Book review of ZHANG, Zailin (2008) “Traditional Chinese Philosophy as the Philosophy of the Body” | Robin R. Wang | 2009

In this review of a philosophical work written in Chinese, a comparison is made between Chinese philosophy centering on the body, in comparison to Western philosopy centered on the mind. (I found a reference to this book, tracing back from Keekok Lee (2017) Chapter 9, footnote 8.

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The first part consists of four chapters, which illustrate how body plays a crucial role in four areas: cosmology, ethics, religion/spirituality, and history of Chinese philosophy. This part establishes two important claims:

  • (1) Chinese philosophy is a philosophy of body; and
  • (2) this philosophy of body reveals a pattern that provides a center for the basic structure of Chinese philosophy: body–gender–family/kinship.

This pattern is different from the more common pattern seen in Western philosophy: consciousness–concepts–universe. [p. 113, editorial paragraphing added]


Diving into this multi-layered book, one may find at least three important and valuable philosophical themes:

  • (1) Why is Chinese philosophy a philosophy of body? What is the textual and conceptual evidence for this claim?
  • (2) What are the characteristics of this body philosophy?
  • And (3) how does this understanding offer a space for the study of Chinese philosophy? [pp. 113-114, editorial paragraphing added]

First, Chinese philosophy is a philosophy of body. The author discusses three ways to support this statement. (1) Dao exists in body. This statement is selected from WANG Fuzhi and refers to the claim that Dao is manifested in one’s own body. Body is not simply physical flesh or a pure object of science. Body is a unity between subject and object, thinking and action, and oneself and the world. [….]

Body obviously falls into a gender field: the body is seen as either male or female. This necessity of gender naturally leads to a living force and generative process through intercourse. This interaction creates gan 感 (response, resonance). More importantly this gan will inevitably bring out qing 情 (feeling, emotion). Qing is the root of all Chinese literature. The focus on body also raises the vital issue of shi 時 (time, season, opportunity). Contrary to a thin notion of time, shi in Chinese philosophy contains five properties (16–19): shi is a presence; shi is a position; shi is a rhythm; shi is a synchronicity; shi is unity of subject and object.

(2) Ethical rules are derived from body. Body as the root of Chinese philosophy exhibits two features. One is that body is a starting point and a blueprint for cosmology. The other is that all ethical principles can be deduced from the body. Body is the manifestation and vessel of social and ethical rituals. Many ethical terms and views are embedded in the body. [….]

The ethical body starts in taking good care of the physical body. Respecting body also communicates the significance of bodily rituals. Bodily gestures, shapes, and forms are all indications of one’s ethical training. Ethical language is also a bodily language: how one moves the body, such as lifting the arms, taking steps, and even facial expressions all contain profound ethical meanings and must be cultivated. If body itself is action then action has to be trained according to rituals. There is a logical necessity that body and bodily movement is a sign of moral cultivation. Ritual without body is impossible. [p. 114]

(3) Transcendence, chaoyue 超越, is manifested in body. There is nothing which is independent, beyond, or outside the body. This provides a clue in grasping the meaning of shen (body) in Chinese as having the same sound as shen 神 (divine, spirit). [….]

Chinese spirituality promotes respect for body, yet at the same time it is all about becoming a sage.

To sum up, these three themes encapsulate the body in Chinese philosophy, in contrast to traditional Western philosophy, which takes consciousness as the basis.

  • First, Chinese philosophy, unlike western philosophy, which employs abstract conceptual notions to understand the world, uses the body as a starting point to reflect on and know the world. Rather than “I think therefore I am,” it is, “I bow therefore I am.”
  • Second, the body is gendered and exists in relationships.
  • Third, the body exists in time and history. [editorial paragraphing added]

Second, after the author establishes the body as the foundation of Chinese philosophy, from which cosmology, ethics, and spirituality are derived, the author attempts to discuss the characteristics of this body philosophy from four aspects:

  • (1) Body as family (jia 家). [….]
  • (2) Body as the Zhouyi’s genealogy. [….]
  • (3) Body as politics. [….]
  • (4) The embodiment of knowing. Chinese body philosophy demonstrates an embodiment of cognition with three features (170):
    • (a) Intuitive knowing that dissolves the dualistic distinction between subject and object, essence and phenomena, heaven and human beings. [….]
    • (b) Bodily knowing is also a correlative knowing. [….]
    • (c) Bodily knowing is a transformative act where language is functional and practical. [p. 115, editorial paragraphing added]


Third, the author constructs body philosophy in order to prompt a paradigm shift for studying Chinese philosophy. According to the author, the study of Chinese philosophy since 1949 has taken place under the shade of consciousness-centered Western philosophy. [….]


This is a very intriguing book. The interpretation of body offers many significant insights into Chinese philosophy, such as the claims about a gendered cosmology, ethics, and religion. The clearly defined structure also allows creativity for grasping Chinese philosophy. Body does offer a vital space through which to wander into the field of Chinese philosophy. This ingenious attempt to find a new way to interpret Chinese philosophy is a worthy effort. However, one wonders whether this new paradigm is a truly Chinese way or simply importing another new Western methodology, namely phenomenology, to impose upon Chinese thinkers/texts. It might yield more fruitful returns, but after all, it is still a Westernized interpretation.

— end excerpts —


Wang, Robin R. 2009. “Zhang, Zailin 張再林, Traditional Chinese Philosophy as the Philosophy of the Body 作爲身體哲學的中國古代哲學.” Dao 8 (1): 113–16. .