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Heng xian 恆先 Puglia, Francesca


The Heng Xian 恆先 (Before Constancy) is a looted bamboo manuscript acquired by the Shanghai Museum from the Hong Kong Antiquites Market in 1994. The manuscript has been dated by archaeologists around the 300 BCE and it is deemed as an original Chu 楚 state text. The text, consisting of 13 bamboo slips, has been reconstructed by scholars from a total of around 1200 bamboo slips acquired from the same market. The first edition of the text has been published in 2003 by the paleographer Li Ling 李零. Since then, the manuscript has been analyzed by many scholars, yet there is still no consensus among them regarding the arrangement of the slips. It is even possible that part of the original text is missing: in fact, some passages that are linguistically unusual or odd in content might be the result of an erroneous assembling of the slips. Most of the thirteen bamboo slips in the Shanghai Museum's possession are intact, yet some characters are corrupted and hardly legible, while some others can be possibly read in more than one way, posing further difficulties for the understanding of the text. The title “Heng Xian” appears on the back of the third slip with the writing 㔰, the ancient form for 恆. The character heng 恆, as defined in the Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字, means “constancy” (恆,常也), originally related to the constancy of lunar phases (Shuowen Jiezi on 㔰: 古文恆, 从月). The phrasing Heng xian 恆先, as it emerges from the text, appears to indicate a state of emptiness and stillness preceding the constancy that characterizes the workings of nature. Along the lines of this understanding of the manuscript, Sixin Ding equates the concept of Heng with the tiandao 天道 (Way of Heaven). The text can be summarily divided into two halves, with significant variations in content: the first half is a cosmogonic account in which material reality comes into being starting from a state of absence of being; the second half is concerned with human affairs that should always be conducted in accord with the tiandao. The cosmogony presented in the first half of the Heng Xian recalls Daoist cosmological thinking, since it describes the arising of reality from an original state of wuyou 無有 (non-being). This primordial state is defined as pu 樸 (simple), jing 靜 (quiet), and xu 虛 (empty). The cosmogonic process is initially set in motion by the arising of yu 域 (space, boundary), originally written on bamboo as huo 或, followed by qi 氣, defined in the text as self-generating (zi sheng 自生) and self-arising (zi zuo 自作), you 有 (being), shi 始 (beginning), and wang 往 (direction). The text proceeds with the description of the coming into being of the sky and the earth: turbid qi (濁氣) forms the earth, while clear qi (清氣) forms the sky, thereby setting up the space for the various things to reproduce. In the second half of the manuscript, the topic changes considerably. From strictly cosmogonic matters, the text moves to human and linguistic matters. First, humans are identified as the cause of the disorder on earth. The text reads: 先者有善, 有治無亂。有人 焉有不善, 亂出於人, “formerly there was good, order, and no chaos. Once there were humans, there was non-good, chaos comes from humans.” Subsequently, the manuscript focuses on the mechanisms of reproduction (fu 復) of things and on the origins of names (ming 名). Fu 復 is most commonly intended in the meaning of “returning”, as for example it its occurrences in the Daodejing 道德經. Yet, in this context, the idea of “repetition” implied by the verb fu seems to be more properly connected to the reproduction of things within the cosmogonic process. In fact, the manuscript does not only give a definition of fu as the process of generation of life (復, 生之生行), it also states that only fu is the means to avoid dying out (唯復以不廢). With regard to the names, they are said to be established emptily (xu shu 虛樹) to become unchanging (bu ke gai 不可改) only via usual practice (xi 習). Names in the text also appear to be subject to a cosmogonic process: they are said to come from speech, while services in turn come from names (名出於言, 事出於名). The discourse on names, and especially their relationship with the objects to which they refer, was particularly lively during the Warring States (475-221 BCE), especially among the thinkers of the Ming jia 名家 (School of Names) and later Mohists. Slip 13 directly involves the enlightened ruling elite (ming wang 明王, ming jun 明君, ming shi 明士) that should be knowledgeable of the cosmology described in the manuscript and, consequently, manage human affairs so to conform them to the “constancy” of the natural proceedings. The manuscript represents one of the earliest testimony on cosmogonic origins from Warring States China. With its detailed account on the transition from an undifferentiated primeval state to the multifaceted reality of the variety of things (cai wu 彩物) through a process of self-generation and self-arising, it provides a crucial insight for the understanding of the cosmogonic thought of ancient China. In particular, the Heng Xian does not only refer to terms prevalent in the cosmogonic debate of the time (such as qi 氣, you/wuyou 有/無有, etc.), but it also incorporates less common categories (such as yu 域 and wang 往) that contribute to making this manuscript distinctive.

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