Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Classical Daoism – Is there really such a thing?

(Scott Barnwell, a long time friend of the blog, will be guest-posting on this topic. Here is Part I of Scott’s thoughts. This post also appears on his own blog. Please address Scott directly in your comments.)

Daojia and Huang-Lao

Classical Daoism, Philosophical Daoism, Early Daoism: these terms are increasingly being seen as obsolescent by scholars in the last couple of decades. The general public – those who have heard of Daoism or have read a little bit of it – are largely unaware, despite the fact that for quite awhile writers have admitted that there were no “Daoists” in pre-Han China and that the two most famous “Daoists,” Laozi and Zhuangzi, surely never thought of themselves as Daoists. The more recent interest in what was once called “religious Daoism (Daojiao 道教),” as opposed to “philosophical Daoism (Daojia 道家),” has seen a shift towards using “Daoism” to refer only to the former.

In this series of blog posts I am going to explore this matter. First, I will look at the oldest evidence for a “Daoist school” in the Historical Records (Shiji 史記) and the Han Documents (Hanshu 漢書). Next I will look into both the text and the legendary man Laozi 老子, followed by Zhuangzi 莊子. Texts that will be mentioned along the way will include: the Laozi 老子, Zhuangzi 莊子, Hanfeizi 韓非子 (esp. Jie Lao 解老, Yu Lao 喻老), Lüshi Chunqiu 春秋左傳, Mengzi 孟子, Xunzi 荀子, Guanzi 管子 (esp. Neiye 內業), Huainanzi 淮南子, Heguanzi 鶡冠子, and the Huangdi Sijing 黃帝四經. I will also survey various scholars’ views on early Chinese “schools of thought.”

Daojia 道家 first appears in the Historical Records written by Sima Tan 司馬談 and his son Sima Qian 司馬遷, both of whom served as the “Grand Astrologer” (Taishi 太史) in the early Han Dynasty. In the one hundred and thirtieth chapter of the Historical Records, Sima Qian presented his father’s outlines of the “Six Jia (六家),” commonly thought of as the “ six schools of thought” but probably best understood as the “six areas of expertise” or “six approaches to government.”[1] He lists these as the Yinyang (陰陽), the Ru (儒), the Mo (墨), the Ming (名), the Fa (法), and the Daode (道德; afterwards shortened to Daojia 道家). For Sima Tan, these six categories were methods or techniques of governing (Zhi 治), of which he neither names texts nor exponents of these approaches. After discussing some pros and cons of the others, Sima Tan discussed the Daojia:

道家使人精神專一,動合無形,贍(=澹)足萬物。其為術也,因陰陽之大順,采儒墨之善,撮名法之要,與時遷移,應物變化,立俗施事,無所不宜,指約而易操,事少而功多。
“The Daoists enable the numinous essence within people to be concentrated and unified. In movement they are joined with the Formless, in tranquility they (provide) sufficiently for all living things. In deriving their techniques, they follow the grand compliances of the Yinyang lineage, select the best of the Ru and Mo lineages, and extract the essentials of the Ming and Fa lineages. They shift (their policies) in accordance with the seasons and respond to the transformations of things. In establishing customs and promulgating policies, they do nothing unsuitable. Their tenets are concise and easy to grasp; their policies are few but their achievements are many.”[2]

Unlike the other Jia, Sima Tan enumerated no shortcomings or defects of Daojia, partially, no doubt, because it incorporated the best parts of the others.[3] A bit later some further analysis is offered:

道家無為,又曰無不為,其實易行,其辭難知。其術以虛無為本,以因循為用。無成埶,無常形,故能究萬物之情。不為物先,不為物后,故能為萬物主。有法無法,因時為業;有度無度,因物與合。故曰「聖人不朽,時變是守。虛者道之常也,因者君之綱」也。
“The Daoists do nothing, but they also say that nothing is left undone. Their substance is easy to practice, but their words are difficult to understand. Their techniques take emptiness and nothingness as the foundation and adaptation and compliance as the application. They have no set limits, no regular forms, and so are able to penetrate to the genuine basis of living things. Because they neither anticipate things nor linger over them, they are able to become the masters of all living things.

They have methods that are no methods:
They take adapting to the seasons as their practice.
They have limits that are no limits:
They adapt to things by harmonizing with them.
Therefore they say:
The sage is not clever:
The seasonal alternations are what the sage preserves.
Emptiness is the constant in the Way.
Adaptation is the guiding principle of the ruler.”[4]

Going solely on this description, it would seem Daojia has little to do with the Laozi. It is only “doing nothing and yet they say that nothing is left undone” (無為,又曰無不為) which seems to ultimately derive from the Laozi (chapters 37 and 48); although, the “motto” is also found in third century texts such as Zhuangzi chapters 18, 22, 23, and 25, and the Lüshi Chunqiu 25.3. One can also find it in the first chapter of the early Han text, the Huainanzi. One might wonder why he labeled it Dao-Jia, since his descriptions says nothing about Dao. We may surmise that he labeled it such because of its comprehensiveness: it was a Dao that included the other Daos. Or perhaps, as his first expression of it as Daode 道德 suggests, it was derived from the Dao and De sections of the Laozi, (though not yet called the Daodejing 道德經).

