Wang Ch'ung

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Authors born between 200 BCE and 200 CE

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Contents

Introduction

Origination

Spontaneous Action

The Purposeless Heavens

The Indifferent Heavens

Destiny

Ghosts

The Dead

No Messages From Beyond

Fictitious Influences

Eminent Drunkards

Superstition and Prejudice

On Divination 

Dreams

On Not Flying to Heaven

Desire And The Long Life

A Word on Dragons

Source

 

Introduction

Wang Ch置ng (27-97 CE) was born in Shang-yu, Kuei-chi, China and studied at the academy in the capital, Loyang. Legend says he was so poor as to be unable to buy books, having to read them standing in the market place and in shops. He was said to have gained a formidable grounding in Chinese literature in this way because of his remarkable memory. He was an independent thinker, associating with no specific school, although he made use of both Taoist and Confucian principles. When he became secretary in a prefecture, his argumentative nature was said to be the cause of his eventual removal from this position.

Quietly and in private, he subsequently wrote the book for which he is famous葉he Lun-heng (Disquisitions). In some 85 chapters totaling 200,000 words he scrutinized and criticized common errors and superstitions. As there was not a strong scientific tradition in China at this time, his arguments are occasionally based on rather shaky factuality. Nevertheless, he struck a major blow against magic-based religiosity. He died at about the age of 70, by which point he had been recognized as a natural genius and had been summoned to meet the Emperor. He was, however, too ill to attend. After his death, the existence of his book became known and his ideas began to enter the mainstream of Chinese philosophy.

Wang Ch置ng lived at a time when superstition and religion had become attached to both Taoism and Confucianism. So much so, that an attempt was underway to have Confucius recognized as an immortal god預 familiar strategy whereby a religious group seeks to strengthen its credibility by co-opting some revered person from the past. The absurdity of this attempt with respect to a man who was a great humanist, did not deal in omens or portents, and asked "if you do not know about life, why do you ask about death?" must have been evident to Wang Ch置ng. He was also aware that charlatans of various religious hues were denying the Confucian view of the unity of man and nature and asserting that heaven and man could influence each other by magical means, and that heaven and earth intentionally inflicted calamities on people to punish them for transgressions.

Such an ability on the part of nature to have intentions was anathema to Wang Ch置ng. He saw heaven as the physical region of astronomical objects and atmospheric phenomena, located at a certain distance from earth. It was characterized by spontaneous activity, not intentionality. In presenting his ideas, Wang Ch置ng provided a skeptical review of the superstitions and religions of his day and strengthened the component of rationality in Chinese philosophy. Two millennia later, his criticisms are still pertinent to superstitious practices of our own time.

 

Origination

1     The commentators of the I ching say that previous to the separation of the primigenial vapors, there was a chaotic and uniform mass; the books of the literary intelligentsia speak of a wild medley, and of air not yet separated. When it came to be separated, the pure elements formed heaven, and the impure ones, earth. According to the expositors of the I ching and the writings of the literary intelligentsia the bodies of heaven and earth, when they first became separated, were still small, and they were not far distant from each other.

Spontaneous Action

2     Why must we assume that the heaven act spontaneously? Because they have neither mouth nor eyes. Intentional activity is associated with a mouth and with eyes: the mouth wishes to eat, and the eyes to see. These desires manifested outside come from inside. When the mouth and the eyes are craving for something considered advantageous, it is due to those desires. Now, when the mouth and the eye are not activated by desire, there is nothing for them to seek. Why should there be activity then?

        How do we know that heaven possesses neither mouth nor eyes? From the Earth. The body of the Earth is formed of rocks and soil, and rocks and soil have neither mouth nor eyes. The heavens and Earth are like husband and wife. Since the body of the Earth is not provided with a mouth or eyes, we know that the heavens also have no mouth or eyes. Supposing that the heavens have a body, then it must be like that of the Earth. As a vital force, it should be air alone, and this air would be like clouds and fog. How can a cloudy or nebular substance have a mouth or an eye?

        Someone might argue that every movement originates from inaction. There is desire provoking movement and, as soon as there is motion, there is action. The changes in the heavens are similar to those of man, how could they be spontaneous without intention or purpose? I reply that, when the heavens move, they bring forth matter and energy. The mass of the heavens move, matter and energy come forth, and things are produced.

 

3     When the heavens are changing, they do not desire to produce things thereby; things are produced of their own accord. That is spontaneity. Releasing matter and energy, the heavens do not desire to create things, but things are created of themselves. That is spontaneous action without intention or desire.

The Purposeless Heavens

4     By the fusion of the matter and energy of the heavens and earth, all things of the world are produced spontaneously曜ust as by the mixture of matter and energy of husband and wife children are born spontaneously. Among the things thus produced, creatures with blood in their veins are sensitive of hunger and cold. Seeing that the five grains can be eaten, they use them as food; and discovering that silk and hemp can be worn, they take them and wear them. Some people are of opinion that the heavens produce grain for the purpose of feeding mankind, and silk and hemp to cloth them. That would be tantamount to making the heavens the farmer of man, or his mulberry girl; it would not be in accordance with spontaneity, therefore this opinion is very questionable and unacceptable.

       Reasoning on Taoist principles we find that nature imbues all things with matter and energy. Among the many things of this world, grain dispels hunger, and silk and hemp protect from cold. For that reason man eats grain, and wears silk and hemp. The heavens do not produce grain, silk, and hemp purposely, in order to feed and cloth mankind, just as by calamitous changes they does not intend to reprove man. Things are produced spontaneously, and man wears and eats them; natural forces change spontaneously, and man is frightened by them. The usual theory is disheartening. Where would spontaneity be, if changes in the heavens were intentional, and where would be spontaneous action without aim or purpose?

The Indifferent Heavens

5     King Hsiang of Ch段n sent a sword to Po Ch'i, who thereupon was going to commit suicide, falling on the sword. "How have I offended Heaven?", he asked. After a long while he answered, "I see why I must die. At the battle of Ch誕ng-p訴ng, the army of Chao耀everal hundred thousand men耀urrendered, but I deceived them, and caused them to be buried alive. Therefore I deserve to die." Afterwards he killed himself.

        Po Ch'i was well aware of his former crime, and acquiesced in the punishment consequent upon it. He knew how he himself had failed, but not why the soldiers of Chao were buried alive. If heaven really had punished the guilty, what offence against heaven had the soldiers of Chao committed, those who surrendered? If, instead, there had been wounding and killing on the battlefield by the random blows of weapons, many of the four hundred thousand would certainly have survived. Why were these also buried in spite of their goodness and innocence? Those soldiers being unable to obtain heaven's protection through their virtue, why did Po Ch段 alone suffer the condign punishment for his crime from Heaven? We see from this that Po Ch段 was mistaken in what he concluded.

6     If the heavens had produced creatures on purpose, they ought to have taught them to love each other, and not to prey upon and destroy one another. One might object that such is the nature of the five elements, that when the heavens create all things, they are imbued with the matter and energies of the five elements, and that these fight together, and destroy one another. But then the heavens ought to have filled creatures with the matter and energy of one element alone, and taught them mutual love, not permitting the forces of the five elements to resort to strife and mutual destruction.

Destiny

7     It is said that three different kinds of destiny can be distinguished: the natural, the acquired, and the adverse. One speaks of natural destiny if somebody's luck is the simple consequence of his original organization. His constitution being well ordered, and his bones good, he need not toil in order to obtain happiness, since his luck comes of itself. This is what is meant by natural destiny. Acquired destiny comes into play, when a man becomes happy only by dint of hard work, but is pursued by misfortune as soon as he yields to his evil propensities, and gives rein to his desires. This is what is understood by acquired destiny. As for adverse destiny, a man may, contrary to his expectations, reap bad fruits from all his good deeds; he will rush into misfortune and misery, which will strike him from afar. In this case, therefore, one can speak of adverse destiny.

Natural Destiny

8     Every mortal receives his own natural destiny; already at the time of his conception, he obtains a lucky or an unlucky future. Man's nature does not correspond to his destiny: his disposition may be good, but his destiny unlucky, or his disposition bad, and his fate lucky. Good and bad actions are the result of natural disposition, happiness and misfortune, good and bad luck are destiny. . . A favorite of fate, though not doing well, is not, of necessity, deprived of happiness for that reason, whereas an ill-fated man does not get rid of his misfortune, though trying his best.

Acquired Destiny

9     In acquired destiny, bad deeds are followed by misfortune. Yet the robbers Che and Chuang Ch'iao were scourges to the whole empire. With some thousands of other bandits whom they had collected, they assaulted and robbed people of their property, and cut them to pieces. As outlaws they were unequalled. They ought to have been disgraced; far from it, they finished their lives as old men. In the face of this, how can the idea of a acquired destiny be upheld?

Adverse Destiny

10     Men with an adverse destiny do well in their hearts, but meet with disasters abroad. . . Ch置 P段ng and Wu Yuan were the most loyal ministers of their sovereigns, and scrupulously fulfilled their duties as servants to the king. In spite of this, the corpse of Ch置 P段ng was left unburied in Ch置, and in Wu Yuan's body was cooked. For their good works they should have obtained the happiness of acquired destiny, but they fell in with the misfortune of adverse fate. How is such a thing possible?

        Consequently, there is no guarantee whatever that men of high endowments and excellent conduct will in any case attain to wealth and honor, and we must not imagine that others whose knowledge is very limited, and whose virtue is but small, are therefore doomed to poverty and misery. Sometimes, men of great talents and excellent conduct have a bad fate, which cripples them, and keeps them down, and people with scanty knowledge and small virtue may have such a propitious fate, that they soar up and take a brilliant flight.

Ghosts

11     People say that the dead become spirit beings, or ghosts, that they are conscious, and can hurt men. Let us examine this by comparing men with other beings.

        The dead do not become ghosts, have no consciousness, and cannot injure others. How do we know this? We know it from other beings. Man is a being, and other creatures are likewise beings. When a creature dies, it does not become a ghost, for what reason then must man alone become a ghost when he expires? In this world you can separate man from other creatures, but not on the ground that he becomes a ghost. The faculty to become a ghost cannot be a distinctive mark. If, on the other hand, there is no difference between man and other creatures, we have no reason either to suppose that man may become a ghost.

        Man lives by virtue of his vital force. When he dies, this vital force is exhausted. It resides in the arteries. At death the pulse stops, and the vital force ceases to work; then the body decays, and turns into earth and clay. By what could it become a ghost?

        Without ears or eyes men have no perceptions. In this respect the deaf and the blind resemble plants and trees. But are men, whose vital force is gone, merely as if they had no eyes, or no ears? No, their decay means complete dissolution.

 

12     When men see ghosts, they appear like living men. Just from the fact that they have the shape of living men we can infer that they cannot be the spirits of the dead, as will be seen from the following.

        Fill a bag with rice, and a sack with millet. The rice in the bag is like the millet in the sack. Full, they look strong, stand upright, and can be seen. Looking at them from afar, people know that they are a bag of rice, and a sack of millet, because their forms correspond to their contents, and thus become perceptible. If the bag has a hole, the rice runs out, and if the sack is damaged, the millet is spilt. Then the bag and the sack collapse, and are no more visible, when looked at from afar.

        Man's vital force resides in the body, as the millet and rice do in the bag and the sack. At death the body decays, and the vital force disperses, just as the millet and the rice escape from the pierced or damaged bag, or sack. When the millet or the rice are gone, the bag and the sack do not take a form again. How then could there be a visible body again, after the vital force has been scattered and lost?

 

13     The nature of heaven and earth is such, that a new fire can be lighted, but a burnt-out fire cannot be set ablaze again. A new man can be born, but a dead one cannot be resurrected. If burnt-out ashes could be kindled again into a blazing fire, I would be very much of opinion that the dead might take a bodily form again. Since, however, a burnt-out fire cannot burn again, we are led to the conclusion that the dead cannot become ghosts.

The Dead

14     Since the dead cannot become ghosts, they cannot have any consciousness either. We infer this from the fact that before their birth men have no consciousness. Before they are born, they form part of the primigenial force, and when they die, they revert to it. This primigenial force is vague and diffuse, and the human spirit, a part of it. Anterior to his birth, man is devoid of consciousness, and at his death he returns to this original state of unconsciousness, for how could he be conscious?

15     Man is intelligent and sagacious, because he has in him the forces of the five virtues. These are in him because the five organs are in his body. As long as the five parts are uninjured, man is bright and clever, but, when they become diseased, his intellect is dimmed and confused, which is tantamount to stupidity and dullness. After death the five inward parts putrefy, and, when they do so, the five virtues lose their substratum. That which harbors intelligence is destroyed, and that which is called intelligence disappears. The body requires the vital force for its maintenance; and with this, the body to become conscious. There is no fire in the world burning quite of itself, how could there be an essence without a body, but conscious of itself?

