2017-11-03 publish
   Many contemporary thinkers both within China and without have tried to study the “distinctness” of Chinese tradition from the West. The effort dates back at least as far as Marcel Granet’sLa pensee chinoise(1934), and has continued more recently by Claude Levi-Strauss, Nathan Silvin, Agnus C. Graham and David Hall/Roger Ames. In the immense literature of their work, the terminology they have employed to characterize the strands of Chinese philosophy are many, for instance, “yin-yangcosmology,” “theYi jingway of thinking,” “bianzheng siwei(dialectical thinking),” and “correlative thinking,” etc.

Hall and Ames have explored the modality of correlative thinking of the Chinese tradition with profoundity. As they clarify it, this strand of correlative thinking is as follows:

…to explain an item or event is, first, to place it within a scheme organized in terms of analogical relations among the items selected for the scheme, and then to reflect, and act in terms of, the suggestiveness of these relations.


   I found that the meaning may best be expressed in the two Chinese characters:tongandbian,which can be seen as a style of thought perhaps first formulated in theYi jing. It has since been carried on and developed through history; it has not only been heavily stamped on the development of classical Chinese culture, but persisted as a powerful trend of thought in contemporary China.

In the classicShuo wenlexicon, the explanations of the charactertongare given as events and analogical relations with other characters. For example, it may mean to clear away, to open up, to go through [a path] without any obstruction, as well as road by which one may reach nine places. Bianis also explained as events and has a number of analogical relations with other characters. These include a pictographic character of a home-guarding lizard meaning to trade or exchange, or “to avoid by retreating,” as well as the meanings of “difficult,” “hurry and quick,” “to teach from above and to learn from below,” “one making his steps,” and “correct something over done.”

   The kind of analogical relations and events oftongandbianconstitute a necessary condition oftongandbianfor what they mean, and so do they to those characters they have the analogical relations with.

   As we mentioned in the prologue, an obvious functional analog of the meaning oftong bian is found in the event of a door:

A door shut may be called [an analogy to]kun, and the opening of the door, toqian. The opening succeeding the shutting may be comprehended as [an event] ofbian(change); the passing from one of these states to the other endlessly may be calledtong.


   In the passage, bothbianandtonghave analogical relations with two events: a door’s opening and shutting; and both refer to the process ofbecomingfrom opening to shutting, orvice versa. Whilebiansuggestsbecomingin light of difference,tongexpresses the kind ofbecomingin light of continuity—a “becoming” from one event to another. This suggests that there be a continuity inbecoming, or if there were not a continuity between one and the other, there would not be abecoming; and, in turn, if one does not vary from the other, then there can not be thisbecoming.

   Many notable Chinese thinkers findbianandtongin all relationships amongwanwu(ten thousand things) under the sky; which can be seen as something discovered in the objective material world if in a Western sense. Moreover,bian-tongis also seen reversed, i.e.,tong-bian, which means “knowingbian.”Heretonghas changed from the meaning “the opening succeeding the shutting” and “the passing from one of these states to the other endlessly” to “comprehending changes and doing in accordingly changing manners” and “what to carry out and what to operate with.” This is to indicate,bian-tongextends its analogical relations intotong-bian;tong-bianis to comprehendbian-tong, to comprehend us as a continuity and to follow [get through] it tobianandtong, or, to put it briefly, to think and do correlatively as the world does. The analogical relations oftong-bianandbian-tongmay well suggest a correlative pattern of subjectivity and objectivity, instead of a dichotomy.

   It is crucial to note whattongbian looks for is continuity through change.Tongbian, or continuity through change, emphasizes that it is between the door’s opening and being shut, or between a correlated pairing, that continuity through change takes place. Perhaps we can presume that the thought oftongbianoriginated in theYijing contains three related key ideas: continuity, change, and polarity; if expressed in one phrase, thentongbianis “continuity through change between any correlative pairing”. Here, continuity itself always entails move, change, processes, and events; change is an embodiment of interaction in correlative polarity; and, in turn, interaction itself is an embodiment of correlativity and continuity. This is howtong-bian, or continuity through change establishes itself as a distinct style of thought in Chinese tradition.

   TheYijing was an ancient Chinese classic that has a history of at least two thousand years. MostYijingstudents in China agree that it is a composite work. Fu Xi is thought to be the first sage who invented the eight groups of three strokes known as trigrams, and then on the basis of the Eight Trigrams, developed the sixty-four original combinations of strokes, called Hexagrams. The later sages, King Wen, the founder of Zhou Dynasty, and the Duke of Zhou, one by one, added explanations to the Hexagrams, which were known asgua ci(Old Text) andyao ci(Later Text). Later on, further explanations were attached and known as treatises, namlytuan zhuan(Treatise on Line Caption),xiang zhuan(Treatise on Symbolism),wen yan(Supplementary Text to Old and Later Texts),xi ci(Great Appendix),xu gua(Orderly Sequence of the Hexagrams),shuogua(Treatise on Trigrams Remarks), andza gua(Treatise on the Hexagrams). These treatises were also calledshi yi (the Ten Wings) in the Han Dynasty, although no one knows exactly who had writtent these treatises. Almost over a thousand years of debates and scholars still cannot agree on who was/were the author(s).

Since the original text ofYijingwas so symbolic yet aesthetic, and its meaning so obscure yet profound, that the thinkers who had tried to understand it were countless and that their interpretive literature voluminous and diverse. For instance, whereas the Confucian school of the Han Dynasty emphasized the significance ofxiang (image, model) andshu(numbers), the Confucians of the Song Dynasty dedicated themselves particularly to an exposition of the thought ofyi (“appropriateness, meaning”) andli(“coherence,” or “pattern”). As the interests of different schools varied, no unanimous conclusion could be drawn about what theYijingwas supposed to tell.

