Neo-Confucianism and Chinese Scientific Thought
By Wing-Tsit Chan

Philosophy East & West
V. 6 (January 1957)

Copyright 1957 by University of Hawaii Press




    THE QUESTION OF the status of science in relation to Chinese thought, the question of the reason China has not developed natural science, the question as to whether Neo-Confucianism, especially, is consonant with modern scientific thinking, and similar questions, have troubled students of Chinese philosophy for a long time. The publication of Joseph Needham's History of Chinese Scientific Thought[1] provides new impetus to the study of these problems. In this article it is proposed to examine these questions with special reference to Needham's challenging theses.

    Professor Needham's book is truly monumental, although many of his interpretations of Chinese thought are open to serious question. In terms of scholarship and original thought on the subject, it probably will not be surpassed for years to come. Thousands of footnotes contain solid information and stimulating suggestions as well as specific references. The bibliography of Chinese and Japanese works includes some 600 items and that of Western works some 1,400. For information on comparative studies in Eastern and Western thought this work is almost exhaustive, containing as it does a tremendous number of references and ideas on Chinese parallels with, influence on, and anticipations of. Western thought.[2]

    Needham has uncovered an amazing amount of evidence on Chinese achievements in science, showing that they are in many cases far ahead of the West. No doubt, his future volumes on Chinese sciences[3] will correct 

1.    This is Vol. II of his Science and Civilization in China, with the research assistance of Dr. Wang Ling, Associate Research Fellow of Academia Sinica (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1956). Pp.697. $14.50. Vol. I, Introductory Orientations (318 pp.), appeared in 1954. (The author's preferred style of transliteration and documentation is used throughout this article.-Ed.)

2.    Students interested in comparative philosophy should look up the following pages: 18-19, 21-23, 40, 42, 52, 67, 75, 77, 139, 161-163, 170, 188, 190, 194, 199-200, 203, 245, 270, 285, 291, 299, 322, 368, 374, 380, 390, 451, 453 note, 454, 475-476, 478, 482, 489, 502, 508-509, 515, 521, 531 and 579.

3.    These will be: Vol. III, "Chinese Mathematics and the Sciences of Heaven and Earth"; Vol. IV, "Physics, Engineering, and Technology"; Vol. V, "Chemistry and Industrial Chemistry"; Vol. VI, "Biology, Agriculture and Medicine"; Vol. VII, "The Social Background." A detailed list of the contents of each volume is given in Vol. I, pp. xxii-xxxviii. 




the impression of a lack of science in Chinese history and will radically change the picture presented by George Sarton and others.[4] Of far greater significance is the study of the relation between Chinese thought and scientific development. This is the first serious and penetrating study of the subject, and no one could read it without sincere admiration.

    Of the three major Chinese philosophical systems, Needham has found Buddhism destructive and Confucianism a hindrance but Taoism conducive to the development of scientific thought. He has devoted only about forty pages to Buddhism[5] and has virtually bypassed the Chinese Buddhist philosophical schools, but his accounts of Buddhist contact with Chinese scientific thought and the relation between Taoism and Tantrism are most revealing. He grants that certain Buddhist theories are scientific in character, such as the infinity of space and time, a plurality of worlds, and the view that our universe has undergone cycles of expansion and contraction (pp.419-420). Other Buddhist theories could have been added to show the scientific character of Buddhism, such as the Buddhist concepts that things are aggregates of elements, that elements are analyzable into ultimate reality which is not hard matter but energy, that existence is an event, and that there is no substance, permanence, duration, or externality. Besides, the Buddha himself had an essentially scientific attitude of mind in asking what the symptoms were, their causes, and what could be done about them.[6] But in Needham's view, the effect of Buddhist thought on Chinese science and scientific thought has been "powerfully inhibitory" (p.417). This is so because Buddhism, conceiving of the universe as illusion, has no incentive to do any serious thinking about the non-human, non-moral universe (p.419). He says that the philosophy of Buddhism is "favourable to science by its belief in causation, but inimical to it by its doctrine of illusion" (p.2). He has Buddhism's long history in China to support him, for, in point of fact. Buddhism has not made any contribution to Chinese scientific accomplishment or scientific thought. However, he has gone too far in emphasizing the Buddhist doctrine of an illusory world. If he had devoted more attention to the development of Chinese Buddhist thought, he would have found that the doctrine of illusoriness underwent a radical change in China. In the Hua-yen 華嚴 school, Buddhist philosophy culminated in the famous doctrine of One-in-All and All-in-One, which gives equal em-

4.    George Sarton, introduction to the History of Science, Vol. I, 1927; Carnegie Institution Publications, No. 346 (Baltimore, Williams and Welkins), Vol. I, 1927; Vol. II (2 parts), 1931; Vol. III (2 parts), 1947. Passim. See also Alfred L. Kroeber, Configurations of Culture Growth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1944), pp.183-199.

5.    Pp.396-431, 570-572.

6.    On Buddhism and science, see my Religious Trends in Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), pp.88-90.




phasis to the world of reality and the world of appearance. One of the best statements of this philosophy is the Treatise on the Gold Lion by Fa-tsang 法藏 (643-712), to which Needham unfortunately does not refer.[7] According to the T'ien-t'ai 天台  school, "Every color and every fragrance is the Middle Way." These two schools have provided the general philosophical background for Chinese Buddhism at large.[8] Then there is the Meditation school (Ch'an, Zen) which represents the peak of Chinese Buddhist development, in which love of Nature and living in Nature became the noblest way of Life. All in all, Chinese Buddhism became this-worldly, and the doctrine of illusoriness is not nearly so prominent as is generally supposed. The scientific aspects of Buddhist thought more than outweigh the unscientific aspect of illusoriness, and Buddhist thought as such is therefore not necessarily inimical to science. Certainly Buddhist thought in Japan has not prevented her from development in the direction of science. When the two most outstanding twentieth-century Chinese Buddhist thinkers claimed that Buddhism "included science"[9] and "is entirely harmonious with science,"[10] they were not entirely unjustified. The cause for the Buddhist failure to make contributions to science does not lie in the Buddhist doctrine of illusoriness but in the special role Buddhism has chosen to play in Chinese society. This has been the role of relieving the pain of suffering of all living beings and leaving political and social affairs to the Confucian school. As Needham notes, this point has led to the study of science as related to medicine but that is all. The avoidance of political and social affairs has led the Buddhists to ignore practical and technical studies (p.417). We must admit, however, that the element of illusoriness has been present and was strong enough to draw vigorous attack from the Neo-Confucians. Needham is correct in his statement that "the Neo-Confucian opposition to Buddhism was essentially that of a scientific view of the world combatting a world-denying ascetic faith" (p.417).

    Neo-Confucians often criticized Buddhism and Taoism together.[11] In the eyes of the Neo-Confucians, both Buddhism and Taoism were socially ir-

7.    See summary and discussion in Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, Derk Bodde, trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), Vol. II, pp.339-358, especially pp.349-351.

8.    See my Religious Trends Modern China, pp.94-101.

9.    Ou-yang Ching-wu 歐陽竟無 (1871-1943), Fo-fa fei tsung-chiao fei che-hsueb 佛法非宗教非哲學 ("Buddhism is Neither Religion nor Philosophy"), Min-Toh, III, No. 3 (March, 1922), 2.

10.    T'ai-hsu 太虛 (1889-1947), Fa-hsiang wei-shih hsueh ("Dharma-Character Idealistic Philosophy"). (Shanghai: Commercial Press 1938), p.56.

