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Xuanxue (Chinese :玄學; Wade–Giles :Hsüan-hsüeh) is a metaphysical post-classical Chinese philosophy from the Six Dynasties (222-589), bringing together Daoist and Confucian beliefs through revision and discussion. The movement found its scriptural support both in Daoist and drastically-reinterpreted Confucian sources. Xuanxue, or "Dark Learning”, came to reign supreme in cultural circles, especially at Jiankang during the period of division. The concept represented the more abstract, unworldly, and idealistic tendency in early medieval Chinese thought. Xuanxue philosophers combined elements of Confucianism and Taoism to reinterpret the Yijing, Daodejing, and Zhuangzi.

Traditional Chinese characters Traditional Chinese characters

Traditional Chinese characters are Chinese characters in any character set that does not contain newly created characters or character substitutions performed after 1946. They are most commonly the characters in the standardized character sets of Taiwan, of Hong Kong and Macau. The modern shapes of traditional Chinese characters first appeared with the emergence of the clerical script during the Han Dynasty, and have been more or less stable since the 5th century.

Wade–Giles, sometimes abbreviated Wade, is a romanization system for Mandarin Chinese. It developed from a system produced by Thomas Wade, during the mid-19th century, and was given completed form with Herbert A. Giles's Chinese–English Dictionary of 1892.

Chinese philosophy philosophy in the Chinese cultural sphere

Chinese philosophy originates in the Spring and Autumn period and Warring States period, during a period known as the "Hundred Schools of Thought", which was characterized by significant intellectual and cultural developments. Although much of Chinese philosophy begins in the Warring States period, elements of Chinese philosophy have existed for several thousand years; some can be found in the Yi Jing, an ancient compendium of divination, which dates back to at least 672 BCE. It was during the Warring States era that what Sima Tan termed the major philosophical schools of China: Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism, arose, along with philosophies that later fell into obscurity, like Agriculturalism, Mohism, Chinese Naturalism, and the Logicians.



Xuanxue arose after the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in early Medieval China. It is mainly represented by a few scholars, namely Wang Bi (226-249), He Yan (d. 249), Xiang Xiu (223?-300), Guo Xiang (d. 312) and Pei Wei (267-300). In general, these scholars sought to reinterpret the social and moral understanding of Confucianism in ways to make it more compatible with Daoist philosophy. [1] Xuanxue philosophers of the Han dynasty were concerned with restoring unity and harmony to the land, not by condemning the teachings of the sages, but by interpreting them in new ways. Xuanxue thinkers thereby developed their theories by reinterpreting the relationship between Daoist and Confucian texts through an appreciation of their common themes. Through this Neo-Daoist movement, The Way of Mysterious Learning (xuanxue) emerged.

Han dynasty 3rd-century BC to 3rd-century AD Chinese dynasty

The Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the Qin dynasty and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms period. Spanning over four centuries, the Han period is considered a golden age in Chinese history. To this day, China's majority ethnic group refers to themselves as the "Han Chinese" and the Chinese script is referred to as "Han characters". It was founded by the rebel leader Liu Bang, known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu of Han, and briefly interrupted by the Xin dynasty of the former regent Wang Mang. This interregnum separates the Han dynasty into two periods: the Western Han or Former Han and the Eastern Han or Later Han (25–220 AD).

Wang Bi (226–249), courtesy name Fusi, was a Chinese neo-Daoist philosopher.

He Yan philosopher

He Yan, courtesy name Pingshu, was an official, scholar and philosopher of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period of China. He was a grandson of He Jin, a general and regent of the Eastern Han dynasty. His father, He Xian, died early, so his mother, Lady Yin, remarried the warlord Cao Cao. He Yan thus grew up as Cao Cao's stepson. He gained a reputation for intelligence and scholarship at an early age, but he was unpopular and criticised for being arrogant and dissolute. He was rejected for government positions by both emperors Cao Pi and Cao Rui, but became a minister during the rule of Cao Shuang. When the Sima family took control of the government in a coup d'état in 249, he was executed along with all the other officials loyal to Cao Shuang.

Two influential Xuanxue scholars were Wang Bi and Guo Xiang, editors and leading commentators on the Daodejing and Zhuangzi , respectively. For instance, the Daodejing exists in two received versions named after the commentaries. While the "Heshang Gong version" explains textual references to Daoist meditation, the "Wang Bi version" does not. Richard Wilhelm said the Wang Bi commentary changed the Daodejing "from a compendiary of magical meditation to a collection of free philosophical aperçus."[2]

Guo Xiang is credited with the first and most important revision of the text known as the Zhuangzi which, along with the Tao Te Ching, forms the textual and philosophical basis of the Taoist school of thought. He was also a scholar of xuanxue. The Guo Xiang redaction of the text revised a fifty-two chapter original by removing material he thought was superstitious and generally not of philosophical interest to his literati sensibilities, resulting in a thirty-three chapter total. He appended a philosophical commentary to the text that became famous, and within four centuries his shorter and snappier expurgated recension became the only one known.

