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Cosmogony, Cosmology, and the Dao

This essay will explore cosmogony and cosmology in early China. Cosmogony refers to the creation or origin of the universe and cosmology to how the universe operates. We will find that texts now labeled as Daoist – the Laozi and Zhuangzi, for example – appear to be among the first to write about it, often in terms of Dao 道. But first, let us look at what accounts we can find in texts that pre-date these.

In the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 – 1045 B.C.E.), the oracle bone inscriptions record numerous Nature Powers, such as the sun, cardinal directions and wind, but most prominently, the river (He 河), and the mountain (Yue 岳) that influenced the weather, crops and some other things. Similarly, many of the deceased ancestors and some culture heroes (e.g. Yi Yin 伊尹) could affect the weather, crops and the outcomes of many events. A deity (or deities) named Di 帝 also had these powers, but to a greater extent, and was apparently more powerful and more distant than royal ancestors. Later written as Shangdi 上帝, it has often been translated as Lord on High or High God, but, as Robert Eno has emphasized, it may refer instead to a collective body of deities.[1] Whatever the case, nowhere in the Shang or Zhou dynasty literature is Shangdi said to have created or generated the world or anything else. In the Classic of Odes (Shijing 詩經) both Shangdi and Tian 天, the sky, heavens or perhaps “Heaven” are the higher powers and, as often been mentioned, seem to be largely synonymous. Ode # 235, “King Wen” (文王) begins:


King Wen is on high;
Oh, he shines in Heaven!
Zhou is an old nation,
But its mandate (to rule) is new.
The land of Zhou became illustrious,
Blessed by God’s mandate.
King Wen ascends and descends
On God’s left hand, on His right.

Tian – the sky – is the place were the highest power resides along with the spirits of highly revered royal ancestors. There is little reason not to translate Di as “God” and Tian as “Heaven,” with the caveat that Di is not said to have creative powers. As for Tian, we find in ode #255, “Mighty” (蕩):


Mighty is God on High,
Ruler of His people below;
Swift and terrible is God on High,
His charge has many statutes.
Heaven gives birth to the multitudes of the people,
But its charge cannot be counted upon.
To begin well is common;
To end well is rare indeed.

Seeing that Heaven “gives birth to” (sheng 生) and that Di on High resides above (in the heavens), it is not unreasonable to propose that Di on High is a creative force, or is in some way involved in creative acts, though we never encounter the Chinese “Shangdi gives birth to” (上帝生). Perhaps Shangdi exercised his creative powers through Tian-Heaven. Mozi 墨子 (c. 470-390 B.C.E.) grounded a significant amount of his philosophy in the authority of Heaven. For him, his followers, and likely a significant portion of society, Tian appears to have been a personified “sky god.”[4] In “Heaven’s Will, Middle Section” (Tianzhi zhong 天志中, ch. 27), he argues:


Further, how I know that Heaven’s love of the people is profound is this. I say it is through putting the sun, moon, stars, and planets in proper sequence to light the way for them. It fixed the four seasons – spring, autumn, winter and summer – to regulate them. It sent down snow, frost, rain and dew so the five grains, hemp and silk would grow, and it caused the people to gain the benefits of these materials. It aligned the mountains, rivers, streams and valleys and made proliferate the many officials to oversee the people and keep watch on what was good and bad. It sanctioned kings, dukes, marquises and earls and caused them to reward the worthy and punish the wicked. It provided metal and wood, birds and beasts, as well as the production of the five grains, hemp and silk so the people had the materials for clothing and food. From ancient times until now, it has always been like this.[5]

Many texts cite Heaven as that which gives birth to either human beings or all living things,[6] although in many of these cases, and in perhaps the second ode above, “Heaven” may be better understood as “Nature,” and a few texts write it as “Heaven and Earth create…” (Tiandi sheng 天地生).[7] While there is no doubt that many in early China understood Tian to be a conscious deity, with likes, dislikes, desires and moral authority, Tian also clearly referred to the sky above and the forces of Nature herself. While there is the possibility that when we encounter “Heaven gives birth to/creates” we are witnessing the belief, or the remnants of a belief, that a conscious deity (Tian) somehow fashioned humans and all living things, there is strong evidence that suggests that it often refers to the “activity” and resources of Nature allowing or perhaps encouraging life to evolve. In the 1st century C.E. the philosopher Wang Chong 王充 found it still necessary to argue against the religious conception of Tian as a conscious and purposeful deity. Explicitly deriving his argument from the Laozi (or Daojia 道家), he explained that “When Heaven moves, it does not desire to generate things thereby, but things are generated of their own accord. This, then, is spontaneity. In dispersing its vital energy, it does not desire to create things, but things are created of themselves. This, then, is non-intentional action” (天動不欲以生物,而物自生,此則自然也。施氣不欲為物,而物自為,此則無為也。).[8]

In what follows I will often translate Tian as “the heavens” to specify the referent as the sky above, including the sun, moon, stars and planets and sometimes as “Nature” to widen the referent to include the earth and imply the natural, dynamic forces at work in the universe.

We may now ask, who (or what) was believed to have created the heavens and earth? An excavated text from Zidanku 子彈庫, Hunan province usually called the “Chu Silk Manuscript” (Chu Boshu 楚帛書) contains the earliest evidence of a myth involving Baoxi 雹戲 (a.k.a. Fuxi 伏羲) and Nüwa 女媧, who, in a time described as “indistinct and dark”(夢夢墨墨), gave birth to four children, who helped separate above and below (上下), that is, the heavens and the earth. Eventually, after thousands of years had passed the sun and moon were somehow born. Later[9] myths tell of Nüwa creating living things (out of already existing materials); for example, the late-Han Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字 records that (Nü)Wa was an “ancient female deity that transformed (=made) the myriad things” (古之神聖女,化萬物者也).

Aside from this text, it would appear that some of the authors of the Laozi and Zhuangzi were the first to attempt a “non-mythological” answer. What is traditionally the 25th chapter of the Laozi 老子, and included among the passages located in “bundle A” of the Guodian 郭店 proto-Laozi, offers:


There was something nebulous (yet) complete prior to the birth of the heavens and earth. Placid! Vacuous! Unaccompanied and immutable, circulating everywhere yet secure. It can be considered the Mother of the World. I do not know its name and so will style it “Dao.” If forced to name it, (I would) say it is great. Being great, (I would) say it progresses on. Progressing on, (I would) say it is far-reaching. Far-reaching, (I would) say it returns. Accordingly, Dao is great, the heavens are great, the earth is great, and the king is also great. Within all the lands there are four “greats” and the king counts as one of them. Humankind conforms to the earth; the earth conforms to the heavens; the heavens conform to the Dao; and the Dao conforms to (what is) so-of-itself.[10]

The Chinese word dao 道 (found spelled as Tao in English dictionaries) is a common word in early Chinese literature. Experts are unsure whether it was originally a noun or a verb. The earliest attestation I have found is on a Western Zhou bronze inscription from the mid-9th century B.C.E.:

Sanshi pan 散氏盤 (#10176)


where it appears six times, each referring to a different (named) “road.”[11] The ode #35 Gufeng 谷風 also has this meaning: “(I) travel the road slowly” (行道遲遲).[12] The cognate word dao 導/道 “to lead, to guide, to go along” may derive from dao as “road”; that is, one goes along the road or is guided by the road, or, dao as “road” may be the derivation: that upon which one goes along or is guided by.[13] By extension, dao is the “path” one takes, or the path anything takes as it proceeds. In turn, it is the “way” something is done or occurs, the “method” one uses, and, quite commonly, the “proper way” to do things. Chad Hansen has called these “performance daos” and when communicated to others – offered as guidance – can be understood as “guiding discourse.”[14] I refer the reader to an impressive essay on pre-Confucian meanings and usages of dao by Bradford Hatcher entitled “The Other Original Dao: The Path, before Kongzi and Laozi Paved It.”[15] For now, I will note that in the Analects (Lunyu 論語) we not only find dao meaning “road,” (combined with lu 路, “road” to add further specificity) but we also come across the “way(s) of one’s father” (父之道), the “way(s) of the former kings” (先王之道) and the “way(s) of the superior man” (君子之道). Mengzi refers to the “way(s) of Confucius” (孔子之道), the “way(s) of Yao and Shun (堯舜之道) and Mozi criticizes the “way(s) of the Ru” (儒之道). Let us note that dao can be either singular or plural and that it generally refers to the teachings, practices and ethos of those mentioned, although these need not be expressed verbally to be conveyed. We should also note that dao is also used in this “everyday” sense in the Zhuangzi and the Laozi as well.