11.    Chang Heng-ch'u chi 張橫渠集 ("Collected Works of Chang Heng-ch'u"), Cheng-I t'ang ch'uan-shu edition, 2/4b; I-shu 遺書 ("Literary Remains"), in the Erh Ch'eng ch'uan-shu 二程全書 ("Complete Works of the Two Ch'engs), Ssu-pu pei-yap edition, 1933, 15/7b, 10b; 24/3b; Chu Tzu yu-lei 朱子語類 ("Classified Sayings of Chu His"), 126/6a, 7a-b, 8a, 12a.




responsible. In metaphysics, however, they made a clear distinction between the two schools. Chang Tsai 張載 (also called Chang Heng-ch'u 張橫渠 1020-1077), for example, attacked Lao Tzu for his doctrine that "existence comes from non-existence" but the Buddha for his teaching that "the mountains, rivers, and the total stretch of land are all subjective illusion."[12] Chu His 朱熹 (1130-1200) said that the Taoists were half-nihilists while the Buddhists were total nihilists, because for the Taoists there was still being although originally there was only non-being, but to the Buddhists the entire universe was illusory.[13] One wonders whether, if total nihilism prevented the development of science and scientific thinking, as Needham says of Buddhism, half-nihilism would not also be destructive though perhaps to a lesser degree? But in contrast to Buddhism, Needham says that "it is among the Taoists that we have to look for most of the roots of Chinese scientific thought" (p.57). Here he did not take into consideration the question of nihilism. Instead, he concentrated on the Taoist attitude toward Nature.

    In his discussion on Taoist naturalism, he is on solid ground throughout. Of course, Taoist naturalism is common knowledge, but its relation to scientific thought has never been so thoroughly examined as it is here. To Needham, Tao is not just Nature or the Way, but "Order of Nature," in which certain laws are discoverable. This idea is not entirely new. Fung Yu-lan 馮友蘭, for example, has indicated that Tao involves the idea of certain invariable principles throughout the realm of Nature,[14] but no one has brought out the significant implications for scientific thought as definitely and clearly as Needham has. Tao is not something vaguely informing all things but is the very structure of particular and individual types of things. This is illustrated by the story of cutting up a bullock in the Chuang Tzu[15] 莊子, in which the lesson is taught that there are certain natural ways of doing it. Needham remarks, "Thus the anatomy of an ox and the skill of an anatomist are no less part of the Order of Nature than the movement the stars" (p.46). Within this Order, Needham observes (p.39), there is the idea of necessity, as expressed in Chuang Tzu's saying that "All things of the creation cannot help but love and multiply." In addition to these, 

12.    Chang Heng-ch'u chi, 2/4b.

13.    Chu Tzu yu-lei, 126/6a.

14.    Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, Derk Bodde, trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), Vol. I, pp.180-183.

15.    For English translations, see Fung Yu-lan, trans., Chuang Tzu, A New Selected Translation with an Exposition of the Philosophy of Kuo Hsiang (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1933), and Herbert A. Giles, trans., Chuang Tzu, Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer (2nd ed., rev., Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1926).




there are in Taoism the concepts of unity and spontaneity of Nature, which are basic assumptions of natural science (p.47). The rejection of ethics from Nature is also essentially scientific (p.48). So is the denial of teleology (p.55). Even the Taoist principle of wu-wei 無為, that is, having no artificial activity, means "refraining from activity contrary to Nature," and fits in well with the general proto-scientific character of the Taoist school (pp.68-69). No wonder certain natural principles are more strongly stressed in Taoist writings than in others (p.40), and Chuang Tzu came close to the theories of evolution and adaptation (p.78). The dialectical reconciliation of contradictories in a higher synthesis, which is so often seen in science, appears with much clarity in the Taoist writings, especially in the Chuang Tzu (p.77). All in all, Needham makes a convincing case that Taoism is essentially scientific in outlook.

    This scientific outlook has led to many Taoist observations on and theories of natural phenomena. Needham notes many of these and calls attention to their surprisingly scientific character, for example, the concept of condensation and rarefaction (p.40) and the theory that water is the original element of all things and the ground of all change (p.42). As he points out, we are indebted to the Taoists for "the beginnings of chemistry, mineralogy, botany, zoology, and pharmaceutics in East Asia" (p.161). Students of Taoism are familiar with the Taoist religion's long effort in alchemy. But it has remained for Needham to establish firmly the scientific quality of Taoist thought.

    In a few places Needham probably sees more scientific spirit in Taoist thought than is justified. For instance, he thinks that the name for a Taoist temple, kuan , literally "to see," meant to observe the flight of birds because half of the character originally means birds (p.56). However, there is no evidence to show that this half was used for any reason other than its sound kuan. Also, Needham thinks the frequently used symbols for water and the feminine in the Tao-te ching[16] are indicative of the spirit of observation of Nature, for observation of Nature requires a receptive passivity which water and the feminine symbolize (p.57). And he believes that the key term in Taoism, "wu-wei," which he correctly explains as "letting things work out their destinies in accordance with their intrinsic principles," implies "learning from Nature by observations essentially scientific" (p.71). These claims need to be substantiated. However, whereas many students have regarded Taoism as mystical and quietistic and as such at least

16.    Chaps. 6, 8, 10, 28, 61 and 78. For English translations, See Arthur Waley, trans., The Way and Its Power (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1935), and J. J. L. Duyvendak, trans., Tao Ti Ching, The Book of the Way and Its Virtue (London: John Murray, 1954).




different from, if not antagonistic to, science, Needham, with ample evidence  and extensive textual support, establishes the scientific character of Taoism. In this he has rendered a great service and has extended our horizon in the  study of Taoist philosophy.

    Besides Taoist naturalism, Needham advances another reason for the scientific character of Taoism, namely, the Taoist advocacy of a primitive agrarian collectivistic society. According to Needham, Taoist collectivism was conducive to science partly because it opposed the feudalism and bureaucracy that hindered science and partly because unity and equality are necessary to science as they are necessary to democracy. I do not know whether there is any relation between collectivism and science, but I see no evidence that the ancient Taoists advocated such a society.

    As a basis for his contention that the Taoists were "spokesmen of some kind of primitive agrarian collectivism, and were opposed to feudal nobility and to the merchants alike" (p.100), he finds the clue in Chapter 80 of the Tao-te ching, which is to the effect that the people of a small country would not use contrivances or weapons. Primitivism is clearly advocated here, but there is no evidence of collectivism, anti-feudalism, or opposition to merchants. There is no condemnation of dukes and kings in the Tao-te ching so long as they adhere to Tao, are able to attain unity, and are humble.[17] The Tao-te ching is opposed not to any particular economic or political system but to all systems that are over-organized, oppressive, or out of accord with Nature. Instead of citing their general condemnation of profit artificiality, and discrimination, Needham prefers to construe the Taoists as advocating a particular social and economic ideology.

