Genealogical Self and a Confucian Way of Self-Making

 Qingjie James Wang

Both in the Anglo-European West and in the East Asia, moral philosophy starts from an attempt to understand the true nature of self.1 Different conceptions of self or different answers to the questions such as "what am I?" and "how do I become myself?" often lead to the different ways of moral life, that is, to the different answers for the question "what ought I to live in my life?" In this paper I would like first to discuss three main ways in understanding the relationship between my self and the surrounding contextual others in contemporary studies of Confucianism. I call the three conceptions of the self the "universal self," the organismic self," and the "relational self." I shall argue that all these three influential understandings of the Confucian conception of self either still stand in the shadow of the Indo-European metaphysical traditions of self or are not sufficient enough to go beyond that shadow. Thus they may not be able to lead us to a full and appropriate understanding of the unique and the true spirit of the conception of self in Confucianism. Based on the ways how Chinese characters get themselves generated "genealogically," I shall then propose an alternative understanding of the Confucian conception of self as a "genealogical self." I claim that this genealogical conception of self is rooted much deeper in the Chinese social, cultural and linguistic traditions than any of the other three conceptions. Finally, I will show how this genealogical conception of self leads us to understand the nature of the Confucian ethics as communal and exemplary ethics rather than absolute individualistic and commandant ethics.

I. "  Many and One " Model and the Universal Self

It is commonly accepted now that a Confucian self cannot be understood as an isolated, atomic being. That kind of self as person is often described as a free, abstract and disinterested individual agent. That means, a self, in a Confucian view, can not be cut off, in one or another way, from its surrounding others, i.e., from its historical, social and cultural contextual environment. Although most scholars who study Confucianism share this common position, their positive understanding of how a Confucian should identify or derive himself from his relations to others and from his historical, cultural and social environment are different. In the contemporary scholarship of Confucianism there seem to be at least three major ways in understanding the Confucian self and its relationship to others.

The first way is to understand a Confucian self from its surrounding whole as something absolutely "ultimate" and "universal." It is ultimate in the sense that it cannot be reduced into the existence of any particular things in the universe. It rather serves as the transcendental ground for them. It is "universal" in the sense that it is at the same time partaken by or is immanent in each individual kind of things. Among the modern Confucianists, Fung You-lan (1895-1990) is a representative of this view. Following the Sung Neo-Confucianism, Fung calls this universal whole the "Supreme Ultimate" or the "Principle of Heaven," and refers to Plato's "Idea of Good" and Aristotle's "God" in Western Philosophy in his interpretation of the universal whole.2  Fung sees his interpretation as a historical continuation or the neo-realistic development of the Sung Neo-Confucianism, especially the Cheng-Zhu School of Principle ( cheng-zhu li xue).

According to Fung, the whole Sung Neo-Confucianism is based on the metaphysics of "one and many." This metaphysics holds that an individual self should derive and identify itself from a general principle, which is called either the "principle of heaven" (tian li ) or "Way" (dao) or the "Supreme Ultimate" (tai ji). For example, Zhu Xi (1130-1200), a leading Sung Neo-Confucianist describes his metaphysical theory of "one and many" in the following way:

"Everything has an ultimate, which is the ultimate li. … That which unites and embraces the li of heaven, earth, and all things is the Supreme Ultimate." 3

As the Supreme Ultimate, Zhu Xi also says,

" [It] is simply what is highest of all, beyond which nothing can be. It is the most high, most mystical, and most abstruse, surpassing everything." 4

Obviously, we get a double characteristic of the li or the Supreme Ultimate from Zhu Xi. First, it is the summation of the li of the universe as a whole. It cannot be reduced into any specific and particular individual being. It is eternal, incorporeal, unchanging and always good. Second, it is at the same time immanent in the individual examples of each category of things. It is a constituting principle that produces and reproduces all particular existential beings that are many, phenomenal, physical, transitory, and changeable. These existential beings are thus the mixture of good and evil.

The moral application of this Neo-Confucian metaphysics is the theory of the distinction between the "tian li"  (principle of heaven), which is one, universal, incorporeal and always good and the "rena yu" (desires of human self) 5, which is many, individual, corporeal and by its nature, not good. For any individual thing that exists, a certain universal "li" is already inherent in it. It is the "li" that makes the individual thing what it is and constitutes its nature. By the same token, a human being, like other beings, has the "li" in his nature. That is the "li" of humanity, which makes everyone of us to have the possibilities to know good and to be good. However, a human self is not only an embodiment of "li" or "principle," but also an embodiment of  "qi" or "matter." That is to say, every one of us is a particular and corporeal being in this concrete and physical world. The li for all people is the same while the qi makes them different. Zhu Xi uses this theory to explain why we have evil in our life.

" Everything depends on its physical endowment. Li, on the other hand, is nothing but good, for since it is li, how can it be evil? What is evil lies in the physical endowment." 6

According to Zhu Xi, the relationship between the principle of heaven and the human selfish desires are like that between fire and water. They cannot be interwoven and mixed together. Therefore, the task of moral learning or self-cultivation is to "overcome and eliminate selfishness and return to the principle of heaven." 7

Starting from a very similar metaphysical grounding as we have found in Zhu Xi, Fung You-lan comes to a similar conception of self. In his book, The New Treatise on the Nature of Man, Fung divides human spheres of living into four general grades. They are the innocent sphere, the utilitarian sphere, the moral sphere, and the transcendental sphere. These four spheres, according to Fung, represent the four levels or grades how a human person realizes and arrives at his true self. According to Fung, the first two levels belong to the world of "is" while the last two spheres belong to the world of "ought to be." In Fung's words,

"The former two are the gifts of nature, while the latter two are the creations of the spirit. The innocent sphere is the lowest, the utilitarian comes next , then the moral , and finally the transcendent. They are so because the innocent sphere requires almost no understanding and self-consciousness, whereas the utilitarian and the moral require more, and the transcendent requires most. The moral sphere is that of moral values, and the transcendent is that of super-moral values." 8

To arrive at the sphere of "moral value" and that of "super-moral value," a human being, on the one hand, must abandon his or her spontaneous and individual self because they are natural, partial, and unintelligent. On the other hand, the society and the universe as a whole should be the ground of the existence and the source of the value of any individual self.  

