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Chinese History - Thought and Philosophy of the Three Kingdoms, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties

Periods of Chinese History
The Revival of Daoism and mutual interpretation of Daoism and Confucianism

The orthodox Confucianism of the Han Dynasty that was only able to comment the old canonical books and to produce a sterile officialdom, was thoroughly discredited by the end of Later Han. Retiring from governmental offices became the normal way of life for the literati and the scholarship. The most famous representatives of this attitude were the "Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove" (Zhulin Qixian 竹林七賢: Ruan Ji 阮籍, Ji Kang 嵇康, Shan Tao 山濤, Xiang Xiu 向秀, Liu Ling 劉伶, Wang Rong 王戎, and Ruan Xian 阮咸) that engaged in highly sophisticated discussions ("pure discussions" qingtan 清談). Many of these discussions are preserved in the collection Shishuo Xinyu 世說新語 "New tales of the many (scholars') explanations". The Buddhists also used the form of discussion to defend their theories in the book Mouzi Lihuolun 牟子理惑論 "Master Mou Dispelling Doubts" and Sengyou's 僧祐 Hongmingji 弘明集 "Collection of broad illuminations". Daoism was of new interest for the intelligence of the time of division, people commented the books Laozi 老子 and Zhuangzi 莊子, like Wang Bi 王弼 and Guo Xiang 郭象. Both were representatives of a new school named "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學).

The School of the Mystery

Although Confucian scholars were still needed and employed because of their knowledge and experience in state rituals and administratorial matters, the general interest of the intelligence shifted from Confucianism and Confucian writings to Daoist and metaphysical philosphy and scriptures. While Confucianism has seen its highlight during the course of Han Dynasty, there had always been different schools and philosophies that had a mere metaphysical worldview than the society-centered teachings of the Confucians. Huang-Lao Daoism has been prevalent during the Han Dynasty, and scholars like Yang Xiong formulated their theories about the Great Mystery. Now, in a time of political, social and economic instability, intellectuals were interested in the search of an integral view of the universe, and the hence neglected Daoist classics like Laozi and Zhuangzi just met their needs. People like Liu Shao 劉卲 observed man as a product of the nature (book Renwuzhi 人物志 "The nature of man"), and philosophers started to make researches into the old Book of Changes (together with the Laozi and Zhuangzi called the Sanxuan 三玄 "Three Mysteries"). In their "pure conversations" (qingtan 清談), literati and scholars tried to find out the "Great Mystery" of the world, hence the philosophical streamings of the Jin period are called the "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學). There are two main schools, namely the "School cherishing the Non-Being" (guiwupai 貴無派), and the "School venerating the Being" (chongyoupai 崇有派). While the first believed that the ten thousand beings are united in a common basic formation called the "Way" or the "Non-Being", that helps all things to come into existing, the last saw the emergence and existence of all beings as accrued from within themselves. Representatives of the early School of Mystery are He Yan and Wang Bi, known as commentators of the Daost classics and of the Confucian Analects. In their eyes, all being is an expression of the great non-being, and social differences are naturally determined. We further find the Seven Sages from the Bamboo Grove. These men recognized nature (ziran 自然, literally "as-being-as-it-is-by-itself"), the origin of every existence, not as being chaotic and hostile, but as a well-ordered place without any contradictions and conflicts. And society, as a part of nature, therfore has to be harmonious and without conflicts as long as it is not destroyed by artificial definitions and arrangements. This extreme view contributed to the downfall of the Non-Being-School.
The Western Jin Dynasty representatives are Pei Wei 裴頠 (wrote Chongyoulun 崇有論 "Venerating the Being") and Guo Xiang. Pei Wei tried to unite the views of the two contradicting Mystery Schools. He emphasized that something non-existing does not need anything to come into existence, but that it is rather coming into existence by itself. One of the last representatives of the School of Mystery was Zhang Zhan 張湛, a commentator of Liezi 列子 who stressed that all creatures have the extreme emptiness as their ancestor, and total vanishing as their outcome. With the uprise of Buddhism and Buddhist metaphysical discussion, the School of Mystery gradually lost its significance. The revival of Daoism after the fall of Han Dynasty culminated in Ge Hong's 葛洪 book Baopuzi 抱朴子 that focuses on methods to enlengthen one's life. The Daoists' strive for eternal life led to many inventions in the sphere of alchemy and pharmakology. Alchemists like Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 wrote down their experiences, the pharmacological book Bencaojing 本草經 "Classic of Roots and Herbs" is still extant today. Xi Han 稽含 wrote a compendium about culturable plants of the south, Nanfang Caomu Zhuang 南方草木狀. A remarkable work of psychology is Liu Shao's 劉卲 Renwuzhi 人物志 "Research on Human Abilities", who tries to classify men according to their abilities and skills. Even the few active Confucian scholars were very interested in mystical writings like the Classic of Changes, Yijing 易經, commented by Han Kangbo 韓康伯 and Gan Bao 干寶. Du Yu 杜預 and Fan Ning 范寧 concentrated their studies on the Chunqiu Annals, while Mei Ze 梅賾 presented an old-text Book of Documents, Shangshu 尚書 with some chapters thaught lost. Some scholars say that Mei Ze had forged these parts.

