Discriminating between Li and Xing

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.9, 2018


Discriminating between Li and Xing



Zhang Jiang


In ancient China, li (, principle) and xing(, nature) were determinate monosyllables that were used independently. Semantically and in the written system, the two words—the signifier and the signified—differ greatly from the compound lixing (理性, reason or rationality), which represents an overall idea. The Chinese li is the li of practical reason, the intuitive expression of practical wisdom; Western reason, on the other hand, is the li of theoretical reason, the logical representation of theoretical wisdom. The Chinese concept of xing makes a sharp distinction between human nature and animality; it embraces li and de (,virtue), and, more importantly, it includes ethical and value meanings that highlight mankind’s conscious pursuit of morality. In ancient China, xing would have been the xing of ethics. Differentiating between ancient China’s li and xing and between the li in ancient China and reason in modern times offers a new line of approach for the construction of hermeneutical theory and systems. If one gives due weight to the original meaning of the eastern li or principle, then interpretation will arise from xing and proceed in the light of li, thus highlighting the original xing; and if one gives due weight to the original meaning of the western li or reason, interpretations will start from li and grow into analysis, thus demonstrating a climate of synthesis. In drawing on, complementing and blending into one another, the eastern wisdom of practice and western theoretical reason bring together the values and meanings of interpretation as they approach the knowledge of truth in the unending river of reflection. Basing oneself on ancient Chinese culture and philosophical tradition and drawing on western philosophy and its rational methods provides an important foundation for the basic rules of contemporary hermeneutics.