Philosophy as Cultural Style: The Case of Xiong Shili


Tamkang University, Taiwan, R.O.C.


Philosophy as Cultural Style: The Case of Xiong Shili


Modern Chinese philosophy was doomed from the start to be essentially two-faced. It has always been defining itself simultaneously by its relation to the Western thought and the native Chinese legacy. When trying to assess the nature of this interaction we come across some specific problems which until now have been scarcely noticed. For appropriation of intellectual traditions is not simply the matter of accepting or rejecting certain ideas. It is a creative act that involves generalization of particulars and, therefore, produces new philosophical systems and, what is perhaps more important, new styles of thinking. Just why are some previously neglected notions or images are drawn into the foreground of the critical reflection and become the basis of the whole system of philosophy is a formidable question in the history of ideas. This question has never been explicitly formulated either in the traditional society where changes were sanctioned by the undisputed truths of the orthodoxy or even in the age of the critical reflection when philosophical reason gained full autonomy and pretended to impose its rules on culture for the sake of “enlightening” the people.

Nietzche’s “reevaluation of all values” opened a new perspective on this Enlightenment project. Speaking from this perspective, M. Heidegger claimed that the history of Western thought in its very effort of self-assertion meant in fact “the consciously posited binding” which “appears in many guises and disguises” and signifies “the creation of a mankind that finds the shape of its essence neither in “individuality” nor in the “mass” but in the type”. The latter combines uniqueness and universality in a distinctive quality of existence, presupposing a certain hierarchy. (1) The driving force of this transformation or rather type-formation of man is, according to Heidegger, is nihilism, a persistent self-emptying of thought amounting to an “oblivion of Being”. For Heidegger nihilism embodies the nature of the modern Western civilization which is marked by the total dominance of industrial technology and is hopelessly parochial in its universal pretensions.  Late Heidegger did not conceal his pessimism about the outcome of the European man’s tragic temptation by “the will to power”:

“We are no longer able to see how the Europeanization of man and of the earth attacks at the source everything that is of an essential nature”. (2)

One can agree or disagree with Heidegger’s view. There is no doubt, though, that it signals the awakening from the dream of the European thought’s  universality; an awakening which is naturally accompanied by the revival of cultural traditions for it is precisely culture as an encompassing style of life which makes possible creative ordering of the world and, consequently, transforming things into types. But it can be argued that the history of the Western thought represents an inauthentic kind of such type-formation since nihilistic Will in its effort to conceptualize experience jumps over the issue of the type’s  singularity and thus destroys the style.  In fact, it is parochial in its pretended universality and essentially vulgar in its very cult of excitement.

An authentic way of type-formation corresponds, I believe, to typifying the very limits of experienced and think-able realities because style is essentially a matter of creative communication.  To a certain degree Heidegger’s later “turn” which is in essence a search for the un-willing Will points to the possibility and even desirability of the second option/ A much more consistent attempt to root reflection in the very style of thinking is provided by the history of Chinese thought. (3) It ascribes to thought the task of meticulous discernment of experience for the sake of self-liberation from the shackles of subjectivity –  an essentially moral act of one’s opening up to the openness of Being, an act of creating (or maintaining) a school, a tradition, a “model of eternity”.

How would such pattern of thought’s history look like? We are facing here the problem of constructing the universality out of all-pervading different-ness or, in other words, disclosing the continuity of constantly changing reality. The key terms here would be not substance and form but temporality and force. As a consequence, the quest for generalization in Chinese philosophy has always been coupled with the affirmation of the particulars and the preference for the metonym in language. Chinese encyclopedias and manuals contain not definitions but collections of singular precedents and normative (ideally all available) statements. Even the genre of essays (lun) in China is more a document of style than of critical reasoning.

A comparison with the Japanese tradition would be in order here. In dealing with the concepts borrowed from China the Japanese have tried to arrive at their generalized and practical meaning thus providing for essentially  symbolic notions of Chinese tradition a metaphysical and simultaneously naturalistic turn. For instance, the Chinese conception of painting as “one stroke of brush” (yi hua) has inspired Japanese artists literally to paint pictures with one movement of brush. The Chinese idea of self-transforming space has produced the Japanese garden as the quasi-naturalistic embodiment of the metaphysical reality. On the side of abstraction the Japanese picked up the all-inclusive Chinese term Tao as a name for any kind of art. Another purely symbolic notion – that of the Void – was treated in a similar vein as a kind of a conceptualized, even rarefied reality. Miyamoto Musashi finished his celebrated treatise on the art of fencing with the following observation:

“In the Void there is only Good and no Evil. Understanding is something substantial. Usage is substantial. Action is substantial. But the Mind is the Void”. (4)

Three centuries after Musashi professor in Kyoto K. Nishida under Western influence  has produced an elaborated system of metaphysics based on the concept of the “absolute nothingness”.

