The Senses and Cognition in the History of Early Chinese Thought

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.3, 2016


The Senses and Cognition in the History of Early Chinese Thought



Gong Huanan


In the history of Chinese thought, the cognitive tradition of communicating with the inner and the outer world through the ears and mouth took shape under the Shang and Zhou dynasties. In the pre-Qin period, the ear and eye were prominent, with the eye being the focus, but in the contention between ear and eye it was the ear that ultimately came out ahead. During the Qin and the Han, in the contention between ear and tongue, it was the tongue that ultimately won out. From the harmony of ear and mouth to the contention of ear and eye, the dominance of the ear could be said to have been handed down in a continuous line of transmission from ancient Shang and Zhou tradition. The tongue’s dominance in the Qin and Han contention of ear and tongue was in fact also like this; after the Shang and the Zhou, the mouth’s withdrawal, followed by its reappearance with the tongue, with ear and tongue taking turns to have the upper hand, showed conscious progress in cognitive thought. Eventually, eye and ear in the contention of the senses were respectively suppressed or absorbed by the sense of taste. This meant that Chinese cognitive thought was growing further and further away from its tendency to emphasize the primacy of the senses of sight and hearing towards the primacy of the sense of taste. The primacy of taste also determined the taste-led cultural direction of the Dao and other central concepts. Thus was formed the distinctively Chinese world of thought about the sense of taste.