UBC Faculty Research and Publications

All Things Flow Into Form (Fanwu liuxing 凡物 流形) Perkins, Franklin; Hamm, Matthew


The Fanwu Liuxing 凡物流形 ("All Things Flow into Form") is a bamboo text within the "Shanghai strips" collection. This collection consists of a number of bamboo texts that were purchased by the Shanghai Museum (Shanghai Bowuguan 上海博物館) in 1994. Most likely, the texts were looted from a tomb and, as such, their provenance is unknown. However, similarities between the Shanghai strips and the Guodian strips excavated in 1993 suggest a tentative dating for the Shanghai strips of 300-278 BCE. For a more detailed description of the Shanghai strips, see the entry on the "Zigao 子羔" by Sarah Allan. The Fanwu Liuxing was previously unknown to scholars as it was not part of the "received tradition," the body of textual materials passed down and recopied over the course of Chinese history. However, the Shanghai collection contains two manuscripts of the text, suggesting the early import of the text. Of the two manuscripts, one, Manuscript B, is damaged and the total length of the text is 30 bamboo strips. As with most excavated materials, the Fanwu Liuxing is not easily classified according to the "schools" rubric of later history. Instead of appearing as a work of Daoism, Confucianism, etc., the text appears to stand on its own as a cosmogonic work that endeavours to explain the cosmos according to a single origin that it terms the "One" (yi 一). Together with other excavated texts such as the Taiyi Shengshui 太一生水, Hengxian 恆先, and Guodian Laozi 老子, it thus appears to be representative of the "cosmogonic turn" in early Chinese thought, meaning the shift that appears to have occurred in early texts from advancing theistic explanations of the cosmos to advancing monistic and naturalistic explanations. Of these early works, the Laozi is the only one to have been passed down in the later tradition and appears to have been the winner of this early debate. The Fanwu Liuxing itself may have been excluded from the later tradition because its arguments were integrated into, and appropriated by, the Laozi in the course of its textual evolution. This process can be reconstructed through excavated versions of the Laozi, though later editing can obscure the evidence for in the received version of the text. More specifically, the Fanwu Liuxing is structured into two parts. The first contains a series of questions on a range of subjects, including the basic constituents of the world and how they take form, the nature of human beings and their formation, the relationship of human beings and ghosts with reference to sacrifices, concerns over rulership, specific aspects of the natural world, and various divinities (all of whom are subordinated to the original origin of the cosmos). The second part of the text provides an answer to these questions in the form of a description of the One and the way in which it both gives rise to the cosmos and also remains immanent within it so that it may function. The text emphasizes that, because the One is simply the totality of all things, it can be grasped through the senses and understood through the heart-mind. It concludes by arguing that if a ruler is able to grasp the One through self-cultivation then he will be able to create political order. The text thus draws a direct line between its cosmogonic explanations and the practical exercise of political power.

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