Aristotle's Categories outlined the philosophical categories of ancient Greece, putting forward and thoroughly analyzing ten categories. Hegel's Logik outlined contemporary Western philosophical categories in a comparatively complete categorical system. Did China's traditional philosophy (China's ancient philosophy) have a categorical system? Why and how should we study the question of traditional Chinese philosophy's concepts and categories? This essay attempts to contribute to the discussion of these questions.


1. The study of the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy has its general and particular significance. Its general significance can be expounded in at least the following three aspects:

First, while the study of the history of philosophy necessarily requires the study of the historical function of philosophers and philosophical schools, the ultimate value of such a study is to reveal the necessary logic that determined the specific development of certain philosophical thinking in history. For instance, what is the necessary logic of the development of the pre-Qin philosophical thinking from Confucius to Mencius to Xunzi? A scientific history of philosophy with Marxism as its guiding thought should reveal not only the developmental causes of philosophical thought but also the inner logic of the growth of such thought. Since philosophy is a science of the most general laws of nature, society and human thought presented in the form of abstractions, the development of the content of philosophical thought is therefore a history of the continuous advancement of concepts and categories and of their continuous clarification, enrichment and growth. We should study how concepts and categories were advanced in the history of philosophy, how their contents became clearer, richer and more systematic, and how the categorical system became more complicated, more comprehensive and more systematic; we should conduct a concrete analysis of the development of concepts and categories. This will enable us to discover the laws governing the development of philosophical thought and reveal its inner logic.

Second, when we say that the history of philosophy is one of the struggle between materialism and idealism we do not mean to imply that this struggle and the development of man's cognition are two separate processes. It was the one and same process through which man's knowledge of the world has been developing in the struggle between materialism and idealism which manifests the law of the development of man's knowledge. As the process of knowledge calls for the use of concepts and categories, every stage of development in the history of philosophy is marked by differing explanations of certain basic concepts and categories out of which emerged materialism and idealism. In the history of Chinese philosophy, for example, the struggle between materialism and idealism before the Qin Dynasty generally centered around the differing explanations of the Heavenly way and the human way, name and content, knowledge and conduct, and the variable and the constant. During the Wei and Jin Dynasties it centered around such pairs of concepts as being and non-being, essence and function, word and idea, ethical code and spontaneity. During the Song and Ming Dynasties it focused on principle and force, mind and matter, mind and nature, subject and object. A study of the development of concepts and categories is a key to the exposure of the law governing the struggle between materialism and idealism.

What is more, this study will enable us to understand the necessity of the emergence of certain concepts and categories in the history of cognition and to overcome the shortcomings of maintaining an oversimplified negative attitude toward idealism which can be found in the past studies of the history of philosophy. Wang Bi was an idealist philosopher, but it was he who advanced some categories such as essence and function, the one and the many, word and idea "which help us recognize and master the focal point in the web of natural phenomena." Despite his incorrect presentation of these categories, his advancement of them marked a step forward in man's knowledge, which deserves recognition for its position in the history of philosophy. Only after Wang Bi first posed the concepts of "taking nonbeing as essence" and "forget the words having grasped the concept" did there appear Ouyang Jian's later theory of "The Word Expresses the Concept" (Yan jin yi lun) and Pei Wei's "On the Exaltation of Being" (Chong you lun). Therefore the study of the concepts and categories in the history of philosophy and their development constitutes an indispensable link in correctly appraising materialism and idealism in the history of philosophy.

Third, Engels believed that the study of philosophies of the past was the only way to temper one's theoretical thinking. A scientific history of philosophy can certainly play such a role, and a scientific history of man's knowledge essentially would be the history of the development of concepts and categories. Since concepts and categories in the history of philosophy reflect man's deepening knowledge, when we study its development we are rethinking in our own thought the process of man's coming to know the world. Of course we discard the accidental and secondary factors and grasp the essential, normative content. This process of rethinking inevitably deepens our own thought. In our study of the development of concepts and categories, we not only relive the process of mankind using concepts and categories to understand the world, but invariably use certain methods to revisualize them. That method can only be one of making a theoretical analysis of the contents of the concepts and categories and the relationships between them and the logical relationships in their development. Such a process of analysis itself is a kind of theoretical thinking. In this sense, this study can help us improve our ability for theoretical thinking.

2. The above-mentioned three points give only the general significance of studying philosophical concepts and categories, for that significance exists in the study of the history of any philosophy (e.g., the Western or Indian). However, the study of the study of the categories of traditional Chinese philosophy and its history of development has also its particular significance; namely, it will enable us to understand the characteristics and level of development of traditional Chinese philosophy. Western philosophy has its own categorical system; its characteristics and the different levels of development of its philosophical thinking at different historical stages are reflected in the development from Aristotle's Categories to Hegel's Logik. The categories used in the primitive Indian Buddhism and the categories of the Kunya and Bhava sects of Mahayana, more or less in succession and each with its striking features, represent the fairly high level Indian Buddhism attained in logical thought and categorical analysis. Traditional Chinese philosophy has its own concepts and categories which gradually formed a fairly comprehensive system. Because of this it will not do just to take them in terms of the concepts and categories of Western philosophy, nor will it do to take them in terms of the Marxist philosophical concepts and categories.