No names of individuals or texts are named by Sima Tan for any of these lineages. It is fairly clear that the Laozi, (or Lao Dan, the supposed author), was believed by his son Sima Qian to be an exemplar of Daojia thought. His biography of Laozi mentions that Laozi wrote a book in two parts on Dao and De and in a number of places in the Shiji we find Daojia connected to the teachings and practices of “the Yellow Emperor and Laozi (黃帝、老子, or simply Huang-Lao 黃老),”[5] which seem to be synonymous (see below). In the Han Documents’ “Treatise on Literature” (Hanshu Yiwenzhi 漢書 • 藝文志), Ban Gu’s 班固 bibliographical listing[6] for Daojia presumably included the Laozi, as it included four commentaries on it, as well as known texts such as the Zhuangzi 莊子, Wenzi 文子, Liezi 列子, Heguanzi 鶡冠子, and the Yellow Emperor’s Four Classics (Huangdi Sijing 黃帝四經).[7]

The Hanshu, for its part, describes Daojia thusly:

道家者流,蓋出於史官,歷記成敗存亡禍福古今之道,然後知秉要執本,清虛以自守,卑弱以自持,此君人南面之術也。合於堯之克攘,易之嗛嗛,一謙而四益,此其所長也。及放者為之,則欲絕去禮學,兼棄仁義,曰獨任清虛可以為治。
“The current of the Daoists emanated from the Office of the Historian, which in successive generations recorded the various roads leading to success or failure, survival or destruction, and ill or good fortune from antiquity down to the present. By and by they came to understand how grasping the essentials maintains the root, how purity and emptiness preserves oneself, and how humility and pliancy sustains oneself. These became the techniques of the ruler who faces south. They accord with Yao’s capacity to yield and the Changes hexagram “Modesty and Humility,” wherein one instance of humility brings forth four benefits. These are its strengths. Nonetheless, if taken too liberally, one will desire to disregard ritual education and abandon humaneness and righteousness, claiming that one need only employ purity and emptiness to govern.”[8]

Sima Tan’s Daojia represented an approach to governing that centred on responding and adapting (Yin 因)[9] to changes, in the process adopting any “methods” from other ways of governing or ordering society that proved useful, such as those of the Ru, Mo, Fa and Ming. There appears also to be some concern with Jingshen 精神, “essential and spiritual energies,” Wuwei 無為, “non-purposive or non-interfering action” and Xuwu 虛無, “emptiness and nothingness.” Ban Gu’s Daojia was described quite differently, as responding or adapting to changes is not mentioned once, nor adopting the best from other Jia.[10] His Daojia seems to have had more to do with humility and the way to maintain and preserve oneself, based on acquaintance with events of the past. He also regarded the Daojia as entailing a rejection of typical Ru concerns: ritual/etiquette, benevolence and duty (禮、仁、義). This description has more in common with the Laozi than Sima Tan’s.

We turn now to “Huang-Lao 黃老,” the philosophy and/or practices apparently popular in the first half of the Han Dynasty. Huang-Lao refers to the teachings of the legendary Yellow Emperor (Huang Di 黃帝, trad. c. twenty-seventh century B.C.E.) in combination with those of the Laozi. There are as many opinions on what texts Huang-Lao applies to, but many of them have connections to the land of Chu 楚. Some suggestions are the four silk texts from Mawangdui, a.k.a. The Yellow Emperor’s Four Classics 黃帝四經, the Huainanzi 淮南子, the Heguanzi 鶡冠子, a number of chapters of the Guanzi 管子,[11] and a number from the Chunqiu Fanlu 春秋繁露.[12] Besides showing the influence of the Laozi, these so-called Huang-Lao texts appear to be anything that is not distinctly Confucian or Mohist and have theories on statecraft.[13] The Yellow Emperor was increasingly being used to give authority to writings in many, many areas of thought,[14] so what his name is supposed to imply is difficult to know. Perhaps, because he had become known to be China’s first (or most significant) ruler, his name was used to signify a “Laoist” philosophy regarding rulership.

