Wang Bi (226–249 CE)
Third-century Chinese philosopher Wang Bi (226–249 CE) achieved fame as an interpreter of the Laozi and the Yijing (Classic of changes), whose radical reformulation of the concept of Dao as nonbeing (wu ) helped spark a new current of thought called Xuanxue (Learning of the mysterious), sometimes translated as "neo-Daoism." To Wang, Confucius, Laozi, and the other sages of old had discerned the true meaning of Dao as the root of all beings. This was misunderstood, which necessitated a reinterpretation of the classical heritage.
Wang probed the basis of interpretation and argued that words do not fully express meaning. This was a major debate in early medieval Chinese philosophy. Against earlier commentators who reduced meaning to reference, Wang believed that words are necessary but insufficient for understanding and sought to uncover the fundamental ideas that unite the classics. Famously, Wang declared that words must be forgotten before meaning can be understood.
From this hermeneutical perspective, Wang approaches the meaning of Dao, bringing into view both its transcendence and creative power. According to the Laozi (also known as Daodejing, the "Classic of the Way and Virtue"), Dao is nameless and formless; yet, it is also the beginning of all things. To Wang, this encapsulates the mystery (xuan ) of Dao and discloses the central insight that "all beings originate from nonbeing" (Laozi commentary, chs. 1, 40).
The Laozi states, "Dao gives birth to one," which produces "two" and the rest of creation (ch. 42). Whereas commentators before Wang generally took this to mean that the Dao produced the original "vital energy" (qi ), which in turn generated the yin and yang energies, Wang focused on the logic of creation. The many can be traced to "one" in the sense of a necessary ontological foundation, but "one" does not refer to any agent or substance. The ground of beings cannot be itself a being; otherwise, infinite regress cannot be overcome. "Beginning" is not a temporal reference but indicates logical priority. "One" is but another term for Dao and should be understood metaphysically as "nonbeing"; "it is not a number," as Wang asserts in his commentary to the Yijing, but that which makes possible all numbers and functions. Nonbeing—literally "not having" any property of being—is not a "something" of which nothing can be said; rather, it is a negative concept that sets the Dao categorically apart from the domain of beings and in so doing preserves the transcendence of Dao without compromising its creative power.
The Daoist world reflects a pristine order. This is to be understood in terms of constant principles (li ) that govern the universe. They do not derive from an external source, but in the light of nonbeing can only be said to be "naturally so" (ziran ), which Wang describes as "an expression for the ultimate" (Laozi commentary, ch. 25). Similarly, human nature should be viewed as "one," understood as what is true (zhen ) in human beings.
The concept of ziran also sets the direction of Daoist ethics and politics. Effortlessly and spontaneously, nature accomplishes its myriad tasks and provides for all beings. In principle, the human world should also be naturally simple, noncontentioius, and self-sufficient. If present realities deviate from this order, it is imperative to recover what is true, to reorient human thinking and action by realizing ziran, and in this sense to return to Dao. This is how Wang interprets the key Daoist concept of nonaction (wuwei ).
Nonaction does not mean total inaction or any esoteric technique to get things done; instead it is a mode of being characterized by the absence of desires, which corrupt one's nature. This, too, follows from the analysis of nonbeing. Genuine well-being can only be measured by the extent to which one is not being fettered by desires, or not having the kind of interest-seeking thought/action that invariably precipitates disorder. Nonaction acts constantly to diminish desires—and to diminish any false sense of self that engenders desires—until one reaches the tranquil depth of emptiness and quiescence. This defines not only the goal of self-cultivation but also that of government.
The order of nature encompasses the family and the state. Their hierarchical structure is rooted in the principles governing the Daoist world. The key to Daoist government lies in "honoring the root and putting to rest the branches." At the policy level, this means not burdening the people with excessive taxation, heavy punishment, and war, which Wang considered the bane of Chinese politics. Following nonaction, the ruler needs only to ensure that obstructions to human flourishing are removed. At a deeper level, desires must be put to rest so that the root may grow; that is, the ruler must embrace emptiness and enable those under the spell of desires to reclaim their true nature.
To many of Wang's contemporaries, the ideal reign of ziran can only be realized by a sage, who is utterly different from ordinary human beings in that he is endowed with an extraordinarily pure qi -constitution and is inherently without desires and emotions. Wang Bi, however, argued that the sage is different from ordinary human beings only in terms of his profound "spirituality and enlightenment." In his humanity, the sage "cannot be without sorrow and pleasure to respond to things," but he is not burdened by them. Sage nature signifies complete self-realization.
While standing under tradition—whether in hermeneutics, metaphysics, or concerning the nature of the sage—Wang came to understand it anew. The philosophy of nonbeing made a strong impact on the development of Buddhist philosophy. The concept of li (principle) played a pivotal role in later neo-Confucian philosophy. In both instances, Wang's contribution is substantial.
Chan, Alan K. L. Two Visions of the Way. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
Lynn, Richard J., tr. The Classic of the Way and Virtue: A New Translation of the Tao-te ching of Laozi as Interpreted by Wang Bi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Wagner, Rudolf G. A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing: Wang Bi's Commentary on the Laozi with Critical Text and Translation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.
Wagner, Rudolf G. The Craft of a Chinese Commentator: Wang Bi on the Laozi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Wagner, Rudolf G. Language, Ontology, and Political Philosophy in China: Wang Bi's Scholarly Exploration of the Dark (Xuanxue). Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.
Alan K. L. Chan (2005)