Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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New SEP Entry on Neo-Taoism (xuanxue)

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Neo-Taoism”, by Alan Chan (at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, formerly of National University of Singapore’s philosophy deparment), just became available on October 1. From He Yan and Wang Bi to Guo Xiang — everything you wanted to know about post-Han Daoism, encyclopedically considered; here’s a teaser:

Both He Yan and Wang Bi were known for their expertise in the Yijing. Both were deeply interested in the Laozi. The fifth-century work Shishuo xinyu (New Accounts of Tales of the World), which is indispensable to understanding early medieval Chinese literati culture, relates that He Yan was working on or had just completed a commentary to the Laozi, but when he saw Wang Bi’s Laozi commentary, he recognized the superiority of the latter and reworked his own into two essays on the Dao and “Virtue” (de) instead (4.7 and 4.10). Wang Bi’s Laozi and Yijing commentaries occupied a privileged place in the formal xuanxue curriculum later, and arguably they remain the most important philosophical treatment of the two classics today. However, it should be noted that both He Yan and Wang Bi wrote on the Confucian Lunyu as well. Through their extant writings, we gain a good view of the central concerns of Neo-Daoist philosophy.

From the Jin shu account cited above, He Yan was credited with having introduced the concept of wu into mainstream Chinese philosophical discourse. Whether that was historically the case is unimportant; what is certain is that the concept of wu plays a pivotal role in xuanxue philosophy. The question is what does it mean?

The concept of wu gains prominence from the Laozi and has been variously translated as “nonbeing,” “nothing,” “nothingness,” or “negativity.” In classical Chinese, wu generally conveys the sense of “not having” something—e.g., “not having a name” (wu ming)—and functions as the opposite of the common word you, “having” something. In the Laozi, it seems to have been used as an abstract noun as well. Specifically, the Laozi declares that wu is the source of all beings (chapter 40) and the basis of all functions (chapter 11). To He Yan and his contemporaries, there is little doubt that the meaning of Dao is to be sought in the concept of wu; but, it does not follow that they all understood the latter in the same way.

He Yan’s writings exist only in fragments today. The most important are (1) his commentary to the Lunyu, which was, however, a collective effort jointly submitted to the throne with several other scholars, and (2) quotations from two of his essays entitled Wuming lun (Discourse on the Nameless) and Dao lun (Discourse on Dao) preserved in later sources. In the former, He Yan explicitly defines the Dao as “that which does not have anything” (wu suo you zhe ye). In what is left of the Dao lun, He Yan writes:

Beings depend on wu in coming into existence, in becoming what they are. Affairs on account of wu come to fruition and become what they are. Now, one tries to speak about wu, but no words could describe it; name it, but it has no name; look at it, but it does not have any form; listen to it, but it does not give any sound. Then, indeed, it is clear that the Dao is complete. Thus, it can bring forth sounds and echoes; generate qi-energies and things; establish form and spirit; and illuminate light and shadows. What is dark obtains its blackness from it; what is plain obtains its whiteness from it. The carpenter’s square is able to make a square because of it; the compass is able to make a circle because of it. The round and the square obtain their form, but that which gives them their form itself does not have any form. The white and the black obtain their name, but that which gives them their name itself does not have any name.

Few scholars in early medieval China would question the general assertion that the Dao is the “beginning” and “mother” of all things, as the Laozi phrases it (chapter 1). There was also widespread acknowledgement of the namelessness and formlessness of Dao. “The Dao that can be spoken of is not the constant Dao,” after all, as the opening words of the Laozi famously declare. The real issue is how can that which transcends language and perception be said to be the creative source of all beings?

According to He Yan, the solution to the mystery of Dao lies in recognizing its “completeness” or undifferentiated wholeness (quan). Precisely because the Dao is whole and complete, it is able to bring forth heaven and earth and the myriad creatures. For the same reason, in its undifferentiated fullness the Dao does not have any particular form, and as such cannot be pinned down conceptually and named. Even the term “Dao,” as the Laozi makes clear, is but a metaphor, a “forced” effort to reference that which is ultimately ineffable (chapter 25), a point which He Yan also emphasizes in his “Discourse on the Nameless”: “The Dao fundamentally does not have a name (dao ben wu ming) [i.e., what the word “Dao” stands for cannot be named]. Thus, Master Lao [i.e., Laozi] said he could only force a name on it.”

Put differently, indeed the Dao can only be described as wu, in the sense that it does not have any distinguishable feature or property characteristic of things. On this reading, wu does not signify ontological absence but on the contrary attests to the fullness and fecundity of Dao. More precisely, through a process of differentiation, the Dao generates the yin and yang qi-energies that constitute all phenomena. The Laozi has also made the point that the Dao is “undifferentiated and complete” (chapter 25). This is now shown to be the source of the yin and yang qi—vital forces, pneumas, or loosely, “energies”—that engender, shape and sustain life. In this respect, He Yan adhered generally to the yin-yang cosmological theory established since the Han dynasty. Properly understood, the nothingness of Dao has important implications for ethics and political philosophy.

Comments, questions, etc are welcome, as usual.

October 23, 2009 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Taoism


  1. Reading this post reminds me that the notion of “knowing nothing” could be an assertion of “knowing no thing,” which might be an assertion of knowing wholeness. We humans seem to perceive things as unity and multiplicity (I will request indulgence that I am not delving into why I conclude that others perceive unity and multiplicity in a manner similar to the way I do). As we try to figure out the laws of the relationships among the manys (whether through the modern experimental method or common sense observation), we must confront the idea that understanding the one means leaving the manys behind. On this level of creation, however, we can never leave the manys behind. In fact, even if we observe the one for a fleeting millisecond, we must return to a cave in which we cannot even observe the images of the manys, but must look at the reflections of the images of the manys. I am not familiar with the idea of Dao, but I wonder whether the concept at this level is also one to be experienced only for a millisecond.

    Comment by Thomas Collins | October 23, 2009

  2. It’s great news that Alan has published this much-needed overview.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | October 23, 2009

  3. Very good post. Reminds in many ways of the ontology of Thomism, as I think Taoism and Thomism share much of the same Ontology. Reading Pseudo-Dionysius’s Divine Names reminds me very much of reading the Tao Te Ching, although one is entirely Catholic Philosophy/Theology, Taoism, when separated from cultural bias, seems to be the closest purely natural philosophy to a religious informed one.

    Comment by Malcolm | October 25, 2009

  4. Hi, I just discover this nice blog. About the above comment on Neo-Taoism, It seems clear to me that Dao should not be equated with Wu (that is where Neo-Taoism deviated from the “original” principle of Tao). It seems that Wu and Yu are already “named” manifestations of the nameless Tao.
    Does any one have any comment on the symmetry of Wu and Yu? (This is supported by the Guodian version of Chapter 40 that All come from Yu and come from Wu. It does not say Yu come from Wu.) My website has some preliminary view on this view as the Principle of Oneness.” Please comment.

    Comment by Wayne L. Wang | October 26, 2009

  5. Hi Wayne,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I’m not sure Chan is suggesting that He Yan thought Dao and Wu are equivalent. Here’s what Chan says: “To He Yan and his contemporaries, there is little doubt that the meaning of Dao is to be sought in the concept of wu…” and “…the Dao can only be described as wu, in the sense that it does not have any distinguishable feature or property characteristic of things…” That’s an epistemological point about understanding Dao through Wu, rather than an ontological point about their equivalence, isn’t it?

    Also, you’ll have to say more about how the Guodian ch.40 supports your claim about Dao and Wu being different. The Wang Bi Laozi ch.40 has: 天下萬物生於有,有生於無; the Guodian has: 天下之物生於有生於亡. 亡 probably stands in for 無, as you suggest. But the Guodian version just says that the myriad things are born of You and born of Wu. That doesn’t deny that You comes from Wu. At best, the Guodian version leaves that unclear, it seems to me.

    Comment by Manyul Im | October 26, 2009

  6. Manyul,

    He Yan did not say that explicitly, but Wang Bi was more explicit. Chan’s description of Neo-Taoism is not in error.
    I just raise the question that Neo-Taoism introduced a problem for interpreting the Tao Te Ching.
    I think, Neo-Taoism (including Mawangdui version) was influenced by Confucianism being the orthodox state school of thought. Guodian was in Chu and pre-Chin and did not show asymmetry of Wu and Yu in Chapter 40. The asymmetry was known to be in conflict with Chapter 1 and 2. I have been working on a “logical” interpretation and find that Wu and Yu must be in bipolar symmetry as shown in the Tai Chi diagram, in this as manifestations of Tao.

    Comment by Wayne L. Wang | October 26, 2009

  7. I suppose this question will get me in trouble, but here goes anyway…

    What does “Neo-Taoism” mean?

    Comment by Paul R. Goldin | October 27, 2009

  8. Neo-Taosim refers to the interpretation of Tao by third and the fourth centuries AD Taoist philosophers. That includes Wang Bi,Hsiang Hsiu, Kuo Hsiang,Ho Yen; the school is described by the above Stanford article. Most of the prevailing interpretations are based on their interpretations. This group takes Wu to be, or nearly, the Tao – so makes Yu not as close to Tao. (I would like to know if there is any researcher voicing the Wu and Yu are equally important. I interpret Wu and Yu as ontologically equivalent.)

