An Independent Publisher Serving the Humanities Since 1972.

My Cart:

0 item(s) - $0.00
You have no items in your shopping cart.


 Return to the "Manifesto on Behalf of Chinese Culture" introduction page


Part 6: The Meaning of China's "Learning of the Mind and Nature"


        From the religious belief in the Way, we can move on to discuss China's "Learning of the Mind and Nature." This is simply another aspect of what China in the past called the "Learning of Righteousness and Pattern." It is the natural source of "Righteousness and Pattern" in people. This "Learning of the Mind and Nature" is something that Westerners studying Chinese culture have overlooked or misunderstood. In actuality, this Learning of the Mind and Nature is the fundamental core of Chinese thought, and it is the true source of the theory of the unified virtue of Heaven and human beings.


        The Chinese Learning of the Mind and Nature flourished during the Song and Ming dynasties. Song-Ming Confucianism is the second great stage of development of Chinese thought, after the pre-Qin era. However, actually, the Confucian and Daoist thought of the pre-Qin era already took an understanding of the mind and nature as the core of their thought. This we have already discussed elsewhere. The so-called "sixteen character transmission of the model of the mind handed down by the Sage Kings Yao and Shun" found in the "Old Text" chapters of the Documents is certainly of later origin [2]. However, the fact that later generations forged it and that Song-Ming Confucians deeply believed it and took it as the source of the orthodox transmission of Chinese thought was just because they believed that Chinese arts and culture arose from the investigation of the mind and nature.


        However, nowadays, Chinese and Western scholars all fail to understand that the investigation of the mind and nature is the nucleus of Chinese arts and culture. This is primarily because the Qing Dynasty’s 300 years of scholarship reacted to the Song-Ming Confucians by focusing on archaeology and evidential scholarship. They loathed discussing concepts like mind and nature. Toward the end of the Qing dynasty, Western studies began spreading eastward. At first, the Chinese admired the gunboats and weapons of the West. Later on, it was the West’s science and technology and its political and legal systems. In the Chinese intellectual world of the May Fourth Movement, scholars on the one hand emphasized science and democracy while on the other hand took the Qing Dynasty’s evidential scholarship as using a scientific method. Thus, many were fond of advocating the ideas of scholars such as Yan Yuan and Dai Zhen in opposing Song-Ming Confucianism [3]. Later, Communism argued that existence determines consciousness and was not fond of the ideas of mind or nature. Western religious thought imported from the West wanted people to accept that their nature was one of original sin. Traditional Chinese investigation of the mind and nature, however, took as fundamental the idea that human nature is good, and there was at least the appearance of conflict between these views. Furthermore, Song-Ming Confucians liked to discuss the concepts of the Pattern and qi rather than talking about God as seen in the ancient Chinese classics, and so from the Jesuits onwards, Christian missionaries as well did not like Song-Ming Confucianism’s investigation into mind and nature.


        Among Chinese scholars from the end of the Qing Dynasty to the present day, only Buddhist scholars continually focused on the mind and nature. . . . However, the learning of the mind and nature as it was understood in Buddhism was not the same as that of the Confucians. Buddhism’s learning of the mind and nature was characterized by focusing on the meticulous and detailed insights gained through contemplation. Thus, Buddhism also failed to understand Chinese Confucianism’s study of the mind and nature. Therefore, China’s traditional study of the mind and nature was ignored by the Chinese intellectual world for several hundred years.


        Furthermore, when Western Jesuits introduce the Chinese Classics and Song-Ming Confucianism to the West, they looked upon Song-Ming Confucianism as a form of Western rationalism, naturalism, or materialism. This we have already discussed above. Therefore, Song-Ming Confucianism was viewed as hitting the same note as their own work only by rationalists in the West such as Leibniz and materialists such as Holbach [4].


        Later on, even though there were those who translated Zhu Xi’s discussion of human nature from his Categorized Conversations, as well as other fragments of Song-Ming Confucian writings, it appears that no one engaged in a conscientious study of the Song-Ming study of the mind and nature. Further, the recorded utterances of the Song-Ming Confucians appeared to be even more fragmentary than those of pre-Qin scholars, and it was difficult to determine exactly what their system was, and its flavor was not to the taste of Western philosophers. As a result, the Chinese investigation of the mind and nature has been ignored by contemporary Chinese and Western scholars alike.


        One of the main reasons why the Chinese Learning of the the Mind and Nature is still misunderstood lies in the fact that people continually look upon this Learning of the Mind and Nature as the Rational Soul in traditional Western philosophical theory or as some sort of metaphysics or epistemology or psychology [5]. Ever since the Jesuits brought the Western religious viewpoint, they took the Song-Ming study of Pattern to be an atheistic naturalism; they continually had an image of the so-called "human mind and human nature" as humans' natural mind or natural nature. From that time up until now, the Chinese term “xìng 性” has always been translated as Nature. The meaning of Nature as found in the thinking of Greek Stoicism, recent Romantic literature, the philosophy of Spinoza, and a few contemporary naturalistic philosophers like Whitehead does have deep significance that corresponds to the Chinese idea of nature [6]. However, since Christianity took the term "Supernature" to contrast with the term "Nature," the meaning of the term Nature has degenerated to its popular meaning [7]. And since the rise of modern Western naturalism and materialism, people who talk about Human Nature always refer to the natural Pattern of our mind, our natural abilities, and our natural desires in a base fashion without any profound ideas. Looking at it from this perspective, the Chinese Learning of Mind and Nature was usually interpreted based upon this common and superficial understanding rather than from the relatively profound original Western internal investigation of the spiritual life.


