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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The First Chinese Materialist, part four

While the first two sections are purely philosophical, the next two enter into the realms of religion and mythology. The style matches the content. Instead of sharp, clear, and concise definitions, we find the habitual indulgence in “historical” quotations from the classics. It was customary in the tracts of the time to prove everything by biblical sayings. The Buddhists themselves were fond of relying on biblical authority as a heavy defense weapon against their Confucian opponents. Section 3 (questions 25-27) treats of the like quality of spiritual power in the holy sages of antiquity, the argument being conducted in somewhat unconvincing metaphors. Finally, in the fourth section (questions 28-30), Fan Chen attempts to come to grips with the problem of the relation between human and supernatural beings, a problem that arises from the double meaning of shen: “soul” or “spirit,” and “spirits” in the sense of supernatural beings. But he gives confused and evasive answers to the opponent’s questions, the opponent having meanwhile been converted to the belief in the mortality of the soul. On the one hand Fan argues that the ancestral cult has a merely educative value – a point of view that comes very close to Confucianism in its original form – and uses the same arguments as Wang Ch’ung against ghost stories about evil spirits, while on the other he acknowledges the existence of dark spirits and only denies the possibility of men changing into spirits. This is the contradiction – whether conscious or unconscious is an open question – upon which Fan’s materialism founders.

The last section is no longer a discussion. The opening question on the application of the mortality theory is merely a prelude to the great peroration on the harmfulness of Buddhism. Fan Chen here expounds his own beliefs, which combine Taoist naturalism and Confucian social views. He states his preference for the well-being and happiness of the human family on earth over salvation in the next world. To be contented with one’s lot and resigned to one’s fate are what maintain the upper and lower parts of society in a permanent state of balance.

Source: Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy, (Yale university Press, 1964) pp262-3.

Part one
Part two
Part three


At June 01, 2005 9:24 AM, Blogger Joel said...

Okay, I've finally posted an attempt an official policy about posting extracts from printed books. I hope it suffices to reassure publishers.


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