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Persons in Chinese History - Wang Bi 王弼

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Wang Bi 王弼 (226-249), courtesy name Wang Fusi 王輔嗣, was an important Confucian philosopher and a represantant of the "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學) that flourished during the Three Kingdoms 三國 (220-280) and Jin 晉 (265-420) periods. He came from Shanyang 山陽 (modern Jiaozuo 焦作, Henan) and found interest in the Daoist book Laozi 老子 (Daodejing 道德經) as a young boy. When Cao Shuang 曹爽 was made regent for the young emperor, Wang Bi was appointed ministerial director (tailang 臺郎). With the assassination of Cao Shuang by Sima Yi 司馬懿, Wang Bi was charged of treason and was dismissed. He died, infected during a plague, at the age of no more than 24.
Although Wang Bi interpreted Confucian writings in the sense of Daoist philosophers, he must be seen as a Confucian scholar. He was very impressed by Laozi's proposition that all things are created out of the "nothing" (you sheng yu wu 有生於無), and that all instruction and teaching is derived from nature (ming jiao chu yu ziran 名教出於自然). Contradicting He Yan's 何晏 assumption that a sage man does not dispose of emotions (sheng ren wu qing 聖人無情), Wang Bi stressed all the more that the sage man possesses more spirit (shenming 神明) than the common man, and has, like all men, five different kinds of emotions (wu qing 五情). His wisdom allows him to understand the origin of all things in the voidness, and the five emotions connect him with the feelings of all the ten thousand beings.
Wang Bi's most important contribution to scholarship is his commentary and interpretation of the Confucian Classic Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes". Like Zheng Xuan 鄭玄, he used Fei Zhi's 費直 old text version of the Yijing and brought the old text tradition, which was again flourishing during the late Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE) , into new forms. Fei Zhi had used the Zhuan 傳 "Commentary" parts of the Yijing to explain the meaning of the Zhouyi, the core part of the book, with its hexagrams, that were interpreted in a colourful and obscure way, close to the apocryphal texts (chenwei 讖緯) that were very popular during the Han period. The eight trigrams were interpreted as Heaven, earth, thunder, wind, water, fire, mountains and swamps, as spiritual powers of nature. Other hexagrams were interpreted as symbols of the "strong horse" and the "obedient ox". Wang Bi had a much more scholarly approach and interpreted the Zhouyi in a philosophical way. He wrote direct commentaries to all parts of the book except the parts Xici 繫辭, Shuogua 說卦, Xugua 序卦 and Zugua 雜卦, and used the Zhuan commentary as the main instrument for explanation. The missing comments were later added by the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) scholar Han Kangbo 韓康伯.
A hexagram (xiang 象) is, in the eyes of Wang Bi, an expression of an idea (yi 意). The designation of the hexagram is just its name. There is, he says, no better way to express an idea than a hexagram symbol and its name. All aspects on earth can be symbolized by a hexagram, except the eternal Way, the Dao 道, which is the "nothing" (wu 無), the non-dimension, the non-origin, and the non-movement, out of which everything is produced. Following this assumption of the "School of Mystery", Wang Bi interpreted the hexagram Qian 乾, representing Heaven, the origin of things, as the "name of the shape" (xing zhi ming 形之名), which unifies and comprises all objects on earth. It is therefore the expression of vigour (jian 健).
Because the proponents of the School of Mystery were politically opposed to the powerful family Sima 司馬, their teachings were never integrated into the state schools during the Jin period. It was only during the Liang period 梁 (502-557) that Wang Bi's commentary to the Yijing was considered equally important as Zheng Xuan's commentary. From then on it even overshadowed the traditional explanation of Zheng's school.
The most important writings of Wang Bi are Zhouyi zhu 周易注, Zhouyi lüeli 周易略例, Laozi zhu 老子注, Laozi zhilüe 老子指略 and Lunyu shiyi 論語釋疑.


Source: Pang Pu 龐樸 (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, p. 84.

February 20, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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