    Following Hou Wai-lu 侯外廬, he interprets yu (having, being) and wu (not having, non-being) in Chapter 11 of the Tao-te ching as having or not having private property (pp.110, 113). To him, p'u is not just simplicity or raw substance, which is what the word means; it refers, instead, to "the solidarity, homogeneity, and simplicity of primitive collectivism (p.114). The term li-ch'i 利器 (sharp weapons) becomes for him private property (p.113). "Uniting the dusts" in Chapter 56 becomes uniting "the rank and file, for the community" (p.113). He believes that term hun-tun 混沌, ordinarily understood as chaos or a confused state of existence is an ancient Taoist political technical term implying "the state of primitive pre-feudal collectivism" and that t'ao-t'ieh 饕餮, which is translated "gluttons," may well have been an expression used by the feudal lords for the mass of the people (pp.115, 117). He sees in the legends of the Miao

17.    Chaps. 37, 39, 42.




and Li tribes a pre-feudal collectivist society which resisted transformation into feudal or proto-feudal class-differentiated society (p.119). To him, the false knowledge criticized by Chuang Tzu was the false knowledge of feudal social distinctions (p.89). In most of these interpretations he leans heavily on Hou Wai-lu, a leading historian of Chinese philosophy in Communist China today. Hou has consistently interpreted Chinese thought in Marxian terms and is hardly objective enough to be relied upon. Needham says that a great deal of anti-feudalism was appreciated by Ho-shang Kung 河上公, the first commentator on the Tao-te ching, [18] "who knew, for example, that hun meant a united community" (p.432). This word appears in Chapter 14 of the Tao-te ching, the first part of which I translate as follows: 

                                    We look at it and do not see it;
                                    Its name is Colorless.
                                    We listen to it and do not hear it;
                                    Its name is Soundless.
                                    We touch it and do not grasp it;
                                    Its name is The Infinitesimal.
These three things cannot be further scrutinized, and are therefore united as one. 

All Ho-shang Kung said in his commentatory is that hun means to unite hun , ho yeh 合也.[19] This does not justify the contention that it means a collectivist society.

    Moreover, in propounding the theory that early Taoists advocated a collectivist society, Needham runs into the difficulty of the conflict between this collectivism and the celebrated individualism of Taoism. By way of explanation, he says that the inconsistency is only a seeming one, due to the dual origin of Taoism, "that strange association between the hermit-philosophers of mystical naturalism on the one hand and the tribal shaman-magicians on the other" (pp.139-140). According to him, both were in perpetual opposition to the feudal lords and later bureaucratic officials. But "the more impotent Taoist philosophy became to liberate Chinese society as a whole, the more success accrued to the Taoist adepts and their methods of liberation of the individual" (p.140). In other words, individualism arose as collectivism collapsed.

    Now, whether or not Taoism actually had a dual origin is by no means a settled question. At any rate, the hermits referred to (pp.15, 33) were not collectivists but men who withdrew from society to their highly in-

18.    See Eduard Erkes, trans., Ho-Shang-Kung's Commentary on Lao Tse (Ascona, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae, 1950).

19.    Lao Tzu tao-te ching 老子道德經, Ssu-pu ts'ung-k'an edition, 1929, p.7a.




dividualistic way of life.[20] At the same time, the shaman-magician tradition is not necessarily individualistic. Following Maspero, Needham believes that religious Taoism was a reaction against the purely collectivist religion of ancient Chinese feudal society with its altar of gods of soil and grain (pp.155, 161). But the movements of Chang Ling 張陵 (fl. 156), his son Chang Heng 張衡, and his grandson Chang Lu 張魯 that led to the establishment of the Taoist religion were mass movements, and the Taoist religion lost no time in patronizing the god of the kitchen in a family and the god of the ground in a village. In Taoist belief, immortals are not saints who retire to the "blessed places" to enjoy their immortality in quietude and solitude but are spirits, often inhuman guise, working in the midst of human society to help people. In short, both Taoist philosophy and the Taoist religion have their individualistic as well as their collective aspects.

    However, although Needham's thesis that Taoist individualism arose as collectivism collapsed is questionable, his conviction that individualism was a factor in the Taoist failure to develop further in science is sound. I agree with him that religious mysticism is another factor, but I would offer a different explanation. After an excellent discussion on the relation between Nature-mysticism and science, he arrives at the conclusion that Taoism finally retreated into religious mysticism because as an anti-feudal force it had crumbled before the growing Confucian bureaucracy. It was this transition, he says, that converted Taoist agnostic naturalism into full-blown mystical religion, and proto-scientific experimentalism into fortune-telling and rustic magic (p.162). The historical development of the Taoist religion is still a very obscure subject, but several factors are clear, for example, that religious Taoism was founded more than 200 years after Confucianism was established as a state ideology. It enjoyed high prestige in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Presumably religious mysticism is best found in such religious Taoist philosophers as Wei Po-yang 魏伯陽 (fl. 147-167) and Ko Hung 葛洪 (253-333?), and Nature-mysticism was best developed in Kuo Hsiang 郭象 (d. 312) and others. But Ko and Kuo were contemporaneous, suggesting parallel development of the two forms of mysticism rather than one succeeding the other. A far more reasonable explanation of why Taoism did not develop science is Needham's observation that Taoism "failed to reach any precise definition of the experimental method, or any  systematization of its observations of Nature," and it was so wedded to  empiricism that it did not "elaborate a logic suitable for science" (pp.161- 162).

20.    The Analects, 18/5-7. For an English translation, see Arthur Waley, trans., The Analects of Confucius (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1938).




    Since Needham ascribes the general cause of the Taoist failure in science to feudalism and bureaucracy, it is not surprising to find him highly critical of Confucianism, which he holds to be the moving force of feudalism and bureaucracy. In some instances he has gone out of his way to give Confucius credit for scientific interest which he does not deserve. For example, when The Analects says that Confucius never taught strength and disorder,[21] Needham understands this to mean "superhuman forces of Nature as shown in natural convulsions such as earthquakes, tidal waves, avalanches, hot springs or geysers, and the like" and "disorder (in Nature)," respectively, (pp.14-15). But generally Needham considers Confucius as a hindrance. To him, Confucius' "contribution to science was almost wholly negative" (p.1). He recognizes that in Confucian teachings everyone is potentially as good a judge of truth as every other (p.8). Confucius and his followers understood intellectual democracy and the Master himself counseled suspended judgment (p.8). These are encouraging to science. So are the Confucian doctrines of political democracy and rectification of names (p.9). In addition, Confucius himself remained unshakeably skeptical and averse to any kind of supernaturalism (p.14). But the primary interest of Confucianism has been in social and human affairs. Thus, in Needham's opinion, there are in Confucianism the two fundamental tendencies, its basic rationalism and concentration of interest upon human and social life, and these paradoxically helped the germs of science on the one hand and injured them on the other (p.12).

    To be sure, traces of interest among the early Confucians in natural science are few. After all, they were primarily concerned with human and social affairs. Nevertheless, Confucius admonished his pupils to have a wide acquaintance with the names of birds, beasts, plants, and trees.[22] Moreover, according to The Great Learning, the first step in an adult's education lies in the "investigation of things." "Only when things are investigated can knowledge be achieved," it says.[23] As we shall see below, this eventually became a key concept in Neo-Confucianism. 

    For Needham, the Confucian hindrance to science lies not so much in its lack of interest in science as in Confucian bureaucracy. This theme runs through practically the whole book. That Confucianism since the Han Period (B.C. 206-220 A.D.) has been almost synonymous with bureaucracy cannot be denied. But how specifically that bureaucracy has hindered science has not been made clear. We are told that the Confucians were

21.    Ibid., 7/20.

22.    Ibid., 17/9.

23.    The Great Learning, chap.1. For an English translation, see James Legge, trans., The Great Learning, in his The Chinese Classics, Vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893).




