by Louis Komjathy 康思奇
Shēn 身 is a Chinese character that may refer to “body,” “person,” and/or “self,” depending on context. Etymologically speaking, the earliest forms (/) are pictographs, most likely depicting a pregnant woman. Under one reading, this suggests the capacity for birth and life as a biological organism in the world. As received, the character probably depicts the human torso viewed from the side. This is one’s personal embodied personhood, and it in turn relates to a larger lexicon of Chinese and Daoist psychological and somatological terms.
Shēn 身 is a Chinese character that may refer to “body,” “person,” and/or “self,” depending on context. Etymologically speaking, the earliest forms are pictographs, most likely depicting a pregnant woman. Under one reading, this suggests the capacity for birth and life as a biological organism in the world. As received, the character probably depicts the human torso viewed from the side. This is one’s personal embodied personhood, and it in turn relates to a larger lexicon of Chinese and Daoist psychological and somatological terms.
In terms of the Philosophy of Religion, especially as envisioned in its current “global-critical” trajectory, with an additional concern for embodiment, personhood, and subjectivity, shēn brings our attention to culture-specific and tradition-specific technical terms related to embodiment, personhood, subjectivity, and the like. Such cultural, linguistic and philosophical sensitivity also encourages, and in fact requires, accompanying engagement with contextual meanings and applications. In addition, shēn inspires reflection on human being as embodied, enacted, and lived. We may inquire into the various dimensions of self from a comparative and cross-cultural perspective with attention associated indigenous terminology beyond Anglocentrism and Eurocentrism. Thus, terms like shēn may result in critical investigation of unquestioned assumptions and received views.
The Chinese character shēn 身 became a key religio-philosophical concept in the classical period of Chinese culture and literature, specifically from the Warring States period (480-222 BCE) to the Early Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE). However, it appears in earlier ancient literature, such as the Shījīng 詩經 (Classic of Poetry), as well. Again, we must be attentive to context-specific meaning. The character, in turn, relates to a larger repertoire of Chinese “body characters” and “self characters” (see Kohn 1991; Ames 1993; Komjathy 2011, 2013). Chinese and Daoist views of embodiment tend to be psychosomatic, with energetic and psychospiritual being equally important characterizations. There are three primary Chinese and Daoist terms related to “body,” namely, shēn 身, xíng 形, and tǐ 體. First, shēn, probably a pictograph of the human physique, seems to be used most frequently to refer to one’s entire psychosomatic process. In passages where shēn as “self” refers to the physical body, it is one’s “lived body” seen from within rather than “body as corpse” seen from without. The second character relating to Chinese notions of “body” is xíng, which is the “form” or “shape,” the three-dimensional disposition or configuration of the human process. Xíng-form has a morphological rather than genetic or schematic nuance. Finally, the third character designating “body” is tǐ, which relates to “physical structure” said to be a “combination of twelve groups” or parts. Tǐ-physical structure relates to the scalp, face, chin, shoulders, spine, abdomen, upper arms, lower arms, hands, thighs, legs, and feet. In addition to clarifying Chinese conceptions of body/self, these terms reveal that concern over “self” is not foreign to Chinese culture, contra to facile and conventional feminist or post-modern critiques. In addition, shēn may be used to refer to “person” and “self,” so it may be further connected to other, related characters. These include wǒ 我/wú 吾 (“I-ness”), jǐ 己 (“self”), míng 名 (“name/fame”), and zì 自 (“self”). Here míng is particularly interesting, as it technically refers to one’s given personal name, bestowed by one’s parents. It thus has the added connotations of “fame” and “reputation,” and social identity by extension. In any case, shēn brings our attention to the complexity of both indigenous terms and context-specific meaning. For example, chapter thirteen of the anonymous fourth-second century BCE Dàodé jīng 道德經 (Scripture on the Dao and Inner Power), a key classical Daoist text, contains the following line: 「及吾無身，吾有何患？」. It has been mistranslated as “if I did not have a body, what calamities would I have?” when here shēn refers to a personal self, resulting in “if I did not have a self, what calamities would I have?” This relates to the Daoist aspiration to become “formless” (wúxíng 無形), “nameless” (wúmíng 無名), “selfless” (wúsī 無私), and the (un)like. Thus, we must be constantly attentive to not only contextual nuance, but also unrecognized assumptions and possible unintended consequences in translation work.
