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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 November 2020

Yunwoo Song*
Yunwoo Song 宋允宇, Yuelu Academy, Hunan University; email:


Although Wang Chong has often been categorized as a kind of fatalist, many scholars maintain that his fatalism does not include one's moral autonomy, as he argues that one's inborn moral tendencies can be changed through education. He even acknowledges that a person can live a different life from what one's ming must have dictated. But in this article, I show that even when Wang seems to claim that personal effort is important in life, he soon claims that even the abilities to make efforts or to strive to be a better person are more or less decided at birth. And even when he claims that people born with evil nature can be guided to goodness, nowhere does he suggest that to be good or evil is a matter of our choice. And if there is an occasion where one does not live up to what one's ming has predetermined, it is only because there was another ming, one that is more powerful than that of an individual, that interfered with the realization of one's original ming, not because that one's original ming has changed. In the end, I argue that even though Wang Chong may not be a fatalist in its fullest sense, since fatalism means that every event is necessitated, he comes very close to being one, as he sees that in so many instances of our lives, we are not free to act in any other way than in the way that ming has prearranged.



Early China , Volume 43 , September 2020 , pp. 285 - 310
Copyright © The Society for the Study of Early China and Cambridge University Press 2020

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1. See, for example, Chunfeng, Jin 金春峰, Handai sixiang shi 漢代思想史 (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue, 1987), 499505Google Scholar; Yiping, Shao 邵毅平, Lun heng yanjiu 論衡研究 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue, 2009), 292326Google Scholar; Li Yongda 李詠達, “Wang Chong yu Wang Fu tianren guanxilun zhi bijiao-yi ‘Lun heng guxiangpian’ ji ‘Qianfulun xiangliepian’ wei kaocha zhongxin” 王充與王符天人關係論之比較-以《論衡.骨相篇》及《潛夫論.相列篇》為考察中心, Zongjiao zhexue 宗教哲學, no. 74 (December 1, 2015), 159–64.

2. Michael Nylan claims that the Lun heng cannot be the work of a single author since it has too many internal contradictions (although she does not specify what the contradictions are). See Nylan, Michael, “Academic Silos, or ‘What I Wish Philosophers Knew about Early History in China,’” in Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Chinese Philosophy Methodologies, ed. Tan, Sor-hoon (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 94Google Scholar. However, like many other scholars, I accept the Lun heng as an authentic work of Wang Chong. For other opinions, see Pokora, Timoteus and Loewe, Michael, “Lun heng” 論衡, in Early Chinese Texts: a Bibliographical Guide, ed. Loewe, Michael (Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China, 1993), 309–10Google Scholar; Zufferey, Nicolas, Wang Chong (27–97?): Connaissance, politique et vérité en Chine ancienne (Bern: Peter Lang, 1995), 9293Google Scholar; McLeod, Alexus, The Philosophical Thought of Wang Chong (Cham: Springer, 2018), 3943CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Despite the contradictions, there are various ways to defend the single authorship of the Lun heng, one of which I will discuss extensively in this article. For a more traditional explanation of other contradictions, see the comment on Lun heng jiaoshi 論衡校釋 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1990), 693 (“Luan lung” 亂龍).

3. Lun heng jiaoshi, 50 (“Ming yi”).

4. Kalinowski, Marc, Balance des discours: Destin, providence et divination (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2011), LXXXIIIGoogle Scholar.

5. Mark Bernstein, “Fatalism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, ed. Robert Kane (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 65. Words within brackets are my addition.

6. Nylan, “Academic Silos,” 99. Mark Csikszentmihalyi has made a similar point. See his “Allotment and Death in Early China,” in Mortality in Traditional Chinese Thought, ed. Amy Olberding and Philip J. Ivanhoe (Albany: State University of New York Press., 2011), 185–90.

7. On the alterability of ming in early China, see Yunwoo Song, “The Emergence of the Notion of Predetermined Fate in Early China,” Dao 18.4 (2019), 514–16.

8. Bernstein, “Fatalism,” 65.

9. This contradicts Ning Chen’s argument that “Never in ancient China is the idea established that Fate (in the sense of a blind force) can exercise its control over all aspects of man’s life. To be moral or evil, for instance, is exclusively man’s own choice, the freedom of man’s moral will is never called into question.” Ning Chen, “Confucius’ View of Fate (Ming),” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 24.3 (1997), 330.

10. Lun heng jiaoshi, 44 (“Ming yi”).

11. Lun heng jiaoshi, 68 (“Shuai xing”).

12. Lun heng jiaoshi, 137 (“Ben xing”).

13. Zufferey, Wang Chong, 317.

14. E.g. Chen Zhengxiong 陳正雄, Wang Chong xueshu sixiang shuping 王充學術思想述評 (Taipei: Wenjin, 1987), 114–16; Shao Yiping, Lun heng yanjiu, 295–97. Even Alexus McLeod, who presents Wang Chong as having “a commitment to a seemingly hard determinist,” could belong to this group. McLeod, The Philosophical Thought of Wang Chong, 207. He suggests that when Wang was making fatalistic claims in chapters like “Zhi qi” 治期 (Periods of government), “Perhaps Wang has overstepped here … such that he’s forced himself into a corner and contradicts his own views about the efficacy of moral education elsewhere” (ibid., 227).