Except for a few concepts taken from Indian Buddhism, the concepts and categories which have taken form in the long history of Chinese philosophy basically developed independently, hence their striking features. For example, the Heavenly way (Tian dao) and the human way (ren dao) as a pair of categories were very important in the history of Chinese philosophy. Therefore traditional Chinese philosophy not only paid considerable attention to the study of the relationship between the Heaven and man, but paid special attention to the study of the relationships between man and man (society). Another example is the pair of categories ti and yong which contain the meanings of not only noumenon and phenomenon, but also base and function, whole and part, and abstract and concrete. Such series of pairs of concepts and categories reflect not only the characteristics of traditional Chinese philosophy, but also the level of theoretical thinking at a certain stage of historical development. To make a not completely apt comparison: traditional Chinese medicine certainly has its own particular tradition with its own particular theoretical system, particular medical terms and concepts. Despite the fact that we have not found clear scientific explanations for some of the

theories and achievements, since it does achieve good results in medical treatment it must reflect certain aspects of objective reality and contain fairly profound truths. Since concepts and categories are necessary conditions for the formation of knowledge and play a pivotal role in linking the subjective to the objective, definite concepts and categories reflect definite achievements made by man in recognizing certain aspects of objective reality through his theoretical practice; hence, different concepts and categories mark different depths of man's cognition. Therefore, when we study the concepts and categories at different stages of the development of traditional Chinese philosophy, we can see the level of theoretical thinking at the different stages of development of Chinese history.

In the history of Chinese philosophy, there are three periods during which schools made major contributions to the formation of the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy, namely, the various pre-Qin schools, the metaphysical school (Xuanxue) of the Wei and Jin, and the Neo-Confucianism (Lixue) of the Song and Ming Dynasties. When we compare the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy in the three stages with those of the Western philosophy, we are impressed by its distinct features and fairly high level. This comparison between the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy and those of other countries, nations and regions constitutes an important subject in comparative philosophy.



Fundamentally speaking, the study of the concepts and categories of traditional Chinese philosophy requires the scientific analytical method of Marxism. Merely to pose the concepts and categories used in the history of Chinese philosophy is contrary to the goal of our study. For that will not uncover the laws governing the development of philosophical thought, nor will it help us better to understand the laws of the struggle between materialism and idealism, or to improve our theoretical thinking; in particular, we will be unable to recognize the characteristics and level of traditional Chinese philosophy. To achieve our goal, it is necessary to use the scientific analytical method of Marxism to: 1) analyze the meaning of the concepts and categories, 2) investigate the development of those meanings, 3) analyze the systems of concepts and categories of philosophers or philosophical schools, and 4) study the similarities and differences between the concepts and categories of Chinese and foreign philosophies. It is only on the basis of such an analysis that it is possible to advance the study of the history of Chinese philosophy along a scientific path.

Analysis of the Meaning of Concepts and Categories

The advancement of one or of a pair of concepts (categories) marks the level of man's understanding of the world, yet it is up to us to make an analysis of the meaning of such a concept or pair of concepts. When ancient philosophers advanced a new concept they did not have as clear and scientific an understanding of its meaning as we do today; this is particularly true of the concepts they used to explain the origin of the world. For instance, Laozi (Lao Tzu) was the first man to advance the "way" (dao) as the paramount category in his philosophical system. This concept of the "way" he advanced as an antithesis to the contemporary concept of "respecting Heaven." By taking the "way" as the origin of the world, Laozi (Lao Tzu) certainly raised the level of ancient Chinese philosophical thinking. But what was the meaning of the "way"? Laozi (Lao Tzu) himself found it difficult to give a clear definition. He said: "I do not know its name; I call it Dao. If forced to give it a name, I shall call it Great." Therefore he used quite a number of adjectives to describe the "way," such as "soundless and formless," "eluding and vague," and "deep and obscure." Obviously, with the limitations of the objective conditions and their level of knowledge, the ancient philosophers found it difficult to give lucid definitions of the concept of the origin of the world.

Thus it is necessary for us to investigate the meaning of the concept of the "way" in the light of the book Laozi (Lao Tzu).1 The term "spontaneity" (ziran) was widely used by ancient Chinese philosophers but each had his own definition. It was Laozi (Lao Tzu), too, who was the first to use "spontaneity" as a philosophical concept, by which he generally meant non-activity. Wang Chong of the Han Dynasty continued this usage when he wrote: "The Heavenly way is spontaneous non-activity." By the time of the Wei and Jin Dynasties, the proponents of non-activity such as Wang Bi and Xiahou Xuan practically took "spontaneity" for the "way"--that is, the primal stuff of the universe. Xiahou Xuan wrote: "Heaven and earth operate with spontaneity and the sage functions following spontaneity. Spontaneity is the way, which originally had no name and Laozi (Lao Tzu) was forced to give it a name."

Even the same philosopher had different definitions for "spontaneity." We can use Guo Xiang's definitions of "spontaneity" as an example for analysis. He identified at least five connotations for "spontaneity." First, the actions of Heaven and man are "spontaneous." In his Annotations of Zhuangzi (the chapter, The Great Teacher) he wrote: "He who knows the deeds of both Heaven and man is a sage, means knowing the deeds of Heaven and man is spontaneity." Thus, Guo Xiang looked not only at the natural phenomena but also at man's deeds as in a sense spontaneous; in what sense could this be so? Second, "working for oneself" (ziwei) is "spontaneity." Guo Xiang said: "To say that matter is spontaneous means non-activity." He also wrote: "We value this non-activity and matter's working for itself." Then why is "working for itself" a kind of "non-activity"? Third, "being self-willed" is "spontaneity." Guo Xiang held that "working for oneself" is "spontaneity," but "working for oneself" does not mean acting wilfully, but "acting by one's nature," namely, "acting in accordance with one's nature, that is spontaneity, thus called nature (xing)." "According to spontaneity" means "according to one's nature," that is, neither making others succumb to oneself nor allowing oneself succumb to another. Fourth, "inevitability" is "spontaneity." Guo Xiang wrote: "Knowing the reality of destiny one will not seek what lies beyond it, but just to fulfill one's nature." One who "knows his destiny" will not ask for what cannot be done--this is called "spontaneity." Destiny here means "inevitability." Fifth, "chance is spontaneity." Guo Xiang wrote: "Things are all spontaneous, acting without knowing why or how it should be so." By not knowing the reason of action, "spontaneity" implies "chance." Therefore, when the philosophers were trying to explain "self-generation" they often employed such terms as "suddenly" or "abruptly"--all meaning that things exist without reason, the causality being beyond explanation.