<i>Zhuangzi</i> (book) Daoist book

The Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese text from the late Warring States period (476–221 BC) which contains stories and anecdotes that exemplify the carefree nature of the ideal Daoist sage. Named for its traditional author, "Master Zhuang" (Zhuangzi), the Zhuangzi is—along with the Tao Te Ching—one of the two foundational texts of Taoism, and is generally considered the most important of all Daoist writings.

Richard Wilhelm (sinologist)

Richard Wilhelm was a German sinologist, theologian, and missionary. He lived in China for 25 years, became fluent in spoken and written Chinese, and grew to love and admire the Chinese people. He is best remembered for his translations of philosophical works from Chinese into German that in turn have been translated into other major languages of the world, including English. His translation of the I Ching is still regarded as one of the finest, as is his translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower; both were provided with introductions by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who was a personal friend.

One of the major defining features of Zhengshi Xuanxue is the "Pure Conversation” (清談) gatherings that took place among political and intellectual elites from the 3rd century onward, through which Wei-Jin and Six Dynasties intellectuals questioned tradition and shared their ideas. These sessions were transformed versions of the more politically charged "Pure Criticism” (清議) protests of the later Han, which were, in turn, continuations of political remonstration practices. [2] Much of Xuanxue had become divorced from the realities of life and afforded an escape from it.

During the fifth century CE, xuanxue formed a part of the official curriculum at the Guozijian, together with Rú (Confucian learning), Literature, and History. Although xuanxue does not represent one monolithic school of thought, it does encompass a broad range of philosophical positions.


The Guozijian, sometimes translated as the Imperial College, Imperial Academy, Imperial University, National Academy, or National University, was the national central institution of higher learning in Chinese dynasties after the Sui. It was the highest institution of academic research and learning in China's traditional educational system, with the function of administration of education.

Confucianism Chinese ethical and philosophical system

Confucianism, also known as Ruism, is described as tradition, a philosophy, a religion, a humanistic or rationalistic religion, a way of governing, or simply a way of life. Confucianism developed from what was later called the Hundred Schools of Thought from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who considered himself a recodifier and retransmitter of the theology and values inherited from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. In the Han dynasty, Confucian approaches edged out the "proto-Taoist" Huang–Lao as the official ideology, while the emperors mixed both with the realist techniques of Legalism.

Literature Written work of art

Literature, most generically, is any body of written works. More restrictively, literature refers to writing considered to be an art form or any single writing deemed to have artistic or intellectual value, often due to deploying language in ways that differ from ordinary usage.


The name first compounds xuan (玄) "black, dark; mysterious, profound, abstruse, arcane.” It occurs in the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching ("玄之又玄,众妙之门"). The word xuan literally depicts a shade of deep, dark red. Tao Te Ching speaks of the Dao as xuan, more specifically underpinning the depth, utter impenetrability, and the profound mystery of the Dao.

<i>Tao Te Ching</i> Chinese classic text

The Tao Te Ching, Chinese: 道德经; pinyin: Dao De Jing), also known as Lao Tzu or Laozi, is a Chinese classic text traditionally credited to the 6th-century BC sage Laozi. The text's authorship, date of composition and date of compilation are debated. The oldest excavated portion dates back to the late 4th century BC, but modern scholarship dates other parts of the text as having been written—or at least compiled—later than the earliest portions of the Zhuangzi.

Xue (學) means "study, learn, learning," literally the "learning" or "study" of the "arcane," "mysterious," or "profound."

Therefore, the meaning of xuanxue can be described as "Learning/Investigation of the Mysterious/Profound". Xuan is the noun, meaning "mysterious/profound/darkness", and xue is the action, meaning "to learn/learning".

In Modern Standard Chinese usage, xuanxue can mean "Neo-Daoism", "Buddhism", "Metaphysics", "Spiritualism" or "Mysticism". The New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness by Xiong Shili defines Xuanxue as "dark/obscure/mysterious/profound learning". The concept can be described by such abstractions as "to initiate no action", "emptiness", "one and the many", "root and branches", "having and not having", and the "emotional responses" and "pattern". [3]

In modern Chinese, Xuanxue is also taken to refer to astrology, geomancy and other popular religious arts. Another translation of Xuanxue could be "Learning of the Dark.”


