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.