   Since modern time, scholars have tried to inaugurate the studies of theYijingfrom even more varied perspectives. Historians have expected to discover new traces of prehistoric China; natural scientists have made an effort to bring to light the mysteries of the cosmos through the images ofyi; moreover, poets have identified “gua,yao, andci” as specific styles of ancient folk songs. Although the studies of theYijinghave been diversely oriented, most students have reached a consensus that theYijingprovides a primordial strand of philosophy for most of the schools of thought in the Chinese tradition. I selected theXicisection of the ancient document especially becausetong-bianas a strand of thought was formulated here and has extended to shape the philosophical milieu of Confucianism, Daoism, and even Buddhism in China.Tongbianhas been sedimented into the Chinese high culture, as well as diffused into folk culture.

   Perhapshuxi may make a plausible Chinese translation of the English word “correlativity,” which immediately brings you an image of two things being tied into each other. The image can be an analogical way of suggestingtongandbian; andhuxi can be seen in the analogy of the two things, each of which “tongs" -- constitutes a continuity with -- the other. Andhuxiis always seen entailed in a change from one thing into the other, orvice versa.

   How do thingstongto, or constitute a continuity with each other? In what ways are they tied to each other? Are they entirely bound together, or are respectively tied to the ends of a rope? How long is this rope, or how far are they from each other? Are they tied to each other very closely or very loosely? These questions are all a matter ofbian, an analogical reference to differences, for it can be understood as a continuity in terms of differences, abecomingfrom one to the other, orvice versa. Change entailshuxi, or correlativity; changes are possible because ofhuxi, a correlativity, or because oftong, or because that two things constitute a continuity with each other. 

   In addition,tongmay be of any type ofhuxi, and any type of change;tongalways means a continuity that is only made possible throughbian, or change.Tongis not a static continuity; the strand of thought does not entail a metaphysics of static continuity.Tongalways suggests a change in a particular thing in its correlations with the other things. We can draw seven statements that are pertinent to the strand oftongbianphilosophy we identify with theYijing.

Statement I: A World of Correlations

   From the event of a door’s opening succeeding its being shut, we learn that the constant passage from one of these states to the other meanstong. Then, the first statement that we may draw from the style oftong-bianphilosophy of theYijingis: Everything constitutes a continuity to everything else. The world as this strand of thought conceives is one oftong, of continuity, or of correlations. TheYijingstates, “The sages having the means to survey all things that move under the sky observed them meeting to become continuous with each other.” It also states,tong-bian, or continuity through change, which we find in the event of a door, can also be found in the succession of the four seasons. Continuity through change also fits in with the sky and earth, the ten thousand things, the male and female, husband and wife, fathers and sons, ruler and minister, the high and the low, the ritual and the appropriate, and so son. TheYijing says:

   There were the sky and earth. Then afterwards there were myriads of things. From a myriad of things afterwards were male and female. From male and female afterwards were husband and wife. From husband and wife afterwards were father and son. From father and son afterwards were ruler and minister. From ruler and minister afterwards were high and low. From high and low afterwards were the arrangements of ritual actions and appropriety.


   We should be aware that the world seen here in the strand oftong-bianphilosophy should not be mistaken as one of a single order, of causality, or of the “A decides b,” or “If..., then ...” formula. As Ames contends, there is no “Being” behind the myriad beings (wanwuorwanyou), no One behind the many. This is not a Judeo-Christian universe in which all phenomena are identical in the sense that they are dependent upon and explicable by reference to a transcendent, creator Deity. This world oftongandbiandoes not have boundaries but a continuity throughsheng(to grow into or from):You(something) grows fromwu(nothing); one grows into two; two grows into three; three grows into ten thousand things.

Statement II: Any Type

   The second statement concerns what types of correlation, or in which ways the myriad things are correlated with each other. They can be any way. By “any way,” first it means that correlations of things may be in any magnitude, either loose or tight. Second, “any way” means any category in which things correlate with each other, that is, correlations that might be either internal or external, and can be multi-level, multi-dimensional, multi-fold, or in a word, of multi-categories. Throughout theYijingtext, types of correlations, or “tong,” are many and diverse. For example, we can say

that the door’s opening and shutting is a type of correlation as succession and alteration;

that “in theyangtrigrams there are more of theyinlines, andvice versa” is a correlation of being in each other;

that “mountain and lake have a free flow ofqiinto each other” is a correlation of continuity;

that “reaching the extreme becomes a continuity [of a beginning]” is a correlation of ending and beginning;

that “spirituality is unconditioned by place, [the sage’s dealing with things] is in a changing way that is not restricted to any formality” is a correlation rejecting any boundary;

that “all [the processes taking place] under the sky would eventually return to the same destination, though by different paths ” is a correlation between differences;

that “hard and pliant push themselves each into the place of the other ” is a correlation of interaction;

that “water and fire contribute together to the one thing (or event) ” is a correlation of complementation;

that “thunder and wind press on with each other ” is another example of a correlation of complementation;

that “sky and heaven intermingle with each other” is a correlation of intermingling;

that “male and female mix seminal essence” is a correlation of intercourse;

that “hard and pliant exchange their places” is a correlation of exchange;

that “the cold season goes and the warm one comes; the warm season goes and the cold one comes; it is by the mutual succession of the cold and warm seasons that the year is completed” is a correlation of coming and going, of taking the place of each other, and of succession.


