu), “tiyongyiyuan” 體用一源 (ti and yong share the
same source), “lishiwujian” 理事無間 (non-separation of principle and affairs)
become coherent theories that lay the foundation for the conceptual framework
for the relationship between principle (dao) and phenomena (wu) not only in
Daoist but also in Chinese philosophy more generally.
B. metaphysics as it is conceived in ancient Greece sets forth the paradigmatic
division of logic, epistemology, and ontology as the three core subjects of
philosophy, which in effect formulates the principal way of thinking in the search
for truth among philosophers in the west. One may say this has been the fate of
Western philosophy since Plato. From a comparative point of view, one may pose
a question of interest: for what reason, and to what purpose is the Western
philosophical tradition (metaphysics and ontology) so deeply involved with
theology? Both historical and theoretical findings show that, in the west since
ancient Greece, metaphysics has not been able to shrug off its theological destiny.
Chinese philosophy, however, comprising, as it does, a mutually complementing
system of Daoist and Confucian philosophy, has not developed characteristics
that are found in the monotheistic Judeo-Christian tradition. Instead, traditions in
Chinese philosophy developed a distinct xingershangxue that centers on
xinxinglun, practical philosophy, spiritual philosophy, and theories of
state-of-attainment. Could these be significant insights that might inspire future
philosophical contemplation of value and meaning?

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