An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Huainanzi 淮南子

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Huainanzi 淮南子 "Master(s) from Huainan" is a collection of various philosophical treatises compiled by retainers of Liu An (179-122), Prince of Huainan 淮南, during the mid-Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). The book was originally called Huainan honglie 淮南鴻烈 "Grand illumination from Huainan", and the surviving part of the book is also known as Huainan neipian 淮南內篇 "Inner chapters from Huainan". The name Huainanzi emerged during the Sui period 隋 (581-618).

According to the imperial bibliography Yiwen zhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書, the Huainanzi consisted of 21 "inner chapters" (neipian 內篇) and 33 "outer chapters" (waipian 外篇). The outer chapters have not survived. There were also 8 "central chapters" (zhongpian 中篇) containing information about magical arts. They are lost as well. The received version of the Huainanzi has a length of 21 juan.

The content of the Huainanzi is very comprehensive and explains the cosmos from the viewpoint of the School of Yin and Yang 陰陽, Confucianism and legalism, but the basic tendency of the book is Daoist and the greatest part of its content is shaped by thinkers of the school of Huang-Lao thought 黃老. The most important, but otherwise unknown contributors were Su Fei 蘇飛, Li Shang 李尚, Zuo Wu 左吳, Tian You 田由, Lei Bei 雷被, Mao Pi 毛披, Wu Bei 伍被 and Jin Chang 晉昌. Because of its heterogenous character, the Huainanzi was by the compilers of the imperial series Siku quanshu 四庫全書 classified as a "miscellaneous treatise" (zajia 雜家).

The core concept of the Huainanzi is that there was a primordial dao 道 "Way" in the universe that could either be identified with a homogenous yet uncharacterised unity at the beginning of time and space or with an formless and physically not perceivable principle underlying all material beings. The dao existed before the primordial chaos (xuguo 虛霩, often called hundun 混沌) from which the cosmos came into being. During that process, the primary energy (qi 氣), often also translatable as "matter", evolved and permeated all things. The substance of the ten thousand beings (wanwu 萬物) was influenced by Yin and Yang. These two brought Heaven and Earth into harmony and gave shape to the bodies of all things. There was no predefined direction into which all things would got, but Yin and Yang kept on influencing the beings so that all were subject to permanent change.

Many parts of the Huainanzi are influenced by the Daoist book Zhuangzi 莊子. The chapter Qisu xun 齊俗訓, for instance, inherits the thoughts of the chapter Qiwulun 齊物論 in the Zhuangzi, but gives them a new direction from relativism to objectivism. The chapter Chuzhen xu 俶真訓 derives its view of the cosmos also from the Qiwulun. According to the chapter, the human character had to be geared to the ten thousand things of nature and to suppress desires by surpassing what was really necessary. Life had to be nourished from the side of the mind, and not from the side of the body.

The chapter Zhushu xun 主術訓 stresses the importance of self-cultivation (xiushen 修身) for a ruler and advises princes to adhere to the Confucian virtues of kindheartedness (ren 仁) and righteousness (yi 義). While the enlightened perfect man (junzi 君子) displayed these virtues, the mean man (xiaoren 小人) only sought his own profit (li 利), as the chapter Miucheng xun 繆稱訓 tells. A ruler had therefore to select and promote capable talents. Learning was the best method to come back to the natural way. In the chapter Xiuwu xun 修務訓, the Confucian concept of learning is thus tied to the Daoist search for the dao. The legalist notion of change according to the circumstances of time is set against the Confucian trend to preserve inherited customs.

Thoughts of Yin and Yang and the mutual respondence of Heaven and man are to be found in the chapters Lanming xun 覽冥訓, Benjing xun 本經訓, Taizu xun 泰族訓, Tianwen xun 天文訓 and Jingshen xun 精神訓. The chapter Shuolin xun 說林訓 speaks about the Five Agents (wuxing 五行). Some methods of the Mohists are to be found in the chapter Zhushu xun 主術訓, where the relation between name and reality is discussed and sparingness for burials recommended.

According to the cosmology explained in the Huainanzi, all things were born out of non-space, and all objects of reality thus originated in the void. The five colours were born in colourlessness, and the five musical notes were the product of quietness. They were perfect because the were the results of the natural forces Yin and Yang and were therefore naturally endowed with the objectively positive dao. Except this cosmic type of dao, the dao could also be found in human relations. The ruler of a state had to be the first to seek and perform the natural dao by way of non-activity (wuwei 無為). Yet this does not mean that he was not concerned with politics at all ("laissez-faire" in the literal meaning). Quite contrary, he had actively to find out what the underlying natural Way of things was, and use it for his political decisions. The Way was thus a kind of natural law that predefined the conditions of human life.