   Of the above-mentioned types of correlations, the one of being in each other as betweenyinandyangmay be seen as a tight correlation. And the one of making a continuity of each other withqias between mountain and lake might be seen as very loose. There are so many polarities and each one of them has a different category of correlation. Indeed, thetong-bianphilosophy views each polarity as a category of correlation, which makes two events each of which requires the other as a condition for being what it is; any two elements, or aspects, of polarity are a correlative pattern and symmetrically related, each requiring the other for adequate articulation. (We will return to polarities in Statement V.)

In a conclusion, correlations can be of any type, can be loose or tight, and can be multi-level, multi-dimensional, multi-fold, and of multi-category. This is in fact a world in which, as Hall and Ames contend, there is no element or aspect that in the strictest sense transcends the rest; every element is related to one another, and all elements are correlative.

Statement III: Humanity as Continuity

The third statement is that the human being constitutes continuity withtiananddiin a world of correlations. It invokes the first statement that a continuity through change fits in with the sky and earth, ten thousand things, male and female, husband and wife, father and son, ruler and minister, and so on. Since there is not an aspect that in the strictest sense transcends the rest all elements are correlative, including the human being.

The crucial point here is the idea of humanity as continuous with the world. We often perceive that there is a material world in contradiction to human subjectivity. In theYijing, however, knowing and doing, exploring and comprehending, and other such activities of human subjectivity have the same reference totongandbian(continuity through change), and are believed to be continuous in a world of correlations. In other words, what happens intianxia(under the sky) is what happens in human thought.

Humanity as a continuity is “tong tian xiaor a thorough comprehension of everything between the sky and earth.” “In all the operations forming itself,” “theYihas no thought and no action, and is still and without movement; but when acted on, it penetrates forthwith to the roots of the ten thousand things under the sky.” Here, “tong tian xia” means penetrating forthwith to the roots of the ten thousand things under the sky; then, theYijingtext goes on,

The (operations forming the)Yi are the way by which the sages come to the most profound view and investigate exhaustively the minutest springs of things. Only with the most profound view can the sages come to a thorough comprehension of the tendencies of events all under the sky.


   Hence,tong is a thorough comprehension; “tong tian xia,” a thorough comprehension of the tendencies of the events all under the sky. 

   What does it mean by “a thorough comprehension”? The text explains in such words: “to scrutinize the ways of continuity of all movements and changes under the sky,” “to obtain a thorough comprehension ofbian,” and“toobtain a thorough comprehension of the mysterious.”

   From the passage that “ the sages survey all movements under the sky, and scrutinized the ways in which they meet and are continuous with one another,” we learn that “guan qi hui tong” means “ to scrutinize the ways of a continuity through all the movements and changes all under the sky. In addition, to scrutinize a continuity also means, in fact, attaining a thorough comprehension ofbian, or sayguan bian(scrutinize the changes), ortong qi bianas in “to scrutinize the changes ofyin andyang,” and in “After Shen Nong dies, Huang Di, Yao, and Shun succeeded him one by one. They had a thorough comprehension of the changes of things, and made the people not feel wearied [by constantly sifting through the old to bring forth the new].”

   As for a thorough comprehension that means “tong shen ming zhi de” or to attain a thorough comprehension of the mysterious, it is important to explain the Chinese charactershen,which used to be translated into “God.” It is a descriptive term suggesting what it would be like when the human being acquires continuity on his part withtiananddi. That is to say, when human being attain a thorough comprehension of change, he is in access toshen, for “changing” always presents itself as something spirit-like or mysterious and frequently takes unpredictable and unfathomable turns which defy human comprehension, making “change” an enduring issue for inquiry. As theYijingstates, “ Those who have obtained a comprehension of the way of change [and used it in guiding people’s practices] would obtain a comprehension of how ‘mysterious undertakings’ operate.” In this respect, a good example is Bao Xi:

Anciently, when Bao Xi had come to the rule of all under the sky, looking up, he scrutinized the movements and changes in the sky, and looking down, he surveyed the ways that continue on earth. He also scrutinized the colorful feathers of birds and fur patterns of beasts, and the crops that were appreciative to the conditions of the soil. In an appreciation of a continuity as close as with his own body, and as far as with everything out there, he started inventing his eight triagrams. He thus obtained a thorough comprehension of the mysterious.


   However, as a view oftong-bianphilosophy, a continuity of the human withtiananddidoes not just suggest obtaining a thorough comprehension of change and the mysterious. Humanity needs not onlytong-bian, but alsobian-tong. This is because “Transformation and shaping is what we call change; carrying this out and operating with it is what we callgetting though(continuity).” To put it succinctly, comprehending changes is only in half way of our endeavors; it is also necessary to do things accordingly to effect changes. To comprehend changes really means to also do things and effect changes. As we see it now, thebian-tongin the physical world is continuous with thebian-tongof human subjectivity.Bian-tong,orchanges with a continuity, changes as time changes and conditions vary. Therefore, to do things through changes based on thorough comprehension, is the way to achieve the greatest success.

   In such an understanding of the kind oftong-bian, and a continuity of the “universe”, we see no separation of the human being from nature, and no contradiction between human subjectivity and the physical world. Also, knowing and doing are continuous with each other. What happens intianxiais what happens in human thought and undertakings. As for what would be as humanity makes itself continuous withtiananddi, theYijingexplains that continuity really means: how humanity comprehends and does is simply howtiananddichange; there is no conflict between them. Human plans are never made away from a continuity of the changingtiananddi, and never go wrong. By an ever-varying adaptation humanity achieves successes in his undertakings without any loss; the way in which they comprehend continuity between day and night enables them to penetrate all knowledge. Therefore, spirit-likely, human beings are not conditioned by any boundary; their undertakings in an ever-varying manner are not restricted by any formality. Here, we have come to another important point of the strand oftong-bianphilosophy, that is, the spiritual and the intelligent reside in humanity, which we will discuss in the following section.