"This society constitutes a whole and he [a human being] is a part of that whole. Having this understanding, he does everything for the society, or as the Confucianists say, he does everything 'for the sake of righteousness, and not for the sake of personal profit.' ... [A man] is not only a member of society; ... [he] is a citizen of Heaven, as Mencius says. Having this understanding, he does everything for the benefit of the universe." 9

To me, both Zhu Xi's and Fung You-lan's pictures of the true human self indicate serious problems of the metaphysics of "one and many" in the School of Principle. First, they assume the existence of a transcendental entity. They call it the universal whole or the principle of heaven and grant this universal whole an absolute existential/moral priority without a real justification. Second, they assume a hierarchical order and an antagonistic relation between the individual self and the universal self. Although both Zhu and Fung stress the relational and the holistic characteristic of the Confucian self, they ignore and even suppress the uniqueness and individuality of the self, which a Confucian may not necessarily want to exclude from his conception of self.10 Obviously enough, the real focus of this "many-one" dichotomy is the one as the wholeness. This is only a Chinese cousin of the Buddhist model of reality/illusion and the Platonic model of being/appearances. According to these theories, the world of the phenomenon, which is composed of the myriad individual beings, is either a world of non-living mathematical/mechanical pieces or a world of illusions. They do not have or they are lacking of reality. Thus, there are less or even no real meanings and values of this phenomenal world. The very reason for the existence of the phenomenon world is that it serves only as a way to denounce itself and thus could lead us toward the real world of nirvana or to that of the transcendental reality. Following this understanding a self may not be called as a real self. It is rather selfless or a self-canceling being.

II. "  Part and Whole " Model and the Organismic Self

In comparison to the metaphysical conception of "many-one," from which we have the "universal conception of self," the second way is that of the organismic "part-whole." In light of this conception, the universe should be seen as a big organic whole like a living organism. All individual beings in the universe, including myself, are put into different places and play different roles. They are thus not indifferent or abstract ones like instances of the universal form or the principle of heaven. They are rather integrated parts of the organic whole. Individuals that occupy different places and play specific roles are inter-dependent and inter-related. They together serve for the teleological goal of growth of the whole organism and share their common holistic destiny.

Many contemporary scholars seem to like this cosmological/metaphysical model in understanding the Confucian as well as the Chinese conception of selfhood. For example, Joseph Needham, one of the greatest Sinologists in our time, holds that the Confucian philosophical tradition is essentially based on an organic model.

"The Neo-Confucians arrive at essentially an organic view of the universe. Composed of matter-energy and ordered by the universal principle of organization, it was a universe which, though neither created nor governed by any personal deity, was entirely real, and possessed the property of manifesting the highest human values (love, righteousness, sacrifice, etc.) when beings of an integrative level sufficiently high to allow of their appearance, had come into existence." 11

Professor Tu Wei-ming, a well-known contemporary Confucianist at Harvard University says also that "... the appropriate metaphor for understanding the universe was biology rather than physics." 12 Different from Fung You-lan, Tu thinks that

"[at] issue was not the eternal, static structure but the dynamic process of growth and transformation. To say that the cosmos is a continuum and that all of its components are internally connected is also to say that it is an organismic unity, holistically integrated at each level of complexity." 13

Although Needham and Tu take our surrounding universe as an organically integrated wholeness, and this position implies a criticism against the Platonic universal wholeness in Fung You-lan's and Zhu Xi's doctrine of "li," they do not really stay far away from the Sung Neo-Confucian tradition. We can easily trace this idea back to Zhang Zai (1020-1077), Cheng Hao (1032-1085), both of them are founders and important figures in the Sung Neo-Confucianism and to Wang Yang-ming (1472-1528), the founder and the most important philosopher in the Ming Neo-Confucianism. For example, in the "Recorded Sayings of Cheng Hao" we are told,

" A book on medicine describes paralysis of the four limbs as absence of humanity (bu ren). This is an excellent description. The man of humanity regards heaven and earth and all things as one body. To him there is nothing that is not himself. Since he has recognized all things as himself, can there be any limit to his humanity? If things are not part of the self, naturally they have nothing to do with it. As in the case of paralysis of the four limbs, the vital force no longer penetrates them, and therefore they are no longer parts of the self." 14

A similar idea can be found in Zhang Zai's well-known "Western Inscription."

"Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore that which fills the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions." 15

The idea of forming one body with the universe is actually even not new in Zhang Zai or Cheng Hao. Upward, this tradition can be traced back philosophically even to Zhuang Zi (369?-286? BCE ) and Mencius (371?-289? BCE) in ancient time, and downward, it has an extension to Wang Yang-ming's doctrine of mind. The difference among these Sung and Ming Neo-Confucianists is in their understanding of the key element, which makes everything in the universe one integrated body. This element for Zhang Zai is "qi," the original vital force, which is perpetually interfusing and intermingling in the universe, while in Cheng Hao it is "sheng," the spontaneous and natural principle of life. Different from both Zhang and Cheng, Wang Yang-ming develops this idea into a radical form. He calls this fundamental element "xin," or "liang zhi," and interprets it as the innate moral mind shared by everyone and all things in the world. In Wang's words, the reason why a man

"can regard Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body is not because he deliberately wants to do so, but because it is natural to the human nature of his mind that he do so. ... Therefore, when he sees a child about to fall into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that his humanity (ren) forms one body with the child. ... Again, when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, he cannot help feeling an 'inability to bear' their suffering. ...Yet even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret. ... Such a mind is rooted in his Heaven-endowed nature, and is naturally intelligent, clear, and not beclouded.  For this reason it is called the 'clear character.'" 16 [my italics]

However, when Wang comes to discuss about the true nature of the mind, he is influenced by the Buddhist dualistic metaphysics of the bodily mind and the spiritual mind.  He thus ends up with a similar conclusion as Zhu Xi does in his distinction between the principle of heaven and the bodily desires of individual person.

