In the third century and fourth centuries A.D. (the so-called Wei-Chin period) there was a second flowering of Taoism. Historians sometimes ascribe this at least partly to the chaos and corruption of the late Han dynasty and the repeated wars, droughts and floods of the time. These adverse circumstances lead a number of thinkers and philosophers to withdraw both from the corruption of the state and from the dry academic debates which had turned state Confucianism into dry scholasticism. This rejection of the social and philosophical dogmas developed in two directions.

Pure Conversation (Ch'ing-t'an) School
Metaphysical (Hsuan-hsueh) School

Pure Conversation (Ch'ing-t'an) School

This is a name given to a group of younger thinkers and poets who explored issues of Taoism from a 'light' and poetical aspect very much in the spirit of Chuang-Tzu, seeking to free the spirit and sharpen the imagination. Their writing and poetry displays lofty ideals and a certain wit, whether on matters of sex or of poetry.

The most famous of this group were the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove who included Juan Chi (210-263 A.D.) who advocated becoming one with the universe and transcending all distinctions; and Hsi K'ang (223-262 A.D.). According to Wing-Tsit Chan; "These men often met in bamboo groves to drink, write poems, and talk and behave in utter disregard for social conventions or worldly values."

Metaphysical (Hsuan-hsueh) School

This important school of thought was lead by philosophers such as Wang Pi (A.D. 226 - 249), Ho Yen (died 249 A.D.) and Kuo Hsiang (died 312 A.D.). These philosophers sought to both expand Taoism and to reconcile Taoism and Confucianism.

  1. Wang Pi
  2. Ho Yen
  3. Kuo Hsiang

Wang Pi

Talisman for Protection in the
Mountains. Talisman for Protection in the Mountains.

Wang Pi wrote commentaries on both the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching. In relation to the latter he was an early exponent of the idea that an explanation of being could be found in the I Ching hexagrams, in which the mingling of the lines in the trigrams illuminate the principles of being and of how to undertake an analysis of it. These ideas were later to penetrate into Tai Chi Chuan with a similar association of the I Ching and the movements of Tai Chi.

Although he died very young (at age 24) he made a major contribution to Chinese Cosmogony with his theory of 'original non-being (pen-wu). According to his theory original non-being transcends all distinctions and descriptions. it is the pure, original substance (pen-t'i) which is whole and strong and always in accord with principal. This emphasis on 'principal' is prominent in his work in contrast to Lao Tzu's focus on destiny or fate (ming). In this he anticipates the later Neo-Confucians.

"What is the explanation of a hexagram? The substance of a hexagram makes clear the controlling principles out of which it is developed. The many cannot be controlled by the many. They are regulated by the one. Activity cannot be controlled by activity. It is controlled by that which is firmly rooted in the one. The reason why the many can exist is that their ruling principal returns always to the one and all activities can function because they have come from the same source. Things never err -- they follow principal. There is the chief to unite them, and the leader to group them together. Therefore, though complex, they are not chaotic, and though many, they are not confused." -Chou-i lueh-li (Simple Exemplifications of the Principles of the Book of Changes)

Ho Yen

Ho Yen stressed the idea that non-being (wu-wei) is nameless and is beyond forms and words. In his social and political though he (like Wang Pi) was much influenced by Confucianism for in their view it was Confucius who demonstrated the highest truth in human society.

Talisman of the Supreme Heavenly Ruler of the South
Pole. Talisman of the Supreme Heavenly Ruler of the South Pole.

"Being, in coming into being, is produced by non-being. Affairs, as affairs, are brought into completion by non-being. When one talks about it, it has no predicates; when one names it, it has no name; when one looks at it, it has no form; when one listens to it, it has no sound -- that is Tao in completeness. Hence it is able to make sounds and echoes brilliant, to cause material force (chi) and material objects to stand out, to embrace all physical forms and spiritual activity, and to display light and shadow. Because of it darkness becomes black and plainness becomes white. Because of it the carpenter's square draws a square and the compass draws a circle. The compass and square obtain forms but the Tao has no form. Black and white obtain names but Tao has no name." --Tao lun (Treatise on Tao.)

Kuo Hsiang

Taoist Talisman Talisman to establish contact with the Spirits of Earth and Wind.

Kuo Hsiang wrote about the interdependency of self and other and of how these concepts are mirror images, one relying on the other for existence. Each being needs the universe to be just what it is if it is to exist at all. If a single principle was violated nothing could exist.

Much of Kuo Hsiang writing took the form of commentary on Chuang Tzu and just as Wang Pi developed on Lao Tzu, Kuo Hsiang developed the ideas of Chuang Tzu. The major concept for Kuo Hsiang was not the Tao of Chuang Tzu, but rather Nature (tzu-jan). Things exists and transform themselves naturally and spontaneously. There is no external agent that causes this process. 'Heaven' is not something that is lurking in the shadows but is simply the general name of Nature.

Things exists and transform according to principal. Everything is self- sufficient and there is no need for an embracing original reality to govern them (as in Wang Pi's philosophy). In other words while Wang Pi emphasizes non-being, Kuo Hsiang emphasizes being. Where the former emphasizes the one, the latter draws attention to the many. For Wang Pi, principal transcends reality while for Kuo Hsiang it is immanent within them.

Kuo was also a fatalist since he believed that everything has its own principal and hence is determined by it. He therefore believed in attempting to achieve contentment in whatever situation one found oneself. He did not have a place for choice or free will in his philosophy.

Kuo Hsiang considered Confucius as the true sage and employed the principles of Taoism to reinterpret the Analects of Confucius. he felt that the true sage was not someone who withdrew into solitary contemplation in the mountains but rather one who remained in the center of human affairs and accomplished all things by taking no unnatural action. Thus for him Confucius was the true sage and not Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu!

"The music of Nature is not an entity outside of things. The different apertures of pipes and flutes, in combination with all things, together constitute Nature. Since non-being is non-being, it cannot produce being. Before being is produced it cannot produce other beings. Then by whom are things produced? They spontaneously produce themselves, that is all. By this is not meant that there is an 'I' to produce. The 'I' cannot produce things and things cannot produce the 'i'. The 'I' is self-existent. Because it is o by itself we call it natural.

Everything is what it is by nature, not through taking any action. Therefore Chuang Tzu speaks of Nature. The term 'Nature' (literally 'Heaven') is used to explain that things are what they are spontaneously, and not to mean the blue sky. But someone says that the music of Nature makes all things serve or obey it. Now, Nature cannot even posses itself. How can it posses things? Nature is the general name for all things. Nature does not set its mind for or against anything. Who is the master to make things obey? Therefore all things exist by themselves and come from nature. This is the Tao of Heaven." --Commentary on the Chuang Tzu.

Kuo Hsiang also wrote that:
"Not even to have the desire for the state of non-desire is the constant quality of the sage."

Thus the antithesis of Taoism becomes, by a peculiar twist of reasoning, the very acme of Taoism itself! This notion of 'non-desire' shows the clear influence of Buddhism in China by this time. Kuo Hsiang sought to extend the role of Taoism from a sense of removed contemplation, to a more active one in society, but one in which the place of man was seen in a different light.

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