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The Essential Huainanzi

The Essential Huainanzi

John S. Major
Sarah A. Queen
Andrew Seth Meyer
Harold D. Roth
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Essential Huainanzi
    Book Description:

    Compiled in the second century B.C.E, the Huainanzi clarifies a crucial period in the development of Chinese conceptions of the cosmos, human nature, and the social order. Outlining "all that a modern monarch needs to know," the text emphasizes rigorous self-cultivation and mental discipline, attributing successful rule to a balance of broad knowledge, diligent application, and penetrating wisdom.

    In 2010, the editors of this volume completed the first complete English-language translation of the Huainanzi, opening exciting new pathways in the study of philosophy, Asian studies, political science, and Asian literature. This abridgement contains essential selections from each of the Huainanzi's twenty-one chapters and adds a new introduction and chapter descriptions. The text represents a remarkable synthesis of Daoist classics, such as the Laozi and the Zhuangzi; works associated with the Confucian tradition, such as the Changes, the Odes, and the Documents; and a range of other foundational philosophical and literary works, from the Mozi to the Hanfeizi. The abridgement preserves the Huainanzi's special rhetorical features, such as its parallel prose, verse, and unique compositional techniques. For decades, Western scholars overlooked the Huainanzi's sophisticated structure, creative content, and rich historical value, yet all that changed with the translation of the full text. Designed for classroom use and general readers, The Essential Huainanzi continues to increase awareness of this brilliant work and change our understanding of early Chinese history.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50145-3
    Subjects: History, Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-12)

    The Huainanzi (The Master of Huainan) is a compendium of knowledge dating from early in China’s Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.). It was compiled under the auspices of, and probably with the active participation of, Liu An (179?–122 B.C.E.), the king of Huainan. Liu An was an influential member of the imperial family who ruled a sizable kingdom within the Han Empire. He also was known as an essayist, critic, poet, and patron of learning.

    The Huainanzi was completed and presented to the imperial throne in 139 B.C.E. Its twenty-one chapters contain a comprehensive survey of contemporary knowledge,...

    (pp. 13-26)

    “Originating in the Way” (Yuan dao), the first of the eight foundational or “root” chapters of the text, is significant because it provides the cosmological basis for the entire Huainanzi collection. It opens with a beautiful poetic rhapsody on the cosmology of the Way (dao) and its Potency (de) in the tradition of the Laozi, certainly one of the canonical sources for this essay and for the book as a whole. In it we see a detailed examination of how these cosmic foundations are manifested in the world and an in-depth description of how sages are able to use their...

    (pp. 27-38)

    “Activating the Genuine” is the second of the eight “root” or foundational chapters of the text and serves as a companion to chapter 1, “Originating in the Way,” in its overarching cosmology and self-cultivation themes. Whereas “Originating in the Way” is very much indebted to the Laozi, “Activating the Genuine” is thoroughly steeped in the Zhuangzi, three of whose authorial voices are powerfully represented in its pages.¹

    All the principal themes of chapter 2 are found in the Zhuangzi. These include cosmogony, the precariousness of life, the existence of archaic utopias governed by spiritually perfected sage-rulers, the devolution of history...

    (pp. 39-48)

    The term tian wen (celestial patterns) means “astronomy” in modern Chinese, but the classical term has a much broader reach, encompassing also astrology, cosmology, calendrics, mathematical harmonics, and meteorology. Although some passages in Huainanzi3 may strike modern readers as both obscure and highly technical, from the point of view of Han intellectual history, this chapter treats its topics in rather general terms, omitting the sorts of technical detail that would be the province of specialists. Although the chapter is not a manual for practicing astrologers, attentive readers would learn enough to be able to participate in a discussion in which...

    (pp. 49-56)

    “Terrestrial Forms” is an account of world geography from the point of view of the Western Han dynasty. It ignores political geography (such as the states of the Warring States period or the kingdoms, provinces, and counties of the Han Empire) and gives only a cursory account of the physical geography of China itself. It names the provinces, mountains, and marshes associated with the eight directions and the center, as well as the eight winds, and gives an extensive list of rivers and their sources. But the authors of “Terrestrial Forms” appear to be more interested in the wider world...