"What is it that is called the person? It is the physical functioning of the mind. What is it that is called the mind? It is the clear and intelligent master of the person." 17

The evil comes because we let our innate clear and moral mind be "aroused" and "obscured" by the bodily and selfish desires.

"When it [the mind] is aroused by desires and obscured by selfishness, compelled by greed for gain and fear of harm, and stirred by anger, he will destroy things, kill members of his own species, and will do everything. ... Thus the learning of the great man consists entirely in getting rid of the obscuration of selfish desires in order by his own efforts to make manifest his clear character, so as to restore the condition of forming one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things, a condition that is originally so, that is all."18

By "reducing" the cosmic whole into my original moral mind as the special and fundamental "part" of the whole, Wang Yang-ming goes actually beyond the "part-whole" model, which is presupposed in Zhang Zai's and Cheng Hao's sayings. He returns to some extent back to the "many and one" model advocated by the School of Cheng-Zhu. However, the "one" this time is no more the external, non-human principle of heaven, but the humane and immanent mind within myself.  This understanding of the true self switches the attention of searching for the grounding of morality from external authority to an internal and primitive moral consciousness and thus it puts the power of moral evaluation and judgment back into the hand of myself. That is to say, to be moral, or to fulfil the moral obligations, which are assigned to me in the different situations of my life and for the different social roles I play, is nothing external to me. Rather, it should be the fundamental request from the deep and original mind of myself as long as I am a human person. Furthermore, morality is no more a static application of those dry and fixed principles, laws or rules, it becomes a dynamic living way of a personal growing. This growth, on the one hand, requires the individual's deferring to the surrounding organic whole as its inseparable part. On the other hand, it enables the natural way of the organic wholeness to fulfill itself continuously.

Nevertheless, an organismic whole is by its nature teleological and thus still holistic. First, it assumes that the inter-connective relationship among components of the whole is internal, pre-established and necessary one. Second, it assumes that all components of this whole, though each of them is inseparable and non-replaceable, exist and live for the sake of the organismic wholeness.  They are governed by a common destiny or by the "goal" of growth of the organism as a whole. Thus understood, an organismic self is no less holistic than a universal self because within both conceptions we are lacking the true spirit of individuality. The self becomes actually something that is selfless, just as Otto Gierke said when he criticized a medieval European account of the organic Universe Whole:

" ... Since the World is One Organism, animated by One Spirit, fashioned by One Ordinance, the self-same principles that appear in the structure of the World will appear once more in the structure of its every Part. Therefore every particular Being, in so far as it is a Whole, is diminished copy of the World." 19

Is Gierke's criticism of the holistic nature of both the universal and the organismic self also applicable to Wang Yang-ming? According to Wang's conception of self, as we have discussed above, my innate moral feeling and conscience in its all-embracing fullness forms one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things. Viewed superficially, Wang's conception of self, which starts from inner-ness of myself, should lead to a theory of self-affirmation rather than to that of self-abnegation. However, a further observation of Wang's conception of self shows that this self-affirmation can only be realized through a way of purification of myself, that is, of denunciation of my corporeal and bodily self. Therefore, when Wang claims that I form one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things, his focus is the "one" rather than the "body." That is to say, by "one body" Wang does not really mean a real "body," a concrete, partial, corporeal thing with flesh and blood. Here the principle of body is replaced by the principle of mind, because only the mind can realize the value of One and that of Wholeness, as Wang's predecessor Lu Xiangshan (1139-1193) once said,

"The mind is one and the principle is one. Perfect truth is reduced to a unity; the essential principle is never a duality." 20

Here my mind and the mind of the universe become one and the same. Along with this replacement, the characteristics such as partiality, uniqueness and other-ness, which should be implied in the Confucian conception of "organismic self," get completely lost.

III. "  This and That " Model and the Relational Self

We may call the third conception, which is used by contemporary scholars in their discussions of the Confucian self, the "relational self" or "correlative self." Different from both the "universal self" and the "organismic self," which are derived from the metaphysical models of "one and many" and "part and whole," the "relational self" is based on the model of "correlations of this and that." Inspired by the models used in sciences, some Confucian scholars take an anti-metaphysical way in their re-defining or re-constructing the conception of an authentic self. Their attempt can be seen first from their abandoning of the metaphysical conception of the wholeness, no matter whether it is a universal whole or an organismic whole. That is to say, a true self does not have a transcendental origin or ground. It can be neither an externally transcendental one nor an immanently transcendental one. There is no such a thing as a holistic entity but different ontic relations or correlations among particulars and individuals. These ontic relations or correlative contexts in which I live and with which I deal in my everyday life help to formulate what I am and what you are.