"entirely on the side of the literate administrators and lacked all sympathy with artisans and manual workers" (p.132). Is this really true? Although in the Confucian society the scholar has always been regarded as higher in the social scale than the artisan, the latter is always respected for his skill. In Confucian education, the Six Arts of rites, music, archery, charioteering, history, and mathematics are equally important. This is why in Chinese history, as in Chinese folklore, fishermen and farmers have often been depicted as sages in disguise. Chinese painting glorifies the "four occupations" of fishing, lumbering, farming, and study. Confucius did not despise the artisan but taught that he must first sharpen his tools.[24] When a pupil asked him about a perfect man, he replied that such a man must have superior knowledge, integrity, courage, and skill in the arts.[25] In The Book of Mencius, the manual skill of a carpenter is highly praised.[26] When Confucius said, "I am not as good as an old husbandman. . . . A ruler loves  propriety . . . reverence . . . righteousness . . . good faith . . ., the people from all quarters will come to him. . . . What need is there for husbandry?,"[27] he was not deprecating labor but was merely emphasizing the prior importance of moral examples in government. Many have seized upon a saying in The Book of Mencius to show that Confucianism despised labor. Mencius said, "Some labor with their mind and some labor with their strength. Those who labor with their minds govern others; those who labor with their strength are governed by others. Those who are governed by others support them, and those who govern others are supported by them."[28] Whether Mencius' political philosophy is democratic is beside the point. What is taught here is a division of labor, not the despising of any group or occupation. Needham takes the Confucian saying, "As for the details of the sacrifices, that can be left to the clerks," to indicate Confucian indifference to techniques (p.6, note). Is it not more reasonable to say that it  indicates a high regard for specialized skill or expert knowledge? Needham attributes the Confucian opposition to shamanism in Han times to Confucian bureaucracy (p.137). Is it not more reasonable to say that it was Confucian rationalism that was opposed to superstition? Both the Five Elements school and The Book of Changes[29] analyze natural phenomena


24.    The Analects, 15/9.

25.    Ibid, 14/13.

26.    The Book of Mencius, 4A/1. For an English translation, see James Legge, trans., The Works of Mencius, in his The Chinese Classics, Vol. II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1895). 

27.    The Analects, 13/4.

28.    The Book of Mencius, 3A/4.

29.    For English translations, see James Legge, trans., The Yi King, The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XVI (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1882), and Z. D. Sung, trans., The Text of Yi King (Shanghai: The China Modern Education Co., 1935).




into certain elements, five in the former and eight in the latter. To Needham, the Five Elements school is essentially naturalistic and scientific (p.238) and bureaucratic Confucianism somehow rejected this scientific component of the Five Elements school(p.252). But The Book of Changes, in systematically classifying phenomena, according to him, represents "the 'administrative approach' to natural phenomena" (p.337). If the systematic classification of natural phenomena in The Book of Changes means that its "view of the world is basically congruent with the bureaucratic social order" (ibid), why is the same approach in the Five Elements school not equally bureaucratic? The Book of Changes is by no means exclusively Confucian; it occupies an important place in Taoist thought, and studies of it occupy an important place in the Taoist canon. The Taoists have followed this systematic classification and correlation of natural phenomena no less than the Confucians, and surely the Taoists were not bureaucratic.

    But to return to the question of science. Most people will agree with Needham that ancient and medieval Confucianism had little to do with the history of science because it "simply turned away its face . . . from Nature and the investigation of Nature to concentrate a millennial interest on human society and human society alone" (p.32). For new impetus in Confucian scientific thought we must look to Neo-Confucianism.

    Needham finds the Neo-Confucian world-outlook to be essentially "consonant with science" (p.412). Neo-Confucianism developed in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), which saw "the greatest flowering of indigenous Chinese science" (p.493). The Neo-Confucians themselves wrote on pharmaceutical botany, the magnetic compass, fossils, mathematics, geography, cartography, etc. (pp.494-495). According to Needham, the Neo-Confucian outlook is scientific because its philosophy is basically organistic. He has presented, quite successfully, a very strong case for Neo-Confucianism as a philosophy of organicism. Surely the Neo-Confucian conception of the universe is that of a single organism. All things exist in relations, and all relations follow a definite pattern according to which things are organized on various levels. There is no supernatural agency to direct this organization, nor is the motive power of organization localized at any particular point in space and time. The organization center is identical with the organism itself (pp.465-466). As Needham aptly summarizes it, "the Neo-Confucians arrived at what was essentially an organic view of the universe. Composed of matter-energy (ch'i ) and ordered by the universal principle of organization (Li ), it was a universe which, though neither created nor governed by any personal deity, was entirely real, and possessed the property of manifesting the highest human values (love, righteousness, 




sacrifice, etc.) when beings of an integrative level sufficiently high to allow of their appearance, had come into existence" (p.412).

    This Neo-Confucian philosophy was most highly developed by Chu His 朱熹 (1130-1200), whose philosophy "was fundamentally a philosophy of organism, and . . . the Sung Neo-Confucians thus attained, primarily by insight, a position analogous to that of Whitehead" (p.458). Again and again, Needham is struck by the similarity between the Neo-Confucians and Whitehead (pp.291, 454, 466, 474, 562). This should be of keen interest to students of comparative philosophy. Equally intriguing is Needham's study of Chu Hsi's influence on Leibniz. The section on "Chu Hsi, Leibniz, and the Philosophy of Organism" (pp.496-505) is indisputably the most illuminating treatment on the subject.

    It is well known that Chinese thought has always been concerned with relations, and relationship and relatedness are nowhere more important in the history of Chinese philosophy than in Neo-Confucian thought. This is one reason The Book of Changes occupies a central place in the Neo-Confucian system. Most of the early Neo-Confucians wrote commentaries on this classic,[30] and the philosophies of Chou Lien-hsi 周濂溪 (also called Chou Tun-i 周敦頤, 1017-1073) and the Ch'eng brothers (Ch'eng Hao 程顥, also called Cheng Ming-tao 明道, 1032-1085, and Ch'eng I 程頤, also called Ch'eng I-ch'uan 伊川, 1033-1107) are nearly all built on the basis of it, for the Neo-Confucians viewed reality primarily as a process. It is not far-fetched, therefore, to describe Neo-Confucianism as organismic.

    We need not go into the many aspects and ramifications of the Neo-Confucian philosophy; Needham's discussion is brief but to the point. His translation of Li as "Organization" and "Principle of Organization" (p.475) is very instructive. The idea that Li means to put things in order is a classical one. Li signifies pattern in things or markings in jade. It is the organizing principle in things. The matter from which things are organized is ch'i , which Needham happily translates as matter-energy. The relation between Li and ch'i has often been compared with that between form and matter in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, and has been stressed recently by Fung Yu-lan and others.[31] But Needham rejects this comparison. He says:

It is true that form was the factor of individuation, that which gave rise to the unity of any organism and its purposes; so was Li. But there the resemblance ceases. The form of the body was the soul; but the great tradition of Chinese philosophy had no

30.    Hu Yuan
胡瑗 (993-1059). Ou-yang Hsiu 歐陽修 (1007-1072), Ssu-ma Kuang 司馬光 (1019-1086), Wang An-shih 王安石 (1021-1086), etc., all wrote commentaries on this classic.

