Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

History and Sources

Who was Wang Bi and what was the Mysterious Learning?

Wang Bi (226-249 C.E.) and his patron, Ho Yen, are credited with founding the movement known in the West as “Neo-Daoism.” This name is misleading, however, since the movement grew principally out of Confucianism. It began with studies of the Confucian classic the Yi Jing, was enthusiastically discussed with reference to the Daoist Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi in the later third century, and in the fourth century merged into Mahayana Buddhism. The movement is probably most accurately known by its Chinese name: xuan xue (mysterious learning).

Wang has been accused of trying to interpret the Yi Jing in Daoist terms and of praising Confucius as the supreme Daoist because he refrained from saying anything about the ineffable Dao. The truth is that Wang rejected labels such as Confucian and Daoist, and instead strove to unearth the ultimate truths concealed in each. During the waning years of the Han dynasty (207 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), various thinkers, notably the great Wang Chung (c. 27-100 C.E.), had become disillusioned with standard Confucian metaphysics, which had emphasized elaborate systems of correspondences between Heaven, Earth, and Man—cycles of the so-called Five Elements—and attempts to predict the future based on these. The desire to understand the basic principles of the universe was not lost, nor were the basic ideas entirely rejected, but the simplistic excesses—the teleology and the easy belief that Heaven was regular, purposeful, and concerned with humankind—were shaved away.

At the same time, the so-called “New Text” versions of the Confucian classics lost their standing and were replaced by versions of the texts purporting to be older. These “Old Texts” did not fit neatly into vast cosmological systems and left a cosmological void in Confucian thought. By the end of the Han, the great pattern of the universe had seemingly dissolved into chaos. In the third century, xuan xue emerged to fill this metaphysical vacuum. Xuan xue is predicated on the belief that the infinite phenomena of this universe are random, transitory, and without any meaningful pattern. Yet they all must, it was reasoned, be generated by one single, eternal verity. That was the original nothingness (ben wu), or nonbeing (wu), the origin of all being.


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