Huainanzi (179–122 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G055-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

Huainanzi is both the honorific name of Liu An, the second king of Huainan and the title of the philosophical work for which he was responsible. The most important surviving text of the academy he established at his court, it consists of twenty-one essays that form a compendium of knowledge the Daoist ruler needs to govern effectively. In this work, the universe is a well-ordered, dynamic and interrelated whole, interfused by the unifying principle of the dao, that develops according to patterns and processes comprehensible to self-realized human beings. The ruler must cultivate himself fully so that he comprehends these patterns and processes and must establish human society in harmony with them. Embracing the best ideas of earlier philosophers within a Daoist framework, the Huainanzi represents the fullest flowering of the Huang–Lao thought that dominated the early Han dynasty.

Huainanzi is the honorific name sometimes given to Liu An, a Chinese philosopher-king who was the grandson of Liu Bang, founder of the Han dynasty (206 bcad 220). After his father, Liu Chang, was punished for lèse majesté and died on the way to exile, Liu An was enfeoffed as the second king of Huainan, a vassal state in what was then considered the southern part of China, today mostly in Anhui province. This area, previously part of the old state of Chu, had long been associated with hermit-mystics and shamans and still retained in the early Han a culture distinct from that of the north, where the new central government resided. By about 150 bc, Liu had established an academy at his court wherein Daoist and Confucian thinkers mingled with scholars of the esoteric arts (fangshi), proponents of the ‘naturalist’ cosmology of yin and yang and the five phases of qi, systematized a century earlier by Zou Yan (see Yin–yang; Qi). Among the many literary products of Liu’s academy, the principal survivor is a text called the Huainanzi, which Liu presented to his nephew, Emperor Wu, in 139 bc. In 122 bc Liu was accused of sedition and he perished, along with many of his courtiers and his rival cultural centre, at the hands of imperial troops sent to quell his alleged rebellion.

The Huainanzi is a work of twenty-one essays on a wide range of topics that was intended to be a compendium of all the knowledge a Daoist sovereign needed to govern effectively. Its topics include cosmology and cosmogony, astronomy and astrology, seasonal ordinances, human nature, psychology and physiology, political theory and the theory of strategic warfare, and mystical self-transformation. Although a few scholars have maintained single authorship by Liu, the predominant opinion is that Liu edited, compiled and arranged the essays and wrote the final essay, which summarizes each of the others and rationalizes their arrangement in the text.

Although initially categorized by bibliographers as an eclectic work because of its selective use of the non-Daoist ideas of such earlier schools as the Confucians and Legalists, the Huainanzi is increasingly being recognized as a product of the Daoist syncretism of the early Han that many identify with the Huang–Lao lineage of thought. ‘Huang’ stands for Huangdi, the mythical Yellow Emperor, and ‘Lao’ stands for Laozi, the legendary author of the foundational Daoist text, the Daodejing (see Daodejing). In light of the mythical connotations of each figure and the ideas associated with this lineage, in the appellation ‘Huang–Lao’, Huangdi probably symbolizes the coordination of the political with the cosmological and Laozi probably symbolizes the mystical self-realization of the enlightened ruler. Taken together, we find the advocacy of a strong central government whose institutions, daily rituals, and organization of human society parallel greater patterns in the universe of which human beings form an integral part. This government is presided over by a benevolent ruler who is both philosopher and mystic and who is fully self-realized according to Daoist meditation techniques. During the first seven decades of the Han dynasty, the imperial court was dominated by Huang–Lao philosophy, a domination that was coming to an end when Liu An presented his Huainanzi to Emperor Wu. As a last-ditch attempt to convince the emperor to abandon the Confucian ideology he eventually chose, the Huainanzi represents the final flourishing of the Huang–Lao syncretism that adapted the best ideas of earlier thinkers into a Daoist philosophical framework.

In the cosmology of the Huainanzi, the universe is a well-ordered, intricately interrelated and constantly changing dynamic whole, governed by regular patterns and processes (li) that can be understood by exceptional human beings (see Li). Precise parallelisms exist between the basic levels of this universe. For example, the roundness of the human head parallels that of heaven, the squareness of the human feet parallels that of earth, heaven’s four seasons parallel the four human limbs and so on. All phenomena are constituted of varying densities of qi, the vital energy/matter, and each has an inherent nature that determines its physical form and provides the spontaneous tendencies for growth, development and response that arise during its lifetime (see Qi). Because each thing has a characteristic type of qi, one of its ‘five phases’, it resonates (ganying) with other things of the same phase and is thus impelled to develop or act in certain ways when acted upon by other things; when the seasons change, as the planetary bodies revolve and so on. All phenomena, processes and events within the universe on both macrocosmic and microcosmic levels are included in this grand ‘correlative’ scheme. While all act spontaneously, responses are never random and chaotic; they occur according to the regular and predictable patterns that govern the cosmos. Finally, the entire cosmos is interfused by a singular dynamic force called the dao (Way), which is inherent in each phenomenon as its ultimate unifying and guiding principle (see Dao).

Because human beings and their societies are integral parts of this dynamic, interrelated whole, they are subject to its same governing principles. Hence the ruler must know these principles and how the various levels parallel and interact with one another, and must set up governmental and societal institutions to accord with them. Furthermore, after establishing a hierarchical bureaucracy filled by officials whose deeds correspond to their titles, the ruler must cultivate a profound tranquility through meditation that enables him to become unified with the dao. Emerging from this mystical unity, the ruler has developed a totally unbiased clarity of mind that enables him to ‘take no action (wuwei) and leave nothing undone’. With his mental acuity and metaphysical insight into cosmic patterns and inherent natures, the ruler can develop suitable tasks and appropriate customs for his subjects that enable them to realize the fullest potential of their inherent natures, transform his subjects through a mysterious resonance of qi, and more generally govern in a benevolent and unbiased manner that brings order and harmony throughout the land. This is how things were in the distant past of the sage-rulers, but the world lost this harmony because people lost the understanding of the value of – and the ability to effect – this profound coordination of the cosmological with the political. The Huainanzi was written to provide the ruler with the means to restore this harmony.

Citing this article:
Roth, H.D.. Huainanzi (179–122 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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