Gongsun Long

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2172

Article abstract: Gongsun Long left the largest corpus of the Chinese School of Names. He produced paradoxical conclusions that followed from the examination of references of words.

Early Life

In traditional Chinese sources, Gongsun Long’s date of birth is given as 380 b.c.e., but subsequent scholarship indicates he was probably born about sixty years later. Gongsun Long was a native of the state of Chao (now Shanxi). He was an entertainer at the court of the Lord of Bin Yuan and amused and confounded his audience with logical paradoxes and arguments rather than with magic tricks or physical dexterity.

Legend has it that Gongsun Long produced his most notable work, “The White Horse Dialogue,” to convince a customs official that he should not be prevented from transporting his horse across the border. The dialogue is a record of a conversation that Gongsun Long had with Gong Zhuan. Several anecdotes are preserved about debates between the two concerning various outlandish or paradoxical claims. This suggests that Gongsun Long was less serious in intent than some other members of the School of Names (a group of Chinese sophists), including Hui Shi, who may have been producing paradoxes in the service of a metaphysics of the unity of all things in one entity and a morality of concern for everyone. Ironically, Hui Shi’s more serious work survives only in fragments, while Gongsun Long’s essays are preserved in extensive form. Hui Shi’s paradoxes, some of which resemble the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea’s paradoxes, have been given a geographical and political interpretation. In contrast, Gongsun Long’s paradoxes have no relevance whatsoever to political, moral, or practical issues and therefore are unusual in Chinese philosophy. This lack of practical political relevance led Gongsun Long’s work to be ignored during most of Chinese history, although interest in the School of Names revived during later periods.

Life’s Work

The original version of Gongsun Longzi, written in the early third century b.c.e., had fourteen chapters. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the extant version contained only six chapters, five consisting of essays and one of biographical material. The essays, attributed to Gongsun Long, are “The White Horse Dialogue,” “Pointings and Things,” “The Hard and the White,” “Understanding Change,” and “On Names and Actuality.”

One Western commentator likened the views in “The Hard and the White” to those of the German idealists of the nineteenth century in that the essay discusses the conditioning of the senses by the mind. Part of the argument involves the fact that “white” is recognized by sight and “hard” is recognized by touch, but sight cannot determine hard and touch cannot determine white. Furthermore, the mind must process and combine the sensations to form whole objects. Some Western scholars have suggested that “The Hard and the White” is a later forgery because it involves the Buddhist theory of knowledge that developed in China centuries after Gongsun Long’s life. However, many Chinese scholars consider the treatise authentic. The early Chinese philosopher Mencius refers to this idea in passing, so essays on the subject are assumed to have existed during this time. If the essay on hard and white dates from this early period, it would be the first mention of the theory of knowledge in Chinese philosophy. However, if the essay dates from six centuries later, when the Buddhist theory of knowledge was well known in China, then it is of much less significance.

“Pointings and Things” develops puzzles of reference. Gongsun Long states that one cannot point to a pointing, nor can one point to the universe as a whole. Similarly, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his “Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung” (1921; best known by the bilingual German and English edition title of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922, 1961), posited that one cannot see one’s own eye and that the world as a limited whole is the “mystical” and is beyond the sort of reference that can pick out facts. The Chinese philosopher’s idea also resembles German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s notion that the universe as a whole and the knowing subject are not objects in the way that bounded, delimited things are. Gongsun Long’s essay also implicitly distinguishes reference to an object from reference to a referring expression or meaning. To attempt to refer to the whole universe would also refer to the referring expression or pointing itself. However, if the referring expression or pointing must be separate from the object, then this is impossible.

The paradox that opens “Understanding Change” appears to depend on the Chinese way of writing the number two with two parallel horizontal strokes. It can be claimed that the stroke on the bottom is not two and the stroke on the top is not two, yet together they are two. This passage is generally agreed to be an authentic piece of the sophistry or argumentation prevalent during the Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.), although the rest of the chapter is most likely a later forgery based on misunderstood borrowings from Mohist logic developed by followers of the fifth century b.c.e. philosopher Mozi.

“The White Horse Dialogue” is the most famous, puzzling, and controversial of Gongsun Long’s essays. His claim that a white horse is not a horse puzzled many in his own day. Zhuangzi, in the Zhuangzi (c. 300 b.c.e., The Divine Classic of Nan-hua, 1881; also known as The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 1968; commonly known as Zhuangzi, 1991), refers to this argument and suggests Gongsun Long ought to have pointed to a nonhorse rather than a horse to make his point. Fung Yu-lan, the greatest Chinese historian of philosophy, claimed that Gongsun Long had discovered the theory of forms (as Plato had in ancient Greece). What he meant is that Gongsun Long had conceived of the existence of qualities (such as whiteness) that existed independently and separately from individual white objects. “The White Horse Dialogue” shows that the quality of “horseness” is not the same as a particular horse. “The Hard and the White” shows the separateness of the forms from the qualities of “hard” and “white,” even though form and quality may be unified in particular objects such as stones. Some experts believe that Gongsun Long was showing the paradoxicality or undesirability of such forms separate from particular objects, but this seems doubtful, given that no one else in Chinese philosophy held such a doctrine, and therefore, there was no need to refute the position.