In a word, the Japanese tradition developed in the direction similar to that of the West. Nothing of the kind has happened nor, I think, could have happened in China. Historically Chinese thought did move towards the ever more comprehensive understanding of its own premises but every step forward on the side of generalization was accompanied  by  the corresponding gain in the particularity of the newly created system. Finally Chinese tradition produced an enormous repertoire of “monumental nuances” elaborated further into allegories, hidden quotations and similar rhetorical figures each of which stood for the entire wisdom of China.  Thought: selection – musical orchestration. Non-verbal. Why care about that in the first place? In order to arrange for transmission of truth so immediately perceived it can not be defined. Transmitted circumstantially, symbolically. (Body as spirit)

So a remarkable fact of China’s intellectual history is that the most logically consistent attempts at achieving the synthesis of philosophical traditions – for instance, the syncretic religious teachings of the Ming and Ch’ing time and to some degree even the idealist Neo-Confucianist philosophy of Wang Yangming were marginalized and often outspokenly stigmatized as “heretical”.

“Le style c’est l’homme”, the French say. We should add: a man of tradition since he is a master of symbolic communication. This means that philosophical development in China required of thinkers or rather “men of culture” as they were called in China, a progressively deeper interiorization of culture’s symbolism while the way to conceptualizing experience was blocked. It is only on the eve of Modern times, when the whole symbolic edifice of tradition began to crumble that the usage of the term Tao as a designation of knowledge or skill was appropriated in China by the new syncretic religions who created logical doctrines/ These sects can be named “post-traditional” since they substituted tradition’s symbolic mode of reference by a sort of literal and naturalistic interpretations. This novelty made possible a sudden switch to empiricism and naturalism that occurred in Ch’ing China even before the intrusion of the West. It created a deep crisis in Chinese mentality. The split between the ingenious philosophical heritage, i.e. the tradition of non-objectifying thinking with all its cultural, scientific and artistic correlates, and the modern teleologically oriented rationality became the greatest challenge to Chinese thinkers irrespective of their philosophical opinions. In fact, the answers provided by them to this challenge may serve as the most convenient criteria for classifying philosophical trends in modern China.

The recent upsurge of the so-called post-Confucian philosophy both in China and in the West shows that the legacy of Chinese tradition is far from being outdated and that, moreover, the post-modern “globalization” of the world has contributed to its growing influence  on contemporary philosophy and social science. A renowned representative of this trend is Xiong Shili (1885-1968) – a founder of, perhaps, the most comprehensive and convincing system of modern philosophy in China almost entirely based on the native intellectual heritage and its stylistic implications. I will confine myself to only one issue of Xiong Shili’s philosophy: his theory of knowledge examined in the perspective (rather than retrospective) of Chinese cultural tradition.

Xiong Shili, Xiong Shili chinese philosophy

Xiong Shili

Generally speaking, Xiong Shili’s philosophy is a good case in point for studying the above mentioned process of type-formation in thought. Xiong aimed at achieving a supreme synthesis of Chinese philosophical tradition which would accommodate equal significance to the most profound insights of all three major teachings of China: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Accordingly, Xiong defined his method of thought as “reverting to the origin” (fan ben). This means: getting back to the primary source of thinking, as latent as it is universal: a perfect example of traditional thinking indeed. His method is thinking as re-collecting, i.e. putting together what has fallen apart since the beginning of history. It was not, of course, without precedents in China’s history starting with the search for the “abstruse  truth” (xuan li) and “comprehensive teaching” (yuan jiao) among Chinese Buddhists in the Early Medieval times. One rarely noted fact is that the Neo-Confucianism by explicitly rejecting Buddhism and Taoism has created a precedent of  the “exclusive systems” in Chinese thought and this turn, I believe, has eventually pushed Chinese thinking to its post-traditional empiric/rational credo. Xiong seeked to restore tradition’s integrity and he called his philosophy a new version of the “abstruse learning” (xuan xue) which became the foundation of the philosophical synthesis in medieval China. But he was scornful of “exclusive” systems of thought and considered Confucian orthodoxy of the Han and Sung times philosophically sterile.

The very manner of Xiong Shili’s philosophizing, clothed in a deliberately archaic style and exercised through constant revisions and amendments to former statements, looks like  one endless allusion to the unspoken message of tradition. This thinking “by virtue of absence” and speaking through silence represents reflection of a quite peculiar kind: a reflection on the non-reflective reality, a way to learn how not to possess knowledge, an effort “to let things go”, to attain thought’s self-liberation. In the final account this thinking is not about some “data” of experience or knowledge but a style itself, a living style – something not susceptible to conceptualization (and consequently identified with objects) in the manner proper to the Western and even Japanese thought. Yet this thinking points to the truth which is also universal in its own right – the truth of the ever-changing Self.

This is not to say of course that Xiong Shili was conventional, far from that. Xiong’s choice of intellectual predecessors was very personal and served not historical truth but the requirements of his own thought. From the traditional point of view it would seem at best eclectic. Xiong belonged to the type of solitary thinkers concerned with the public welfare. It would be equally misleading to call him, as is often the case, a conservative. On political side he favored revolutionary movement and himself received favors from the PRC’s leaders. What is more important, Xiong’s philosophy exalts “daily renovation” of life and is future-oriented even though this future represents the everlasting truth of tradition. Finally, Xiong’s profound respect for Chinese culture did not make him a nationalist. He conceded that both Western and Chinese thought had their strong and weak points and never ceased to call for “uniting the goods and cutting off the evils of  both”. Writing in 1938, he expressed the conviction that “Chinese culture cannot perish, but the people of China should develop their culture and absorb modern Western culture” (5). Xiong cherished quite a sane dream of the global community of nationally distinct cultures.

