Seminar compares Chinese and Western classical philosophy

By WU NANand XU XUEHUI / 10-13-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A calligraphic exhibit of Tao Te Ching at the National Museum of China in Beijing Photo: CFP

HANGZHOU—The First Annual Forum on Classical Studies and Confucian Classics Studies was held in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on Sept. 17 and 18. With the theme of “Nature and Happiness in Classical Philosophy,” scholars exchanged views on nature, hedonism and modernity, nature and rites in Chinese and Western classical philosophy. 

The concepts of classical studies, Confucian classics studies, and traditional Chinese learning appear to converge in China at present. Zhang Zhiqiang, director of the Institute of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that both traditional Chinese learning and classical studies are trying to rearrange and integrate traditional academic classifications out of the mission of reconstructing the academic classification system. Traditional Chinese learning represents an academic self-consciousness formed in response to the impact of the modern academic system from the West. This self-consciousness is related to the self-specialization of Chinese civilization. Classical studies is an attempt to integrate our academic traditions into a new framework to understand the uniqueness of Chinese civilization. 


From the nature of the universe to the nature of politics and the nature of humanity, from “Dao Fa Zi Ran” [the divine law follows nature] to the conquest of nature, ancient and modern Chinese and Western philosophy both contain a complex and rich understanding of nature. Happiness belongs to human nature, but whether happiness is good itself, Chinese and Western philosophers have disagreements. Starting from Confucian classics and Western classics, participating scholars discussed how Chinese and Western classical philosophers viewed and understood nature and happiness. 

Bao Limin, a professor from the School of Philosophy at Zhejiang University, pointed out that compared to Western philosophical history which seldom speaks about “happiness,” Shao Yong and other philosophers began to highlight “happiness” in the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127), despite the fact that Chinese cultural traditions were always self-aware youhuan, or “potential risks” [you means worries or anxiety, and huan means sufferings or calamity]. Traditional Chinese philosophy tends to affirm the value of life and cherish the shining of all things, which helps to avoid nihilism and value subjectivism. 

Zhang Wenjiang, a professor from the School of Humanities at Tongji University, believes that the essence of Confucianism lies in ritual and music. The Chinese character “乐” is polysemous. In The Analects of Confucius, the character has the meaning of “music” of ritual and music and emotional “happiness,” which are related to each other. The Analects of Confucius inherited the “Six Arts” [rites, music, archery, chariot racing, calligraphy, and mathematics], and became a textbook for junzi [man of virtue] to uphold “benevolence.” Its core idea is from “rite” to “benevolence,” and the complete chain is from “ritual and music” to “benevolence,” while “happiness” is the generation state of “benevolence.” 

Although the West talks about philosophy more from “sorrow” and “fear,” traditional Chinese scholarship pays more attention to the meaning of “happiness,” which actually holistically focuses on the relationship between “worries” and “happiness,” said Wu Fei, a professor from the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Peking University. “Happiness” can be first considered from the perspective of youhuan. The saying that “the superior man has a lifelong anxiety and not one morning’s calamity” has implied the meaning of “happiness.” When used together, the phrase “anxieties and calamity” is synonymous on a psychological level. 

According to Wu, the divine law follows nature and goes on without end, without purpose, without arrangement, without worries, and without happiness, while people have mind and feelings, have purpose, have arrangement, and thus have worries and happiness. Junzi “rejoices in Heaven and knows its ordinations; and hence he has no anxieties.” He will not avoid worries because of the natural happiness of life, nor will he suffer because of worries. On the contrary, junzi can even feel happy in “knowing it can’t be done but keeping on doing it,” so that worries and happiness run parallel. 

The sense of pain and pleasure is the basic natural emotion of human beings, which involves the perfection of human virtue and happiness. Lin Zhimeng, a professor from the School of Philosophy at Zhejiang University, said that from the perspective of classical philosopher Plato, individuals should first form a correct sense of pain and pleasure before they can move towards a virtuous life. Rational reflections make people turn from the pursuit of physical pleasure to the pleasure of contemplation, and obtain greater inner satisfaction from the perfection of virtue, that is, true happiness. In order to achieve happiness and harmony of souls, people should seek complete virtue, which itself has intrinsic eternal value. 

Mutual learning 

There are many differences between Chinese and Western classical studies in the spiritual and material, positive and negative aspects of nature and happiness. Fundamentally, both Chinese and Western classical studies contain common thinking about what kind of moral order and human relations order should be formed in the world. Feng Guodong, dean of the School of Literature at Zhejiang University, said that the reading of Chinese classics should be confirmed and inspired by Western learning, especially Western classical philosophy. To confirm is to seek common ground, and to inspire is to seek differences. 

Lin noted that exploring human nature and happiness from the perspective of Chinese and Western classical civilizations helps cope with the severe challenges facing modern ethics. Promoting exchanges and mutual learning between Chinese and Western classical civilizations helps modern people think about how to restore the desire for human excellence and understand human moral order and political order from a holistic perspective.