31.    See Fung Yu-lan, op. cit., Vol. II, pp.482-507, 542.




place for souls. . . . Again, Aristotelian form actually conferred substantiality on things, but . . . the ch'i was not brought into being by Li, and Li had only a logical priority. Ch'i did not depend upon Li in any way. Form was the "essence" and "primary substance" of things, but Li was not itself substantial or any form of ch'i. . . . I believe that Li was not in any strict sense metaphysical, as were Platonic ideas and Aristotelian forms, but rather the invisible organizing fields or forces existing at all levels within the natural world. Pure form and pure actuality was God, but in the world of Li and ch'i there was no Chu-Tsai 主宰 [Director] whatsoever (p.475).

    The comparison with Whitehead is fascinating, and it is sound as far as it goes. Equally convincing is his argument against equating Aristotelianism with Neo-Confucianism. It shows that in any comparative study similarities are usually accompanied by dissimilarities. In the case of organicism, for instance, the many similarities between Neo-Confucianism and Whitehead's organicism are surprising, but where in Neo-Confucianism is Whitehead's God, who, as the principle of concretion, is ultimate irrationality?

    But to return to Chu Hsi himself. Certainly Chu Hsi conceived of the world as an organization, and certainly Li is not the equivalent of Aristotelian form. But in Chu Hsi's philosophy the world is more than just organization, and Li is metaphysical. The crux of the whole matter is Needham's overemphasis on the immanent character of Li, and this is due to the fact that he overlooks the philosophy of Ch'eng I.[32]

    Broadly speaking, Neo-Confucianism developed in two different directions, one led by Ch'eng Hao and the other by his younger brother, Ch'eng I. Among the differences between the two brothers is that Ch'eng Hao made no distinction between "what is above form" and "what is within form," saying that "Concrete things are the Way, and Way is the concrete things."[33]

32.    For Ch'eng I and his brother's Erh Ch'eng ts'ui-yen
二程粹言, I would spell ts'ui instead of sui and translate the title as "Pure Words," instead of "Essential Words" (pp.508, 594). The authors have accomplished the formidable task of translating Chinese titles into English. There are only a few slips, chiefly in the field of Neo-Confucianism. Li-hsueh tsung-ch'uen 理學宗傳 should have been translated as "The Orthodox Transmission of the Rational Philosophy" instead of "General Chronicles of Philosophy" (p.496 note). Chin-ssu lu 近思錄 should have been translated as "Anthology of Philosophy for Immediate Application" instead of "Summary of Systematic Philosophy" (pp.459, 591). The term chin-ssu refers to The Analects 19/6, in which Confucius said that what one thinks about should be matters near at hand, that is, matters of immediate application, Chin also refers to the self, as in The Analects 6/28, "To judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves." J. P. Bruce, in his Chu Hsi and His Masters (London: Arthur Probsthain, 1923), p.74, incorrectly translated the title as Modern Thought, and he has been followed by others, such as Alfred Forke (Geschichte der neueren chinesischen Philosophie) (Hamburg: Friederichsen, de Gruyter & Co., 1938), p.170. In a footnote, Bruce cited for his support a saying by Chu Hsi chat "The Chin-ssu lu contains sayings of recent people and is therefore more to the point." 近思錄是近人說語便較切 (misprinted in Bruce as ). This saying is quoted in the Chu Tzu nien-p'u 朱子年譜 ("Chronological Biography of Chu Hsi") in the beginning of pt. 2 f.i (misprinted in Bruce as f.2). In this saying, Chu Hsi was not explaining the title of the Chin-ssu lu but was characterizing its content. Evidently Bruce misunderstood the saying. The meaning of the title is quite clear from the comments of Lu Tung-lai 呂東萊 (1137-1181) in the same paragraph of the Nien-p'u. See discussion on the title by Olaf Graf, Dschu Hsi Djin-si Lu, Vol. I (Tokyo: Sophia University, 1953), pp.19-20.

33.    I-shu, 1/3b.




On the other hand, Ch'eng I made the distinction and said that "ch'i is within form but the Way is above form."[34] Both trends are present in Chu Hsi, though that of Ch'eng I is more prominent. Needham seems to have followed the trend of Ch'eng Hao in Chu Hsi rather than that of Ch'eng I in asserting that Li is "immanent rather than transcendent" (p.478). Consequently he believes that in Neo-Confucianism things operate according to the "internal necessity of their own natures" (p.562) and that Li (pattern) is generated from within (p.567).

    The idea of necessity was clearly formulated by Chang Tsai, who declared that things exist according to certain inevitable sequences, order, and pattern, and these are fixed laws. There are these laws, Fung Yu-lan has said, because there is Li,[35] which he equates with "Form" in Greek philosophy. Unquestionably Chang Tsai conceived Li to be transcendental. This idea is strongly implanted in Ch'eng I. Chu Hsi followed them both. As to Li, Chu Hsi said that "What are called Li and ch'i are certainly two different entities,"[36] but he also said, "In the universe there has never been any ch'i without Li or Li without ch'i."[37] As to which came into being first, Chu Hsi had these things to say:

There is Li before there can be ch'i.[38]
Ch'i is produced after there is the Li for it.[39]
Before Heaven and Earth existed, there was first of all Li.[40].

    Fundamentally Li and ch'i cannot be spoken of as earlier or later, but, if we must trace their origin, we are obliged to say that Li is earlier. However, Li is not a separate entity. It exists in ch'i, without ch'i, Li would have nothing to adhere to.[41]

    In essence there was first of all Li. However, we must not say that there is Li today and then ch'i tomorrow. Nevertheless, one is necessarily earlier and the other later.[42]

    When considered from the standpoint of Li, before things existed, their Li had already existed. Only their Li existed, however, but not yet the things themselves.[43]

    Li and ch'i cannot be spoken of as earlier or later. But, if we trace their origin, it seems that Li exists earlier and ch'i later.[44] 

    Do we really know that Li is first and ch'i later or that ch'i is first and Li later?  It is impossible to investigate this matter.[45]

    These quotations seem to show that Chu Hsi was either self-contradictory or undecided. Actually he was trying to reconcile the two trends of the

34.    Ibid., 15/14b

35.    See Fung Yu-lan, op. cit., Vol. II, p.482.

36.    Chu Tzu ch'uan-shu 朱子全書 ("The Complete Works of Chu Hsi"), Palace edition, 1713. 49/5b.

37.    Ibid., 49/1a.

38.    Ibid, 49/6a.

39.    Ibid., 49/1a.

40.    Ibid., 49/3a.

41.    Ibid., 49/1b.

42.    Ibid., 49/3a.

43.    Ibid., 49/5b.

44.    Ibid., 49/3b.

45.    Ibid., 49/2b.




Ch'eng brothers. There is no inconsistency in his views. It is not enough to say that Li has only logical priority. In Chu Hsi's system, Li is not something separate and above ch'i that imparts a principle of being into it; rather, it is its principle of being. But precisely because it is its principle of being it is "above form." This is the reason he said, "Li has never been separated from ch'i. However, Li is above form whereas ch'i is within form. Hence, when spoken of as being above or within form, is there not the difference of earlier and later?"[46] Chu Hsi was facing the dilemma of idealism and materialism, and was "therefore evidently anxious not to be forced into saying either that matter-energy arose from organization, or vice versa"; he inclined to the former view "presumably because it was so difficult to think of organization as a category perfectly independent of mind," as Needham says (p.481). I suspect that, while Needham quite correctly sees in Chu Hsi's concepts of Li and ch'i no absolute separation of form and matter, he somehow does not avoid what Whitehead objected to as the "bifurcation of nature" and still thinks in terms of the irreconcilable, mutually exclusive "what is above form" and "what is within form." What Chu Hsi meant was that Li is both immanent and transcendent, or, in his own words, something "both above and below,"[47] or, as Needham puts it, "union between the transcendental and the lowly" (p.412). This is not unlike Whitehead's doctrine of eternal objects, which are both immanent and transcendent.[48]

    This dual character of Li was arrived at when Ch'eng I transformed the meaning of Li from one of practical pattern to one of universal principle. The concept of Li is a very complicated one. Juan Yuan 阮元 (1764 1849) in his Ching-chi tsuan-ku 經籍篡詁 ("Terms in Classical Texts Explained")[49] cited many classical sources and listed more than ten different meanings-to order, to distinguish, to rectify, speech and conduct, what is proper, the way, principle, system, fiber and grains, markings of jade, appearance, etc. It is true that the ideas of pattern, order, and markings of jade are among the most prominent. They were basic perhaps even in ancient times. But in Ch'eng I the concept came to mean an "unalterable" principle throughout the universe. "It is the unchangeable principle," he said.[50] This idea was elaborated by Chu Hsi.

