Mou Zongsan 牟宗三, Nineteen Lectures

Mou Zongsan (Mou Tsung-san) Nineteen Lectures, Lecture 3, “The Emphasis in Chinese Philosophy and The Question of the Origins of the Pre-Qin Philosophers”, Excerpts


How did Confucius view the Zhou culture?    His attitude was positive, ritual being always necessary.  Whatever the period, a society will always need ritual.  Confucius believed that the rituals instituted by the Duke of Zhou were in his time still useful.  Of course they could be contracted or expanded with prudence but you ought not to radically overturn them.  So his attitude was positive.  However, it was through his re-vitalization of the Zhou rites that he came to develop what is called Confucian thought.  For it was not that the Zhou rituals were without objective validity because of intrinsic flaws, but rather that they had lost effectiveness because the nobles were corrupt and degenerate and unable to carry the weight of the ritual and music.  Corruption undermined their ability to uphold these rituals, and if they could not practice them, would not the Zhou rituals then become empty?  Because they became empty, they became mere form, became so-called formalism.  The Mohists and Daoists looked upon them as mere form and thus wanted to negate them.  Confucius knew that the corruption of the nobility made the Zhou ritual empty, but he wanted to re-vitalize it.  The Confucian attitude was that to make the Zhou ritual valid, it had to be first revivified.  And how was it to be revivified?  Confucius brought out the word ren [humane, humaneness, humanity] and hence the statement, “’The ritual, the ritual’, they say.  Does it only mean jades and silks?  ‘The music, the


music’, they say. Does it only mean bells and drums?” and “If men are not ren, what use is ritual?  If men are not ren, what use is music?” and the like.  So we see that ritual and music must have real meaning, must have value.  You must have real life and real life lies in this ren.  That is why the idea of ren is brought out to make ritual and music authentic, to give it life, to invest it with objective validity.  With this, the problem emerges, and it does not lie in the ritual and music.  Ritual and music can be improved a bit, that is no problem, for the Sage is neither conservative nor obdurate.  Following the times, ritual may be contracted or expanded, for this was done in the Three Dynasties.  “The Yin following the Xia ritual, what they subtracted or added can be known.  The Zhou following the Yin ritual, what they subtracted or added can be known.  As to the successors to the Zhou, even after a hundred generations, it can be known.” (Analects 2.23).  This is subtracting and adding, on which Confucius has spoken clearly.  Thus the Confucians were not diehard conservatives “clinging to the remains, and guarding the tatters” of the Zhou ritual.  The Zhou ritual was not impracticable in itself, for if you yourself had real life, it would be practicable.  The most important thing was to revive men’s lives, and when the question arrived at this juncture, it became Confucian thought.  That is why, from this point of view, Confucian thought opened up the path to the fountainhead of values, and set upright the moral subject.  In this respect no one could surpass the Confucians.  In speaking of opening up the path to the fountainhead of values, we mean by values moral values, the values of life.

The Confucian contribution to mankind came about when it began to reflect on the culture of the Three Dynasties, and when such reflection led to the idea of ren.  With the emergence of the idea, principles also emerged, and when principles emerged they


determined the direction of man’s life.  Confucianism therefore is a great doctrine.  I have often described this great doctrine in these words:  “In opening the path to the fountainhead of values, in raising upright the moral subject, none have surpassed the Confucians.”  Here is the essential meaning of why Confucians are Confucians.  Hence in their teaching they do not turn outside to speak, they speak directly from here.  They do not take a detour and speak from God, nor do they speak from [the Buddhist]“dependent-origination substance-empty [yuan-qi xing-kong]”.  They do not go outside but speak directly from this ren.  This indeed is greatness, ordinary but profound.  For people’s mentality is always turning outward.  Herein is the greatness of Confucian teaching, whereby it helps human beings rise to their feet again.  That is why in discussing Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, I describe Confucianism with the words:  “In opening up the path to the fountainhead of values, in raising upright the moral subject, none surpasses the Confucians.”  And Daoism?  “In discerning change, none can surpass the Daoists.”

Although Daoism has spoken abundantly on xuan {Dark, i.e., profound] principles and xuan thought, their main effect is to discern reversal, to apprehend the crux of change.  The Daoists are able to see clearly the situation of the times and discern critical change, Zhang Liang [c.189 BCE] being a quintessential example.  It is not that the Confucians do not understand critical change, but that they also have a fundamental spirit that does not allow them merely to move along with critical change.  The Confucians cannot merely apprehend critical change, they also have a question of right and wrong, they also have moral judgement.  Without moral judgement, without right and wrong, once the situation deteriorated, would they not become opportunists?  Even if not


opportunists, they could flee into the deep mountains in search of seclusion.  Didn’t the Daoists do that?  But no.  That is why in past history when times deteriorated, only the Confucians were able to be fully responsible and to stay the course.  In times of peril, only the Confucians were able to stand as the upright column in the rushing stream.  To take refuge in seclusion is not enough.  And what about the Buddhists?  “In discerning karma, none can surpass the Buddhists.”  That is to speak in comparison with Christians.  Christianity teaches sin and original sin through myths.  It speaks of sin every day, but after all its teaching, people are still not always sure what sin is.  Buddhism teacheskarma and ignorance, pushing aside original sin step by step, which is to say “In discerning karma, none can surpass the Buddhists.”