As Professor Ambrose Y.C. King points out, among the modern Chinese scholars, Liang Shu-ming (1893-1988), a well-known philosopher and a social reformer, is one of those who hold that Chinese social life is neither individual-based nor society-based, but relation-based.21 According to Liang,

"The focus is not fixed on any particular individual, but on the particular nature of the relations between individuals who interact with each other. The focus is placed upon the relationship." 22

Clearly enough, Liang's conception of "relation" implies the principle of "other-ness" rather than the principle of "wholeness." This relation-based rather than individual-based or wholeness-based moral life presents itself in the Chinese word "lun ." Thus understood, a Chinese individual is a relational being who conceives of the "other" in concrete and differentiated relational terms.  Therefore, the essence of lun lies in the differentiated relationship between particular individuals. In his article, "The Individual and Group in Confucianism: A Relational Perspective," King makes this point very clear.

"The significant point is that in Confucianism, though the concept of group is recognized, the individual tends only to identify his moral relation with particular individuals of the group, not with the group per se. Lun exists only in relation to individuals, not in relation to the group. ...What should be stressed here is that in the relational context, the individual's relations with others are neither independent nor dependent but interdependent." 23

Influenced by Dewey's and Mead's American Pragmatism, two North American philosophers and Sinologists, David Hall and Roger Ames come to a similar conclusion as Liang Shu-ming did in his observation of the Chinese social life. In their book, Thinking Through Confucius, Hall and Ames go further and define the Confucian correlative self in light of a hologrammatic model of "focus and field." According to this conception,

"A particular is a focus that is both defined by and defines a context -- a field. The field is hologrammatic; that is, it is so constituted that each discriminate 'part' contains the adumbrated whole." 24

Furthermore, there is no single context or an overarching whole that contains and controls all foci. The totality is nothing but a full range of particular foci and each focus defines itself and its own particular field.

"Alternative foci entail the notion of alternative wholes. ... Relationships among individual foci are defined by the differential perspectives each focus provides on the totality. The totality per se, abstracted from its alternative characterizations, is merely the additive sum of all orders defined by the alternative foci." 25

While Liang, King, Hall and Ames stress that the nature of the Confucian conception of self is neither individualistic nor holistic and that it is relational or correlative, they have touched, I believe, the deepest ground of Confucianism as well as that of the whole Chinese culture.  Compared with the "universal self" and the "organic self" discussed above, the conception of the "relational self" may have three advantageous philosophical implications. First, if a self by its nature is relational or correlative, it must have a pluralistic character. That is to say, a relational self cannot be a single one. Its very existence assumes ontologically the existence of the other selves. The characteristic of the other-ness is implied within the very concept of relational self. Second, the understanding of the "relational self" also contains the concept of action and that of interaction. According to this understanding, we are not simply what we "are," but also and more importantly, we are what we "do." As a relational and correlative self, I do not passively fit the role or roles determined by the fixed relations with others. I am also capable of shaping actively what kind of relationships to have with others. That is, I am, to some extent, both the subject and sovereign of my own relational and correlative nets. Third, the pluralistic and interactive characteristics of relational self also indicate openness of the relational "wholes." The interactive selves do not accept a fixed boundary of one totalitarian whole. On the one hand, they ask many "wholes" instead of one overarching "Whole." On the other hand, these wholes are never fixed. They are always changing, i.e. emerging in and emerging out.

I fully share the idea that the Confucian conception of self is relational and correlative. I also like the anti-metaphysical tone implied in the conception of the "relational self." However, when we come to the point how to understand the nature of these relations, I believe that neither Liang and King nor Hall and Ames provide us a real and a satisfying picture of the Confucian self. The main problem in Liang and King is that their understanding of the relational and correlative self seems too vague and too general. For example, although they point out that a Confucian self is relation-based and that one's relation with the others is neither dependent nor independent but interdependent, both of them fail to go further in telling us on what kind of relations a human self is "based," and how human selves are interdependent to each other in such relational contexts. Understood in a broader sense, both the "universal self" and the "organismic self" could be seen as one kind of "relational self." The difference is only that the "universal self" stresses logistic relations while the "organismic self" focuses on teleological relations. By using a model of "focus and field," Hall and Ames do attempt to give us a concrete picture of some unique relations. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the very idea of "focus and field" is a little bit far away from a Confucian tradition and thus it fails to recognize some essential features of the Confucian conception. For example, when we use the words "focus" and "field," which may be borrowed from modern physics, we have a tendency to understand the relations in an anti-substantial way. This conception might be more close to a Daoist, or to a Buddhist, or even to a Pragmatist picture of self rather than to a Confucianist one. As we know, when a Confucianist thinks and talks about one's surrounding relations, out of which he identifies himself or herself, he often means some more concrete and realistic interpersonal relations between I and Thou. Yes, relationships are important to a Confucianist, but the persons who make the relationships possible cannot be simply reduced or be forfeited within the relations. Therefore, a Confucian does not only think that a human self is relational or inter-personal. More importantly, a self is an inter-personal being. The emphasis on the personal nature of human social and communal relations, I believe, will help us to understand better the historical, hierarchical and the bodily characteristics of the Confucian "relational self."

IV. Genealogy of Chinese Characters

In what follows I would like to propose a different understanding of the Confucian conception of self and to call it the "genealogical self."  By the term "genealogy" people originally meant a study of the pedigreed relations among the different members in different generations of a big and extended family in its historical development. Later, we use the term also for an etymological study of "familial relations" of words, or in B. Karlgren's word, a study of "word families." 26 In Chinese, we call the former the analysis of family pedigree ( jia pu fen xi ) and the latter the analysis of the genealogy of graphs and characters ( wen zi luan ru ).  Because many scholars have already discussed the important roles of the traditional Chinese family system in understanding the deep structure of the Chinese culture, I would like to focus my discussion here on the genealogy of Chinese characters. I will try to demonstrate how the genealogical process of formation and re-formation of a Chinese character can shed light upon the question how a human being gets himself established in the real and historical life practice.

