The First Chinese Materialist, part two
The Shen-mieh lun was a tract written by Fan Chen during the time when he was engaged in the debates at the court of Prince Hsiao Tzu-liang, in answer to the pressing need for an effective theoretical weapon against Buddhism. The intention behind the tract is made quite clear by Fan Chen himself in the last paragraph, in which he discusses the application of the theory he has been expounding. The very title contained an unmistakable attack. Two surviving essays of the time are entitled “On the Immortality of the Soul” (Shen pu-mieh lun) – one by the celebrated founder of the lotus school, Hui-yuan (333-416), the other by a certain Cheng Tao-tzu. So the Shen-mieh lun, “Essay on the Extinction of the Soul,” maintaining that the spirit did not survive and the human soul was not immortal, was to some extent an answer to them.
Until the spread of Buddhist thought in the Middle Ages, the problem of immortality had never played as great a role in Chinese philosophy as it did in the West. The practical Chinese mind, concerned with the things of the world, was inclined to dismiss the question as unimportant. Confucius had given the agnostic position its classic formulation in the often quoted passage in the Analects: “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?” This attitude went very well with ostentatious funeral ceremonies, with ritualistic display as an end in itself. Mo Ti was the only person to preach survival after death, and he did so precisely because of his opposition to the wasteful extravagance of Confucian funeral customs, which would be rendered entirely unnecessary by the existence of a life beyond the grave. To the Taoists, life and death were merely transitional states of being. Chuang Tzu’s metaphor of the firewood coming to an end while the fire mysteriously goes on burning was susceptible to several interpretations. The Buddhists saw in it (at a much later date it is true) a belief in immortality, but probably Chuang Tzu himself would have repudiated this with an ironic and forgiving smile. Prior to Fan Chen, the only person to argue consistently against a belief in immortality was the skeptic Wang Ch’ung (27-97).
Source: Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy, (Yale university Press, 1964) pp260-1.