According to Guo Xiang, "spontaneity" has the above-mentioned five inter-connected meanings, of which the last two are most important, that is, "spontaneity" has the meaning of both "inevitability" and "chance." Actually, they are a pair of antagonistic concepts and, from the dialectical point of view, are mutually connected and transform themselves into each other, with inevitability manifesting itself through chance. Guo Xiang used the term "spontaneity" to explain both "inevitability" and "change," precisely because he saw the relationship of mutual dependence between them: that a matter so exists is "inevitable" in one respect because "things emerge by themselves abruptly." In Guo Xiang's philosophical system, things must have these two aspects. From this analysis of Guo Xiang's definition of the concept of "spontaneity" we can see the general characteristics and level of the philosophy of Guo Xiang.

Analysis of the Development of the Meanings of Concepts and Categories

Not only do the meanings of concepts and categories differ from one philosopher to another, at different times they also differ in meaning. Nevertheless, if philosophical thoughts follow one another, it is always possible to discover the relationship of succession between these concepts and categories. The study of their development is extremely important for understanding the laws of the development of man's knowledge. In the following, we will analyze the growth of the concept of qi (often translated as material force, ether, or fluid--tr.) in traditional Chinese philosophy.

Some thinkers as early as the Spring and Autumn period already discussed the impact of qi on man. For example, the Zuo Zhuan mentioned "the six qi" in the medical theory recorded in the first year of the reign of Duke Zhao of Lu (B.C. 541). By the Warring States period, qi became a general concept. People not only believed that the body of man was made of qi, but some believed that the spirit of man also was made of qi. In "White Heart," "Inner Function" and "Mechanism of the Heart" chapters of the book Guanzi, it was said: "As for essence (jing), it is the essence of qi"; "the qi of all things changes and thus becomes life"; "when qi goes to the ground, grains grow; when it goes into the heavens, there emerge the constellations; when it floats in the air, it becomes ghosts and spirits; when it goes into man's chest, the man becomes a sage," and "therefore when there is qi, there is life; when there is no qi, there is death," etc. According to these thinkers, among the "qi" there is an "essential qi," the life-giver. When such an "essential qi" enters the body of a man, he becomes wise and turns into a sage.

During the Warring States period this unscientific theory of "essential qi" was used to explain man's spirit. If we considered it materialist, it would be a materialist viewpoint with grave defects which, under certain circumstances, were used by idealists and turned into a component part of their system. It could also be utilized by the supernaturalists who transformed it into a basis for advocating "life without end.'" We know that Mencius also talked about qi, and posed a sort of qi called the "qi of vastness" (hao ran zhi qi). The "White Heart" chapter of the book Guanzi mentions the "essential qi" that can give man wisdom and "this qi should not be checked by strength but should be accommodated by power (de)" which is to say, qi itself possesses an intelligence which should be consolidated by moral power. And in the theory of Mencius, his "qi of vastness is "obtained through accentuating righteousness." Obviously, qi in Mencius' theory has already become spiritual.

By the Han Dynasty, Dong Zhongshu went a step further and moralized and mystified qi which became the manifestation of the will and power of God. Dong Zhongshu held that qi had the power of meting out punishment and award, that there were good and vicious qi and that qi had emotions such as happiness, anger, grief and joy. So qi, though still retaining material appearance, already lost its material substance. Later, during the Han period, there were all sorts of superstitious explanations of qi which were indeed the outgrowth of the viewpoint of Dong Zhongshu.

From the historical data of the pre-Qin period and the Han Dynasty, we can see that the concept of qi is closely linked with questions of spirit and form, and thus has much to do with the question of the preservation of health, which often was deemed a means to becoming a deity. In Zhuangzi the "true man"(zhenren), the "spiritual man" (shenren) and others were often described as "with the spirit guarding the form to achieve longevity," "drinking dew and breathing the wind instead of eating grain," "unifying their nature and preserving their qi." They made their spirit integrate with their form so that they could accomplish the goal of "keeping their form perfect and replenishing their spirit to be merged into one with Heaven and earth." The Lü Shi Chun Qiu includes numerous discussions of the "preservation of good health" and considers that to "achieve longevity," qi "should be made to flow constantly within the body," and "with essential qi renewed daily, the vicious qi will go and a full life span will be reached; this is called truth." In Huai Nan Zi the preservation of qi, of form and of nature are the same thing; moreover all are linked together with qi. The writers of both of these two books were influenced by the "theory of essential qi," in "White Heart" and other philosophical works. They all thought that "spirit" (jingshen) is also a kind of qi, or "essential qi which can reside or leave the body and that when spirit and body are at one, there will be long life."