    (pp. 57-66)

    “Seasonal rules” is the third part of a trilogy with chapters 3 and 4. Having established, in those chapters, the patterns of Heaven (and their astrological significance) and the shape of Earth (and how creatures interact with topography), the Huainanzi’s authors turn here to the role of monthly and seasonal ritual time in the proper governing of the empire. Reflecting the annual waxing and waning of the powers of yin and yang and the successive seasonal potency of each of the Five Phases (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water), the chapter prescribes ritual behavior, colors of vestments, and actions of...

    (pp. 67-72)

    The first five chapters of the Huainanzi establish the characteristics of the Way and its primacy in cosmogony, in the attainment of sagehood, and in the cosmological realms of Heaven, Earth, and Time. In chapter 6, “Surveying Obscurities,” the Huainan masters turn to a phenomenon they cannot fully explain, although they are certain that it exists. This is “resonance,” which is thought of as a kind of sympathetic vibration in the force field of qi that pervades the cosmos. Because resonance acts not only on physical objects but also on emotions and intentions, the actions of humans have clear and...

    (pp. 73-82)

    “Quintessential Spirit” is the first chapter of the Huainanzi to introduce human beings systematically into the grand scheme of things. The text continues its methodical explication of the underlying powers, patterns, and forces of the cosmos and its creatures before turning, in the later chapters of the work, to illustrations and amplifications of the workings of the Way in the world of affairs.

    Chapters 1 and 2 introduced cosmology and ontology; chapters 3 through 5 explored the various dimensions of Heaven, Earth, and Time; and chapter 6 explained the mysterious operations of resonance by which things in the world interact...

  12. Eight THE BASIC WARP
    (pp. 83-94)

    “The Basic Warp,” the last of the Huainanzi’s “root” chapters, uses several different but generally complementary descriptions of an imagined historical past to raise questions about the nature of sage-rulership and to criticize government in the present era. In all these scenarios, an archaic era of agrarian primitivism is idealized as a time when sages, embodying the Way and its Potency, could govern almost invisibly by means of non-action. Both the human and the natural worlds responded resonantly to the sages’ superior qualities. Qualities like Humaneness and Music were intrinsic to the sage and were not (as they later became)...

    (pp. 95-110)

    “The Ruler’s Techniques” begins by stating: “The ruler’s techniques [consist of] establishing non-active management and carrying out wordless instructions.” This serves notice that the chapter is not a handbook of tips and tricks for an energetic bureaucrat but a comprehensive plan for achieving the kind of effective self-cultivation, charismatic appeal, and radiant moral force required for a person to be a true universal monarch, a “Son of Heaven.” The ruler’s non-active orientation is made possible by time-tested techniques that have proved efficacious in creating a harmonious and just society in which the common people flourish and officials support their...

    (pp. 111-122)

    “Profound Precepts” posits that the ruler must follow the promptings of his inner heart and honor his innermost feelings as the basis of his rule, rather than relying on laws, rituals, institutions, or the advice of worthies. “Profound Precepts” thus evinces a deep commitment to concepts of moral autonomy and moral agency. In turn, these echo the radical optimism of the celebrated Confucian philosopher Mencius, who centuries earlier had argued passionately for the power of human emotions to uplift the world. The ideal ruler accordingly seeks goodness within himself and thereby brings goodness to the world. He is able to...

    (pp. 123-134)

    The title of chapter 11, “Qi su,” is strongly evocative of the title of chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi, the “Qi wu lun” (On Treating All Things as Equal). Because Qi means to “bring together,” or “to put on a par,” the title of chapter 11 of the Huainanzi has been translated as “Equalizing Customs” or “Putting Customs on a Par.” Indeed, one of the chapter’s main themes is the equivalence of all cultural norms through time and space: the ancient rites of the imperial court are not ultimately more normative than the current folkways of “barbarians” living on the fringe of...

    (pp. 135-144)

    This chapter describes the qualities of the ideal ruler through fifty-six anecdotes, each capped with a citation from the Laozi that supports the anecdote’s didactic claims. These anecdotes and many others of the same kind appear to have circulated in various forms (written, oral, or both) during the Warring States and Han periods and may be considered a distinctive genre of early Chinese prose. Those collected in “Responses of the Way” contain everything from recondite accounts of mystical wandering to moralizing speeches, ethical prescriptions, and practical political counsel. They illustrate how the Way can be understood by the ruler and...

