Unity of Knowledge and Practice – Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Knowledge and practice, i.e., knowing and transforming the world, are the two primary activities of human beings. The two are mutually complementary and inseparable. In the dialectical relationship between the two, knowledge is the foundation and the premise, while practice is the focus and the key. In ancient Chinese state governance, the integration of the two is an important way and approach to enhance governance effectiveness and achieve governance goals.

Wang Fuzi, a thinker in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, said, “Knowledge and practice rely on each other to play a role. In this respect, we know that they are two different things which can be distinguished.”(The Thoughts on The Doctrine of the Mean in The Commentary on The Book of Rites) He believed that knowledge and practice functioned differently and should not be confused, and this distinction also allowed them to rely on and support each other. Chu Hsi said, “The clearer you understand, the more steadfast you will be in practice; the more steadfastly you practice, the clearer knowledge you will acquire.” (The Quotations of Chu Hsi) Only when we understand the essence and law of things more clearly, can we practice more firmly and effectively, and the more we practice, the more deeply we understand the essence and law of things. In the practice of national governance, we must adhere to the unity of knowledge and practice, promote practice with knowledge, deepen knowledge through practice, and apply what we have learned to practice.

Wang Shou-Jen, the distinguished Confucian scholar of the Ming Dynasty, stated in The Record of Instructions, “It is said that knowledge is the theory to guide practice, and practice is the efforts to acquire knowledge. Knowing is the beginning of doing, and doing is the result of knowing. If we can get it right, when we say I know it, we have already practiced; when we say I can do it, we have already known it. Why did the ancients stress knowing and doing separately? That’s because there is a kind of people who do what they want without understanding, thinking, or examining, and they are just doing it blindly. Therefore, we must stress knowing if we want to do things right. There is another kind of people who keep thinking but are reluctant to practice, and they are just guessing and speculating. Therefore, we must stress doing if we want to know the truth.”

Knowledge is the theory to guide practice. It is the premise and foundation as well as the guidance to practice. To get the truth and solid knowledge, we need practice. Only when we really understand the truth can we carry out the practice consciously and steadily. Thus, the practice of state governance must be based on the guidance of correct theory; otherwise, the practice will be blind. Ji Ran, a famous economist and strategist during the Spring and Autumn Period, was good at economic statecraft. When he traveled to the state of Yue, he took Fan Li, the Grand Chancellor of the state, as his disciple and taught him seven strategies for developing the economy and strengthening the state, such as “valuing circulation,” “stressing evenness” and “avoiding stagnation.” These strategies involved economic theories such as state macro-control and the law of commodity circulation, regarded as the earliest business theory in ancient China.

After the state of Wu defeated King Goujian (520-465 BC) of Yue at Mount Kuaiji, he endured hardships for vengeance and consulted Ji Ran for advice on how to take his revenge to defeat Wu. Ji Ran offered his advice, saying, “A state must have adequate reserves to cope with war, and it must choose the right time to stockpile war materials. It is something like that knowing the relationship between the season of production and society’s demand, and you can clearly see the supply and demand of goods. When there is a drought, prepare a ship; when there is a flood, prepare a cart. The country must take into account the interests of farmers and handicraftsmen in order to have long-lasting peace. If the grain is sold at 20 cents per bucket, the farmers will suffer a loss; if it is sold at 90 cents per bucket, the merchants will make no profit. If the merchants are not profitable, the goods cannot circulate in the market, and the country’s tax revenue will be reduced; if the farmers are not profitable, the good land will not be tilled, and the wasteland will not be reclaimed. Therefore, if the price of grain per bucket fluctuates between 30 and 80 dollars, both farmers and merchants would be profitable. The principle of state governance is to enable grain prices to fluctuate according to the market prices and avoid a shortage of taxes at the passes and goods in the market. The principle of stockpiling goods is to purchase grains of good quality, marketable and easy to store for a long time; for goods that are prone to corruption, do not stock for long. Looking at the surplus and shortage of goods, you can learn about the rise and fall of prices. When the price rises to the maximum, it will fall; when it falls to the minimum, it will rise again. When it rises, you should sell the hoarded goods quickly like worthless dust, and when it falls, you should buy the cheap goods quickly as precious jewels. Goods and currency should keep circulating like the flow of water.”

Goujian readily adopted his advice. After several years of implementation, the state of Yue became rich and powerful. It defeated the state of Wu and became one of the “five powers of the Spring and Autumn Period.”

After assisting the King of Yue in defeating Wu, Fan Li, the Grand Chancellor of Yue, retired from the court. He marveled at the wisdom of Ji Ran, “Among Ji Ran’s seven strategies, only five of them were applied to defeat Wu and wiped out the shame. Since it is effective to govern the state, I will use it to manage my family.” Fan Li drifted in a small boat and arrived at Taoyi (now, Heze in Shandong Province), changed his name to Zhu Gong. He managed his wealth by hoarding valuable goods and making a profit with the change of times. Years later, he became a wealthy merchant and was praised as the grandmaster of businessmen.

Practice is the effort to acquire knowledge. As the saying goes, “If you do not climb a high mountain, you will not comprehend the highness of the heavens; if you do not look down into a deep valley, you will not know the depth of the earth.” Practice is the ultimate goal of knowledge, the path to the application of knowledge. When we practice with keen observation and clear awareness, we shall acquire knowledge. As Huang Zongxi (1610-1695) said, “The sages only taught people to practice. Erudition, questioning, deliberation, and discernment are all practice, and those who are steadfast in practicing insist on doing all these things.” (Biographical History of Confucian Philosophers of the Ming Dynasty)

Empty talk harms the country, and hard work makes it flourish. The key to state governance is practical work. Throughout history, all things thrive through practical work but fail in empty bragging. There is such a story in the Biography of Lian Po and Lin Xiangru in Records of the Grand Historian. In 259 BC, the troops of Qin and Zhao were confronted in Changping (now, northwest of Gaoping City in Shanxi Province). At that time, the famous general Zhao She had died, and what’s worse, the Grand Chancellor Lin Xiangru was seriously ill. The Qin army defeated Zhao several times, and the army of Zhao took a defensive strategy to avoid a head-on confrontation. Though the Qin army challenged repeatedly, the veteran General Lian Po ignored it, strengthened the defense, and awaited the enemy to be exhausted. To win the battle, the spies of Qin spread rumors in Zhao: if Zhao Kuo were made the commander of the Zhao army, the Qin army would be defeated. Eager to win the war, King Xiaocheng lent a ready ear to the rumors and appointed Zhao Kuo as the chief general to replace Lian Po.

Zhao Kuo, the son of Zhao She, was very fond of reading books on military science and discussing strategy. He could recite military texts by heart, and when discussing warfare, he spoke so clearly and logically that it seemed that no one was his match. This appointment was opposed by Lin Xiangru. He dissuaded the king, “If you appoint Zhao Kuo just because of his reclame, it is like gluing the tuning pillar and then playing the chord rigidly. Zhao Kuo only read the military books left by his father, but he had no practical experience of warfare.” However, the king refused to take his advice and insisted on appointing Zhao Kuo as the Commander in Chief.

When Zhao Kuo replaced Lian Po, he completely changed the defensive strategy and mobilized all the troops to attack the Qin army. Bai Qi, the Qin general, divided his army into two groups. One feigned defeat to lure the Zhao army to the Qin barriers, and the other cut off the Zhao army’s retreat and counter-encircled them. Thus the Zhao army was cut off from the food supply and trapped in Changping. Forty days later, when the Zhao army ran out of food, Zhao Kuo attempted to lead his elite troops to break out of the siege but was killed by Qin’s arrows, and hundreds of thousands of Zhao troops surrendered to Qin. Although familiar with the art of war, Zhao Kuo lacked practical experience. He was unable to effectively combine his knowledge with the real war and couldn’t respond flexibly to the actual situation, so his failure was doomed.

As Xun Yue (148-209) of the Eastern Han Dynasty pointed out, “The emperors should neither accept false statements, nor believe in impractical skills, nor take flashy names, nor engage in fraudulent undertakings. Their words must produce practical results, their methods must abide by standards and rules, their reputation must be consistent with facts, and their deeds must be proved with merits.” (The Reiterations of the Past Lessons) It means that those in power must be realistic and pragmatic, not listen to untrue words, believe in unrealistic methods, seek a flashy reputation, or do vanity projects without actual effects.

Since ancient times, traditional Chinese intellectuals have been the most critical participants in state governance. They have the aspiration of “being the first to worry about the nation’s woes and the last to share its weal,” the conviction that “I shall dedicate myself to the interest of the country in life and death irrespective of personal weal and woe,” the integrity of “never being corrupted by wealth or status, departing from principle due to poverty or humble position, or bowing down to power or force,” and the dedication of “working heart and soul for my country to the day I draw my last breath.” With their aspiration, conviction, integrity, and commitment, they have been searching for a way of state governance toward peace and order. The practical application of knowledge is their inevitable choice and fundamental way to achieve this ideal. As the saying goes, “A superior man learns to understand the truth and to save the world.” Practical application of knowledge is also the concept and method of starting from the contradictions of social reality, solving problems with their knowledge, and finally achieving national peace and prosperity. This concept fundamentally embodies the ideology of traditional Chinese intellectuals, emphasizing the application of knowledge, focusing on pragmatism, pursuing practical results, as well as “taking serving the people as one’s own responsibility.”

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