Statement IV:ShenDepends on Humanity

   The fourth statement is a fundamental claim thatshen is not a god, and thatitdepends on humanity. We need to first track down whatshenmeant in ancient times in China. According to theShuo wen, a book about the origin of Chinese characters that was compiled by Xu Shen in AD 100,shenwas composed ofshi, to show, andshen, to stretch or continue. An analogy is associated withshi, which is that figures (images) hang down from the sky (chui xiang), from which good and bad fortunes are seen, and thus communicates them to humanity. In addition, the event associated withshen or spirituality is explained as “Mysteriously the sky communicates and stretches to lead to the growth of ten thousand things.”

   From these, we can draw the conclusion thatshen(spirituality), as associated the meaning of “stretching out” and “to tell or to communicate,” implies a continuity. Two other associated characters arezhiandmi. According to the same lexicon, the sky communicating and stretching to lead to the growth of the ten thousand things is calledshen, andthe earthcommunicating and stretching out to a vast expanse to raise ten thousand things is calledzhi. Mimeansshen, too, to tell and to stretch out, except for the sense of “secret or hidden.” Now we discover whatshenwas an ancient expression suggesting a kind of continuity between the sky, the earth, and humanity.

   The Yi jinghasa number of analogical explanations forshen. One is: “As for ‘shen’, it means that something goes so mysteriously and wonderfully all through the ten thousand things and by this means it speaks. ”. The second is, “That the change which takes place betweenyinandyangis unfathomable and calledshen.” And the third,

The opening succeeding the shutting [of a door] may be comprehended as [an event] ofbian; the passing from one of these states to the other endlessly may be calledtong. What is seen to be appearing, we may calledxiang(image or figure); for what is physically seen, we may call it a definite thing; what is employed in making things, we may callfa(shaping). What is used for going out or entering, the ordinary people all use it [but without a true comprehension of it]; therefore, they callshen.”


   With these analogous associations,shencan be understood as the mysterious, the unfathomable, and the incomprehensible, or something that is too intriguing and wonderful for words or explanation. Hence,shenmay be seen as a mysterious continuity through changes and between differences, which is described as “a continuity without boundaries)” in the text, and often defies human comprehension;shenis message-conveying through doing, or stretching, rather than words.

   We have so far come to a noteworthy point, that is, for the kindof tong-bian in theYijing,shenis not God, but rather, depends on humanity. So called “shen,” it is only spoken of to those who could not comprehend a continuity through changes or between differences all around the world and would interpret them as relations totian anddi through “God” or religious belief. Whether something isshenor not may entirely depend upon how much humanity develops his intelligence. As theYi jingstates, “the spiritual and the intelligent are stored with humanity.” Some may be spirit-like, capable of teaching in order to make the people learn [the inscrutable], and adapt themselves to it. We can grasp the intangible continuity [of things] and thereby have ourselves enter the spirit-like state of comprehension. When we reach that state, thoroughly comprehending what is presumablyshen, or the mysterious, as well as teach people to learn and do the same in their undertakings, we may be said to have attained fullness of achievement.

Statement V:Bianas Continuity

   As the fifth statement is thatbianis also seen as continuity. It is continuity that endures from one time to another, from one place to another, from something to something else, from one way to another and so on. A change denotes a correlation in motion, and, as continuity, makes it possible that there is a process, from one process to another, and that there is an event, from one event to another. Continuity always presents itself in change, in motion, and in movement, and makes correlation possible.

   As we discussedbianpreviously, bothtongandbianrefer to the process ofbecomingfrom one event to another.Tongindicatesbecomingin the light of continuity, or there is continuity inbecoming. If there were not continuity between one event and another,becomingwould be impossible.

   Biansignifiesbecomingin the light of continuity between differences and varieties; that there is abecomingfrom one event to another is because one varies from the other; abecomingcould have never occurred if there were not differences.   

As in the constant processes of a door’s opening and shutting,tongor “getting through” is possible because ofbian, because abecomingoccurs from opening to shutting, and because opening and shutting are different. And yet, when a series of changes has run all its course, one more [series of ] changes ensues; as long as there is a change, it means that there is getting through, a continuity; and “getting through” is to be enduring.

As change could be of any kind, the particularly crucial are correlation and “sheng.” According toShuo wen,shengis associated with “jin”; “like grass, a tree grows from earth.” The idea ofshengpossesses a positive attitude toward life and is central to the Chinese. Thetian-di-ren(the sky, earth and humanity) world view, a view of continuity running through nature and humanity, presents the “world” as a dynamic process of life’s production and reproduction, which theYijingstates asyi, the primary source of changes, is ceaselessly creative creativity. As the sky and the earth intermingle with each other and generate the ten thousand things, these things thus obtain their abundant varieties; as male and female intercommunicate their seminal essence, the ten thousand things are thus born and grow. Therefore, the great attributes of the sky and earth are called “sheng,” giving and maintaining life.

Deeply involved in the understanding of change is the word “yi.” Pictographically, it is associated with either a lizard watching the house, or the sun and the moon, i.e. which together make up the symbol ofyin-yang. Literally speaking, however,yialludes to several operations, such as trading, withdrawing, simple and easy, and forgetting and neglecting. As Pan Liwen explains theYijingtext,yimay mean change, “not change,” simplicity, and exchange. For change, it means changes and transformations of the ten thousand things. For “not change,” the changes and transformations of the ten thousand things have axu, or a continuity. And for simplicity, the processes are covered from beginning, through the middle phase, to the end.

   From one more perspective,Yisuggestsbianandtong, which emphasizes the process ofbecoming, the characteristic of succession, one after the other (or another), one changing into the other, one exchanging with the other, one taking place of the other, and so on.Yiis spoken of as two events having continuity, or correlation -- for example, a door’s opening and shutting, birth and rebirth, -- indicating polarities of complementary oppositions. TheYijingstates, events such as a tree growing from the earth (or production and reproduction) is what is calledyi.It is polarities such asqianandkun, oryinandyangalternating one after the other, changing into each other, exchanging with each other, and taking the place of one after the other, that are calledyi.Qianandkunhave their own positions while the eventsof yi, that is, the alternation and succession of one after the other, changing into each other, exchanging with each other, taking the place of the other, etc., continue all the time. The sky and earth have their positions while the events of one changing into the other, or one exchanging with the other go on between them. If there were not the polarities likeqianandkun, oryinandyang, then the event ofyicould not occur; and in turn, if there were not the event ofyi, thenqianandkunwound down and cease. It is theyievents that occasion the primal beginning, giving rise totiananddi, bringing about the four seasons. Theyievents are in accord with the sky and earth and manifest the patterns, ordao(way), in both of them.

   If understood from the perspective ofyievents, then what theyidoes is to open up knowledge of a great variety of things in the world and assists in accomplishing the undertakings of humanity, sinceyiembraces thedaos (ways) of all things under the sky. This and nothing more is whatyidoes, and human beings can find the continuity in all under the sky by attaining a thorough comprehension ofyi. Theyiway displays the past, and enables us to discriminate the issues that will arise in the future; it manifests what is minute, and brings to light what is obscure. With it, one can open up and distinguish things in accordance with their names, all of one’s comments being correct and his explanations being decisive. Thus everything can be done properly. In addition, theyiway of thinking is regarded as simple and easy because theyiway of change is one of ease and simplicity. With the attainment of such ease and freedom from laborious effort, one achieves a mastery of all under the sky.

   In summary, it is the constant way ofyievents--the process of alternation and succession, one changing into the other, one exchanging with the other, one taking the place of the other--that entailsbian(changing). And since things are changing, it entailstong, a getting through and continuity, where “getting through” is to be enduring. Yiimplies process of change as continuity of the complementary relationship of polarities.

Statement VI: Polarities of Complementary Opposition

   The sixth statement is a nucleus oftong-bianbecause explanations of social, political, and cosmological processes in China have always been grounded in conceptual polarities and in terms of the interaction of complementary contrasts. However, as Hall and Ames contend, the Chinese conceptual polarities are not “dualistic principles of light and dark, male and female, action and passivity, where light and dark exclude each other, logically entail each other, and in their complementarity constitute a totality.” The polarities in the sense oftongbianalways involves a continuity or correlation, for instance,qian is abecoming-kun,kunis abecoming-qian; and likewise, withyinandyang,gang(the firm) androu (the soft), and so on. Moreover, in the Chinese tradition, these polarities are always found invariably site-specific, applicable to specific situations, enabling us to make specific distinctions.

   Thinking in terms of continuity or correlation, between two basic elements, or contrasting concepts likeyinandyang, means to emphasize the relationship of two events each of which requires the other as a necessary condition for being what it is. “The distinguishing feature of polarity is that each pole can only be explained by reference to the other,” Hall and Ames say, “ ‘Left’ requires ‘right,’ ‘up’ requires ‘down,’ and ‘self’ requires ‘other’.” Or, as Feng Youlan says, “they contradict each other but could not be without each other.” Not only in complementarity but also in contradictarity, they constitute a continuity with each other.

The polarities (or pairing, paired), ordui ou wu, that are found in theYijing, are pervasive and cover all parts of speech. For example, they are nouns:yin/yang, roots/twigs, sun/moon, odd/even, ruler/people,qian/kun, exemplary person/small person, sky/earth, male/female, winter/summer, father/mother, day/night, and water/fire; adjectives: big/small, leading/following, firm/soft, near/far, low/high, superior/inferior, in motion/still, auspicious/dangerous, respective/humble, good/evil, safe/dangerous, chaotic/in order), live/dead, and difficult/easy; and verbs: close/open,  go/come, or past/future, advance/back up, live/die, beginning/ending, follow/go against, rule/store,coil up/straighten, and loss/benefit.

The correlative parings echo an understanding of the world in the sense oftong-bianphilosophy, which requires that everything be seen as having two aspects, oryi wu liang ti, and that one thing must always stand in a contradictory relation to another. The polarities are described differently from time to time as two sides, two factors, two basic elements, two basic attributes, two poles, or contrastive images. They can be of any category, for example, in terms of action, modality, manners, quality, position, value and so on, so as they constitute a pairing, entailing interaction of complementary opposition.

It is in terms of complementary and contradictory interactions or in these correlative pairs that some of the ancient Chinese thinkers began to understand the nature of change. This is not the one world, or “this Kosmos,” or “this uni-verse” in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, which is bounded, self-contained, and self-sufficient, limited, and static, and whose natural state of reality as stasis makes a Prime Mover a logical necessity. Instead of being moved by any transcendental Being, the Chinese world isziran orself-so-being,andziwei self-so-goingorself-so-doing. The moving forces, or changes, come from the interactions of the complementary and contradictory polarities, from the ten thousand things themselves all under the sky rather than from an external mover. TheYijingmentiones, the interactions, complementary and contradictory, arexiang tui(mutually pushing),xiang yi(mutually substituting),xiang mo(mutually touching),xiang dang(adding to each other),xiang gan(mutually influence),xiang bo(to press on with each other),za ju(toappear mixed in each one else),he de (to entail each other with their own characteristic),tong qi(to have a free flow ofqiinto each other),yin wen(to intermingle),xiang dai(to contribute together to the one thing), so on and so forth; for instances:

“Gangandroupush themselves each into the place of the other, and hence produce changes and transformations.”

“...Thus water and fire contribute together to the same thing (or event); thunder and wind do not act contrary to each other; mountains and collections of water interchange their influences. It is in this way that they are able to change and transformation, and to give accomplishment to all things.”

“The sun goes away and the moon comes; the moon goes away and sun comes;

-- the sun and moon thus mutually push each other away and their shining is the result. Winter goes away and summer comes; summer goes away and winter comes;

-- it is by this mutual succession of winter and summer that the year is completed. That which goes becomes less and less, and that which comes becomes more and more; -- it is by their influence upon on each other of contraction and expansion that the varieties of advantages [of different conditions] are produced.”

“It is in the intermingling with each other of the sky and the earth that the ten thousand things are thus generated and obtain their abundant varieties...”


   Therefore, correlative pairing has been a fundamental principle of explanation in the initial formulation and evolution of a strand of classical cosmology. It explains the dynamic cycles and processes of existence which has no relevance to God. The correlation of “time” and “being” differentiates it from the transcendental metaphysic cosmology of the classical West. Its understanding oftianxiaprovides a kind of macro-perspective rather than a pee-hole view.Tianxia is constantly creating itself, just as things are constantly coming from themselves;nothing(wu) is the source ofsomething(you), and there is always the possibility for something to become nothing; something and nothing generate each other without beginning and ending; each moment is both an ending and beginning. There is no dualism, no creation myth involved in thetong-bianphilosophy. Apart from the way of change being expressed in the interaction of complementary opposition between paired elements, nothing stands immutable and eternal to guarantee a lineal cause/effect order intianxia. As for what moves the ten thousand things, the authors ofYijingnarrate,

The ten thousand things are made to issue forth inzhen.” “For putting all things in motion there is nothing more intense than thunder; for scattering them there is nothing more effective than wind; for drying them up (making them restless and uneasy) there is nothing more perching than fire; for giving them pleasure and satisfaction there is nothing more than a lake or marsh; for moistening them there is nothing more enriching than water; and for bringing them to an end and making them begin again there is nothing more fully adapted thangen.


   A momentous characteristic of change is, according totong-bian, the reversion of one element to the other as the process approaches an extreme, orwu ji bi fan in Chinese. In theYijing, it is calledfu, which means thatqianis no longer abecoming-kunbut has entered the phase thatkunisbecoming-qian; or thatyin-becoming-yangentered the phase ofyang-becoming-yin. Things cannot decline forever; when decadence approaches an extreme, reintegration commences. Therefore,bo, decay, is followed byfu, returning. Things cannot maintain forever in a state of repression, and hencegen, stopping, is followed byjian, advancing.Things cannot remain forever in a state of difficulty, and henceqian, difficulty, is followed byjie, relaxation and ease. For many ancient Chinese thinkers,

Things cannot have free course (ortong) forever;

Things cannot forever be shut up;

Things cannot forever be in a state of extraordinary (progress);

Things cannot long abide in the same place;

Things cannot be forever withdrawing;

Things cannot remain forever in the state of vigor;

A state of saparateness cannot continue forever.


   What is change? Change spatially is continuity across varieties and differences, and, taken as a whole, is a temporal continuity in an advancing spiral; complementarity and contradiction are two phases of this advancing spiral. This is because change is seen not from the ontological view, which gives formal privilege to the formal aspect of phenomena and separates time and space, but rather in light of the ceaseless transformation of things, in which “things” are rather seen as “events.” And, since the temporal aspect is never abstract, fictive, or replicated, a seemingly “cyclical” process fromyintoyangandyangtoyinagain rather indicates an advancing spiral. 

It is this way of correlative paring and the conceptual interaction of complementary contrasts that has become a defining feature of the form oftong-bianphilosophy. The feature is salient and prevalent; it is not restricted to particular philosophical discourses but pervades the thinking and living of philosophers as well as ordinary persons in their every day lives. It is an implication of a strong style of thought that to explain social, political, and “cosmological” processes in terms of conceptual polarities and interaction of complementary opposition is to focus on continuity between the two elements of a polarity. That which is seen in the Western tradition loose and separated, many thinkers in China see as a correlation. With thetong-bianphilosophy, it is often that to talk about one factor or one aspect of a polarity means talking about the other. Thinking about change always correlate two poles, and particular attention is often paid to continuity between two seemingly loose and separate poles. A celebrated dictum often consciously involves symmetrical polar concepts, with an emphasis of their correlativity, or analogical comparisons. For example, “the superior must have the inferior as root; the high must have the low as base,” “It is on disaster that good fortune perches; It is beneath good fortune that disaster crouches,” etc. Chinese thinkers comprehend things (or events) through things (events), one through the other, through the continuity between the two polar elements that are implicated in them.

Statement VII:Dao, Way of Continuity through Change

The seventh statement may be thought of as a conclusion of the six earlier statements, since the correlativetong-bianphilosophy can also be called the philosophy ofdao.Dao, which is the most enigmatic expression, may be understood hereas tong bian zhi dao, or way of continuity through change.