    (pp. 145-152)

    Using numerous examples, “Boundless Discourses” shows that change has always been a part of human history, from remote antiquity to the present day. It argues that successful rulers do not resist change in a futile attempt to uphold the policies and standards of the past but instead modify their actions to suit changing customs and circumstances. Sages, on whom rulers are urged to model themselves, are portrayed as having a unique insight that allows them to see the enduring reality behind superficial qualities. That, in turn, enables them to adapt to change and to innovate while following diverse strategies to...

    (pp. 153-164)

    “Sayings Explained” is a collection of gnomic sayings (set off in italics in our text), most of which are followed by a few lines of commentary that explicate and clarify their significance. Although at first glance, the sayings and explications may seem to be merely conventional statements of received wisdom, taken as a whole they recapitulate and reinforce important concepts and themes addressed elsewhere in the Huainanzi: What are the essential attributes of the sage? How does the sage bring order to his intrinsic self and, by extension, to the world? The sayings collected in this chapter address these central...

    (pp. 165-176)

    One possible translation for the title of chapter 15, “Bing lue,” is “Military Strategies.” As the chapter summary makes clear, however, chapter 15 deals with all dimensions of military affairs, from tactics and strategy to basic military organization, the role of the military in state and society, and the ethics of war. Moreover, in section 21.3, the Huainanzi compilers make clear that chapter 15 was designed to exemplify the “overview” as a genre of writing. Thus we translate the title as “An Overview of the Military.”

    True to its title, chapter 15 surveys and draws on an expansive corpus of...

    (pp. 177-188)

    As their similar titles suggest, chapter 16, “A Mountain of Persuasions,” and chapter 17, “A Forest of Persuasions,” are collections of brief, persuasive utterances that share the same literary form and didactic function in the text. Given these similarities, we have chosen to treat these chapters together as a pair, following the example of Huainanzi 21, “An Overview of the Essentials,” which similarly summarizes these chapters together. Their purpose seems to be to provide a kind of repository of aphorisms (which we refer to here as “per- suasions”) that could be used in a variety of settings to which the...

  21. Eighteen AMONG OTHERS
    (pp. 189-196)

    Chapter 18 of the Huainanzi shares its title, “Ren jian,” with chapter 4 of the Zhuangzi and could also be translated as “Among Human Beings” or “The Human Realm.” As the opening section of the chapter explains, here we have left the internal domain of the mind and nature and entered the multidimensional world of time and space populated by ren, “other people,” or, simply, “others.” For this reason, we translate the title of chapter 18 as “Among Others.” “Among Others” is made up of the same kind of short units of anecdotal prose that constitute chapter 12, “Responses of...

    (pp. 197-210)

    “Cultivating Effort” offers arguments that can be used to challenge a number of political and philosophical views that seem to have been in vogue at the time the Huainanzi was created. Together, these arguments support the general theme of the chapter, that cultivating effort is necessary in a wide variety of contexts and among a wide variety of people, from the sage who tries to bring benefit to the world to the common man who tries to lift himself morally through education and training. Rhetorically, the chapter provides the reader with valuable examples of techniques of assertion and refutation that...

    (pp. 211-224)

    With this final substantive chapter of the Huainanzi, the reader is invited to “knot the net of the Way of Governance and weave the web . . . of the True King,” thus rounding off his education. “The Exalted Lineage” reminds the young monarch, who is the intended audience of the entire book and who presumably aspires to sagely rule, that the “Moral Potency that takes shape within is the great foundation of governance.” Moreover, this chapter makes clear that such internally generated Moral Potency has far-reaching cosmopolitical implications affecting both Heaven above and the people below. In making its...

    (pp. 225-232)

    “Yao lue,” or “An Overview of the Essentials,” stands somewhat apart from the twenty chapters of the Huainanzi that precede it. Although “Yao lue” appears at the end of the work (following the established convention of Chinese works of the late Warring States and early Han periods), it serves as, and apparently was written as, an introduction to the entire work. It explains why the book was written, orients readers to its contents, and makes claims for its value and universal validity. We believe that the chapter was originally written by Liu An himself for oral recitation at the imperial...

    (pp. 233-242)
    (pp. 243-244)
  27. INDEX
    (pp. 245-252)
  28. Back Matter
    (pp. 253-254)