    The concept of Li as an unalterable principle is closely bound up with the idea of tse , from the saying in The Book of Poetry, "As there are

46.    Ibid., 49/1a-b.

47.    Ibid., 46/7b.

48.    Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1929), pp.366-367.

49.    Chap.34, entry Li.

50.    I-shu, 2A/19a.




things, there must be principles (tse) of their being."[51] Ch'eng I said, "All things under heaven can be understood by their Li. As there are things, there must be principles of their being. Everything must have its principle."[52] According to Chu Hsi's pupil Ch'en Shun 陳淳 (1153-1217), the word tse "means principle, involving the idea of certainty, fixity, and unchangeability."[53] In ancient classics the meaning may have been limited to the principle of each thing or event, and Needham is correct in this understanding (pp.559, 565). But in Ch'eng I, and consequently in Chu Hsi, Li means "natural tse," which is unalterable in space and time and hence universal. In other words, Li transcends particularity or events.

    The idea that Li is universal can be seen in another basic doctrine of Ch'eng I, namely, the doctrine of "investigation of things," which is of supreme significance to Chu Hsi's thought but which Needham touches upon only in passing (pp.510, 578). According to the Ching-i ts'ung-ch'ao 經義叢鈔 ("Excerpts on the Meanings of the Classics"), from Han times there have been seventy-two explanations of the term ko-wu 格物 (investigation of things). Four of these have become prominent. The first is the interpretation by Cheng Hsuan 鄭玄 (127-200), who took "ko" to mean "to come," the idea being that when one's knowledge of the good is perfect, good things will come.[54] His interpretation became standard. The second interpretation was given by Ssu-ma Kuang 司馬光 (1019-1086), who asserted that ko meant to ward off or to resist. "Only when external things are warded off can ultimate truth be known," he said.[55] The third interpretation is that of rectification or cheng as used in The Analects[56]  and The Book of Mencius.[57] The fourth interpretation is that of ko as a model or measure, as given in the Yu-p'ien 玉篇 ("A Book of Jade"), a dictionary of A.D. 1386.[58] The important thing to note in these interpretations is that they are all ethical. Furthermore, they all have one thing in common, namely, they stressed the point that knowledge is to be achieved by the mind without the aid of external things. Ch'eng I and Chu Hsi, however, took a completely new approach. They understood ko as to come, but "to

51.    The Book of Poetry, Pt. III, Bk. 3, Ode 6. For in English translation, sec James Legge, trans., The She King, in his The Chinese Classics, Vol. IV (London: Henry Frowde, 1893).

52.    I-shu, 18/9a.

53.     Hsing-li tzu-i 性理字義 ("Meanings of Neo-Confucian Terms"), Pt. 2, entry Li. This is quoted by Needham, p.566. The translation is correct except that the tse in line 6 belongs to the next sentence, thus: 便是理. 則是準則, 法則.

54.    In his commentary on The Great Learning, Introduction.

55.     "Chih-chih tsai ko-wu lun" 格物致知論 ("On the Achievement of Knowledge Consisting of the Investigation of Things"), in T'u-shu chi-ch'eng ("Library of Anthologies"), Section on Study and Conduct, chap.90, literary pieces, 1b.

56.    The Analects, 2/3.

57.    The Book of Mencius, 4A/20.

58.    Ssu-pu pei-yao edition, 1933, 2/13a.




come" means to investigate to the utmost the principles of all things we come into contact with. As Ch'eng I said, "The word ko means to arrive at, as it is used in the saying 'the spirit of imperial progenitors has come.'[59] There is Li in everything, and one must investigate Li to the utmost."[60] Elaborating on Ch'eng I, Chu Hsi had this to say:

The meaning of the expression "The achievement of knowledge depends on ko-wu" is this: If we wish to carry our knowledge to the utmost, we must investigate the principles of all things we come into contact with, for the intelligent mind of man is certainly formed to know, and there is not a single thing in which its principles do not inhere. It is only because not all principles are investigated that man's knowledge is incomplete. For this reason, the first step in the education of the adult is to instruct the learner in regard to all things in the world, to proceed from what knowledge he has of their principles, and to investigate further until he reaches the limit. After exerting himself in this way for a long time, he will suddenly find himself possessed of a wide and far-reaching penetration. Then the qualities of all things, whether external or internal, the subtle or the coarse, will be apprehended, and the mind, in its total reality and in its relations to things, will be perfectly intelligent. This is called the investigation of things. This is called the achievement of knowledge.[61]

    This is an extremely important passage because it means that everything contains Li, and that Li is everywhere. According to Ch'eng I, to discover Li one may investigate one thing deductively or one may investigate many things inductively. He said, to investigate Li to the utmost does not mean that it is necessary to investigate the principles of all things to the utmost or that Li can be understood by merely investigating one particular principle. It means that, if one investigates more and more, one will naturally come to understand Li.[62] It can readily be seen that the principle in any one thing is the same principle in all things. This is why he said, "We say that all things are one reality, because all things have the same Li in them."[63] As Li is the universal principle, "The Li of a thing is one with the Li of all things."[64] The character of universality cannot be overstated. It will be recalled that Ch'en Shun explained Li in terms of li-tse 理則, laws or principles. In ordinary language it is chuen-tse 準則, that is, the principle that is true everywhere. No one has expressed it more emphatically than the Ch'eng brothers, who said, "There is only one Li in the world. You may extend it over the Four Seas, and it is everywhere true."[65] This thought

59.    The Book of History, IV. See James Legge, trans., The Shoo King, in his The Chinese Classics, Vol. III (London: Henry Frowde, 1893-1895), P. 87.

60.    I-shu, 18/5b.

61.    Commentary on The Great Learning, chap.5.

62.    I-shu, 2A/22b.

63.    Ibid., 2A/15b.

64.    Ibid., 2A/1a.

65.    Ibid., 2A/19a.




runs through Neo-Confucian literature. As Lu Hsiang-shan 陸象山 (1139-1192) later put it, "Sages appeared tens of thousands of generations ago. They shared this mind; they shared this Li. Sages will appear tens of thousands of generations to come. They will share this mind; they will share this Li. Over the Four Seas sages will appear. They will share this mind; they will share this Li."[66]

    Can Li be conceived of as Natural Law? If so, has it helped or hindered the development of modern science in China?