Xiong’s holistic vision presupposes a certain hierarchy of  life-forms. This is why its most vital component is the idea of style which is always accompanied by the distinction between sublime and ordinary. The style, as we have noted, constitutes the very essence of Xiong Shili’s thinking. In his writings the hierarchy of the existential values presumed by style, most often assumes the form of juxtaposing “genuine philosophy” (represented by the Chinese tradition) and “scientific thinking” which, Xiong thinks, dominates the modern Western civilization. Xiong does not qualify the Eastern and the Western traditions as respectively “spiritual” and “material”. But this philosopher of tradition does link the legacy of the Western science with the lower, or non-enlightened, levels of human action and cognition. Philosophy, he insists, must restore its rule over science. Once again, Xiong’s opinion looks strangely similar to Heidegger’s words on the death of philosophy absorbed by science and the necessity to turn to a non-metaphysical thinking.

Borrowing from Lao-tzu, Xiong calls scientific approach the method “of gaining the knowledge daily” while the wisdom of tradition means for him the method of “losing the knowledge daily”, because genuine philosophy is concerned with preserving the integrity of human existence and every partial knowledge or skill would destroy this simplest – and the highest – oneness of Being.  Here is one of his most characteristic passages on this issue:

“The science affirms substantiality of matter, its object of study is Nature. It uses purely objective approach subjugating human subjectivity to it. This is contrary to the science of losing daily by relying on the spontaneous inner illumination which makes possible affective penetration of things. One can say that from the point of view of the science knowledge comes from things and not from the Heart-Mind. Although Heart-Mind has a capacity to know, this capacity will not be realized if it relies on its subjectivity and does not follow things”. The basis of science, concludes Xiong Shili, are things and the basis of philosophy is the Heart-Mind. (6)

For Xiong Shili distinction between “the truth of things” and “the truth of the Heart-Mind”  or, as he prefers to say, “knowledge by nature” (xing zhi) and “quantitative knowledge” (liang zhi) has nothing to do with the Western opposition of materialism and idealism. In fact, Xiong claimed to have successfully overcome this fatal gap in his philosophy. This opposition like all kinds of essentialist thinking has indeed little relevance for Chinese thinker. Contrary to the Western philosophy, the intellectual tradition of China has no explicitly subjective or objective starting point, be it idea, matter, being, form, subjectivity etc. Reality has always been conceived in China as a structure, a relation and, therefore, as the (non-qualitative) movement, “The Way”.

Xiong Shili made the basis of his philosophy the principle of  the “non-duality of opposites” and applied it to virtually all philosophical issues. Ontologically it is “the non-duality of substance and function” and in terms of phenomenology it is “the non-duality of Mind and things”. For Xiong reality is essentially a principle of the universal interaction and transformation which finds its highest manifestation in the growth of living organisms and the evolution of life itself. Xiong describes the universal evolution by the words xi-pi borrowed from the ancient lexicon and thus representing the particularistic quality of Xiong’s philosophy. At the same time Xiong  transforms these obscure terms into original notions. Xi means “assembling” and “conserving” while pi refers to “opening”, “breaking new ground”. These terms correspond also to the two basic trigrams of “The Book of Changes” – Kun and Qian – which refer to the highest Yin and the highest Yang force respectively. So the world, according to Xiong Shili, is a unitary process of assembling-and-opening, delimiting-transcending, where the external world stands for the first aspect of this unity and the Heart-Mind – for the latter one. Reality for Xiong is the power of “enlivening the life” (a classic definition derived from “The Book of Changes”) and the Mind in particular represents the power of transcendence which is immanent to things themselves.

Xiong follows an ancient Chinese tradition in stating that every thing contains within itself the principle of its transformation. Nothing transcends the world of things, there is no Creator ontologically different from it. It is evident already that Xiong is bound to take up another traditional motif of Chinese thought: the unity of being and knowledge. Both are but two aspects of one boundless flow of enlivening energy. Already the first edition of Xiong’s major work on epistemology, “The New Treatise on Mere Consciousness” (Xin weishi lun) opens with the following statement:

“What embodies all things and does not leave anything out is only this Mind; to perceive Mind is to perceive the substance (lit. “body”). It should be known, therefore, that to perceive the Mind is nothing but the Mind perceiving itself. When the Mind does not change with the things it can illuminate the substance and stand in solitude. This can be called knowledge”. (7)

For Chinese reader this passage immediately strikes a familiar tone. It is in fact a  collage of several traditional formulas whose function is not to make some new point but to define author’s position in regard to tradition’s legacy. Its real meaning is not expressed but hinted at, conveyed iby not-speaking. It is in fact the nature of reality as, so to say, mind minding itself. The essence of tradition is to be transmitted, not defined, ant this can only be accomplished through self-negation, “non-defining definitions”.

There is also a positive side to this verbal self-ruin of tradition. The identity of Mind and Being makes knowledge essentially a self-knowledge. Such is the cornerstone of Xiong Shili’s philosophy which bluntly contradicts the common sense and everyday practice of people.  To overcome this difficulty Xiong suggests to distinguish between three levels, or modes, of consciousness: there is, firstly, “the great Mind of the Universe” (yuzhou da xin), omnipresent, unconditional,  and eternal which precedes all distinctions and provides a possibility of every existence; there is, secondly, an “original Mind” (ben xin) – an immediate and complete knowledge of reality innate to humans; finally, there is “the practical” or “habitual Mind” (xi xin) which is related to the split between the subject and the object, the inner and the outer aspects of human existence.

It was all too easy for Xiong Shili to declare that all objective knowledge is the product of the “habitual Mind” trapped in the illusory division between the ego and the external things. But to substantiate his theory of three-leveled hierarchy of mental states and the priority of “original Mind” over practical and scientific reason was a much more difficult task. Xiong, it should be mentioned, had on his side the authority of tradition. Though he seldom acknowledges this debt, his hierarchy of Minds seems to be an elaboration of the three notions of Heart-Mind known in the Neo-Confucian philosophy of Wang Yangming who spoke of “the Heart-Mind of Heaven-and-Earth” (tian di zhi xin), the “innate knowledge” (liang zhi {2}) and the “human Mind” (jen xin) which later came to be defined by his disciples as “contaminated by habits”. For his own part Xiong Shili attempts to provide a more comprehensive explanation of this traditional hierarchy of Minds by resorting to Buddhist philosophy.

For Xiong the main problem and even the main problem of all Chinese thought is discrimination between “habitual” and “original” Minds.  Again and again he tries to provide a solution to it – apparently without satisfactory result. Yet all his explanations share some fundamental (and also drawn from tradition) presumptions on the nature of Mind. The first among these is the idea that since Being is essentially a distance and the Way, the “original Mind” is essentially “void” and, therefore, can embrace and embody the whole universe without being identical to anything. The second presumption is that Mind’s nature is the “eternal turning around” (heng chuan). The third presumption, closely related to the second one, is that the original Mind is essentially active. Among these ideas the least known and, perhaps, the most important for understanding Xiong’s epistemology is the equation of Mind’s nature  with the circular movement. I’ll start with examining this issue.

The idea of Mind’s “eternal spinning” is closely related to the Chinese concept of continuous change as (by definition) a constant renovation, and, therefore, a permanently renewed reverse movement. It presupposes the presence of the infinitely small distance, am elusive crack within Being itself – an idea which justifies perfectly the identification of Being’s essence with the Void. As a reversal, this “eternal turn” represents the principle of “assembling”, or crystallization of existence. But as a pure movement, it corresponds to transformation and thus to the principle of “opening”. Xiong Shili illustrates this three-fold unity of Being by Lao-tzu’s dictum: “One produces two and two produce three”. Like “the fold” (le pli) in Deleuze’s ontology of multiplicity, this vortex of Being has no extension, either spatial or temporal; it has neither form nor visible attributes but represents rather “the subtlety of correspondences”, “the force of speed” and just a tendency towards establishing form. (8). Xiong Shili calls this virtual matrix of a existence  “a small unity” (xiao yi). The latter, existing prior to space and time, encloses the whole world and represents “the multiplicity of subtle force” which is a pure function of existence; “small oneness”, says Xiong, “cannot be measured objectively and although it embodies a power to coalesce it does not possesses a form; being without form it enhances, however, a distinction”. To comprehend this “small oneness”, continues Xiong, one should “extinguish the reason and bring things to non-being, unify knowledge with spirit, open thinking to the Change and avoid deliberations”. (9)

So, there is after all the action that makes the whole world turn around. The sage is the one who is up to this action and is able, therefore, to fulfill the being of all things. He rules by “letting go everything”. The “small oneness” of being that Xiong Shili is talking about, is a principle of both singularity  and mutual identity of all beings – an idea elaborated in the Buddhist “Avatamsaka Sutra” but present already in the ancient Taoist book “Chuang-tzu” where it is said that all things are “like a spread out net without beginning or end” and that they “enclose each other” (xiang lan).It represents singularity before the appearance of objects. Consequently, it exists, as it were, in the mode of pulsation, unfolding in the series of transformations which means, in fact, the act of Being’s self-typifying. Xiong compares this opening-concealment of Being with the continuous flash(es) of lightning – a continuum of absence abiding within its own presence or hiding within its own light. Such is, Xiong argues, the essence of  Chinese  notions of “void” and “non-being”. (10)

It is only to be expected that Xiong Shili’s concept of “the small unity” has clear precedents in Chinese philosophical tradition. The closest analogies come, once again, from Wang Yangming’s teaching on “the innate knowledge”. Consider, for instance, the following statement of Wang Ji, a prominent disciple of Wang Yang-ming: “The innate knowledge is a spontaneous spiritual vacuity that is being turned over without a stop by the Heavenly impulse… and those who do not understand this principle of turning around will never learn the science of self-liberation”. (11 ) Wang Ji defined it as a “spiritual opening” and “one point of enlightened intelligence in which nothing is born and nothing dies” (12 ). Xiong Shili uses the same expression – “the elusive point of enlightened intelligence” (yidian lingmimg) – to define the presence of “the original Mind” or “one point of illumination” (ming ji) in human consciousness. “This one point of illumination, Xiong writes, when folded up, is hidden deep within and, when released, embraces the Six Poles of the universe”. (13)  This is the inconceivable focus of the spirit’s eternal flight, an impossible introjection, a folding into itself realized through the Self’s opening up unto the “eternally other”. No less remarkable is the fact that Xiong Shili and the idealist trend of Neo-Confucianism share the same definition of the small oneness’s “function”: “whirling spontaneously into One Body [of Being]” (hunran yiti).

So the working of  “original Mind”, though inaccessible to rational knowledge, brings definitiveness into human life; it is mark of existence’s distinctiveness, i.e. its definite type. By disclosing qualitatively peculiar moments of experience it constitutes inner temporality and thus makes possible consciousness itself. As a force of pure transformation it enhances a strong sense of the incipient event, an anticipation of the metamorphose. Xiong Shili’s most admired image in Chinese philosophical literature comes from “Chuang-tzu” where the sage man is described in the following words: “in his corpse-like posture  a dragon can be perceived; in his profound silence a sound of thunder can be heard” (14). Psychologically this experience corresponds to what Xiong Shili calls “affective knowledge” (gan shi) which “transcends all oppositions as well as all images and the experience of time-space”. So, while being affective, this knowledge does not depend on the sensory perception. (15)

So life is an event of opening as concealment, an immanent revelation of Being experienced “here and now”, with every act of awareness. It is this conceptually indefinite but absolutely concrete and distinctive intuition which gives rise to the “mental knowledge” (yi shi) – a rational understanding dealing with “external things”. (16) In what looks like a kantian move, Xiong Shili elaborates pairs of categories that “mental knowledge” is based on. These are the oppositions of time and space, being and non-being, identity and difference, cause and effect as well as the notion of quantity. But unlike Kant, he does not think of them as an a priori condition of consciousness. The latter’s primary data is still the inner affective knowledge and this virtual matrix of existence cannot be detached from the actual experience and translated into objective knowledge just like the dynamism of dreaming  does not exist separately from the dream images or the drops of water are not different from the ocean they belong to.

We are able now to define more precisely the notion of “depth” (xuan) in Xiong’s system. It is in fact the ever-absent (“hidden” in the experience) distance between “the affective” and “the mental” levels of knowledge. This difference is conceptual and existential but not ontological. The appearance of  “objective reality” signals the rising of the “habitual mind” attached to the sensory perceptions and all kinds of mental representations. Its roots, according to Xiong, lay deeper than reason’s deliberate discriminations or the heritage of the subjective memory. The  origins of the “habitual mind” go back to the potentiality of the “affective knowledge” which is hidden in human consciousness like “seeds” (an obvious allusion to the alaya-vijnana theory of Buddhism). When “the seeds meet with the impulse of life they come out into the sphere of consciousness and become memory”. (17) The fallacy of the “habitual Mind” lies not in the concepts and images per se but in its pretense for autonomy which for Xiong means forgetting the real task of thinking: “to revert to itself”. It should be noted again, that Xiong’s invectives against “contagion of Mind by  habit” are also reminiscent of Wang Yangming’s legacy. A late Ming thinker Liu Zongchou, whose works represents the consummation of Wang Yangming’s philosophy, wrote extensively about the bad effects of mental habits which possess their own potentiality, a “left-over energy” (yu qi) capable of screening Mind’s nature (18). But even before Liu Zingchou a radical yangmingist thinker Luo Jufang spoke about “contagious habits of Mind” which must not screen the pure inner light of the original awareness. (19)

The highest form of knowing for Xiong Shili  is what he calls “relatedness acknowledged by silent understanding” (mingwu zhenghui). In scholarly literature it is defined usually as intuition or a kind of unspecified pure knowledge comparable to modern concepts of tacit knowing. (20 ). Chinese tradition has always exalted in this way or other the human capacity for intuitive knowledge. It could not be otherwise as long as Chinese thought gave precedence to the “knowledge by nature”. But in Xiong Shili’s philosophy it has a more technical meaning for it points to the “meeting” (hui) of empirical perception and internal awareness, or “mental” and “affective” kinds of knowledge. Already the first version of the Xin Weishi lun contains the following explanation:

“Affective knowledge follows the external world, it is fully manifested and intimately related to external images. It is like an eye which on seeing green color acknowledges the presence of the green color in the external world and, although it has acknowledged this, does not discriminate… Because of this deeply concealed acknowledgement we are able at this moment to follow our following up to the point when there is no gap between these two [levels of following] so that we can dispose of discriminating and release ourselves into turning around in the undifferentiated and spontaneous unity of One Body. This is what is meant by the words: “to be intimately related to the external world”. Just like our eyes follow the green color, our ears  follow the sounds and our body follows the sense of touch. All these experiences fit the requirements of knowledge and to discard them would mean falling into illusions. And yet, though we possess these experiences, we should not try to rely on them or hold fast to them”. (21)

In a later version of this passage Xiong Shili corrects somewhat his previous statement. He speaks not of “following external images” but  of “changing according to the similes of externals” apparently because for him the sensory perception is ultimately determined by the internal intuition of the “original Mind”  and all representations are unreal; they only “resemble” reality:

“The eye’s knowledge changes according to the similes of colors, the ear’s knowledge changes according to the similes of sounds…” etc. (22)

This “following the similes of things” is what Xiong Shili means by his motto “to return to one’s root”: one comes back to the unconditioned self-presence of one’s existence. There is nothing mystical or asocial in this rediscovery of one’s inner continuity within all representations and objective identities. On the contrary, it means being adequate to the actual circumstances or, more precisely, to the course of events, the self-transcendent force  of “enlivening life”. It comes in the midst of the life experience when complete calmness and relaxation of Mind granted by the opening up of one’s unchangeable foundation make possible to preserve or rather acquire one’s inner integrity.

