An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Yuandao 原道

Jun 4, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

Yuandao 原道 "Essentials of the moral way", is an important writing of the Tang-period 唐 (618-907) scholar Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824) and commonly seen as the starting point for the revival of Confucianism after centuries of Buddhist and Daoist dominance.

The term yuandao is first used in a the Daoist book Huaizanzi 淮南子, chapter Yuandao xun 原道訓 "Originating in the Way". It is also used in Liu Xie's 劉勰 (c. 465-c- 532) literary critique Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍, where it describes the relation between literature and the Dao 道 "Way" inherent in all things of the universe.

Han Yu does approach his critique not from the religious or philosophical aspect, but from the economic side. His main argument in the introductory part is that the abundance of monasteries with vast numbers of tax-exempt monks and nuns, and huge tracts of lands on the yields of which the state had no access, as well as the lavish spendings for monasteries, temples, statues and sacrifices. All these phenomena deprived the state, and society, of higher levels of wealth. The many clergymen "did not till the fields, but ate their produce, and did not weave, but just wear the clothes" (bu geng er shi, bu zhi er yi 不耕而食,不織而衣), as the common criticism went.

This behaviour is contrasted with the Confucian sense for state and society. The core of the Confucian view on state and society were kindheartedness or humaneness (ren 仁) and propriety or rightness (yi 義). These two aspects were the Way (dao 道) of Confucianism and provided the potential to wield moral and political power (de 德). While the book Laozi 老子 totally neglected the two practical virtues, it had a thoroughly different concept of the terms dao and de. Han's definition of the four terms is:

博愛之謂仁,行而宜之之謂義,由是而之焉之謂道,足乎己無待於外之謂德。仁與義爲定名,道與德爲虚位。故道有君子小人,而德有凶有吉。 To love largely is called humaneness (ren); to act according to what should be done is called rightness (yi). To proceed from these principles is called the moral Way (dao); to be sufficient unto oneself without relying on externals is called inner power (de). The first two, ren and yi, are fixed concepts; but the latter two are relative terms. Thus there is the Way (dao) of the superior man and the way of the petty man; and inner power (de) can work either for good or for evil.
Translation Hartmann (1999).

In practice, this meant:

其文《詩》、《書》、《易》、《春秋》,其法禮樂刑政,其民士農工賈,其位君臣、父子、師友、賓主、昆弟、夫婦,其服麻絲,其居宮室,其食粟米、果蔬、魚肉。 Its (of Confucianism) texts are the Book of Songs, the Book of Documents, the Book of Changes, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. Its methods are the rites, music, chastisement, and government. Its classes of people are scholars, peasants, craftsmen, and merchants. Its social relationships are ruler and minister, father and son, teacher and pupil, guest and host, older and younger brother, husband and wife. Its dress is hemp and silk; its dwellings are houses; its foods are rice and grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and meat.
Translation Hartmann (1999).

The last few aspects are a direct attack on Daoism (which claimed abstention from grains) and Buddhism (which requested renunciation of meat). The clear enumeration of social relations is likewise an attack on the two religions which laid no stress on kinship at all. In another paragraph, Han Yu defined the social and political functions of the ruler as someone who issues commands (jun zhe chu ling 君者,出令), state functionaries are effecting these commands and transmit them to the people (chen zhe xing jun zhi ling er jiao zhi min 臣者,行君之令而致之民), and the common people produce grains and rice, hemp and silk, make implements and exchange commodities in order to serve their superiors (min zhe chu li mi ma si, zuo qi min, tong huo cai, yi shi qi shang zhe 民者,出粟米麻絲,作器皿,通貨財,以事其上者). Han Yu thus gives each member of society a defined place. Daoism had concepts of dao and de, but ren and yi did not play any role. Buddhism discarded the idea of the close binary relationship between ruler and minister, father and son, etc.

Another difference between Confucianism and the two religions was that the former advocated activity (you wei 有爲), while the two religions opted for passivity (wu wei 無爲). The latter focused on the control over the heart and mind of the individual and neglected state and society (zhi qi xin er wai tianxia guojia 治其心而外天下國家), while Confucianism supported a complex chain of cooperation of all parts of the state, as described in the chapter Daxue 大學 of the ritual Classic Liji 禮記. The order of the state depended on that of the (ruling or dominant) families, which in turn relied on the cultivation of the individual, with a focus on the sincerity of the mind or will. This was not possible without active cooperation.

Moreover, mankind needed sacred leaders (shengren 聖人) who nourished and instructed the people and invented clothing, agriculture, tools and implements, medicine, rituals, music, and even the penal law.

Yet Han Yu imitated the Buddhist and Daoist concept of lineages of transmitting doctrines (zutong 祖統) and brought forward the idea of the transmission of the (Confucian) Way (daotong 道統), according to which the teachings of the Confucian Way had be handed down by Yao 堯, Shun 舜, Yu the Great 大禹, and the virtuous rulers of the Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) and Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) dynasties, and finally to Confucius (Kongzi 孔子, 551-479 BCE) and his disciples, and Meng Ke 孟軻 (Mengzi 孟子, 385-304 or 372-289), after whose death the transmission was interrupted. This meant that Confucian thought was much older than Daoism, which was good argument to counter the Daoist claim that Confucius was a disciple of Laozi. At the current end of the line of transmission was Han Yu himself, as he explained in a letter to Zhang Ji 張籍 (c. 767-c. 830, Chong da Zhang Ji shu 重答張籍書).

In another writings, Han Yu even disclaimed the rightful position of Buddhism because it was a "barbarian creed" (Fo ben diyi zhi ren 佛本夷狄之人, in Jian ying Fo gu biao 諫迎佛骨表).

Han Yu can be blamed for ideological "absolutism". While the Tang dynasty took both Daoism and Buddhism as officially accepted and sponsored state religions, and accepted Confucianism as an important component for state building, Han Yu advocated the sole dominance of Confucianism and postulated to "make humans of these people (the clergy), burn their books, and make homes of their dwellings" (ren qi ren, huo qi shu, lu qi ju 人其人,火其書,廬其居). Han brought forward the dualistic argument of the ancient Gongyang Commentary (Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳) which juxtaposed China (Hua 華) and the barbarian cultures (yi 夷), and warned that the introduction and veneration of the "barbarian standards" (yi di zhi fa 夷狄之法) of Buddhism brought decline to China.

The text is included in the collected writings of Han Yu, Changli Xiansheng ji 昌黎先生集.

Chen Ying 陳瑛, Xu Qixian 許啟賢, ed. (1989). Zhongguo lunli da cidian 中國倫理大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 542.
Chen Zenghui 陳增輝, Hong Bo 洪波 (1992). "Yuandao 原道", in Zhou Gucheng 周谷城, ed. Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Vol. Zhexue 哲學卷 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 414.
Hartmann, Charles (1999). "Han Yu and the Confucian 'Way'", in William Theodore de Bary, ed. Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 1, From Earliest Times to 1600 (New York: Columbia University Press), 568-573.
Jiang Xijin 蔣錫金, ed. (1990). Wen-shi-zhe xuexi cidian 文史哲學習辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 971.
Kaderas, Christoph (2000)."Das Yuan dao des Han Yu (768-824) - Analyse und vollständige Übersetzung", Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 150 (1): 243-267.
Lin Fei 林非, ed. (1997). Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 146.
McMullen, David (2003). "Yuan dao (On the Origins of the Way)", in Yao Xinzhong, ed. RoutledgeCurzon Encyclopedia of Confucianism (London/New York: RoutledgeCurzon), 787.
Yan Qi 閻琦 (2003). "Yuandao 原道", in Bian Xiaoxuan 卞孝萱, ed. Tangdai wenxue baike cidian 唐代文學百科辭典 (Beijing: Hanyu da cidian chubanshe), 872.
Zhao Jihui 趙吉惠 (1988). "Yuandao 原道", in Zhao Jihui 趙吉惠, Guo Hou'an 郭厚安, ed. Zhongguo ruxue cidian 中國儒學辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 408.
Zhao Shulian 趙書廉, ed. (1986). Zhongguo zhexue shi xiao cidian 中國哲學史小辭典 (Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe), 312.