Meanwhile, some philosophers of the pre-Qin and Han periods held a materialist view of qi and considered it to be the matter that constitutes the world. Xunzi held that everything in the universe, including man, was made of qi. He wrote: "Water and fire have qi but no life, plants have life but no senses, birds and beasts have senses but know not righteousness and man has qi, life, senses and also righteousness." The chapter "On Spirit" of the book Huai Nan Zi says that the universe was originally a murky body of original qi without any shape and that later the interaction of the positive and negative forces gave birth to everything, so "the dirty qi became worms and the pure essential qi became human beings." Wang Chong put it with even greater clarity. He wrote: "The merging of the qi of Heaven and earth gave birth to everything," and that was the result of the movement of qi. He said: "When Heaven moves, it gives qi, . . . qi comes out and it gives birth to things." In order to oppose Dong Zhongshu's idealist view of qi, Wang Chong particularly pointed out that qi has no will, no aim. He said: "qi is void of ambition, purpose or scheme"; "qi is like smoke and cloud, how can it listen to man's request"? Nevertheless, like the book Huai Nan Zi, Wang Chong took the spirit of man (or the phenomenon of life) as "essential qi." He said: "Man lives because he has essential qi; when man dies, the essential qi vanishes." An analysis of the contents of the concept qi in the history of ancient Chinese philosophy reveals clearly the development of this concept. The three doctrines, or rather definitions, mentioned above, however, were all merged into the thought of Daoism (Taoism) toward the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, which we will not discuss here.

Analysis of the Systems of Concepts and Categories of Philosophers (or Philosophical Schools)

Historically major philosophers, in establishing their philosophical systems, have invariably used a series of concepts and categories. Thus the study of the relationships between these concepts and categories is necessary for us to make a thorough analysis of their theoretical systems. The level a philosopher's thought reaches often can be judged by how richly and systematically his concepts and categories reflect the essential relationships between the objects they are meant to reflect. Divergent views in the study of a past philosopher (or philosophical school) sometimes arise from the lack of a comprehensive, systematic study of the system of concepts and categories of that philosopher or school. For example, if we merely take into account Guo Xiang's concepts of "being" and "nonbeing" and their relationship, we might conclude that he was a materialist. But the reason why Guo Xiang's philosophy was the zenith of the Wei and Jin metaphysical school was not that he put forth a view different from that of Wang Bi's on the relationship between "being" and "nonbeing," but that he had a fairly complete philosophical system, an analysis of which reveals that it comprises the following four groups of basic concepts. (Though there are other important concepts in Guo's philosophical system, we will not deal with them here.)

"Being" and "nonbeing": The central topic of discussion among the Wei and Jin metaphysicians was the question of "origin and outcome, being and nonbeing." The philosophy of Guo Xiang might be considered to originate from the discussion on this topic. Guo believed that "being" (the "being of everything") is the only thing that exists; it is constantly present; although being undergoes infinite changes and transformations, it cannot in any instance become nonbeing," and "we say the Heaven and earth constantly exist because there is no time they have not existed." As for "nonbeing," he held that the creator above "being," or "the nonbeing" serving as noumenon, is non-existence, that is, "nothing." Thus he said: "Nonbeing is simply nonbeing, it cannot produce being," and "I venture to ask whether there is a creator or not? If not, how can he create things"? Therefore, from the very beginning, Guo Xiang denied the existence of a "creator" above the being of "everything," or a "nonbeing" which is the antithesis of "being" which as the primal body serves as the basis for the existence of being. However, Guo Xiang's philosophy did not stop here, but went further.

"Nature" and "destiny": Since the existence of things is not based on "nonbeing" as the primal body, then is there an inherent cause for the existence of things? According to Guo Xiang one cannot say that the being of "everything" is groundless. Since things exist, their very existence is the basis for their existence.

Specifically, the basis of their existence is their own "nature": "Everything has its own nature and every nature has its limit." The "nature" Guo Xiang meant is "the reason that things are what they are" which has the sense of "necessity." Thus he said: "Each gets what he deserves by nature; there is no avoiding it nor adding more." He also said: "Things have their own nature, so the wise stays wise till his last day while the dull goes on being dull till his death, neither able to change halfway." As for "destiny" Guo Xiang defined it as "inevitability"; as he put it "destiny means things all act spontaneously without anything acting on them," and "being aware of the impossible." Obviously, his "nature" and "destiny" are two concepts he employed to prove the point that "being" alone exists and that "nonbeing" as creator or primal body is absolutely non-existent.

"Self-generated" and "self-sufficient": The "nature" of things is the basis for their existence, but how does this "nature" originate? Is its emergence with some purpose, or condition? Guo Xiang said: "Things exist by themselves without a source; this is the way of Heaven" and "the emergence of things is just out of their own accord." If the "nature" of a thing is not "self-generated," then it must be given by others or intentionally produced by a creator. Yet this thing becoming this thing and that thing becoming that thing is not something else making this or that thing emerge and exist, nor even making itself emerge and exist; therefore "self-generation" can only be produced "unexpectedly," "abruptly" and "spontaneously" by itself. Were there any reason or purpose for the emergence and existence of a thing, it would inevitably lead to the admission of the existence of an initiator. Then what is the relation between one "self-generated" thing and another "self-generated" thing? Guo Xiang held that everything is "self-generated" and its existence is "entirely in keeping with its own nature" and therefore is "self-sufficient" (wudai). On the one hand, "self-sufficiency" is possible because "things produce themselves"; "things produce themselves without relying on anything else." On the other hand, anything can be "self-sufficient" as long as it "conforms with its own nature," and "is content with its own nature," "for when satisfied with its own nature, a giant roc does not despise the sparrow and the sparrow does not covet the heavenly lake and both are quite satisfied. Thus, big or small, all live in complacence." So, to insist on the premise that one must recognize that it is "self-generated" and "self-sufficient."