As we know, the study of the ways of the formation and re-formation of Chinese characters started from very early years of Chinese history. In the Shuo-Wen Lexicon, one of the oldest Chinese dictionaries compiled almost 2000 years ago, Xu Shen (58-147 ) summarizes six traditional ways of character formation (liu shu). According to Goeran Malmqvist 27 the logical sequence of the liu shu 28 should be:

1. pictographs (xiang xing), drawings of objects depicting by the graphs;

2. ideographs (zhi shi), depictions of abstract notions;

3. compound ideographs (huia yi ), combinations of ideographs or pictographs;

4. phonon-semantic compounds (xing sheng), combination of a "classifier," indicating the semantic sphere of the graph, and a "phonetic," indicating the sound;

5. loan characters (jiaa jie), characters borrowed to serve for semantically unrelated homophones;

6. annotative derivation 29  (zhuan zhu), graphs that are semantically related and that exhibit minor graphic variation.

Xua Jie (d. 974), a well-known Chinese Sinologist in the early Sung Dynasty, divided the six classifications into three groups. Xua calls them "liu shu shan ou" (three pairs in the six classifications.)  The first two belong to the group of "graphs" (xiang) which depict concrete objects or abstract ideas. For example, the characters "ri" (sun) and "yue" (moon) for pictographs while the characters "shang " (up) and "xia" (down) for ideographs. Obviously this is the first and the primitive phase of the formation of Chinese characters. The characters formed in such a way is also called "wen" or "du ti" (single unit character).

Compound ideographs and phono - semantic compounds belong to the second group that may be characterized by "compound." Therefore, characters formed in this way are also called "zi" or "he ti" (compound characters). For example, the ideograph "lin" (woods) is a compound of two trees (mu) while "sen [lin]" (forest) is a compound of three trees (mu).  A phono-semantic compound, as the word suggests, is a graph that combines two simpler graphs, one represents the phonetic sound while the other (often a classifier) refers to the sphere of semantic meaning. For example, the character "jiang" (Yantze River) was pronounced as "gong" in ancient time and it is a combination between the semantic classifier "water" and the phonetic graph "gong." Another interesting example that belongs to this group is the character "mo." The origin of "mo" came from the Sanskrit "mara," meaning demon in Buddhism. When we Chinese saw this term for the first time in Buddhist scriptures, we translated it by using another Chinese character "moa" because "moa" has a similar sound as "mara" in Sanskrit. Although "moa" has a similar sound with "mara," the meaning of the Chinese character "moa," i.e., grindstone, has nothing to do with "mara" as "demon." "Moa" is composed of two Chinese graphs, i.e., "ma" and "shi." Following the traditional Chinese way of character formation, Xiao Yan (502-547), the Buddhist Emperor of Liang Dynasty, suggested replacing the graph "shi " (stone) in the character "moa" with the graph "gui" (ghost) while keeping the same pronunciation of "mo." This is a perfect example of formation of phonon-semantic compound in Chinese. This new graph "mo" keeps the original sound while using the graph "gui" (ghost) to refer "mo's " semantic meaning.

Compared with the first four categories, the last two, i.e., loan characters and annotative derivation are "variations" or "derivations" on the ground of the first four.30 The real meaning of these two categories and the distinction between them have always belonged to the most controversial issues in the history of the interpretation of liu shu. Nevertheless, I think that the basic ideas that are implied in these two categories are simple. Let us look at the fifth way, i.e., the "character loaning" first. In Shuo Wen Lexixon Xu Shen seems to define the "character loaning" by two main characteristics: first, the wanted character does not exist originally; second, the borrowed character should be homophonic.  " ... ben wu qi zi, yi sheng tuo shi ..." (...because originally there was no existing character available [for a certain concept], a homophonic character must be 'borrowed' to express the meaning).  I believe that the best examples of the loan characters can be found in the old foreign terms translated into Chinese. For instance, the Chinese character "shia" refers originally to "army" or "teacher" in the classical Chinese. Later it also refers to "lion." But in ancient China there was no lion. We Chinese might know of lions after Han Dynasty when lions were offered to Chinese emperors as one kind of gifts by people from Western regions. Because "lion" is pronounced in Western regions as "ser" or "si," we Chinese borrowed the homophonic "shia" for it.31 The other well-known examples in modern Chinese are those like "tan-ke" for "tank" and "sha-fa" for "sofa" in English etc.

If we say that the essential feature of the " loan characters" is the phonetic relations, the essential feature of "annotative derivation" should be the semantic relations. There are also two important conceptions in Xu Shen's definition of "annotative derivation." According to Xu Shen, " ' annotative derivation' is... jian lei yi shou, tong yi xiang sou"  ( ..... to establish classes starting from 'yi', so that the characters with similar meanings can refer to each other.) In this definition, the first important conception is "lei" (classes). According to Gao Ming's interpretation, the "lei" (classes) in Xu's definition should be graphic classes (xing lei).32 This interpretation is supported by the fact that all 9353 Chinese characters in Xu Shen's Shuo Wen Lexicon are classified according to their 540 graphic classes or "radicals." In Xu's words, "all the characters are correlated and can be derived from or extended to other characters according to their graphs (ju xing xi lian, yin er shen zi);" "The classification starts from the radical "yi" ... ends finally with the radical "hai." (  lia yi wei duan .... bi zhong yu hai). The second important conception in the definition is " tong yi" (having similar meanings). That means, the correlative relations among all characters in the same character-class are essentially grounded in semantics. It is these correlative semantic relations that always make a base-character or root-character ( hea xin zi) extend its meaning to others.

