UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Wenzi 文子 van Els, Paul; Hamm, Matthew


The Wenzi 文子 refers to two separate, but related, Chinese texts, each of which is titled "Wenzi." || The proto-Wenzi (a named coined by Paul van Els) is known through a bamboo-strip manuscript found in the "Dingzhou Tomb" near the village of Bajiaolang 八角廊 outside of Dingzhou 定州 city in Hebei 河北 province, China, which was first excavated in 1973. The Wenzi manuscript itself was later transcribed into modern Chinese characters and the transcription published in 1995. Based on certain features of its vocabulary and argument, it is likely that this text, which clearly bears the title of "Wenzi" on one of its strips, was written at some point during the Western Han 漢 dynasty (202 BCE - 9 CE) prior to the sealing of the tomb (the most likely date of which is 54 BCE). || The proto-Wenzi is written as an anachronistic dialogue between King Ping (平王) of the Zhou 周 dynasty (r. 770-720 BCE) and the character of Wenzi 文子, who appears in the text as a political advisor. Wenzi has frequently been labelled as a disciple of Laozi 老子 in the later tradition - despite the absence of any information in the text itself regarding his identity. The dialogue covers a variety of subjects (such as warfare) that are related to statecraft. In all cases, the figure of Wenzi bases his advice to the king on a philosophy of quietude that, while milder in rhetoric, appears quite similar to that of the Laozi, a work the manuscript frequently references. A key difference is that, while the Wenzi follows the Laozi in basing its argument on the "Way" (dao 道, the source and natural pattern of the cosmos), the Wenzi also highlights the virtues of "humaneness," "righteousness," "ritual propriety," "sagacity," and "wisdom" as key components of rule. || At some point in the 3rd century CE (marked arbitrarily in the comments below as the end of the Eastern Han, 220 CE), the text of the proto-Wenzi underwent an extensive process of revision that seems to have concluded by, at the very latest, the turn of the 5th century CE. This process of revision resulted in the "received Wenzi." (referred to below as both the "received Wenzi" and simply the "Wenzi"). The received Wenzi has been subsequently transmitted in later history down to the present day, and exhibits consistent editorial patterns. || To begin with, the dialogue between King Ping and Wenzi is changed into a dialogue between Laozi (the putative author of the Daodejing 道德經) and Wenzi, who is presented as a disciple of Laozi and not as a political advisor. King Ping appears only briefly in the text. His presence serves primarily to establish the period of time in which the text is supposedly written and to underline Laozi's authority as Wenzi's teacher. Similarly, the figure of Confucius is added to demonstrate Laozi's superior authority. || Despite its nominal dialogical structure, the received Wenzi consists primarily of lengthy pronouncements from Laozi, thus making the text largely monological in style. Strikingly, most of the text's content actually comes from the Huainanzi 淮南子 (a Western Han text from 139 BCE that integrates a great deal of earlier material and treats the Daodejing as an authority) with approximately 75% of its content being directly taken from the Huainanzi. The purpose of these changes seems to have been to establish the Wenzi as an authoritative source of ideas associated with Laozi, presenting the text as a kind of prequel to the Daodejing and the Daoist equivalent of the Analects of Confucius (Lunyu 論語. || This effort was a successful one as the Wenzi became an extremely important text up to the end of the Northern Song (1127 CE). The high point of its influence was during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗 (r. 712-756 CE) of the Tang 唐, who in 742 BCE canonized the text alongside the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, bestowing on it the new title of True Scripture of Understanding the Mysteries (Tongxuan Zhenjing 通玄真經). Beginning in the Southern Song, however, the text ceased to be part of a lived tradition as it was increasingly criticized and eventually dismissed as a forgery. This neglect persisted until the Dingzhou discovery described above, which generated a renewal of interest among scholars, though only as an object of study.

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