Mou Zongsan, whose philosophy of “virtue metaphysics” is based mostly on Xiong’s theory of the “original Mind”, equals this transformation to a change from perceiving things as ob-jects to experiencing things as e-jects (23) – a definition which brings to mind an old Taoist teaching on “the opening up of things” (kai wu).  Xiong insists that man’s social practice is the only medium through which the vortex of Being can realize itself to the full and that human capacities in fact constitute human nature. His most severe criticism of traditional teachings is inspired by his eagerness to combat all kinds of passivity and fatalism. His formulae of wisdom is borrowed from “The Book of Changes”: “The gentleman must strengthen himself without rest”.

Xiong’s plea for via activa  obviously has little in common with the  seemingly analogous attitudes nourished by Western humanism. It is, I think,  primary the difference of the action’s prototypes. In Western philosophy action most often is sanctioned by or related to some kind of theoretical reasoning while in Xiong’s system and in Chinese tradition in general action is modeled after corporeal awareness, a bodily intention. It is not accidental that Being itself is defined in Chinese thought as “One Body” (yi ti). The a priori presence and the absolute immanence of the subjective body  provides us, as Mou Zongsan, Tang Chun-yi, Tu Wei-ming and other post-Confucian philosophers insist, with a direct and complete knowledge of our being-in-the world. Moreover, as M. Henry has noted, this immediate relation of one’s body to the Self cannot be manifested because it is the manifestation itself. Xiong’s theory of “eternal spinning” has an undeniable existential foundation in the kinesthetic unity of the body which precedes all partial experiences. Xiong, it should be noted, used to stress that body is a necessary condition for inner enlightenment. (24). Indeed, it can hardly be otherwise since the primary intuition of reality, according to Xiong,  has an affective nature.

No less remarkable is Xiong’s concept of “following” (yuan) the bodily dynamic presence, or better still, “following following”. This curios tautology points to the hidden (or infinitely small) distance within Being-as-transformation: the concealment must be concealed itself and thus contain within itself an inaccessible depth. By the same token forgetfulness must be forgotten and thus become a promise of unthinkable oblivion which lies at the heart of human practice. There is an imperceptible principle (a “lord”, says Xiong following Chuang-tzu and the Neo-Confucians) in every existence; it is imperceptible both to the senses and to the thought because it is a principle of multiplicity without identity: a Chaos, a “small unity” beyond space and time. Such is the ontological import of that famous Chinese concept of “non-action” (wu-wei) – a transcendental stillness of Spirit-Being which through heightening one’s sensitivity reveals in the unconceivable  rhythm of inner affection the resistant continuum of One Body of Being – a unity essentially concrete and temporal and, therefore, accompanied by the experience of finitude and a pure, non-quantitative differentiation. An experience of incessant alteration which makes meet the very extremes of the inner and the outer: one must sit like a corpse to invoke the presence of Dragon – the source of life. It is the Mind, says Xiong Shili , that serves “as the tool for the body and does not have the right of initiative” (25) – presumably because the body is elevated by Chinese philosopher to the status, in M. Henry’s memorable definition, of “the ontological habit”. (26) It is the body experienced as a reality which incessantly renovates and folds into itself thus producing the sensations of joy (as an experience of opening up) and satisfaction – a result of the newly discovered self-sufficiency.

This immanent revelation of the body was traditionally conceived in China, as we may have noticed from the words of Wang Ji cited above, in terms of circular movement. It has the character of the simultaneous “stepping back” from the mind’s hold of the sensory data to the pure perception or the intuition if  the inner affective knowledge. In this way the Mind releases itself into the openness of Spirit-Being. It is a non-objectified circuit from oneself to One Self (=One Body) of the universe which exists prior to the notions of space and time, has no form  and  constitutes the condition for the interchange between potentiality and actuality of existence.

A very thorny problem is just why some images are sanctioned by the cultural tradition while others are not?  Neither tradition nor Xiong’s system provide an explanation of this mystery. Traditional reaction consisted in the unreserved acceptance of the images selected by the school’s founder and his successors on the basis of their personal creative experience. It required the exaltation of the school’s “secret” whose real meaning was in fact the deliberate nature of the school’s choice of images. But we can find, I think, a plausible answer in Deleuze’s book on Leibniz and the baroque culture: macro-images which constitute the stock of tradition are in fact approximations, some plausible illusions of the original micro-perceptions and have no real prototypes in the external world. (27)

What kind of an activism does Xiong Shili call for then? An essentially “double-layered” activism carrying within itself its own anticipation which

trans-forms before becoming a form. So it is deeply sensitive and non-violent activism whose task is to secure the mutual “fitness” of the inner and the outer aspects of human existence. An activism which opens consciousness to infinity and, therefore, affirms absolute moral significance of life.. Finally, this activism delineates the essentially human space of co-relatedness (both outer and inner), i.e. human sociality, which is simultaneously common to everybody and preserves everybody’s uniqueness. In a word, it is a culturally-oriented activism destined to reveal and protect symbolic values of experience. Xiong’s perfectionist vigor – for he conceives of human self-cultivation  as the ultimate reality –  ascribes the paramount importance to the act of type-formation, the stylization of experience, a kind of absolute stylization endowed with power to transcend visible images. What is being typified in Xiong’s activism is… the difference or rather differentiation itself. To be precise: the difference between the Void and the things, the affective “seeds” of experience and the mental images. To sway between these two non-dual aspects of existence was a predicament that no Chinese thinker could escape. This purely symbolic space is an embodiment of culture that can be aspired to but not reflected upon, still less materialized.