"Self-transformation" and "mutual indispensability": To support the concepts of "self-generated" and "self-sufficient" requires the solution of another question. Suppose everything exists by itself, this being this and that being that with one differing from another, then are not all the things related? Suppose all the things are relative, then are not they limited? Suppose they are limited, then are not they "insufficient" (you dai)? To answer this question, Guo Xiang advanced the concept of self-transformation" (duhua). By self-transformation," he meant that everything emerges and generates independently, hence "self-sufficiency" is absolute. If we try to seek the cause and basis of the emergence and generation of things, ostensibly we can pursue this question infinitely, but ultimately we can come only to the conclusion of "self-sufficiency." Thus he said: "If we try to find out what a thing relies on and what is the cause of its creation, there will be no end and finally we will come to self-sufficiency and the working of self-transformation will be obvious." In his "Annotations on (Zhuangzi's) Qi Wu Lun" Guo Xiang cited an absolute example. He said that the bodily form, the shadow and the penumbra are all beings of absolute independence, for "thus throughout the realm of things, there is nothing, not even the penumbra, which is not "self-transformed."

If one thing does not exist independently, then everything else is not independent, which will inevitably lead to the existence of a primal body (or creator) above "everything," serving as the basis of their existence and inevitably recognized as "a cause of creation and generation." Although things exist independently and self-sufficiently, as long as everything fully realizes its "nature," brings it into full play and "the wise stays wise till his last day and the dull goes on being dull till his death," then the ideal realm will be achieved where "Heaven and earth are not so long-lived but live along with me, and things in the world are not divergent, but the same as me." Relating this way to every other thing has the greatest function; that is, "the greatest function of mutual indispensability is the perfection of self-transformation." Seen from another angle, everything is indispensable as long as it exists. Guo Xiang said: "A man, though only seven feet tall, possesses the five constant virtues; thus this mere body is provided with everything in the universe. Therefore none of the things in the world can be dispensed for one day. With one thing lacking, the living will not have means to live; with one law lacking, the living cannot fulfill their natural life-span." Thus, everything existent is rational, inevitable and not mutually exclusive. This view appears to contradict the doctrine of "self-transformation," but it does not. According to Guo Xiang, everything that exists is rational, inevitable and not mutually exclusive precisely because, as the condition for the existence of everything else, everything fully and absolutely brings its "nature" into full play, creates itself and generates self-sufficiently.

From this analysis of Guo Xiang's system of philosophical categories, we can see that his philosophy finally arrives at the doctrine of "self-transformation," and the concept of "exalted being" (chongyou) is merely a bridge to "self-transformation."What is more, in Guo Xiang's system, only after the establishment of the doctrine on "self-transformation" can one support "sublime being" and a relatively thorough refutation of a "nonbeing" above everything as the basis of the latter's existence.

If we want to know whether a philosopher is a materialist or idealist, or the characteristic of his philosophy, its ideological relations with its predecessors and successors and its place in history, we must first make an analysis of his categorical system.

Analysis of the Similarities and Differences Between the Concepts and Categories of Chinese and Foreign Philosophies

A comparison between the categorical systems of Chinese and foreign philosophies will undoubtedly enable us to have a better understanding of the characteristics and level of traditional Chinese philosophy. Because of the breadth of this topic and the limited study conducted by this author, we can make only a rather superficial comparison here between Wei and Jin metaphysics and the Buddhist doctrine of Prajna introduced into China in that period.

The central theme of Wei and Jin metaphysics is the question of "being and nonbeing, origin and outcome." Therefore "being" and "nonbeing" are two basic categories in the Wei and Jin metaphysics. The Buddhist Prajna doctrine also discussed the question of "being" and "nonbeing" (or the "void," kong), hence Dao-an said: "Of the twelve books, Vaipuliya is most copious and its doctrine on the void of being and non-being is similar to the teachings of Laozi (Lao Tzu) and Zhuangzi, thus the doctrine of Mahayana has been easy to spread in China." The concept of the "void" (or "nonbeing") of the Buddhist Prajna school is actually different from the "nonbeing" advocated by Wang Bi and other Chinese metaphysicians, despite their apparent similarity. The Buddhist concept of original nonbeing, or Tathata in Sanskrit, has the meaning that "all the different dharmas are in their original nature void and empty" and that all things have no original actual forms. Wang Bi and other metaphysicians also talked about "original nonbeing" by which, however, they meant that everything "is based on nonbeing as its origin." Although the two concepts of "original nonbeing" cannot be considered to be entirely different, they do have vast differences in meaning. In Wei and Jin metaphysics, Wang Bi's thought succeeded the doctrines of Laozi (Lao Tzu). In his philosophical system, the category "nonbeing" is one and the same thing as "the way" or "principle"; as he said: "The extreme of greatness is nothing but the way! . . . though it is important that it has nonbeing as its phenomenon, yet it cannot do without nonbeing as its noumenon"; "nothing exists without principle, everything operates according to its own law." Obviously, the "nonbeing" used by Wang Bi is not the "void" or "non-existence," but the "substance" of a thing. The "original nonbeing" of the Buddhist Prajna doctrine on the void only means that "all the different dharmas are in their original nature void and empty." They held that everything is void of nature, but created through the association of hetupratyaya. From this one can see that the Buddhist Prajna School in its discourse on the void refers not to "substance," but to "non-existence." As for the content of "being," the Wei and Jin metaphysicians usually referred to "universal being," namely, all sorts of actually existing things whereas, on the other hand, in the translation of Buddhist scripts, terms denoting different meanings of "being" (existence) were all translated into the term "being."

After its introduction into China, Buddhism first attached itself to Daoist necromancy during the Eastern Han Dynasty and then to Wei and Jin metaphysics. The various schools of the Prajna doctrine formed by Chinese monks during the Eastern Jin period generally still used metaphysical thought to explain the teachings of Prajna until the arrival in China of Kumarajiva whose translations of Modhyamikasatra, Satasastra and Dvadasa-mikaya sastra of the Mahaprajnapramitasastra provided Chinese Buddhist with the material for understanding the true meaning of Buddhism Monk Zhao's On No Real Non-Existence is more or less close to the original meaning of "neither being nor nonbeing" of the Buddhist Prajna doctrine.