15. Kalinowski, Balance des discours, LXXXIII.

16. Kalinowski, Balance des discours, LXXXVI. Yoshida Teruko has also maintained a basically similar interpretation of Wang Chong’s view of fate. Yoshida Teruko 吉田照子, “Ō Jū no seisetsu –-sei to mei to jō to ki to” 王充の性説–性と命と情と気と, Tetsugaku 哲学, no. 40 (1988), 219–20.

17. Edward Slingerland, “The Conception of Ming in Early Confucian Thought,” Philosophy East and West 46.4 (1996), 576–77. Paul Goldin presents a similar interpretation of ming in the Mengzi. See Paul R. Goldin, Confucianism (London: Routledge, 2014), 55.

18. For a collection of tales of predetermination in the Han dynasty, see Cho-yun Hsu, “The Concept of Predetermination and Fate in the Han,” Early China 1 (1975), 51–56.

19. Lun heng jiaoshi, 49–50 (“Ming yi”).

20. Hsu, “The Concept of Predetermination and Fate in the Han,” 54.

21. Xinyu jiaozhu 新語校注 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1986), 101–2 (“Zi zhi” 資質).

22. Wang Chong also uses the analogy of trees to explain fate in Lun heng jiaoshi, 42 (“Xing ou” 幸偶).

23. On the basis of archaeological evidence, Asano Yūichi gives the late fourth century b.c.e. as terminus ante quem for “Qiongda yi shi.” See Asano Yūichi 浅野裕一, “Kakuten Sokan ‘Kyūtatsu i ji’ no ‘ten jin no bun’ ni tsuite” 郭店楚簡『窮達以時』の「天人之分」について, Shūkan tōyōgaku 集刊東洋学, no. 83 (May 2000), 22–24.

24. Li Ling 李零, Guodian Chujian jiaoduji 郭店楚簡校讀記 (Beijing: Zhonghuo renmin daxue, 2007), 111–12.

25. This translation is from Scott B. Cook, The Bamboo Texts of Guodian: A Study & Complete Translation (Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 2012), 453–64.

26. Cf. Asano Yūichi, “Kakuten Sokan ‘Kyūtatsu i ji’ no ‘ten jin no bun’ ni tsuite,” 27–32. Asano argues that “Qiongda yi shi” was written in order to explain Confucius’ political failure.

27. E.g. Mao shi zhengyi 毛詩正義 (Beijing: Beijing daxue, 2000), 873–82 (“Xiao bian” 小弁); 1383–1401 (“Sang rou” 桑柔). Cf. Ning Chen, “The Genesis of the Concept of Blind Fate in Ancient China,” Journal of Chinese Religions 25.1 (1997), 154–59.

28. Lun heng jiaoshi, 51–52 (“Ming yi”).

29. Despite arguments that the term ru 儒 should not be translated as “Confucian,” I agree with scholars like Paul R. Goldin, John S. Major, and Sarah A. Queen in that “Confucian” is still an acceptable translation of the word, especially in comparison with other alternatives proposed such as “classicist” or even ru untranslated. See Goldin, Confucianism, 4–6; Sarah A. Queen and John S. Major, eds., Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 12–13. For the opposite arguments, see Michael Loewe, Dong Zhongshu: a “Confucian” Heritage and the “Chunqiu fanlu” (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 1–6; Robert Eno, The Confucian Creation of Heaven (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 6–7.

30. Lun heng jiaoshi, 52–53 (“Ming yi”).

31. Lun heng jiaoshi, 46–47. This theory is also expounded in the “Qi shou” 氣壽 chapter.

32. Lun heng jiaoshi, 20 (“Ming lu” 命祿).

33. Lun heng jiaoshi, 26.

34. Lun heng jiaoshi, 26. This story is also preserved in several other early sources, but the commentaries to the Lun heng indicate that Wang Chong must have read this story from the Huainanzi 淮南子, as he refers to the protagonist as King Yue of Yi. In Zhuangi and Lüshi chunqiu, he is referred to as the Prince Sou 王子搜.

35. E.g. Teruko, “Ō Jū no seisetsu,” 219–20; Kalinowski, Balance des discours, LXXXVI.

36. Lun heng jiaoshi, 26 (“Ming lu”).

37. Lun heng jiaoshi, 26.

38. The exact definition of xing can vary depending on scholars in the late Warring States period (cf. Paul R. Goldin, After Confucius: Studies in Early Chinese Philosophy (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005), 37–43.), but the translation “human nature” for xing in the sense of “The inherent dominating power or impulse in a person by which character or action is determined, directed, or controlled” may be appropriate in Wang Chong’s case. See “nature, n.” OED Online. January 2018. Oxford University Press, accessed February 19, 2018.

