MEDIEVAL PROSE: Neo-Daoism
China‘s Age of Disunion from the Han‘s finale to the Sui reunification (roughly 200-580) marked a time of tremendous ferment and progressive thinking. Chinese writing during these centuries displays a rich patchwork of diverse trends, this
chapter will focus on 3 salient strands: ―Neo-Daoism‖; the tales in Shishuo xinyu; and landmarks of early prose, especially literary criticism. First, Neo-Daoism.
Probably no other age from traditional China, always well-supplied with brilliant people who spent lifetimes studying
and reflecting on their heritage, could say its most important texts consisted of a teen-ager‘s notes! Wang Bi (226-249)
wrote early China‘s most influential and, many would argue, most brilliant commentaries on Laozi and the Changes at an
age when most of us haven‘t yet decided our major in college. He helped inspire a movement we may conveniently call
―Neo-Daoist,‖ which doesn‘t mean people gave up Confucian values—Wang Bi himself wrote on Analects as well—but
does mean that these people turned attentively to Laozi (and in some cases Zhuangzi) and reinterpreted them in view of their own conceptual needs and framework. Wang‘s writings on Laozi, both a general set of interpretations we will call
his ―Pointers‖ (after Wagner 2000), and commentaries on nearly all 81 stanzas, demonstrate a deep and fresh
understanding of Laozi‘s thought and rhetorical structure, too.
When reading Wang Bi on Laozi, we first notice that he follows Chinese exegetes‘ customary procedures (except that
Wang focuses much more upon textual meaning than glossing graphs). Chinese commentators, right from Zuo‘s
Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Chronicles, through the works of Han scholars like Dong Zhongshu, Zheng Xuan,
Ma Rong, and the like, chiefly use three techniques, all of which regularly feature chiasmus: definition; amplification,
often with diaeresis; and explanation by citing related
passages. All three techniques prove central to understanding how Wang Bi thought; first, definitions, e.g.
C1.5a ―Valley Spirit‖:
*‖Empty valley. No form, no shadow, no contrary or opposite motion; She dwells in the lowly, unmoving; holds to
tranquility, unfading; Her valley thereby takes shape.
This definition follows typical exegetical Chinese form: state a term for definition; elaborate and explain it in a pivotal
section with parallel or repeated elements; then close the frame. This definition‘s extended pivot defines entirely by
negatives; Wang repeats perhaps the most important word in his thinking, ―absence/not‖無. Paradoxically, this Valley
Spirit can generate a valley precisely where she has a ―nothing‖; absence becomes a cosmic womb with the potency, the
potential, to breed anything. In this passage from Laozi 6, we approach worship of a Mother Goddess—a Dark Female—
whose fertile power to engender ―follows from‖ absence and whose gateway leads to the root of heaven and earth; her
Valley passage most embodies the way, because only what‘s empty can fill up the world.
We cannot fully explore nearly 140 counterchanges we noticed among Wang Bi‘s Laozi commentaries. Among dozens
of crisscross definitions in Wang‘s Commentary, we find Stanza 58 on ―the ultimate in good ruling‖ among his least dispensable (3.17a):
*Who knows good order‘s ultimate? Only when nothing bears proper mention/holding up, when nothing bears a definite form or name, moving ―vaguely, blurrily‖ as all under heaven transforms—this we may call its ultimate.
Here again we find valence chiasmus with negative pivot employed as armature to generate a suitably ablative ―Daoist‖ definition—by absence of specific qualities (on ―ablative method,‖ see esp. Colie 1976;25ff). To clear up two minor
points, the binome ―vaguely, blurrily‘ opens Laozi 58, describing good government; the terms ―form and name‖
politically denote official performance and titles.
For a definition that correlates spirit and sage, see 4.1b (Stanza 60):
*Spirits don‘t harm folk, and the sage in turn doesn‘t harm folk; the sage doesn‘t harm folk, and spirits in turn don‘t
Again, apparent tautology reveals a mutually influencing correlation between the powerful spirits in heaven and the
wisest of folk; for Laozi they play similar—perhaps we should say ―isomorphic‖ —roles, and Wang‘s tandem gloss
catches this deftly.