A comparison and analysis of the Chinese and foreign philosophical concepts and categories can thus show their characteristics and level of development as well as the impact of foreign culture on indigenous traditional culture and the process of a foreign culture being assimilated and becoming a component of the culture of the country (nation, or region) into which the foreign culture was introduced.



The term category has myriad definitions in the history of philosophy in the West. Aristotle in his Categories treated it as the basic mode of being and put forward ten categories such as substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, state, action and passion. And Kant described his twelve categories as principles related to cognition or as the precondition for constituting experience. Lenin said: "Categories are stages of distinguishing, i.e., of cognizing the world, focal points in the web, which assist in cognizing and mastering it."2 A Dictionary of Philosophy published in the Soviet Union defines category as "the basic concept that reflects the most general and most essential character, aspect and relationship of the various phenomena and knowledge of reality.

"Category" then is generally explained from the two aspects of the existence and knowledge of reality: from the aspect of existence it is defined as "the basic mode of existence" or "the most general and most essential character, aspect and relationship of the phenomena of reality"; from the aspect of knowledge it is defined as the "precondition for constituting experience" or "focal points in the web, which assist in cognizing and mastering it." The necessary precondition for knowledge is certainly the reflection and manifestation of the "basic mode of existence" while the "basic mode of existence" is meaningful only in the process of man's knowledge. From what we listed above, we can see the relationship between "category" and "concept": a category is a basic concept whereas a concept is not necessarily a category. Thus, what we are discussing here is what are the categories or basic concepts of traditional Chinese philosophy. If, using the basic concepts of classic Chinese philosophers, we can form a system which shows how traditional Chinese philosophy identified and explained "the basic mode of existence" and which reveal the line of development of the traditional Chinese philosophical thinking, then we have proven that traditional Chinese philosophy does have a categorical system. This is presented first in the following diagram (see next page) and further explained below.

In this diagram, twenty pairs of basic concepts make up the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy. This is certainly a very preliminary proposition. However, despite its many possible defects, it is intended to initiate discussion and study on this question. Here the author would like to explain some points:

(1) This diagram is divided into three major parts. Part I is intended to indicate what basic concepts are used in traditional Chinese philosophy on the question of the existence of the world; Part II is meant to show what basic concepts are used to present the form of being; and Part III is meant to show what basic concepts are used to denote the existence and knowledge of man. The relationship between "Heaven" (or the Heavenly way) and "man" (or the way of man) has always been a central theme for discussion in traditional Chinese philosophy and it is around this question that the struggle between materialism and idealism has been waged in the history of Chinese philosophy.

Zi Can was the first Chinese philosopher to make a proposition on the relationship between the two when he wrote: "The way of Heaven is remote, whereas the way of man is near." Confucius attached importance to the "mandate of the Heaven" but he gave even greater attention to the "affairs of man." Although he mentioned that he "began to know the mandate of Heaven as the age of fifty," he seldom discussed this question. "The master was seldom heard discussing the question of nature and the Heavenly way," reports the Analects which, however, extensively records Confucius' sayings on the question of the "way of man." Mencius


talked about "obeying nature, and knowing fate and Heaven," and the Doctrine of the Mean says: "Sincerity is the way of Heaven; knowing sincerity is the way of man." Xunzi said: "Grasp the way of Heaven and man. Laozi (Lao Tzu), the founder of Daoism (Taoism) said: "The Heavenly way is spontaneous non-activity," and he played down the importance of "humanness and righteousness" (the way of man). And Zhuangzi "was misguided by Heaven and ignorant of man" Dong Zhongshu, the Confucian master of the Han Dynasty, described his research as a study of "the relationship between Heaven and man." Sima Quan who was much influenced by Daoist thinking said that his Historical Records were works of "investigations into the relationship between Heaven and man and the changes past and present." The Wei and Jin metaphysicians concentrated on the question of "spontaneity" (the way of Heaven) and "ethics" (the way of man). Hence, He Yan said: "Only with people like Wang Bi, can you discuss the question of the relationship between Heaven and man."

The Song Neo-Confucians of both the School of Principle (Lixue) and School of Mind (Xinxue) strongly believed: "The supreme ultimate (the principle of Heaven) is simply an utterly excellent and supremely good normative principle"; the supreme ultimate is an appellation for "all that is good in heaven and on earth, and among men and things." The "principles of Heaven" and the "desires of man" are still a question of the relationship between Heaven and man. Even Wang Fuzhi still made this a focal point in his philosophical discourse. He held that "Rites, no matter how pure they are, are merely expressions of the principles of Heaven inevitably to be found in the desires of man," and that "the desire of man, when reaching superb altruism is the perfection of the principle of Heaven." Thus, traditional Chinese philosophy proceeded from the discussion of the pair of categories: (the way of) Heaven and (the way of) man, an indication of the main attention and particular content of traditional Chinese philosophy.