Han Emperor Wen’s wife Empress (Dowager) Dou 竇 is repeatedly proclaimed to have been very fond of the words (Yan 言) and methods (Shu 術) of Laozi, or Huangdi and Laozi. For example, in the forty-ninth chapter of the Shiji we read: “Empress Dowager Dou was fond of the teachings of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi. Emperor (Wen), the heir apparent, and the Dou family members were obliged to study them and prize their methods (竇太后好黃帝、老子言,帝及太子諸竇不得不讀黃帝、老子,尊其術。).”[15] In Shiji 107 we read again of Empress Dowager’s fondness for Huang-Lao but also of a number of scholars who competed with her by advancing Rushu 儒術, literally “Classicists’ methods,” perhaps implying Confucianism. These scholars, as Sima reported elsewhere, “disparaged the teachings of Daojia” (貶道家言).[16] This suggests that Huang-Lao and Daojia refer to the same ideology. Once the Empress asked a staunch defender of the Ru and expert on the Odes what he thought of the “book of Laozi” (老子書). Perhaps unwisely, he answered, “these are nothing but the teachings of a menial” (此是家人言耳), after which he received some severe punishment.[17] Once she died (135 B.C.E.), however, the Ru/Confucians repressed the teachings of Huang-Lao and Confucianism began its ascendency relatively unimpeded.[18]

In addition to Empress Dowager Dou and her family, well over a dozen names are mentioned in the Shiji as being adherents of Huang-Lao, such as Ji An 汲黯, Elder Gao 蓋公, Sima Jizhu 司馬季主, Chen Ping 陳平, and Elder Yue Chen 樂臣公.[19] The Prince of Huainan, Liu An 劉安 (c. 180-122 B.C.E.), put together the Huainanzi 淮南子 in this Huang-Lao and Laozi-friendly environment, and it shows throughout the whole text (which also draws heavily from the Zhuangzi). Generally speaking, this text could be considered a Huang-Lao text and Liu a Huang-Lao advocate.

Some of them lived prior to the Han. In fact, Sima Qian labelled pre-Qin thinkers Shenzi 申子, Hanfei 韓非, and Jixia 稷下 residents Shen Dao 慎到, Tian Pian 田駢, Jiezi 接子, and Huan Yuan 環淵 as being adherents of Huang-Lao.[20] Ban Gu also labeled the pre-Qin philosopher Songzi 宋子 as Huang-Lao. However, these are purely retrospective labels, as it does not appear in any textual sources prior to the Han and these thinkers would not have thought of themselves as following Huang-Lao teachings or practices. Sima Tan does not mention Huang-Lao, which may have been a creation of his son.[21] It does not appear, however, that any of these men founded their theories or grounded their views in those of the Laozi. Sima Qian may have, after reading some of their works, saw some doctrines that resembled those of a current Huang-Lao tradition in the Han. He almost certainly did not read all of their writings, so his views of them are probably skewed and not completely representative. Perhaps his connecting Hanfei with Laozi may be attributed to his seeing the two commentaries included in the Hanfeizi.[22] Or perhaps the de-emphasizing or rejecting of beloved Confucian ideals of Ren, Yi and Li (仁、義、禮) in the sayings found in the Laozi and stories about Lao Dan (in the Zhuangzi) that were shared by Hanfei, Shenzi and their followers created a bond in Sima Qian’s mind.

Tae Hyun Kim thinks that the Jie Lao 解老, Yu Lao 喩老, Zhu Dao 主道, Yang Quan 揚權 chapters of the Hanfeizi could justifiably be called Huang-Lao texts but, like Hagop Sarkissian, does not think they were written by Hanfei.[23] Sarkissian does not think the Jie Lao and Yu Lao are Huang-Lao because there is no discussion of law. No one knows why the two commentaries were included in the Hanfeizi, though perhaps to match the belief that he was based in the thought of Laozi or perhaps to add prestige to his work in the early Han.

Wang Chong 王充 (c. 30-100 C.E.), in his Lunheng 論衡 occasionally discussed Laozi, Huang-Lao and Daojia. He associated longevity and immortality with Daojia (chapter 24) as well as associating both Daojia and Huang-Lao with a good understanding of the processes of Heaven and Earth, i.e., their naturalness and lack of purposeful activity (chapter 54 and 42 respectively). He identified a Wuwei-style of government to them (chapter 54) and identified quietism (Tiandan 恬澹) as another trait of Huang-Lao and Lao Dan (chapters 54 and 80).[24]

Next: Laozi 老子


[1] Kidder Smith, “Sima Tan and the Invention of Daoism, ‘Legalism,’ ‘et cetera’” in The Journal of Asian Studies, 2003.

[2] “On the Six Lineages of Thought” by Sarah Queen and Harold Roth in Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. I, Columbia University Press, 1999, 279, modified.

[3] The Zajia 雜家, the “Miscellaneous Jia” of the Hanshu’s Yiwenzhi 漢書 藝文志 was described very similarly, taking the best of some of the others: 兼儒、墨,合名、法. Zajia included the Lüshi Chunqiu and Huainanzi.

[4] Ibid. 281-2.

[5] For example, Shiji 56 and 107.

[6] I will refer to the Yiwenzhi chapter of the Hanshu as representing Ban Gu’s view, even though he took this classification from Liu Xin 劉歆 and perhaps his father, Liu Xiang 劉向.

[7] Which may or may not be the Four Texts attached to the Laozi manuscripts found at Mawangdui.

[8] Sarah A Queen, “Inventories of the Past: Rethinking the “School” Affiliation of the Huainanzi,” Asia Major, Volume 14, part 1, 2001, p. 62-3.

[9] Yin 因 appears five times in the two descriptions.

[10] As that was the hallmark of the Zajia 雜家. See note #3.

[11] E.g., the Neiye, Xinshu Shang, Xinshu Xia, Baixin, Zheng, Chi Mi, Zhou He, Shu Yan, Bing Fa, Ba Yan, etc.

[12] Sarah Queen in her From Chronicle to Canon writes that “21 sections from seven chapters 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 77, 78” are Huang-Lao and that these texts pay little attention to Confucian texts. She writes that “these chapters argue that Laozi’s doctrine of non-purposive action, Shen Buhai’s theory of titles and actualities, Hanfei’s advocacy of impartial rewards and punishments, Mozi’s emphasis on elevating the worthy, and Guanzi’s techniques of inner cultivation are indispensible methods of rulership” (Cambridge University Press, 1996, 85-6).

[13] Roger Ames/D.C. Lau wrote, “At this point in time, ‘Huang-Lao’ has become a receptacle for any early Han dynasty text that has a Daoist tincture, and given the syncretism that marks this period, there is little that is excluded by it.” (Yuan Dao, Ballantine, 1998, 12)

[14] See Robin Yates’ Five Lost Classics, Ballantine, 1997, 10-12 and 17-19.

[15] Cf. Shiji 12, 28, 121. Both Emperor Wen and Jing also had a fondness for Xingming 刑名, which by then formed some associations with Daojia/Huang-Lao.

[16] Cf. Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian, Vol. II, Columbia University Press, 1996, p. 93.

[17] Shiji 121, Cf. Watson, Vol. II p. 364.

[18] Shiji 121.

[19] See Aat Vervoorn’s Men of Cliffs and Caves, The Chinese University Press, 1990, 268 n31 for more names.

[20] In Laozi’s biography both Shenzi and Hanfei are labelled as adherents of Huang-Lao (and Xingming 刑名). It is no coincidence that scholars who specialized in the teachings of Shenzi and Hanfei (along with a few others) were expelled from the royal court by the Ru-supporter and imperial counsellor Zhao Wan (趙綰). (Hanshu 6; see Griet Vankeerberghen, The Huainanzi and Liu An’s Claim to Moral Authority, SUNY Press, 2001, 11).

[21] Kidder Smith, 2003, 146.

[22] These probably were not even written by him; see below.

[23] “Other Laozi Parallels in the Hanfeizi” in Sino-Platonic Papers 199, March 2010, 17. Hagop Sarkissian, “Laozi: Re-visiting Two Early Commentaries in the Hanfeizi” M.A. Thesis, University of Toronto, 2001.

[24] This will be discussed more later.

October 17th, 2011 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | 30 comments

30 Responses to Classical Daoism – Is there really such a thing?

  1. Huaiyu Wang says:

    Nice post – though I am primarily provoked by a point on textual authenticity raised by scholars like Kim and Sarkissian etc.

    .”… Sarkissian does not think the Jie Lao and Yu Lao are Huang-Lao because there is no discussion of law. No one knows why the two commentaries were included in the Hanfeizi, though perhaps to match the belief that he was based in the thought of Laozi or perhaps to add prestige to his work in the early Han.”

    This appears to be quite a hasty inferences as it provokes more questions than it attempts to answer: e.g.

    1) it is not clear what solid evidence we have to question the authenticity of Jie Lao and Yu Lao chapters in Hanfeizi, just because some modern scholars “feel” that they are not authentic is far from an adequate piece of evidence

    2) For Sarkissian, I don’t catch his logic that because there is no discussion of law, therefore the two chapters are not Huang-Lao – I don’t think being discussion of law is a necessary condition to be considered as a Huang-Lao text – how many chapters in Lao-zi, Zhuang-zi and Lie-zi discusses “Law” directly?

