An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Philosophy and Thought of the Jin Period

Oct 31, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Revival of Daoism and mutual interpretation of Daoism and Confucianism

The orthodox Confucianism of the Han Dynasty that was only able to comment the old canonical books and to produce a sterile officialdom, was thoroughly discredited by the end of Later Han. Retiring from governmental offices became the normal way of life for the literati and the scholarship. The most famous representatives of this attitude were the "Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove" (Zhulin Qixian 竹林七賢: Ruan Ji 阮籍, Ji Kang 嵇康, Shan Tao 山濤, Xiang Xiu 向秀, Liu Ling 劉伶, Wang Rong 王戎, and Ruan Xian 阮咸) that engaged in highly sophisticated discussions ("pure discussions" qingtan 清談). Many of these discussions are preserved in the collection Shishuo Xinyu 世說新語 "New tales of the many (scholars') explanations". The Buddhists also used the form of discussion to defend their theories in the book Mouzi Lihuolun 牟子理惑論 "Master Mou Dispelling Doubts" and Sengyou's 僧祐 Hongmingji 弘明集 "Collection of broad illuminations". Daoism was of new interest for the intelligence of the time of division, people commented the books Laozi 老子 and Zhuangzi 莊子, like Wang Bi 王弼 and Guo Xiang 郭象. Both were representatives of a new school named "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學).

The School of the Mystery

Although Confucian scholars were still needed and employed because of their knowledge and experience in state rituals and administratorial matters, the general interest of the intelligence shifted from Confucianism and Confucian writings to Daoist and metaphysical philosphy and scriptures. While Confucianism has seen its highlight during the course of Han Dynasty, there had always been different schools and philosophies that had a mere metaphysical worldview than the society-centered teachings of the Confucians. Huang-Lao Daoism has been prevalent during the Han Dynasty, and scholars like Yang Xiong formulated their theories about the Great Mystery. Now, in a time of political, social and economic instability, intellectuals were interested in the search of an integral view of the universe, and the hence neglected Daoist classics like Laozi and Zhuangzi just met their needs. People like Liu Shao 劉卲 observed man as a product of the nature (book Renwuzhi 人物志 "The nature of man"), and philosophers started to make researches into the old Book of Changes (together with the Laozi and Zhuangzi called the Sanxuan 三玄 "Three Mysteries"). In their "pure conversations" (qingtan 清談), literati and scholars tried to find out the "Great Mystery" of the world, hence the philosophical streamings of the Jin period are called the "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學). There are two main schools, namely the "School cherishing the Non-Being" (guiwupai 貴無派), and the "School venerating the Being" (chongyoupai 崇有派). While the first believed that the ten thousand beings are united in a common basic formation called the "Way" or the "Non-Being", that helps all things to come into existing, the last saw the emergence and existence of all beings as accrued from within themselves. Representatives of the early School of Mystery are He Yan and Wang Bi, known as commentators of the Daost classics and of the Confucian Analects. In their eyes, all being is an expression of the great non-being, and social differences are naturally determined. We further find the Seven Sages from the Bamboo Grove. These men recognized nature (ziran 自然, literally "as-being-as-it-is-by-itself"), the origin of every existence, not as being chaotic and hostile, but as a well-ordered place without any contradictions and conflicts. And society, as a part of nature, therfore has to be harmonious and without conflicts as long as it is not destroyed by artificial definitions and arrangements. This extreme view contributed to the downfall of the Non-Being-School.
The Western Jin Dynasty representatives are Pei Wei 裴頠 (wrote Chongyoulun 崇有論 "Venerating the Being") and Guo Xiang. Pei Wei tried to unite the views of the two contradicting Mystery Schools. He emphasized that something non-existing does not need anything to come into existence, but that it is rather coming into existence by itself. One of the last representatives of the School of Mystery was Zhang Zhan 張湛, a commentator of Liezi 列子 who stressed that all creatures have the extreme emptiness as their ancestor, and total vanishing as their outcome. With the uprise of Buddhism and Buddhist metaphysical discussion, the School of Mystery gradually lost its significance. The revival of Daoism after the fall of Han Dynasty culminated in Ge Hong's 葛洪 book Baopuzi 抱朴子 that focuses on methods to enlengthen one's life. The Daoists' strive for eternal life led to many inventions in the sphere of alchemy and pharmakology. Alchemists like Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 wrote down their experiences, the pharmacological book Bencaojing 本草經 "Classic of Roots and Herbs" is still extant today. Xi Han 稽含 wrote a compendium about culturable plants of the south, Nanfang Caomu Zhuang 南方草木狀. A remarkable work of psychology is Liu Shao's 劉卲 Renwuzhi 人物志 "Research on Human Abilities", who tries to classify men according to their abilities and skills. Even the few active Confucian scholars were very interested in mystical writings like the Classic of Changes, Yijing 易經, commented by Han Kangbo 韓康伯 and Gan Bao 干寶. Du Yu 杜預 and Fan Ning 范寧 concentrated their studies on the Chunqiu Annals, while Mei Ze 梅賾 presented an old-text Book of Documents, Shangshu 尚書 with some chapters thaught lost. Some scholars say that Mei Ze had forged these parts.

Buddhist and Confucian literature in the north

Although Buddhism was prevailing in the north - with Chinese and Non-Chinese monks like Kumarajiva (Chinese: Jiumoluoshi 鳩摩羅什) translating Buddhist sutras into Chinese, there was always the need for the Non-Chinese rulers to fall back upon the Confucian scholars to help them to exert a well-functioning administration. Most states of the Sixteen Kingdoms period, and the rulers of the Northern Wei established state universities to train their officials. At the same time, Confucian educational literature again was written in the north. The most famous tractate is Yan Zhitui's 顏之推 Yanshi Jiaxun 顏氏家訓, but we find also less known works like Liu Zhou's 劉晝 Liuzi 劉子.