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The Chinese Sophist: Hui Shi

Updated on April 20, 2010
Hui Shi and Chuang Tse
Hui Shi and Chuang Tse

Hui Shi was a native of the Sung state, and he held the position of a minister of State of Liang. He was a famous sophist during the Warring State period. Well, what's a sophist? A sophist is a kind of person who studies philosophy, and talking about something very confusing. I will go into more details about shortly.

The state of Liang was a weak country, during the whole reign of King Hui his state was distracted with war. Out of fifty battles he is said to have lost twenty. In the last year of his reign he invited scholars from all sides, told them how unfortunate in war he had been, and asked their advice. One of these scholars was Hui Shi. Hui Shi worked out new laws for the Liang state, which pleased the people as well as King Hui of Liang. He was such an important person that he was said to travel with a hundred carriages.

One of Hui Shi's greatest opponent was the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tse. When Chuang Tze came to the State of Liang, some one remarked: "Chuang Tze has come. He wants to be minister in your place," Thereupon Hui Shi was afraid, and searched all over the State for three days and three nights to find him. Then Chuang Tse went to see Hui Shi and said: "In the south there is a bird. It started from the south sea to fly to the north sea. Except on the wu-t‘ung tree, it would not alight. It would eat nothing but the fruit of the bamboo, drink nothing but the purest spring water. An owl which had got the rotten carcass of a rat, looked up as the phoenix flew by, and screeched. Are you not screeching at me over your kingdom of Liang?"

Anyway, Chuang Tse and Hui Shi became friends, although they dispute a lot. When Hui Shi died, Chuang Tse said that since the death of Hui Shi he had lost his material and had no one left to talk to. When Chuang Tse's wife died, Hui Tse went to condole with him.

Hui Shi must have been a very prolific writer. His works are said to have been so numberous that they would have filled five carts. How could a person's works fill so many carts? This was because ancient Chinese didn't write on papers, they use bamboo or wood slips instead.

I have menttioned at the beginning of the article that Hui Shi was a sophist and talked something very confusing. His sayings have always been stumbling-blocks to Chinese scholars and commentators. These aphorisms seem to be riddles devoid of any sense. For example, Hui Shi asserts that 'a fowl has three legs', where is the third leg of a chicken from? He also says 'a horse lays eggs', and 'a tortoise is longer than a snake', and 'a white dog is black', etc. Why did Hui Shi make such ridiculous comments? How could such a queer man like Hui Shi become a minister of the State of Liang?

Actually, Hui Shi was not mad at all. His paradoxes strikingly resembles to those of the ancient Greek sophists In Ancient Greece, the sophists were a group of teachers of philosophy and rhetoric. One of these was Zeno. Zeno tried to persuade us that a body moving in a certain direction will never reach a certain goal. He says, in order to finish a certain distance, it must first have finished half of it, and before this half is finished, half of this half, and so on. The given distance can be divided into an infinite number of smallest distances, to pass through all of which would take an infinite time, which amounts to saying that the moving body could never reach its goal. Does this make any sense to you? Can't you just jump or hop to the finishing line? Now we can see both Hui Shi and the ancient sophist tried to fool us out of the common sense.

The most famous sophism of Zeno was 'Achilles and the Tortoise'. He said, Achilles running after a tortoise cannot overtake it, because the moment he reaches the place where the tortoise was, it has already left it again. Hui Shi' paradoxes: 'Cart-wheels do not touch the ground', and 'The finger does not touch, the touching never comes to an end'. How similar these sayings are! The wheel does not touch the ground nor the finger an object, because between the wheel and the ground, the finger and an object, there are infinite divisibility of space, an infinite number of atoms. Both Hui Shi's paradoxes and Zeno's are very much similar, they can be understood in the same sense.

One more Hui Shi's paradox to finish this article, he says, 'Going to Yueh to-day one arrives there yesterday.' Yueh was another state far way from the state of Liang. This is same to say, going to London today, you arrived there yesterday. In what circumstances it's true when we are travelling around the world? Is it possible when you take into account such facts as time zone, summer/winter time, take your aeroplane after midnight today, and arrive at a western country before midnight yesterday?


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    • jim.sheng profile image

      Dalriada Books Ltd 7 years ago from UK

      You are right. The localization of Buddhism and eventually evolution to Zen-Buddhism rooted deep into pre-Chin thoughts Sophism. This, to my view, is the mainstream of Chinese Buddhism.