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Thursday, May 26, 2005

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.[1] 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?”[2] 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.

[1] Hung-ming chi 5.

[2] Lun-yu XI, 11.


At May 27, 2005 4:08 PM, Blogger Sewing said...

Hi, Kotaji:

At your request, I've put a little something up on Yale Romanization. It ended up being a much bigger project than I anticipated, and has morphed into something of a minor magnum opus (or so I would immodestly like to think!).

Anyhow, it's the top post on my blog (at least on 27 May 2005).

At May 27, 2005 9:13 PM, Anonymous tak said...

I'm eager to read on! How does Fan Chen, in his Shen-mieh lun, critique Buddhist 'idealism"? Claiming the mortality of the souls is quite in line with, as you put it, "materialist philosophy."

I wonder if you had a chance to read Slajov Zizek's review of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (I blogged it a few days ago), in which he criticizes the movie for its "Buddhist" messsage because it ends up being complicit with global financial capitalism. I wonder if there is an affinity between what Zizek suggests and Fan Chen's critique of Buddhism?

At May 27, 2005 9:40 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

Next installment tomorrow. From what I remember his refutation of immortality is interesting although different from what a modern materialist might argue. One of the most interesting elements I found was the nod toward dialectical reasoning (perhaps a 'primitive' version somewhat like Epicurus/Lucretius). Anyway, we'll come to that when I get round to posting a bit more.

I read your post on Zizek's review, but haven't had a chance to read the review itself yet. Saw him speak last year in London - he was brilliant, quite a performer too. Have you ever been to Lenin's Tomb (see my blog list)? He's a great fan of Zizek.


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