    3) “No one knows why the two commentaries were included in the Hanfeizi,” This simply begs the question why the two chapters are not authentic – because there is no convincing evidence whatsoever that they are not authentic…

    4) Of course, I will welcome more evidence for the inference if available. But before they are presented, I don’t think we should doubt the original edition for the inclusion of these two chapters – it seems that ancient editors had good reasons for their editions of texts – and I just don’t get it why we modern scholars can presuppose/impose an “Evil” intention on those editors without any “hard” evidence for thinking otherwise…

    My two cents

    • Hi Huaiyu Wang,

      Thanks for your two cents.
      A study on the authenticity of the Jie Lao and Yu lao chapters of the Hanfeizi is not my chosen task. I would suggest getting a hold of Sarkissian’s and Kim’s papers for more analysis. From their arguments, (not just “feelings”), and from my own haphazard reading of the Hanfeizi, I have been convinced that Hanfei did not write them, especially Jie Lao, which actually is somewhat Confucian. So, I disagree that there is no convincing evidence that they are authentic. I am actually surprised many Eastern scholars still assume Hanfei wrote them (I am not referring to you personally).

      You write, “For Sarkissian, I don’t catch his logic that because there is no discussion of law, therefore the two chapters are not Huang-Lao – I don’t think being discussion of law is a necessary condition to be considered as a Huang-Lao text – how many chapters in Lao-zi, Zhuang-zi and Lie-zi discusses “Law” directly?”

      I too am not sure that law must necessarily be discussed in a text for that text to be labelled Huang-Lao. As mentioned in my piece, what Huang-Lao is, however, is far from clear. Moreover, I am not sure what relevance mentioning Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi have. Do you believe them to be Huang-Lao texts?

  2. Huaiyu Wang says:

    Thanks for your inputs, Scott.

    For the Hanfei text, may I know what convincing evidence (other than feelings) that you have that these two chapters are COnfucian instead of being composed by Han Fei?

    • Hagop lists Hu Shi, Liang Qichao, Rong Zhaozu, Kimura Eiichi, Chen Qitian, Guo Moruo, Jiang Boqian, Liang Qixiong, Pan Chonggui and Bertil Lundahl as some who have questioned Hanfei’s authoriship of one or both.

      As for Confucian ideas in Jie Lao, there is the concern for the people’s welfare (i.e., benevolent governing) and the endorsing of the virtues of Ren, Yi and Li, and emphasis on De.

    • I have decided to modify my statement somewhat in light of our discussion. The relevant part now reads: “If these commentaries and related chapters were not written by Hanfei, we do not know how or why they found their way into the Hanfeizi, though perhaps to match the belief that he was based in the thought of Laozi or perhaps to add prestige to his work in the early Han.”

    • Hi Huaiyu,

      Since Scott was kind enough to mention my research on this question, I thought I’d follow up with a little more detail (though hopefully not to derail this whole post into a discussion of the Hanfeizi).

      When researching these chapters a number of features stood out to me:

      1) They are very different from one another. Jie Lao is almost entirely philosophical exegesis, tackling Laozi chapters as a whole, whereas Yu Lao consists entirely of historical episodes glossed with snippets of the Laozi. Jie Lao uses 國 when discussing states, whereas Yu Lao uses 邦. Jie Lao speaks of the Dao as the progenitor of the universe, whereas Yu Lao *never* mentions the Dao. They comment on the same lines in the Laozi yet give them different readings in some cases. Moreover, where they comment on the same bit of text from the Laozi the quotations vary.

      For these (and other) reasons I ended up concluding that it was more likely that these two chapters came from two different writers, as opposed to one writer who radically changed his style, interpretation, and Laozi edition from one chapter to another. If so, Han Fei could, at *most*, have written one of them. However, owing to other reasons, I believe he wrote neither.

      2) As Scott mentions, Jie Lao seems very pro-Confucian. If anyone reads it separately with no idea about authorship I would imagine that no other conclusion would come to their minds. I found it hard to make sense of the pro-Confucian aspects of the Jie Lao chapter in light of Han Fei’s other philosophy.

      3) Finally, as Scott notes, I am not alone in the commentarial tradition, and the authenticity of these chapters has been suspect for a long time.

      Hope that helps. Free feel to follow up through email.

      • Huaiyu Wang says:

        Thank you for your generous inputs, Hagop!

        I appreciated your reasons for doubting the authenticity of these two chapters – though they appear to be circumstantial than convincing. – Will follow up with email for this discussion when I have more time to write.

      • Huaiyu Wang says:

        Thanks for your generous inputs, Hagop.

        I like the reasons you gave – though they appear more like circumstantial than convincing evidence and I trust we may be able to clarify some of the doubts if we emphasize the different purpose of these two chapters – one intends to give careful exegesis for the specific Laozi chapter, the other oriented for using analogies and anecdotes to illustrate some aspects of the Daoist teachings.

        Will follow up with more detailed comments with email when I have more time to write :-)

  3. Huaiyu Wang says:

    Scott, Many thanks for your abundant sources of reference and your open minded modification of your previous statement to facilitate the blog discussion.