Although Gao Ming's interpretation may fit better the structure of the classifications in Xu Shen's Lexicon, it does not seem to fit very well the real genesis of the Chinese characters in the ancient times. As many Sinologists have pointed out since the Qing period, the oldest way of generating ancient Chinese characters was based on the phonetic classes (sheng lei) rather than on the graphic classes (xing lei).33 For example,  Zhanga Tai-yan insists that the "lei"  discussed by Xu Shen should be phonetically based rather than graphically based. Compared with Zhanga Tai-yan, Gao Ming might be correct in his interpretation of Xu Shen. However, the problem is that Xu Shen might be wrong when he used the graphically based classes in classification of the genesis of the ancient Chinese characters. Some scholars pointed out that Xu Shen himself lived in the period when the major way of generation of Chinese characters switched from the phonetically based model to the graphically based model and his Shuo Wen Lexicon was actually a result of this change. 34 If that is the case, we may want to say that Xu's graphically based model may fit the cases of the genesis of the Chinese characters during Xu's time and after that. But it may not be able to explain cases long before him when many of the ancient Chinese characters were generated through the way of the phonetically based "annotative derivation." Following this way of thought, we may go beyond the system of the Shuo Wen Lexicon and take the phonetically based classes and the graphically based classes as two different but equally important ways of character genesis in the history. That is to say, we should understand "annotative derivation" in a broader sense. Thus understood, the "annotative derivation," as some scholars have already suggested, should cover not only the category of "loan character" but also even many cases in the category of "compound ideograph" and in that of " phono - semantic compound." 35 Because of this, we should not be surprised to see why the "annotative derivation" is often called the most powerful and productive way to generate Chinese characters in history.

Now let us see a classical example. It shall show how one Chinese character is correlated through ways of "annotative derivation" "that it is derived from or it extends itself into other characters according to their [phono-/ picto-/ideo-]graphs."36 The example can be seen from the character "juan." The original meaning of "juan" might be "bending of knees." Starting from this, the radical for "wood" is added and we have another character "juana," meaning the curling of wood branches or plants. When the radical for "insect" is added, we have the character "quan," meaning curling up of worms. When the radical for "human" is added, we have the character "juanb," meaning that we are tired (curling up of the body). The phonetic graph of "juan" became an important root-graph in ancient Chinese. When it is combined with "dao" (knife), it means a lease, contract, money bill or ticket, i.e., quana" . When it is combined with "shou" (hand), it means fist, i.e., quanb.  When it is combined with "mua" (eye), it means "to think of," i.e., juanc. Other characters formed in a similar way are the compounds of juan with “jiao,"  "xi," "gonga," "niu," etc. Also belonging to the word family of juan  is another root character guan. Originally it means stork, a kind of water bird. We have a lot of characters whose meanings are derived from this root-graph. However, because the pronunciation of guan is similar to juan in ancient times, it was borrowed to mean "bending," and "curling up" too. Other similar examples can be found in character  quand (mean), the character quane (persuasion, convince), etc. Along with the development of Chinese language, especially after polysyllabic characters replaced monosyllabic characters to be the main way of generating new Chinese characters, some of those second generations of juan became new root characters. For example, from juand, we have shu-juand,   (volumes of books), an-juand  (documents), kao-juand (exam sheets), etc. From  quanb(fist) we have “quanb-tou (fist),  quanb-ji (boxing), quanb- quanb (sincere) etc. From juanc  we have juanc-nian (to think of, to feel nostalgic), jia-juanc (family members, wife and children, relatives). From quand  we have quand -li (rights), quan d -lia (power), quand-heng  (balance),  quand -bian (flexibilty), quand -shu(statecrafts), quand -yi (interest), etc.  In short, we may draw a genealogical picture for a“pedigree tree for the whole juan family as follows:


V. The Genealogical Self and a Confucian Way of Self-making

Taking a look at the above " genealogical picture " of the family juan, we may find out some main characteristics of the relations among the member characters within the family. These main characteristics shall shed light on the traditional Confucian way of self-understanding and self-making.

First, the relations or the co-relations are neither logical nor biological but analogical. That is to say, the way that holds the whole family of characters together and that makes the family extended is neither the way of analysis nor that of synthesis. It is not an organismic one either. It is based upon similarities or resemblance that are accidental and upon our analogical power of mind. For example, there seems to be very little common between quan  (curling up of a worm) and  juanb(tired ) or quanc (to circle). But what holds them together in the same family of words is the analogical  juan (curling up).  Looking at a curling worm, we think that we are tired when our body curls up. Also, as I have mentioned above, what connects quand (mean) to juanc  (wife and children) is nothing substantial but purely phonetic, because guan, the root character of quand  happens to have a similar pronunciation as that of juan , i.e., the root graph of juan c (wife and children). In light of this genealogical model of character formation, we may say a similar thing about the Confucian concept of human self-making. As we know, according to the Confucian tradition of learning and self-cultivation, I am not only born to be a human person, I learn to be or I become a human person. A Confucianist will see a man with a true self as a man of ren or a man of humanity.  However, there is neither a universal nor a teleological concept of the man of humanity waiting there to be fit in. That is why the word ren occurs 109 times in the book of Analects but none of them can be taken as a clear definition of the concept. What we find in the Analects are those examples of the man of humanity and the man of excellence such as Yan Yuan , Guang Zhong, Wei Zi, Ji Zi, and Bi Gan, Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun,  King Wen and King Wu, Bo Yi and Shua Qi, etc. These examples serve as the models in Confucian Ethics of authentic self, just as those root-characters do in a character-family pedigree. Their positions as the moral models has been established in the long tradition of Chinese moral life, just like the position of those root-characters in the genealogical history of character formation in Chinese. Following these and other examples set up in the history and in my surrounding world, I learn how to establish my own moral self. Therefore, Confucius says that a good student should know how to learn from examples. That reveals the exemplary rather than a normative nature of Confucian Ethics. That is to say, morality is not derived from the divine, absolute commanding norms pre-established in Heaven or by the transcendental divine creator. In a Confucian understanding of morality, I do not obey a divine command or an absolute rule. I am on my way toward a moral life by following analogical examples. In the long history of China, we have hundreds, or maybe thousands of examples of heroes or heroines who pointed out to us different ways toward morality and true self. Famous examples include Zhua Ge Liang, Guanb Gong , Mu Lan, Lib Bai, Hui Neng, Mub Guiying , Yuea Fei, Wen Tianxiang, Lin Ze Xu, Lei Feng, etc.  That is what I understand when Confucius says, "I am on my way toward humanity when I follow analogical examples that are close to me.” 37 