We shall dispense with analyzing Wang‘s rhetorical amplification, since we have already seen sufficient examples. But
we can‘t resist giving an example where Wang‘s contextualization strategies, by quoting relevant textual passages, weave
a particularly dense crisscross web. Consider his glosses to St. 41‘s (3.6a) ―the bright way seems dark‖:
*‖She shines but does not blind with dazzle‖;
Wang then glosses ―the greatest square has no corners‖ with:
*Sharp-edged, she does not pierce.
Turning to St.58, we find Wang Bi glossing (3.17a) ―sharp-edged, she does not pierce‖ with: *…―the greatest square has no corners‖;
Wang then glosses ‖she shines but does not blind with dazzle‖ with:
*…―the bright way seems dark.‖
Here we find a double crisscross of infratextual chiasmus, an elaborate pattern of exegetical webweaving unique, as far as
we know, to Wang Bi. Naturally, each strand in his web involves a Daoist paradox.
Wang Bi‘s Commentaries on the Classic of Changes involve a somewhat different mindset, but we cannot stop to
explore the different profile of rhetorical strategies in its more than 40 antimetaboli. We shall examine only its most
famous and distinctive section, a gloss on the celebrated ―linguistic adequacy‖ declaration from the ―Appended
Statements‖ (9a-10a; examined above, in Chapter 5). Wang comments:
123121*Images/figures express ideas/intents; words elucidate the figures. For fulfilling intent, nothing matches the figures;
13313for fulfilling the figures, nothing matches words. Words are born from the figures, so we can seek from words to
112122observe the figures; the figures are born from intent, so we can seek from the figures to observe intent. Intent gets
113fulfilled by the figures, the figures get manifested by words. >
*Words are the means to elucidate the figures; once you get the figures you forget the words. The figures are the means
to keep intent intact; once you get the intent you forget the figures. >
* A snare is the means to catch a hare; once you catch the hare you forget the snare. A fishtrap is the means to catch a
fish; once you catch the fish you forget the fishtrap.
In this passage, which we have divided into 3 sections for convenience, the Changes take on a very special significance. Unlike Laozi‘s words, inadequate to embody a constant way, Changes embody insights of the greatest sages (particularly
Confucius, whose intent by definition could embody the way); to mediate the gap between sagely intent and words we
have Changes hexagrams themselves, which Wang and his contemporaries believed embodied the shape and trend of
events and, in fact, the movement of dao/way. This rather mystic arcana mediates at every crucial step Wang‘s first
section takes; thus, Wang‘s whole first part involves a complex interversion among his three terms, with double chiasmus at its end. His second section then employs another double counterchange to indicate the hierarchy between means and
end, while his third section deploys yet another double chiasmus—this one metaphorical—to ―figure‖ forth Wang‘s intent via concrete images. Thus, Wang‘s whole passage begins and ends framed by ―figures‖ expressed in words. Intent, and thus implicitly the sage‘s way, remains pivotal.
Aside from Wang Bi, we owe medieval Chinese prose‘s second great monument to Guo Xiang—and perhaps Xiang Xiu, though despite a scathing condemnation of Guo in SSXY 4.17, it remains unproven that Guo plagiarized Xiang‘s
commentary—who rediscovered and annotated Zhuangzi for Chinese posterity. Assuming Guo‘s authorship and
Zhuangzi‘s seminal influence on Chinese thought, religion, and literature, we may say that no other Chinese commentator
(not Kong Yingda, not even Zhu Xi) ever had a more profound influence on his culture. We might make an analogy by
supposing some early medieval European discovered, transmitted, and made intelligible Plato‘s lost Republic. Again, we forego analyzing more than 320 counterchanges we noticed while perusing just Guo Xiang‘s comments on Zhuangzi‘s Inner Chapters! In tracing Guo‘s contribution to Zhuangzi and his influence on subsequent Chinese thought, we concur
with Wing-tsit Chan (1963:317) that naturalness/spontaneity enjoys remarkable prominence in Guo‘s commentary.
