An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Gongsun Longzi 公孫龍子

Jul 17, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Gongsun Longzi 公孫龍子 "Master Gongsun Long" is a late Warring-States-period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BC) writing by the "sophist" (mingjia 名家) philosopher Gongsun Long 公孫龍 (325-250). Gongsun Long hailed from the regional state of Zhao 趙 and was a retainer of Lord Pingyuan 平原君 (d. 251 BCE). He was famous for his strength in discourses he conducted with the Confucian master Kong Chuan 孔穿 and the Yin-Yang philosopher Zou Yan 鄒衍 (c. 305-240 BCE). Gongsun Long once traveled to the state of Yan 燕, where he advised King Zhao 燕昭王 (r. 311-279) to abstain from a planned military campaign.

The philosophy of Gongsun Long

The modern philosopher Feng Youlan 馮友蘭 (1895-1990) divided the school of dialecticians or sophists (mingjia) into two groups. Gongsun Long was the main representative of a tradition that Feng Youlan called the "tradition separating [the association of] solid [stone] from that of white [stone]" (li jian-bai pai 離堅白派). Gongsun Long is known for what Western scholars call "sophism", that is, hairsplitting with the help of true, yet abstruse arguments. His two most famous statements are that "a solid white stone are two things" (jian bai shi er 堅白石二), better: "A solid stone and a white stone are two different things."; and "a white horse is not a horse" (bai ma fei ma 白馬非馬, better: "A white horse is something different than a horse."). Gongsun Long's argument for the first statement is that what can be perceived as "white", is a property to be perceived with the eye, while the stone's solidness can only be attested to the stone by touching it. It is thus impossible to say that a stone is solid and white on the base of one single experiment (seeing OR touching). Furthermore, whiteness and solidness are not naturally given to an object but are concepts for themselves that are based on comparison with other objects.

With his second proposition, Gongsun Long tried to demonstrate that there are general concepts, like a horse, and individual characteristics or intensions, like a white horse. The denotation does not mean the same, and the intension of the white horse includes a specification that is not common for all horses. Of course, the individual white horse biologically belongs to the species of horses, but the concept of "horse" (a riding or draught animal belonging to the class of odd-toed ungulates) is something different than the concept of a "white horse" because the latter also includes the specification "white". A summary of this idea is his statement "[things with] two [characteristics can] not have [only] one" (er wu yi 二無一)".

Gongsun Long goes even further and brings forward the propositions "A chick has three legs." (ji san zu 雞三足) and "Cows and sheep have five feet." (niu yang wu zu 牛羊五足), better: "The legs of cows or sheep are five" (namely four physical legs, and the concept of "legs"). He explains this sophistry in the following way: The abstract idea of legs is one, plus two physical legs of the chick, makes three legs.

Textual history of the Gongsun Longzi

Of the original 14 chapters of the Gongsun Longzi, only 6 are extant. The imperial bibliography Jingji zhi 經籍志 in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書 lists the book Shoubailun 守白論 "Preserving the white" among the Daoist writings, but there is no category of "dialecticians" (mingjia) in this bibliography. It can be assumed that the book Shoubailun is identical with the Gongsun Longzi. Song-period 宋 (960-1279) bibliographies say the book had a length of 6 chapters, but the bibliography in the official dynastic history Jiutangshu 舊唐書 speaks of 3 juan of length.

Song-period scholars thus doubted that the book was compiled during the Warring States period and called it a forgery from the Jin period 晉 (265-420). This idea was resumed during the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) by Yao Jiheng 姚際恒 (1647-1715) in his book Gujin weishu kao 古今偽書考. Other scholars like Gu Shi 顧實 (1878-1956), Liu Rulin 劉汝霖 and Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892-1978) did not go so far and found out that part of the book was original, and some parts later additions. The first of the six surviving chapters (Jifu 跡府 "Storehouse of remnants") might have been compiled by disciples of Gongsun Long. It is a general overview of Gongsun's most important theories and includes the above-mentioned discussion with Kong Chuan. Wang Wan 王琯 and Luan Diaofu 欒調甫 (1889-1972) assumed that the transmitted text was without a doubt compiled by Gongsun Long himself.

Philosophical statements of the book

Of all chapters, the Baimalun 白馬論 "Discussion about the white horse" and Jianbailun 堅白論 "Discussion about solid and white" are the most famous. Gongsun Long's main idea is that there was a permanent contradiction between what we mentally perceive as a conception of something that is substantially subjective and has eventually nothing to do with a concrete object referred to. Misconceptions and misunderstandings are therefore naturally occurring. Interpretations we customarily make in our daily life are nothing else than conventions and can thus easily be deconstructed. Gongsun Long and his "school" are therefore called the "school of names or designations" (mingjia), in the West often called the "sophists" or, better, "dialecticians".