First and foremost,daois, as it is spoken of in theYijing, and then in later philosophical literature, a way of expression in which the intricate and volatile correlations of the ten thousand things under the sky are generalized. Everything constitutes a continuity of every other thing.Daois the way in which these correlations amongwanwu(the ten thousand things) are effected, from the loosest to the tightest.Daoare also ways in which the sky, and the earth and humanity correlate with each other, and the way through which humanity may develop his intelligence to obtain a thorough comprehension of the mysterious and wonderfuldaoin which the ten thousand things change constantly. Hence,daohas as much to do with the subjects of knowing and their quality of understanding as it does with the object of knowledge. Ordinary people can employdaothough it is enigmatic and beyond any physical form; and they often call itshen(spirit-like). Thejunzi(exemplary persons) may take up projects and accomplish them wonderfully and spiritually if they followdao; and humanity thus makes himself a continuity of the sky and earth.

Dao isbian hua zhi dao(the Way of Change). TheYijingtells us that to knowdaois to know the way in which things change, and to know whatshenis.Daois an expression of opulent philosophical implications, and it is in fact fully addressed in the one sentence, that is, ayinand ayangare what is calleddao. It denotes thatdaois the constant way ofyievents, the way in which one alternates after the other, one changes into the other, one exchanges with the other, one takes the place of the other, which ensuesbian,changing orbecomingand transformation.Daorefers to all processes of change as continuity of complementary relationships between polarities.

Sometimes some Chinese thinkers claim thatDaonever changes. Dong Zhongshu of the Han Dynasty contends: “Tian never changes,Daonever changes.” This cannot be understood that there is only OneDao, theDaonever changes, and the universe follows the same One Way. Here “never changes” indicates thatdaoalways refers to continuity; it is in the sense that there is nothing under the sky that does not find itself gotten through (or make a continuity) with anything else and in a particular way. Change always follows the way of polarity asyin-yang, or the way of the two basic elements of a correlative pairing. “Bu bian” or “never changes” indeed denotes that continuity never breaks up, suspends, or comes to an end. As Lao zi stated in theDaode jing, “Soundless, formless, it (dao) stands solitary and does not reform; it revolves without pause. This can be considered the pregnant mother of all under the sky.”

Likewise, as stated inYi shu,“Withoutyin andyang, there would be nodao, that’s whyyinandyangconstitutedao.” So called never changes, it truly suggests that all changes can be explained in terms of conceptual polarities such asyinandyang,wuandyou, and so on.Daois constantly a way of interaction of complementary opposition between the two basic elements, or contrastive concepts, in a correlative pairing.

On the other hand, however,daonever stops changing, and is always different from time to time and from place to place. It is in the sense that thedaos of the ten thousand particular things - or events- are all different and varying, all entailing the processes of change. “As fordao, it is marked by frequent changing,” states theYijing, “It changes and moves without a rest; it is flowing through the six spaces, rising and falling, ever inconstant. The strong and the weak -- oryinandyang-- are mutually changing so that an invariable and compendious rule cannot be derived from them. Only change presides.” Hence, continuity makesdaoone; difference makesdaomyriad. There is not onlyOne Dao, orThe Dao; there are ten thousand particulardaos.Tian(the sky),di(the earth),ren(humanity),junzi(exemplary person),xiao ren(small person), and husband and wife, all have their particulardaos. As Hall and Ames explain,dao(or such polarities asyin-yang) is “no more than a convenient way of organizing ‘thises’ and ‘thats’.” And,

All aspects of this order --yinandyang, time and space, heaven and earth -- must be historicized as a contingent vocabulary for the world order as we know it. These categories cannot stand as universal principles, as necessarya prioriconditions that give us a single-ordered world.


   It is important to note here that the emphasis of the correlativetong-bianphilosophy lies with particular difference rather than sameness or strict identity. Things are not supposed to be the same because they possess identical essences but are perceived to have analogous resemblance. Any particular situation, or phenomenon, as understood in such elements asyinandyangof a correlative paring, involves in fact a contextualization—an unraveling of the relationships and conditions of the phenomenon’s context. The categories adapted in describing the phenomenon are seen as correlative and crossing the borders of time, space, and matter. It is through the categories that are correlative and do not have boundaries thatDaotongs (goes everywhere without obstruction). This is the way Wang Bi says, “Dao, as the name ofwu, can get through no where but everywhere, and constitutes a source of nothing but everything.”

Daoistong. What we can also find evidence in support of our understanding ofdaoas continuity through change are the analogous associations of the word found in the ancient dictionaryShuo wen. Whiletongis “getting through [a path] without obstruction,”daois referred to as a “path to get through.” Thus, we can say thatdaodenotestong(getting through without obstruction) or continuity between each other of the myriad of things. Ordaocan be said to be the path of continuity -- the way in which one thing constitutes a continuum with another. We may also entifydaohere aswhat, andtongashow. In addition,daois also explained as “ada,” an event of getting through [a path] without obstruction, that is, it can be bothwhatandhow. If generalized,Daois bothwhatandhowof continuity through change (tong-bian).

As thus established in theYijing,tong-bianis a strand of thought about correlation. Any item or event is explained through a contextualization defined by the analogical relations that obtain among the concerned items. It involves a reflection and engagement in terms of unraveling of these relations.

The world so defined is one of correlations, or one of continuity through change. The types of correlations are multifarious, multi-level, multi-dimensional, multi-fold, and multi-category. There is continuity through change whereupon the sky, earth, ten thousand things, male and female, husband and wife, father and son, ruler and minister, and so on, correlate with each other; humanity thus makes himself continuous with nature through correlations, as well as through a thorough comprehension of nature.