Consider, for example, 2.15b (Zz4.89):
*Not making myself illustrious to dazzle them, I let them illumine themselves. Not taking mana to myself in order to lord over others, I leave it for others to get it of themselves.
In this double chiasmus, Guo‘s second leg features a framing pun between cognates mana and get得德, both tvk in Ancient Chinese. Both legs feature a chiastic ―don‘t [Verb] and (things) [Verb] of themselves‖ idiom, which occurred
sporadically before Guo Xiang and rather frequently with Wang Bi; it becomes practically a stylistic tic in Guo Xiang‘s
While relegating further examples to our database, we mention two additional related excerpts from 3.6a:
* One doesn‘t hallow神 the demon Thearch, the demon Thearch self-hallows. >
*One doesn‘t engender heaven and earth, heaven and earth engender themselves. (Zz6.31)
A related and almost equally salient feature of Guo‘s commentary involves his stressing the relative or perspective-bound. This, of course, marked a main theme in Zhuangzi itself; some of Guo‘s comments seem quite in line with Zhuangzian remarks about the limits of perspective-bound judgment, e.g., 7.23a:
* Each takes what she finds beautiful as divinely remarkable and what she detests as foully rotten; yet what another
finds beautiful I find detestable, and what I find find beautiful another may find detestable;
thus [Zhuangzi] joins together the divinely remarkable and foully rotten. (Zz22.12)
Guo‘s elegantly balanced antimetabole provides just the right vehicle to convey his sense of an esthetic harmony
informing and ultimately joining our different perceptions of beauty. His carefully counterbalanced deployment of
embedded chiasmus conveys both perspectival divergences and Guo‘s sense of proportion. We may well ask whether
Zhuangzi would have approved so neat a resolution of differences; he certainly didn‘t try for so elegant a rhetorical architecture.
We single out passages in which Guo seems to diverge from Zhuangzi and espouse what we might proftably call
relativism of the ―mine is just as good as anyone else‘s‖ variety. Consider especially his comments on Zhuangzi‘s famous opening myth, on Zhuangzi‘s giant Roc as symbol of spiritual freedom: * Ones with small substance don‘t await/rely on the great, so ones with great substance can‘t use the small. (1.2a)
* The Great Roc has no reason to esteem itself above small birds; small birds have nothing to envy
about Heavenly Pool [–the Roc‘s destination]. (1.2b; for more examples, see database) Thus Guo Xiang rebuts ―valuing big above small.‖ Zhuangzi‘s argument against Guo‘s remarks might go like this: Sure,
there‘s nothing inherently wrong with being a small bird, any less than there is with being a Roc. Elsewhere Zhuangzi
will praise little birds who make the most of small-bird situations. But those little birds didn‘t scoff at what they can‘t
understand, as this turtledove laughs at Roc. Guo‘s argument that Roc needs a whirlwind just as much as the turtledove
needs its hedgerow mistakes the metaphor for the point; Zhuangzi likely presents this Roc as symbol of our potential to
overcome the narrow limits of our fixed perceptions and values and soar into an unbounded and undiscriminating realm.
He wants to provoke mind-expansion; Zhuangzi‘s passage doesn‘t take aim at little birds, it takes aim at small/closed
For a related example that reacts against Zhuangzi attacking ―sages,‖ see ZZ10.10 note: *True—these words! These words ring true, yet the age needs sages!
Guo also occasionally displays a penchant for maintaining aristocratic privilege and the perquisites of public office (for
several examples, see database). For example, at 1.5b-61 (Zz1.24) Zhuangzi has Yao ask recluse Xu You to take over his
throne, and Xu You declines. As A.C. Graham (1981:46) has rightly observed, this passage seems remarkable for Xu
You‘s suggestion that good rule emanates not from those in high places but from ―influences which have little to do with
the deliberate policies of rulers, and which may emanate from humble, insignificant individuals.‖ This glorification of
anonymous hermits, hardly unique in Daoist and other Chinese thought, generates a very long response from Guo,
*…[Yao‘s] ability to put under heaven in order involved not putting put under heaven in order.