The second characteristic we have obtained from the genealogical model of the Chinese character formation is that all the characters are co-related in such a way that they are interactive and thus interdependent. Even the original meaning of the root character could be changed due to the meaning of the new added characters. Some old meanings might die when new meanings are added. For example, in the case of  juan, the original meaning of the character is "  bending of knees. " Later this original meaning died away and it became an abstract root graph meaning simply " rolling " or " curling." Another example is the character "quand " (balance/mean). Along with using the new words such as "rena- quand " (human rights,) "nu-quand" (woman's  rights), "quand -lia" (power), "quand -wei" (authority), we are experiencing a change of the original meaning of the root character "quand ." 38 All of these indicate that the way that a character gets generated is not teleological. There is no Geist or “teleo " of the wholeness to control the destiny of the development. The process is totally open and future oriented. No one knows which character will become a root-character that often becomes a new base for future development. It depends on the future situation and the use of language. Therefore, there is no fixed, absolute and unchanging center. The meaning of any character, even that of a root-character could be changed, though this change will be slow and gradual. Theoretically, any one could become the center. A similar situation can be found in a Confucian self-formation. Any one may already have an idea of true self due to his or her social and cultural traditions. As I have discussed above, we have the idea of true self by looking at those examples. However, the meaning of the true self, like the meaning suggested by the root character is not fixed, but open and keeps growing. Our moral life practice could add something new into it. That means, just like I should follow the moral examples to live an authentic life, my moral life may set up an example for others too. For example, according Confucian tradition, a teacher should be one of the most important models for students. But a good student is not that who knows only how to follow his teacher step by step.  He should learn how to go beyond his teacher.  Therefore, we are not only a follower on the way of morality, we are the way-makers too. Because of this, Confucius says, "  It is human beings that make the way great, and not the way that makes human beings great;” 39 and " the way toward ren (humanity) starts from myself, not from others.” 40 

Third, we may also find that in the whole " juan " family's pedigree each character has a distinguished position and it plays different kinds of roles. How one character relates to other characters is also different. Some have closer relations while the others may have looser relations. There is no single one center of the whole. Instead, we may find many sub-nets within this relational whole. One person's self-understanding and self-identification depends more on the sub-net relations and co-relations than on the holistic relations. The existence of the whole net depends on the sub-nets. For example, we may say that there is a close relationship among “juana" (curling of wood branches or plants), “quan"( curling up), "juanb " (tired), "quanb " (fist),  chun juana (spring roll),  dan juana (egg roll), etc. All of them use juan as the root-graph and each of them contributes particularly to the current meaning of juan. However, though they may belong to the same word family with "guana" (look) and "huan" (joy), they have little relationship with the latter. Their meanings have almost nothing to do with the character "guana" (look) and "huan" (joy). In light of this understanding of the Chinese character formation, we may find similar characteristic of self-formation in the Confucian moral tradition. For example, the formation of myself depends more on the people and things that are close to me, such as my parents, my brothers, sisters and other family members, my friends, my teachers, my neighbors, my colleagues, my students, my hometown, my country, my language, and my culture etc. These close relations are by nature personal and inter-personal. Interactive relations between me and other persons and things that are in my surrounding environment determine substantially what I am and how I live. I discussed the philosophical significance of this " being close " in Confucian conceptual systems in another place. I argued that the bodily and inter-personal interactivities rather than the transcendental universality should serve as the existential grounding of the Confucian moral traditions.41  Thus understood, simply to say that Confucianism in its nature is lacking an individualistic idea of self and belongs to the camp of the holistic conservatism is not fair and could be misleading.

Above I have introduced a conception of self as  " genealogical self ."  I have tried to use the model to suggest an alternative Confucian understanding of self. I believe that this model has some advantages compared with the other existing conceptions such as the universal conception of self, the organismic conception of self, and the relational conception of self, which I have discussed in the first part of the article. However, I do not want to claim that the way of " genealogical formation " of Chinese characters is the only way of the moral formation of a Confucian self. What I hope to say is that a serious study of the genealogical relations among the existing Chinese characters should throw light upon and enrich our understanding of the nature of an authentic Confucian construction and re-construction of self in our age.42

International Philosophical Quarterly (2002 Spring issue)



[1] The concept of "self" in philosophy could be studied from different perspectives. In this article, I use the concept mainly as a moral self.

2 Fung You-lan,  A History of Chinese Philosophy,  trans. by Derk Bodde, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), vol.2, p.537.

3 Zhu Xi , Zhuzi Yulei (Classified Recorded Sayings of the Master Zhu), ed. Ni Jing-de (Beijing: Zhong Hua Books, 1994), p.2375.

4 Ibid.

5 Many Chinese characters have the same Pin-yin spelling, but different in tones or in writing.  In this essay, I will use superscript to distinguish between them.  See the attached Chinese glossary for these characters.

