Mechanical Metaphors in Early Chinese Thought

Mechanical Metaphors in Early Chinese Thought
Boqun Zhou


This dissertation examines the impact of mechanics on moral and political theories in the Warring States period (453–221 BCE) by analyzing mechanical metaphors in ancient Chinese texts. These metaphors were based on the lever (quan 權), a simple machine widely used in technologies of weighing and weight-lifting such as the balance, the steelyard, the well-sweep, the crossbow trigger, and the trebuchet. The lever’s double function lends itself to opposite kinds of metaphorical mappings. One the one hand, Confucian thinkers use the function of weighing to conceptualize the practical wisdom of a moral agent. They draw a distinction between one-sided weighing and balanced weighing and relate each kind to a particular mode of decision-making. A sage knows how to conduct the two types of weighing appropriately in a given situation and especially in the face of a moral dilemma. On the other hand, Legalist thinkers use the function of weight-lifting to explain how a single ruler, in a world of disorder, can prevail over the masses by gaining leverage, just like a weak person can move a heavy weight with the help of a lever. As such, the lever becomes a metaphor for various kinds of political advantage and manipulative strategies. As a result, the lever metaphor gets appropriated by both virtue ethicists and political realists due to the machine’s paradoxical function of finding balance and creating imbalance. It features prominently in both Aristotelian and Machiavellian styles of philosophizing. The classical meaning of quan, “weighing” (as in quanheng 權衡) and “political leverage” (as in quanshi 權勢), reflects exactly the double function of the lever itself.


Boqun Zhou

Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Chicago