Mozi and the Ghosts

by Thaddee Chantry-Gellens

Mozi is one of the most famous ancient Chinese philosophers. Mohism, the school of thought that took its name from him, emphasises and tries to apply his teachings. He developed theories on logic, ethics, optics, warfare. One of his most famous ideas is that of “universal care” or “universal love” (jian ai 兼愛), which he meant to be a replacement for the Confucian focus on the family and the clan. Today’s tale involves Mozi and a minister whose wish is to work out which statements (yan 言) should be accepted.

The summer had not drawn to a close yet. Master Mo was enjoying the fresh air of the early afternoon, the soothing sunlight caressing his face. All was tranquil, and the Earth was firm under him. Sitting in the company of some of his companions that did not travel to the nearby town for supplies, he had no worry to care about tonight. Nothing could have troubled his calm, except for the official that seemed to be running, all sweating and huffing, towards the doorstep where he was settled. Yet, Master Mo greeted the stranger as he approached. After taking the time to fill his lungs again and apologise for his state, he introduced himself as “Li Bo, secretary for the state of Song”.

“- And what can I do for you, Li Bo?, asked Master Mo.

– I have come to ask for your advice on how to run affairs, Master Mo., answered Li.

– And what is it you want to know about universal love?

– I have not come to hear about universal love. I practice it diligently, and I value the stranger as much as I value my cousin, who I value like my brother.

– What do you want me to teach you, then?

– I wish to know what statements should be used in my office. If I am to implement universal love in this State, I need to know how to distinguish what yan fit 1 and which ones do not.

– Do you believe in ghosts?

– I beg your pardon…

– Do you believe in ghosts?

– I do not. 

– You should.

– Why is that? Will this belief help me say the right statements?

– Not necessarily. But saying that ghosts exist is a good statement. I can see from your attitude that you are surprised… Let me explain to you.”

Master Mo readjusted his posture, passed his fingers through his thin beard, and inspired deeply:

“- To decide which statement is correct and which one is not, use standards2 and see whether your statement matches with them. It is like using the set square to decide this is a right angle and that is not. There are three fa for statements: the root, the source, the application.

The root is the historical precedent that you will find in the deeds of the ancient sage-kings. They knew how to distinguish “this” from “that” properly. Follow their example, as they set a correct way to follow Dao3. Things went well when they did things that way. They believed in ghosts: follow the sage’s lead.

The source is the empirical basis in what is seen and heard by people. Your statements, if they are to be correct, need to be consistent with common perceptual observation. There are accounts of people seeing ghosts all over the hundred States. The people believe in ghosts: depend on the testimony of the ears and eyes of the multitude.

The application is the goodness that this statement brings. What is right or wrong depends on whether it produces benefit for the country. If adopted in law and government, a yan must benefit the state, the clan, and the people. Even if ghosts did not exist, it is good for a people to gather, make sacrificial offerings to appease the spirits, and thus strengthen the social bonds that tie them together.

Hence, I say, If the rulers of the world really want to procure benefits for the world and eliminate its calamities, they must believe in and teach the existence of ghosts and spirits. This is the way of the sage-kings.

– This is incredible! What a fateful day for me!

– Did the sage-kings believe in fate?

– Oh… No, they did not.

– Have the people ever seen fate?

– I do not think so.

– And is fate a good notion for the State, with all its implications and the resultant fatalism?

– No…” said Li Bo after a time

The minister seemed pensive and conflicted. He looked at Master Mo, and then all those gathered around the entrance of the house. Without a word beyond his thanks, he went away, walking slowly. After five minutes, he was out of sight. It is then that Master Mo told his disciples:

“This man will understand my words and apply them, after some hesitation and thinking. He is on the path to recognising good statements from bad ones. I have good hope for the state of Song.”

The Sun was a bit lower in the sky, but that did not bother Master Mo. He looked at the horizon, in the direction from which Li Bo came. With confidence. And no fear of ghosts.


1 Ancient Chinese philosophers distinguished things between what fits and what does not, what is x and what is not-x, or, as their expression goes, between shi (是)and fei (非).

2 Fa (法) is the Chinese word for law, but overlaps this meaning, as it was also the expression for standards, or models. All the way through the Han dynasty, examples for fa are the compass and set square.

3 Dao (道) is translated as ‘Way’ and is one of the, if not the most, central concepts in ancient Chinese philosophy. It can correspond to a way of doing things, the formless creator and source of the universe, a model to imitate as a ruler or sage, etc.

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