        According to our understanding, it is fundamentally wrong to treat China’s philosophy of the mind and nature in the same light as Western psychology or traditional philosophy’s learning of the rational soul and epistemology or metaphysics. It would be completely erroneous to view the Chinese Learning of the Mind and Nature from the perspective of a naturalism that contrasts with supernaturalism and consequently to interpret it from a mediocre and myopic perspective. The modern West’s so-called scientific psychology takes man’s natural behavior to be an object for experimental scientific investigation. This is research on pure factual events and does not contain any assessment of the value of psychological behavior. Ancient Western philosophy’s learning of the rational soul, however, treats the mind as a substance and discusses its qualities of unity, immortality, and manifesting itself in various forms [8]. As for Western epistemology, it studies how a mind of purely intellectual understanding can recognize external objects and thus how intellectual knowledge is possible. Western metaphysics primarily takes as its target explaining the objective universe’s ultimate reality and its general structure and organization. However, the Chinese Learning of Mind and Nature, handed down from Kongzi and Mengzi to the Song-Ming Confucians, is based on human moral practice. At the same time, this learning deepens as the actual depth of practice of the moral life deepens. It is not that this Learning of the Mind and Nature arose in order to establish some psychological behavior or spiritual substance as its object of external investigation, or in order to clarify how knowledge is possible. This Learning of the Mind and Nature does contain a metaphysics. However, this metaphysics is closer to Kant’s so-called "moral metaphysics [9]." This metaphysics acts as the basis of moral practice and also can be verified by this practice. It is not the sort of metaphysics that first assumes that there exists an objective universe and then employs experience and reasoning to verify it.


        Since China’s Learning of the Mind and Nature, arising from Kongzi and Mengzi and continuing down to the Song-Ming scholars, has its own special qualities, if one is not engaged in moral practice, or if one, though engaged in moral practice, takes it to simply mean following a society’s moral regulations or God’s commands or following chapter and verse of holy texts such as the Old and New Testaments of Christianity, in neither case can one truly have an intimate and exact understanding of it. In other words, this branch of learning does not allow for one to simply take something up as an object of cool and calm investigation, and only after understanding it accordingly adjust one’s attitude and behavior. Such an attitude can be used towards the external natural world and external society, and perhaps even towards a transcendent God. However it cannot be employed in one’s own moral practice or in the understanding of the mind and nature that arises out of this practice. In this, we must rely upon an awakening to give rise to the practice, while also relying on engaging in this practice to increase our awakening. These two things, awakening and practice, rely upon each other to mutually advance [10].


This awakening can be expressed in words, but others’ understanding of these words is contingent upon their obtaining awakening through this practice. If the practice falls short a step, then the awakening and true understanding will also falls short a step. In such interdependence, practice and awakening are certainly directed towards external people or things. But the awakening itself is purely within oneself. Therefore, when one’s practice of moral behavior expands a step externally, then internally one’s awakening also expands a step. In accordance with this, when one’s practice of moral behavior expands externally to one’s family, then internally, one’s awakening will also contain one’s family. When it is extended externally to the state, then internally, one’s awakening will also contain one’s state. When extended externally to the universe under Heaven or to history, including all good and bad events, then internally, one’s awakening will also contain all of these things. Thus what we do in our lives that helps us pursue moral behavior and perfect external things are all the things that will help us perfect our virtue and thus perfect ourselves.


        From an external viewpoint, this is merely following society’s rituals or laws, conforming to Heaven’s orders, or establishing one’s Virtue, achievements, and writings for the sake of later generations’ praise. But if one looks at it from an internal perspective of awakening, it is no different from just using to its utmost one’s own mind and nature. When it comes to the practice of morality, human will has no limits, and this internal mind and nature also have no limits. However, the limitlessness of this mind and nature cannot be discussed abstractly, but only when people are engaged in their moral practice, so that the multitude of things toward which we have deep concern naturally display themselves, confirming that humans along with Heaven and earth and the myriad things form one body. From this confirmation, it is evident that this mind and this nature at the same time connect to Heaven.