15     Man's death is like sleep, and sleep comes next to a trance, which resembles death. If a man does not wake up again from a trance, he dies. If he awakes, he returns from death, as though he had been asleep. Thus sleep, a trance, and death are essentially the same. A sleeper cannot know what he did, when he was awake, as a dead man is unaware of his doings during his lifetime. People may talk or do anything by the side of a sleeping man, he does not know, and similarly the dead man has no consciousness of the good or bad actions performed in front of his coffin. When a man is asleep, his vital force is still there, and his body intact, and yet he is unconscious. How much more must this be the case with a dead man, whose vital force is scattered and gone, and whose body is in a state of decay?

No Messages From Beyond

16     Now-a-days, living persons in a trance will sometimes act as mediums to speak for those who have died; and diviners, striking black chords, will call down the dead, whose souls then will talk through the diviner's mouth. All that is bragging and wild talk. If it were not mere gossip, then we would have a manifestation of the vital force of some being.

        Some say that the spirit cannot speak. If it cannot speak, it cannot have any knowledge either. Knowledge requires a vital force, just as speech does.

17     Human death is like the extinction of fire. When a fire is extinguished, its light does not shine any more, and when man dies, his intellect does not perceive any more. The nature of both is the same. If people nevertheless pretend that the dead have knowledge, they are mistaken. What is the difference between a sick man about to die and a light about to go out? When a light is extinguished, its radiation is dispersed, and only the candle remains. When man has died, his vital force is gone, and the body alone remains. To assert that a person after death is still conscious is like saying that an extinguished light shines again.

Fictitious Influences

18     We learn from historical books that the wife of Ch'i Liang turned towards the city wall, which collapsed in consequence. This implies that when Ch'i Liang did not come back from a military expedition, his wife cried out in despair in the direction of the city wall; so heart-felt were her sorrow and her laments that her feelings affected the wall, which tumbled down in consequence.

        That the woman cried, turned towards the wall, may be true, but the subsequent collapse of the city-wall is an invention. . . The city-wall is of earth. As earth, like cloth, is devoid of a heart and intestines, how could it be moved by sobs and tears and fall down? Should the sounds of genuine grief be apt to affect the earth of a wall, then complaints uttered among the trees of a forest, would tear apart plants and snap trunks.

        If somebody should weep, when turned towards a water or a fire, would the water boil up, or the fire go out? As plants, water, and fire do not differ from earth, it is plain that the wife of Ch'i Liang should not have to answer for the dissolution of the wall.

        Perhaps the wall was just going to tumble down of itself when the wife of Ch'i Liang happened to cry below. The world is partial to fictions and does not investigate the true cause of things; consequently this story of the down-fall of the city-wall has, up till now, not faded from memory.

Eminent Drunkards

19     It is on record that Wen Wang could drink a thousand bumpers of wine and Confucius a hundred gallons. From this we are to infer how great the virtue of these sages was, as it enabled them to master the wine. If at one sitting they could drink a thousand bumpers or a hundred gallons, they must have been drunkards, not sages.

        There is a proper way of drinking wine, and the chests and stomachs of the sages must have been of nearly the same size as those of others. Taking food together with wine, they would have eaten a hundred oxen, while drinking one thousand bumpers, and ten sheep would be necessary for a hundred gallons. If they did justice to a thousand bumpers and a hundred oxen, and to a hundred gallons and ten sheep, Wen Wang must have been a giant like the Prince of Fang-feng, and Confucius must have been like a fifty-foot barbarian. . .

        There is a saying that the virtuous do not become intoxicated. Seeing that the sages possess the highest virtue, someone has wrongly credited Wen Wang with a thousand bumpers and foolishly attributed a hundred gallons to Confucius.

Superstition and Prejudice

20     When the minister of Ch置, Sun Shu Ao was a boy, he saw a two-headed snake, which he killed and buried. He then went home, and cried before his mother. She asked him,what was the matter. He replied, " I have heard say that he who sees a two-headed snake must die. Now, when I went out, I saw a two-headed snake. I am afraid that I must leave you and die, hence my tears." Upon his mother inquiring, where the snake was now, he answered, "For fear that others should see it later, I have killed it outright, and buried it."

