2016/01/02

Zou Yan - An Important Chinese Philosopher

Zou Yan or Tsou Yen was the representative thinker of the School of Yin-Yang (or School of Naturalists) during the Hundred Schools of Thought era in Chinese philosophy. His teachings combined and systematized two theories that were current during the Warring States Period: Yin-Yang and the Five Elements/Phases (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). According to his system, the five elements destroyed and succeeded one another in a cyclic process governed by the cosmic principles of Yin (Earth, female, passive, absorbing) and Yang (Heaven, male, active, penetrating), giving rise to all of nature, the seasons and different dynasties.

Zou Yan is regarded as the founder of natural science in China. His theories were adopted by the Fang Shih, ascetics and wandering healers who sought cultivation of the inner self and experimented with alchemy in a quest for immortality, and whose philosophy and practices influenced the development of Daoism. His theories of the mutual generation and destruction of the five elements were incorporated into Chinese medical doctrine.


Background

Though the Warring States Period (481 to 221 B.C.E.) was a period of hardship and political turmoil, it was an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China, during which a variety of thoughts and ideas were freely developed and discussed. Mencius and Hsuen Tzu elaborated the ideas of Confucius; Mencius developed the concept of the “Mandate of Heaven,” and Hsuen Tzu recognized that man's fate is determined not by nature alone but by his own activities. In strong contrast, the school of Mo Ti (Mohism) advocated extending principles of family love to the whole of society. The school of "dialecticians," which appeared from the fifth century B.C.E., saw their main task in the development of logic and rhetoric. The most important school of this period was that of the Legalists, whose most famous representative was Shang Yang (or Shang Tz[)u], died 338 B.C.E.). Legalists advocated rule by law, through a system of rewards and punishments in which the people's duty was to live and work for the ruler, and to carry out unquestioningly whatever orders they received. Along with these political and ethical systems of thought, there emerged a school of thought concerned with natural science and metaphysics, called the “Naturalist” or “Yin-Yang” School. The most important philosopher of this school was Zou Yan.

Life

The only account of his life is a brief biography in the Shih chi Records of the Grand Historian (1st century B.C.E.) by Sima Qian. It describes him as a polymath (philosopher, historian, politician, naturalist, geographer, astrologer) who came from the coastal state of Qi (present day Shandong), where he was a member of the state-sponsored Jixia Academy (稷下). Many other Chinese philosophers were natives of Shandong, and may have been exposed to new ideas from Western Asia through the ports of the Shandong coast. It appears from the Shih chi that Zou Yan (Tsou Yen) may have begun his career as a Confucianist, and then sought to supplement Confucianism with his metaphysical model.

The Shih Chi relates that:

“Princes, Dukes, and Great officials, when they first witnessed his arts, fearfully transformed themselves, but later were unable to practice them. Thus Master Tsou was highly regarded in Chhi. He traveled to Liang, where Prince Hui went out to the suburbs of the city to welcome him, and personally performed the rites of host and guest. When he traveled to Zhao, Lord Pingyuan walked sideways before him and bent to brush off his ma for him. When he traveled to Yan, King Zhao came out with a broom to sweep his path clean, and requested permission to sit as a disciple among Tsou’s followers. The King ordered a residence called the Standing Stone Mansion to be built for Tsou, and visited him there, treating Tsou as his teacher. In all his travels among the feudal lords he received honors of this sort.”

Thought

All of Zou Yan's writings were lost, and are only known through quotations in early Chinese texts. Zhou Yen wrote the texts “Bizarre Transformations,” “End and Renewal,” and “The Great Sage,” a total of over 100,000 Chinese characters. His discussions began with an observation of some small point, from which he extrapolated a vast and universal significance.

Zou Yan is considered the founder of the school of Naturalism (or Yin–Yang) in Chinese thought. His teachings combined and systematized two theories that were current during the Warring States Period: Yin-Yang and the Five Elements/Phases (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). According to his system, nature consisted of changing combinations of the Five Agents (metal, wood, water, fire, earth), which were governed by the cosmic principles of Yin (Earth, female, passive, absorbing) and Yang (Heaven, male, active, penetrating). The five elements destroyed and succeed one another in a cyclic process, which also gave rise to the seasons and different dynasties.

According to the Shi chi, Tsou Yen recognized that the rulers of his time were becoming increasingly incompetent, and began a careful study of the forces of yin and yang. He compiled a chronology of recent events, then studied historical records and traced the patterns of prosperity and decay, correlating them with different systems of administration and the signs and omens recorded at various times in history. He then applied his conclusions to the time before the existence of heaven and earth.
Zou Yan also conducted studies of natural science, compiling lists of major Chinese mountains and rivers, significant land forms, the species of plants, birds and animals and the rare objects that could be found there. He used his conclusions to analyze places beyond the seas. He believed that China, which he called “Spirit District of Vermillion Parish,” occupied only one of 81 parts of the world. There existed eight additional lands similar to China, each one surrounded by a sea which prevented humans and animals from crossing. Together with China these comprised a single large continent, and there were nine of these continents. The entire world was surrounded by a great ocean, beyond which was the horizon where heaven and earth meet.

"He saw that the rulers were becoming ever more dissolute and incapable of valuing virtue. … So he examined deeply into the phenomena of the increase and decrease of the Yin and the Yang, and wrote essays totaling more than 100,000 words about their strange permutations, and about the cycles of the great sages from beginning to end. His sayings were vast and far-reaching, and not in accord with the accepted beliefs of the classics. First he had to examine small objects, and from these he drew conclusions about large ones, until he reached what was without limit. First he spoke about modern times, and from this he went back to the time of [Huang Di]. The scholars all studied his arts. … He began by classifying China's notable mountains, great rivers and connecting valleys; its birds and beasts; the fruitfulness of its water and soils, and its rare products; and from this extended his survey to what is beyond the seas, and men are unable to observe. Then starting from the time of the separation of the Heavens and the Earth, and coming down, he made citations of the revolutions and transmutations of the Five Powers (Virtues), arranging them until each found its proper place and was confirmed (by history). [Zou Yan] maintained that what the Confucians called the "Middle Kingdom" (i.e. China) holds a place in the whole world of but one part in eighty-one. … Princes, dukes and great officials, when they first witnessed his arts, fearfully transformed themselves, but later were unable to practice them." (from the Shi Chi, tr. Joseph Needham, Fundamental Ideas of Chinese Science. (1978), 142-143)