Guo Xiang

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GUO XIANG (d. 312 ce), Chinese thinker associated with the xuanxue ("dark learning" or "school of mystery") movement. A rationalist mystic and naturalist pantheist, Guo Xiang is the author of a commentary on the Zhuangzi, the only text of his still extant and the best known and oldest of all the Zhuangzi commentaries still in existence. Guo Xiang also edited the text of the Zhuangzi itself. In establishing the version we have today he reduced the size of the text, chose what seemed to him to be "the best and most complete parts" to make a coherent whole, rejected some parts, and arranged the whole in thirty-three chapters. All the complete versions of the Zhuangzi known at present are derived from his.

Guo Xiang's commentary both develops a personal philosophy and makes a radical reinterpretation of the Zhuangzi. That the universe produces itself and is not produced by another is the starting point and the central concept of Guo Xiang's system. The universe contains all the attributes of the Absolute: it exists eternally and necessarily and is self-sufficient. Beings come into existence of themselves; their true nature is their self-beingness. They are defined as identical to themselves, and this identity is identical in each of them: thus Guo Xiang understands Zhuangzi' s "identity of beings" as a type of monism. The Great One (tai) or, sometimes, the Ether (qi) is the universal force that is the source of the self-production of beings; every phenomenon represents a varying state of dispersion or condensation of the Ether. But Guo Xiang escapes complete monism by admitting the notion of fen, "allotment" or "limit." Beings are differentiated by the congenital limitations of their existential and social possibilities (their span of life, their natural endowment, their place in society). These limitations assign the place they must take in society and the universe, which place in turn actualizes and manifests their being. The relation that obtains between these limitations of beings (fen ) follows a natural pattern (li), an immanent principle of order that is established spontaneously (ziran ) without any external agent. In order to achieve their own totality, individuals must accept the elements that compose their being: spontaneity (a universal, natural, and nonpersonal force that lies within each of us and is distinct from the ego), limitations in time and society (fen ), and, finally, "daily renewal" (an incessant state of change characteristic of all beings). In this way, individuals enter into a "marvelous coincidence" with themselves and with the oneness of the world, into that mystic fusion with the immanent force that produces everything and has no beginning or end.

Guo Xiang was not a Confucian. He valued Confucian virtues after the fashion of Daoists; he did not believe in a life after death, a denial incompatible with the ancestor cult. He also advocated governing by wuwei (noninterference), a Daoist emphasis. If he acknowledged a social life, it was because society was an inescapable fact, but he held that "names" (titles and official functions) in society were external aspects that must be "forgotten" in order to gain union with the unutterable reality. In avowing that names were an incomplete expression of the hidden source of existence, Guo Xiang was writing against the Confucian perspective as it developed in the "school of names" (mingjiao ). The "determinism" Guo Xiang showed was nothing more than common sense: we must cope with what is unavoidable. Yet the participation in the world he advocated was a mystical one, very near the Daoist ideal. Kuo rejected everything supernatural and by so doing he came close to the Chinese "rationalists" such as Wang Chong, but because he allotted a large place to xuan, the Mystery, the undefinable, he is associated with xuanxue. Nevertheless, in denying the central role of the concept of wu (nonbeing)Guo Xiang maintains wu is a mere negation, that it simply serves to negate the existence of anything that gives birth to beings outside themselves, and that wu implies a total absence of a source other than an immanent onehe is at odds with Wang Bi, the movement's most prominent exponent. By his treatment of some of Zhuangzi's terms, Guo Xiang prepared the way for the diffusion of the Zhuangzi among Buddhist thinkers.

See Also

Wang Bi; Zhuangzi.


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