Published on 2023.07.28

Way beyond his time: Hui Shi

Nowadays, the genre of time travel drama is becoming very popular. In those dramas, people can travel through the past, the present and even the future. However, not many people know that early in late Zhou warring states, Hui Shi (惠施, circa 370B.C. – 310 B.C.) had already proposed the idea of time travel: “I set off for Yue Kingdom today from the past”(今日適越而昔來).This proposition has been regarded as nonsense for so many years – it is not surprising that at ancient times people did not even imagine any possibility of time travel, it was just too weird at that time.

It is even more shocking that Hui Shi provided a hypothetical solution to this proposition. As in Chapter Tian Xia (天下, The world) in Zhuangzi (莊子) mentioned, Hui provided the possible solution that “it could be solved by a circle” (圓環可解也). If time is a circle (and not as linear as we think), every point in the time circle would be the “future” and the “past” of another time point simultaneously. Could we really reach the “past” by speeding up to the passage of time? If we probe into this theory, could we make a short cut in the circle so that we can directly reach another time point in the circle? (see the figure below)

One usually traces British novelist H.G. Wells (1866-1946) and his work The Time Machine as the origin of time travel. However, Hui could think about this innovative idea two thousand and three hundred years ago. It is really astonishing the Hui’s creativity was so much ahead of his time.

Probably since Hui Shi was too much ahead of his time, it is a pity that all his teachings and writing disappear now as they were not succeeded by his followers. We can only have a glimpse through Zhuangzi in the chapter Tian Xia (莊子,天下), in which it was mentioned that Hui Shi was a versatile scholar, and his work could even fill up five carts of ox wagons. Furthermore, it provided the record that Hui Shi was organizing international academic conferences to gather scholars and philosophers from various kingdoms in the warring states.

For example, it was noted that a scholar called Huang Liao (黃繚) coming from the south to discuss with Hui Shi why the sky did not fall, why the earth did not sink, as well as the origin of wind, rain, and thunders. Also, it was said that Hui Shi was able to provide detailed replies to these topics. This is definitely a landmark in ancient China on meteorology and geography. Sadly, the proceedings of these meetings were long gone even if it existed. 

The biography of Hui Shi was scattered along various ancient texts, such as Zhuangzi (莊子), Master Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals (呂氏春秋), and Han Feizi (韓非子). In Master Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals and Han Feizi, it was mentioned that Hui Shi was a prestigious official, and was later promoted to the prime minister of Wei Kingdom (魏國). In Zhuangzi, there were more records about the friendship beyond their social classes as well as the philosophical discussions between Zhuangzi and Hui Shi.

The last chapter of Zhuangzi Tian Xia (天下, the world), which was believed to be written by the followers of Zhuang Zi, is a commentary to various important schools of thought at that time. It was mentioned that Hui Shi’s aspiration was to “investigate different things” (歷物). It is also the chapter in which Tian Xia described Hui Shi’s research topics and propositions, in addition to some solutions to his own propositions. Although it is just a glimpse of Hui’s ideas, there are very important propositions that leave us feel breathless merely through looking from the lens of modern science. For example, the idea of Taiyi (太一, 無限大, infinity) (至大無外, 謂之太一), Xiaoyi (小一, 無窮小, infinitesimal) (至少無內, 謂之小一), and vacuum but infinite space (無厚不可積也, 其大千里). Hui Shi even imagined that our world was a sphere. For example, Hui Shi proposed, “the south, is infinite, but at the same time finite”(南方有窮而無窮). Could we arrive at the starting point if we walk through the south? If the world is a sphere, in this sense it is finite (有窮). However, if what we call “south” is a direction heading down from the earth to the infinite space, it should be infinite (無窮). Hui Shi further postulated if the Earth was a sphere, for example, he mentioned, “I know that the centre of the earth is the north of the Yan Kingdom (the northern country) and the south of Yue Kingdom (the southern country”(我知天下之中央, 燕之北, 越之南是也). If the earth is a sphere, the central point of Yan Kingdom and Yue Kingdom will be on the other side of the earth, which is believed to be somewhere in the ancient Chinese map.

Furthermore, Hui made other even more astonishing propositions. For example, Hui mentioned, “the sun is just at its highest point, but this is exactly the moment when the sun deviates from this point”(日方中方睨). This echoes W.H.Heisenberg’s (1901-1976) uncertainty principle. Another proposition, “things are living and dying at the same moment” (物方生方死), is comparable with Erwin Schrödinger’s (1887-1961) important thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat about time, live and death. (The thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat is to investigate if the cat is placed in a box full of nuclear radiation. What if the moment the box is opened, is the cat alive or died?). If only one or two propositions from Hui could echo modern scientific theories, we might speculate that this was just the conjecture from us to extravagate Hui’s ideas, yet if the whole series of propositions were associated with one other and commensurable with modern science, we should not regard these propositions as pure nonsense. We should note that, in Zhuangzi Chapter Tian Xia, the author already emphasized that Hui Shi not only provided the propositions but also lengthy explanations. Therefore, we could be convinced that Hui Shi is not only giving the propositions, but also making attempt to provide substantives to his arguments. Although these substantives are lost now, we could still work on these propositions and provide effort to investigate these topics. In this way, ancient philosophy is still having relevance to science in modern era.

We should note that, Hui Shi also developed propositions on formal logics, psychology and linguistics. For example, “Dog are not equal to “Dogs” (狗非犬) , the eye itself cannot see (目不見), the chain of sign and signified is never ending (指不絕), there are three aspects in “yellow horse” and “dark ox”(黃馬驪牛三). These topics were subsequently transformed into debates like “white horse is not horse”(白馬非馬), and theories on the relationship between sign and objects (指-物). These debates were described in detail in ancient texts including Mo-zi  (墨子) chapters Jing (I & II), Annotation to Jing (I & II)  (經上下、經說上、下) and Gongsun Longzi (公孫龍子) on the chapter White Horse (白馬), Sign and objects (指物), and Understanding Transformations (通變). This leads to the golden days of ancient philosophy, linguistics and logics in warring states China in late Zhou period. Due to word limit, we will discuss this in further details in subsequent articles. 

As I am writing this article, I feel amazed that Hui Shi was so ahead of his time, I even wonder if Hui is a time traveller. Otherwise, how could a person in ancient times could make so many propositions that cover various contemporary topics?

Dr. Fu Wai

Dr. Fu Wai is an Associate Professor of Department of Counselling and Psychology, Hong Kong Shue Yan University, the Director of Positive Technology and Virtual Reality Laboratory, and Research Coordinator of Master of Social Sciences in Counselling Psychology and Doctor of Psychology in Counselling Psychology programs in Hong Kong Shue Yan University.
Dr. Fu is interested in research on history of psychology in ancient China, particularly the interaction among Moism, the School of Names, and the School of Diplomats In Warring States Period.
Dr. Fu is also interested in the development of hypnotism in Shanghai between 1900s-1940s.
Dr. Fu has completed the project funded by Hong Kong Research Grants Council, titled The missing link: An investigation of Moism, the School of Names, and the School of Diplomats, and their place in the history of ancient Chinese psychology (UGC/FDS15/H07/14)

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