Xing (“natural tendencies”) and qing (“feelings” or “affectivity”) are two key terms in Zhongyong. The Chinese character xing and qing both contain one element: xin. So here’s where my attempt to explain the meaning of the two terms begins.
Xin, which is generally translated as “heart”, actually has a broad meaning. Almost all Chinese characters related to “feelings” has the element “xin” as a constituent part. It’s because like the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Chinese held that heart is the biological component for thinking and feeling, which are now recognized as the functions of the mind. So looking at the Chinese characters, you could find that xin means both thinking and feeling.
Now let’s take a look at the character xing. It has two parts, xin (thinking and feeling) and sheng (born). In many translations of Chinese classics, the word xing means nature, something people are born with. Is this a felicitous translation? This is the first question this article attempts to answer.
Xing is Natural Tendency
Zhongyong begins with “what tian commands is called natural tendencies”. (天命之谓性).
Because of Zhongyong’s particular role in Chinese philosophy, a bridge connecting the Confucianism and Daoism, understanding these two terms requires a careful reading of all of the Confucian and Daoist classics. In explaining this sentence, I first sought answer from the Analects. Zigong said, “We can learn from the Master’s cultural refinements, but do not hear him discourse on subjects such as our ‘natural disposition (xing)’ and ‘the way of tian (tiandao)’”1. According to my understanding, the reason why Confucius doesn’t talk about xing or tian is not because they are not important terms, but quite the contrary, they are so important that Confucius thinks you cannot simply put it into words and teach others; a better way would be for the others to spontaneously seek it through observing the conducts of exemplary persons and thus learn about it.
In Zhuxi’s commentary of the Zhongyong, xing is defined as li (rationality), xing ji li. However, the Chinese li is different from the Platoic reasoning or Aristotelian rationality. Li is closely related to people’s relationship with the world and their feelings toward the world.
When Aristotle discusses virtues, he tends to attribute it to acting upon rational principle, not something that comes to us by nature, for the function of human beings is “an activity of soul which follows or implies rational principle”2. In the Confucian tradition, on the other hand, virtues come from natural tendencies.
Mencius, as opposed to Confucius, doesn’t only talk about xing, but also gives a metaphorical explanation on the relationship between human nature and human goodness: “The tendency of man's nature to good is like the tendency of water to flow downwards. There are none but have this tendency to good, just as all water flows downwards.”3 This passage gives us the idea that “natural tendency”, not nature, is the matter that concerns most, for if human nature is virtuous, where does the need of nurture and development come in? This reminds me of the “ought” implies “can” principle in Kantian philosophy. I think the Kantian “ought” implies virtues, and “can” implies a possibility. “Natural tendency” suggests man’s possibility of being virtuous.
Look further in the Works of Mencius, says: “The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of ren; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of rightness; the feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety, and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Men have these four beginnings just like they have their four limbs. ”4 Hence, we could see that like a bud needs water and sunshine to grow, human being have the natural tendency to be virtuous but are not naturally virtuous, so it also needs nurturing and educating. In this case, simply translating xing as “nature” is partial. A felicitous translation of xing would be “natural tendency”.
Xing serves “at least three functions: explanatory, originative, and regulative. In other words, “xing” rationally explains the moral motivation of a person in whatever sense of morality commands and compels our general and basic respect and trust; “xing” is understood or experiences to originate our initial moral impulses, which lead to our moral behaviors; and “xing” finally provides a normative or prescriptive definition of goodness: whatever “xing” manifests under optimum natural conditions is ontologically good and therefore should provide a basis and a starting point for moral goodness.”5
Another point calls for attention is the nontranscendent and organismic concept in early Chinese cosmology. The natural tendency of human beings is not endowed, but commanded, which means xing is not only generic, but also spontaneous. Xing is not an origin or an end, rather a process that requires human beings to put in their efforts.
Xing is a Process
Unlike the Western tradition in which tian is considered transcendent, the early Chinese tradition, since Zhou dynasty, bears the idea of san cai (ie. Tian (heaven), di (earth), and ren (human)) and pei tian (the complement of tian). The very basis of Zhongyong is the notion of tianrenheyi (heaven and human as one).