    Comment by Wayne L. Wang | October 28, 2009

  9. Hello Paul; good to hear from you.

    I’m not too happy with the name “Neo-Taoism” either, insofar as one can be unhappy with these sorts of category names. Retrodiction is always a bit clumsy; in this case, my thinking is that “Neo-Taoism” comes from thinking roughly like this:

    1. There is something we can call Taoism in pre-Qin China.
    2. Taoism in pre-Qin China is represented in the Daodejing and parts of the Zhuangzi.
    3. There is a set of interpretation-independent views in the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi that can be identified as Taoism, or perhaps “Early Taoism.”
    4. The views expressed by post-Han commentators on the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi are different enough from Early Taoism to warrant calling them Neo-Taoism.

    I find 3 the most problematic. Without 3, it might make more sense to call the views expressed by He Yan and Wang Bi just plain Taoism, since those views would simply reflect their understanding of the early texts. Calling it “Neo-Taoism” suggests that some tacit interpretation we now have of Early Taoism is actually an interpretation-free account of original Taoism in contrast to which we find the post-Han commentators’ interpretations significantly different.

    I don’t know if something like that bothers you too, or it’s something else. Maybe you could say more.

    Comment by Manyul Im | October 28, 2009

  10. A bit off topic but still somewhat relevant: there’s a momentum and logic of specialization in the natural and social sciences and perhaps even the humanities owing in large measure to the ever-increasing volume of information and the sheer quantity of possible knowledge available. Nicholas Rescher, among others, has written about this. He notes, for instance, that “In a complex world, the natural dynamics of the cognitive process exhibits an inherent tropism toward increasing complexity.” While Rescher is here speaking strictly about natural science, there’s no reason why much of his analysis is not equally applicable to other areas of intellectual inquiry. Consider the following:

    “The explosive growth of information of itself countervails against its exploitation for the sake of knowledge-enhancement. The problem of coping with the proliferation of printed material affords a striking example of this phenomenon. One is forced to ever higher levels of aggregation, compression, and abstraction. [….] And this ongoing refinement in the division of cognitive labor that an information explosion necessitates issues in a literal dis-integration of knowledge. The ‘progress of knowledge’ is marked by an ever-continuing proliferation of ever more restructured specialites marked by the unavoidable circumstance that any given specialty cell cannot know what is going on even next door–let alone at the significant remove. Our understanding of matters outside one’s immediate bailiwick is bound to become superficial. At home base one knows the details, nearby one has an understanding of generalities, but at a greater remove one can be no more than an informed amateur.”

    This helps account, at least in part, for the emergence of labels like “Neo-Daoism,” even if their underlying rationale seems rather tenuous. It’s perhaps most useful for identifying the specific domain of one’s own area of interest and/or specialization but probably a bit misleading by way of capturing what is objectively “out there.” In any case, I suspect the expression of irritation or perplexity at the resort to such designations, if that is indeed an accurate or fair description, speaks to our anxiety about the growing complexity and corresponding division of intellectual labor or specialization that is affecting fields which, in our lifetime at least, were once far more “manageable” if not simpler. It’s a sign–or label–of the times we now live in.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | October 28, 2009

  11. I advocate giving up the “Neo-X” labels for both Wei-Jin Xuanxue 玄學 (“mystery-study”) and Song-Ming Daoxue 道學 (dao-study). To provide continuity with earlier literature, one can simply explain the rationale Sinologists once assumed for these tags and then drop them in subsequent discussion.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | October 28, 2009

  12. All right, I’ve had half a bottle of Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic (it’s a special “winter brew”), so against my better judgment I’ll lay out my reasons for wondering why we keep using the term “Neo-Daoism.”

    1. It doesn’t correspond to any Chinese term, ancient or modern. In fact, the only time Chinese people ever use the word “Neo-Daoism” is when they’re responding to Western scholarship.

    2. I don’t agree that there’s something we can call Daoism in pre-Qin China. I don’t really think the term “Daoism” makes any sense unless it’s used to refer to the Daoist church, and of course what we’re calling Neo-Daoism is not a “neo” version of religious Daoism in any sense.

    3. For that matter, Neo-Daoism isn’t a coherent “neo” version of anything. OK, they talked a lot about Laozi and Zhuangzi. So what? They talked about other ancient texts too. (How about the Zhouyi?) And it’s not as though no one talked about Laozi and Zhuangzi before the so-called Neo-Taoists.

    4. Lastly, it’s not just that Neo-Daoism isn’t a coherent “neo” version of anything; it’s also not a coherent thing. What goes into Neo-Daoism and what doesn’t? Xuanxue? OK, fair enough–but then why not just call it xuanxue? And most people want to throw qingtan, the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove, and God knows what else in there as well. At that point, “Neo-Daoism” starts to mean not much other than “all Six Dynasties philosophy that we can’t call Buddhist.”

    Comment by Paul R. Goldin | October 31, 2009

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