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  • Two Kinds of Oneness: Cheng Hao’s Letter on Calming Nature in Contrast with Zhang Zai’s Monism
  • Zemian Zheng (bio)


Two kinds of life experience of oneness (or unity), frequently described, as well as disputed, by the major figures in the history of Neo-Confucianism during the Song-Ming period—for example Zhang Zai (1020–1077), Cheng Hao (1032–1085), Zhu Xi (1130–1200), and Wang Yangming (1472–1529)—are the focus of the present article. The fundamental characteristic of this experience is a serene feeling of being profoundly united with all things; specifically, the term ‘oneness’ is herein utilized to refer to a state in which Heaven, Earth, and a myriad of things form one body (yiti一體) with the human individual.1 To further illustrate this notion, I offer a new reading of Cheng Hao’s groundbreaking essay Letter on Calming Nature (Dingxing shu 定性書), a letter to Zhang Zai, in which I argue that, in this very debate with Zhang, one may discern various conceptions of oneness. In addition, my argument shows how Cheng’s refutation of the inner-outer distinction may prove a better starting point for self-cultivation and moral psychology when compared to Zhang’s; this reading characterizes Cheng’s ethics as therapeutic, and as a moderate version of ethical realism based on a non-objectifiable first-person experience, not to be confounded with any radical version of realism.2

In the history of Chinese philosophy, the most influential sources for the idea of ‘forming one body with Heaven and Earth and myriads of things’ can be found in the Daoist text Zhuangzi, and the Confucian text Mencius of the Warring States period. The former text states: “Heaven and Earth grow with me, and the innumerable things are one with me” (Zhuangzi, chapter 2). According to Zhuangzi, his opponent Hui Shi also says: “love the innumerable things impartially, [since] Heaven and Earth form one body” (Zhuangzi, chapter 33). Mencius, Zhuangzi’s contemporary, states: “All things are already complete in oneself. There is no greater joy than to examine oneself and be sincere” (Mencius 7A:4, in SB, p. 79), a saying quoted by Cheng Hao when he articulates his understanding of oneness in his famous passage in On Understanding Ren (Humanity) (Shi ren pian 識仁篇).

In Western philosophy, the ontological term ‘oneness’ or ‘unity’ is often associated with monism in metaphysics. Monism—in contrast to dualism, pluralism, and nihilism—holds that there exists only one element or substance, of which the many are either parts or merely appearances. A. C. Graham, for instance, uses the concepts [End Page 1253] of monism and dualism to differentiate between Cheng Hao’s thought and Cheng Yi’s. This metaphysical dimension, however, is not the focus here, but rather the experience of “forming one body.” A similar phenomenon is richly documented in the Western philosophical tradition. Even Hegel, as reported by Wilhelm Dilthey, states that love is “a feeling of the whole” (Empfindung des Ganzen), in which all separation and limited conditions disappear (Dilthey 1959, p. 95). Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music, describes the Dionysian principle as a collapse of the clearly delineated boundaries of things into a frenzied, joyful, ecstatic experience of the living whole (Magnus and Higgins 1996). Max Scheler, in his treatment of sympathy and love, views a common stream of life experience as being more original than an “inner and private experience”—qua mine as contrasted with that of others (Scheler 1954, p. 246). Such would hold back the threat of metaphysical solipsism, and also bar against an ethics of egotism or egocentricity (cf. p. 58). Simultaneously, Scheler urges the Western world to learn from the Asian ethos, and to cultivate a sense of emotional identity with the living universe (cf. pp. 105–106). However, Scheler’s knowledge about the Asian ethos of oneness was very limited. While he mentions Buddhism and Laozi, he does not explore this issue in Confucianism, let alone the rich diversity in each school.

Given that such experiences tend to be mystical and ineffable, these different senses of experiential oneness have their respective religious implications. Here, however, I aim to describe the experiences...


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