WANG BI (226–249 ce) was the scion of an important Shandong clan with great intellectual ambitions and "over eighty members" who reached the highest echelon of power in the preceding Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce). The collapse of this dynasty resulted in the division of the country into three competing states, as well as the collapse of the state-sponsored and privately sponsored educational system, together with the authority of official teaching. It was chance that put arguably the richest and most intellectually diverse manuscript library to survive the conflagration and civil war of the collapsing Han dynasty into Wang's possession. His talents thus flourished during a rare and short moment in history, a time when philosophical originality and iconoclasm were much appreciated and youthful genius was revered. Wang Bi was spurred on by a rich and open competition, and a government reform project that was guided from 240 to 249 ce by He Yan (d. 249), a man considered by his contemporaries to be the ultimate arbiter elegantiarum, as well as a brilliant philosophical debater. The closure of the project came with a coup and the execution of its leaders in 249, the same year in which Wang Bi, just twenty-three years of age, died in an epidemic.
In a reaction to the bookwormishness of the Han scholars, Wang Bi rediscovered the warnings of such philosophical writings as the Laozi (Dao de jing ), the Analects (Lunyu ), and the Book of Changes (Zhouyi ) about the inability of definitory language to deal with the necessarily unspecific root of all specificity. This root was thus linguistically "dark" (xuan ), and the entire philosophical enterprise around Wang Bi was therefore later called Xuanxue, the "scholarly exploration of that which is dark," rather than being associated with any of the traditional philosophical "schools." In this philosophical, rather than school-dominated, enterprise, the appropriation of different texts by the different schools was rejected, and so was their habit of ranking their own founder highest. In Xuanxue, Confucius ranked philosophically higher than Laozi because—by not writing a book but only editing what became the "classics" and allowing his verba et gesta to be recorded by his students (Analects )—he proved himself superior in understanding the philosophical problem of language.
Xuanxue scholars reread the classics as writings that made conscious and sophisticated use of a flawed instrument—written language—because it was the only way to preserve the sage teachings of old. These works thus had to be viewed as pointing beyond themselves, and they received their unity not from the textual surface, but from their elusive common object. Wang Bi outshone his contemporaries in the philological brilliance and consistency of this type of "commentary of meaning," and his commentaries on the Laozi and the Book of Changes, together with an essay each on their structure, have time and again found copyists and sponsors, so that they alone of the plethora of commentaries written by his peers survive to this day, together with fragments of his commentary on the Analects.
Wang Bi extracted from these classical texts a political philosophy that was rooted in ontological analysis. The teachings of the "schools" about political strategies aimed at bringing about and maintaining social order lack a dialectical understanding of the dynamics of the relationship of the ruler to the people. Wang Bi argued that rulers following these teachings end up bringing about the very chaos they are trying to overcome. Only by going back to the fundamental dynamics prevailing between the "one" and the "many" can the laws be found that govern the dynamics between the one ruler and the multitude of the people. Wang Bi thus explores the ontological question of the necessary features of that by which the entities ("the ten thousand kinds of things") are, and by which they are in a regulated and orderly fashion. This exploration of the "one" provides the basis to determine the features and acts necessary for a ruler to secure social and political order. The "one" of the ten thousand kinds of entities can only be the "one" by being their—and their regulated order's—condition of possibility, and by not specifically interfering with the regulated order of the remaining entities. Otherwise, the "one" would only be another entity among the multitude. The emulation of this non-interference (wuwei ) by the ruler in his relations with society thus becomes a philosophical imperative. Given the ruler's theoretically absolute powers and the common-sense assumption that their active use will be instrumental in establishing order, Wang Bi's proposal is philosophical by being counterintuitive, while its necessity is shown by the evident presence of chaos.
The thirty-year civil war ending Han rule (at great loss) was a timely reminder. In any given historical situation, however, the vicious circle between a ruler's efforts to establish order and the counterproductive dynamics these efforts set in motion is already in operation. The ruler's generous encouragement of some virtuous persons provokes the resentment of those not so favored; his use of surveillance machinery to ward off evildoers calls forth a rise in the arts of dissimulation. Accordingly, an actual historical ruler must not just "maintain" order, he must "bring back" society ("the hundred families" from the historically real chaos to find rest and order in his wuwei. Wuwei thus is a proactive policy of projecting the non-use of the absolute powers of the ruler through a public performance of this non-use; projections of "simplicity," "uncouthness," "dumbness," "femaleness," and the pointed abolition of state surveillance (an eyesore for many intellectuals in a state of Wie during Wang Bi's time) are some of the particular proactive forms of "non-interference" that Wang Bi extracts from the texts he analyzed. In this manner, the ruler will erase his own function as the point of orientation of all social competition, with the consequence that the hundred families will fall back to their "natural" station. Then the self-regulating mechanisms come into play in the same manner as they do in nature, where, as Wang Bi writes, "heaven and earth do not make grass for cattle, but cattle still eat the grass." The implied addressee of Wang Bi's philosophy is the ruler, and the quest is for the philosophical bases of social order. Philosophical questions are only pursued to the point where relevancy for the political application ceases.
Wang Bi's Commentary to the Zhouyi entered the canon in the seventh century, and it influenced all later commentaries on this text. His Commentary to the Laozi had a similar impact. His commentarial method is characterized by an insistence on internal coherence, a refusal to randomly impose terms or methods to solve problems of consistency, and full attention given to clues within the texts that help determine the appropriate manner of reading these texts.
Wagner, Rudolf. The Craft of a Chinese Commentator: Wang Bi on the Laozi. Albany, N.Y., 2000.
Wagner, Rudolf. A Chinese Reading of the Daode jing: Wang Bi's Commentary on the Laozi, with Critical Text and Translation. Albany, N.Y., 2003.
Wagner, Rudolf. Language, Ontology, and Political Philosophy: Wang Bi's Scholarly Exploration of the Dark (Xuanxue). Albany, N.Y., 2003.
Wang Baoxuan. Zhengshi xuanxue. Jinan, China, 1987.
Rudolf G. Wagner (1987 and 2005)