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Classical Chinese Philosophy: Basic Categories(3): Name and Substance
By Yuzhong Zhai
2019-05-01 02:51:58

This article was first posted on this website on 2008-04-09 and is being re-posted as a "source article" for a section of the author’s new book DAOIST-LEGALIST SOCIALISMOne with real Chinese characteristics, §I-2(1) Is “Dao” another name for the “noumenon” ?

DAOIST-LEGALIST SOCIALISM: One with real Chinese characteristics 
(Table of contents)


Translated from Chinese by Sherwin Lu

(Including all quotations from classics with copy right)



            These two mutually opposed categories are so important in classical Chinese philosophy that they made up one of the major topics discussed by almost all the pre-Chin scholars representing all schools of thought. But modern Chinese have forgot about this pair of categories so thoroughly that, when they with high hopes introduce many Western concepts and doctrines into modern Chinese scholarly discourse, they do not care to know what is really behind those concepts. As a result, those concepts from the West have been largely distorted, revealing the true nature of those Confucianist scholar-bureaucrats, for they have, by using the Confucianist ethical-reductionist logic, reduced all the issues behind those Western concepts to the one single issue of morality, followed by empty talks about remolding of souls, etc., not without, logically, chronic complaints about Chinese nationals’ moral “weaknesses”. 

             In essence, the name-substance antithesis in ancient Chinese philosophy implies a system of discourse on “responsibility”. Without this awareness, one would not understand why pre-Chin scholars attached so much importance to this topic and spared no pains to discuss it. As pointed out by Gu Bin, etc. in their note on the phrase “form and name” (()) from chapter one of The Yellow Emperor’s Four Canons, “The discussion on ‘form and name’ (or, ‘name and substance’) has a high place in pre-Chin philosophy. Under this topic, the various schools of thought not only talked about the mutually corresponding relationship between things and their names, but as well dealt further with the relationship between people’s status and positions on the one side and the social hierarchical system on the other. That is to say, ‘name’ here does not only refers to the names of things, but also to the status and position of people, while ‘form’ not only to the appearance of things, but to the ranking system with its defining rules about the assignment of statuses and titles. So, if one says ‘The name is not correct’, or ‘The name does not match the substance’, it does not only mean that the name does not match the thing it refers to, but also means that the statuses or positions assigned to people do not match the provisions of the social ranking system.” [3]

            The above explanation takes into consideration the social stratification and division of work among people in the concept of “name” and also the “rights” issue in that of “substance”. But it fails to consider the “duty” or “responsibility” issue implied in the word “substance”. Actually, the Four Canons in its first Chapter “The Tao and the Law” points out:

what has come of the same profoundness [i.e., the Tao] can be either dead or alive, either a failure or a success. Bad or good fortune comes the same way, but people may not know wherefrom. The Tao as the source of wisdom is formless. Just because it’s formless, everything, even the tiniest, comes into being with a form and a name. Once forms and names are established, the black-white, or right-wrong, distinctions reveal themselves. Therefore those who have grasped the Tao look at things of the world with no clinging to anything, no rigidity in perspective, no imposing, and no self-interest. So, if anything happens, the forms, names, and reputations come by themselves. Once they are there, they cannot hide or be altered.

             “A just person has insights. Whoever has the deepest insights is meritorious. An upright person is serene at heart. Whoever reaches the top of serenity becomes a sage. A selfless person has wisdom. Whoever has the highest wisdom is in step with the whole world. He measures and checks everything against the law of nature and everything in the world will be properly judged. Human affairs are as numerous as trees in the forests and grains in the granary, but once tools are ready, nothing can escape the measurement. When the law is in force, order will be established and nothing against it cannot be curbed.” [4]

            The Four Canons in the chapter “Names and Principles” says further: “In handling all human affairs, one must first check the names.… Then, from the names one traces back to the underlying principles to see if they are rightly or wrongly applied to the reality. Right application will lead to happy results; otherwise, disasters. To distinguish the right and wrong one must judge by law. When judging if things tally with law or not, one must prudently guard against interferences from personal or factional motives and interests.” [5]

            Gongsun Long (公孙龙), representative of Ming Jia (or the school of names, or Logicians, 名家), made some thorough study of the topic in his treatise “On Name and Substance” (《名实论》). When discussing about the correction of names, he said: “Heaven and Earth and all that come from them are ‘matters’ (). What separate matters without overstepping each respective limit is ‘substance’ (). What fills matters to the full with substance is ‘position’ (). Being out of proper position is ‘dislocation’ (非位). Re-placing something in proper position is ‘correction’ (). Take the correct position as ‘correct’, then the incorrect can be corrected; take the incorrect as ‘correct’, then the correct will be in question. ‘Correct position’ means having the substance match it; to have the substance match its position means ‘to give it the right name’ (正名).”

            Gongsun Long also regarded matching substance with name as the basis for governing state affairs. He said: “All wise kings in ancient times attached paramount importance to this issue and made a point of cautiously examining to see if names and substances match.” 

             In fact, ancient Chinese thinkers in the fields of politics and economics always related the name-substance issue to that of legal responsibility. Our sages even directly used the term “xing ming” to refer to “law”.(“xing ming”, 刑名 or 形名: “” meaning “name”; “” meaning “punishment” and at the same time suggesting its homophone “”, which literally means “form” but in the name-vs.-form/substance antithesis conveys the same connotation as the word “substance”, i.e., the opposite of “name”. So, “xing ming” literally means name-form/substance matching in administering law and punishment.) Even Confucius, though he advocated “rule of proprieties” (礼治) instead of rule of law, did not neglect this either, as is shown in his dialogue with Zi Lu (子路), one of his disciples:

             Zi Lu asked: “Now that the king of Wei () has invited you to go and help govern his state, what are you going to start with?”

