In the Anglophone world, the Chinese character wu 物 is most often straightforwardly translated as “thing”. However, in the everyday Chinese language, wu is a highly distinctive word and concept. In Chinese, people/persons/human beings are called renwu 人物, an event/affair is called shiwu 事物, animals are called dongwu 动物, a landscape/scene is called jingwu 景物, products/artifacts are called qiwu 器物, and so on. More technical terms could also be mentioned here, such weiwuzhuyi 唯物主义 (“materialism”), a term which figures prominently in officially sanctioned philosophical discourse in China. As such, we could ask: when the word wu 物 is used in Chinese, what exactly are we talking about? Is it a thing, substance, or object? Is wu something “material”, or does it refer to something much more abstract? In order to answer these questions, my research will focus on seventeenth century China, an era which witnessed a rapid development of material culture. More specifically, I will explore arguments concerning the notion of wu in the writings of Fang Yizhi 方以智 (1611-1671), Xiong Bolong 熊伯龙 (1617-1669), as well as a number of other important philosophers.
It is my contention that reflecting on the semantic and conceptual range of the term wu 物 could help us think through a number of philosophical problems which are of global interest and importance. In the field of philosophy, scholars have been attempting to rethink the anthropocentric orientation of traditional metaphysics. On a more concrete level, following the recognition of the rights of women, children, ethnic and religious minorities, and so on and, animals have also come to be recognized as right-bearing entities. As such, some countries have legally recognized animals as “beings” rather than “things”. However, the worldview created by the rise of Western modernity has obviously brought about many problems. By contrast, the Confucian worldview – with human beings qualifying as an integral part of nature - is often presented as an alternative to the modern Western vision. But is such a choice between worldviews possible in the first place? In order to answer this question, we would first of all need a more accurate understanding of the Confucian worldview, an understanding informed by an analysis of the Chinese philosophical heritage. On the one hand, in traditional Chinese (especially Confucian) discourse, we find the ancient motif of “distinguishing between human beings and beasts” (人禽之辨). On the other hand, just as animals (dongwu), human beings (renwu) too count as “things” (wu). Both animals and people are considered to be “living things”. In light of the rapid development of artificial intelligence, we are faced with the task of thinking through the increasingly complicated category of “things” from the perspective of different cultural traditions. As such, the Chinese notion of wu provides us with a conceptual basis to think through our relation to all things and creatures in the world.