Also in the Analects we find that a state or “(all that is) below the heavens” (天下) can “have possession of the Way” (有道) or “not have possession of the Way” (無道).[16] This suggests “The Right Way” to live or function. In a recently discovered ancient text we find:


Yu’s direction of water (used) the way of water; Zaofu’s horsemanship, the horse and its way; Hou Ji’s skill with the land, the way of the earth. There is nothing not having a way, the human way (人道) being nearest (to man). Thus is the human way a superior person’s first choice.[17]

We may note here also that Yu, Zhaofu and Houji based their actions on the situation at hand, or the nature of the subjects in these situations, and, being successful, could be understood to have followed or possessed the “Right Way.” Finally, in many texts we encounter the “right” or “most efficacious” dao/way to do any number of things; for example: the “way to order the state” (治國之道), the “way to nourish the people” (畜人之道), the “way of winning the hearts (of the people)” (得其心有道),[18] and the “way of harmonizing the qi-energy” (合氣之道).

Above we saw reference to the “human way” (ren dao 人道). The distinction between the human (ren 人) and the Heavenly, or Natural (tian 天), (and their “ways”), was an important one for the early Chinese and for our discussion here. While some early sources talk of Tian as a deity and its dao as the way the deity operates or prescribes humans to operate,[19] what is more prevalent and relevant to us is the usage of Tian to refer to Nature and its dao as Nature’s Way(s). While “the Way of Heaven and Earth” (Tiandi zhi Dao 天地之道) would presumably be a more accurate expression indicating the “Way of Nature,” the “Way of Heaven” (Tian Dao 天道, or Tian zhi Dao 天之道) appears to have been the most common expression. The Analects records that Confucius was rather silent on the Way of Nature[20] and Zi Chan 子產 (c. 6th century B.C.E.) declared that, unlike the Human Way, it was too remote to be understood.[21] We find the Confucian Xunzi saying: “The Way of which I speak is not the Way of Heaven or the Way of Earth, but rather the Way that guides the actions of mankind and is embodied in the conduct of the gentleman” (道者、非天之道,非地之道,人之所以道也,君子之所道也。),[22] and we find Heguanzi 鶡冠子 counselling Pangzi 龐子 that the way of a sage (聖人之道) gives precedence to humankind over the heavens, the earth or the seasons (shi 時), saying, “These three cannot make transformations stand nor implant customs, therefore the sage does not take them as standard.” (三者,不可以立化樹俗,故聖人弗法。).[23]

This was the common attitude, especially among Confucians. Yet some did talk of Nature’s ways, among them the authors of the Laozi and Zhuangzi:

Laozi 77:


The Way of Nature, is it not like the drawing of a bowstring? What is high is pressed down, what is low is raised up. (That which) has excess is diminished and (that which) is deficient is increased. The Way of Nature (thus) diminishes excess and dispenses it to what is deficient. The Way of Humankind is not like this, (but rather) diminishes what is (already) deficient and provides it to (those who) have excess. Who is it that can dispense his excess to the world? Only one who has the Way.[24]

Here, the Way of Nature is recommended as something to emulate, as opposed to the Way of Humankind and one who emulates the Way of Nature is said to “have possession of the (right) way (you dao 有道).” In Zhuangzi chapter 11 we have:


What is this thing called Way? There is the Way of Nature, and there is the Way of Humankind. To engage in no intentional activity, and yet be respected – this is the Way of Nature. To engage in action and become entangled in it – this is the Way of Humankind. The ruler (models) the Way of Nature; his subjects the Way of Humankind. The Way of Nature and the Way of Humankind are far apart. This is something to consider carefully![25]

But let us return to our question regarding what came before or gave rise to Heaven and Earth. The author of Laozi 25 proposes that there was an indeterminate, nebulous state of affairs; placid and seemingly empty, yet unquestionably dynamic. The closest name (ming 名) he could imagine was to name it one of the “great” things in the universe, but he offers us a “style name” or “courtesy name” (zi 字) of dao 道. Why would he refer to this primordial environment as a dao, as a/the way of operating or doing something? This is a question that has troubled some scholars. Yet our reflections on Tian Dao above shed some light. Herrlee Creel once wrote, “In the Warring States period, ‘the dao of Heaven’ came to mean the way nature works: the progression of the seasons, and so forth. This dao of nature was, however, precisely what the early Daoist philosophers were interested in. For them, dao was the course of nature.”[26] Thus, this usage of Dao was derived from the notion of Tian Dao as the Way of Nature. It would seem that some in ancient China either speculated about, or had an experience with a dao that not only encompassed but also preceded the emergence of Heaven and Earth (and their ways/daos), and like other daos, one could follow or be guided (dao 導) by this one as well.[27] Accordingly, Laozi 53 declares that “the Great Way is very flat and even (to go along), yet people are fond of byways” (大道甚夷,而人好徑).

Whereas Robert Eno writes that in Daoist texts, Dao is used “both as a prescriptive model for people and as a descriptive cosmic force,”[28] Chad Hansen asserts that this “cosmic” usage of Dao involves an implausible meaning-change,[29] and further, that a mystical inner experience of the source of the world is “something quite alien to their philosophical scheme.”[30] I find Hansen’s narrow focus on philosophy and denigration of early Chinese religious/spiritual sensibilities to be a significant handicap to understanding these texts. With regards to this primordial Dao being something one can be guided by, Laozi 25 concludes by saying Heaven and Earth conform to the standard (fa 法) epitomized by Dao, and that, ideally, humankind can take it as a guide and model themselves on it. And in a figurative manner of speaking, Dao itself conforms to the nature of things operating or evolving naturally of–themselves, which, among other things, reveals that this Dao is still present: it does not exist only at the beginning of time.

This “cosmogonic Dao” appears elsewhere in the Laozi. Chapter 42 begins:


Dao gave birth to One; One gave birth to Two;
Two gave birth to Three; Three gave birth to all living things.
All living things shoulder the yin and embrace the yang,
The blending of (these two) energies produce harmony.

Much ink has been spilled in attempts to identify what the one, two and three are. The first two things almost always appearing first in cosmogonies in early China are Heaven and Earth,[31] but I find it most likely these numbers merely represent growth, that all things have their origin in the Dao.[32] Regarding all the living things in the world, chapter 51 says “The Dao gives birth to them, its power (De 德) nourishes them, things shape them and circumstances complete them” (道生之,德畜之,物形之,勢成之) and chapter 34 explains that “The Great Dao inundates (the world, flowing) in all directions. All living things depend on it for life and it does not refuse them … All living things turn to it and yet it does not rule them” (大道氾兮,其可左右。萬物恃之以生而不辭 … 萬物歸焉,而不為主). And finally, chapter 4 says that the Dao “seems to be the ancestor of all living things” (似萬物之宗), and the author remarks that he “does not know whose child it is, but it would appear to be prior to Di” (不知誰之子,象帝之先).[33] This again signifies that this Dao is primordial, that it existed prior to the heavens and earth, to all living things and even prior to the highest and most ancient divinity, Di 帝, who dwells in Heaven. Dao is that which inundates (fan 氾) the world with its power and implicit guidance, is responsible for the generation (sheng 生) of all things and is personified as a primeval mother (mu 母) or ancestor (zong 宗).