(2) This diagram shows the development of the categories of traditional Chinese philosophy and their relationships. Proceeding from the study of the relationship between Heaven and man, traditional Chinese philosophy branches out into two parts: Daoism (Taoism) and Confucianism. Laozi (Lao Tzu) advanced the relationship between the "way" and "all things." He said: "The way creates one, one creates two, two create three and three create all things." He also said: "All things in the world are produced by being and being is produced by nonbeing," therefore the relationship between the "way" and the "way" and the "thing" is also represented by the pair of categories "being" and "nonbeing." The Confucian School however proposed the categories the "way" and the "instrument" in the Commentary on the Book of Changes, which says: "That which shapes and is above is called the way and that which shapes and is below is called the instrument," and adds: "Change contains the supreme ultimate which produces two extremes," and "the alternation of yin and yang is called the way"; thus the relationship between the way and the instrument is reflected in the categories of the supreme ultimate and yin and yang. The Han Dynasty witnessed some development in philosophical thought, but it seems that practically no new and influential philosophical categories were advanced. The Wei and Jin metaphysics upheld three philosophical classes, Laozi (Lao Tzu), Zhuangzi and Zhou Yi, which brought a gradual merging of Daoism (Taoism) with the Confucianism of the Zhou Yi system. This established the theory of a primal body as the origin of the universe, a theory with Laozi (Lao Tzu)'s and Zhuangzi's thought as the framework. The Wei and Jin metaphysicians used categories such as "essence" and "function," "stem and branch," the "one" and the "many" to illustrate "nonbeing" (the primal) and "being" (everything or the various manifestations of this substance). They used "spontaneity" (essence) and "ethics" (function) to present the relationship between the "originality of the universe" (primal body) and "human social relations" (the various social positions and codes), and used the pair of categories "idea" and "word" to explain questions on understanding the substance of the universe. From the Wei and Jin Dynasties and the Northern and Southern Dynasties, onward, traditional Chinese philosophical thought, under the impact of Buddhism introduced from India, evolved into the Neo-Confucianism of the Song Dynasty. If the Wei and Jin metaphysical doctrine on substance has the thought of Laozi (Lao Tzu) and Zhuangzi as the framework, then Neo-Confucianism of the Song-Ming period alternately were based on an objective idealism (represented by Zhu Xi), a subjective idealism (represented by Wang Yangming) and a fairly high level materialism (represented by Wang Fuzhi). The philosophical categories of this period succeeded Wei and Jin metaphysics and also absorbed Tang Buddhist thought in the Sui and Tang periods. Thus, there was a confluence of the thinking of Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism) and Buddhism within a Confucian framework. The most basic philosophical categories of the time became "principle" and qi, "mind" and "matter"; the question of "mind" and "nature" grew into the question of whether "mind is principle" or "nature is principle." Categories such as "subject" and "object," "investigation of things" and "fulfillment of principle" were used in the discussion of the question of knowledge and the categories "Heavenly principle" and "human desire" were used to discuss social issues.

Lenin in his On the Question of Dialectics wrote:

"Circles" in philosophy: (is a chronology of persons essential? No!) Ancient: from Democritus to Plato and the dialectics of Heraclitus.

Modern: Holbach--Hegel (via Berkeley, Hume, Kant). Hegel--Feuerbach--Marx.3

In his Conspectus of Hegel's Book "Lectures on the History of Philosophy," he wrote: "Comparison of the history of philosophy with a circle . . . a circle on the great circle (a spiral) of the development of human though in general."4 Hegel's comparison of the history of philosophy with a circle, as pointed out by Lenin, is a penetrating reflection of the law of development of the philosophical thought. This is of tremendous importance in our study of the development of traditional Chinese philosophic thought.

From the above diagram, we can see that the development of traditional Chinese philosophy is roughly made up of three spiraling circles: The first covers the period prior to the Qin Dynasty; the Confucian School, including Confucius, Mencius and Zhuangzi (or the Commentary on the Book of Changes); Daoism (Taoism) including Laozi (Lao Tzu), the School of Shuxia (i.e., the "White Heart" and other works) and Zhuangzi; with the Han Dynasty forming a transitional period. The second circle was the period of the Wei and Jin Dynasties represented by Wang Bi--Xiang Xiu--Guo Xiang (or Wang Bi--Guo-Xiang--Seng Zhao). Buddhism was in vogue from the Northern and Southern Dynasties through the Sui and Tang Dynasties and after a period of development, Buddhism in China grew into several sects such as the Huayan (Avatamsaka) Sect and the Chan (Zen) Sect. The third circle covers the Song and Ming Dynasties represented by Zhang Zai--Zhu Xi--Wang Fuzhi.

(3) In the second column of the diagram only three pairs of categories are listed, of which the most fundamental is the pair "quiescence" and "movement," whose manifestation is the pair "constant" and "variable," though in fact "positive" and "negative" are also peculiar manifestations of "quiescence" and "movement." Although many philosophers of traditional Chinese philosophy discussed the question of "quiescence" and "movement," little discussion on the question of "time" and "space" was conducted among Chinese philosophers (except for the pre-Qin philosophers of the School of Names and philosophers of the later Mohist School). Philosophical propositions in traditional Chinese philosophy seem not to have been restricted by time or space and they paid little attention to the question whether movement took place in time and space. That is why we have not included the categories "time" and "space" in our diagram.

(4) The question of man (the way of man) was much discussed in traditional Chinese philosophy which was especially characterized by the study of the question of "morals" (ethics). Therefore careful consideration should be given to what should be included in the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy. In this diagram (column III) five pairs of categories (in fact not all of them are related to the way of man) seem to be sufficient as basic concepts. "Spirit" and "form," or the relationship between spirit and body, are used for the study of the phenomena of the human life. This was discussed from pre-Qin days onward, with materialists and idealists holding different views. The question of "nature" and "emotion" might be looked at as the key ethical issue. There have been divergent views on the question of "nature" ever since the pre-Qin days, such as "man is born good by nature," "man is born evil by nature," "man is born with a mixed nature both good and evil," "man is born neither good nor evil by nature," and "man is born good or evil by nature, all depending on the specific man," etc. On the question of nature and emotion, there were views that "nature is good whereas emotion is bad," "nature is quiescent and emotion is active," etc. The Wei and Jin metaphysicians paid considerable attention to this question, but concentrated on a discussion of the difference and similarity between the sage and the ordinary man. The Song and Ming Neo-Confucians divided nature into "the universal nature" and the "humoral nature," with the former stemming from the "principle of Heaven" and the latter from man's inherent emotion and desire or from the qi that makes up the body. Hence, this is still a question of nature and emotion and the importance of ethical education is to "maintain the principle of Heaven and suppress human desire." The question of "knowledge" and "action" also occupies a very important position in traditional Chinese philosophy. Most of the past Chinese philosophers upheld both "acknowledge" and "action" and thought the latter was even more important. The categories "name" and "actuality" were always contained in traditional Chinese philosophy and the categories "subject" and "object" were borrowed from Buddhism, but all four are related to the question of knowledge. Therefore column III of the diagram contains categories involving existence and knowledge.