Let us move on to Mohism.  What was Mo Zi’s attitude toward Zhou ritual?  Mo Zi’s attitude toward Zhou ritual was one of negation.  Mo Zi’s teaching viewed Zhou ritual from the standpoint of utilitarianism.  He was therefore in favor of rejecting Confucianism, rejecting music, in favor of frugal burials, and so forth. Thus Xun Zi [fl. 298-238 BCE] criticized Mo Zi [c. 479-381 BCE] with the words “He elevates utility, exhalts frugality, and belittles gradations and degrees.” (Mo Zi, “Rejection of the Twelve Masters” chapter).  To elevate utility means that Mo Zi looked upon utility as of the highest importance; to exhalt frugality and despise gradations and degrees means that he regarded frugality as of the greatest importance, belittling the gradations of qinqin [treating kin as kin]and the degrees of zunzun [according respect to those deserving respect].  Mo Zi’s thought was very shallow, with no understanding of the gradations of qinqin and degrees in zunzun.  The rank-distinctions of qinqin and zunzun are the ranks of values, which should be preserved.  They are not the classes that the Communists talk


about. These are ranks. Ranks and classes are not the same.  For example, in the military there are such ranks as lieutenants and colonels.  In schools there are professors, associate professors, lecturers, teaching assistants, all of them ranks, not classes.  But when the Communist Party talks about struggle, it confounds classes with ranks, saying that professors, associate professors and lecturers are the ruling class and students are the class being ruled.  They even go so far as to apply it to their family, saying parents are the ruling class and children the class being ruled.  All rubbish.  The gradations of qinqin and of zunzun are ranks, are value concepts, determined by a person’s talent, morals, and the closeness or distance in filial duty.  These are not classes.  Mo Zi did not understand these gradations in qinqin or degrees in zunzun, as a result of which he descended into a simple and roughhewn utilitarianism.  He regarded the Zhou ritual as being convoluted and wasteful; hence he did not want to take Zhou as a model, but rather wanted to hold as models the Xia and Xia Yu [founder of the Xia dyn.].  That is why Mr. Tang Junyi [1909-78] once said that Mo Zi was sub-humanist, sub meaning not reaching, not arriving, at the necessity of humanist values; and therefore from the standpoint of utilitarianism he rejected humanism.  In speaking of culture, we cannot adopt utiliarianism completely, for if we were to view culture completely from the standpoint of whether something is useful or not, the results would be awful.  For then many things in our life would have to be removed.

Now let us take a look at Daoism.  What was the Daoist attitude toward Zhou ritual?  The Daoists also negated the Zhou ritual, but not from the standpoint of utilitarianism.  Behind Daoist thought there was a fundamental insight, namely freedom and being at ease [ziyou zizai].  That is why it looked upon Zhou ritual as empty ritual, as formalism.


Consequently, it regarded all of Zhou ritual as something external.  The Confucians did not regard Zhou ritual as external, and hence they said: “The three hundred rules of ceremony, the three thousand rules of demeanour, did not descend from heaven, did not issue from the earth,” but is based on human nature, human feelings.  In this case they are not completely external but have roots in human nature.  But this point could not be seen by Daoism.  It only saw Zhou ritual as hollow ritual, as external, and hence fetters and shackles to our life, preventing us from being free and at ease.  At the back of Daoism’s fundamental spirit is a search for a lofty freedom and ease.  Its freedom is not license, not the freedom appearing in the world today.  Rather, it is a high-level cultivation.  Hence Daoism talks about roaming, the equalization of things, and non-dependence.   Because he saw Zhou ritual as hollow ritual, as external, Lao Zi said: “Therefore, after you lose Dao, you get virtue, after you lose virtue, you get humaneness [ren]; after you lose humaneness, you get duty [yi ]; after you lose duty, you get ritual [li].  Ritual is the slighting of loyalty and trust, and the head of rebellion.” (Lao Zi, chapter 38).