A few passages in the Laozi would appear to speak of this “Dao” using other terms, like the label “Mother” mentioned above. Two of these are relevant to the cosmogony – or perhaps ontology – we are addressing here. The influential chapter 40 of the Laozi asserts that “All things in the world are born from Existence; Existence is born from Non-existence,” (天下之物生於有,有生於無) where You 有 and Wu 無 signify reified concepts of existence and non-existence. Another way of expressing this, although still dealing with reified concepts, is that the myriad forms in the world are born of Form (xing 形) and Form is born of the Formless (wuxing 無形) – which is an oft-mentioned attribute of the Dao[34] and near synonymous with chapter 25’s “nebulous” (hun 混). Thus Wu 無, if not an epithet for Dao, at the very least conveys something fundamental about this mysterious cosmogonic creator/creative power. Chapter 1 affirms that Non-existence (無) “names the beginning of all living things” (名萬物之始) and Existence (有) “names the Mother of all living things” (名萬物之母也).[35] The first half has near-parallels in the Guanzi’s 管子 “Techniques of the Mind, Upper Section” (Xinshu shang 心術上), which reads “Emptiness is the beginning of all living things” (虛者,萬物之始),[36] and the 5th chapter of the Hanfeizi 韓非子, which affirms that it is “Dao (that is) the beginning of all living things” (道者,萬物之始).[37]

No discussions of this subject matter is found in the Venerable Documents (Shangshu 尚書), the Classic of Odes (Shijing 詩經), the Zhou Changes (Zhouyi 周易), the Analects (Lunyu 論語), or the works of Mozi 墨子, Mengzi 孟子 or Xunzi 荀子. Cosmogony, cosmology and the conceptions of a cosmogonic Dao are to be found in the roughly contemporary work Zhuangzi 莊子, as well as in a few texts of the 3rd and 2nd century B.C.E. that show interest in this new domain of discourse, apparently influenced by the Laozi and Zhuangzi, (or their communities/lineages).[38]

The Zhuangzi discloses cosmological assumptions in its many anecdotes, parables and colloquies. Three in particular are quite interesting; the first one an overt attempt at an explanation of the nature of Dao.

Zhuangzi 6: Da Zongshi 大宗師


As for the Dao, it has reality and reliability, (but) lacks intentional activity and lacks form. It can be passed on but cannot be received;[39] can be apprehended but cannot be seen. It is its own basis, its own root; when there was not yet the heavens and earth, it was persistently self-existent. It empowered the spirits and empowered Di, gave birth to the heavens and gave birth to the earth. Existing beyond the supreme ultimate, yet it cannot be considered high; existing below the six nadirs, yet it cannot be considered deep; (existing) before the heavens and earth were born, yet it cannot be considered perennial; enduring from the highest antiquity, yet it cannot be considered old.

As we have seen in the Laozi, this author affirms a formless, self-existent, primordial Dao that gave rise to the heavens and earth as well as empowers the spiritual entities of the world.[40] Thinking of it as high, low, old, etc. is considered too limiting and obfuscating, and the Laozi and Zhuangzi often describe the Dao in paradoxical ways, in addition to explicit counsels about the difficulty in talking about it. Later in this chapter – significantly entitled “The Great Ancestral Teacher (大宗師)” – the legendary Xu You 許由 (c. 23rd century B.C.E.) praises his “teacher,” described in near-identical ways to that describing the Dao above. For example: “it covers and supports the heavens and earth and carves out the multitudes of forms, yet it cannot be considered skilful (覆載天地刻彫眾形而不為巧).”

This passage reassures us that although this Dao is formless and cannot be seen, it is possible to apprehend it and have trust in it (as a guide). The Laozi also speaks of an invisible and mysterious force or presence in the world, though does not always explicitly call it Dao. In fact, throughout all of the “Daoist” texts discussed above and below, it is remarkable how often we find expressed sentiments like: “(we) look for it, yet it cannot be seen” (視之而不見), “(we) listen for it, yet it cannot be heard” (聽之而不聞), “(we try to) grasp it, yet it cannot be obtained” (搏之而不得也) and “no one can see its form” (莫見其形).[41]

Zhuangzi 12: Tiandi 天地


In the Great Beginning there was nothing; nothing existed, nothing (that could be) named. The One arose; there was the One, yet it had not yet taken any form. (That which) things obtained in order to live, (we) call De.[42] Before anything had formed, there were allotments, yet undivided; (we) call these fates. Gradually movement occurred and things were born, they developed distinctive patterns; (we) call these forms.

This passage goes on to propose that one can go through a process of cultivation (xiu 修) and reversion (fan 反), become psychologically empty and “bewildered,” and mysteriously “join together with Heaven and Earth” (與天地為合). This may be an indication that a transpersonal or mystic unitive state was the means used to access knowledge of the beginning of the universe for these authors.[43] In chapter 21, “Tian Zifang” (田子方), Laozi explains that while in trance he was “wandering at the Beginning of Things” (遊於物之初). Reminiscent of Laozi 42 above, he explains that things come to life by a blending and harmonizing of the yin and yang energies and like Laozi 4, suggests that the mysterious force that lies behind the processes of Nature is like an ancestor (zong 宗).

In addition to the Ancestor, other epithets for a personified creator occur in the text, such as the “Great Clod” (Da Kuai 大塊)[44] and the “Maker of Things” or the “Initiator of Things” (Zaowuzhe 造物者).[45] The synonymous “Maker/Initiator of Transformations” (Zaohuazhe 造化者) occurs in chapter 6 and a number of times in the Huainanzi 淮南子. This is a personification of that force that drives the transformations (hua 化) living and non-living things go through. This Maker of Things is not located in Heaven, but his place of work spans the heavens and earth (天地), metaphorically referred to as his “great smithy” (Da Lu 大鑪).[46] Zhuangzi himself is reported to have “wandered above with the Maker of Things” (上與造物者遊) and “attuned himself” (調適) to the ancestor (宗), suggesting that, like Laozi, Zhuangzi had intimate experiences with a higher, creative power.[47]

Zhuangzi 23: Geng Sang Chu 庚桑楚


What is substantial but located in no position is the whole expanse of space. What has duration but no beginning or end is the whole expanse of time. There is somewhere from which we are born, into which we die, from which we emerge, through which we exit, but in all this emerging and exiting, we do not see its form. This is called the Gates of Heaven. The Gates of Heaven are Non-existence, for all living things emerge from Non-existence. Existence cannot constitute its existence out of Existence; it must come forth from Non-existence. Yet Non-existence is one and the same as non-existing.[48]

This passage has obvious parallels with Laozi 40’s asserting that all that exists “is born from Non-existence” (生於無) as well as the passage from chapter 12, where, in the Great Beginning, the formless “One” arose from Non-existence (無). The “Gates of Heaven” (Tianmen 天門) also appear in Laozi chapter 10 and are also reminiscent of chapter 6 of the Laozi, which reads:


The Valley Spirit does not die. This is called the mysterious female. The gateway of the mysterious female, is called the root of Heaven and Earth. Subtle and gossamer, it seems to exist, (yet) using it will not exhaust it.

The Gates of Heaven, which, although they are “nothing” (無), are those through which all living things enter into existence and through which they all finally exit. Similarly, Laozi 6 speaks of an everlasting, spiritual, mysterious “female” whose gates Heaven and Earth are rooted in, or emerge from. These metaphors suggest the image of a dark and mysterious fertile womb, though a womb that has no walls or boundaries and is invisible and intangible.[50]

Later in the Zhuangzi, when asked by Dongguozi 東郭子 (the master of the eastern wall?) where the Dao exists, Zhuangzi replies: “there is no place it does not exist” (無所不在), and offers ‘pervasive,’ ‘universal,’ and ‘omnipresent’ (zhou, bian, xian 周徧咸) as descriptive terms.[51] The Guanzi’s Xinshu shang 心術上 – a text with numerous parallels to the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Huainanzi – similarly declares, “The Dao exists between the heavens and earth: it is so large that there is nothing external to it and so small that there is nothing internal” (道在天地之閒也,其大無外,其小無內).[52]

A short text entitled “Inner Workings” (Neiye 內業), located as the 49th chapter of the Guanzi anthology is stylistically related the Laozi and the thought in it also shows some similarity. Most of the text is written in rhyme and advocates quietistic “psychosomatic” practices primarily conducive to a healthy mind and body.[53] Here is not the place to engage in a lengthy analysis of this text, its authorship or dating, but I will say that I am not persuaded by the views of Allyn Rickett, Harold Roth and Angus Graham that the text dates from the early 4th century B.C.E. and pre-dates the Laozi.[54] With its focus on self-cultivation, it is most similar to Han texts such as the Huainanzi and the syncretic/Huang-Lao materials in the Zhuangzi. The absence of yin-yang 陰陽 and Five Phases (wuxing 五行) correlative cosmological ideas perhaps signals an “early” date of composition – i.e., 4th century B.C.E.,[55] though the parts of the Huainanzi and Zhuangzi that discuss self-cultivation do not often mention yin and yang or wuxing either.[56]

In the Neiye, we find claims like “In principle, the Dao is without roots, without stalks, without leaves and without flowers. (That by which) all living things live and are completed is declared the Dao (凡道無根無莖,無葉無榮。萬物以生,萬物以成,命之曰道。) Like the Laozi and Zhuangzi, this text argues that Dao is that by which all things live; however, the Neiye uses a number of terms synonymously,[57] as it begins by claiming that it is “essence” (jing 精) that is what gives life to all things, constitutes the stars and planets and flows throughout the universe. This essence, moreover, is a basic constituent of “vital energy” (qi 氣), which was believed to vitalize all things. More often than not, however, Dao in the Neiye is something that exists only in a well-cultivated and tranquil heart-mind (xin 心) and thus is not cosmological in nature.

More elaborate cosmogonies and cosmologies were formulated during the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C.E. They are largely consistent with what we have seen in the Laozi and Zhuangzi, two of which appear associated with the Laozi and the others are in acknowledged anthologies containing the writings of many authors who would have been familiar with the Laozi, or the ideas therein, to varying extents. The first two are the recently unearthed “Supreme One Generates Water” (Taiyi Sheng Shui 太一生水) from the Guodian tomb and the “The Source (that is) the Dao” (Dao Yuan 道原) from the Mawangdui 馬王堆 tomb. The oldest of these is the Taiyi Sheng Shui, which may date from the late 4th century B.C.E.:

是故太一藏於水,行於時,周而又[始],… [故太一為]以己為萬物母,一缺一盈,以己為萬物經。…

The Supreme One gives birth to water, water returns and joins with the Supreme One—this is how it completes Heaven. Heaven returns and joins with the Supreme One—this is how it completes Earth. Heaven and Earth (repeatedly join with each other)—this is how they complete the spirits and the luminaries. The spirits and the luminaries repeatedly join with each other—this is how they complete the yin and the yang. The yin and the yang repeatedly join with each other—this is how they complete the four seasons. The four seasons repeatedly join (with each other)—this is how they complete coldness and heat. Coldness and heat repeatedly join with each other—this is how they complete moisture and dryness. When moisture and dryness repeatedly join with each other, completing the year, (the circle) stops.

Therefore, the year is begotten by moisture and dryness. Moisture and dryness are begotten by coldness and heat. Coldness and heat (are begotten) by the four seasons. The (four seasons) are begotten by the yin and the yang. The yin and the yang are begotten by the spirits and the luminaries. The spirits and the luminaries are begotten by Heaven and Earth. Heaven and Earth are begotten by the Supreme One.

From this it follows that the Supreme One is stored in the water, moves with the (four) seasons, (finishes) a circle, and then (starts over again) . . . (Hence the Supreme One is) the mother of the myriad things; at times lacking, at times full, it takes itself to be the alignment of all living things.[58]

This cosmogony does not mention Dao, but as we will shortly see, the Supreme One, although centuries later received cult as a god as well as also being identified with an astral body in the heavens, is likely one and the same as the Dao (“One” is a numerical “one,” not “being” or “entity”). The creation story begins with the “Supreme One giving birth to water” (太一生水),[59] which then “returns and joins with the Supreme One” (反薄太一),thereby completing (creating?) the heavens, which in turn “returns and joins with the Supreme One” in order to complete the earth. Then the heavens and earth conjoin in order to complete the spirits and luminaries, etc. We end with the completion of the yearly cycle. Then it is explained in reverse, repeatedly using “beget/generate” (sheng 生) instead of “complete, achieve” (cheng 成), but ending with “the heavens and earth are begotten by the Supreme One.” (天地者,太一之所生也). Water is not mentioned here. This may suggest that water is not as significant as many believe in this cosmogony. The fact that Taiyi is further said to be “stored in the water” (藏於水) may indicate that water is simply part of Taiyi, or perhaps that shui 水 is primarily verbal – suggesting a flooding or flowing forth (shuiliu 水流) – like the amniotic fluids prior to the birth of a child – rather than a substantive “water.” Sarah Allan has theorized that this water is better understood as a river; more precisely, the celestial river we call the Milky Way, and Taiyi as the Pole Star.[59b] Additionally, when we read of Taiyi (or Dao) “giving birth to” (sheng 生) the world or living things, we need be careful not to consider this intentional generation or birthing.[60]

While neither the Laozi nor the Zhuangzi describe the generation of the universe in such detail, preferring instead to focus on the very beginning (Non-existence, formless, nebulous Oneness) and often the ends (all living things), this text does connect with the Laozi in referring to Taiyi as the “mother of all living things” (萬物母), as preceding the heavens and earth, and by circulating or moving (周, 行). What’s more, the text continues:

下,土也,而謂之地。上,氣也,而謂之天。道亦其字也。請問其名? … 天地名字亚立,故過其方,不思相當。

Below is soil, yet we call it ‘earth’. Above is vapour/air, yet we call it ‘heaven’. ‘Dao’ likewise is (only) a style name for it—May I (thus) ask for its (real) name? … As for Heaven and Earth, their name and style name stand together; as a result, moving beyond these realms, (we) do not judge them as suitable.[61]

As in Laozi 25, “Dao” is only the “style name” (zi 字) for what pre-exists the heavens and earth, the appropriate name (ming 名) of which is not known. Dirk Meyer explains: “Just as ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ prove to be nothing other than style names for what ‘vapour’ and ‘soil’ describe in their entirety (thus describing the phenomenological actuality of a thing and so presenting their ‘real names’), the ‘Ultimate One’ (Taiyi 太一) is considered to be the phenomenological actuality behind the style name ‘dao’.”[62] As many scholars have pointed out, the Dao both transcends the world of things, the heavens, and the earth, and is immanent throughout them.

Before looking at the “Source (that is) the Dao” (Dao Yuan 道原) text unearthed at Mawangdui, the “Great Music” (Da Yue大樂) section (5.2) in Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals (Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋, c. mid-3rd century B.C.E.) as well as the opening section of chapter 14, “Sayings Explained” (Quanyan 詮言), of the Huainanzi (c. mid-2nd century B.C.E.) also regard Dao and Taiyi as equivalent. The Da Yue explains:

太一出兩儀,兩儀出陰陽。陰陽變化,一上一下,合而成章。渾渾沌沌,离則复合,合則复离,是謂天常。天地車輪,終則复始,極則复反,莫不咸當。… 萬物所出,造於太一,化於陰陽。… 道也者,視之不見,聽之不聞,不可為狀。有知不見之見、不聞之聞,無狀之狀者,則幾於知之矣。道也者,至精也,不可為形,不可為名,彊為之名謂之太一。

From the Supreme One emerged the Two Standards; from the Two Standards emerged yin and yang. Yin and yang altered and transformed, the one rising, the other falling, joined together in a perfect pattern. Turbid, nebulous, chaotic and confused: when dispersed, they rejoin, and when joined, disperse again. This is called “Nature’s Regularity.” The heavens and earth turn like the wheel of a carriage. Reaching the end, it begins again; reaching its limit, it reverts again, there is nothing that is not appropriate … All living things that emerged were initiated by the Supreme One and transformed by yin and yang … It is the nature of the Dao that when we look for it, it is invisible, and when we listen for it, it is inaudible, for it cannot be given material form. Whoever is aware of the visible in the invisible, the audible in the inaudible, and the shape of the shapeless is near to understanding it. The Dao is the most quintessential, and cannot be taken to have form or name. If forced to give it a name, call it the Supreme One.[63]

Like Laozi 25 and the Taiyi Sheng Shui, the process of creation is epitomized by dynamic cycling and joining. Translators Knoblock & Riegel believe that the “Two Standards” (Liang Yi 兩儀) are Heaven and Earth,[64] which appears to be the most plausible interpretation, although why the author did not just write Tiandi 天地 is a mystery. Like the Taiyi Sheng Shui, but unlike the Laozi, yin and yang are included as important factors in the generation and working of the cosmos. Finally, we will notice the obvious parallel of: “If forced to name it, call it the Supreme One (彊為之名謂之太一)” and Laozi 25’s: “If forced to name it, (I would) say it is great (強為之名曰大).”[65]

Chapter 14 of the Huainanzi opens with:

洞同天地,渾沌為樸,未造而成物,謂之太一。… 非不物而物物者也,物物者亡乎萬物之中。… 稽古太初,人生於無,形於有,有形而制於物。能反其所生,若未有形,謂之真人。真人者,未始分於太一者也。

Cavernous and undifferentiated Heaven and Earth, turbid and inchoate Uncarved Block, not yet created and fashioned into things: this we call the Supreme One … It is not that there was nothing that made things into things; rather, what made things into things is not among the myriad things … In antiquity, at the Grand Beginning (太初), human beings were born from Non-existence and were formed from Existence. Having a physical form, (human beings) came under the control of things. But those who can return to that from which they were born, as if they had not yet acquired physical form, are called Real Persons. Real Persons are those who have not yet begun to differentiate from the Supreme One.[66]

Sarah Queen comments, “This chapter opens with a description of the ‘Grand One’ (Taiyi 太一), portrayed as a personification of the primordial state of the Way before things as discrete entities came into existence.”[67] The adjectives Hun 渾 and Tun 沌: turbid, inchoate, nebulous, chaotic, confused, etc. occur once again, as seen in the cosmogony in the Lüshi Chunqiu above, and link with Laozi 25’s cognate Hun 混. Further, she writes:

The Grand One personifies the state of things at the primeval time before time began, when there was only Oneness, a state of utter nondifferentiation. The Grand One represents unmediated unity characterized by emptiness and nondifferentiation, thus containing the full potentiality of all that will come to be in the world but that has not yet been formed and fashioned. The Grand One is both anterior to the creative (that is, differentiating) process of the Way and implicit in it as the source from which the differentiation of things proceeds: ‘It is not that there was nothing that made things into things; rather, what made things into things is not among the myriad things.’[68]

The Daoist sage – the Real Person (Zhenren 真人) – is portrayed as one who is able to psychologically revert (fan 反) to the point where he or she has “not yet begun to differentiate from the Supreme One” (未始分於太一). This is like Laozi wandering at the (Grand) Beginning (Zhuangzi 21), Zhuangzi wandering with the Maker of Things (Zhuangzi 33), Xu You wandering with his teacher, the Ancestor (Zhuangzi 6), and like Liezi’s 列子 teacher Huzi 壺子, who in Zhuangzi 7 astonishes and frightens a “fortune-teller” when he reaches an altered mental state where he says he has “not yet begun to emerge from my ancestor” (未始出吾宗).[68b] It is probably significant that these accounts in the Zhuangzi and Laozi (and some parts of the Huainanzi) are not as detailed as those that run through a chronologically-ordered progression of Dao/Taiyi, Heaven and Earth, yin and yang, the four seasons, etc. The accounts of the former seem clearly to be insights gained while in meditative trance, while the latter are developed using intellectual reasoning. If we are to consider the latter writers “Daoists,” they would appear to be Daoists who did not engage personally in inner cultivation or mystical practices that others did.

The Dao Yuan (道原) text from Mawangdui, immediately preceding a Laozi manuscript, also tells of the beginnings of time and space and the positive results of one who can identify with it. Written perhaps sometime between the mid-3rd and early 2nd centuries B.C.E., it begins

恆無之初,迵同大虛。虛同為一,恆一而止。濕濕夢夢,未有明晦。神微周盈,精靜不熙。… 故無有形,大迵無名。天弗能覆,地弗能載。小以成小,大以成大。盈四海之內,又包其外。… 一者其號也,虛其舍也,無為其素也,和其用也。 … 是故上道高而不可察也,深而不可測也。顯明弗能為名,廣大弗能為形,獨立不偶,萬物莫之能令。天地陰陽,[四]時日月,星辰雲氣,蚑行蟯動,戴根之徒,皆取生,道弗為益少;皆反焉,道弗為益多。

In the beginning of constant Non-existence (it was) cavernous, undifferentiated and vastly empty. This emptiness being homogenous, (we can) regard it as One: Constantly One and nothing more. Misty, aqueous, dreamy and indistinct: there did not yet exist “light” and “dark.” Numinous and subtle, it circulated everywhere. Quintessential and tranquil and not effervescing or shining … Thus it did not have form; so vast, it is nameless. The heavens cannot cover it, the earth cannot support it. What is small is complete because of it, what is large is complete because of it. It fills all within the four seas and embraces all without … “One” is its nickname (hao 號), emptiness its dwelling place,[69] ‘nonaction’ is its raw condition and harmony is its faculty … For this reason, the preeminent Dao is so high that it cannot be discerned; so deep that it cannot be fathomed; so radiant, yet (we are) unable (to know) its name; so extensive, yet (we are) unable (to comprehend) its form; unaccompanied, with nothing as its peer; of all the living things, none can command it. The heavens and earth, the yin and yang, the four seasons, the sun and moon, the stars and planets, the clouds and air, the creatures that walk, the creatures that wriggle and all those which are supported with roots: each takes its life from it, yet the Dao does not become diminished; each returns to it, yet the Dao is not increased.[70]

Once again, we find the same themes as found in the Laozi, Zhuangzi and the Huainanzi: a formless and nameless state of non-existence and emptiness, yet profoundly fecund and potent. The Dao is likewise omnipresent, as we find asserted time and again. Although a gate (men 門) is not mentioned, we still have described a “place” where all life enters and exits through. That the Dao is not increased or diminished no matter what emerges or enters is something also said of the “Heavenly Repository” (Tian Fu 天府) in Zhuangzi 2 and the “Great Reservoir” (Da He 大壑) in Zhuangzi 12, which likely point to the same phenomenon.[71] The text goes on to explain that only true sages can examine the formless and understand the primal state of Non-existence. These sages, if they can attain emptiness (虛), they can “merge with the essences of the heavens and earth” (通天地之精), much like encountered earlier in Zhuangzi 12. If these sages can achieve a state “without likes and dislikes” (無好無惡) and “without desires” (無欲), then the world will achieve harmony and, if occupying the position of king, “(all) beneath the heavens will submit” (天下服). All of these ideas we find in the Laozi and Zhuangzi as well as the Huainanzi. The Neiye (and related chapters of the Guanzi) focus on similar experiences of mental tranquility and stability and the practical application of this state to the art of governing.

Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 7 of the Huainanzi all open with more cosmogonic and cosmological expositions. I agree with Harold Roth that this text is a Daoist work, a Huang-Lao work, or at the very least, a text strongly-influenced by earlier works such as the Laozi and Zhuangzi.[72] At the risk of overkill, I will cite some passages which will complete the cosmogonical/cosmological picture thus described so far.

Huainanzi 1, “The Dao (that is) the Source” (Yuan Dao 原道):

“As for the Dao, it covers the heavens and supports the earth, reaches beyond the four quarters and divides the eight pillars …” (夫道者,覆天載地,廓四方,柝八極) – similar to claims found in the Zhuangzi and Dao Yuan.

“By means of it (i.e., the Dao) mountains are high, reservoirs are deep, animals can run, birds can fly, the sun and moon are luminous …” (山以之高,淵以之深,獸以之走,鳥以之飛,日月以之明 …) – similar to claims found in the Laozi, Zhuangzi, Hanfeizi (20), Neiye, Dao Yuan and elsewhere in the Huainanzi.

“Now the most eminent Dao generates all living things, but does not possess them …” (夫太上之道,生萬物而不有 …) – similar to claims found in the Laozi.

“Now, the Formless is the Great Ancestor of all things … That which we call the Formless is a designation for the One” (夫無形者,物之大祖也 … 所謂無形者,一之謂也) – similar to claims found in the Laozi, Zhuangzi, Taiyi Sheng Shui, Lüshi Chunqiu (3.5 and 5.2) and elsewhere in the Huainanzi.

“Existence is born from Non-existence, the substantial emerges from the insubstantial and empty …” (有生於無,實出於虛 …) – similar to claims found in the Laozi, Zhuangzi and elsewhere in the Huainanzi.

Huainanzi 3, “Celestial Patterns” (Tianwen 天文):

天墬未形,馮馮翼翼,洞洞灟灟,故曰太始。太始生虛霩,虛霩生宇宙,宇宙生元氣。元氣有涯垠,清陽者薄靡而為天,重濁者滯凝而為地。… 天先成而地後定。天地之襲精為陰陽,陰陽之專精為四時,四時之散精為萬物。

When Heaven and Earth were yet unformed, all was ascending and flying, diving and delving. Thus it was called the Grand Inception. The Grand Inception produced the Nebulous Void. The Nebulous Void produced space-time; space-time produced the original qi. A boundary (divided) the original qi. That which was pure and bright spread out to form Heaven; that which was heavy and turbid congealed to form Earth … Heaven was completed first; Earth was fixed afterward. The conjoined essences of Heaven and Earth produced yin and yang. The supersessive essences of the yin and yang caused the four seasons. The scattered essences of the four seasons created the myriad things.[73]

Huainanzi 7, “Quintessential Spirit” (Jingshen 精神):


Anciently, in the time before there were Heaven and Earth, there were only formless simulacra. Obscure! Dark! Vast plain, mournful desolation, boiling turbulence, fathomless grotto! No one knows its Gates. Two spirits inchoately were born, giving structure to the heavens and a plan to the earth. Vast! None knew its limits. Overflowing! None knew its resting place. From this (condition), they separated to become yin and yang, separated as the eight endpoints, after which all living things were formed.[74]

The first chapter of the Liezi 列子, “Celestial Signs” (Tianrui 天瑞) also contains cosmogonic and cosmological material. This text was composed many centuries after the others being considered here, although it has been shown to contain some earlier material. Briefly, we may note that it talks of “all that has form was born from the formless” (有形者,生於無形), of the Great Beginning (太初 and 太始) and of a state of “nebulous murkiness” (Hunlun 渾淪) when everything “had not yet separated” (未相離).

To repeat what was mentioned earlier, nothing like this material appears in Confucian texts like the Analects, Mengzi or Xunzi; the Mohist text of Mozi, the “Legalist” texts of Shangjunshu 商君書, Shenzi 慎子, Hanfeizi[75]; the “Confucian” Classics: Shangshu, Shijing, Chunqiu 春秋 or Zhouyi. Multi-authored anthologies such as the Lüshi Chunqiu and the Guanzi do contain some material like this, and no doubt illustrates the influence this discourse was having on others in the 3rd century B.C.E.[76] Whether we call the Laozi, Zhuangzi, Huainanzi and the few other texts discussed “Daoist” or not, it should be clear that this domain of discourse appears to have been started by those who authored these texts and is moreover something which distinguished these authors (and/or practitioners).[77]

Part 4.3 will be a thorough exploration of mysticism, self-cultivation and longevity in the texts of Laozi, Zhuangzi, Huainanzi, etc.

[1] “Was There a High God Ti in Shang Religion?” in Early China 15, 1990, pp. 1-26. The inscriptional evidence makes it clear that Shang ancestors in the main line of descent were referred to as Di. See also Robert Eno’s “Shang State Religion and the Pantheon of the Oracle Texts” in Early Chinese Religion: Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), Vol. 1, John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski eds., Brill, 2009, pp. 41-102. Cf. Sarah Allan “On the Identity of Shang Di 上帝 and the Origin of the Concept of a Celestial Mandate (Tian Ming 天命)” in Early China 31, 2007.

[2] Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs, Grove Press, 1996, p. 227, slightly modified. (Originally published in 1937). Mozi 墨子, chapter Minggui xia 明鬼下 quotes this ode to help prove his case that human spirits exist. Note: I have replaced the two 不 in this CHANT Shijing text with 丕, as this was the earliest form of 丕.

[3] Waley, p. 261, Cf. Ode #260 which also mentions that Heaven gave birth to the people (天生烝民). Many texts quote this ode and the line about Heaven’s creation, including the Mengzi, Xunzi and Hanshi Waizhuan 韓詩外傳, which writes 天生蒸民.

[4] I would suggest that when Tian refers to a deity (with likes, dislikes, desires and purposeful action) it should be understood more as an aggregate deity; that is, it represents the combined will and preferences of Di and the spirits who reside above.

[5] Ian Johnston The Mozi: A Complete Translation, Columbia University Press, 2010, p. 253, modified.

[6] E.g., the Shijing, Chunqiu Zuozhuan, Shangshu, Mengzi, Xunzi, Guanzi, and the Lüshi Chunqiu.

[7] E.g., Xunzi and the Lunheng.

[8] “Balanced Discourses” (Lunheng 論衡) chapter 54, translation based on Alfred Forke’s.

[9] Because our records of (relevant) early mythology are scant, at least until the Han Dynasty, judging the age of these myths (e.g., those with Nüwa 女媧) is impossible. The Chu Silk Manuscript is believed to date from around 300 B.C.E. (Defining Chu: Image and Reality in Ancient China, University of Hawai’i Press, 1999, p. 171).

[10] This is the received version of this chapter: there are a number of variants between versions found in the Guodian and Mawangdui excavated texts as well as the Fuyi and Xiang’er texts, but most of them are not very significant. The Guodian and Mawangdui texts do not contain the passage “circulating everywhere yet secure” (周行而不殆), however, and the 2nd character in the Guodian version is Zhuang 狀 (actually: 爿 + 𦣻), meaning “shape” or “form.” The fact that it is described as nebulous or indeterminate (hun 混) should discourage us from considering it a thing. (In the Guodian text hun 混 is written as chong 蟲, which is likely to be an allograph of kun 䖵 [which itself has an allograph form of kun 蜫] and is likely a phonetic loan for hun 混.)

[11] Li Feng, “Literacy and the Social Contexts of Writing in the Western Zhou” in Writing & Literacy in Early China: Studies from the Columbia Early China Seminar, Li Feng and David Prager Branner eds., University of Washington Press, 2011, p. 289-90. See also Robert Eno’s online translation in his “Inscriptional Records of the Western Zhou” p. 64-5: http://www.iub.edu/~g380/3.10-WZhou_Bronzes-2010.pdf

[12] Appearing again in ode #167, Caiwei 采薇.

[13] See Axel Schuessler, ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, University of Hawai’i Press, 2007, p. 48, 207. David Hall & Roger Ames take the verbal meaning (i.e., 導) to be primary and the noun (道) to be secondary, thus leading to their “gerundive, processional, and dynamic” interpretation of the word. (Daodejing: A Philosophical Translation, Ballantine Books, 2003, p. 57). Hall & Ames argue that “the most familiar yet derivative “pathway” sense of dao is a post hoc combination of its more primary meanings. The dynamic disposing of experience and our creative way-making that goes on within it is conceived of not as a process, but as a product. As a “way” that has already been laid, dao is stipulated and defined. This, then, is the objectified use of dao that would allow for the familiar demonstrative translation of the term dao as “the dao.” But to thus nominalize and conceptualize dao betrays its fluidity and reflexivity, and to give priority to that use is to take the first step in overwriting a process sensibility with substance ontology.” (ibid. p. 59) While the two words are certainly cognate, Schuessler admits we don’t know which word derived from which (p. 48, 207). I lean the opposite way of Hall & Ames, because the earliest usage (bronze inscriptions, the Shangshu and Shijing) often seem to denote an actual road or route. I don’t believe that this commits one to a “substance ontology,” but I also don’t believe “the ancient Chinese worldview” is as process-oriented as they emphasize in their work.

[14] A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 1992.

[15] http://www.hermetica.info/OriginalDao.html

[16] Likewise, the Way can be “obtained” (de 得) or “lost” (shi 失).

[17] Zun Deyi 尊德義, “Revering Virtue and Propriety,” trans. by Bradford Hatcher, 2012, slightly modified. This text was found in the tomb at Guodian, the same one that contained the proto-Laozi text(s).

[18] Literally: “winning their hearts has a way.”

[19] E.g, Shangshu Zhonghui zhi Gao 尚書 • 仲虺之誥: “To revere and honour the path prescribed by Heaven is the way ever to preserve the favouring appointment of Heaven. (欽崇天道,永保天命。) (trans. James Legge).

[20] Lunyu 5.13.

[21] Chunqiu Zuozhuan 春秋左傳, Duke Zhao 昭公 18.3.

[22] Xunzi 8; trans. by John Knoblock in Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works, Vol. II, Stanford University Press, 1990, p. 71.

[23] Heguanzi 7; trans. By Angus C. Graham in “The Way and the One in Ho-kuan-tzu” in Epistemological Issues in Classical Chinese Philosophy, SUNY, 1998, p. 34.

[24] Similar claims are made in ShangshuDa Yu Mo” 尚書 • 大禹謨, Yijing: Qian: Tuanzhuan 易經 • 謙 • 彖傳 and the Taiyi Shengshui 太一生水 discovered at Guodian. Laozi 7 also conceives of Sages as those who model Heaven and Earth to achieve a similar efficacy as they possess. The fact that this chapter (i.e., Laozi 7) does not mention the dao of Heaven and Earth is inconsequential.

[25] Translated by Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, Columbia University Press, 1968, p. 125, modified. This passage, which comes from a chapter Angus Graham and Liu Xiaogan consider syncretic or Huang-Lao Daoism shares with political theorists Shen Buhai and Han Fei (whom Sima Qian considered Huang-Lao thinkers but were later considered Legalists – Fajia) the opinion that the role of the ruler is sharply different from his ministers and officers. This may be the source of Arthur Waley’s understanding that the Laozi presents “a description of how the Sage through the practice of Dao acquires the power of ruling without being known to rule,” but is not intended as a way of life for ordinary people. (The Way and Its Power, Grove Press, 1958, p. 92, (originally published in 1934).

[26] Shen Pu-Hai: A Chinese political Philosopher of the Fourth Century B.C., University of Chicago Press, 1974, p. 168.

[27] Steve Angle and John Gordon write: “‘Dao’ is chosen as the nickname because it captures an aspect of the thing: the thing is something on which one can model, something that one can, in a sense, follow … Way is an appropriate nickname because the thing is like a way” (“ ‘Dao’ as a Nickname,” in Asian Philosophy 13:1, 2003, p. 19-20). Note that the Heshanggong commentary (Laozi Heshanggong Zhangju 老子河上公章句) mentions that dao is an appropriate style name because things live by following (cong 從) it, commentator Wang Bi 王弼 says that things conform/follow (you 由) it, and Guo Xiang, in his commentary on a relevant passage in Zhuangzi 25 also says it is appropriate because things “conform/follow and proceed along” (you er xing 由而行) it, just like one would on any road or way (dao).

[28] The Confucian Creation of Heaven: Philosophy and the Defense of Ritual Mastery, SUNY, 1990, p. 250 n56, emphasis mine.

[29] A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 204 ff.

[30] Ibid. p. 208.

[31] Although yin and yang are mentioned a couple lines later, these appear to be two energies internal to living things – a usage found elsewhere, including the Zhuangzi – and not two cosmic forces or energies as found in some later texts that we will explore shortly. In early cosmological schemes, yin and yang almost always come after Heaven and Earth.

[32] The One (yi 一) begotten by Dao here would seem to be inconsistent with other places in the Laozi and other texts where the One is an epithet for Dao (e.g., ch. 39). However, if we take this numerical progression less literally, this inconsistency loses significance.

[33] Chapter 3.5 of the Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋, Yuan Dao 圜道, says of the One (yi 一) (Dao?) that “all living things regard it as their ancestor” (萬物以為宗).

[34] See the Heshanggong commentary, which also appears to regard “Form” as the heavens and earth (天地). Others have suggested that You 有 refers to the sum total of all Qi 氣 “energy-matter-force.”

[35] A plausible alternate reading of these two lines is “Nameless, is the beginning of all living things; named, is the Mother of all living things” (無名,萬物之始也;有名,萬物之母也). This would correspond with chapter 25 where the name (ming 名) of that which gave rise to the universe (where all living things exist) is not known, though we can style it Dao. However, Laozi 32 affirms that the “Dao is constantly nameless” (道恆無名), or, to put it another way, is not some-thing that can be named, which makes the second half of this alternate reading problematic by naming it. It may be worth nothing that the Earth was commonly regarded as the Mother to all things and Heaven their father: e.g., Zhuangzi 19: 天地者,萬物之父母也 and Huainanzi 7: 以天為父,以地為母. The significance of the Laozi calling the Dao a Mother is not clear. Finally, the received text has 無名天地之始 instead of 無名萬物之始, but this variant appears to be late, as none of the early witnesses confirm it, e.g., the Mawangdui manuscripts and the Shiji (127). In fact, even Wang Bi’s commentary shows that the text he commented on read 無名萬物之始. Nonetheless, both readings make sense from the perspective of early Daoist discourse.

[36] This is one of several chapters/texts in the Guanzi which can be shown to be related to the Laozi, Zhuangzi, etc.

[37] Hanfeizi 5, “The Dao of Ruling” (Zhu Dao 主道) – a chapter recognized by most to be influenced by the Laozi and sometimes considered a “Huang-Lao” text. It may or may not have been written by Hanfei.

[38] I say “apparently” because we have reason to believe that both the Laozi and Zhuangzi were still actively being composed, edited and revised in the 3rd century B.C.E. – and perhaps even the 2nd century B.C.E. for the Zhuangzi – and thus may have been influenced by these other texts or their authors, or they all may be the work of a certain group of contemporary thinkers.

[39] The “Daoist” influenced poem “Far-off Journey” (Yuan You 遠遊) in the Elegies of Chu (Chuci 楚辭) says the reverse: “The Dao can be received but not passed on” (道可受兮,不可傳), though the intended meaning is likely the same.

[40] It is interesting to note that the 4th century C.E. editor and commentator Guo Xiang 郭象 could not accept these words, for, contrary to this text and the Laozi as well, he maintained that “Non-existence” (Wu 無), which he equated with Dao, “could not generate the heavens and earth” (不生天地) nor “empower the ghosts and Di” (不神鬼帝), for it is an impotent Nothing. Rather, these things generate and empower themselves, spontaneously. He asserts this time and again throughout his commentary. His view, it should be added, does appear to derive ultimately from the Laozi’s and Zhuangzi’s discourse on spontaneity / what-occurs-of itself (ziran 自然), but does contradict a number of these texts’ assertions on cosmology, perhaps because he disdains the figurative use of sheng 生. The Laozi Zhigui 老子指歸 by Zhuang Zun 莊遵 (a.k.a. Yan Junping 嚴君平, Yan Zun 嚴遵; c. 80–0 B.C.E.) also denies the Dao “gives birth to” things: 道德不生萬物,而萬物自生焉.

[41] We find these sentiments in the Laozi 14 and 35, Zhuangzi 2, 6, 14, 21, 22, Hanfeizi 5 and 20, the Neiye, Xinshu shang and Baixin of the Guanzi, the Huainanzi 1, 2, 12, Lüshi Chunqiu 5.2, the Mawangdui “Dao Yuan” and the Liezi 1. We may add Laozi 1’s 道可道也,非恆道也 to this list, though I am doubtful that the traditional interpretation of “The Dao that can be told of is not the eternal Dao” is correct.

[42] De here denotes the salutary and empowering potency or power of Nature or the Dao. See my forthcoming “The Evolution of the Concept of De 德 in Early China” in Sino-Platonic Papers (#235, March 2013).

[43] Such being the case, these accounts provide one answer to questions posed in the “Heavenly Questions” (Tian Wen 天問) chapter of the Chuci, such as: “Who transmitted the story of the ancient Beginning? How can one examine (the time) when above or below had not yet formed? Who can set the limits of the dark and light? These are but fluttering images: by what means does one know?” (遂古之初,誰傳道之?上下未形,何由考之?冥昭瞢闇,誰能極之?馮翼惟像,何以識之?). Michael LaFargue regards the Laozi, for instance, to contain no truly cosmological passages. He believes they are instead references to qualities of mind (e.g., Dao, Mother, Feminine, Emptiness, Valleys, Nothingness, One, Pu, etc.) – although, he does grant that the authors may not have been conscious of this: “To interpret Laoist origin sayings in this way is not to deny that some Laoists may have taken these primarily celebratory sayings also as literal pictures of the world’s origin. In the absence of any competing, scientifically based picture of world origins, this would be a very easy and natural thing to do.” (The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary, SUNY 1992, p. 212. Cf. his Tao and Method, SUNY, 1994, p. 266.) Similarly, Harold Roth has proposed that “it is precisely the practice of inner cultivation, carried to its ultimate conclusion, that produces the profound noetic experiences from which this characteristic cosmology derives” (“Evidence for Stages of Meditation in Early Taoism” in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Volume 60.2, 1997, p. 296). Mysticism and self-cultivation will be explored thoroughly in the next essay.

[44] In chapters 2 and 6.

[45] In chapters 6, 7, 32 and 33.

[46] Zhuangzi 6.

[47] In Zhuangzi 20, Zhuangzi says that one who “mounts the Dao and its De … floats and drifts with the ancestor of all living things” (乘道德 … 浮游乎萬物之祖) and Xu You 許由, in the passage mentioned above also went on to state that he wandered (you 遊) with his teacher, the Dao.

[48]Translation based mainly on Brook Ziporyn (Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, Hackett, 2009, p. 100), but also Angus Graham (Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, Hackett, 2001, p. 103), Victor Mair (Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu, Bantam Books, 1994 p. 232-3), Burton Watson (The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, p. 256-7), and James Legge, Chuang Tzu: Genius of the Absurd, arranged by Clae Waltham, Ace Books, 1971, p. 268-9).

[50] Red Pine has thus translated Xuan Pin 玄牝 as “Dark Womb” (Lao-tzu’s Taoteching, Mercury House, 1996). The valley (gu 谷) also suggests fertility.

[51] Zhuangzi 22: Zhibeiyou 知北遊.

[52] Cf. Rickett p. 76. This “space between the heavens and earth” (Tiandi zhi jian 天地之閒, or 天地之間) is mentioned in a number of places, including Laozi 5, where it is a fecund and potent empty place, like a bellows (tuoyue 橐籥); the Mengzi (where qi 氣 flows), the Neiye, (where jing 精 flows), the Zhuangzi, Huainanzi, Yijing, etc. This is where all life is situated.

[53] The text also contributes ideas on longevity, “omniscience” and even of control and submission of the people/things of the world.

[54] See Rickett, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China, Vol. II, Princeton University Press, 1998, p. 37, Roth, Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 27 and Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China,, Open Court, 1989, p. 100. Many others defer to Roth’s analysis, like Russell Kirkland and Louis Komjathy.

[55] Cf. Roth p. 25, Rickett p. 37.

[56] Roth has argued that the political application of inner cultivation – of which very little is seen in the Neiye, but is found in the Laozi and Zhuangzi and Huainanzi – must logically come after the inner cultivation tradition developed. This is no doubt true, but that does not mean that after this had occurred, all practitioners applied it to governing. The Neiye authors could have remained disengaged from politics, leaving that application for others to pursue.

[57] This is due, I believe, because it is made up of many separate stanzas that existed independently, (like those of the Laozi), and had different authors. Consistent vocabulary use thus should not be expected. See Rickett p. 27-8.

[58] Translation by Dirk Meyer, Philosophy on Bamboo, p. 214-15, slightly modified. I have tentatively accepted his reading of 㭪 as bo 薄, as per Donald Harper (“The Nature of Taiyi in the Guodian Manuscript ‘Taiyi sheng shui’: Abstract Cosmic principle of Supreme Cosmic Deity?” paper prepared for the “International Symposium on the Guodian Chu Bamboo Slips and Related Excavated Materials,” 2000, p. 4). Harper points out that xiangbo 相薄 is well-attested in early cosmological discussions, e.g., Huainanzi 3, 4, 13. The alternative is fu 輔, “assists.”

[59] Which is the source of the title given to it by modern scholars.

[59b] “The Great One, Water, and the Laozi: New Light from Guodian” in T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 89.4-5, 2003.

[60] Wang Chong again provides an apt analogy: “The many things between Heaven and Earth are like a child in his mother’s womb. The child is enveloped in the mother’s vital energy. After ten months pregnancy the mother gives birth to the child. Are his nose, his mouth, his ears, his hair, his eyes, his skin with down, the arteries, the fat, the bones, the joints, the nails, and the teeth grown of themselves in the womb, or has the mother made them?” (諸物在天地之間也,猶子在母腹中也。母懷子氣,十月而生,鼻口耳目,髮膚毛理,血脈脂腴,骨節爪齒,自然成腹中乎?母為之也?), Lunheng 54, trans. By Alfred Forke, modified.

[61] Trans. by Meyer, ibid. p. 215, modified.

[62] Ibid. p. 223. Chapter 39 of the Laozi also appears to associate One (yi 一) with Dao, where it is said that in antiquity “the heavens by attaining the One became clear, the earth by attaining the One became stable, the spirits by attaining the One became numinous, valleys by attaining the One became full, and all living things by attaining the One became alive” (天得一以清。地得一以寧。神得一以靈。谷得一以盈。萬物得一以生。).

[63] Translation based on John Knoblock & Jeffrey Riegel, The Annals of Lü Buwei: A Complete Translation and Study, Stanford University Press, 200, p. 136-138.

[64] Ibid. p. 719, a reading endorsed by the Kangxi Zidian 康熙字典, p. 118:

[65] In fact, Tai 太 was often written as 大, an example being the Taiyi Sheng Shui, which is actually written as 大一生水. Another example is the Liji Liyun 禮記 • 禮運 (9.31), which contains “For this reason, the rites must originate with the Great One [大一]: It separates, forming heaven and earth; revolves, creating yin and yang; changes, creating the four seasons; and orders all things, creating ghosts and the gods.” (是故夫禮,必本於大一,分而為天地,轉而為陰陽,變而為四時,列而為鬼神。) Trans. By Robert Henricks, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian, Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 125. Liji commentator Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (128 -200 C.E.) says that Dayi [Taiyi] is the “primordial vital energy of (the time of) nebulous chaos” (混沌之元氣也) in his Liji Zhengyi 禮記正義.

[66] Translated by Sarah A. Queen in The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China by John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Seth Meyer and Harold D. Roth, Columbia University Press, 2010, p. 536-7, modified.

[67] Ibid. p. 529.

[68] Ibid. p. 530.

[68b] In Zhuangzi 19, Liezi is informed by Guanyin 關尹 that the “Ultimate Person” (Zhiren 至人) “communicates/merges with that which makes all things” (通乎物之所造).

[69] Note, this locating of the Dao in emptiness (xu 虛) is also found in Zhuangzi 4, Huainanzi 2, Hanfeizi 8, Wenzi 1 and 3. Similar things are said in the Guanzi’s Xinshu chapters.

[70] Translation “inspired” by Harold Roth & Sarah Queen in Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume One, Columbia University Press, 1999, pp. 253-55 and Robin Yates, Five Lost Classics: Tao, Huang-Lao, and Yin-Yang in Han China, Ballantine, 1997, 173-77. Dao Yuan is one of four (named texts) that precede the De and Dao sections of the Laozi on what is referred to as manuscript B (yi 乙) and often referred to as the Yellow Emperor’s Four Classics (Huangdi Sijing 黃帝四經). I am in agreement with Matthias L. Richter who argues that “the perception of MS.B as consisting of two main parts, one being the Laozi and the other the Huangdi Sijing, is a misconception founded on dubious interpretive habits and neglect of the codicological features of the manuscript.” (“Textual Identity and the Role of Literacy in the Transmission of Early Chinese Literature” in Writing & Literary in Early China, Li Feng and David Prager Branner eds., University of Washington Press, 2011, p. 220). A fuller explanation is given ibid. p. 218-220.

[71] Similar things are found in chapter 4, 5, 6 and 35 of the Laozi. Accompanied with the recurrent water symbolism, the Dao would seem to be like a cosmic ocean.

[72] See The Huainanzi, p. 32.

[73] Translation by John S. Major, in The Huainanzi, p. 114-15.

[74] John S. Major, Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought, SUNY, 1993, p. 48-9, modified. We may note that here there is some divine design involved (e.g., 二神), which demonstrates that not all cosmological theorizing was identical or homogenous.

[75] Except in Hanfeizi 20 – Jie Lao 解老 – which is a commentary on the Laozi and not likely written by Hanfei.

[76] The Lüshi Chunqiu and Guanzi appear to be the first to preserve what Sima Tan referred to as specialists in Yinyang theories.

[77] Or, at least, some of them.