As the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy is a rather broad and complicated issue, it calls for an earnest and extensive discussion. The following are only preliminary views on some of the questions:

(1) Should the categories in the categorical system be in pairs?

This question should be discussed in two aspects. On the one hand, in the history of philosophy, the philosophical categories used by a philosopher may not be in pairs. For example, the concept "spontaneity" used by Laozi (Lao Tzu) seems not to have its opposite in the book Laozi (Lao Tzu). The concept qi used as the most general concept in the "White Heart" chapter of Guanzi did not seem to have its opposite either. However, taking the development of traditional Chinese philosophy as a whole, the categories are in pairs. For example, the concept "spontaneity" is paired with "ethics" and "principle" with qi. On the other hand, everything is contradictory, with two contradictory aspects, of which one does not exist without the other. Therefore, the categories which reflect the essential relationships of things must be in pairs of opposites. Some of the philosophical concepts and categories of traditional Chinese philosophy indeed seem to have no pairs of opposites, such as the "mean." We certainly cannot say there is a "counter-mean." Yet an analysis of the meaning of the mean may possibly lead to the solution of this question. Confucius advanced his "doctrine of the mean" to oppose "excess"; he said: "Excess amounts to insufficiency." Thus, the "mean" has the sense of "middle" or "correct." Therefore it would be sufficient to have the concepts of the "positive" and the "negative" in traditional Chinese philosophy since "mean" is included in the meaning of "positive."

Not all the categorical systems used by Western philosophers necessarily reflect the unity of opposites. Among the ten categories used by Aristotle, some can be paired up as opposites such as "quality" and "quantity," but "substance" has no specific opposite, though the other nine categories might be considered to be the opposites of "substance." The twelve categories used by Kant and the categories of the categorical system of Hegel's Logik are mostly pairs of opposites. Though divergent in their views on the categorical system, all Marxist philosophers agree that categories are in pairs, for instance, essence and phenomenon, content and form, necessity and chance, possibility and actuality, etc. Marxist philosophy holds that categories must be pairs of opposites; this is certainly a correct view and reflects the reality of things. Thus when we today study the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy and try to make it more systematically and scientifically reflect the characteristics and level of traditional Chinese philosophy, we should try to find out the law of unity of opposites in its categorical system.

(2) How many categories should the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy contain in order to be sufficient to indicate "the basic pattern of being" or "the basic concepts that reflect the most fundamental characteristics, aspects and relationships of the phenomena and knowledge of the reality"?

The twenty pairs of opposite basic concepts of the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy are merely a tentative proposition. They indicate mostly what the "world" and "man" are; for example, the existence of the "world" comprises "principle" and qi and the existence of "man" comprises "spirit" and "form." The categories used by Western philosophers, however, generally show the mode of existence and the "principles of knowledge." The contemporary categories of Marxist philosophy as a whole also show the characteristics and aspects of being and do not include the most basic concepts such as "mind" and "thing" in the categorical system. By this criterion, some of the categories listed above should not be included in the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy and some other concepts should be added. However, the way we have indicated the system of traditional Chinese philosophy might be just one approach, for the various categories listed in the diagram do indicate the "basic mode of existence" so far as their contents are concerned, and are also "focal points in the web" of man's knowledge. Would not, then, our way seem to be better suited to reflect the characteristics and level of traditional Chinese philosophy? Of course it would be even better if we could use less basic concepts to indicate traditional Chinese philosophy, such as the diagram on the next page.

(3) Can "the categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy" reflect its characteristics and level?

This is a major question because serious research and thorough


discussion is needed to ascertain the characteristics of traditional Chinese philosophy and its level. Could we venture to say that our diagram of the categorical system more or less reflects the characteristics and level of traditional Chinese philosophy? Apparently, traditional Chinese philosophy paid special attention to the study of the basic mode of existence and the existence of man and the relationships between things; that is, the identity of things, hence the multitude of concepts such as the "Heaven and man combine as one," the "knowledge and action combine as one," "essence and function are like one," "nonbeing originates in being," the "spirit and form combine as one," and "mind and matter are not two." Although traditional Chinese philosophy did not devote much discussion to such concepts as time and space, cause and effect which are not included in our diagram, yet as a categorical system, traditional Chinese philosophy already attained a fairly high level as compared with ancient Western and Indian philosophy in that it covered a vast scope, with basic concepts all in pairs and the development of the meaning of its concepts reflecting the world with increasing depth.

The categorical system of traditional Chinese philosophy has not been widely discussed and is a fairly new topic. Here, the author has ventured to propose some preliminary propositions with the aim of arousing interest in the discussion of this topic in the hope that the study of the history of Chinese philosophy, under the guidance of Marxism, will advance even more scientifically.

Translated by Liu Bingwen




The tables on pp. are taken from Social Sciences in China, A Quarterly Journal (Beijing: The Social Sciences Publishing House; no. 4, 1982), III, 204 and 210 respectively.

1. See "Early Daoist Theories of Life and Death, and Spirit and Form," Zhexue Yanjiu, 1 (1981).

2. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), XXXVIII, 92.

3. Ibid., p. 362.

4. Ibid., p. 247.