Nothing wrong with this Daoist paradox, except that in Zhuangzi‘s passage Yao does try to put things in order; it‘s Xu
You who offers the Daoist position. What really bothers Guo here? As Wing-tsit Chan points out in his (1963:327) partial
translation of this passage, Guo can‘t stomach that nameless hermits should exceed their station by trumping or showing
up their rulers and betters. While we refer readers to Chan‘s rendition, we would like to add one excised passage that uses
chiasmus against Xu You:
* Thus, this single vulgar creature merely served as Yao‘s ―outermost vassal‖; if you allow an ―outermost vassal‖ to
supplant the inner ruler, this would leave him with only the name of ruler without the substantial responsibilities of a
For Guo Xiang Yao and ―lord‖ must remain a firm frame; no skulking ―outsider‖ can be allowed to usurp a ruler‘s powers,
even when an overburdened ruler sought to abdicate his responsibilities, only to find the outsider unwilling to take them
At most points, however, Guo proves an adept and reliable guide to Zhuangzi‘s classic. Guo‘s commentary fairly teems
with neatly correlative passages like these from Zhuangzi‘s opening page: *The Roc looks down from above toward earth just as we look up from here toward heaven.( 1.2a)
* No going off where one doesn‘t feel at ease, wherever one rests he follows what suits…(1.7b) This passage not only counterchanges, it implies a close interpenetration of movement and rest; its ―no going off without
[Verb]‖ pattern, incidentally, forms another of Guo‘s favorites.
Sometimes Guo‘s Zhuangzian harmonies betray a fourth-century mindset. For an example clearly influenced by Liezi, see
*In the world some take a short nap and in dreams pass 100 years; so there‘s no telling clearly whether those passing
their ―100 years‖[lifespan] aren‘t simply taking a short nap.
Finally, we would like to stress Guo‘s baroque talent for complex counterchange. This stylistic feature quite sets him
apart from, say, Wang Bi. For a token example see 2.3b (Zz3.18), where Zhuangzi has offered as anodyne against
sorrows of ―life and death‖ a pliant conforming that ―rests at ease with the seasons and dwells in smooth conformity.‖順
*Grief and joy arise from loss and gain; Now the gentleman who mystically comprehends and conjoins with changes
will at no time/season feel ill at ease, will nowhere conform and not dwell smoothly: what would he gain or lose!? Who dies? Who lives? Thus, he trusts to what he encounters; grief and joy have nowhere to get in at him.
We should add that ―grief and joy‖ and ―gain or lose‖ also occurred in Guo‘s base text; this passage includes a doubly embedded main counterchange, as well as a few diaeretic inversions. Appropriately, Guo pulls out all the stops to work an
elaborate variation on one of Zhuangzi‘s keystone passages. This almost musical feature of Guo Xiang‘s commentary, his
penchant for what we might call ―polyphonic variations‖ rather than leadfooted word-by-word explications of verbal meaning, contributed greatly to his work‘s appeal and to our sense that Guo really understood how to appreciate Zhuangzi, though his harmonizing certainly did not always agree with Zhuangzi.
Just in case readers might wonder whether Guo Xiang‘s commentarial practice proved unusual, we hasten to differ.
Just to mention one example, Fang Yizhi‘s Yaodi paozhuang (―Roasting Zhuangzi in the Alchemist‘s Crucible‖) includes
a great many counterchanges. Its first two chapters alone feature at least 40 chiasmi in less than 80 pages (including
Zhuangzi‘s original text) of marginal and interlinear comments. Though these exhibit consider skill and ingenuity, we will for now spare weary readers (for more on Fang Yizhi, see our Conclusion).