6 See Fung You -lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, (New York: The Free Press, 1966),  pp.301-302.

7 Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963),  p.594.

8 Fung,  A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, p.339

9 Ibid

10 Tu Weiming has an excellent discussion of this issue in his  Confucian Thought -- Selfhood as Creative Transformation (Albany: SUNY Press, 1985).

11 Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), vol.2, p.412.

12 Tu, Confucian Thought, p.39

13 Ibid

14 Chan. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p.530.

15 Ibid, p.497

16 Ibid, pp.659-660

17 Ibid, p.664

18 Ibid, p.660

19 Otto Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Ages, trans. Fred W. Maitland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900), p.9. Here I quoted from Donald J. Munro, "Introduction" in Individualism and Holism: Studies in Confucian and Taoist Values, ed. Donald J. Munro, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1985), p.23.

20 Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p.574.

21 Ambrose Y. C. King, "The Individual and Group in Confucianism: A Relational Perspective," in Munro ed. Individualism and Holism: Studies in Confucian and Taoist Values, p.63.

22 Liang Shu-ming, zhong guo wen hua yao yi (Essential Features of Chinese Culture), quoted in King, p.63.

23 King, in Munro, p.61.

24 David L. Hall & Roger T. Ames, Thinking through Confucius (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987), p.238.

25 Ibid.

26 B. Karlgren, Word Families in Chinese, in Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, No.5., 1934.

27 Goeran Malmqvist, "Chinese linguistics," in History of Linguistics. Vol.1: The Eastern Traditions of Linguistics, London: Longman, 1994, pp.1-24.  I learned this sequence from Kwan Tze-wan 's  unpublished article "Willhelm Von Humboldt  on the Chinese Language -- Interpretation and Reconstruction" (forthcoming in Journal of Chinese Linguistics). I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Kwan for his allowing me to read his unpublished article. Also see Kwan's "Constitution in the Chinese Language: A Humboldtian Perspective", in Kwan Tze-wan, From a Philosophical Point of View, pp.269-340, (Taipei, Dongdai Books, 1994).

28 The original sequence in the book is: 1. ideographs (zhi shi), 2. pictographs (xian xin), 3. phonetic compounds (xin sheng), 4. compound ideographs (hui yi), 5. annotative derivation (zhuan zhu), 6. loan characters (jia jie).

29 As for translation of the liu shu, I follow Malmqvist and Kwan basically, but with minor modification.

30 It should be noted that several Qing Scholars call the first four categories as "the principles of the formation of characters" ( zhao zi zhi fa ) while taking the last two as "the principles of the use of characters" ( yung zi zhi fa ). This saying may be misleading.  As Zhanga Tai-yan says:" Both 'the character loaning' and 'annotative derivation' are indeed the principles of the character formation. Though people later also call the 'exegesis based on similar meaning (tong xun )'  'the annotative derivation,' it is not the same as the annotative derivation in liu shu. By the same token, the replacement of extant homophonic characters (tong sheng tong yong  ) that people also call 'character loaning' is not the 'character loaning' in the liu shu." See Zhanga,  guo gu lun heng  vol.A. Furthermore, the fact that they are classified as the last two ways of the character formation does not mean that they are less valuable or less important than the first four.  The opposite might have more truth. As Sun Yongchang points out, "annotative derivation " in a broader sense is the "most productive way" in formation of Chinese characters. See Sun Yongchang,  Zhuang Zhu Lun ( Chang ShaYue Lu Shu She, 1991), p.69. Kwan Tze-wan also has some insightful discussions on this issue in his above mentioned articles.

31 See Lo Chang Pei ,  Yu Yan Yu Wen Hua , (Beijing: Language Press, 1989)

32 See Gao Ming, Gao Ming Xiao Xue Lun Cong ( Taipei: Niming Wenhua  Co. 1978), pp.158-159.

33 The most well-known doctrines are the "you wen shuo " (doctrine of right graph based character). This tradition can be traced back as early as to Wang Shengmei in North Sung and  it was fully developed by Qing and Early Republican Scholars like Wang Niansun, Wang yinzhi, Zhu Junsheng, Yang Shuda and Shen Jianshi. Another theory is Zhanga Taiyan's "chu wen shuo " (doctrine of root-characters).

34 See Xua Tongqiang, Yu Yan Lun (Jilin: Northeast Formal University Press, 1997).

35 See Zhu Junsheng , Shuo Wen Tong Xun Ding Sheng ( Beijing: Classical Culture Pub. Co. 1993);  Sun Yongchang ,  Zhuang Zhu Lun.

36 Xu, Shen, Shuo-Wen Lexicon (Beijing: Zhong Hua Books, 1963), p.319.

37 Analects, 6-28, See Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p.31.

38 This change, I think, is part of the reason why many people have confusion in understanding the conception of human rights in China right now.

39 Analects, 15-28. See Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p. 44.

40 Analects, 12-1. See Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p.38.

41 See Qingjie James Wang,   " The Golden Rule and Inter-personal Care, " Philosophy East & West, vol.49 (1999) pp.415-438.

42 I presented this paper in July of 2000 at Kyoto, Japan at the International Conference on "Self and Future Generations." I would like to express my thanks to the Future Generations Alliance Foundation and the Institute for the Integrated Study of Future Generations for their kindly inviting me for the conference. My gratitude goes also to Yong Qu, Lina Chen, Michael Zimmerman, May Sim, Chenyang Li, Chang-yuan Liu, Robert Davies for their encouragement, critical comments and helps in various stages of writing this article. Finally, I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer of IPQ for the valuable comment.  


Qingjie James Wang   

Department of Philosophy

The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong /

Oklahoma State University, USA

e-mail : or