Daoist adherents and communities in turn developed some of the most sophisticated indigenous Chinese discussions of embodiment (see Schipper 1978, 1993; Kohn 1991; Despeux 1994; Komjathy 2008, 2009, 2011, 2020), which might be beneficially compared to the contemplative psychological cartographies utilized in Buddhist meditation systems. Daoist discussions include what it is referred to as the “Daoist body” and associated “Daoist body-maps” (shēntú 身圖). This is the human body actualized, cultivated, and explored in Daoist practice, and it may result in a different type of being-in-the-world. One noteworthy dimension of Daoist views centers on the body as sacred, the body itself as a manifestation of the Dao 道 (Tao/Way), the sacred and ultimate concern of Daoists. This emanationist and immanence “somatology” may challenge assumed mind-body dualism, or even calcified distinctions. While beyond the present entry, there are various, related technical terms, including jīng 精 (“vital essence”), mìng 命 (“life-destiny”), qì 氣 (“subtle breath/energy”), shén 神 (“spirit”), xīn 心 (“heart-mind”), and xìng 性 (“innate nature”). These may be further connected with what may be understood as the Daoist “alchemical body” and “mystical body” (see Komjathy 2011, 2020), which relates to the Daoist meditation practice of internal alchemy (nèidān 內丹). Specifically, the associated Daoist practitioners engage the “physical body” as containing a “subtle body,” which consists of subtle corporeal locations and energy channels. The former are often designated with the technical term dāntián 丹田 (“elixir fields”), while the latter correspond to “meridians” (mài 脈). In more standardized accounts, the meridians include the twelve primary organ-meridians and the so-called Eight Extraordinary Channels, with the latter being especially important in Daoist practice.
A more general philosophical discussion of shēn and related termsin traditional Chinese culture has been published by Roger Ames (1993). Like Ames’ work more generally, there are problematic categorizations centering on “philosophy,” but the article nonetheless represents foundational reading. In terms of the “Daoist body,” key scholars include Catherine Despeux, Livia Kohn, Louis Komjathy, Joseph Needham (1990-1995), and Kristofer Schipper (1934-2021). Komjathy’s articles (2011, 2008, 2009, 2020) include summaries and critical analysis. This may be thought of as part of a larger “fragments for a history of the human body” (see Feher 1989; also Murphy 1992), a lived and living history that might include greater attentiveness to religion as manifesting as embodied movement in the world.
Anthropology, body, embodiment, míng 名 (“name/fame”; Chinese), personhood, pneumatology, qì 氣 (“subtle breath/energy”; Chinese), somatology, xīn 心 (“heart-mind”; Chinese)
Ames, Roger. “The Meaning of Body in Classical Chinese Philosophy.” In Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice, edited by Thomas Kasulis, 157-77. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Despeux, Catherine. Taoïsme et corps humain. Le Xiuzhen tu. Paris: Guy Trédaniel, 1994.
Feher, Michel, with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, eds. Fragments for a History of the Human Body. 3 vols. New York: Zone Books, 1989.
Kohn, Livia. “Taoist Visions of the Body.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 18 (1991): 227–52.
Komjathy, Louis. “Mapping the Daoist Body: Part I: The Neijing tu in History.” Journal of Daoist Studies 1 (2008): 67-92.
_____. “Mapping the Daoist Body: Part II: The Text of the Neijing tu.” Journal of Daoist Studies 2 (2009): 64-108.
_____. “The Daoist Mystical Body.” In Thomas Cottai and June McDaniel (eds.), Perceiving the Divine through the Human Body: Mystical Sensuality, 67-103. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.
_____. The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
_____. “Daoist Body-Maps and Meditative Praxis.” In Transformational Embodiment in Asian Religions: Subtle Bodies, Spatial Bodies, edited by George Pati and Katherine Zubko, 36-64. London and New York: Routledge, 2020.
Murphy, Michael. The Future of the Body: Explorations into the Further Evolution of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1992.
Schipper, Kristofer. “The Taoist Body.” History of Religions 17.3/4 (1978): 355-86.
_____. The Taoist Body. Translated by Karen Duval. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993 (1982).