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]


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?”


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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]


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.”


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?


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.


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