XI KANG (223-262)
Last of the Neo-Daoist literati whose writings we examine, Xi Kang‘s rhetoric most purely reflects the dominance of
what Chinese called ―pure discussion‖清談. Though one scholar or another might set different conceptual limits on
―pure‖ conversations, most would agree that (in Arthur Wright‘s phrase: HJAS 10/1957:80) its philosophical dialogues ideally involved a ―vigorous and spirited interchange of argument and rebuttal.‖ Otherwise, we might consider how the
Wei History‘s describes Zheng Tai‘s pure discussion:
*(16.505) He could breathe the blighted into life, breathe the living back into blight. [cf. Q 1021 for more…] By all accounts, Xi Kang wielded a sharp rapier in his ―pure discussions‖; for example, when Zhong Hui wrote an
account on human nature and talent, he most hoped and most feared Xi Kang would criticize it and, upon visiting, did not
dare give his manuscript to Xi. Instead, after leaving Zhong took his draft and threw it back inside, then ran off (SSXY
Xi‘s rhetoric reveals his delight in debate; he has a special knack for turning other people‘s arguments upside-down and inside-out. His collected essays impress first and foremost with the exuberant quantity,
quality, and variety of their topsy-turvy counterchanges (~20%/~215 chiasmi, in 8 short essays), e.g., 173:
*The [self-]sufficient need nothing external, while the insufficient/discontented find nothing outside they don’t need; with nothing they don’t need nowhere they do without lacking, with nothing they need nowhere they go and feel
Here observe Xi‘s precise valence chiasmus between framing negative (but approved) and pivotal double negative (disapproved) terms to enhance his inversion; this crowns an argument that true wealth involves
indifference to things for, as Xi says (174), only:
*This truly gains wealth and nobility. Ones who discard [true] nobility and desire nobility find themselves debased;
ones who discard [true] wealth and hanker after wealth gain poverty.
For a deft hypallage, see 183:
*In plentiful years, many ailments; in famine years, dearth of disease. Cf. 187:
*Zhongdu went naked in winter yet kept himself warm, wore furs in summer yet kept himself cool.
275 neatly commutates opposing ways to avoid fate:
*You say a Centenarian Palace cannot make a doomed infant longlived; contravening Bow and Great Ghost won‘t
make a Methuselah die prematurely.
This passage refers to geomantic lore; an auspicious building or, conversely, a building aligned against the
two zodiacal constellations mentioned won‘t influence a lifespan. (Cf. 269 for a related passage) Cf. 287:
*‖Panther‖ relied on internal [cultivation] and got eaten by a tiger… ―Panther‖ forgot what he should fear and feared
what he should have forgotten. (Cf. Zz19.29)
From this brief selection readers can gain a good idea how Xi Kang argues. Naturally, Xi Kang employs deconstruction
and decussative chiasmus very often; these prove less convenient to illustrate often because his deconstructions involve
long passages (see database); for now we offer a token decussation shredding
the contention that since no one sees transcendents, they cannot exist (186; cf. KC15.4 in Chapter 6, p.11):
*If you did see a 1000-year old person, how would you distinguish her? Trying to compare her outer form, you would
find it no different than others‘; trying to verify it by years, then…‖dawn‘s toadstool cannot discern a [lunar] month‘s
first day from its last.‖
Observe that Xi buttresses his position with a capping quotation, from Zz1.11.
Cf. 262-3, where Xi argues against study as a ―natural love‖: *You call the Six Canons the sun and ignorance/not studying the endless night, but if you see the lecture hall as a gravesite and take recitation as the murmuring of ghosts; see the classics as weedy filth and humanity and honor as fetid
flesh… [you would desist]. Thus, ignorance isn‘t necessarily an endless night nor the Six Canons the sun.
Almost any Chinese scholar would recoil in horror and call Xi Kang a devil‘s advocate. Cf. 278:
*If homes could really control people and make them comply [with geomantic fates], then a person bound for luck
would suffer in an unlucky home and a monster contrary to the way would seize good fortune in a lucky home.
This excerpt from a long decussative segment again deploys topsy-turvy counterchange to reduce his opponent‘s claim to
For a typically pointed chiastic distinction, see 307:
*This explains why seadwellers all their lives [say] ―no alps,‖ while mountain men say: ―no great fish!‖ Xi‘s allusion to several similar stories makes it clear his counterchanging denials involve people‘s refusal to believe what they‘ve never experienced.
