Physics or Metaphysics?

October 16, 2009

Traditional Chinese culture has a different way of thinking and naming things. Trying to put Chinese studies into a western pigeonhole is always fraught with problems. Below is a question by Alexey and my reply that illustrated the difficulty.

Dear Howard.

Recently with some colleagues we had a discussion on the term “Chinese Metaphysics”.

The base of the discussion was the formula

Here, 形而上 (形而上學) corresponds with dao, shen 神 and metaphysics. While 形而下 corresponds to qi 器. In Chinese sciences we study more qi than shen, so we are more to 形而下 rather than 形而上, so “metaphysics” seems to be an improper term.

What do you think on that?

Best regards,

Hi Alexey,

Aristotle made the distinction between physics and metaphysics and we tried to find the Chinese equivalent in the Chinese sciences, which is never an easy task, because even in a binary relationship of this kind, between the Way (Dao 道) and the Vessel (Qi 器) (with the Way being prior in time and without substance and the Vessel being subsequent in time and has substance), it has a common base in the Form (Xing 形) and cannot be separated as two distinct entities.

Zhang Dai-Nian noted that Wang-Zhi did not accept that the metaphysical and physical are related as above and below form as quoted in the Great Commentary, but he affirmed that form is the basis of what is above form and the metaphysical is not prior to form but an expression of form.

Zhang also noted that Dai Zhen accepted that there is a distinction between what is above and what is below form. That the Qi of Yin and Yang that has not yet become things is the formless, and that is above form and not below it.

So the discussions that you are having with some of your colleagues are also reflected in the history of Chinese philosophy and the discussions that went on between the scholars over time.

My take is that since in the Chinese sciences, we study the form and what is above and what is below all at the same time with varying degrees of mix (not always more qi than shen), so if we have to use the Aristotelian terms, then they are both physics AND metaphysics; I agree with you in the sense that to say it is only “metaphysics” would negate the physical observation of forms in the practice of the Chinese sciences. For example: in the practice of Xiang Shu 相術 (the art of observation) where Feng Shui is one of the methods, it requires us to see the “qi/vessel”in and below the form as well as to contemplate the “shen/spirit”outside and above the form.


The way we relate to the Chinese arts is the same in the way we relate to the Chinese sciences mentioned earlier, Bada Shanren’s paintings below show when a painting has both vessel and spirit in the form, then it becomes a work of art and not just an ordinary painting any more. His work transcends space and time because it is not only physically beautiful but metaphysically enlightening and that is what a traditional gentleman/scholar would tried to achieve – to be practical and transcendental at the same time.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: