> topics > History

Studying the concepts of ‘life’ through lens of history

By Zhang Weimin | 2016-05-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Meaning of life

Cartoon by Gou Ben; Poem by Long Yuan


Clothing, food, housing and entertainment
In pursuit of these things, life is spent.
Since humans got involved,
The concept of “life” has evolved.
From individual to groups;
From elite to grassroots.
Growing wealth brings greater pleasure,
But intellectual life is the greatest treasure.


The concept of shenghuo, meaning “life,” has played an increasingly important role in Chinese thought since the start of the 21st century. The concept must be defined in the Chinese context for its meaning to be understood, particularly from the perspective of the evolution of thought. To fully comprehend what shenghuo means, one must compare it to other concepts, such as existence, utilitarianism, quality of life and shengsheng, meaning “generation-regeneration.”


Existence, living
The word shenghuo is made up of two characters—sheng, or “existence,” and huo, meaning “living”— implying that existence forms the basis, while living is the center. However, the emphasis on the aspect of living lowers the status of shenghuo, which has been devalued for a long time because living is only a lower form of existence.


It seems that the word shenghuo can never be recognized except by erasing some elements of living, like daily norms, vulgar desires and sensible emotions. If not, life could devolve into an unforgivable original sin that is incapable of appealing to refined taste or becoming a respectable metaphysical approach.

In this way, this Chinese word has inseparable relationship with existence. To some extent, the word shenghuo originates from the meaning of existence. The emphasis on existence is a legacy of primitive people, who were astonished by the birth and growth of all things on earth, so existence represented the most profound experience and demonstrated eternal values.

At that time, primitive people’s natural property was distinct and they were not able to understand and control their own short-term process of living. They emphasized existence while ignoring or despising the process of living. However, as social productivity rises, the values of living and life come into shape and become increasingly important.

The invention of the word is epoch-making, and it extends people’s attention beyond self-existence, showing a rising consciousness of living and life. In terms of word components, “living” not only vividly expresses the intrinsic quality of “existence,” but also gives “existence” more room to grow, enriches its content and imbues it with profound meaning. “Living” measures “existence” of life in units of both time and quality, thus providing life with more forms of existence.

This kind of living philosophy may be considered the earliest philosophy about shenghuo in China. In this word, the aspect of sheng does not simply refer to birth or existence. It semantically indicates living in most contexts, which overlaps with the meaning of life.

In the modern Chinese cultural context, the concept of shenghuo addresses norms, emotions and desires by drawing upon the long-standing worship of living. In addition, the concept also has idealization, superiority and orientation, thus absorbing more positive, profound and balanced nourishment from ancient Chinese philosophy.

The essence of living philosophy in ancient China is not at odds with today’s concept of life. In fact, living is the origin of life. According to Chinese thought, it is not practical to compare the transcendent notion of existence to real and all-inclusive daily life. Unlike in the Western countries, China has no concept of a life or existence beyond reality. The concept of existence can be used to interpret living and further constitutes life, and this has not been changed in modern Chinese.


Though sheng is an inclusive word with profound and harmonious connotations, it has further evolved into shengsheng, implying a continuum of generation-regeneration, to fit in the classic Chinese cultural context and ideology. This is a remaining doubt for us to explore.

The tautology of shengsheng philosophy constitutes traditional Chinese metaphysics in which elite culture holds a prominent position. In this interpretation, the concept of life is invisible because it is not included in the abstract word shengsheng due to the superior perspective of the elite. This explains why the word shenghuo was greatly suppressed in ancient times. However, we can tell from the tautology that sheng may only indicate birth and growth, or in a broader sense, it can refer to living and life. Shengsheng emphasizes living, which means survival and life after sheng, as well as the existence of everything on earth, thus implying a form of life vibrancy.

In this way, we can also understand shenghuo by analyzing shengsheng, but the expressiveness of the elite has pros and cons. And under real circumstances, we do believe the concept of shenghuo has existed as silently as daily life.

The elite suppress the concept of life by constraining it within articles of everyday use and the sphere of biology. Then shengsheng rises and forms a more enriched philosophy than sheng. If sheng is abreacted from living, shengsheng is extended from sheng, making the simplicity of sheng a common thing for numerous living beings. The ideology of shengsheng places greater emphasis on sheng, and it leads to suppressing and abstraction of living in a more grand and damaging way.

In ancient China, shengsheng philosophy constituted a form of metaphysics with sublimation. It developed into a universal theory as shengsheng became sheng, aiming to cover, interpret and surpass life rather than understand the world and reality on the basis of life.

But this kind of surreal philosophy is different from the Western dichotomy as it is based upon instinctive concrete existence only with some degree of abstraction and sublimation. Sheng cannot be separated from standard of living, survival and life, so it has never been isolated from real life in its diligent pursuit of becoming metaphysics. For all literati in history who believed in shengsheng philosophy, all issues boiled down to matters of  life.

At the end, it is predictable that the inclusive and grand word shengsheng is applicable to real life of numerous living creatures. The state of “numerous” is an outlined description of common life, demonstrating a transition from ancient ideology to stable language expression.


Everyday use
In ancient China, people refused to or did not know how to use the concept of life. In other words they managed to avoid the word. But shengsheng philosophy invented an unrefined concept riyong, meaning “everyday use,” to fill the vacancy in discourse.


The interesting thing is that it is everyday use rather than life that matches with shengsheng, revealing the mystery of traditional Chinese surreal philosophy. In fact, the concept of riyong is similar to that of “daily life” in the Western philosophy of the 20th century. Chinese philosophers invented the concept and put it in the discourse system of shengsheng philosophy as early as 2,000 years ago.

Starting from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), in order to adapt to the overwhelming life stream, people adopted the concept of riyong to indicate the meaning of life.

As a distinctive theoretical concept, everyday use is a relatively mature pattern that can be considered the earliest theory on daily life. First, riyong matches shengsheng philosophy and represents the aspects of survival. As a classical discourse of daily life, riyong is an indispensible concept. Also, it is supervised by moral principles, so it can be developed through striving efforts for virtue. In addition, as a substantial and physiological need sustaining people’s livelihood and survival, it is the foundation of life, major moral principle as well as facts of the world.

In general, from the Song Dynasty to the later 700 and 800 years, the classical Chinese life with it distinct characteristics,became mature and dominant by surpassing sheng and shengsheng. Coincidentally discourse became more diverse and complicated as people adopted various expressions , including sheng, shengsheng, everyday use or life.

Ancient Chinese philosophy is premised on sheng and shengsheng philosophy , whose foundation is everyday life and thus constitutes an existing discourse. In other words, sheng or shengsheng, everyday use or daily life compose today’s overall discourse of “life” and the ancient semantic framework of “life” used by both the elite and ordinary people as well as individuals and groups.


Zhang Weimin is from the Jilin Provincial Writers Association.