Can symbolic and natural values of existence be successfully matched in the manner of that “secret meeting” proclaimed by Xiong Shili? I suggest to look with some attention at the closest historical precedent of Xiong’s project: the fate of Wang Yangming’s school. The latter’s radical wing insisted on the “instant realization” (xian cheng) of man’s  original intuition of Being – the so called “innate knowledge” (liang zhi). This activist trend culminated, however, in the outright identification and, consequently, as it were, mutual annihilation of the inner enlightenment and the phenomenal world – something for which the most famous iconoclast of Chinese history, a Confucian turned Buddhist Li Zhi tried unsuccessfully to find a rational basis. As a reaction to Li Zhi’s excesses there came the attempts to root human existence in the self-transcendence of the moral Will. This tendency, whose most mature example is the thought of Liu Zongchou,  resulted in the dissociation of man’s inner world and external reality. This dissociation was responsible for a quick switch of Chinese thought to empiricism the 17th  century.

The fundamental problem of Chinese tradition and Chinese ritualistic thinking in particular is the nature of Will  (yi) as a condition of the inner continuity of consciousness (a basis of ritual) and a force of type-formation in culture. Like the reality of the One Body, it has a complex structure comprising both objective and subjective aspects of existence. One of the most explicit statements on the nature of the Will belongs to the painter Shen Chou who in his inscription to the picture “The Night Vigil” (1492) described his experience of “nourishing the Will”, fairly common among Neo-Confucians, in the following words:

“When the Will soars up freely what is this Will? Is it inside or outside? Is it in things or does it issue forth in response to things? Here must be a distinction and I can see it… This is how I can grasp myself through responding to the truth of things!” (28)

Shen Chou discovers his authentic Self in the experience of the pure, or non-metaphysical distinctiveness which, as we have observed above, produces not representations but types. It is essentially a non-willing Will traditionally defined by a formulae: “When there is no willing in the Will – this is the genuine Will”. This Will does not project itself on the world, it even lacks an objective coherence; like a shadow of the unseen body it rather delineates and evades. Above all, it follows “what is so of itself”, i.e. it lets go its own following. In a word, the Will of non-willing is the essence of thought’s self-liberation though it has nothing in common with the Western notion of the arbitrary free will.

Interestingly enough, the nature of the Will is not a prominent theme in Xiong Shili’s writings. Xiong is even overtly inconsistent in using this term sometimes identifying it with mental images and sometimes equating it with the essence of the “original Mind”. In his expositions on “The Great Learning” – a central theme in Neo-Confucianism – he accepts Chu Xi’s definition of Will as “Mind’s issuing forth”. At the same time he distinguishes between willing as intention and “the genuine Will” or “the root of Will” (yi gen). In this way he tries to avoid the pitfalls of Wang Yangming’s understanding of the Will as something arising in relation to the opposition between good and evil. For him what is being “issued forth from the Mind” is always right so that the Will is the function of “the inner knowledge” while this original and complete awareness of Being represents the essence of the Will. But Xiong rejects Liu Zongchou’s view that the Will “is the lord of awareness”, what would amount to saying that the will is the principle of consciousness. For him “the Mind and the Will are not two different entities and the Will can by obscured by selfish desires “like the clouds coalesce in empty sky”. This accounts for the necessity “to make sincere one’s Will”. (29)

Evidently, Xiong Shili was searching for some middle position which would give equal weight to the absolute value of the Will and the latter’s dependence on the individual consciousness. He was also aware of the Wang Yangming school’s solipsistic impasse which triggered the sudden turn of Chinese thought to empiricism. In his later writings he was anxious to reassert the activist approach to the world: He writes:

“The philosophers of the School of reason in Sung and Ming times believed that the original Heart-Mind being affected by things penetrates the whole world and, therefore, it is necessary only to nourish in quietude one’s spiritual capacities (gong fu) so that the original mind wouldn’t lose its pristine illumination and there is no need to burden one’s Mind with explorations of things… I think that the original Heart-Mind is the naturally endowed elusive point of illumination and we must make use of this illumination ourselves and diligently explore things, discriminate between things, put things in order – only then can we attain real knowledge. Otherwise we would look upon our Heart-Mind as all-knowing, almighty God”. (30)

What is at stake here is the essence of cultural style itself. In the light of the symbolic, or “double-layered” action upheld by tradition and advocated by Xiong Shili cultural style must have a composite and even hierarchical structure. Indeed, the history of Chinese art shows the coexistence of two different styles within Chinese tradition: one of them, related mostly to Confucianism and Taoism, promoted the esthetics of the type-forms with its synthesis of symbolic and natural qualities while the other, influenced largely by Buddhism, signified the disintegration of this synthesis which produced, on the one hand, purely expressionist, non-figurative and, on the other hand, predominantly illusionist, overtly realistic art. Both styles had the common basis – the idea of the symbolic circuit of Being – and in fact took turns one after another in Chinese cultural history. China’s passage to modernity, however, was a fatal blow to the traditional synthesis. And one can scarcely fail to notice that this change has apparent affinities with the fate of the modern art in the West – I mean especially the swift transition from cubism to surrealism in France or from suprematism to socialist realism in the. It is, I believe, the same turn of culture and the impossibility to disavow the old “synthetic” style altogether that Heidegger’s Japanese interlocutor was having in mind when he complained that “the Japanese world is captured and imprisoned in the objections of photography”. (31)

