Teng Shih (6th century BCE) was a Chinese Sophist who lived and wrote in the province of Cheng. He is best known for teaching “the doctrines of the relativity of right and wrong” and for his persistent opposition to the government of Tse-Tsan, magistrate of Cheng.
Little is known of Teng Shih and the meagre sources available are mostly hostile to him. He seems, however, to have been an ardent advocate for peasants' rights and this, alone, would have made him unpopular with the later Confucian writers, who largely came from the elite, landowning class. Among the few fragments of Teng Shih extant is the following piece in which he condemns both natural and man-made law for the troubles of men:
Nature is not kind to man. Government is not kind to the people. Nature is unable to withhold plague and pestilence and preserve those who die therefrom; nor does it always give longevity to those who do good. Therefore I say nature is unkind to men. The people who commit burglary and practise fraud and deceit are compelled to do so by poverty and destitution. They are nevertheless ruthlessly punished by the government in accordance with the law. Therefore I say governments are unkind to the people. (Hu Shih, 13).
Government institutes the laws which result in the poverty of the people, Teng Shih claimed, and then punish the people for trying to survive under said laws. The laws, then, should be amended so that all people could live comfortably instead of only the wealthy elite. He would have agreed with the famous claim of the philosopher Lao-Tzu that, “The more laws one makes, the more criminals one creates” and wrote a series of pamphlets addressing this issue and others concerning what he saw as social injustice. When the magistrate Tse-Tsan prohibited the hanging of pamphlets in public, Teng Shih hand delivered them to the people. Tse-Tsan then prohibited the distribution of pamphlets by hand and so Teng Shih smuggled the pamphlets to people inside other objects so that the pamphlets were not touching his hands. The Book of Lieh-Tze, a source favourable to Teng-Shih, claims, “The government ordinances were inexhaustible, but his devices to evade them were equally inexhaustible.”
Claiming there was no absolute `right’ or `wrong’, Teng Shih advocated a relativism which would have been familiar to the Greek Sophist, Protagoras of Abdera. According to The Lu-Sze-Chun-Chiu, one of the historical records hostile to Teng Shih, “He could argue a right to be wrong, and a wrong to be right. With him right and wrong had no fixed standard and `yea’ and `nay’ changed every day. What he wished to win was always won; and whom he desired to punish was always punished.” He taught the people to advocate for themselves in court instead of paying solicitors and charged them according to the importance of their suit. Sources differ on whether his fees were more or less exorbitant than those charged by the lawyers of the day depending on the regard, or lack of it, of the writers but all seem in agreement that Teng Shih made a comfortable living from his efforts.
His ability to argue and manipulate effectively is illustrated in an anecdote from The Lu-Sze-Chun-Chu:
A wealthy man of Teng’s native state was drowned in the Wei River and his body was taken up by a man who demanded of the bereaved family a large sum of money for its redemption. The dead man’s family sought Teng’s counsel. `Wait,’ said the Sophist, `no other family will pay for the body.’ The advice was followed, and the man who held the corpse became anxious and also came to Teng Shih for advice. The Sophist gave the same counsel: `Wait; nowhere else can they obtain the body’. (Hu Shih, 14)
It is because of his enthusiasm for arguing any point, without regard to accepted standards of `right’ and `wrong’, that Teng was able to win every case he took on. Whether the story of the drowned man is true is not as important as what it says about Teng’s reputation as an unscrupulous manipulator among his detractors and a wise man to his admirers. Poor people then, as now, stood little chance when pitted against the wealthy in courts of law and Teng’s manipulation of the situation with the drowned man would have seemed admirable to the one class and reprehensible to the other.
Teng Shih’s opposition to the government was matched by the government’s relentless persecution of him. His ability to draw people to him and his great influence over them, finally became intolerable to the court of Tse-Tsan and Teng was executed by beheading either shortly before 522 or in 502 BCE. Tse-Tsan is known to have died in 522 BCE and the discrepancy in Teng Shih’s death date is due to conflicting accounts as to whether it was Tse-Tsan who ordered his execution or Tsan’s successor. After his death, the state adopted and instituted his penal code as law. Teng Shih’s work is thought by some to have influenced Lao-Tzu’s philosophy and there is certainly much in his underlying attitude, especially regarding equality of people, which is found in Lao-Tzu’s Tao-Te-Ching. However, since there is no definite date available for Lao-Tzu’s life (and some doubt whether he even existed) this claim can not be substantiated. Teng Shih remains today as enigmatic a figure as he seems to have been in life and the only aspect of his work which is clear is his identification with, and advocacy for, the peasant class of China – even though it is equally clear he had no intention of living as one of them.