The relation between the "subjective" concept and designation of objects and their concrete and "objective" reality is disputed in the chapter Zhiwulun 指物論 "Concepts and objects". The chapter Tongbianlun 通變論 discusses the change of things and the consequent alternation of the relationship between concrete objects and their names, as later discussed in the chapter Mingshilun 名實論 "Discussion of designations and realities". The five chapters of the Gongsun Longzi thus constitute a coherent philosophical system and can be viewed as authentic. The idea that name (ming 名) and reality (shi 實) are differing is also a core concept of Confucianism, which therefore suggested a "correction of the names" (zhengming 正名). The Gongsun Longzi does not extend his theories to the field of politics, but he also stresses that "this" and "that" (bi ci 彼此) have to be discerned clearly. Things that do not exist on earth (no shi) cannot be approached linguistically (no ming). The theories of Gongsun Long contributed to a deeper study of the self-understanding of the man and his environment, as well as to the development of the field of logic in ancient Chinese philosophy.

Editions and commentaries

The oldest prints of the Gongsun longzi are Xie Xishen's 謝希深 (994-1039) commentary from the Song period, Master Zhang's 張氏 print from 1625 made in the Hengqiu Studio 橫秋閣 for the series Xian-Qin wuzi 先秦五子, a facsimile of a manuscript from 1765 reproduced in the Siku quanshu 四庫全書, as well as an edition by Yan Kejun 嚴可均 (1762—1843). In 1937, the Shangshu Yinshuguan Press 商務印書館 published the Gongsun Longzi jishi 公孫龍子集釋 with a commentary by Chen Zhu 陳柱 (1890—1944); in 1947, Zhang Huaimin 張懷民 published the Gongsun Longzi jieshi 公孫龍子解釋 via the Zhonghua Guoxuehui 中華國學會, and in 1974 Pang Pu 龐樸 (1928-2015) published a commented translation into modern Chinese in the Shanghai Renmin Press 上海人民出版社, the Gongsun Longzi yizhu 公孫龍子譯注.

The Tang-period 唐 (618-907) commentaries by Jia Dayin 賈大隱 and Chen Sigu 陳嗣古 are lost. The oldest surviving commentary was written by the Song-period scholar Xie Xishen (Gongsun Longzi zhu 公孫龍子注), others were contributed by the Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) scholars Fu Shan 傳山 (Gongsun Longzhi zhu) and Yang Shen 楊慎 (1488-1559), and the Qing-period scholars Xing Congyi 辛從益 (1760-1828, Gongsun Longzhi zhu), Chen Li 陳澧 (1810-1882, Gongsun Longzi zhu), Sun Yirang 孫詒讓 (1848-1908, Gongsun Longzi zhayi 公孫龍子札迻), Yu Yue 俞樾 (1821-1907, Du Gongsun Longzi 讀公孫龍子), as well as the modern authors Wang Guan (Gongsun Longzi xuanjie 公孫龍子懸解), Chen Zhu (Gongsun Longzi jijie 公孫龍子集解), Tan Jiefu 譚戒甫 (1887-1974, Gongsun Longzi xingming fawei 公孫龍子形名發微), Pang Pu (Gongsun longzi yanjiu 公孫龍子研究), Qu Zhiqing 屈志清 (Gongsun Longzi xinzhu 公孫龍子新注), Wang Qixiang 王啓湘 (Gongsun Longzi jiaoquan 公孫龍子校詮), Jin Shoukun 金受申 (1906-1968, Gongsun longzi shi 公孫龍子釋) and Hu Quyuan 胡曲園 (1905-1993) with Chen Jinkun 陳進坤 (Gongsun Longzi lunshu 公孫龍子論疏).

The Gongsun Longzi is to be found in the series Ershijia zishu 二十家子書, Zihui 子匯, Mohai jinhu 墨海金壺, Sibu beiyao 四部備要, Xianqin wuzi shu 先秦五子書, Ershierzi quanshu 二十二子全書 and Siku quanshu 四庫全書.

Table 1. Chapter titles of the Gongsun Longzi 公孫龍子
跡府 Jifu The storehouse of remnants
白馬論 Baimalun The white horse
指物論 Zhiwulun Concepts and objects
通變論 Tongbianlun Universalities and changes
堅白論 Jianbailun Solid and white
名實論 Mingshilun Designations and reality
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