Shao Yong was a Chinese philosopher, historian, and poet born in 1011 (January 21, 1012, by European dating). He was the scion of a humble but educated family that had resided in northern China, near the modern-day national capital of Beijing, for several generations.
However, the border conflicts that pitted the Chinese Song dynasty (960–1279) against various hostile and encroaching non-Chinese peoples forced the Shaos into a series of moves southward toward the safer center of the empire. Thus, in 1049, Shao relocated to nearby Luoyang, the secondary imperial capital and nascent cultural hub, where he lived until his death in 1077.
Shao was influenced early by teachers—among them his father Shao Gu (986–1064) and the scholar and minor official Li Zhicai (1001–1045). But his philosophical development was surely determined much less by any one person than it was by the singular divinatory text that constitutes one of the five works included in the vaunted corpus of ancient Chinese classics—the Book of Change or Yijing.
Shao was unquestionably invested in the Book of Change. Nonetheless, he evinced an uncommon independence of mind in how he responded to it. In contrast to others who were similarly inspired by the classic, Shao diverged from his prominent contemporaries by never writing a separate commentary specifically on the Book of Change.
Instead, one can rightly regard the magnum opus of Shao’s own scholarly output—the Book of Supreme World-ordering Principles (Huangji jingshi shu)—as entirely an expansion on the seminal premises contained in the Book of Change and in related writings, including the remaining four classics.
Moreover, as was customary among the Chinese educated elite, Shao composed poetry. His poems were collected as Striking the Earth at Yi River (Yichuan jirang ji); this work is also one in which his cardinal philosophical ideas are exhibited. Thus, the survival of Shao’s only two verifiable writings permits us to divide his thought into its early- and late-emerging components.
Shao is usually accorded a position in the movement called the “Learning of the Way” (daoxue, a term that Europeans equate with neo-Confucianism). But he is far more noteworthy for his unique departures from the solutions arrived at by this movement.
The early daoxue movement was chiefly preoccupied with achieving consensus on a metaphysical “first principle” that would support a cosmogony and yet also account for the assumed ethical endowment of humankind. The concept settled upon was li (pattern or principle), which thinkers construed as the fundamental reality underlying both physical and human nature.
Shao, however, was alone in his advocacy of the concept of number (shu). For him, number—and not principle—became elemental, the foundation on which the universe rested and thus the key to uncovering its secrets. Shao’s faith in the regulative power of number led him to proffer that the natural processes operative in the world were number-dependent—hence, his theme of “world ordering” (jingshi).
His conviction that number was the basis of reality also led him to advance a kind of predictive knowledge that he promoted as “before Heaven” (xiantian) learning. This learning, he contended, is a priori in the sense that it has always existed, even prior to the formation of the universe.
The final component to emerge in Shao’s philosophy was a concept of methodologically reflexive observation, the chief characteristics of which were its claims to ubiquity of application and the attainment of pure objectivity and gnosis.
Shao called this concept the “observation of things” (guanwu). Its prescribed procedure of “reverse observation” (fanguan) purportedly empowered the observer to know or understand any and all animate or inanimate things objectively and yet also be able to apprehend them from their own distinctly individuated and particularized standpoints.
Thus, through its putative capacity to observe each and every object fully in terms of the observed object itself, the “observation of things” promised its practitioners knowledge that was truly objective, universalistic, and omniscient in its perspective.