Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cheng as Creativity


Cheng (and cheng zhi, zhi cheng) is a very important concept in the Doctrine of the Mean. There are several different interpretations: cheng as sincerity, integrity, creativity, and so on. This article attempts to discern which one best grasp the meaning of cheng.

In an article discussing Kant and Tao of Königsberg, Martin Schonfeld says, “if your concern is the “ought” for public life, read the Analects and the Mencius. If your concern is the “ought” for private life, read the Doctrine of the Mean. And if your concern is the “is,” then read Mencius, and Doctrine of the Mean once more, and study the Great Learning. The is-ought-distinction is a dogma of Western skeptics and foreign to the East. Like Russian dolls, the Analects and the Mencius nestle in the causal ontology of the Great Learning, which nestles in the cosmology of the Doctrine of the Mean. The Doctrine of the Mean explains humanity or benevolence (ren) in terms of integrity (cheng), and integrity in terms of following the Tao. This was the crucial link.”1 This well captured the relationships of these Chinese classics, the different aspects they focus on, on top of that, it puts emphasize on the cosmology in the Doctrine of the Mean and contextualizes cheng in the Doctrine of the Mean as a crucial link between ren and the Tao, the two dominant concepts in ancient Chinese philosophy.

Thereby, I want to first analyze cheng through its relationship to the dao.


诚者,天之道也;诚之者,人之道也

Creativity is the way of tian; creating is the proper way of becoming human.”2

Sincerity is the way of Heaven. The attainment of sincerity is the way of men.”3

When translated as sincerity, integrity or honesty, the second cheng, as a verb, means “to make sincere, honest”. The question arises is that what does the zhi stand for, what is it that humans set out to make sincere, or honest? If you interpret zhi as insincerity and dishonesty, then this phrase means “to make the insincerity or dishonesty sincere/ honest”. But this is hardly probable as the distinction between sincerity and insincerity is not definite, and it’s impossible to shift from the latter to the former. So the only sensible explanation of zhi seems to be cheng itself, in which case the phrase becomes “cheng cheng zhe”. And consequently, we could not simply translate it as making sincerity sincere, but rather showing sincerity, or as Legge translated, as “the attainment of sincerity”. Yet there’s another understanding: “The concept of ch'eng-yi … could be taken … in the sense of "solidifying" one's thoughts. Chu Hsi himself glosses ch'eng as shih which is generally interpreted, especially in its relation to ch'eng, as genuine or true. But since shih can also mean what is real, or actual, or substantial, I am tempted to conjecture that Chu is explaining … that by making our ideas, those ideas in our mind as principles, real through the process of objectifying them in external things and events, of making them objectively certain, we are, in effect, also rendering them genuine and true.”4 This concept of solidifying and objectifying what is genuine and true is closer to the concept of “creating”, however, the former suggests a process of making something that has already existed stronger or expressing it in a concrete form while the latter could mean making something entirely different or new. Both are plausible translations, so in order to compare these two, I need to take a look at other paragraphs.


自诚明,谓之性;自明诚,谓之教。诚则明矣,明则诚矣。

Here the translation of cheng as solidifying or objectifying what is genuine and true is also applicable, especially in the second sentence, which is about the interchangeable nature of cheng and ming. However, I find this paragraph having more to do with human nature (xing) than with authenticity or truth. In my understanding, the first phrase suggests that all humans have the nature of understanding/ being enlightened (ming); the second says it requires education to manifest this nature. As stated in the beginning of the Doctrine of the Mean “What heaven [cosmos] imparts to man is called human nature [vitality]”5, this human nature is to make the cheng of the heaven manifested through the cheng of human. Therefore, while xing exists in every person, what makes the difference between an ordinary person and a sage is that a sage is able to carry out his nature of understanding (human, life, and the cosmos) to its full extent.

While reading the Doctrine of the Mean, I strongly feel that it involves a profound way of cosmological thinking. “The human in this worldview is an active participant in the cosmic process”6 and it’s the human in the Doctrine of the Means that create the cosmos.

唯天下至诚,为能尽其性;能尽其性,则能尽人之性;能尽人之性,则能尽物之性;能尽物之性,则可以赞天地之化育;可以赞天地之化育,则可以与天地参矣。

Only those who are the most sincere [authentic, true, and real] can fully realize their own nature. If they can fully realize their own nature, they can fully realize human nature. If they can fully realize human nature, they can fully realize the nature of things. If they can fully realize the nature of things, they can take part in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can take part in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can form a trinity with Heaven and Earth.”7

Understanding the Doctrine of the Mean from a cosmological approach, cheng as creativity is a better translation because it gives people a broader perspective. Cheng is the way for both human (earth) and heaven to reach its full-existence. The Chinese have a long tradition of integrating heaven and human as one. Cheng, as a mode for self-development and self-cultivation, is a conscious process in which human can realize the principle of the heaven: cosmic creativity and unceasing productivity. These are what make the world exist and moving forward, and make human reach a full self-actualization.

