In Wang Chong’s essay Tan tian (談天) “Discussing Tian” (I leave it untranslated here so as not to beg questions), he (as usual) criticizes a number of common views concerning what tian is and what it does. This discussion leaves open the question, however, of just what Wang himself thinks that tian is and does. We get some indication of Wang’s view on this in other essays of the Lunheng, and a bit in the Tan tian itself, but for the most part we are left to piece together his position on tian, as he focuses much more on undermining incorrect positions than advancing his own concerning tian. This, of course, is not (as some have argued) the case with all the concepts Wang discusses–he gives very robust positive accounts of qi 氣 and ming 命, for example.
In Tan tian, Wang argues against the views that 1) Tian is fluid/vapor 2) tian is close to us, 3) tian has a mind or agency, 4) tian can reward, punish, or even be aware of individual human activities. He seems particularly concerned in Tan tian with refuting the view that tian is a fluid (identifiable with the sky) and thus close to humans, a view he attributes to ru scholars.
Toward the end of Tan tian, Wang has this to say: 人生於天，何嫌天無氣？猶有體在上，與人相遠。(Humans originate in tian, how can we then criticize the view that tian is not a fluid? It resembles something with a body, above humans and far distant.) [note: Wang is using 氣 here in its non-technical sense of "fluid/vapor" as opposed to 體 ti (body)]
So tian is a physical entity (this keeps with Wang’s general materialism), and is something that creates (somehow) humans, or plays a role in their creation. And it is far distant, above the sky. This is strange. If tian is something like a “first material principle,” why insist that it is distant? He argues in Tan tian and elsewhere that even if tian were capable of having the mental states, will, and ability required to reward and punish us for actions, it is too distant from us to hand out rewards or punishments. But if this is the case, how can it have been instrumental in our creation and endowment with a certain quantity of qi? (see my previous post on qi and ming here).
In addition, if tian is a body rather than something like a principle, it’s unclear how it could be responsible for the creation of humans other than through a kind of distant “first cause” relationship. Perhaps the distant, physical tian first created the cosmos and its workings (spontaneously, of course), and the resulting birth of the individual human somewhere down the line is then attributable ultimately to the first creative act of tian. This seems inconsistent with some things Wang says elsewhere in the Lunheng, however, where he claims that tian provides individual humans with their alloted qi. Of course, we might work this out by reading such claims to mean that tian is ultimately, if not directly, responsible for the measure of qi one receives. But then what is directly responsible? What mechanistic process determines my quantity of qi? The qi of my parents? Features of the environment in which I was born?
All of this just raises more questions, which I’ll have to try to answer by digging deeper into the issue of tian in the Lunheng. Back to the text I go…