Zhang Dongsun

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Who's Who in China Suppl. 4th ed. (1933)

Zhang Dongsun (張東蓀; also transliterated as Chang Tung-sun) (1886–1973) was a Chinese philosopher, public intellectual and political figure.


Travelling to Japan as an overseas student in his youth, Zhang studied the epistemology and ethics of Immanuel Kant, and attempted to reinterpret Confucianism along Kantian lines. He took part in famous debates about the relative merits of "science and metaphysics," allying himself with the then fashionable metaphysics of Henri Bergson. He was equally well-known, as an exponent of the philosophy of Bertrand Russell, whom he accompanied on a tour of China in 1920.

A prominent exponent of Chinese liberalism, he became a powerful influence in the China Democratic League in its original incarnation as a non-Communist "third force" grouping opposed to the dictatorship of the Guomindang (Kuomintang or KMT) under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek).

In addition to the Second World War era, Zhang also taught the students at Tsinghua University in the 1930’s and the 1940’s. From 1935 to 1937, Zhang founded and presided the literary and philosophical monthly periodical Wenzhe yuekan(文哲月刊) in Tsinghua Campus(淸華園).

Zhang veered towards acceptance of the inevitability of Communist victory and took government positions after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. However his earlier passionate devotion to intellectual freedom and searching critiques of Marxism made him an object of suspicion, obliging him to live in obscurity and in constant fear of persecution. During the early years of the PRC, he served in the new government as a member of the Central governmental committee, as counsellor at the Ministry of Culture and in various other high-level positions, while maintaining his position as professor of philosophy at Yenching University. However, In 1951-1952, he lost all political rights in new Chinese government. Also, at the same time after the start of the Anti-intellectualistic ideological movement, which was aimed at the political control of intellectuals, he lost his professorship and citizenship and was forced to work as a scavenger in Peking University. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, he was imprisoned in one of the most infamous "re-education" camps where, after prolonged physical and mental hardship, he would die shortly before the end of this radical political movement.


Although Zhang was intellectually silenced after the 1940s, he had been an extraordinarily active writer until that time. Many of his works from that period still survive, testifying to Zhang's importance as one of the most penetrating and innovative Chinese thinkers of the 20th Century. His most important philosophical works include Science and Philosophy (科學與哲學), ABC of Philosophy (哲學ABC), ABC of Psychoanalysis (精神分析學ABC), Moral Philosophy (道德哲學), On the Culture and Philosophy of East and West (讀東西文化及其哲學), Epistemology (認識論), A new Formulation of Pluralistic Epistemology (多元認識論重述), Knowledge and Culture (知識與文化), Thought and Society (思想與社會) and Rationality and Democracy (理性與民主).


Pluralistic epistemology represents the core of Zhang's philosophical system. It is derived from a revised version of Kantian philosophy. To justify such an epistemology, he proposed a new cosmology: panstructuralism (fanjiagouzhuyi 泛架構主義) An important assumption of his theory of knowledge is the neo-realistic view that the external world exists independently of our consciousness, and that there is no exact correlation between external phenomena and our comprehension of them. However, the external cause for our sensation is not a substance, but the order or structure of the external world. What is transmitted to us through our sensory impressions is a modification of this external order. Similarly, the discovery of the Theory of Relativity was important only in terms of recognizing structural laws, and not in terms of recognising any new essences in nature or the cosmos.

Plural epistemology advocates the view that sense impressions are non-being. Therefore, they are without a position in the ontological sense; they do not possess any 'ontological status'. All beings exist in a process of constant change that manifests itself in a never-ending modification of structural connections, and the growth and decline of the qualities of the "essence" of particular entities. According to Zhang, our consciousness can only recognize certain aspects of these manifest changes. However, this refers not only to the level of our perception and comprehension; according to Zhang, the structured order of relations is all that really exists in the cosmos. The relation between the external world and our subjectivity is interactive and correlative.

Combining the Buddhist idea of non-substance with a theory of evolution, Zhang held that the structures of the universe, although empty, are in evolution, and new kinds of structure may emerge due to changes in the combination of various structures. His most valuable contributions are also to be found in his endeavours to elaborate the dialectical aspect of Aristotelian logic, to connect logic, language and methods of disputation, and to discover principles and formal elements of the logic of linguistic pragmatism. His investigations of the influence of Chinese language on the development of Chinese philosophy are a very influential and pioneering work. He was the first philosopher who exposed correlative thinking as a main characteristic of Chinese philosophy and analogical argument as a specific Chinese mode of inference.

See also[edit]


  • Xinyan Jiang, "Zhang Dongsun: Pluralist Epistemology and Chinese Philosophy" in Chung-Yin Cheng and Nicholas Bunnin, eds., Contemporary Chinese Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
  • Key-chong Yap, "Zhang Dongsun" in Antonio S. Cua, ed., Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy, London: Routledge, 2001.
  • Rošker, Jana S., "The Abolishment of Substance and Ontology: a New Interpretation of Zhang Dongsun's Pluralistic Epistemology," in "Synthetis philosophica International Ed.", 2009, Vol. 24, No 1, p. 153-165.
  • Rošker, Jana S., "Zhang Dongsun’s 張東蓀 (1886 - 1973) plural epistemology (duoyuan renshi lun多元認識論)," in Rošker, Jana S., "Searching for the Way – Theory of Knowledge in pre-Modern and Modern China," Hong Kong: Chinese University press, 2008