Creation and causality in Chinese-Jesuit polemical literature

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Date: Oct. 2016
From: Philosophy East and West(Vol. 66, Issue 4)
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 9,348 words

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I. Introduction

In Giulio Aleni's The True Source of the Myriad Things (Wanwu zhen yuan (1628) chapter 4 contains the following question and answer:

One might say that it is like seeds: from only one seed the subsequent branches, trunk, and blossoms are produced in a truly spontaneous manner. There need not be an external creator. All things have their own inherent natures, and they come forth on the basis of their inherent natures spontaneously; why must they have some external maker? (1) I [i.e., Aleni] say: The sprouting of a seed cannot be separated from the efficient cause. Suppose that the seed had no prior tree to produce it. Then the present tree would not have come to be. Therefore the prior tree is considered the particular creator of the present tree. Going along this line, each [tree in the series] has a seed. If not for human effort in cultivation along with the moistening of the earth and the light from heaven as shared efficient causes, [the tree] also would not have come into being. Moreover, if this primordial qi of which you now speak has no creator, there would be nothing from whence it came. Suppose that primordial qi exists but has nothing to partition, nourish, move, or turn it; then neither could it self-divide into Heaven and Earth along with all particular phenomena. How much more would spontaneously produced things need something to establish the spontaneous natures that we consider the cause of their spontaneity? (2)

This passage neatly encapsulates the disagreement that I wish to explore here. The Jesuits expounded a Christian-Aristotelian doctrine of divine creation, while Neo-Confucians held that the world spontaneously evolves from a kind of self-moving prima materia called "primordial qi" (yuanqi) with no outside instigation. In what follows, I will first examine some Neo-Confucian ideas about the role of primordial qi in the unfolding of the world, and then turn to the Jesuits' understanding of God and creation. However, if all I did herein was to recapitulate this debate, then I would do no more than retrace terrain already well-mapped by scholars. Erik Zurcher, for example, decided that exchanges such as this merely represented a "dialogue of misunderstanding" created by the two sides' radically different "universes of discourse." (3) This, I think, merely characterizes the debate; it does not illuminate the source of the misunderstanding. Therefore, in the final section below, I will argue that the two sides ultimately failed to address one another's arguments adequately because, despite laying out their positions comprehensively and clearly, they left certain presuppositions unarticulated. Had these been stated, they might have unlocked their positions to each other more fruitfully. It will then be my task to describe these unspoken assumptions.

II. Chinese Understandings of Creation and Causality

The Jesuits did not bring their message into a vacuum. The China they entered in the sixteenth century possessed a literary-philosophical heritage that spanned millennia and included many writings on cosmogony and causality. While China's traditional worldview included...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A465167030