On the Claim "All the people on the street are Sages"
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On the Claim "All the people on the street are Sages"

The famous statement from the Neo-Confucian tradition, "All the people on the street are sages" (满街人都是圣人), is commonly believed to have first been made in a short poem by Zhu Xi (1130–1200) about the famous Buddhist city of Quanzhou. In the poem, Zhu Xi writes: "This place has been called a Buddhist kingdom; all the people on the street are sages" (此地古称佛国,满街皆是圣人).1 However, the statement is more frequently attributed to another Neo-Confucian philosopher, Wang Yangming (1472–1528), and it is often alleged to be a typical claim in his teachings. The attribution of the claim to Wang Yangming and the philosophical significance of the claim for Wang's teachings may be partly due to passage 313 in the Chuanxilu 传习录, where Wang Yangming and his two disciples have a morally instructive exchange relating to this claim:

[313] 先生锻炼人处,一言之下,感人最深。一日,王汝止出游归,先生问曰:"游何?" 对曰:"见满街人都是圣人。" 先生曰:"你看满街人是圣人,满街人倒看你是圣人在。" 又一日,董萝石出游而归,见先生曰:"今日见一异事。" 先生曰:"何异?" 对曰:"见满街人都是圣人。" 先生曰:"此亦常事耳,何足为异?" 盖汝止圭角未融,萝石恍见有悟,故问同答异,皆反其言而进之。

313. Our teacher [Wang Yangming]'s instruction can be as simple as one sentence yet it can profoundly enlighten and inspire us. One day, Wang Ruzhi returned from a leisurely walk. The teacher asked him, "What did you see (jian 见) in your walk? Ruzhi answered, "[I] saw that all the people on the street are sages." The teacher said, "Did you look upon the people in the street as sages, or was it actually that the people in the street looked upon you as a sage among them?"2 On anther day, Dong Luoshi returned from a leisurely walk, went to see the teacher, and told him, "I saw (jian 见) a strange thing today." The teacher asked, "What is strange?" Dong Luoshi replied, "[I] saw that all the people on the street are sages." The teacher said, "This is after all an ordinary thing. Why do you think it is strange?"

Because Ruzhi did not quite get rid of his horn of arrogance [and probably did not really consider ordinary people on the street as having sagehood] and because Luoshi's realization [that everyone indeed has sagehood] was dim, the teacher responded differently to the same statement. Yet, in each case he purposefully reversed what Wang Ruzhi and Dong Luoshi respectively said, in order to help them advance.

(my translation)3

In understanding this claim at its face value, usually isolated from its embedded context, some readers of Wang Yangming wonder how naive and wishful he was in believing that all the people on the street were actually sages.4 For obviously he should have known that not all the people on the street were sages—sages are rare [End Page 419] (see Analects 7 : 26), and even Confucius did not regard himself as a sage (see Analects 7 : 34). On the other hand, other readers see the claim not as intending to be literally true, but rather as potentially true. This second group of readers, in their effort to make sense of the claim, have inserted an adverb of "potentially" into it: "All the people on the street are potentially sages."5

Does this "reading into" maneuver do justice to the text of passage 313? What was the "original face" (本来面目) of the claim (or better, "utterance") in the context of passage 313? Moreover, if we could indeed reasonably ascribe a conception of moral potentiality to Wang Yangming outside the context of passage 313 but in the text of the Chuanxilu, in what sense would he understand the concept?

In order to answer theses questions, I have made a close reading of passage 313. In a nutshell, my findings are twofold. First, The common practice of treating the saying in question as a factual-sounding claim (questionably attributed to Wang Yangming) stems from a failure to understand it in its original context. When the saying is put back into its original context, it can be shown that it is not used as a factual or actuality claim,6 nor even as a potentiality claim (claiming that "All the people on the street are potentially sages"), but as an expression of an existential-moral attitude (understanding or realization) of Wang Yangming's students, Wang Ruzhi (1483–1541) and Dong Luoshi (1457–1533): "[I] saw that all the people on...