39. Lun heng jiaoshi, 142 (“Ben xing”).

40. Lun heng jiaoshi, 50–51 (“Ming yi”).

41. E.g. Lun heng jiaoshi, 26, 47, 49–50.

42. In one passage, Wang Chong also uses the same names of the three kinds of ming to describe the three kinds of human nature: the correct 正, the encountered 遭, and the ensuing 隨. Lun heng jiaoshi, 52.

43. By cropping the two clauses from the entire passage at 7A:3, Wang Chong made it seem as if Mencius was making equal but separate claims about “seeking” and “attaining.” In truth, however, they are both parts of a conditional clause in Mencius’s statement on the external nature of social success.

44. Incidentally, this idea is remarkably reminiscent of John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Calvin argues that God has already elected those who are to be raised to heaven and rejected those who are to be sent to hell, and his choices are purely based on his mercy and not on our faith or works. At the same time, however, he argues that faith is the instrumental cause of our salvation, by which God displays his mercy. This implies that, in Calvin’s theory, only those who were pre-elected by God can have faith and perform works that are pleasing to God. Cf. Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 389–406; I. John Hesselink, “Calvin’s Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed. Donald K. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 83–84.

45. Lun heng jiaoshi, 134–35 (“Ben xing”).

46. Lun heng jiaoshi, 68 (“Shuai xing”).

47. Lun heng jiaoshi, 137 (“Ben xing”).

48. Lun heng jiaoshi, 68 (“Shuai xing”).

49. Xunzi jijie 荀子集解, 2nd ed. (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1988), 443 (“Xing e” 性惡).

50. Lun heng jiaoshi, 68 (“Shuai xing”).

51. Lun heng jiaoshi, 70.

52. Lun heng jiaoshi, 72–73.

53. This is the opposite conclusion of that suggested by McLeod in his The Philosophical Thought of Wang Chong, 227. See n.14 above.

54. “Zhongni dizi liezhuan” Shiki kaichū kōshō 史記會注考證 (Beijing: Wenxue guji, 1955), 3355–56.

55. Lun heng jiaoshi, 100 (“Ou hui” 偶會).

56. Lun heng jiaoshi, 99.

57. Lun heng jiaoshi, 99.

58. Shao Yiping, Lun heng yanjiu, 302.

59. For a succinct explanation on the theoretical necessity of the preceding events leading to the final fated event, see Bernstein, “Fatalism,” 66–67.

60. Many influential contemporary philosophers have tried to show that our conception of moral responsibility is not necessarily dependent upon the freedom to act otherwise. See, for example, Frankfurt, Harry G., “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” The Journal of Philosophy 66.23 (1969), 829CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dennett, Daniel C., “I Could Not Have Done Otherwise–so What?,” The Journal of Philosophy 81.10 (1984), 553–65Google Scholar. However, the fact that the debate is still ongoing suggests that the association between the two is not easy to deny entirely.

61. McKenna, Michael and Coates, D. Justin, “Compatibilism,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Zalta, Edward N., Winter 2016 (Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2016)Google Scholar, See especially section 3.

62. For a more detailed analysis of this example, see John Martin Fischer, “Responsibility and Control,” The Journal of Philosophy 79.1 (1982), 27–28.

63. Lun heng jiaoshi, 20 (“Ming lu”).

64. Lun heng jiaoshi, 44 (“Ming yi”).

65. Lun heng jiaoshi, 20 (“Ming lu”).

66. Lun heng jiaoshi, 57 (“Ming yi”).

67. Lun heng jiaoshi, 45–46 (“Ming yi”).

68. Bernstein, “Fatalism,” 65.

69. Cf. Deng Hong 鄧紅, “Ō Jū ’mei’ron shin’gi” 王充「命」論新議, Bulletin of Oita Prefectural College of Arts and Culture大分県立芸術文化短期大学研究紀要 40 (2002), A19–30. This definition comes from Paul Helm’s explanation of John Calvin’s version of divine providence. Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas, 96.

70. Cf. Leslie, Daniel, “Les théories de Wang Tch’ong sur la causalité,” in Mélanges de sinologie offerts à Monsieur Paul Demiéville., vol. 2 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1974), 184–86Google Scholar. Daniel Leslie inappropriately compares Wang Chong’s philosophy to Leibniz’s doctrine of pre-established harmony. But Wang Chong does not deny intersubstantial causation as does Leibniz. While Wang Chong maintains that there are cases comparable to a fire being extinguished just as water is poured over the fire (no causation), he also accepts that water can indeed put out a fire. Lun heng jiaoshi, 104.