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Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G014-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Chinese philosophy may be viewed as disciplined reflections on the insights of self-cultivation. Etienne Balazs asserted that all Chinese philosophy is social philosophy and that, even if Chinese thinkers dwell upon metaphysical speculation, they will sooner or later return to the practical issues of the world here and now. This concern for the concreteness of the life-world gives the impression that the social dimension of the human condition features so prominently in the Chinese world of thought that the idea of the group takes precedence over conceptions of the individual self. The anthropological studies that contrast the Chinese sense of shame with the Western sense of guilt further enhance the impression that external social approval, rather than internal psychological sanction, defines the moral fabric of Chinese society. The prevalent sociological literature on the mechanism of ‘saving face’ as a key to understanding Chinese interpersonal relationships also stresses the centrality of external conditioning in Chinese ethics.

If we follow this line of thinking, it is easy to assume that Chinese philosophers are preoccupied with neither the transcendent referent nor the inner psyche. They are not particularly interested in questions of ultimate reality such as the creator, the origin of the cosmos or the existence of God. Nor are they engrossed in problems of the mind such as consciousness, self-identity or moral choice. Indeed, Chinese philosophy as social philosophy seems exclusively immersed in issues of correct behaviour, familial harmony, political order and world peace. Even strands of thought that emphasize the aesthetic experience of the self are all intimately bound up with the highly ritualized world of human-relatedness. Actually the spirit of spontaneity, as a liberation from social constraints, should be appreciated in terms of a conscious reflection on and critique of society and thus inherently sociological.

However, this widely held opinion of Chinese philosophy is seriously flawed. While it offers a common-sense picture of where the strength of Chinese thought lies, it does not address the underlying reasons or the actual processes that define the main trajectory of the Chinese modes of thinking. Wing-tsit Chan suggests a more comprehensive characterization of Chinese philosophy as humanism: ‘not the humanism that denies or slights a Supreme Power, but one that professes the unity of man and Heaven’ (Chan 1963: 3).

It is crucial to note that ‘humanism’ so conceived is diametrically opposed to secular humanism as a distinctive feature of the Enlightenment mentality of the modern West. Western humanism emerged as a thorough critique of spiritualism and a radical departure from naturalism, or a sense of affinity with nature; it was the result of secularization. Chinese humanism, on the other hand, tends to incorporate the spiritual and naturalist dimensions in a comprehensive and integrated vision of the nature and function of humanity in the cosmos.

The advantage of characterizing Chinese philosophy as humanistic rather than sociological is to open the possibility of allowing aesthetic, religious and metaphysical as well as ethical, historical and political perspectives to shape the contours of the Chinese reflective mind. This synthetic approach better captures the spirit of Chinese thought because it was historical and social change, rather than speculation, which was instrumental in the outgrowth of humanism as a defining characteristic of Chinese philosophy.

Citing this article:
Wei-Ming, Tu. Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G014-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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