Wang Chong Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Born into an impoverished noble family, Wang Chong (wahng CHUNG) was temperate and courteous. An outstanding student, he entered the Imperial College in the capital city of Luoyang. He lacked the money to buy books, so he often visited roadside bookstalls, where he would stand and read for long periods. Wang Chong held some petty official posts; however, none lasted long. He returned to his hometown to earn his livelihood by teaching. There, he finished his great philosophical work Lun heng (85 c.e.; On Balance, 1907-1911).

In his writings, Wang Chong demonstrated the monism of qi (air) and refuted philosopher Dong Zhongshu’s theory that human acts cause natural events such as weather conditions. A Confucian, he attacked the contemporary version of Confucianism and rejected sages who claimed to be omniscient. A rationalist, he negated the prevailing beliefs about deities and ghosts using facts, which, along with experimental proof, he insisted must back any theory.


Wang Chong’s philosophy was in opposition to contemporary thought. Unlike his contemporaries, who idealized the past, he held that the present was superior to the past. His philosophy never became extremely popular, although its value was affirmed after the spread of Marxism in China in the twentieth century.

Further Reading:

Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. This book contains a chapter on Wang Chong’s life, together with extensive excerpts of his philosophical writings taken from On Balance.

De Bary, William T., Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson, eds. Sources of Chinese Tradition. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. A brief introduction to Wang Chong’s writings in relation to theories of the structure of the universe.

Fêng, Yu-lan. The Period of Classical Learning. Vol. 2 in A History of Chinese Philosophy, translated by Derk Bodde. 1953. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Interprets Wang Chong’s philosophy.

Fung, Yu-lan. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China: History of Scientific Thought. Vol. 2. 1956. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. The scientific aspect of Wang Chong’s philosophy is discussed.

Wang, Chong. Lun-hêng. 2 vols. Translated by Alfred Forke. 1907-1911. Reprint. New York: Paragon Books, 1962. An excellent, annotated translation of On Balance, the major result of Wang Chong’s philosophy.

Wang Chong Biography

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chinese philosopher{$I[g]China;Wang Chong} During the Eastern Han Dynasty, apocryphal literature became popular, supplementing humanistic and rationalistic Confucianism and supporting the belief in portents and prophecies. Amid this change, Wang Chong was a rationalistic, naturalistic, and materialistic thinker whose philosophy contributed to clearing the atmosphere of superstition and occultism and to enhancing the spirit of skepticism, rationalism, and naturalism, which later bloomed in the form of Neo-Daoism during the Wei-Chin period.

Early Life

Wang Chong (wahng choong) was born in Shangyu, Kuaiji (now Zhejiang Province), China, in 27 c.e.; he lived during the period of transition from orthodox Confucianism to popular Neo-Daoism. During that time, China endured a series of crop failures that resulted in widespread famine and suffered from rebellions arising from the government’s inability to find a solution to its people’s problems. As a result, Confucianism, on whose training advancement in the civil service was based, declined in popularity; the country began to search for another ideology. Without a cohesive philosophy, the Chinese state and society would fragment and crumble.

While the country was going through this upheaval, Wang Chong suffered his own difficulties, having been born into a family whose fortunes were already on the decline. His rebellious grandfather and father had less-than-successful careers in government service. Eventually, both were forced into an erratic lifestyle, moving from one job to the next. To compound matters, Wang Chong was orphaned when he was very young.

Nevertheless, he always expressed an interest in learning. He continued to read, even in the most difficult of circumstances, in the local bookstores, going on to study at the national university in the capital city of Luoyang (Lo-yang). There he met Ban Biao (Pan Piao; 3-54 c.e.), an eminent scholar and the father of the noted historian Ban Gu (Pan Ku; 32-92 c.e.). Much of Wang Chong’s education, however, was informal and irregular. While teaching himself, he did not follow any of the traditional scholastic methods or values. Thus he has been classified as a member of the Miscellaneous school.

Like his grandfather and father before him, Wang Chong worked as a government official, coming into conflict with his superiors as a result of his uncompromising personality. During the course of his career, he held a few minor official positions on the local level, serving without distinction. In 88 c.e. he retired from circuit government, a job he had obtained as a favor from Dong Qin (Tung Ch’in), a provincial official. He returned to his hometown and devoted the remainder of his life to teaching and writing.

Life’s Work

The intellectual situation in Wang Chong’s lifetime was complex. Confucianism was supreme, yet it was being debased into a mysterious and superstitious doctrine. In addition, belief in the unity of humankind and nature was changing: Humankind and nature were seen as mutually influencing each other, and these influences were thought to be exerted through strange phenomena and calamities. Heaven, though not anthropomorphic, was purposeful, asserting its will through prodigies that it used to warn mortals; on a smaller scale, spiritual beings exercised a similar influence.

Wang Chong rejected these beliefs, declaring that Heaven takes no action; that natural events, including prodigies, occur spontaneously; that there is no such thing as teleology; that fortune and misfortune occur by chance; and that people do not become ghosts after death. In addition, he insisted that theories must be tested and supported by concrete evidence. He did not believe that the past is any sure guide with regard to the present, saying that there is no evidence that the past is better than the present, and vice versa. In short, he believed in human logic and nature’s spontaneous manifestation.

Wang Chong also wrote three books: the Jisu jieyi (first century c.e.; ridiculing custom and decorum), in which he discussed the vagaries of politics and power. When he himself was out of power, he wrote the Zhengwu (first century c.e.; political affairs), in which he discusses the defects of the political system, and the Lun heng (85 c.e.; On Balance, 1907-1911), in which he calls for a logic based on tangible evidence and rejects superstition and speculation...

(The entire section is 1851 words.)