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Binaries in early Chinese texts: locating entities on continuums


This article presents a new interpretation of the role of binary oppositions in sense perception in early Chinese texts. It proposes an explanation for the ubiquitous appearance of oppositions like short-long, light-heavy, and black-white in the way early Chinese texts describe the process of sensing entities. Rather than explaining these binaries as “segments” or “clusters” that the human sense faculties carve out of masses, I argue that these are polarities (not structural either/or options) that reflect aspects of a world of transforming entities existing at relative levels of condensation or containment. My claim is that visually discriminated shapes and patterns can be cut with precision, resulting in standard measurements. By contrast, sounds and smells locate things more vaguely in place on binary continuums. The contained-uncontained continuum of entities implied in this contrast of visible and audible is what accounts for the prevalence of sensory binaries. A break in a range constitutes the identity of the thing in question.

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  1. Graham (1986, p. 27).

  2. In translation, the notation for writing binaries like yin and yang with a slash mark “/” highlights a sense of either/or, while a dash “−” suggests a continuum. Because I am arguing for a continuum approach, I am using a dash.

    Modern Sinological scholarship in disciplines influenced by structuralism tends to interpret yin-yang through linguistic, sociological, or psychological systems, based on binary structures of thinking (like mind/body and on/off). There are many interesting structuralist interpretations of early Chinese texts, including Keightley’s (1988), which cites and adapts structuralist ideas to explain the complementarity of divination charges in the Shang. With a pragmatist and process agenda, Hall and Ames recast early Chinese binaries as “polarities” in order to correct two common misapprehensions: that they are mutually exclusionary oppositions, and that they are dualisms in which one side is transcendent. Hall and Ames (1987, pp. 17–21).

  3. In Hansen’s theory, Pre-Qin philosophers viewed sensory binaries as human “action-guiding distinctions.” Hansen (1992, p. 234). Yin-yang is not significant to his Daoist theory of Chinese thought.

  4. The input, in Hansen’s terms, is qing 情, which he understands as “feelings” or “reality feedback” in these contexts. The stuffs of the world are both corporeal and non-corporeal “kapok.” For Hansen’s notion of kapok, see Hansen (1992, p. 407).

  5. In other words, the spectrum does not quite match those that we are more familiar with, such as spirit/matter or immaterial/material.

    These ideas are further developments of my work in Geaney (2002, 2010). In this article, I am, for the first time, offering the beginnings of a theory about early Chinese ontology based on my work on the senses and metaphors of discriminating.

  6. All citations to early Chinese texts are to the CHinese ANcient Texts (CHANT) 漢達文庫 database unless otherwise noted. All translations are my own.

    The point in this passage is normative, as one of my anonymous readers noted, but my interest here lies in the geography that shapes normativity, which is conveyed with individual words (in this case, “high” and “low”). As a result, I beg the readers’ patience with my translations’ rather wooden focus on words.

  7. For this translation of zhuang 狀, see Note 15 below.

  8. The “if…then” structure of the passage raises the question of whether this should be read as a sorites. I think not, because it seems more like a kind of rhetorical chain-reasoning whose function is to assert that shapes generally imply these various binaries. As Legge puts it, this style of writing belongs to rhetoric rather than logic (Legge 1867, p. 30). Regarding similar pattern in the “Da Xue,” Keightley rightly notes that it resembles magico-religious faith in patterns (Keightley 2014, p. 112).

    Because light-heavy does not possess black-white, if we are consistent in translating you 有 here, this also argues against taking it to mean that a wu 物 (thing) “possesses” something like black-white as an attribute.

  9. For more in-depth discussions of the senses in the Xunzi “Zhengming,” see Geaney (2002, forthcoming) Language as Bodily Practice in Early China.

  10. I indicate the things I deem to be binaries with a dash mark “-”, but there might be more of them implied here than the ones that I flag.

  11. In saying this, I am assuming textual coherence in the chapter, such that the subsequent passage comments on the prior one—an assumption that is not necessarily justified. On the same lines, it might also be relevant that elsewhere the “Zhengming” implies that the senses are something like the origin/cause of sameness and difference (緣而以同異) and that the knower (using the senses) “discriminates” same from different (辨同異).

  12. This can be taken in two ways: it could mean that li 理 (patterns) consist of different portions of square/round, long/short etc. Or it could mean that portions of each binary alone constitute a pattern.

  13. The fact that the “Zhengming” includes “shape” (xing 形) in both its list of things that the eyes see and its list of agents that feel things (xingti 形體) narrows the gap between seeing and touching: what we use to touch (the form and body) is paradigmatically what we see.

  14. The term wu 物 might have an association with visual things as well as a general use:

    聲一無聽, 物一無文, 味一無果, 物一不講。

    If sounds are all one, there is no listening. If things (wu 物) are all one, there is no pattern. If tastes are all one, there is no fruit. If things (wu 物) are all one, there is no thoroughness.