The process of self-realization, or self-transformation, which is later known as "learning to be a Sage" in the Confucian tradition was based on two premises: the Heaven-commanded natural tendency human possesses, and human’s capability of functioning as a creative agent. Therefore, it is “within one’s capacity in realizing and fulfilling this ideal goal of life.”6
Mencius said, “He who has exhausted all his mental constitution knows his nature. Knowing his nature, he knows Heaven. To preserve one's mental constitution, and nourish one's nature, is the way to serve Heaven.”7
To know the nature and nourish the nature is perceived as a way to serve heaven. This notion places one’s natural tendency in a position of a road map, which leads one closer to the way of tian. And since it “has its ultimate appeal to tian”, the natural tendency plays a role of “providing an authoritarian justification of the good.”8
“Exemplary persons cannot but cultivate their persons. In cultivating their persons, they cannot but serve their kin. In serving their kin, they cannot but realize human conduct. And in realizing human conduct, they cannot but realize tian.”9 This passage suggests that the start of being an exemplary person is realizing tian, which, as far as I’m concerned, means to realizing our natural tendencies, knowing that we are given the ability to think and feel. The second step, realizing human conduct, is about carrying out our natural tendencies, actualizing them in our conduct. The next requirement, serving the kin, shows an extraordinary character of Chinese culture, which is the emphasis on filial piety. And this is where it differs most from Western ideology. Chinese philosophy put more emphasis on people’s emotional experiences and relationships with others. Then a person could be said as a cultivated person. So everything boils down to what we are given. Here I want to stress that xing is generic; it’s given to everyone, which means everyone has the capacity to become an exemplary person. Yet we are all “given to be not totally determined by what are given, for we are given what is not presently realized in the given.”10
So the question is what is realizing the given. And here is
Where Qing Comes In
Commiseration with the suffering of others, shame at one's own faults, deference to superiors, and approval/disapproval of the actions of others (Mencius 2A.2) are all parts of human feelings, which is, as I understand it, the forms of natural tendencies (xing). While there is nothing good or bad about certain feelings, there is, however, differences in the appropriateness in expressing feelings.
“The moment at which joy and anger, grief and pleasure, have yet to arise is called a nascent equilibrium (zhong); once the emotions have arisen, that they are all brought into proper focus (zhong) is called harmony (he).”11
The Confucian tradition is more concerned with appropriateness than righteousness. So what matters most is the proper expression of qing, as it plays an important role in ritual propriety (li). Yucong (《语丛》) tells us that feelings rise from natural tendencies, and ritual proprieties rise from feelings ( 情生于性，礼生于情) ; it also says ritual proprieties are something people do according to their feelings (礼因人之情而为之) . Liji (《礼记》) expresses similar idea by saying “teaching the people to love one another, and high and low to cultivate good feeling between them;--such was the effect of those ceremonies”12 (上下用情，礼之至也) As we learnt in the Analects, the hard thing to do in filial piety (xiao) is not “displaying” the conduct of filial affection but really feeling the love and affection to parents (se nan). Without qing, all rituals will just be a synthetic display.
As we know, music plays an important part in ritual proprieties. In music as in other aspects of ritual proprieties, the concept of harmony is most indispensable, and it is also achieved through qing. Vladimir Ashkenazy would not play such beautiful piano works by Frederic Chopin if he is indifferent to the feelings revealed in the music.
So it could be concluded that the particular importance of qing lies in its access to harmony (he), which is the heart of Confucian philosophy. This harmony involves three levels: “the personal or individual heart–mind, the socio-moral, and the onto-cosmic and onto-cosmological. Each illuminates the other, and they form the Confucian vision of the trinity of heaven, earth, and man, which is a state of the utmost harmony and ultimate goal of the Confucian education.”13 This means that qing, by making persons properly focused and harmonious, has an effect on cosmic order.
As it says in Zhongyong, “the notion of equilibrium and focus (zhong) is the great root of the world; harmony then is the advancing of the proper way (dadao) in the world. When equilibrium and focus are sustained and harmony is fully realized, the heavens and earth maintain their proper places and all things flourish in the world.”
In conclusion, the natural tendency (xing) is what given to everyone in forms of qing and it calls for cultivation and development. Qing, when properly expressed, is what brings equilibrium and harmony to persons, cosmos, and to human-heaven relationships.
1 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. The Analects Of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999. V.13
2 Aristotle et.al. The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1998.
3 Legge, James. The Works of Mencius. New York: Dover Publications, 1990. 6A2
4 Legge, James. The Works of Mencius. New York: Dover Publications, 1990. 2A6
5 Chung-ying Cheng. “On a Comprehensive Theory of Xing (Naturality) in Song-Ming Neo-Confucian Philosophy: A Critical and Integrative Development”, Philosophy East & West, Volume 47, Number 1 January 1997. 33-46
6 Chung-ying Cheng, “On The Metaphysical Significance of Ti (body-embodiment) in Chinese Philosophy: Benti (origin-substance) and Ti-Yong (substance and function)”, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 29, no2, pp. 145-161 2002
7 Legge, James. The Works of Mencius. New York: Dover Publications, 1990. 7A1
8 Yunping Wang, “Autonomy and the Confucian Moral Person”, Journal of Chinese philosophy, vol. 29, no22, pp. 251-268, 2002
9 Ames, R., & Hall, D. Focusing the Familiar. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. 2001. XX
10 Chung-ying Cheng, “On Education for Morality in Global and Cosmic Contexts: Two Philosophical Models”, Wingspan
11 Ames, R., & Hall, D. Focusing the Familiar. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. 2001. I
12 James Legge, The Li Ki (The Book of Rites), XXI. KÎ Î,
13 Chung-ying Cheng, “On Education for Morality in Global and Cosmic Contexts: Two Philosophical Models”, Wingspan