Zhuang Zi [c.369-c.286 BCE] even more conspicuously looked upon Zhou ritual as external and hollow ritual.  He made several elegant statements on this.  In the “Tianzi Fang [Sir Square Field]” chapter he says:  “The people of the Central Kingdom are enlightened on ritual and propriety and uncouth in understanding the human heart and mind.  Formerly, the people who saw me were, in entering and retiring, here completely proper, there completely decorous; in moving with dignity, they were here like a dragon, there like a tiger.”  To him the people of China were utterly proper when it came to ritual and decorum, but towards the human heart and mind they lacked understanding.  This human heart and mind is not the moral mind and nature discussed by Confucianism but


refers to the freedom and ease of the mind [xin-jing].  Zhuang Zi maintained that the lives of these people were by no means free, their spirits not liberated, and they were unable to be free and at ease.  This was how he looked at the Zhou ritual, in a way different from Mo Zi, even though the Daoists likewise adopted a negative attitude towards Zhou ritual.  Mr. Tang Junyi has said that Daoism is supra-humanist.  While Moism is sub-humanist, Daoism exceeds and stands above humanism, transcending humanism and opening up a new vision.

Finally, let us look at Legalism.  How does Legalism regard Zhou ritual?  Legalism also holds a negative attitude toward Zhou ritual.  But it does not negate it in the same way as Mo Zi; nor does it open up another vision like Daoism.  The Legalist attitude is very pragmatic.  It has a thoroughly political perspective, making judgements from the perspective of success.  Confucianism turned the Zhou ritual around to ren, establishing a noble doctrine, opening up the fountainhead of values.  However, it was unable to solve the problems of the day, which is why people described Confucianism as quixotic.  Nor did people heed those teachings of Mencius during his time.  For the purpose of solving the problems of the time, the most practical and practicable was Legalism.  Mo Zi’s preachings didn’t work; Daoism’s preachings didn’t work.  What Legalism focused on were contemporary problems.  At a time when the structure of society and politics was undergoing transition, the Legalists followed this structural transition and pressed forward, conforming their actions to this transitional trend.  The structural transition in politics and in society we speak of here is not a generalization, but can be described in concrete terms.  You can’t just make general statements such as society developing problems, the people suffering.  If so, what kind of a society was the aristocratic society


of the time?  The political structure was feudalist.  The economic structure was that of the well-field system.  These had to be liberated, a task undertaken by Legalism.  Legalism followed the contemporary trend of societal structure undergoing transition to complete this structural transition.  This was moving with the trend to achieve its philosophy.  Because Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism did not achieve their philosophy by moving with the trend, their contributions could only be in the spiritual life.  Towards the politics and economics of their day they made hardly any contribution.

Because Legalism sought to accomplish the structural transition by moving along with the changing times, their first step was to strike at the nobility.  Consequently the Legalists had to clash with the nobles, engaging in a life and death struggle.  However, once they did this, those who were emperors *[rulers]* rejoiced, and so they all employed the Legalists.  There was Li Ke [fl.5th cent. BCE], who became prime minister of Wei [403-241 BCE]; later Wu Qi [fl.5th cent. BCE] was prime minister of Chu [740-330 BCE], Shang Yang [died 338 BCE] was prime minister of Qin [897-221 BCE].  Thus employed, they all clashed with the nobility.  To strike at the nobility, it was necessary to abolish the feudal system and to turn the land granted to the nobles into commanderies and prefectures [jun xian], political units subordinate to the national government.  This was a step of progress, namely the abolition of the feudal system and the establishment of commanderies and prefectures.  Commanderies and prefectures were objective political units whereas the fiefs of the nobles were not, the fiefs belonging to the nobles as private individuals.  Then there was the removal of the well-field system.  Only when the well-field system was abolished could the farmer obtain private ownership.  This is where private ownership began. Once he had private ownership, then the farmer could enjoy


freedom, and only then could he be an independent being not belonging to the noble.  All these steps represented progress.  This then was the work of the Legalists: striking at the nobility, abolition of the feudal system and establishment of commanderies and prefectures, and the abolition of the well-field system, these three measures.  In the Philosophy of History I have recounted it in detail, and it would be well for you to look into it.  This was the sort of work Shang Yang did in the state of Qin, the result of which he was sacrificed.  Wu Qi in the state of Chu was also sacrificed.  When Li Ke was in the state of Wei, it was just the beginning of Legalism, and besides he did not do much and did not engage in too big a clash with the nobility, so he was spared.  These were all able men, all with a strong sense of reality and by no means quixotic scholars.  Li Ke was a student of Zi Xia [a disciple of Confucius], Wu Qi a student of Zeng Zi [a late follower of Confucius].  Both came out of the Confucian school, but in the end both became Legalists.  Legalists like them were not bad men; they were practical men of action.  At a time when the structure of society was undergoing transition they grasped the opportunity to accomplish this transition.  Moving with the times, they were able to succeed, at the sacrifice of their own lives.  Legalists of this kind were not evil men.  Shang Yang was the model of a Legalist; Li Ke and Wu Qi were a prelude to the Legalists.  The common phrase “Guan, Shang, Shen, Han” links Guan Zhong with Shang Yang, making Guan also a Legalist, which is not true.  Guan Zhong cannot be considered a Legalist; he was a great statesman.  When we speak of the great statesmen of Chinese history, Guan Zhong was the first of them.  He was one of those rare figures of history, supremely intelligent, supremely wise, and possessed of great political acumen.  That is why in the two hundred years of the Spring and Autumn period, Duke Huan of Qi’s dominance over the empire was unequalled, for it was through the counsels of Guan Zhong that he became overlord