    Guoyu 國語 鄭語 《史伯為桓公論興衰》

    For the argument that the entities/actions referred to as shi 實 are considered to be visible, see Geaney (2002, pp. 68–80).

  15. Zhuang 狀 is specifically used for aspects of visual appearance. As the opposition to physiognomizing in the Xunzi indicates, the zhuang is one of the visible features interpreted by those who “physiognomize people’s shape, zhuang, face, and color” (相人之形狀顏色). Another example from the Jiayi Xinshu indicates that zhuang is used to mean visible appearance in other contexts as well:

    人之情不異面目, 狀貌同類, 貴賤之別, 非(人)天根着於形容也。

    The motivations of people are not different, their faces, eyes, looks (zhuang 狀), and appearance are of the same kind. The separation of noble and base is not something inscribed on their face or form.

    Xinshu 新書 賈誼新書卷一 《等齊》.

  16. See Geaney (2002, pp. 50–83).

  17. Hearing and smelling are often associated, perhaps because the emptiness of the cavities of the ears and nose implies the use of non-action, as in this comment in the Huainanzi.

    鼻之所以息, 耳之所以聽, 終以其無用者為用矣

    That by which the nose breathes, that by which the ear listens: in the end, it treats that which has no use as useful.

    Huainanzi 淮南子 說山訓.

  18. The associations of yin-yang in binary constellations occur in two different forms in early Chinese texts, but this is the dominant pattern. For a longer discussion of these passages, see Geaney (forthcoming) The Emergence of Word Meaning.

  19. The term for sound (sheng 聲) is used for speech as well as other kinds of sounds. See Geaney 2011.

  20. For a discussion of treating li 禮 as “ritual action,” rather than “ritual,” and a discussion of its visibility, see Geaney (forthcoming) Language as Bodily Practice.

  21. While here qi is simply loosely or densely contained, it does not always seem like that. For instance, a comment in the Guanzi suggests a more specific use of qi: that qi is to the eyes as sound is to the ears.

    故明王懼聲以感耳, 懼氣以感目, 以此二者, 有天下矣, 可毋慎乎?

    Therefore a wise ruler is diffident of sound as it stimulates the ear and diffident of qi as it stimulates the eyes. With these two, a person possesses the whole world, so how could one not be careful?

    Guanzi 管子 管子卷第十一 小稱第三十二.

  22. The line that I translate as “If the look (zhuang 狀) is the same but the location is deemed different, although they can be united, call them two shi 實,” is one that Hansen takes as evidence supporting his mass hypothesis (Hansen 1992, p. 328). I discuss Hansen’s use of this line in more detail below.

    In an article where he rejects Hansen’s “stuff ontology,” Chris Fraser describes this passage as plausible but weak evidence for a mereological view, noting that this sort of claim would only be likely to arise in a context where someone might think that two horses in different places at the same time could count as one (Fraser 2007, p. 444).

  23. Graham makes a similar claim about the Mo Bian treatment of shi 實, but he understands shi to mean an “object,” while I do not, because shi is also used of deeds—a use that he acknowledges but deems “non-philosophical” (Graham 1978, pp. 199, 202).

  24. Among other things, this could answer a concern about ghost-doppelgangers like the one in the Lushichunqiu chapter on “Doubting Resemblances” (Yi Si 疑似), where a ghost takes on the zhuang 狀 of a man’s son, which results in him killing his own son because he forgot that there were two “people” with the same zhuang.

  25. Hansen (1992, p. 325).

  26. For some, the metaphor of cutting might imply chiseling wood, as in the “nameless simplicity” (無名之樸) of the Laozi, but this overlooks an important difference between cleaving and carving out of something.

  27. The relation of naming and sensing is too complex to address here. For an analysis of this subject, see Chapter Two of Geaney (forthcoming) Language as Bodily Practice.

  28. See above.

  29. The passage says,

    故繩墨誠陳矣, 則不可欺以曲直; 衡誠縣矣, 則不可欺以輕重; 規矩誠設矣, 則不可欺以方圓; 君子審於禮, 則不可欺以詐偽。

    Thus, if the marking cord is sincerely laid out, then there can be no cheating with crooked and straight. If the weights are sincerely hung, there can be no cheating regarding light and heavy, if the compass and square are sincerely established, there can be no cheating with square and round. If the junzi is careful about ritual action, there can be no cheating or falseness.

    Xunzi 荀子 禮論篇第十九.


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Geaney, J. Binaries in early Chinese texts: locating entities on continuums. Int. Commun. Chin. Cult 3, 275–292 (2016).

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  • Early China
  • Binary oppositions
  • Yin/yang
  • Sense perception
  • Ontology