Translation of Chuan Xi Lu [1]

Chuan Xi Lu is a classical Chinese work that records dialogues and letters of the Neo-Confucian thinker Wang Yangming. In this dialogue, Wang illustrated two of the fundamental equalities shared by human-the access to innate moral sense and the ability to achieve whatever you can.

薛侃录/Conversations recorded by Cui Kan [5]

希渊问:“圣人可学而至,然伯夷、伊尹于孔子才力终不同,其同谓之圣者安在?”

Xiyuan (one of Wang’s students) asked, “Even if people can learn to become saints, but those ancient saints like Boyi, Yiyin all have different levels of talents compared to Confucius, why can they all be called saints?”

先生曰:“圣人之所以为圣,只是其心纯乎天理,而无人欲之杂;犹精金之所以为精,但以其成色足而无铜铅之杂也。人到纯乎天理方是圣,金到足色方是精。

The Teacher said, “The reason that saints are called saints is simply that their hearts are as pure as the Principle1 without any blend of the selfish Human Desire2. It is the same as why pure gold is pure—because it contains little other metals like copper and lead. As long as a man has a heart as pure as the Principle, he can be called a saint, just like when a gold is unmixed it can be called pure.

然圣人之才力,亦有大小不同,犹金之分两有轻重。尧、舜犹万镒,文王、孔子犹九千镒。禹、汤、武王犹七八千镒,伯夷、伊尹犹四五千镒。才力不同,而纯乎天理则同,皆可谓之圣人;犹分两虽不同,而足色则同,皆可谓之精金。

But saints still have different levels of talent, just like gold has different level of weights. Yao, Shun are like gold worth of ten thousand Yi (an ancient unit of weight); King Wen of Zhou and Confucius are like gold worth of nine thousand Yi; Yu, Tang and King Wu of Zhou are like seven thousand or eight thousand Yi; Boyi, Yiyin four thousand or five thousand Yi. They all have different levels of talent. But since their hearts are as pure as the Principle, they all are saints. It is the same idea that even though gold has different levels of weight, as long as it is pure, it is gold.

以五千镒者而人于万镒之中,其足色同也;以夷、尹而厕之尧、孔之间。其纯乎天理同也。盖所以为精金者,在足色,而不在分两;所以为圣者,在纯乎天理,而不在才力也。

The reason why gold of five thousand Yi and gold of ten thousand Yi are called together is just because they have the same purity. Putting Boyi and Yiyin beside Yao and Confucius together is also because their hearts are purely filled with the Principle. Thus, the one who becomes pure gold lies in its purity, not the weight; the one who becomes a saint, lies in his heart being pure as the Principle, but not in his talent.

故虽凡人。而肯为学,使此心纯乎天理,则亦可为圣人;犹一两之金,化之万镒,分两虽悬绝,而其到足色处,可以无愧。故曰‘人皆可以为尧、舜’者以此。

So even for an ordinary person, as long as he is willing to learn to make his heart as pure as the Principle, he can become a saint too. Just like gold that weighs one or two can be blended into gold weights ten thousand Yi—the weight is indeed different, but in terms of its purity, it is not inferior. Thus, people say:” everyone can become Yao and Shun.”

学者学圣人,不过是去人欲而存天理耳。犹炼金而求其足色,金之成色所争不多,则锻炼之工省,而功易成。成色愈下,则煅炼愈难。人之气质,清浊粹驳,有中人以上、中人以下。其于道,有生知安行、学知利行,其下者必须人一己百,人十己千。及其成功则一。

Those students who learn about saints are just learning how to get rid of the Human Desire and preserve the Principle in their hearts. It is like alchemy, for which it pursues is nothing more than the purity of gold. For alchemy, the purer the raw gold is, the less time spent on purifying. People have different levels of talent too–some above average and some below average. For the study of the Principle, some people are born with it and can practice it naturally, whereas others need to actively learn it and practice it afterwards. So if you have ordinary talent, you have to give 100% when others give 1% and give 1000% when others give 10%. Only with this level of effort you can eventually achieve the same thing.

后世不知作圣之本是纯乎天理,却专去知识才能上求圣人,以为圣人无所不知,无所不能。我须是将圣人许多知识才能逐一理会始得。故不务去天理上看工夫,徒弊精竭力,从册子上钻研、名物上考索、形迹上比拟。知识愈广而人欲愈滋,才力愈多而天理愈蔽。正如见人有万镒精金,不务锻炼成色,求无愧于彼之精纯。而乃妄希分两,务同彼之万镒。锡、铅、铜、铁杂然而投。分两愈增而成色愈下。既其梢末,无复有金矣!”

People of later generations do not know the basis for being a saint is his heart being as pure as the Principle, but only seek to have as much as knowledge as saints do. They think that saints are omniscient and omnipotent, and they will become saints when they learn all the knowledge saints have. As a result, they do not work on the Principle (from their hearts) but waste their energy studying from books, investigating from things, and inferring from patterns. The wider the knowledge they have, the more Human Desire will grow. The more talented they become, the further deviated from the Principle. Such a person is like, after seeing others have ten thousand Yi of pure gold, he does not want to increase his one or two gold’s purity so his gold is equivalent to others’ gold in terms of the purity, but only wants to catch up in terms of the weight so he put tin, copper, lead, and iron into it. By doing so, the weight is indeed increased, but the purity is gone, and there will be no gold in the end."

薛侃录 / Conversations recorded by Cui Kan [13]

德章曰:“闻先生以精金喻圣,以分两喻圣人之分量,以锻炼喻学者之工夫,最为深切。惟谓尧、舜为万镒,孔子为九千镒,疑未安。”

Dezhang (one of Wang’s students) said:” I heard that Teacher used pure gold as a metaphor for saints. It is really profound to use the weight of gold to compare the level of talent of saints, and to use the forging and refinement of gold to compare the cultivation process. However, I think that Teacher’s comparison of Yao and Shun as ten thousand Yi of gold and Confucius as nine thousand Yi of gold is not very appropriate.”

先生曰:“此又是躯壳上起念,故替圣人争分两。若不从躯壳上起念,即尧、舜万镒不为多,孔子九千镒不为少。尧、舜万镒,只是孔子的,孔子九千镒,只是尧、舜的,原无彼我。所以谓之圣,只论‘精一’,不论多寡,只要此心纯乎天理处同,便同谓之圣,若是力量气魄,如何尽同得?

The Teacher said:” You are only considering the superficial side again as you are trying to argue that Confucius worth more weights. If you can think not just from the superficial side, it is not too much to say that Yan and Shun worth ten thousand Yi and not too less to say that Confucius worth nine thousand Yi. Yao and Shun’s ten thousand also belongs to Confucius and Confucius’ nine thousand also belongs to Yao and Shun—they are no different. The reason why they are called saints depends only on whether their hearts are as pure as the Principle, regardless of the level of their talents. As long as they are pure in their hearts, we call them saints. How can they be completely the same if we talk about their talents?

后儒只在分两上较量,所以流入功利。若除去了比较分两的心,各人尽着自己力量精神,只在此心纯天理上用功,即人人自有,个个圆成,便能大以成大,小以成小,不假外慕,无不具足。

Later Confucian students often only compare weights, and therefore become utilitarian. If people can suppress their tendency to compare weights, and everyone do their best to cultivate the Principle in their hearts, all of them will have gains – people of good quality will have great achievements, and those of ordinary quality will also have small achievements. There is no need to rely on external practices because cultivating the Principle in your heart is enough.

此便是实实落落、明善诚身的事。后儒不明圣学,不知就自己心地良知良能上体认扩充,却去求知其所不知,求能其所不能,一味只是希高慕大,不知自己是桀、纣心地,动辄要做尧、舜事业,如何做得?终年碌碌,至于老死,竟不知成就了个甚么,可哀也已!

This is a very practical matter of being good and sincere. But later Confucian students did not understand this sacred learning — they did not know how to experience and expand from the conscience in their hearts, but often sought to rely on knowing what they did not know and doing what they could not do, being blindly lofty and vain. They do not know that their hearts are already like those of tyrants such as Jie and Zhou, but still want to achieve as much as saints like Yu and Shun did. How is this possible? It is so unfortunate for them that they are busy doing things all the time until death without knowing what they will actually achieve. “


  1. “The Principle” can be roughly interpreted as the law from the Nature. ↩︎

  2. In this historical context, “Human Desire” is mostly used to describe human’s selfish motives and immoral thoughts; it does not mean people’s regular desire such as the desire for food, the desire for love, or the desire to do good, which are mostly considered as part of the Principle. ↩︎

Jipeng Liu
Jipeng Liu
Research Associate

A researcher inspired by the great Economist, Philosopher, Statesman John Maynard Keynes

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