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Huang Lao Thought and the Huainanzi*

  • Michael Loewe


The Huainanzi is a corporate work which was compiled at the court of the king of Huainan, being first presented to the imperial throne in 139 B.C., and possibly receiving certain additions between then and 122 B.C. For various reasons, however, the book did not meet with the same type of acclaim that had accompanied other texts. By the eleventh century at least, the comments of Xu Shen (c. 55–149) and Gao You (c. 168–212) had been fused together into a single set of notes. The book attracted the critical attention of Su Song (1020–1101), and then that of some of the most notable scholars of the Qing period, such as Wang Niansun (1744–1832), Huang Peilie (1763–1825) and Gu Guangqi (1776–1835). In the early days of western sinology the work evaded the attention of scholars such as Legge and Couvreur who necessarily followed the lead of their Chinese masters and fastened on what they regarded as the basic texts of traditional learning, i.e. mainly the classical texts and the Confucian teachers, and the Daode jing. It is only in the latter part of the twentieth century that western scholars have felt ready to examine, appraise and translate parts of the Huainanzi, and the results may be seen in the writings of Eva Kraft (1957–58), Benjamin Wallacker (1962), Roger Ames (1983), Charles Le Blanc (1985), Hal Roth (1992), Claude Larre (1993) and now John Major. Further research in the future will be immeasurably improved and brought to new standards thanks to the publication of the concordance to the text by D. C. Lau (1992).



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1 References to these and other works cited are given below.

2 See Vervoorn, , p. 268, note 31.

3 E.g. by Wu, Cheng; see Wen wu 1974. 10, pp. 43, 45.

4 Shiji 63, p. 2146.

5 For Daojia, see Shiji 23, p. 1160; 56, p. 2062; 63, p. 2141; 107, p. 2843, and 130, p. 3292, and Han shu 30, p. 1732; 40, p. 2050 and 62, p. 2713. For Fajia, see Shiji 130, p. 3291;Han shu 30, p. 1736 and 62, p. 2713.

6 E.g. see Cheng Wu, pp. 44–5.

7 See Shih, Hu, The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China (Shanghai, 1922), p. 95 and the telling passage in Guanzi 7 (53 Jin cang ). 8b (SBCK ed.) which spells out the comparison between the effect of fa in controlling the population and the action of the potter's or smith's mould.

8 See Shang shu 19.18a; Shaughnessy dates this part of the work to early in the Chunqiu period (see Early Chinese Texts; a Bibliographical Guide (The Society for the Study of Early China), 1994, p. 380). See also Zuo zhuan 44.4a.

9 Shiji 130, p. 3291.

10 Huainanzi 9.19a; Ames, p. 190.

11 Liqi, Wang, Yantie lun jiaozhu (Shanghai, 1958) 10 (55, “xingde” ), p. 344.

12 Han shu 30, p. 1736.

13 Mawangdui Han mu boshu, column 1, transcription p. 43.

14 The passage may be compared with Guan and Zheng luan , in the Mawangdui texts, transcriptions pp. 62, 67.

15 See Han shu 39, p. 2018; 40, p. 2038; 97A, p. 3945; for a full list, see Vervoorn, , p. 268, note 31.

16 For measures taken in respect of internal organisation, co-ordination of the economy and the extension of Chinese territory, see The Cambridge History of China, pp. 152f.

17 1974, p. 51.

18 Shiji 121, p. 3227;Han shu 88, p. 3592.

19 Hou Han shu 40a, p. 1325.

20 Hui, Huang. Lunheng jiaoshi (Changsha, 1938; rpt., Taipei, 1969) 14 (42 Qian gao ), pp. 635–6.

21 Hou Han Shu 1B, p. 85; 30B, p. 1082; de Crespigny, Rafe, Portents of Protest in the Later Han Dynasty (Canberra, 1976), p. 29; Hou Han Shu 50, p. 1669, Hulsewé, A. F. P., Remnants of Han Law (Leiden, 1955), p. 168

22 For the powers and reputation of Huangdi, see Shiji 12, pp. 455–68 and 28, pp. 1385–92, Han shu 25A, pp. 1216–28, 25B, p. 1246; for the adoption of the regnal title Yuanding, see Han shu 6, p. 181, and Dubs, Homer H., The History of the Former Han Dynasty, ii (American Council of Learned Societies, 1954), p. 122; for the adoption of Taichu, see Han shu 6, p. 199, and 25B, p. 1245. For the introduction of the cults of state, see Loewe, (1974), pp. 166f.; for a representation of Taiyi, in anthropomorphic form, see Kaogu 1990. 10, p. 925f.

23 See Shiji 12, p. 467 and 28, p. 1393, and Han shu 25A, p. 1227.

24 For the use of this term to denote a comet, see Loewe, Michael, Divination, Mythology and Monarchy in Han China (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 77f.

25 Han shu 44, p. 2145.

26 HNZ 9.2a et seq. and 27a; Ames, , pp. 169f., and 200.

27 See HNZ 2.13b, Ames, p. 14; and HNZ 8.1b et seq., as paraphrased in Loewe, (1982), pp. 44–5.

28 HNZ

29 Cambridge History of China, ch. 14.

30 See Loewe, (1979), pp. 77–8.

31 See Needham, , iii, p. 200.

* A review article of John S. Major, Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the Huainanzi; with an appendix by Christopher Cullen. (SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture.) pp. xvi, 388, 32 figs. Albany, NY, State University of New York Press, 1993. US $24.95.


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