        The mother said,"I have heard that heaven will recompense hidden virtue. You are certainly not going to die, for heaven must reward you." And, in fact, Sun Shu Ao did not die, but went on to become prime minister of Chou. For interring one snake he received two favors. Does this makes it clear that heaven rewards good actions? No, this idle talk. That he who sees a two-headed snake must die is a common superstition; and that heaven gives happiness as a reward for hidden virtue is a common prejudice. Sun Shu Ao, convinced of the superstition, buried the snake, and his mother, addicted to the prejudice, firmly relied on the heavenly retaliation. This would amount to nothing else than that life and death do not depend on fate, but on the death of a snake.

On Divination

21     The world believes in divination with shells and weeds. The first class of diviners assert they question heaven; the second, earth葉hat the weed milfoil has something spiritual, that tortoises are divine, and that omens and signs respond, when asked. Therefore people disregard the advice of their friends, and take to divination: they neglect what is right and wrong, and trust solely to lucky and unlucky portents. They believe heaven and earth really make their wishes known, and that weeds and tortoises truly possess spiritual powers.

        In point of fact, diviners do not communicated with heaven and earth, nor do weeds or tortoises have spiritual powers. That they have, and that heaven and earth are being interrogated, is an idea of common scribblers. How can we prove that?

        Tse Lu asked Confucius, "A pig's shoulder and a sheep's leg can serve as omens, and from creepers, rushes, straws, and duckweed we can foreknow destiny. What need is there then for milfoil and tortoises?"

        "That is not correct," said Confucius, "for their names are essential. The milfoil's name means old, and the tortoise's, aged. In order to elucidate doubtful things, one must ask the old and the aged." According to this reply, milfoil is not spiritual, and the tortoise is not divine. From the fact that importance is attached to their names, it does not follow that they really possess such qualities. Since they do not possess those qualities, we know that they are not gifted with supernatural powers, and, as they do not possess these, it is plain that heaven and earth cannot be asked through their medium. . .

        We are living between Heaven and Earth, as lice do on the human body. If those lice, desirous of learning man's opinion, were emitting sounds near his ear, he would not hear them. Why? Because there is such an enormous difference of size, that their utterances would remain inaudible. Now, let us suppose that a pigmy like a man puts questions to Heaven and Earth, which are so immense; how could they understand his words, and how become acquainted with his wishes? . . .

        When King Wu of Chou destroyed Chou, the interpreters put a bad construction upon the omens, and spoke of a great calamity. T'ai Kung flung the stalks away, and trampled upon the tortoise saying, "How can dried bones and dead herbs know fate?"

Dreams

22     When people are sick, they often see their deceased ancestors arriving and standing by their side. Again, are we to suppose that these deceased ancestors show themselves for the purpose of asking for food? But what we see in our dreams is always interpreted as having some other meaning, and is not real anyhow. How can we prove that? When in a dream we have perceived a living man, this man, seen in our dream, does not meet us on the following day. . .

23     Viscount Chien of Chao [516-457 BCE] was sick, and for five days did not know anybody . . .When two days and a half had elapsed, Viscount Chien became conscious again, and said to his high officers, "I have been with God, and was very happy. With the spirits I roamed about heaven, and enjoyed the highest bliss. The music and the dances there were different from the music of the three dynasties, and the sound went to heart. There was a brown bear preparing to seize me. God bade me shoot it; I hit the animal, and it died. Then a spotted bear attacked me; I hit it also, and it died. God was very much pleased, and presented me with two caskets of the same contents. I then beheld a boy by God's side. God entrusted to me a Ti dog and said, "When your son has grown up, give it to him." . . .

        How do we know that God, whom Chien Tse saw was not a real God? We know it from the interpretation of dreams. . . When an official dreams of a prince, this prince does not appear at all, nor does he give presents to the official. Therefore the interpretation of dreams teaches us that God who gave Chien Tse two caskets and a Ti dog, was not the Supreme Ruler. Since it was not the ruler of heaven, the heaven over which Chien Tse roamed with the other ghosts, as he says, was not heaven. . .