            Confucius replied: “What is necessary is to rectify the names.”

            Zi Lu questioned: “Is that so? Your idea is out of time. Why such rectification?”

            Confucius retorted: “How insolent you are! A man of integrity always leaves a question open on things he does not know about. If names are not correct, then what one speaks is not true to facts and, so, not convincing. If his words are not convincing, then what he intends to be done cannot be done. If right things are not done, then proprieties and edifying music (礼乐) will not prevail. If these do not prevail, then punishments will not be properly administered. If punishments are not proper, then people will be at a loss what to do and what not to do. Therefore, a man of integrity must use names in such a way that what he says is convincing and realizable.” (The Analects of Confucius, Chapter 13《论语·子路第十三》.) 

            Lao Tzu (老子) in his Tao Te Ching (《道德经》) also emphasizes the matching relationship between the names of social institutions and the social system they represent. In its 32nd chapter it says: “The Tao is always nameless and formless. Though invisible, it can never be subjugated by anybody to his will. If rulers can align themselves with the Tao, ten thousand things will follow suit. Heaven and Earth complement each other in perfect accord, blessing the world with rain and dew, and then people will adapt themselves towards harmony without being ordered to do so. When institutions form themselves, they naturally take on names. When names are given for things that match them, people know they should stop there. Knowing where to stop will protect people from dangers.” 

            The Taoists and the Legalists shared the same guiding principle. This Taoist-Legalist “symbiotic” thought system constituted the nucleus of the original Chinese civilization before Confucianism gained supremacy. The Legalist classic Han Fei Tzu (《韩非子》) in the chapter “The Two Handles” expounds in depth the significance to political science of matching recognition of merits with actual deeds and impartial dispensation of reward and punishment: “The ruler should make a point of checking all name-form relationships, if he wants to prohibit treacherous evils. “Name” and “form” refer to what one says and what one does respectively. When a minister makes some remarks, the ruler assigns him some duty which matches what he says, and later check his efficacy against what his duty requires of him. If his efficacy matches his duty and what he has done matches what he has proposed, then he should be rewarded; otherwise, if what he achieves does not match what is expected of his duty and what he has done does not match what he has said, then he should be punished. Therefore, if any minister achieves less than what he has professed he will, he should be punished. It is the ‘not matching’, not whatever he has achieved, that he is to be punished for. But if one achieves more than what he has professed he will, he should also be punished, not because the ruler is not happy about his achievements but because the ill-matching of his deeds with his words does more harm than good, however great.”

            Following the above remarks, Han Fei Tzu tells a mini-story about how Marquis Zhao of Han (韩昭侯) applied the rule of law: Once when the Marquis was napping in drunkenness, the Hat-Keeper covered him with some clothes for fear that he should catch cold. Later, on waking up, the Marquis asked his attendant in good spirit: “Who covered me with clothes?” “The Hat-Keeper,” answered his attendant. Then the Marquis penalized his Garment-Keeper for his neglect of duty and the Hat-Keeper as well for overstepping his boundaries. 

            Shi Tzu (尸子), a teacher of Shang Yang the famous Legalist, also lays emphasis, in the book entitled after his name, on the importance of examining “names” and “substances” against each other and, based on that, sharply defining each official’s power of authority and responsibility. He says in the chapter “Enlightenment”:

             “It is up to the wise ruler to define the different names for different statuses of the state officials. The horseman seldom quarrels with his horse; that is because he pulls at the rein so that the horse has to obey. A wise king seldom disputes with his ministers; that is because he has clearly defined their respective duties as fit their statuses so that none of them would dare to muddle through their work. All affairs under heaven are manageable, because job posts are clearly differentiated; rights and wrongs are distinguishable, because names are properly defined. If a name overstates the actual, it is an offence; if it understates, a hoax. The actual situation always unfolds to the full without gloss, revealing its true nature without adornment or pruning. Therefore, a ruler who is aware of the Tao would not be credulous about what he hears, because that is just what needs to be verified by applying the name-substance consistency principle….

            “If people are conscripted by a decree to work together on a large piece of land, they will slack; but if the land is divided among them, they will work hard and fast. Why? Because in the latter case people cannot shift any blame onto others. Remarks made by officials are also based on some “land”, i.e., their functional responsibility and, so, responsibility should also be divided. If the king and his ministers do not divide responsibilities between them, then the latter can escape the blame for any possible faults of theirs. Just as a warp in a piece of wood can be revealed by the yardstick, or the slant of a piece of land by a level meter, those ministers who do not match their words with their deeds would not be able to hide their faults or crimes.” 

            The remnants of the legal code of Chin Dynasty (秦律) unearthed in the 1970s shows clearly to us how the philosophical idea of “checking substance against name” was embodied in the institution of law during the great golden times of China’s Chin and Han dynasties. It answers the question of what propped up the great Chin and Han Empires each with a brilliant history -- the eternal pride of the Chinese nation. The answer is: It is the philosophical principle of “name-substance consistency”, which breathes the full spirit of rule of law.

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