    I am not sure however the use the concept of ren and yi and the concern for the people’s welfare are “sufficient conditions to category a thinker as a Confucian. These concepts and concerns may well be commonly respected in various degrees by all schools of thinkers. For example, both Guan zi and Mo zi, the founders of Legalism and Moism, respectively, had outspoken concerns for the welfare of the people and had some nice words to say on the concepts of Ren and Yi.

    I shall check out the reference you give sometime. But as you appear to be more familiar with the sources, would you mind summarizing (or list one or two of ) some of the major and the most convincing reasons/evidence that made those scholars doubt the authenticity of the two chapters involved?

    • While Ren and Yi might not be sufficient reasons to argue for a Confucian author to the Jie Lao chapter, and were not the sole property of that school, Hanfei is elsewhere hostile to any endorsement of them. As for Guanzi, I do not recognize it as a Legalist text, as I am finding inadequate these traditional labels (of Daoism, Legalism, etc). Some of the references in my notes above would provide more information on this. I will admit that some of the material in the Guanzi has been labelled “Legalist,” and justifiably so. But I am not interested at this time in defining what Legalism (or Fajia) is (Herrlee Creel’s book Shen Pu-Hai is a good start, though), and further, as I’ve stated, defending my position on the inauthenticity of the two Laozi commentaries in the Hanfeizi is not something I have time to do right now. Sorry.

      Good health,
      Scott

  4. Bill Haines says:

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for this fabulous post!

    Regarding Sima Tan’s account of Daojia, you write,

    Going solely on this description, it would seem Daojia has little to do with the Laozi. It is only “doing nothing and yet they say that nothing is left undone” (無為,又曰無不為) which seems to ultimately derive from the Laozi (chapters 37 and 48); although …

    That comment surprised me, because as I was reading his account in your post, I was thinking that it was in many ways reminiscent of the DDJ. But I’m not sure whether you’re denying that. Do you just mean the account seems not to be a description specifically and mainly of the DDJ? Or do you mean that it shows little sign of being an account of the views of a group of thinkers whose views are in distinctly more harmony with the DDJ than with than with other pre-Qin texts we have (especially those not traditionally regarded as “Daoist”)?

    • Thanks Bill. To answer your question, (and to ask one myself), other than the reference to Wuwei (which was not necessarily taken from the DDJ), there is nothing specific in the description that makes me believe Sima Tan was thinking of the DDJ. Can you tell me what you see? Perhaps the mention of 無形 and 虛無?

    • Bill Haines says:

      I think your answer is that your point was roughly the first of the two alternatives I set out, rather than the second? I meant to say that I wasn’t inclined to challenge that point. My thought wasn’t that ST seemed to be thinking of the DDJ, but that what he said seemed reminiscent of it — that is, seemed conspicuously closer to it than to other texts of the period, especially ones not traditionally regarded as “Daoist.”

      • Sorry Bill, you were quite clear and I misunderstood. I suppose some of the content of those passages sounds more like it describes what we find in the Laozi and Zhuangzi, but not all. I think it sounds more like what we find in the eclectic Huainanzi to be honest.

        • Bill Haines says:

          Thanks Scott! That does address my question – and I imagine it’s an improvement in your piece, but I’m simply unqualified to judge!

          I think a provocative part of your discussion is the phrase “has little to do with” at the beginning. It doesn’t say what kind of relation between the description and the Laozi is being said to be minimal at best. The reader is likely to think that since the overall question of the piece is the question of the existence of a body of thought shared by a number of people over time, the important kind of relation to be attending to is similarity of ideas. So it looks as though you’re saying that there is little similarity between the ideas in the description you quote and the ideas in the Laozi.

          It’s unclear how the existence of similar sayings in later texts would be relevant to that question.

          It’s one thing to say that the Laozi falls within a school, and another thing to say that the Laozi is a comprehensive summary of the views of the school. The former claim allows that there may be some major views characteristic of the school that are not included in the Laozi.

          My own sense is that the Laozi and the most Laozilike parts of the description (considered as a philosophical manifesto, not as a factual report of someone else’s manifesto) have this in common: anything approaching a literal reading of them would be grotesquely uncharitable. That is to say: if any views are being expressed here, we cannot simply read them off the literal language in any straightforward way.

          Nor is it reasonable to expect Sima Tan to have read the Laozi so uncharitably.

          Indeed, the reader of the Laozi faces a kind of dilemma throughout: the paradoxes in the text are so abstract that they give inadequate clues about what if anything the author(s) might actually mean. Literally, the text is ridiculous; but read non-literally it seems hopelessly vague. Aiming at charity but starved of clues, one thinks up readings that make the text say something unobjectionable; but these readings are questionable because they tend to make the text trivial and uninteresting. I’m not saying that one can’t find defensible and interesting literal readings; I’m just saying it’s hard to do.

