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Huainanzi 淮南子 Smith, Corina


(1) Huainanzi 淮南子 (lit. Masters of Huainan) is an encyclopaedic cosmological treatise dating from the early Western Han 漢 (205 BC–9 AD). The text was produced at the court of the kingdom of Huainan 淮南. The finer details of the text’s composition process, as well as the identity and role of a possible author, remain the subject of debate among scholars. The text was presented to Emperor Wu of Han 漢武帝 (r. 140– 87 BC) in 139 BC by his own uncle and second king of Huainan, Liu An 劉安 (c. 179–122 BC), under the simple title of Neishu 内書 (Inner Writings). The occasion is described in Liu An’s official biographies in Sima Qian’s 司馬遷 (d. c. 86 BC) Shiji 史記 (Records of the Grand Historian) and Ban Gu’s 班固 (32–92) Hanshu 漢書 (Book of the Han), as well as in Gao You’s 高誘 (c. 168–212) preface to his commentary to Huainanzi. (2) The Huainanzi comprises of twenty-one treatises (xun 訓), normally called “chapters”, each of which encapsulates a thematic body of knowledge. Their content ranges from proto-science, metaphysics, and cosmogony to the more practical milieus of military strategy, ritual practice, and statecraft. By Huainanzi’s own explicit claim in its postface “Yaolüe” 要略, its cycle of treatises synthesises, subsumes, and renders obsolete all other conceptual projects, past, present, and future, in order to formulate a perfect, complete articulation of the world. The ruler who digests this cosmological schema will master the fundamental workings of the realm and beyond, making Huainanzi the ultimate ruler’s manual. (3) Many scholars have attempted to give full expression to the unitary nature of the cosmology put forth in Huainanzi. Michael Puett argues that it is a “phenomenology” that pushes the notion of “a monistic cosmos” to “the point when absolutely everything is seen as fully and inherently linked – not just seen as undifferentiated, but as even so linked that the very distinction of differentiated and undifferentiated is obliterated.” (“Violent Misreadings: The Hermeneutics of Cosmology in the Huainanzi,” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 72 [2000]: 40.) Benjamin Wallacker states that, in it, “[e]ach unique phenomenon is both part of and equal to the great unity of the cosmos.” (The Huai-nan-tzu, Book Eleven: Behavior, Culture, and the Cosmos [New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1962], 10.) It is my personal interpretation that Huainanzi’s diverse chapters are given to the formulation of a fractal cosmology, thereby achieving within limited text space a schema that is theoretically infinite in scope, application, and inter-connectedness. (4) Four of the most crucial features of Huainanzi’s cosmology are “resonance” (ganying 感應, lit. “affecting and responding”), qi 氣 (vital breath, energy-matter), shen 神 (spirit, the numinous), and dao 道 (the Way). Resonance refers to the ability of separate entities to affect each other remotely, without any apparent transaction of physical force. The cosmic medium through which resonance is carried is qi; all forms, from the mythical to the mundane, are coalescences of qi. More rarefied coalescences of qi are associated with shen, a term that is variously used in reference to specific spirits and gods; to spirits and the supernatural in general; and to “the numinous” as a general, nebulous aspect pervading the world. Dao corresponds to reality at its most rarefied, referring to something like “ultimate reality” or “reality as it really is,” before and beyond the bewildering frenzy of qi coalescences. “Dao” also suggests the force that gives motion and direction to reality, with its frenzy of qi coalescences. (5) Huainanzi’s cosmological model extends to the delimitation of moral and other norms. However, I would argue that these norms must always be understood as artefacts of the text’s overarching cosmological project. In other words, what norms are posited are done so as a reflection of their contextual application within this wider schema and their utility in its articulation, and must not be isolated from this precise context. (6) Huainanzi’s ambitious claim to cosmological comprehensiveness has proved controversial on a number of interconnected fronts. First and foremost, scholars have not always been convinced that there is unity and consistency of thought across the text’s chapters. The present consensus is that the twenty-one chapters build upon one another, establishing the text as a conceptual whole through sequence, at least. The claim that Huainanzi might demonstrate a unity thought has sat uneasily alongside the text’s traditional affiliation of “miscellaneous” or “eclectic” (zajia 雜家), per the ideological categorisation rubric of the Han imperial librarians. This claim is also, in the view of some scholars, implicated in uncertainties regarding the identity/ies and number of the text’s author(s). Some scholars, moreover, have convincingly argued that any reconstruction of Huainanzi’s cosmology ought to be tempered by the wider political contexts of the text’s production, about which much remains tantalisingly uncertain. Contemporary Huainanzi scholarship unfortunately remains in a less advanced state than that of many other equivalent texts, and so many of these concerns are yet to be explored in-depth through the dialogues of multiple studies. (7) Huainanzi had a notable impact on premodern thought in China. Throughout the premodern period, the text impacted proto-scientific thought from the natural philosophy of Wang Chong’s 王充 (27–100) Lunheng 論衡 (Discourses Balanced) to the Song 宋 (960–1279) encyclopaedia Taiping yulan 太平御覽 (Imperial overview of the Taiping period). The text was an important source within religious and philosophical Daoist discourse, with Liu An entering an evolving pantheon of Daoist “immortals” (xian 仙; see Ge Hong’s 葛洪 [283–343] hagiography “Huainan wang” 淮南王 in Shenxian zhuan 神仙傳 [Biographies of Deities and Immortals], Wenyuange siku quanshu 文淵 閣四庫全書 vol. 1059, 253–311 [Taipei: Taiwan shangwu yinshuguan, 1986], 284–5.) However, as far as is known, there is, either during the Han or shortly after, no organised religious group whose form or practices are directly associated with the text or take the text as scripture. Any database questions referring to religious groups should be understood in this context. (8) During the modern period, Huainanzi has remained consistently understudied relative to other early texts. After a series of Japanese critical translations appeared in the 1910s and 1920s, there were no major developments for several decades, until translations and studies of individual chapters began to appear in Western languages from the late 1950s onwards. The first complete critical translation in a Western language was a French edition released in 2003 as part of the Collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

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