The literary culture of the literate officials: poetry and rhyming prose

The literati that retired from governmental offices engaged in contests of painting, calligraphy and writing poems. It was the first great time of producing a new kind of bucolic poetry, describing the way of natural life. The most famous poets of this period were Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (Tao Qian 陶潛), Xie Lingyun 謝靈運 and Yan Yanzhi 謝靈運. Poetic style became so trendy that even prosa writings used rhythm and parallelism (pianwen 駢文), making prosaic literature very overloaded and unreadable. Anthologies and catalogues of different kinds of literature are a treasure of the vast ocean of writings that already existed: the anthology Yutai xinyong 玉臺新詠 "New poems from the Jade Terrace" collects poems from the Han Dynasty until the Liang Dynasty. Xiao Tong 蕭通, called Prince Zhaoming 昭明太子 of the Liang Dynasty collected hundreds of writings and systematized them in different categories, presented in the anthology Wenxuan 文選 "Selected Literature".
Poetry was of important means for every period of Chinese history. At the end of Han Dynasty, rhapsodies (fu 賦 ) or prose-poetry were the most common type of poems. We find the Seven Masters of the Jian'an Period (Jian'an qizi 建安七子: Kong Rong 孔融, Chen Lin 陳琳, Ruan Yu 阮瑀, Xu Gan 徐幹, Ying Yang 應瑒, Liu Zhen 劉楨, and Wang Can 王粲), later Cao Cao 曹操 and his sons Cao Pi 曹丕 (Emperor Wei Wendi 魏文帝) and Cao Zhi 曹植. Among the Western Jin poets, we find the "Two Heroes of the Taikang Period" (Taikang zhi ying 太康之英): Lu Ji 陸機, and Pan Yue 潘岳, further Liu Kun 劉琨 and Guo Pu 郭璞, and one of the most famous poets of China, Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (also called Tao Qian 陶潛). Among the few Northern Dynasties poets and prose writers, Yu Xin 廋信 shall be mentioned.

Literature critcs

But writers did not only produce books. From the Three Kingdoms period on, writers began to analyze and to systematize books, styles and writings of the old. The first literature critic of the time of division was Cao Pi's 曹丕 Dianlun 典論 "Discussing the norms for literature" (the most important chapter being Lunwen 論文 "Discussing literature"), followed by Zhong Rong's 鍾嶸 Shipin 詩品, a literature critic of poetry, Lu Ji's 陸機 literature essays Wenfu 文賦 "(About) Prose and Rhapodies", Zhi Yu's 摯虞 Wenzhang Liubie Lun 文章流別論,and Liu Xie's 劉勰 great Wenxin Diaolong 文心雕龍 "The heart of literature and carving dragons", a book that constructs a systematic of all literature at that time and criticized the old writers for good and bad.

Geography and tales

And for the first time in Chinese literature history, books were written about geography and local history or "story", the so-called difangzhi 地方志: We find in the north Li Daoyuan's 酈道元 Shuijingzhu 水經注; and Yang Xuanzhi's 楊衒之 Luoyang Qielanji 洛陽伽藍記, a description of Luoyang's monasteries. A further style of interest during the time of division were the reports of strange tales and foreign regions and countries, called guaizhi 怪志 or guaiji 怪記: Zhang Hua's 張華 Bowuzhi 博物志, a kind of micro-encyclopaedia; Guo Pu's 郭璞 commentary on the Shanhaijing 山海經; Gan Bao's 干寶 Soushenji 搜神記;Wang Fu's 王浮 Shenyiji 神異記; Ge Hong's 葛洪 Shenxianzhuan 神仙傳; Wang Jia's 王嘉 Shiyiji 拾遺記; and many more.

Buddhist and Confucian literature in the north

Although Buddhism was prevailing in the north - with Chinese and Non-Chinese monks like Kumarajiva (Chinese: Jiumoluoshi 鳩摩羅什) translating Buddhist sutras into Chinese, there was always the need for the Non-Chinese rulers to fall back upon the Confucian scholars to help them to exert a well-functioning administration. Most states of the Sixteen Kingdoms period, and the rulers of the Northern Wei established state universities to train their officials. At the same time, Confucian educational literature again was written in the north. The most famous tractate is Yan Zhitui's 顏之推 Yanshi Jiaxun 顏氏家訓, but we find also less known works like Liu Zhou's 劉晝 Liuzi 劉子.

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October 31, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail

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