          What would we be looking for in looking for a school? The same views over time? A chain of masters, or rather a tree of masters, perhaps with changing views? Some other kind of institutional continuity? Continuity in the mere fact of honoring certain texts?

          Suppose there was a self-identified bunch of “Daoists” that honored the Laozi as its prime originating text. They may have had some views about what the Laozi literally meant, which may depart from how you or I would read it. In characterizing the school, it would be reasonable for Sima Tan to rely on those views, even if they make the text merely unobjectionable. Offhand it seems possible that he could thus have generated an account of the school’s views, meant also as an account of the Laozi, just like the description you quote: especially since shi(時) need not be read narrowly as “seasons” – shouldn’t it be read much more broadly? (“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Rowboats Я Us!”)

          • Harold Roth has persuasively argued that Sima Tan’s explanation of Daojia is a description of the Han dynasty’s “Huang-Lao” tradition, which is exemplified primarily in the Huainanzi. The language Sima Tan uses is certainly found in that text. Now, the Huainanzi draws from and treats as canonical the Laozi, so there is certainly a connection. What I was trying to communicate was that none of this language is found in the Laozi. Jingshen 精神 is unheard of as is joining with the formless (合無形). The Laozi basically attacks the views of the Ru, Mo, Fa and Ming, so it follows that it does not incorporate the best of them. “Shifting with the times” and “responding to changes” are also nowhere to be found in the Laozi. (I mentioned that Roth believes they to be developments of Wuwei 無為, which in my view is questionable, though possible). The next description likewise does not share much terminology with the Laozi. Perhaps this is, as you say, uncharitable. In my defense, all I can say is that at this point in time, I want to limit myself to what the texts literally say. As I take this exploration further, I will go beyond the purely literal. At that point, I will still prefer to be cautious, as one can find any connections one wants if one simply reads what one chooses between the lines.

          • Bill Haines says:

            Thanks! All that is news to me. Sorry I put my reply under the wrong comment; as you know it belongs under yours of August 27.

            What is the “this” that you’re saying I say is uncharitable?

          • the literal reading if the texts.

          • Hi Bill,

            re: “My own sense is that the Laozi and the most Laozilike parts of the description have this in common.”
            – What does “this” refer to?

          • Bill Haines says:

            The string ends with a colon, not a period; “this” is what follows the colon. “…have this in common: anything approaching a literal reading of them would be grotesquely uncharitable.”

            For the description, I had in mind e.g. “they are able to become the masters of all living things.
            They have methods that are no methods”.

            For an example from the Laozi – in our recent email correspondence I proposed the opening lines of DDJ2, and by your better understanding of the character ‘斯‘ you’ve made me less than certain about those lines. How about this other string from that chapter: “有無相生”?

          • Thanks Bill, I am finding this helpful (I am eager to hear what similarities people perceive in the “Daoist” material, esp. Laozi and Zhuangzi). With regards to 有法無法, I can see how one can feel this describes some of what we find in the Laozi, whose methods either a) are so subtle as to be indescribable or b) seem like no methods. As for 有無相生 in chapter 2, I fin it hard to agree with the many translators who interpret it as saying “being and nonbeing give birth to each other,” and feel that it rather means something less metaphysical: “having and not having generate each other; that is, they only make sense as concepts in relation to each other.

            ———————————————
            By the way, two things I want to say about our conversation about Laozi 2′s 斯惡已. 1) the oldest texts lack the 斯, and 2) I could accept 斯 meaning “this” if we insert a “why is this?” after the opening two lines, making all of what follows an explanation. In fact, I just noticed that while the 斯 is missing from the Guodian and Mawangdui texts for the first part (beauty/ugliness), the second part (good/bad) contains either 斯 (MWD B), 訾 (MWD A) or 此丌 (Guodian), which Henricks reads as 則, Ryden and the Chinese editors as 此其, and someone at CHANT as 此斯 (= “this” or “this then”?).

          • Bill Haines says:

            Thanks, that’s fascinating about the texts!

            *

            With my beginner’s knowledge of classical Chinese I think that ‘generate’ falls within the range of literal meaning of “生”. My worry was about the proposition that being and nonbeing in fact generate each other.

            Maybe you’re right to suggest that the string’s message is that one can’t have one concept without the other: it’s both or neither. But this message is not the literal meaning of the string, right? Two reasons: (a) This message is not about anything generating anything, and (b) this message is not about having, it’s about the concept of having (or of being or whatever).

            Here’s another candidate message, different from the one you suggest: things work in cycles. If you have something, you tend soon lack it, and vice versa. Note that this message is not at all about concepts.