For an example that uses paradox as a way to correlate opposites, see 235:
*Proudly he forgets worthiness, and worthiness and good fortune conjoin; obliviously he lets his heart go, and his heart
joins up with the good.
Here we again encounter a paradox of naturalness; the goods we could not attain by striving come of themselves when
we just let go.
Xi Kang‘s skill with metaphors deserves mention. Here we restrict ourselves to one of his fascinating inverted tropes that switch the order of tenor and vehicle. Western readers tend to find this sort of chiasmus startling; consider, for
*Desires proceed out from us but aren‘t right for our path, just as trees produce grubs; though they are what the tree engendered, they aren‘t proper to a tree. Thus, when grubs grow plentiful the tree withers, when desires overcome we
Note that Xi makes this ―topsy-turvy‖ analogy: desires stand to us as the tree to its grubs. This all gets embedded within the frame of his overall tenor—an argument against indulging grubby desires.
For an entertaining interversion, see 168:
*We esteem wit and uphold activity because they can augment life and enrich ourselves. Yet when wants spring into action regrets and remorse arise; when wits set in motion pre-judgments get established. When pre-judgments establish
our aims disclose and things get done; when regrets and remorse arise calamities accumulate and we ourselves get endangered.
In Xi‘s ―a‖ frame wit, action, life/arise生 and self form his main terms for repetition; his pivot intersperses yet another
chiasmus with ―regrets‖ and ―pre-judgments‖; his whole passage employs the ―paradox of purposeful activity‖ to invert
our views of wit and activity and so deconstruct a rival position. Thus, it serves as a fitting epitome for Xi Kang‘s keenly
forensic rhetoric and its baroque exuberance (for a set of chiasmi illustrating Xi‘s penchant for triple counterchange, see
esp. those collected in Q1092—database). The great Chinese contrapuntalist, Xi always stood ready to invert any theme
and subject it to critical counterbalance.
Liezi represents rather a mixed bag of writings, but most conveniently fit roughly under the rubric ―Daoist,‖ and the
collection‘s rhetoric reflects this. Liezi‘s compiler(s) show a strong sense of topsy-turvy
balancing, of which we select only a few examples (cf. our database), e.g. Y73:
*‖[Z] can see with his ears and hear with his eyes!‖ Z: I can see and hear without using ear and eye; I cannot exchange the functions of ear and eye! Cf.51:
* People don‘t necessarily lack a beastly heart; though they have a beastly heart, because of their appearance they get accepted. Birds and beasts don‘t necessarily lack a humane heart; though they have a humane heart, because of their
appearance they get ostracized. Cf.65:
*They consider what we do in dreams real/substantial實 and what we see awake absurd. (Cf.67)
This last counterchange plays topsy-turvy games with dreams and waking ―reality.‖ A.C. Graham (59), almost in the
spirit of traditional Chinese commentators, observes: ―If waking experience is no more real than dreams, then dreams are
as real as waking experience.‖ A traditional Chinese, we submit, would have substituted ―reliable‖ for ―real.‖ For a famous anecdote in which seeking game undergoes delightfully metabolic twists, see 8.169:
*You lost one sheep: why so many pursuers? Too many forking roads. Did you catch your sheep? We lost it… [embedded counterchange; chiasmus continues]
Deconstruction occurs fairly frequently in Liezi, especially in its last two chapters. For a selection of decussative
constructions, see, e.g., Y20. In this Chicken Little story, each successive commentator deconstructs the worries/views of
his predecessor. ―Liezi‖ ends by laughing at them all and concludes:
*So living we don‘t understand dying, dying we don‘t understand living; coming we don‘t understand going, going we don‘t understand coming. Why worry if the sky will collapse or not!? Cf. 105:
*Two lads argue about whether the sun approaches us closer at dawn or at noon. In a sharp set of decussations, one
argues the sun appears bigger at dawn: *The farther appear small and the nearer large.
The other lad argues the sun is hotter at noon: *The nearer feel hotter and the farther cooler.
8.173 deconstructs social snobbery, rebutting prejudice against veterinarians: