Dai Zhen on Human Nature and Moral Cultivation

Part of the Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy book series (DCCP, volume 1)


Dai Zhen 戴震 (1724–1777) was a prominent philosopher in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and a highly influential critic of orthodox Neo-Confucian philosophy. The heart of his philosophical project was to restore feelings and sophisticated faculties of judgment to their proper place in moral cultivation and action. He argued for a more robust form of moral deliberation, one which gives greater deference to both cognitive and affective capacities, and which requires us to examine and often reconsider our spontaneous moral intuitions. He also aimed to broaden the scope of desires that could play a legitimate role in a good and virtuous life. Dai used his considerable philological skills to demonstrate (convincingly, for many) that his Neo-Confucian predecessors had read the Confucian classics through Daoist and Buddhist lenses, which he faulted for many of the errors he found in their moral thought.


Human Nature Moral Judgment Moral Deliberation Evidential Analysis Moral Cultivation 
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My thanks to Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay.


  1. Although there is a great deal of contemporary literature on Dai Zhen, to date only a sliver of it focuses primarily on his philosophical arguments and views, and even less addresses in detail his views on moral deliberation and moral cultivation. Readers interested in further study of Dai’s moral thought are encouraged to examine some of the books and articles highlighted below.Google Scholar
  2. Chan, Wing-tsit. 1967. Reflections on Things at Hand: The Neo-Confucian Anthology Compiled by Chu Hsi and Lü Tsu-Ch’ien. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
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  5. Cheng, Chung-ying. 1971. Tai Chên’s Inquiry into Goodness. Honolulu: East-West Center Press. (The only complete translation of Dai Zhen’s “On the Good.”)Google Scholar
  6. Chin, Ann-ping, and Freeman, Mansfield. 1990. Tai Chen on Mencius: Explorations in Words and Meanings. New Haven: Yale University Press. (Of the two English translations of the Evidential Analysis listed in this bibliography [the other being by John Ewell], this is the more readable. However, significant portions are inaccurate [Van Norden 1993] and should used in consultation with the original text or Ewell’s translation.)Google Scholar
  7. Dai, Zhen 戴震. 1968. Collected Works of D ai Dongyuan 戴東原集. Taibei 臺北: Taiwan shangwu yinshuguan 臺灣商務印書館.Google Scholar
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  9. Dai, Zhen 戴震. 1991. Remnants of Words 緒言. In The Dai Zhen Research Group 戴震研究會 (ed.), Complete Collection of D ai Zhen 戴震全集, vol. 1. Beijing 北京: Qinghua daxue chubanshe 清華大學出版社. (One of Dai’s lesser-known philosophical treatises, which addresses topics in Confucian metaphysics, human nature, and self-cultivation. More than half of this text was eventually integrated into his “Evidential Analysis”; it is therefore regarded by some as a transitional work.)Google Scholar
  10. Dai, Zhen 戴震. 1994. “Supplemental Commentary on the Doctrine of the Mean 中庸補注.” In Zhang Dainian 張岱年 (ed.), The Complete Writings of D ai Zhen 戴震全書, vol. 2.. Hefei 合肥: Huangshan shushe 黃山書社. (Dai never finished this commentary, but it reveals much about his understanding of the Doctrine of the Mean, a Confucian classic that had a marked influence on Dai’s views about moral cultivation.)Google Scholar
  11. Dai, Zhen 戴震. 1996a. “Evidential Analysis of the Meaning of Terms of the Mencius 孟子字義疏證.” In Hu Shi (1996). (Dai’s philosophical masterpiece, which addresses most directly his views on moral deliberation and cultivation.)Google Scholar
  12. Dai, Zhen 戴震. 1996b. “Letter to Duan Yucai (II) 與段玉裁書(二).” In Hu Shi (1996).Google Scholar
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  17. Elman, Benjamin. 2001. From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series.Google Scholar
  18. Ewell, John W. 1990. Reinventing the Way: Dai Zhen’s Evidential Commentary on the Meanings of Terms in Mencius (1777). PhD dissertation, Berkeley. (Probably the most accurate [but perhaps not the most readable] of the available translations of Dai’s Evidential Analysis.)Google Scholar
  19. Fingarette, Herbert. 1979. “Following the ‘One Thread’ of the Analects.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Thematic Issue 47s: 373–405.Google Scholar
  20. Gardner, Daniel. 1990. Learning to Be a Sage: Selections from the Conversations of Master Chu, Arranged Topically. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar
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  23. Ivanhoe, Philip J. 2000. Confucian Moral Self Cultivation, Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. (This book includes a chapter on Dai Zhen that is incisive, accessible, and deals in depth with his account of moral education and development.)Google Scholar
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  26. Liang, Qichao. 1959. Intellectual Trends in the Ch’ing Period, translated by Immanuel Hsü. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
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  30. Nivison, David S. 1996. The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy. Edited by Bryan Van Norden. Chicago: Open Court. (Nivison’s seventeenth chapter, “Two Kinds of ‘Naturalism,” draws interesting comparisons between what we might call the “metaethics” of Dai Zhen and Zhang Xuecheng.)Google Scholar
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  32. Qian, Mu 錢穆. 1972. An Intellectual History of China’s Last 300 Years 中國近三百年學術史, vol. 1. Taibei 臺北: Taiwan shangwu yinshuguan 臺灣商務印書館. (A very solid account of the evolution of Dai Zhen’s philosophical thought, combined with historical background.)Google Scholar
  33. Shun, Kwong-loi. 2002. “Mencius, Xunzi, and Dai Zhen.” In K.L. Chan Alan (ed.), Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. (This essay argues that Dai Zhen shared common cause with Xunzi, in spite of Dai’s claims to the contrary. It also offers a careful explication of Dai’s Evidential Analysis.)Google Scholar
  34. Tiwald, Justin. 2006. Acquiring “Feelings that Do Not Err”: Moral Deliberation and the Sympathetic Point of View in the Ethics of Dai Zhen. University of Chicago: PhD dissertation. (An examination of Dai’s ethics, focusing in particular on his account of moral deliberation.)Google Scholar
  35. Van Norden, Bryan W. 1993. Review of Ann-ping Chin and Mansfield Freeman, Tai Chen on Mencius. Journal of Chinese Religions 21: 148–150.Google Scholar
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  37. Yu, Yingshi 余英時. 1996. On D ai Zhen and Z hang Xuecheng: A Study of the History of Academic Thought in the Middle Qing Period 論戴震與章學誠: 清代中期學術思想史研究. Taibei 臺北: Dongda 東大. (Perhaps the most widely read work of intellectual history on Dai Zhen, with special attention paid to Dai’s unfashionable love of philosophy and his influence on the philosopher-historian Zhang Xuecheng.)Google Scholar
  38. Zheng, Zongyi 鄭宗義. 2005. “On the Formation of the Confucian Line of Thought Which Holds that Nature is 論儒學中氣性一路之建立.” In Yang Rubin 楊儒賓 (ed.), Confucian Theories of Qì and Gongfu 儒學的氣論與工夫論. Taibei 臺北: Taida chuban zhongxin 台大出版中心.Google Scholar
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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophySan Francisco State UniversitySan FranciscoUSA

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