            The cycle message and the concept message can’t both be part of the literal meaning of the Laozi’s string, right? But if the string isn’t meant literally, then it could be meant to suggest both.

            Come to think of it, the cycle message, however vague it is, could be a literal reading of the string. Does it fit with a plausible and mostly literal reading of the whole chapter?

          • Bill Haines says:

            It’s not that I think there’s a sharp border between literal and nonliteral meanings. A year or two ago on WW&W I suggested that, or asked whether, early Chinese thought lacks a distinction between the literal and the metaphorical. I think this was on the Question Board, from which (to my surprise and dismay) much material has been purged.

            (Linguistic intuition is a funny thing. A while back I noticed that my own sense of the meaning of “生” is such that perhaps the most fitting core image would be, not the beginning of an animal or plant, but rather the emergence of a shiny pimple. I don’t remember if I ever had an articulate reason for this view. Maybe the underlying reaosn is that this image is sort of halfway between the animal and plant cases.)

          • Bill Haines says:

            (I found recently that Slingerland and I disagree very radically about what ‘literal’ means. Maybe ideas about that differ more than I suppose? Discussed under Yong Huang’s 4/21/2012 post on Slingerland: comment #3 paragraph 3, and comment #2 thru part a.

          • Perhaps ‘generate’ is not the best here for Sheng 生. It appears to be a pictograph of a plant rising from the ground. Early dictionaries give the following meanings: 進, 起, 產, 出, 養, 造, 性, 鞠. So perhaps 有無相生 means that having and lacking nourish or sustain each other. Though, to be honest, I don’t think too much thought should be put into interpreting the various (final) graphs in each line (i.e., 生,成,形,傾,and 和,隨) because they were chosen because they rhymed. So you’re right: avoid the literal here!

          • Bill Haines says:

            Because we think the strings aren’t literally meant, we face the question how to articulate (literally) the actual message of the chapter, so far as it has an intended message. I think that’s very difficult.

            Conceivably the message was about the mutual dependence of differing terms or concepts or properties. Or, conceivably, the message was about how things tend to go back and forth. Or maybe the message was some combination of these. Or something else entirely – perhaps some one truth held to underlie those two? The chapter seems not to be specifically about comparative terms (or relative properties) like bigger and smaller. Nor does it seem to be specifically about opposites, nor specifically about negations.

            Here are four really hard questions, perhaps in order of increasing difficulty:

            What does the book as a whole mean?
            What did Sima Tan think the book as a whole means? (He didn’t say, right?)
            What did the Daoists of Sima’s day think the book as a whole means?
            What did Sima Tan think the Daoists of his day thought the book as a whole means?

          • Bill Haines says:

            Further to our recent conversation on the Question Board: The idea of the mutual dependence of conceptual or ontological opposites could lead someone, I suppose, to think that pure nothingness is impossible. There can’t be nothing without something. But she might think that what is possible is the absence of differences – which absence she might envision as a kind of formless soup.

      • Hi Bill,

        I made a revision to this essay, and it specifically deals with the question you had asked. It now reads:

        On the one hand, going solely on this description, it would seem Daojia has little to do with the Laozi: it is only “doing nothing and yet they say that nothing is left undone” (無為,又曰無不為) which seems to ultimately derive from the Laozi (chapters 37 and 48); although, the “motto” is also found in third century texts such as Zhuangzi chapters 18, 22, 23, and 25, and the Lüshi Chunqiu 25.3. One can also find it in the first chapter of the early Han text, the Huainanzi. On the other hand, this (latter) description fits exactly with how Sima Tan viewed Laozi in his contribution to Laozi’s biography in Shiji 63: “Laozi placed his admiration in Dao, vacant nothingness, and adapting and responding to changes and transformations with Wuwei” (老子所貴道,虛無,因應變化於無為).

        One might wonder why he labeled it Dao-Jia, since his descriptions say nothing about Dao. We may surmise that he labeled it such because of its comprehensiveness: it was a Dao that included the other Daos. But perhaps it was based on his understanding of Laozi treasuring the Dao, or the Great Dao 大道, as it was often called.

        No names of individuals or texts are named by Sima Tan for any of these specialized approaches (Jia). It is fairly clear, however, that the Laozi, (or Lao Dan, the supposed author), was believed by the Simas to be an exemplar of Daojia thought. Their biography of Laozi mentions that Laozi wrote a book in two parts on Dao and De and in a number of places in the Shiji we find Daojia connected to the teachings and practices of “the Yellow Emperor and Laozi (黃帝、老子, or simply Huang-Lao 黃老),”[5] which seem to be synonymous (see below).

        Harold Roth has suggested that 因應變化 is a development of Laozi’s 無為, which seems plausible.

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