The goal of Xuanxue is to bring to light the nature and function of Dao, which appears dark and impenetrable. It started from the assumption that all temporally and spatially limited phenomena—anything "nameable”; all movement, change, and diversity; in short, all "being”—is produced and sustained by one impersonal principle, which is unlimited, unnameable, unmoving, unchanging, and undiversified. [4] Rather than a school of set doctrines, xuanxue is a broad, dynamic intellectual front. Many xuanxue scholars argued that "words cannot fully express meaning,” as meaning transcends the limiting confines of language. Xuanxue seeks to bring together Confucian and Daoist ideologies with fresh annotation and discourse, working with the classical definitions, doctrines, and rules set by previous philosophers.

The concept of is central to xuanxue. It is translated as "nothing", "nothingness", "non-being", and "negativity". [5] The Dao can literally only be described as nameless and formless, not having any characteristics of things. That the Dao is the "mother of all life” is also central to xuanxue ideology. Because of the Dao being the beginning of all things, while simultaneously being indescribable and non-being, the Dao is said to be "dark” or "mysterious” (xuan).

Xuanxue should not be misinterpreted as interchangeable with the Dao. Rather, xuanxue is the study of the mystery and darkness of the intangible. Dao represents xuan, the darkness that is central to the philosophy. The Dao supplies the subject matter/basis for the "Dark Learning” that underpins the thinkings and teachings of xuanxue.

Misinterpretations of Xuanxue

Xuanxue aims at unlocking the mystery of the Dao, but should not be confused with Neo-Daoism. Xuanxue is nonetheless committed to analytic rigor and clarity in explicating the meaning of Dao, employing a new language of the age. Critics sometimes condemn it as "dark,” because they judge it obfuscating and detrimental to the flourishing of The Way. They would use phrases like "dark words” (xuanyan) or "dark discourse” (xuanlun) in a pejorative sense, indicating that to them Xuanxue was nothing but convoluted empty talk. In these contexts, "xuan” may be translated as "abstruse", "obscure" or words to that effect.

To call xuanxue "Neo-Daoism” misleadingly reinforces suggestions that Wei-Jin thinkers were simply "reinterpreting Confucianism through the lens of Daoism” (Chan 2010: 5). Chan points out that since xuan (玄) is already something "obscure” and "insubstantial” in Chinese, xuanxue can be left "untranslated, though not unexplained” (Chan 2010: 6). Xuanxue is also often classified as "Profound Learning". Although "profound” is more appropriate than "dark", ambiguity is still an issue with this classification.

Xuanxue is not a kind of scholasticism that pitches one school against another. Instead of seeing them as attempting to reconcile Confucianism with Daoism, it may be suggested that they were primarily concerned with the substantive issue of the relationship between mingjiao[ clarification needed ] and ziran.

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Taoism Religious or philosophical tradition of Chinese origin

Taoism, or Daoism, is a philosophical or religious tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao. The Tao is a fundamental idea in most Chinese philosophical schools; in Taoism, however, it denotes the principle that is the source, pattern and substance of everything that exists. Taoism differs from Confucianism by not emphasizing rigid rituals and social order, but is similar in the sense that it is a teaching about the various disciplines for achieving "perfection" by becoming one with the unplanned rhythms of the universe called "the way" or "dao". Taoist ethics vary depending on the particular school, but in general tend to emphasize wu wei, "naturalness", simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures: 慈 "compassion", 儉 "frugality", and 不敢為天下先 "humility".

Neo-Confucianism Chinese philosophy

Neo-Confucianism is a moral, ethical, and metaphysical Chinese philosophy influenced by Confucianism, and originated with Han Yu and Li Ao (772–841) in the Tang Dynasty, and became prominent during the Song and Ming dynasties.

New Confucianism 20th-21st century Confucianist revival movement

New Confucianism is an intellectual movement of Confucianism that began in the early 20th century in Republican China, and further developed in post-Mao era contemporary China. It is deeply influenced by, but not identical with, the neo-Confucianism of the Song and Ming dynasties. It is a neo-conservative movement of various Chinese traditions and has been regarded as containing religious overtones; it advocates for certain Confucianist elements of society – such social, ecological, and political harmony – to be applied in a contemporary context in synthesis with Western philosophies such as rationalism and humanism. Its philosophies have emerged as a focal point of discussion between Confucian scholars in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States.

Wang Yangming Chinese philosopher and general

Wang Shouren, courtesy name Bo'an, was a Chinese idealist Neo-Confucian philosopher, official, educationist, calligraphist and general during the Ming dynasty. After Zhu Xi, he is commonly regarded as the most important Neo-Confucian thinker, with interpretations of Confucianism that denied the rationalist dualism of the orthodox philosophy of Zhu Xi. Wang was known as Yangming Xiansheng and/or Yangming Zi in literary circles: both mean "Master Yangming".

