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Chinese Literature and Philosophy - Xuanxue 玄學 The School of the Mystery

The Xuanxue 玄學 "School of the mystery", sometimes also called xuanfeng 玄風 "the (philosophical) current of the mystery", was a philosophical school that flourished among literati during the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Western Jin 西晉 (265-316) periods. It was heavily inclined to Daoism and had been adopted by the intellectual elite when the prospects of political career became less positive in an environment where military strongmen controlled the court and the empire. The representatives of the School of the Mystery were highly educated persons that wrote poems and used to discuss their worldviews in casual "pure conversations" (qingtan 清談) in a pleasant environment of gardens and parks. Their philosophy was concerned with the question of the fundament (ben 本) of the universe and less with what they called the "branches" (mo 末), with the issue of existence and voidness at the beginning of times (you wu 有無), and the position of all ten thousand things (wanwu 萬物) in the universe.
In regard to society and education, the representatives of the School of the Mystery stressed that man had to live in accordance with nature (ziran 自然), and that social rules therefore were contradicting the course of the universe. Learning was, in their eyes, a less important "branch" (mo) of life. This philosophy stood in contrast to the Confucian veneration of learning, and later scholars therefore said that Ruan Ji 阮籍 and Ji Kang 嵇康 "negated (the Confucian saints) Tang the Perfect 成湯 and King Wu of Zhou 周武王 and showed disrespect for the Duke of Zhou 周公 and Confucius 孔子", believed that propriety and etiquette were void and useless rules, benefitting robbers and an art for the deceased. Yet the philosophers of the School of the Mystery went not so far to wholly negate the contemporary society and its hierarchies. In their eyes, the Confucian moral values of kindheartedness and righteousness (ren yi 仁義) were not things to be forced on the people, but rather came quite naturally from each one's own character. In their opinion laws (fa 法, otherwise created by the government) should be created (hua 化) by taking nature as a "model" (fa 法), which sufficed to control (hua 化) the people, and education by instruction in terms (ming jiao 名教) could be overcome by applying the teachings of nature.
The thinkers of the Mystery School believed to be able to leave the "matters of the world" (shi wu 世務) and the form of concrete activities (shi wu 事物) in order to learn what was the fundament behind all things. Their basic canonical writings were the Daoist books Laozi 老子 (Daodejing 道德經) and Zhuangzi 莊子, as well as the Confucian Classic Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes" that had become more popular towards the end of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE). According to this book, there was not a stable society, as Confucianism postulated, but a constant and spontaneous change of things. These three books were called the "three mysteries" (sanxuan 三玄).
The term xuanxue was first used in Lu Yun's 陸雲 biography in the official dynastic history Jinshu 晉書 that was written during the Tang period 唐 (618-907). It can thus be seen that xuanxue was not a contemporary term.
The term "mystery" (xuan 玄) is derived from the book Laozi, where it is used as one definition for the Dao, a "force" that is the movens behind all processes in the universe, and which is undividedly inherent in all objects. The term xuan can also be used in the sense of xuanyuan 玄遠, meaning "obscure" and far away from concrete matters of life. Laozi had used it for something that was "beyond speech and impossible to illustrate" (chao yan jue xiang 超言絕象). The Dao was the fundament of the universe, Heaven, Earth, and the ten thousand things (wanwu 萬物). It was called was "voidness" or "inactivity" (wu 無). All things are produced out of "nothing" (yi wu wei ben 以無為本), like action (dong 動) is generated out of inactivity (jing 靜). All objects and conditions are undergoing a permanent change, and nothing remains stable. In their common origin out of the voidness, all things are equal and can therefore be seen as one great unity (yi 一). The status before the creation of things was the "mysterious darkness" (xuanming 玄冥).
The representatives of the School of Mystery were Confucian scholars trying to reconcile the teachings of Confucianism on society and the position of man in the world with the Daoist interpretation of the universe. As educated scholars, they did not see themselves as Daoists, but as Confucian scholars who used Daoist concepts to reinterprete Confucian writings. He Yan, for instance, wrote the commentary Lunyu jijie 論語集解 to the Lunyu 論語 "Confucian Analects", Wang Bi a commentary to the Yijing, the Zhouyi zhu 周易注, and the Lunyu shiyi 論語釋疑. The thinkers of the School of the Mystery abstained from the earlier practice to comment and interprete each single sentence of the Classics, but instead developed a theory that explained the processes in the universe. Their theory was embracing the universe as a whole, and not only the relationship between humans and humans, or humans and Heaven. Confucianism and Daoism were, in their eyes, not mutually exclusive, but two philosophies that could easily be combined to cover different aspects of life. While classical Daoism was not very interested in social relationships, Confucius had never wasted a thought to nature and man's position in it. The two philosophies were therefore able to mutually supplement each other. He Yan and Wang Bi were not the first to attempt a merger of different and antagonistic philosophical schools. Liu Shao 劉劭 in his Renwuzhi 人物志, for instance, was one of the first post-Han scholars who unified Daoist and Confucian philosophy, the thought of the dialecticians (mingjia 名家) and of the legalists (fajia 法家).
The main differences between earlier, Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) philosophers and the School of the Mystery lies in the latter's concern for the fundament of things (benti 本體論), while Han philosophers had been concerned with the universe, its structure, and the correlations between all objects and processes in the world. Discussions about things outside the concrete matter (tiwai 體外), like speculations about correlations in the universe (see correlative thinking) or the meaning of omina and portents as described in the apocryphal classics, and which were very popular during the Han period, were of no concern for the School of the Mystery. The adherents of the School of the Mystery believed that before the creation of things, the primordial matter or "breath" (yuanqi 元氣) was already existing, and would continue to exist after the disintegration of the world or concrete objects in it.
Scholars like Yuan Hong 袁宏 from the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) discern four historical phases in the thought of Mystery. The first representatives were Xiahou Xuan 夏侯玄, He Yan 何晏 and Wang Bi 王弼. They commented the classical Daoist writings and stressed their supposition that everything was born out of the "nothing" (gui wu 貴無 "keeping high (the concept of) voidness"). This "voidness" was nothing else than the "Way" (dao 道) that is inherent in all things. He Yan and Wang Bi continued a movement created by Wang Su 王肅, as a reaction to the orthodox philosophical system of the Confucian master Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (the so-called Zhengxue 鄭學). According to their belief, all ten thousand things were based on the the Dao or the voidness. The Dao was the reason for their existence. "Existence" was an outer expression of the inner voidness. Wang Bi explained that education - a very important factor in social life, in the eyes of the Confucians - was a product of nature, names and designations (hierarchies).
The second phase was initiated by the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove (Zhulin qixian 竹林七賢), with the main representatives Ji Kang and Ruan Ji. They believed that the Confucian-style education was not necessary if an intelligent person relied on the ways of nature. Social hierarchies were a quite natural thing, and had not to be articifially constructed with the help of rituals, propriety and etiquette, as the Confucians did. Such regulations and education would destroy the influence of nature. Xiang Xiu 向秀 explained that all living beings have emotions, and what is called emotion, is nothing else than nature itself. The desires and feelings of humans were therefore an expression of his nature, and not something to be suppressed and avoided. He was also of the opinion that the ten thousand being are spontaneously born, and act and change spontaneously.
In the very late third century Pei Wei 裴頠 (author of the Chouyoulun 崇有論), Guo Xiang 郭象, Wang Yan 王衍, Yu Kai 庾敳, Wang Cheng 王承, Ruan Xiu 阮修, Wei Jie 衛玠, and Xie Kun 謝鯤 rejected the emphasis on the voidnesses' potential to cause a process of creation. Guo Xiang believed that things came into being in a spontaneous way (duhua 獨化 "solitary transformation"), and not as a result of the Dao's interference. He also began to revise the idea of creation of out voidness and believed that matter must have been there before creation (chongyou 崇有 "venerating (the concept of) existence"). Pei Wei explained that "nothing is not able to produce anything, and the birth of things is a spontaneous process (wu zhe wu yi neng sheng, shi sheng zhe zi sheng ye 無者無以能生,始生者自生也). Guo Xiang likwise said that voidness can not give birth (wu bu neng sheng you 無不能生有), and that all things have "created themselves", without being dependent of a creator (wu ge zi zao er wu suo dai yan 物各自造而無所待焉). In the eyes of Guo Xiang and Xiang Xiu, there was neither an outer source to initiate the activity of the inherent "Way" (wai bu zi yu dao 外不資于道), nor did something inside things create them (nei bu you yu ji 內不由于己), but all things came into being spontaneously and independently (juran zi de er du hua 據然自得而獨化). This theory was a compromise between the adherents of the out-of-nothing theory, and those who believed that there must be an outer initiator.
Some of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove, as well as Ruan Zhan 阮瞻, Wang Cheng 王澄 or Xie Kun, overstressed what they believed to be the course of nature and worshipped a life of leisure and drukenness, and so contributed to the social non-acceptability of the School of the the Mystery.
In the last phase, the theories of the School of the Mystery were taken over by early Buddhist monks like Dao'an 道安, Zhudun 支遁 or Sengzhao 僧肇. Sengzhao dissolved the contradiction between "voidness" and "existence" by his postulation that both were in fact the same (you, wu yi cheng, qi zhi yi ye 有無異稱,其致一也). Similarly, some concepts of Buddhism began to merge with beliefs of the School of the Mystery. In his commentary to the book Liezi 列子, Zhang Zhen 張湛, who was one of the last representatives of the School of the Mystery, says that the ancestor of all things was voidness, and the end of all objects perishability. Buddhist terms and concepts, like "voidness" (śūnyatā, better: "illusion") were in the beginning often translated with terms formerly used by the School of the Mystery. The victory of Buddhism and the raise of Daoist religious movements contributed to the disappearance of the School of the Mystery. The problem of the existence or non-existence of matter before the creation of the universe nevertheless continued occupying the philosophical world in China, and was discussed in a new environment by the Neo-Confucians of the Song period 宋 (960-1279).

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February 8, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail