(Part 2 – – – Part 3 – – – Part 4 – – – Part 4.2 – – – Part 4.3)

Daojia and Huang-Lao

Classical Daoism, Philosophical Daoism, Early Daoism: these terms are increasingly being seen as obsolescent by scholars in the last couple of decades. The general public – those who have heard of Daoism or have read a little bit of it – are largely unaware, despite the fact that for quite awhile writers have admitted that there were no “Daoists” in pre-Han China and that the two most famous “Daoists,” Laozi and Zhuangzi, surely never thought of themselves as Daoists. The more recent interest in what was once called “religious Daoism (Daojiao 道教),” as opposed to “philosophical Daoism (Daojia 道家),” has seen a shift towards using “Daoism” to refer only to the former.

In this series of blog posts I am going to explore this matter. First, I will look at the oldest evidence for a “Daoist school” in the Historical Records (Shiji 史記) and the Han Documents (Hanshu 漢書). Next I will look into both the text and the legendary man Laozi 老子, followed by Zhuangzi 莊子. Texts that will be mentioned along the way will include: the Laozi 老子, Zhuangzi 莊子, Hanfeizi 韓非子 (esp. Jie Lao 解老, Yu Lao 喻老), Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋, Mengzi 孟子, Xunzi 荀子, Guanzi 管子 (esp. Neiye 內業), Huainanzi 淮南子, Heguanzi 鶡冠子, and the Huangdi Sijing 黃帝四經. I will also survey various scholars’ views on early Chinese “schools of thought.”

Daojia 道家 first appears in the Historical Records written by Sima Tan 司馬談 and his son Sima Qian 司馬遷, both of whom served as the “Grand Scribe” (Taishi 太史) in the early Han Dynasty. In the one hundred and thirtieth chapter of the Historical Records, Sima Qian presented his father’s outlines of the “Six Jia (六家),” commonly thought of as the “ six schools of thought” but probably best understood as the “six areas of expertise” or “six approaches to government.”[1] He lists these as the Yinyang (陰陽), the Ru (儒), the Mo (墨), the Ming (名), the Fa (法), and the Daode (道德; afterwards shortened to Daojia 道家). For Sima Tan, these six categories were methods or techniques of governing (Zhi 治), of which he neither names texts nor exponents of these approaches.[1a] After discussing some pros and cons of the others, Sima Tan discussed the Daojia:


“The Daojia enable the numinous essence within people to be concentrated and unified. In movement they are joined with the Formless, in tranquility they (provide) sufficiently for all living things. In deriving their techniques, they follow the grand compliances of the Yinyang specialists, select the best of the Ru and Mo specialists, and extract the essentials of the Ming and Fa specialists. They shift (their policies) in accordance with the seasons and respond to the transformations of things. In establishing customs and promulgating policies, they do nothing unsuitable. Their tenets are concise and easy to grasp; their policies are few but their achievements are many.”[2]

Unlike the other Jia, Sima Tan enumerated no shortcomings or defects of Daojia (“Dao-specialists”?), partially, no doubt, because it incorporated the best parts of the others.[3] A bit later some further analysis is offered:


“The Daojia do nothing, but they also say that nothing is left undone. Their substance is easy to practice, but their words are difficult to understand. Their techniques take emptiness and nothingness as the foundation and adaptation and compliance as the application. They have no set limits, no regular forms, and so are able to penetrate to the genuine basis of living things. Because they neither anticipate things nor linger over them, they are able to become the masters of all living things.

They have methods that are no methods: They take adapting to the seasons as their practice. They have limits that are no limits: They adapt to things by harmonizing with them. Therefore they say: The sage is not clever: The seasonal alternations are what the sage preserves. Emptiness is the constant in the Way. Adaptation is the guiding principle of the ruler.”[4]

On the one hand, going solely on this description, it would seem Daojia has little to do with the Laozi: it is only “doing nothing and yet they say that nothing is left undone” (無為,又曰無不為) which seems to ultimately derive from the Laozi (chapters 37 and 48); although, the “motto” is also found in third century texts such as Zhuangzi chapters 18, 22, 23, and 25, and the Lüshi Chunqiu 25.3. One can also find it in the first chapter of the early Han text, the Huainanzi. On the other hand, this (latter) description fits exactly with how Sima Tan viewed Laozi in his contribution to Laozi’s biography in Shiji 63: “Laozi placed his admiration in Dao, vacant nothingness, and adapting and responding to changes and transformations with Wuwei” (老子所貴道,虛無,因應變化於無為).

One might wonder why he labeled it Dao-Jia, since his descriptions say nothing about Dao.[4.5] We may surmise that he labeled it such because of its comprehensiveness: it was a Dao (way) that included the other Daos (ways). But perhaps it was based on his understanding of Laozi treasuring the Dao, or the Great Dao 大道, as it was often called.

No names of individuals or texts are named by Sima Tan for any of these specialized approaches (Jia). It is fairly clear, however, that the Laozi, (or Lao Dan, the supposed author), was believed by the Simas to be an exemplar of Daojia thought. Their biography of Laozi mentions that Laozi wrote a book in two parts on Dao and De and in a number of places in the Shiji we find Daojia connected to the teachings and practices of “the Yellow Emperor and Laozi (黃帝、老子, or simply Huang-Lao 黃老),”[5] which seem to be synonymous (see below). In the Han Documents’ “Treatise on Literature” (Hanshu Yiwenzhi 漢書 • 藝文志), Ban Gu’s 班固 bibliographical listing[6] for Daojia presumably included the Laozi, as it included four commentaries on it, as well as known texts such as the Zhuangzi 莊子, Wenzi 文子, Liezi 列子, Heguanzi 鶡冠子, and the Yellow Emperor’s Four Classics (Huangdi Sijing 黃帝四經).[7]

The Hanshu, for its part, describes Daojia thusly:


“The current of the Daoists emanated from the Office of the Historian, which in successive generations recorded the various roads leading to success or failure, survival or destruction, and ill or good fortune from antiquity down to the present. By and by they came to understand how grasping the essentials maintains the root, how purity and emptiness preserves oneself, and how humility and pliancy sustains oneself. These became the techniques of the ruler who faces south. They accord with Yao’s capacity to yield and the Changes hexagram “Modesty and Humility,” wherein one instance of humility brings forth four benefits. These are its strengths. Nonetheless, if taken too liberally, one will desire to disregard ritual education and abandon humaneness and righteousness, claiming that one need only employ purity and emptiness to govern.”[8]

Sima Tan’s Daojia represented an approach to governing that centred on responding and adapting (Yin 因)[9] to changes, in the process adopting any “methods” from other ways of governing or ordering society that proved useful, such as those of the Ru, Mo, Fa and Ming. There appears also to be some concern with Jingshen 精神, “essential and spiritual energies,” Wuwei 無為, “non-purposive or non-interfering action” and Xuwu 虛無, “emptiness and nothingness.” Ban Gu’s Daojia was described quite differently, as responding or adapting to changes is not mentioned once, nor adopting the best from other Jia.[10] His Daojia seems to have had more to do with humility and the way to maintain and preserve oneself, based on acquaintance with events of the past. He also regarded the Daojia as entailing a rejection of typical Ru concerns: ritual/etiquette, benevolence and duty (禮、仁、義). This description has more in common with the Laozi than Sima Tan’s.

We turn now to “Huang-Lao 黃老,” the philosophy and/or practices apparently popular in the first half of the Han Dynasty. Huang-Lao refers to the teachings of the legendary Yellow Emperor (Huang Di 黃帝, trad. c. twenty-seventh century B.C.E.) in combination with those of the Laozi. There are many opinions on what texts Huang-Lao applies to, but many of them have connections to the land of Chu 楚. Some suggestions are the four silk texts from Mawangdui, a.k.a. The Yellow Emperor’s Four Classics 黃帝四經, the Huainanzi 淮南子, the Heguanzi 鶡冠子, a number of chapters of the Guanzi 管子,[11] a number of chapters of the Zhuangzi 莊子,[11b] and a number from the Chunqiu Fanlu 春秋繁露.[12] Besides showing the influence of the Laozi, these so-called Huang-Lao texts appear to be anything that is not distinctly Confucian or Mohist and have theories on statecraft.[13] The Yellow Emperor was increasingly being used to give authority to writings in many, many areas of thought,[14] so what his name is supposed to imply is difficult to know. Perhaps, because he had become known to be China’s first (or most significant) ruler, his name was used to signify a “Laoist” philosophy regarding rulership.

Han Emperor Wen’s wife, Empress (Dowager) Dou 竇, is repeatedly proclaimed to have been very fond of the teachings (Yan 言) and methods (Shu 術) of Laozi, or Huangdi and Laozi. For example, in the forty-ninth chapter of the Shiji we read: “Empress Dowager Dou was fond of the teachings of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi. Emperor (Wen), the heir apparent, and the Dou family members were obliged to study them and prize their methods (竇太后好黃帝、老子言,帝及太子諸竇不得不讀黃帝、老子,尊其術。).”[15] In Shiji 107 we read again of Empress Dowager’s fondness for Huang-Lao but also of a number of scholars who competed with her by advancing Rushu 儒術, literally “Classicists’ methods,” perhaps implying Confucianism. These scholars, as Sima reported elsewhere, “disparaged the teachings of Daojia” (貶道家言).[16] This suggests that Huang-Lao and Daojia refer to the same ideology. Once the Empress asked a staunch defender of the Ru and expert on the Odes what he thought of the “book of Laozi” (老子書). Perhaps unwisely, he answered, “these are nothing but the teachings of a menial” (此是家人言耳), after which he received some severe punishment.[17] Once she died (135 B.C.E.), however, the Ru/Confucians repressed the teachings of Huang-Lao and Confucianism began its ascendency relatively unimpeded.[18]

In addition to Empress Dowager Dou and her family, well over a dozen names are mentioned in the Shiji as being adherents of Huang-Lao, such as Ji An 汲黯, Elder Gao 蓋公, Sima Jizhu 司馬季主, Chen Ping 陳平, and Elder Yue Chen 樂臣公.[19] The Prince of Huainan, Liu An 劉安 (c. 180-122 B.C.E.), put together the Huainanzi 淮南子 in this Huang-Lao and Laozi-friendly environment, and it shows throughout the whole text (which also draws heavily from the Zhuangzi). Generally speaking, this text could be considered a Huang-Lao text and Liu a Huang-Lao advocate.[19b]

Some of them lived prior to the Han. In fact, Sima Qian labelled pre-Qin thinkers Shenzi 申子, Hanfei 韓非, and Jixia 稷下 residents Shen Dao 慎到, Tian Pian 田駢, Jiezi 接子, and Huan Yuan 環淵 as being adherents of Huang-Lao.[20] However, these are purely retrospective labels, as it does not appear in any textual sources prior to the Han and these thinkers would not have thought of themselves as following Huang-Lao teachings or practices. His father Sima Tan does not mention Huang-Lao, which may have been a creation of his son.[21] It does not appear, however, that any of these men founded their theories or grounded their views in those of the Laozi. Sima Qian may have, after reading some of their works, saw some doctrines that resembled those of a current Huang-Lao tradition in the Han. He almost certainly did not read all of their writings, so his views of them are probably skewed and not completely representative. Perhaps his connecting Hanfei with Laozi may be attributed to his seeing the two commentaries included in the Hanfeizi.[22] Or perhaps the de-emphasizing or rejecting of beloved Confucian ideals of Ren, Yi and Li (仁、義、禮) in the sayings found in the Laozi and stories about Lao Dan (in the Zhuangzi) that were shared by Hanfei, Shenzi and their followers created a bond in Sima Qian’s mind.

Tae Hyun Kim thinks that the Jie Lao 解老, Yu Lao 喩老, Zhu Dao 主道, Yang Quan 揚權 chapters of the Hanfeizi could justifiably be called Huang-Lao texts but, like Hagop Sarkissian, does not think they were written by Hanfei.[23] Sarkissian does not think the Jie Lao and Yu Lao are Huang-Lao because there is no discussion of law. If these commentaries and related chapters were not written by Hanfei, we do not know why they found their way into the Hanfeizi, though perhaps they were written by “disciples” of Hanfei who also admired the Laozi, and/or perhaps to add prestige to his work in the early Han.

Wang Chong 王充 (c. 30-100 C.E.), in his Lunheng 論衡 occasionally discussed Laozi, Huang-Lao and Daojia. He associated longevity and immortality with Daojia (chapter 24) as well as associating both Daojia and Huang-Lao with a good understanding of the processes of Heaven and Earth, i.e., their naturalness and lack of purposeful activity (chapter 54 and 42 respectively). He identified a Wuwei-style of government to them (chapter 54) and identified quietism (Tiandan 恬澹) as another trait of Huang-Lao and Lao Dan (chapters 54 and 80).[24]

Next: Laozi 老子

[1] Kidder Smith, “Sima Tan and the Invention of Daoism, ‘Legalism,’ ‘et cetera’” in The Journal of Asian Studies 62.1, 2003.

[1a] Sima’s concern with governing approaches is probably one reason he ignores Yang Zhu 楊朱, a popular thinker of the pre-Qin era mentioned in many of the pre-Han texts, (such as the Mengzi, Zhuangzi, and the Lüshi Chunqiu), who appears to have had nothing to contribute to governing. Most modern scholars find it difficult not to mention “Yangism” as an important trend in early China.

[2] “On the Six Lineages of Thought” by Sarah Queen and Harold Roth in Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. I, Columbia University Press, 1999, 279, modified.

[3] The Zajia 雜家, the “Miscellaneous Jia” of the Hanshu’s Yiwenzhi 漢書 藝文志 was described very similarly, taking the best of some of the others: 兼儒、墨,合名、法, though surprisingly not from Daojia 道家. Zajia included the Lüshi Chunqiu and Huainanzi, both of which show influence from Daojia.

[4] Ibid. 281-2.

[4.5] Nor do they mention de 德.

[5] For example, Shiji 56 and 107.

[6] I will refer to the Yiwenzhi chapter of the Hanshu as representing Ban Gu’s view, even though he took this classification from Liu Xin 劉歆 and perhaps his father, Liu Xiang 劉向.

[7] Which may or may not be the Four Texts attached to the Laozi manuscripts found at Mawangdui.

[8] Sarah A Queen, “Inventories of the Past: Rethinking the “School” Affiliation of the Huainanzi,” Asia Major, Volume 14, part 1, 2001, p. 62-3.

[9] Yin 因 appears five times in the two descriptions.

[10] As that was the hallmark of the Zajia 雜家. See note #3.

[11] E.g., the Neiye, Xinshu Shang, Xinshu Xia, Baixin, Zheng, Chi Mi, Zhou He, Shu Yan, Bing Fa, Ba Yan, etc.

[11b] E.g., chapters 12-16 and 33.

[12] Sarah Queen in her From Chronicle to Canon writes that “21 sections from seven chapters 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 77, 78” are Huang-Lao and that these texts pay little attention to Confucian texts. She writes that “these chapters argue that Laozi’s doctrine of non-purposive action, Shen Buhai’s theory of titles and actualities, Hanfei’s advocacy of impartial rewards and punishments, Mozi’s emphasis on elevating the worthy, and Guanzi’s techniques of inner cultivation are indispensible methods of rulership” (Cambridge University Press, 1996, 85-6).

[13] Roger Ames/D.C. Lau wrote, “At this point in time, ‘Huang-Lao’ has become a receptacle for any early Han dynasty text that has a Daoist tincture, and given the syncretism that marks this period, there is little that is excluded by it.” (Yuan Dao, Ballantine, 1998, 12)

[14] See Robin Yates’ Five Lost Classics, Ballantine, 1997, 10-12 and 17-19.

[15] Cf. Shiji 12, 28, 121. Both Emperor Wen and the following Emperor Jing also had a fondness for Xingming 刑名, which by then formed some associations with Daojia/Huang-Lao. In the final comments to Shiji 9 (呂太后本), detailing the life of Empress Dowager Lü and her son Emperor Hui 惠帝, Sima Tan suggests that a central concept of Daoism/Huang-Lao – non-interference, wuwei 無為 – was already gaining in popularity.

[16] Cf. Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian, Vol. II, Columbia University Press, 1996, p. 93.

[17] Shiji 121, Cf. Watson, Vol. II p. 364.

[18] Shiji 121.

[19] See Aat Vervoorn’s Men of Cliffs and Caves, The Chinese University Press, 1990, 268 n31 for more names.

[19b] See Harold Roth’s “Psychology and Self-Cultivation in Early Taoistic Thought” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 51, No. 2 (1991), 607.

[20] In Laozi’s biography both Shenzi and Hanfei are labelled as adherents of Huang-Lao (and Xingming 刑名). It is no coincidence that scholars who specialized in the teachings of Shenzi and Hanfei (along with a few others) were expelled from the royal court by the Ru-supporter and imperial counsellor Zhao Wan 趙綰. (Hanshu 6; see Griet Vankeerberghen, The Huainanzi and Liu An’s Claim to Moral Authority, SUNY Press, 2001, 11). For Shen Dao 慎到, Tian Pian 田駢, Jiezi 接子, and Huan Yuan 環淵 being learned in Huang-Lao methods see Shiji 74.

[21] Kidder Smith, 2003, 146.

[22] These are different enough to suggest that they were not even written by him; see below.

[23] “Other Laozi Parallels in the Hanfeizi” in Sino-Platonic Papers 199, March 2010, 17. Hagop Sarkissian, “Laozi: Re-visiting Two Early Commentaries in the Hanfeizi” M.A. Thesis, University of Toronto, 2001. Angus Graham also regarded the Zhu Dao 主道 and Yang Quan 揚權 chapters of the Hanfeizi to be Huang-Lao, though he regarded the Huainanzi and (relevant parts of) the Zhuangzi to be more aptly referred to as “Laozi-centred syncretisim” (Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts: Essays Dedicated to Angus C. Graham, edited by Henry Rosemont, Jr., Open Court, 1991, 280-1.

[24] This will be discussed more later.