The main aspect showing a ruler what the dao was were the wishes of his people. A Daoist ruler had to care for his subjects, he had to unify his own heart with theirs and to bring peace to the people. The root of this peace was to care for their food, and not to exploit them by high taxes and corvée labour. Such a government could only exist if the state did not spend excessive money and labour on construction work or wars. Such a sparingness would suffice if the ruler returned to his natural character and to a kind of natural quietness and non-activity corresponding to the cosmic Way. If the people had enough to eat, any surplus was to be left to the peasants, and if there was shortness in food, the ruler had to do what he could to provide relief. Full state granaries were therefore necessary to prevent disasters and to keep society at peace. Unlike the Confucians, the thinkers who had compiled the Huainanzi clearly saw that times do change and require different methods in government. It was therefore not possible to return to the old standards of the past.

In the last chapter, Yaolüe 要略, the Huainanzi gives short abstracts about all various schools of thought that flourished during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE).

The spirit of the dao thus controls all things, so that all things on earth could be traced back to one positive, "noble" original (junxingzhe 君形者), like the face of the beauty Xi Shi 西施 or the eye of ferocious Meng Ben 孟賁. The Huainanzi is one of the first Chinese books speaking of aesthetics at all.

The Huainanzi contains a lot of stories of mythological content and is therefore a rich source for ancient folk beliefs. Some of them are very famous, like Nü Wa 女媧 repairing Heaven, Hou Yi 后羿 shooting down superfluous suns endangering the earth, Chang E's 嫦娥 ascension to the moon, or how Yu the Great 大禹 tamed the floods.

There were several commentaries written during the Han period, all with the title of Huainanzi zhu 淮南子注. The authors were Ma Rong 馬融 (79-166 CE), Xu Shen 許慎 (c. 58-c. 147), Gao You 高誘 (late 2nd cent. CE) and Sima Biao 司馬彪 (d. 306 CE ?). The commentary of Ma Rong is totally lost, of Xu Shen's commentary, some fragments have survived (collected by Sun Fengyi 孫馮翼, c. 1800), and only Gao You's commentary survived in full. The most important Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) commentaries are that of Gui Youguang 歸有光 (1506-1571) and Jiao Hong 焦竑 (1540-1620). Qing-period commentators are Liu Taigong 劉臺拱 (1751-1805) and Yu Yue 俞樾 (1821-1907).

A very good modern edition of the Huainanzi and its commentaries is Liu Wendian's 劉文典 (1889-1958) Huainanzi jijie 淮南子集解 from 1923. Fang Yuan 方元 has written the Huainanzi yaolüe pianshi 淮南子要略篇釋 (1928). In 1953, the Zhongguo Kexue Yuan 中國科學院 published a commentary by Yang Shuda 楊樹達 (1885-1956), the Huainanzi zhengwen 淮南子證聞. The Huainanzi is included in the series Zhuzi huihan 諸子彙函, Wenjingtang congshu 問經堂叢書 and the Daoist Canon Daozang 道藏.

There are partial translations by John S. Major (1993), Heaven and Earth in Early Chinese Thoguht: Chapters Three, Four and Five of the Huainanzi (Albany: State University of New York Press), Evan Morgan (1969), Tao, the Great Luminant: Essays from Huai Nan Tzu (New York: Paragon), Charles Le Blanc (1985), Huai-Nan-Tzu, Philosophical Synthesis in Early Han Thought: The Idea of Resonance [Ch. 6] (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Unversity Press), Roth, Harold D., John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Seth Meyer (2010), The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China (New York: Columbia University Press), and Bromleym, Michelle, Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée (2010), Jing Shen: A Translation of Huainanzi Chapter 7 (Cambridge?: Monkey).

Table 1. Contents of the Huainanzi 淮南子
1. 原道訓 Yuandao Originating in the Way
2. 俶真訓 Chuzhen Activating the genuine
3. 天文訓 Tianwen Celestial patterns
4. 墬形訓 Zhuixing Terrestrial forms
5. 時則訓 Shize Seasonal rules
6. 覽冥訓 Lanming Surveying obscurities
7. 精神訓 Jingshen Quintessential spirit
8. 本經訓 Benjing The basic warp
9. 主術訓 Zhushu The ruler's techniques
10. 繆稱訓 Miucheng Profound precepts
11. 齊俗訓 Qisu Integrating customs
12. 道應訓 Daoying Responses of the Way
13. 氾論訓 Fanlun Boundless discourses
14. 詮言訓 Quanyan Sayings explained
15. 兵略訓 Binglüe An overview of the military
16. 說山訓 Shuoshan A mountain of persuasions
17. 說林訓 Shuolin A forest of persuasions
18. 人間訓 Renjian Among others
19. 脩務訓 Youwu Cultivating effort
20. 泰族訓 Taizu The exalted lineage
21. 要略 Yaolüe An overview of the essentials
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