    It has been a puzzle to many why, with her classical philosophy of naturalism, her long tradition of skepticism (excellently surveyed by Needham on pages 365-395), her long centuries of practicing alchemy, with far more technological development and scientific discoveries than people have realized (as Needham's subsequent volumes will surely show), and with Neo-Confucian philosophy, which is essentially harmonious with modern science, China should have failed to develop modern science. Several explanations have been offered from the point of view of Chinese cultural attitudes,[67] but the matter has to be explained on a higher level, namely, the philosophical. One such explanation has been offered by Northrop. He distinguishes two types of concepts, concepts by intuition and concepts by postulation, referring to the aesthetic and theoretic components in things, respectively. He says:

    Those concepts which refer to the aesthetic component for their complete meaning may be termed "concepts by intuition." A concept by intuition, therefore, is one the complete meaning of which is given by something immediately apprehendable. . . . Concepts, on the other hand, which refer to the theoretic component in knowledge, shall be termed concepts by postulation. A concept by postulation is  one, therefore, designating some factor in man or nature which, in whole or in part, is not directly observed, the meaning of which may be proposed for it postulationally  in some specific deductively formulated theory."[68] 

    He continues:

    Previously, it has been said that the East concerned itself with the immediately apprehended factor in the nature of things whereas the West has concentrated for

66.     Hsiang-shan ch'uan-chi
象山全集 ("Complete Works of Lu Hsiang-shan"), Ssu-pu pei-yee edition, 1934, 22/5a.

67.    Fung Yu-lan thought that science was for certainty and power, but the Chinese preferred goodness and happiness to be found directly in the mind. (Chung-kuo che-hsueh shih pu 中國哲學史補 --"Supplement to A History of Chinese Philosophy"-(Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1936), p.37. Lin Yutang's explanation is that the Chinese are not analytical and hate drudgery, both of which are necessary to science. My Country and My People (New York: John Day, 1935), p.86. To Francis L. K. Hsu, the Chinese did not develop natural science because they avoid extremes and do not like to pursue a subject of inquiry relentlessly, because their matter-of-fact attitude prevented them from seeing the natural world in terms of atoms and because they interpreted the supernatural in natural terms. Americans and Chinese (New York: Henry Schuman, 1953), pp.372-375.

68.    F. S. C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1946), p.447.




the most part on the doctrinally designated factor. More precisely, however, . . . the East used doctrine built out of concepts by intuition, whereas Western doctrine has tended to be constructed out of concepts by postulation.[69]

    As Needham puts it, the general view of Northrop is that, "while the Greeks developed the way of knowing Nature by postulation and scientific hypothesis, the Chinese approached Nature throughout their history only by direct inspection and aesthetic intuition" (p.579).

    Needham rejects such a view because it is "contradicted by almost all the facts brought together" in his book. "There is no good reason," he declares, "for denying to the theories of Yin and Yang, or the Five Elements, the same status of proto-scientific hypotheses as can be claimed by the systems of the pre-Socratic and other Greek schools" (p.579). One of his own explanations of China's misfortune is this: "In Europe natural law may be said to have helped the growth of natural science because of its universality. But in China, since natural law was never thought of as law, and took a very social name li, it was hard to think of any law as applicable outside human society" (p.579).

    The Li that has been repeatedly referred to above and the li in this quotation must be sharply distinguished. The former, represented by the Chinese character , is the principle, whereas the latter, represented by another Chinese character , though pronounced the same, is often translated as rites, ceremonies, ritual, rules of conduct, propriety, etc. I shall designate it lii. Needham uses "good customs, mores" for it (p.544), that is, "that body of customs which the sage-kings and the people had always accepted." This, Needham says, is Natural Law in China (p.521). It has not helped science in China as Natural Law has in Europe because, according to Needham, the concept of lii does not apply to the non-human world (pp.541, 548). Furthermore, Needham adds, "the fact that so little of it was expressed in formal legal terms, and that it was overwhelmingly social and ethical in content, made any extension of its sphere of influence to non-human Nature impossible" (p.582). In short. lii lacked universality.

    Needham's contention that lii is of paramount importance in Chinese society is supported by solid facts. As the saying goes, "In China the state is founded on the basis of lii." And Needham is right in saying that China has always preferred lii to fixed legal punishments (p.528) But can lii be equated with Natural Law? I do not think so because, as Needham himself says, it lacks universality. Actually, on the one hand, lii was not limited to the non-human world, and, on the other, it did not apply to the whole

69.    Ibid., p.448.




of society. Needham notes the ancient Chinese idea that "lii is rooted in Heaven," but dismisses it as exceptional (p.548). In point of fact, it is a cardinal doctrine running through the entire Confucian system. In the Li-chi 禮記 it is said that "Lii is the order of Heaven and Earth."[70] On the other hand, lii was not intended for and did not apply to the whole of society. For this reason, Hu Shih does not accept Needham's equation of lii with Natural Law. As he has pointed out, lii was originally intended for the gentlemanly class and was not actually practiced.[71] Instead of lii he offered four major Chinese concepts as Chinese counterparts of the Western idea of Natural Law, namely, the concept of the way (tao ) of Heaven or Nature as taught by Lao Tzu, the concept of the Will of God (t'ien-chih 天志) as taught by Mo Ti 墨翟 (fl. 479-438 B.C.), the concept of the Sacred Canon (ching ) as developed in medieval China, and the concept of Reason or Law (Li ) or Universal Reason or Law (T'ien-li 天理 or Tao li 道理)-Natural Law in the sense of "common right and reason"-  as developed in relatively modern times.[72] Confining ourselves to the latter, we see that Hu maintains that Li is Natural Law. Briefly, this is what he says: Etymologically Li means "markings of the divisions in the field," "markings or veins in the jade," "grains in wood," "fibers in muscles." Hence it has come to mean the form, texture, quality, or nature of things, and acquires the meaning of the reason or the law of a thing or things. In the Han Fei Tzu 韓非子, it is said that "Tao (the way of the law of Heaven or Nature) is that by which all things become what they are; it is that with which all Li (the law of things) is commeasurable."[73] We can discern here an effort to differentiate between Tao as "the Way or Law of Nature" in the universal and all-pervading sense and Li as the "reason or laws of things." But Hu goes on to explain that the two terms have been interchangeable. In The Book of Mencius it is said, "All mouths of men agree in enjoying the same relishes. .... What is it, then, which all minds recognize to be true? It is Li (universal truth or law) and i (universal right or righteousness). . . . Universal truths and right are agreeable to our mind, just as tasty meals are pleasing to our taste."[74] Li here means Natural Law in the sense of "common right and reason." The term Li often appears as

70.    Li chi, chap.19. See English translation by James Legge, The Li Ki, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XXVIII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1885), p.100.

71.    Hu Shih, "The Natural Law in the Chinese Tradition," in University of Notre Dame Natural Law Institute Proceedings, Vol. V, ed. by Edward F. Barrett (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1953), pp.119-153.

72.    Ibid., p.125.

73.    Han Fei Tzu, chap.20. See English translation by W. K. Liao, Han Fei Tzu, Vol. I (London: Arthur Probsthain, 1939), pp.191-192.

74.    The Book of Mencius, 6A/7. The translation is by Hu Shih. 




Tao-li, the Way and Reason, that is, universal truth or Natural Law, and T'ien-it, the reason or law of God or Nature.[75]

    It would be interesting to see how Needham would react to these ideas of Hu. Unfortunately, Hu's article was not available to Needham, although he was aware of it (p.544, note). To Needham, Li is not Natural Law. It is order or pattern and as such excludes the notion of Law (p.572). "There is 'law' implicit in it," he says, "but this law is the law to which parts of wholes have to conform by virtue of their very existence as parts of wholes" (p.567). As mentioned before, Needham considers that in Neo-Confucianism necessity generates within. He concludes that in Neo-Confucianism law was understood in a Whiteheadian organismic sense (p.568). For these reasons, he maintains, the term Li cannot be translated as Law (p.573).