        Shu Sun Mu Tse of Lu dreamed that heaven fell down upon him. If this had really been the case, heaven would have dropped upon the earth, and approaching the earth, it would not have reached Shu Sun Mu Tse owing to the resistance offered by towers and terraces. Had it reached him, then towers and terraces ought to have been demolished first. Towers and terraces were not demolished, therefore heaven did not descend upon the earth. Since it did not descend upon the earth, it could not reach him, and, since it did not reach him, that which fell down upon him was not heaven, but an effigy of heaven. As the heaven which fell down upon Shu SunMu Tse in his dream was not the real heaven, so the heaven through which Chien Tse had been roving was not heaven.

24     Some one might object that we also have direct dreams. In these we dream of so-and-so, and on the next day see him; or we dream of a particular personage, and on the following day see him. I admit that we can have direct dreams; but these direct dreams are semblances, and only these semblances are direct, which will become evident from the following fact. Having a direct dream, we dream of somebody, or of a particular personage, and on the following day see Mr. Somebody, or the personage in question. That is direct. But, when we question that somebody or that personage, they will reply that they have not appeared to us in our dreams. Since they know they did not appear, the persons we saw in our dreams were merely their likenesses. Since Mr. Somebody and the said personages were likenesses, we know that God, as perceived by Chien Tse, was solely his representation of God.

On Not Flying to Heaven

25     The books of the literary intelligentsia relate that the Prince of Huai-nan in studying Taoism assembled all the Taoists of the empire, and humbled the grandeur of a princedom before these expositors of Taoist lore. Consequently, Taoist scholars flocked to Huai-nan and vied with each other in exhibiting strange tricks and all kinds of magic. Then the prince attained to Tao and rose to heaven with his whole household. His domestic animals also became genii. His dogs barked up in the sky, and the cocks crowed in the clouds. That means that there was such an abundance of the drug of immortality, that even dogs and cocks could eat it and follow the prince to heaven. All who have a fad for Taoism and would learn the art of immortality believe in this story, but it is not true.

        Man is a creature. Though his rank may high, even princely or royal, his nature cannot be different from that of other creatures. There is no creature but dies. How could man become an immortal? Birds having feathers and plumes can fly, but they cannot rise to Heaven. How could man without feathers and plumes be able to fly and rise? Were he feathered and winged, he would only be equal to birds, but he is not; how then should he ascend to heaven?

        Creatures capable of flying and rising, are provided with feathers and wings, others fast at running, have hoofs and strong feet. Swift runners cannot fly, and flyers not run. Their bodies are differently organized according to the nature they are endowed with. Now man is a swift runner by nature, therefore he does not grow feathers or plumes. From the time he is full-grown up till his old age he never gets them by any miracle. If amongst the believers in Taoism and the students of the art of immortality some became feathered and winged, then we might see them might eventually fly and rise up.

Desire And The Long Life

26    There is a belief that by the doctrine of Lao Tsu one can transcend into another existence. Through quietism and absence of desire one nourishes the vital force, and cherishes the spirit. The length of life is based on the animal spirits. As long as they are unimpaired, life goes on, and there is no death. Lao Tsu acted upon this principle. Having done so for over a hundred years, he is said to have passed into another existence, and became a true Taoist sage.

    Who can be more quiet and have less desires than birds and animals? But birds and animals likewise age and die. However, we will not speak of birds and animals, the passions of which are similar to the human. But what are the passions of plants and shrubs, that cause them to die in the autumn after being born in spring? They are dispassionate, yet their lives do not extend further than one year. Men are full of passions and desires, yet they can become a hundred years old. Thus the dispassionate die prematurely, and the passionate live long. Hence Lao Tsu's theory to prolong life and enter a new existence by means of quietism and absence of desires is wrong.

A Word on Dragons

27    Tung Chung Shu explained the rain-sacrifice of the Ch'un-ch'iu and set up a clay dragon to attract rain, his idea being that clouds and dragons affect each other. The I ching says that the clouds follow the dragon, and wind, the tiger. With a view to this sympathetic action, he put up the clay dragon. . . The Duke of She in Ch'u was very partial to dragons. On his walls, panels, plates, and dishes he had them painted. If these semblances must be looked upon like genuine ones, then there must have been a continual rainfall in the State of the Duke of She.

Source

Adapted from Lung-Heng, Part I, Philosophical Essays of Wang Ch置ng, translated by Alfred Forke, Luzac, London, 1907.