Xiong Shili’s  project can be conceived as an endeavor to preserve all options provided by Chinese tradition and hence to maintained both kinds of style. His appeal to Buddhism (not uncommon among China’s revolutionary thinkers in the first half of the 20th century) may well fit into the framework of the modernist – and modernizing – movement among Chinese intellectuals. But if philosopher proposes, it is history that disposes. Historically the naturalistic style cut off even from its expressionist counterpart is bound to become the sole winner because it celebrates what in Heidegger’s terms is the triumph of nihilism.

So philosopher’s promises are unwittingly fulfilled by history – if these promises are comprehensive and ambiguous enough and this is what we have, I admit, in the case of Xiong Shili. This unwitting fulfillment is bound to bring about disappointment. In his last years Xiong was haunted by the feeling of personal failure. Indeed, the social reality of “People’s China” by that time was too far a cry from his  moral message. And yet it would not be meaningless to ask whether this reality was in fact a sort of a grim caricature to Xiong’s ideal of creative sociality.

Xiong Shili’s thought may not possess the persuasiveness of a consistent philosophical system. Still more it falls short of the history’s objectivity. But it tells with exceptional clarity what Chinese culture is all about.






  1. Heidegger M. Nietzsche. Vol. 4: European Nihilism. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982, p. 99-100.
  2. Heidegger M. On the Way to Language, NY: Harper & Row, 1971, p. 16.
  3. Maliavin V.V., The East, the West and the Russian Idea. – “Tamkang Journal of International Affairs’, 1997, n 2.
  4. Nihon shiso taikei, vol. 61.  Tokyo: Iwanami ed. 1972. P.394.
  5. Xiong Shili. Zhungguo, lishi jianghua. Chungqing: author ed., 1938. P.72.
  6. Xiong Shili. Ming xin bian, Taipei: Taiwan xuesheng ed. 1976. P. 26-27.
  7. Xiong Shili. Xin weishi lun, Shanghai:Shandong youyi ed. 1989. P. 7-8.
  8. Ibid, p. 229.
  9. Ibid, p. 360.
  10. Ibid, p. 368.
  11. Wang Lungxi xiansheng yulu. Taipei: Wenfuju ed, 1960, ch.4, 1/B.
  12. 12.  See Tseng Yang-ching, Wushan wue di lixiang daode zhuyi. Taipei: Guoli taiwan daxue ed. 1992, p.32.
  13. Ming xin bian, p. 137.
  14. Ibid.. P.133.
  15. Xin weishi lun. P. 371
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ming xin bian. P. 122.
  18. Cf. Tang Chun-i, Liu Tsung-chou’s Doctrine of Moral Mind and Practice and his Critique of Wang Yang-ming – in: The Unfolding of Neo-Confucianism, ed. W.Th. de Bary. Columbia University Press, 1975.
  19. Luo Jinxi xiansheng yiguan bian, in: Siku quanshu cunmu cungshu. Zi bu. Vol.

      86..Taipei. Chuangyan wenhua shiye ed. 1995. P.338.

  1. Cf. Jing Haifeng. Xiong Shili. Taipei: Tungda tushu ed. 1991. P. 247-248.
  2. Xin weishi lun. P. 64.
  3. Ibid. P. 475.
  4. Mou Zongsan, Zhi de zhijue yu zhongguo zhexue. Taipei: Taiwan shangwu yinshuguan ed. 1971. P. 198.
  5. Ming xin bian. P. 74
  6. Ibid. P.75.
  7. Henry M. Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body. The Hague Martinus Nijhof,1975. P.190.
  8. Deleuze J. Le pli. Leibniz et le Baroque. Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1982.P..119, 127.
  9. For a complete English translation of Shen Chou’s inscription see: Liscomb K. The Power of Quiet Sitting at Night: Shen Chou’s Night Vigil.  – Monumenta Serica. Vol.43. 1995.
  10. Xiong Shili. Dujing shiyao. Taipei: Mingwen shuju ed. 1984. P. 163, 167-169, 171. See also: Shili yuyao. Taipei: Guangwen shuju ed.1975, ch. 1, p. 39.
  11. Ming xin bian, p.150.
  12. Heidegger M On the Way to Language, p. 17.


Chinese Glossary

  1. en xin ??
  2. Gan shi??
  3. Fan ben ??
  4. Heng chuan??
  5. Hunran yiti ????
  6. Jen xin??
  7. Liang zhi (1) ??
  8. Liang zhi(2) ??
  9. Mingwu zhenghui ????
  10. Ming ji??
  11. Pi ?
  12. Tian di zhi xin ????
  13. Wu wei??
  14. Xi ?


  1. Xi xin??
  2. Xiang lan??
  3. Xian cheng??
  4. Xiao yi ??
  5. Xing zhi??
  6. Xuan li??
  7. Yi dian ling ming????
  8. Yi shi ??
  9. Yu qi ??
  10. Yuan ?
  11. Yuan jiao??
  12. Yuzhou daxin ????