    Needham refers to only certain cases in ancient texts where Li may not be rendered as Law. Even in his interpretation of Chu Hsi he tends to overemphasize the individual character of Li. It is true, as Needham says (p.559), that Chu Hsi said that "every event and thing has each its own rule of existence."[76] But Chu Hsi immediately added, "When things are spoken of together, Heaven is Li, Destiny is Nature, and Nature is Li." In other words, Li is universal, but when particularized it is tse or principle in each thing. As I stressed before, Ch'eng I specifically emphasized tse in the sense of being unalterable. Unfortunately, Needham underestimates the significance of Ch'eng I, and this has affected his interpretation of Chu Hsi, which in turn has prevented him from understanding Li as Law. Although Li has many implications and should not be translated as Reason or Law-I prefer Principle-that it is a universal law is clear, on the basis of the doctrine of investigation of things, discussed above.

    We must agree with Needham, however, that Li lacks juristic sense and precise formulation (pp.558, 579) and hence did not promote the growth of modern science. In Europe, he says, because of its precise formulation, positive law has helped the development of scientific laws (p.579). In China, however, neither Li nor judicial laws were precise formulations, and therefore precisely formulated laws of Nature could not have been developed.

    But Needham also contends that none of the Chinese words in ancient and medieval texts or Li in Neo-Confucianism can be rendered as laws of Nature (pp.573, 579, note). This is a questionable contention. As pointed out above, the concept of tse in Ch'eng I implies fixed principles for all things. 

75.    Hu Shih, op. cit., pp.145-148.

76.    Chu Tzu ch'uan-shu, 42/1a.




Also, in connection with the idea of necessity, Chang Tsai enumerated certain principles for all things, that things have a certain sequence, that all have their opposites, that none is isolated, etc. Fung Yu-lan called these "laws" (kuei-lu 規律).[77] Fung's excellent exposition of Chang Tsai's philosophy, especially in connection with "laws," has escaped Needham's attention when he discusses the question whether lu can be considered as law (pp.550-552).[78] However, in Needham's view, these are principles, not precisely formulated laws.

    The fact that the Chinese did not develop precisely formulated laws of Nature cannot be denied. As to the reason for this fact, I am not sure whether Needham is correct that it is partly due to the unimportance of positive law in China. Is there any necessary connection between positive law and science? Needham also says that the concept of laws of Nature arose with the emergence of capitalism in Europe (p.543). This is an interesting hypothesis, but it is no more than a hypothesis.

    Equally hypothetical is his theory that European positive law encouraged science "because of the idea that to the earthly lawgiver there corresponded in heaven a celestial one, whose writ ran wherever there were material things" (p.579). Elsewhere he maintains that science grew in Europe because there was the belief in God as personal lawgiver, but, since the Chinese do not believe in a personal God, there was no personal lawgiver and the concept of natural laws failed to evolve (pp.518, 562-564, 567, 582).

    This is an exciting thesis. But is it really a fact that European science grew as a result of the belief in a personal God? Granted that it is, must it also have been necessary for China to have had a belief in a personal God before she could develop science? If Newton and others, because of their personal religious environment, believed that natural laws were edicts issued by a supra-personal, supra-rational being (p.564), must other scientists of different religious milieus have the same belief? All this is highly speculative, to say the least.

    However, Needham is quite correct in his suggestion that the Chinese did not develop science because they were preoccupied with ethics and therefore remained on the empirical level (pp.453, 579) and that they subjected the material to the ethical (pp.454, 527). Such "cosmic-ethical unity gave no stimulation whatever to the idea of laws of Nature" (p.528). He is also correct in holding that the term T'ien-fa 天法 (Law of Heaven)

77.    Fung Yu-lan, op. cit., Vol. II, pp.482-484.

78.     Perhaps Needham overlooked this because he was misled by Bodde's loose translation of lu as pattern and sequence. 




is not used often in the scientific sense but concerns human affairs and human society (p.547). It was this preoccupation with human affairs that prevented the Neo-Confucian doctrine of investigation of things from developing natural science, although it considered Nature as well as man as an object of study. Needham is quite right in staling that with Chu Hsi the investigation of things centers on man, with Nature considered secondary (p.510). In this, too, he followed Ch'eng I, who said, "There are many ways of investigating Li to the utmost. One way is to read about and discuss truth and principles. Another way is to talk about the people and events of the past as well as the present, and to distinguish which is right and which is wrong. Still another way is to handle affairs and settle them in the proper way."[79] The Neo-Confucians, like other Confucians before them and those to follow, were primarily interested in the knowledge of value.

    But the Neo-Confucians had another drawback in connection with science. On this point it is instructive to summarize what Hu has to say about the Neo-Confucians in particular and about the development of science in China in general. According to Hu, the Neo-Confucians had the scientific spirit but not the scientific method. Their methods were observation and reflection. Without a scientific tradition such as the Greeks and the medieval doctors bequeathed to modern Europe, these Chinese philosophers were greatly handicapped. The result was that to "investigate things" came to mean understanding right and wrong and handling human affairs. In the fifteenth century, Wang Yang-ming 王陽明 (also called Wang Shou-jen 守仁, 1472-1529) promoted the theory that Li was not in things but in our mind and ridiculed Ch'eng I and Chu Hsi. However, the scientific spirit of the Ch'eng-Chu school lived on and brought on an age of scientific scholarship in the critical study of classical and historical literature, an age ushered in by Chu Hsi himself. This new critical scholarship reached its maturity in the seventeenth century under the leadership of Ku Yen-wu 顧炎武 (1613-1682), founder of the science of Chinese phonology, and Yen Jo-ch'u 閻若璩 (1636-1704), founder of the science of higher criticism of the classics. Ku once offered 160 cases as evidence to prove the ancient pronunciation of a single word. The similarity in the scientific spirit and the methods used by these masters is striking. However, they were working with books, words, and documents, when their contemporaries in Europe were working with natural phenomena. Nevertheless, the tradition of the scientific spirit since their day has never been broken. Because

79.    I-shu, 18/5b.




of this tradition, the modern Chinese have not found themselves at sea in the scientific age. In the short space of a few decades in the twentieth century, important advance in science has been made in China.[80]

    Hu's explanation is presented here at length because it seems to be the most historical and factual. In the final analysis, Needham would agree with him, for Needham observes, "What went wrong with Chinese science was its ultimate failure to develop out of these theories [Yin-Yang, etc.] forms more adequate to the growth of practical knowledge, and in particular its failure to apply mathematics to the formulation of regularities in natural phenomena. This is equivalent to saying that no Renaissance awoke it from its 'empirical slumbers.' But for that situation the specific nature of the social and economic system must be held largely responsible" (p.579). Everyone will agree with Needham that "Chinese social and economic life . . . could not but condition at every step the science and philosophy of the Chinese people" (pp.582-583). What these factors are will be told in Volume VII, for which we are waiting, in the words of Mencius, like "longing for rain in a time of great drought."[81]


80.    Hu Shih, The Chinese Renaissance (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1934), pp.64-74.

81.    The Book of Mencius, 3B/5.