During the late twentieth century, classical Chinese scholar Chad Hansen developed a radically new interpretation of Gongsun Long’s essay. Hansen suggested that classical Chinese nouns were mass nouns. (Mass nouns, less common in English than countable nouns, are nouns that cannot be counted or quantified without using a measure—for example, a cup of coffee, a bucket of water, a bushel of sand.) Because classical Chinese nouns do not take definite and indefinite articles (“the” and “a” in English) and do not distinguish between singular and plural (“man” in Chinese can mean either one man or all of humanity), Hansen said they functioned as mass nouns. He stated that the appropriate theory of objects in a mass-noun language is the relation not between an individual and a quality or a class (which motivates Plato’s forms and other abstract notions in Western philosophy) but between a part and the whole that contains it. He argues that “whiteness” is part of a white horse but not of a nonwhite horse, and “horseness,” or horse-shape (as distinct from color, weight, or other qualities), is part of a white horse. Therefore, the dialogue can be interpreted as playing on the ambiguity between “horse” as the entire animal with all its qualities and “horse” as horse-shape. Gongsun Long shifts between these two meanings of “horse.”

Christoph Harbsmeier, a leading late twentieth century Western expert on classical Chinese, criticized Hansen’s claims. He noted that investigations into classical Chinese grammar in the 1970’s found distinctions between mass and count nouns, which would seem to negate Hansen’s theory. He also objected to what he saw as mereology, a formal apparatus invented by Polish logicians to deal with part-whole relations. However, other scholars have pointed out that the details of this apparatus need not have been known to the ancient Chinese any more than were the details of their formal grammar. This apparatus is merely a modern technical formalization of the notions of part and whole. Harbsmeier believes that “The White Horse Dialogue” is not as coherent as logically sophisticated twentieth century commentators attempt to make it. In the wake of Harbsmeier’s comments, scholar A. C. Graham, originally an ardent supporter of Hansen’s theories, tempered his enthusiasm somewhat but still thought that it was useful to think of the ancient Chinese as treating the world as a continuous whole that can be broken into parts for various purposes rather than as something that is built up out of substances and atoms.


The six-chapter version of Gongsun Long’s work existed at least as early as 672 C.E. and possibly during the Sui Dynasty (581-618). At least some, if not all of the essays contained in that version, date back to the early fourth century b.c.e. Graham has argued that “Names and Actualities,” “The Hard and the White,” and the possibly spurious later part of “Understanding Change” contain passages borrowed from the Mohist logicians that were largely misunderstood by the compilers and forgers and combined with much-later Buddhist epistemology. The work of the School of Names died out with the rise of the Chinese empire in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 b.c.e.). The school’s work was thought to be a useless pastime not helpful in political rule.

Once Buddhism became widespread in China, there was some revival of interest in philosophy, and the Buddhists introduced logical doctrines. Interest in the logicians or sophists developed again during the Six Dynasties (220-589) period, perhaps sparked by the “neo-Daoist” interest in clever conversation and in the dark and mysterious. Daoist commentaries were written on Gongsun Long, and the best old edition of the work is the one found in the Daoist canon. Interest declined again when the influence of Buddhism and Daoism was displaced by that of neo-Confucianism. However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the introduction of Western science and logical formalization in China sparked new study of Gongsun Long. The 1975 Hansen thesis concerning mass terms spawned discussion concerning the linguistic basis of the work of Gongsun Long among analytical philosophers studying Chinese thought.

Additional Reading

Allinson, Robert E., ed. Understanding the Chinese Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Contains an article by Christoph Harbsmeier, a leading grammarian of classical Chinese, that criticizes Hansen’s mass nouns hypothesis.

Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. This comprehensive anthology, with bibliography and glossary, contains a translation of part of Gongsun Longzi. Although Chan regards the logicians as having had no influence on Chinese thought, the selections are useful.

Fung Yu-Lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Translated by Dirk Bodde. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952-1953. Perhaps the most authoritative survey of the complete history of Chinese philosophy. The discussion of Gongsun Long treats him as having discovered the Platonic world of forms.

Fung Yu-Lan. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Translated by Dirk Bodde. New York: Macmillan, 1948. A brief but good introduction to Chinese philosophy.

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Dao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989. This is a thorough introduction to ancient Chinese philosophy that makes comparisons to traditional and twentieth century Western philosophy, both analytical and deconstructionist. Graham explains the white horse dialogue using a dialogue concerning a sword and blade and gives considerably qualified defense of the mass noun idea.

Graham, A. C. Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. Contains three studies on the white horse dialogue, including a textual study on the dating and composition. An earlier study interprets the white horse discourse in terms of class and number, and a later study treats it in terms of part and whole. Graham is considered the one of the best translators of Chinese in the second half of the twentieth century.

Hansen, Chad. A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. This is a comprehensive history of ancient Chinese philosophy, with Daoist sympathies to counter the Confucian accounts of Wing-tsit Chan and other Chinese scholars. It contains a revised version of the mass noun interpretation of Gongsun Long.

Hansen, Chad. Language and Logic in Ancient China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. The original version of the author’s mass noun hypothesis.

Harbsmeier, Christoph. Language and Logic. Vol. 7, part 1 of Science and Civilization in China, edited by Joseph Needham. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. In the concluding volume of this monumental study of China, Harbsmeier presents a survey of Chinese grammar and gives his interpretation of Gongsun Long.

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