DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G024-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 24, 2019, from

Article Summary

Xing is conventionally translated as ‘nature’ or ‘human nature’. Some read xing as meaning a heavenly endowed tendency, directionality, or potentiality of growth in the individual. On this essentialistic reading, xing is an innate and unchanging ‘given’, a defining condition of all human beings. Others have given a historicist interpretation of xing, reading it as an achievement concept rather than as a given. In this view, xing is derived from, and is a refinement on, sheng, denoting the entire process of birth, growth and ultimate demise that constitutes the life of a living creature.

There is some controversy in the published literature on the meaning of xing, conventionally translated as ‘nature’, or ‘human nature’. On one side, there are those who read xing as a heavenly endowed tendency, directionality, or potentiality of growth in the individual, and see it as similar to the Greek phuo (to grow) and the Latin nascor (to be born) (see Human Nature; Essentialism). On the other side, there are those who have an historicist interpretation of xing, reading it as an achievement concept rather than as a given. A.C. Graham (1990) takes issue with the simple identification of the classical Chinese concept of xing with the familiar conception of ‘nature’ as something ‘inborn and innate’, those qualities which a thing has to start with. His claim is that the dynamic thrust of xing has not been adequately noticed.

As a corrective on his own earlier work, Graham argues that early Chinese thinkers who discuss xing seldom seem to be thinking of fixed qualities going back to a thing’s origin, but rather to the process of its maturation within a specific context. Xing thus understood covers the career of a person’s existence, denoting the entire process of becoming human. Strictly speaking, a person is not a sort of being but first and foremost a doing or making and, only derivatively and retrospectively, something done.

If we were going to speculate on why terms such as xing tend generally to be more dynamic in meaning than their Western equivalents (which indeed seems to be the case), we might want to reflect on the implications of cosmogonic speculation, a signal feature of the Western tradition that is made important in this analysis by its absence in classical Chinese cosmology. Where something within a single-ordered kosmos is shaped and invested by an external originative principle, the most fully creative act lies in the creator’s endowment of a given potential: the creature’s subsequent actualization of that potential is derivative. Where a phenomenon is initiated by, and dependent upon, some externally derived or ‘given’ creative principle for the ‘nature’ of its existence and, put another way, where it is other than self-generative (ziran), the creative contribution of that phenomenon tends to be diminished. In the absence of cosmogonic beginning, on the other hand, the power of creativity and the responsibility for creative product reside more broadly in the phenomena themselves in their ongoing interactive processes of becoming (see Tian; Dao).

The difference between the ‘nature’ of a thing in a cosmogonic tradition and its xing in a non-cosmogonic cosmology is suggested by the kinds of questions that each culture’s philosophers ask. Cosmogonic concern generates metaphysical questions, a search for essential principles. How did the cosmos begin? What are its first principles? What are the fundamental elements from out of which it was constructed? What is the origin of the existence and growth of natural phenomena? The search is for the One behind the many.

Genealogical cosmology, on the other hand, will generate primarily historical and rhetorical questions: who and what are our historical antecedents that have given us our present definition? What are their achievements that we can appropriate to enculturate ourselves? How can we further cultivate ourselves so as to contribute to the appropriated tradition as it is embodied in our contemporary exemplars? How can we turn this historical and cultural interdependence to maximum benefit? The thinker’s role in the non-cosmogonic tradition, then, will not be as much to discover an answer as to create a model of humanity that is persuasive, and that evokes emulation.

A related implication of this distinction between a cosmogonic and non-cosmogonic worldview is that in the absence of some overarching archē (beginning) as an explanation of the creative process, and under conditions which are thus ‘anarchic’ in the philosophic sense of this term (see Archē), although xing might indeed refer to ‘kinds’, genus and species as categories would be dependent upon generalizations made by analogy among sui generis phenomena. Difference is prior to identified similarities. Certain things to which xing is applied – water and rocks, for example – are not over their respective careers marked by growth and cultivation, and hence it makes little sense to speak of them in terms of starting conditions and mature state. The xing of such things remains relatively constant. However, the human being – that phenomenon most given to cultivation and refinement – is a different case.

While the human xing might include certain generalizable conditions that define it at birth, in its more important aspects it seems to refer to what is existentially achieved. In defining the human xing, the relatively constant and uninteresting tendencies which constrain the creative project of personal development are outweighed by the massive transformative process that occurs between the ‘stirring’ or ‘germination’ of the initial fundament and the full-blown creative achievement. What is ‘innate’ in the xing of persons is simply the propensity for growth, cultivation and refinement. Xing, then, denotes a human capacity for radical changeability that is qualitatively productive.

Further, xing is realized in situ. It is a dynamic process conditioned by its particular context. Stated more explicitly, the human xing is a creative process that can only be understood situationally as the outcome of specific interdependent relationships. It at once refers to the continuing existence of a particular thing itself, and also to that in one thing which continues the life and culture of other things.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Xing, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G024-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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