As further said in the Doctrine of the Mean: “Being unceasing, it is long-lasting; lasting long, it becomes manifest. Being manifest, it is far-reaching; reaching far, it becomes broad and deep. Being broad and deep, it becomes lofty and bright. Because it is broad and deep,it is able to contain living things; because it is lofty and bright, it is able to complete living things....The Way of Heaven and Earth can be fully expressed in one sentence: these things being without doubleness, their giving birth to living things is unfathomable. The Way of Heaven and Earth is broad, deep, lofty, bright, far-reaching and long-lasting.”8 As Jeeloo Liu put it, “this view takes the way of heaven and earth to be the creative principle. This creative force is eternal and all-encompassing. The whole world is being generated and regenerated perpetually. It could not possibly have been derived from a prior state of non-being or nothingness.”9

Besides the reason of cosmological thinking, creativity as cheng is a felicitous translation because it carries a meaning of initiation and active engagement in people’s affairs. Because “[cheng] is not only completing oneself but is also the means for completing other living things”10, we cannot pull a person out from his relationships with others and let him develop a relationship with the heaven alone. The Doctrine of the Mean is not only about the relationship between heaven and earth, but also concerns the relationship between human and others, and how ordinary people manifest their full nature and get closer to a sage.

As stated above, cheng is a link to both dao and ren. The Doctrine of the Mean says: “Consummating oneself is authoritative conduct; consummating other events is wisdom. This is the excellence of one’s natural tendencies and is the way of integrating what is more internal and what is more external. Thus, whenever one applies this excellence, it is fitting.”11 Consuming oneself and consuming others have to be integrated to form cheng, so as to achieve ren and zhi. The Doctrine of the Mean also says “To practice with vigor (li xing) is to be near to magnanimity (ren).”12 Here li xing could also be understood as extending one’s xing to full, meaning creativity (cheng). Another famous passage about ren in the Doctrine of the Mean is “修道以仁”, here the relationship between dao and ren is clearer than ever. The word xiu here has a similar meaning to that of cheng. They both say people should take the initiative to cultivate themselves along the Way in order to be ren. This is a self-consummating and long lasting process. “Creativity is self-consummating, and its way is self-directing. Creativity is a process taken from its beginning to its end, and without this creativity, there are no events.”13 Cheng is the heart, the essence of all events, while dao, as li(), is rational and practical. So by translating cheng as creativity, we can see this internal-external relationship more clearly.

In conclusion, I think creativity is a felicitous translation of cheng because it grasps the sense of cosmos-making and acknowledges human’s ability to take initiative and be integrated with the way of the heaven.



1 Martin Schonfeld. Kant’s Thing in itself, or the Tao of Königsberg. Florida Philosophical Review. Vol. III, Issue 1, Summer 2003

2 Ames, R., & Hall, D. (2001). Focusing the Familiar. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. XX.18

3 Legge, J., (2001). The Doctrine of the Mean in The Chinese Classics. London: Simon Publications. XX.18

4 Cheng Chung-ying. Practical Learning in Yen Yuan, Chu Hsi and Wang Yang-ming. 50.

5 Zhong Yong, Chan, W., (1963). A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

6 Tu Wei-ming, The Ecological Turn in New Confucian Humanism: Implications for China and the World, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Science. Fall 2001

7 Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean), XXII. See Tu Wei-ming, Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989), 77. This translation is slightly different from Wing-tsit Chan’s version, cited in the book.

8 Wm. Theodore de Bary & Irene Bloom, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), Chapter 26, 339.

9 Liu, Jeeloo, The Status of Cosmic Principle (li) in Neo-Confucian Metaphysics. Journal of Chinese Philosophy 32 (3), 391-407.

10 Wm. Theodore de Bary & Irene Bloom, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 1:338–9.

11 Ames, R., & Hall, D. (2001). Focusing the Familiar. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. XXV

12 Legge, J., (2001). The Doctrine of the Mean in The Chinese Classics. London: Simon Publications. XX.10

13 Ames, R., & Hall, D. (2001). Focusing the Familiar. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. XXV


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