Dai Zhen (1724–77)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G032-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 18, 2019, from

Article Summary

Dai Zhen, a neo-Confucian philosopher, argues against the received neo-Confucian view of dao as a metaphysical entity. On the contrary, dao is immanent in the world and, in the case of the human world specifically, in the everyday lives of ordinary people irrespective of social status. His philosophical views had important political and social implications.

Dai Zhen came from Huizhou in Anhui Province. During his early years, Dai often accompanied his father, a cloth merchant, on business trips which brought him in touch with the political and social realities in many parts of China. In 1754 he became entangled in a lawsuit with a powerful clansman who was a friend of the local magistrate and, on being informed that he was about to be arrested, left home in great haste and went to Beijing. This background exerted no small influence on the formulation of his philosophical critique of the dominant Confucian ideology in decades to come.

Dai wrote three important philosophical treatises: Yuanshan (Inquiry into Goodness), Xuyan (Surviving Words) and Mengzi ziyi shuzeng (Commentary on the Meanings of Terms in the Book of Mencius). A central concern of all his writings is the immanental status of dao. He contends by way of etymology that this is the original meaning of dao in early Confucian texts. Understood analytically, dao consists of all the principles or patterns (li) discoverable in the world. Song dynasty neo-Confucians are wrong, due to the influence of Buddhism, in assuming that li is a gift from Heaven and resides in the human mind/heart as if it were a thing. Viewed objectively, li is none other than the internal texture and structure in things (see Dao; Li).

True to Confucian humanism, Dai makes an important distinction between what is natural (ziran) and what is necessary (biran). The former refers to principles or patterns governing all the activities in the world whereas the latter refers to those in the human world exclusively. In this view, not only is the human world continuous with the natural world but the two worlds are also marked by a clear break, thereby distinguishing human beings from all other kinds of beings. He understands the idea of goodness (shan) in this light. In his own words: ‘Goodness is what is necessary whereas nature (xing) is what is natural (see Xing). What is natural will be fully completed only when it is developed into what is necessary. This is known as developing the natural to the utmost’ (Mengzi ziyi shuzeng: 195). This suggests that the world will not be complete without human beings.

Following the same logic, Dai rejects the neo-Confucian bifurcation between moral principles (li) on the one hand, and human desires (yu) and feelings (qing) on the other. Moral norms are capable of regulating human desires and feeling precisely because they are the internal texture and structure in the everyday life of human beings rather than something imposed on it from outside. His objectification of dao and li naturally leads him to emphasize the central importance of intellectual inquiry known as ‘investigation of things’ (gewu) in the Confucian tradition (see Neo-Confucian philosophy §9). Intellect or intelligence (zhi) is what distinguishes human beings from other phenomena (see Zhi).

Dai draws important political and social implications from his philosophical views. He believes that the neo-Confucian concept of li as Heavenly Principle always serves to justify the oppression of the helpless common people by those in power. The struggle of the common people to satisfy their basic needs in life are denounced as ‘selfish desires’ and anyone who has the audacity to defy the norm imposed on the common people by the ruling elite often ends up being condemned to a moral death. Clearly, he is deeply dissatisfied with the Song dynasty neo-Confucian definition of li as ‘heavenly principles’, which has been used by those in power to justify the oppression of the helpless common people. Thus in Dai’s philosophical system, we see an unmistakeable beginning of a modern spirituality uniquely China’s own.

Citing this article:
Ying-Shih, Yü. Dai Zhen (1724–77), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G032-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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