        Consequently, by using to the utmost one’s mind to understand nature, one may come to understand Heaven, and by preserving mind and nourishing nature, one may serve Heaven [11]. The human mind is the same as the Heavenly mind, and human Virtue is the same as Heavenly Virtue. All affairs in which one uses nature to the utmost in order to perfect Virtue will aid in the transformation of Heaven and earth. The Song-Ming Confucians developed ideas from this: equating the Pattern of nature with the Pattern of Heaven, equating people’s original mind with the mind of the universe, equating people’s spirit of innate knowledge with the spirit and brightness of Heaven and earth and the myriad things, equating people’s innate knowledge and ability with Heaven’s understanding and earth’s abilities, and so on. These ideas are also the so-called theory of the “unity of Heaven and human beings.” The profoundness and vastness of this Learning of the Mind and Nature is not something that we can expound on now. However, from the pre-Qin thinkers Kongzi and Mengzi all the way down to the Song-Ming Confucians it is clear that there has been a single common understanding of this thought. They shared the belief that engaging in this moral practice and the knowledge of this awareness relied upon each other to mutually advance. They also shared the belief that engaging in this moral practice in all their external activities only relies upon their desire to use to the utmost the Pattern in their nature; that is, it arises out of the demands that the mind and nature makes and what it does not permit. Further, they shared the belief that by using to the utmost their internal mind and nature, they could reach up to the Virtue of Heaven, to the Pattern of Heaven, to the mind of Heaven and thus achieve the stage where one combines with Heaven and earth in Virtue or forms a triad with Heaven and earth. This is the tradition of the Learning of the Mind and Nature.


        Now, if we can understand that this Learning of the Mind and Nature is the essence of Chinese culture, then we cannot permit anyone to view Chinese culture as only emphasizing the external realities of regulating interpersonal relationships and lacking any discussion of spiritual life, or lacking the transcendent feelings of religion or metaphysics. Rather, this allows us to understand that according to the Learning of the Mind and Nature, our external actions are nothing but a foundation that is used both to help achieve an internal spiritual life and reach Heavenly Virtue and to assist in the transformation of Heaven and earth. This Learning of the Mind and Nature is the pivot that connects man’s internal and external life and man with Heaven. It is also the link connecting and unifying society’s ethics, rituals, and laws with inner cultivation, religious spirit, and metaphysics.


        On the other hand, in Western culture, metaphysics, philosophy, and science are treated as objective objects that people seek to investigate, things separate from moral practice; this is owing to traditional Greek culture. Religion first set up and established the commands of a God; this is owing to traditional Hebrew culture. Laws, politics, rituals, and ethics were first set up and established to provide external standards for regulating the populace; this is chiefly owing to Roman culture’s legal and ethical system. The Chinese Learning of the Mind and Nature, however, is not in the same categories as these three. Western and Chinese scholars who are accustomed to the Western cultural and academic viewpoint neglect this when they look at Chinese culture or misrepresent it because they are looking at it from a one-sided viewpoint. If one does not understand the Chinese Learning of the Mind and Nature, it is impossible to understand Chinese culture.





[2] The so-called "sixteen character teaching" is "The human mind is precarious, the mind of the Way is sublime; single-minded and focused, faithfully hold on to the mean,” from the Documents, "Counsels of the Great Yu." 



[3] For a representative May Fourth Movement thinker, see Hu Shih, "The Civilizations of the East and the West," in Part V, Selection 54. On "evidential scholarship," see the Introduction to Part IV. For Dai Zhen, see Part IV, Selection 51. Yán Yuán 顏元 (1635–1704) charged that Neo-Confucianism was too intellectualistic and scholarly. 


[4] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) was one of the three great philosophical rationalists of the early modern era. Baron d'Holbach (1723–1789) was a leading figure in French materialism.  



[5] Italic phrases occur in English in the original Chinese version of the Manifesto. 


[6] Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza (1632–1677) held that there is ultimately only one entity, which manifested itself as God, as the natural world, and as individual human minds. Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) was the originator of Process Philosophy, which claims that the universe is ultimately constituted by interrelated processes as opposed to distinct entities. —Eds.  



[7] I leave the terms "supernature" and "nature" as they are in English in the original text (and they are italicized to show this fact). However, they appear to mean “supernatural” and “natural” in their first instances in this sentence. 


[8] "Substance" is here a technical term in the metaphysics of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. It is not the same in meaning as the word rendered “Substance” (with a capital "S") in the rest of this anthology. —Eds. 



[9] According to Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), morality must be distinguished from empirical psychology or any other aspect of the natural sciences. Moral metaphysics is concerned with determining the conditions that make morality possible. —Eds.



[10] The concept of "awakening" (jué wù 覺悟) here is much like the earlier Buddhist and Neo-Confucian understandings of “achieving enlightenment” (variously referred to jué 覺, 悟, and míng 明). —Eds.



[11]  Paraphrasing Mengzi 7A1, in Part III, Selection 35.



Every reasonable effort has been made to determine the copyright status of the original Chinese essay, but we have not yet been able to locate a rights holder. The publisher would be grateful for any information that will aid in that search. On instructions from a legitimate rights holder, we will of course take this translation down. In the interim, we cannot grant permission for the reprinting or distribution of this translation in any format or for any purpose. All rights to this translation are reserved.


Return to the "Manifesto on Behalf of Chinese Culture" introduction page