In thetong-biandiscourse,shenis not God, but rather a spirituality that counts on the human being; whether something becomesshenrelies entirely on how much humanity develops his intelligence. The spiritual and the intellectual are stored with him. The strand of thought recognizes change itself as an embodiment of correlation in motion, or continuity between differences and varieties. It is the constant way of alternating one with another, changing into each other, exchanging with each other, displacing each other, and so on, that ensues occurrence of change, whereshendescribes the efficacy of these interactions of complementary opposition.

The nucleus, or the most salient feature, of the style oftong-bianphilosophy is that it is not God but the complementary and contradictory interactions of the two basic elements of correlative pairings likeyin-yangthat constitute the forces and produce change. In this distinctly Chinese style of thought, particular attention is always paid to the correlation between two presumably loose and separateduans (poles); there often involves symmetrical polar concepts and an emphasis on their correlativity and analogical associations.Daois bothwhatandhowof continuity through change (tongbian).

Perhaps thetongbianthought of the Chinese tradition can be considered an alternative to causal thinking. What placestongbianin a distinct direction is the absence of constructions of the standard model of causality that might be predicted as ontological background on the following philosophical principles. As Chung Ying Cheng states,

1) Principle of discreteness: Substances are discrete entities. 2) Principles of externality: Laws of causation are laws externally governing things. One would say that things conform to laws or are determined by laws. Laws are not exactly what things are. 3) Principle of external source of motion: If the world is not a static one and motions are actual, not merely possible, the laws of causation lead to the positing of an ultimate cause, which has been called by Aristotle the Unmoved Mover. The Unmoved Mover or God is the source that gives initial movements to things. Later Western philosophers have alternatively conceived that God provides continual motion of things. But even without this assumption it seems that the initial motion or energy as imparted by God is sufficient to explain the movement of things according to causal laws.


   As Cheng continues, the model of causality is made possible simply because God has created a world of things governed by laws of causation. God can be made responsible for the creation of such laws. Thus the ultimate explanation of the model, the world, the causal law, and the motion may be traced to God as an infinite existence. The model has developed to involve an ontological of Being and non-being, a teleological order from beginning to end, and dualisms such as a final distinction between nature and human culture, time and space, mind and body, ontology and epistemology, and so on. It also leads to a development of principles of universalist theory and methodology, causal reductionism or simplistic determinism, the kind of abstract speculation, conceptions and categorical distinctions, and efforts to make objective statements about the world.

It does appear that divergent paths were taken with a number of crucial turnings at the origins of Chinese and Western cultures. Perhaps the distinctness oftongbianthought may have manifested two different approaches to a very fundamental question, that is, what is that unfathomably wonderful “thing” that at the very beginning created the ten thousand things and brought them into “ordered” actions. Both approaches involve two practical issues: one is to simply name this untellable “thing” (or being), the other is to try to explain its role or describe what it does. The standard model appeals to God as its name,a priorireason that there is something there. It posits something in the image of man but with unfathomable power and intelligence. Because in contrast with the human being, it has a good mind and a good body, and says good words; and the two images are thus often separated.

 On the other hand, however,tongbianis perhaps more practical since its thinkers do not rack their brains trying to name it, but simply describe it as what it is, that is, “shen” or “dao”. As Lao Zi tells his story,

“There is a thing which is confusingly in shape, born even beforetian,the sky anddi, the earth, Soundless, formless, it stands solitary and does not change; it revolves without pause. This can be considered the pregnant mother of all under the sky. I know not its name, so I style itDao(Way).”


    The thing that Laozi named asDaois not an untellable thing, but the way in which interaction of complementary opposition occurs as what does in the relationship betweenyinandyang, the shady side and the sunny side of a hill. The successive movement ofyinandyangconstitutes what is calledDao(the moving path); and that which is unfathomable in [the movement ofyinandyangis calledshen. “Shenis,” as Guan Zi views, “the capacity of bringing changes.” What is implied here is that there is no one among the ten thousand things that does not possess the two contrastive and complementary elements ofyinandyang. It is precisely from the conceptual polarity, which looks like a simple analogue, that the ancient Chinese thinkers develop the distinctly Chinese philosophy. It is this strand of thought we find to be both powerful and available to Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century. It is this strand of thought that provides as the roots “dialectic” and was developed into a form of Marxist dialectics in China. It is still the same way the alternation between the two basic elements of a correlative pairing that has been held to be an explanation of the moving forces of our world and all its manifestations, whether “cosmological,” (yuzhou) social, or political.

Roger T· Ames (Roger T.Ames)

Roger T. Ames was born in 1947 in Toronto, Canada. As a professor at the University of Hawaii, an advisor to Nishan Shengyuan Academy, Chairman of the World Association of Confucian Culture Studies and Vice Chairman of the International Confucian Association, he is an internationally famous expert in Sinology. He is a leading figure in Chinese & Western philosophy and is famous in China and abroad for his translation of books such as theAnalects of Confucius,Sun Tzu’s Art of War,Huainan Tzu andTao Te Ching He was the Chief Editor toPhilosophy of the Occident and Orientas well as theInternational Chinese Book Reviewand the author ofConfucian Philosophical Thinking,Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture,Anticipating China: Thinking Through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture,the Art of Rulership: A Study into Chinese Political ThoughtandDemocracy if the Dead: Dewey, Confucius and the Hope for Democracy in China. Roger T. Ames once received the guidance of Liu Dianjue and became proficient in classical Chinese, then to one of the most outstanding modern scholars of Classical Studies. In 2013, he was awarded the "Confucius Culture Award" by the 6th World Confucian Congress. Then he won the second "Huilin Prize Award" in 2016.…
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