of the Five Hegemons.  We can only look upon Guan Zhong as a statesman, not a Legalist.

If we say that Legalists like Li Ke, Wu Qi, and Shang Yang were not bad men, then which Legalists and at what point became bad?  Legalists became bad during the period from Shen Buhai [d. 337 BCE] to Han Fei [281-233 BCE].  We can’t really say that discussing law is bad, can we, for without objective law there can be no real governance, and therefore law cannot be regarded as evil.  Even the Sage cannot object to law, except that he rarely discussed it.  This may be because during his time he did not notice this problem; but if you were to point it out to him, even the Sage could not object to law.  But when Shen Buhai started to talk about shu artfulness [technique], then it became a problem.  When it came to Han Fei, he merged the law of Shang Yang with the artfulness of Shen Buhai, adding his own thought, and this is where it got bad.  This kind of Legalism, which is abhorrent, is precisely the Legalism venerated by the present-day [1978] Communists.

Why do we say that with the addition of artfulness [shu] it became bad?  We said that law in itself is not something bad; this we all recognize.  But it depends on what principles, on what spirit you base that law.  This Legalism was based on the artfulness that was taught by Shen Buhai.  And where did the artfulness of Shen Buhai come from?  It came from the Daoists.  When Legalism united with Daoism, Daoism changed in nature, while Legalism got bad.  Law is objective, proclaimed from the government palace, publicized to society.  Where then is this artfulness to be used?  At the locus of the emperor.  This is a secret den, a place I call the Kremlin.  Residing at the place of the emperor, artfulness cannot be made public.  It is a fundamental dynamic force hidden


behind the operation of the law.  And this artfulness is none other than being “unfathomable in reward and punishment, unfathomable in pleasure and displeasure,” that is, being inscrutable in pleasure and displeasure.  Because the use of this artfulness also required great cultivation, Daoism had to be dragged in.  Later on all those great emperors understood this sort of thing, the one who evinced it most clearly being Emperor Yong Zheng [reigned 1723-36] of the Qing dynasty.  But Yong Zheng was not a student of Daoism; he was a student of Chan [Zen] Buddhism, which made it even worse, for that also ruined Chan Buddhism.  From the perspective of his own personal subjective cultivation, Yong Zheng reached an admirable understanding of Chan Buddhism.  But when he used that understanding to rule the great empire, it resulted in the sort of thing that Li Si [fl.221-213 BCE] and Han Fei practiced, a regime that was cold, sinister, and cruel.  This is where Legalism turned bad.  When Legalism reached Shen Buhai, Han Fei, Li Si and the emperor Shih Huang [r.221-209 BCE] of the Qin, it became a great evil.  Li Si said to the emperor Shi Huang [First Emperor] of Qin: “Make law the teaching, make the functionary the teacher.”  This was a great evil; never before had anyone dared utter such words.  This was trashing the human being.  He did not look upon the human being as a person; he merely looked upon the people as tools for farming or for war.  As a result, the Qin dynasty promptly collapsed [209 BCE].  After that no one dared openly declare that they would employ Legalist thought, although they might furtively steal a little bit for use.  But no one dared publicly uphold Legalism as his doctrine.  When the Communist Party appeared, they did not say they were employing Legalism.  Instead they used a new terminology, things like Marxism, Communism, and so on, which actually mean the same.  Doesn’t Communism also use law as their teaching?  They use Marxism, historical materialism, dialectical materialism, class struggle, and so on as their


doctrine.  They also use the functionary as teacher, the functionary in this case being the cadre.

We said earlier that Legalism emerged to complete the structural transition that was taking place at the time, resulting in the striking down of government by the nobility and the establishment of an autocratic monarchy.  This was a great advance in the history of China.  Hence the political structure advanced from its beginnings as government by the nobility to rule by an autocratic monarchy.  The autocratic monarchy lasted more than two thousand years, bringing us now to democratic rule.  As I see it democratic rule is the ultimate form.  Political structure does not have many structural transformations, merely these three.  With those two having passed away, only democracy has the ability to endure and only it has universality.

(Copyright©Julie Lee Wei, all rights reserved.)