Daozang, meaning "Taoist Canon", consists of around 1,400 texts that were collected c. 400. They were collected by Taoist monks of the period in an attempt to bring together all of the teachings of Taoism, including all the commentaries and expositions of the various masters from the original teachings found in the Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzi. It was split into Three Grottoes, which mirrors the Buddhist Tripitaka division. These three divisions were based on the main focus of Taoism in Southern China during the time it was made, namely; meditation, ritual, and exorcism.

Xiong Shili Chinese philosopher

Xiong Shili was a modern Chinese philosopher whose major work A New Treatise on Vijñaptimātra is a Confucian critique of the Buddhist Vijñapti-mātra "consciousness-only" theory popularized in China by the Tang-dynasty pilgrim Xuanzang.

Mou Zongsan was a Chinese New Confucian philosopher. He was born in Shandong province and graduated from Peking University. In 1949 he moved to Taiwan and later to Hong Kong, and he remained outside of mainland China for the rest of his life. His thought was heavily influenced by Immanuel Kant, whose three Critiques he translated, possibly first, into Chinese, and above all by Tiantai Buddhist philosophy.

The history of Taoism stretches throughout Chinese history. Originating in prehistoric China, it has exerted a powerful influence over Chinese culture throughout the ages. Taoism evolved in response to changing times, with its doctrine and associated practices being revised and refined. The acceptance of Taoism by the ruling class has waxed and waned, alternately enjoying periods of favor and rejection. Most recently, Taoism has emerged from a period of suppression and is undergoing a revival in China.

Han Learning, or the Han school of classical philology, was an intellectual movement that reached its height in the middle of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) in China.

Ziran is a key concept in Daoism that literally means "self so; so of its own; so of itself" and thus "naturally; natural; spontaneously; freely; in the course of events; of course; doubtlessly". This Chinese word is a two-character compound of zi (自) "nose; self; oneself; from; since" and ran (然) "right; correct; so; yes", which is used as a -ran suffix marking adjectives or adverbs. In Chinese culture, the nose is a common metaphor for a person's point of view.

Wonderism is a term coined by French sinologist Terrien de Lacouperie (1845-1894) to differentiate the proto-Daoism of Jixia Academy from the philosophical Daoism of Laozi, although his ideas were received with skepticism at the time of assertion and have since been discredited by modern sinology.

This is a list of articles in Eastern philosophy.

Edo neo-Confucianism philosophy in Edo-period Japan

Edo Neo-Confucianism, known in Japanese as Shushi-Gaku, refers to the schools of Neo-Confucian philosophy that developed in Japan during the Edo period. Neo-Confucianism reached Japan during the Kamakura period. The philosophy can be characterized as humanistic and rationalistic, with the belief that the universe could be understood through human reason, and that it was up to man to create a harmonious relationship between the universe and the individual. The 17th-century Tokugawa shogunate adopted Neo-Confucianism as the principle of controlling people and Confucian philosophy took hold. Neo-Confucians such as Hayashi Razan and Arai Hakuseki were instrumental in the formulation of Japan's dominant early modern political philosophy.

Heshang Gong is the reputed author of one of the earliest commentaries on the Tao Te Ching of Laozi to survive to modern times, which is dated to the latter part of the Han dynasty. He was reputedly a reclusive Chinese hermit from the 1st century CE. Other early commentaries include the Xiang'er written between AD 190 and 220, and one written by the philosopher Wang Bi.

Taoist philosophy

Taoist philosophy also known as Taology refers to the various philosophical currents of Taoism, a tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao. The Tao is a mysterious and deep principle that is the source, pattern and substance of the entire universe.

Cheng Xuanying, courtesy name Zishi (子實), was a Daoist monk known to posterity as the "Master of Doctrines at Xihua Abbey“ (西華法師) and was one of the principal representatives of the "School of Double Mystery" (Chongxuan) during the reigns of the emperors Taizong and Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty. He is mainly known for his commentaries to the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi.

The Chongxuan school was a Daoist philosophical current influenced by Buddhist Madhyamaka thought. It first appeared in the fifth century, and was influential from the eighth to tenth centuries during the Tang dynasty. It was not a structured philosophical school; it was identified and named by the Daodejing commentator Du Guangting . ·. Chongxuan's most important representatives were Cheng Xuanying and Li Rong (李榮), both from the seventh century CE.


  1. Chan, Alan. "Neo-Daoism", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. Bo Mou (27 October 2008). The Routledge History of Chinese Philosophy. Routledge. pp. 303–. ISBN   978-1-134-24938-1.
  3. Shili, Xiong (2015). New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. p. 110.
  4. Zürcher, Erik; Twitchett, Denis C. China - Dong (Eastern) Han, Britannica.com.
  5. JeeLoo Liu; Douglas Berger (13 June 2014). Nothingness in Asian Philosophy. Routledge. pp. 214–. ISBN   978-1-317-68384-1.

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