Composition of the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Huainanzi, a Chinese philosophical treatise, was compiled by a group of scholars at the court of Liu An, king of Huainan, in the second century b.c.e.

Summary of Event

Liu An, a king of Huainan (Huai-nan; present-day Anhui), assembled at his court a group of scholars to hold discussions on matters of philosophy and science. Their deliberations resulted in numerous treatises, which were compiled into the Huainanzi (Huai-nan Tzu or Huai-nan-tzu; The Tao of Politics: Lessons of the Masters of Huainan, 1990, commonly known as Huainanzi). Because Liu An was a poet and man of literary abilities himself, he may have played a role in its composition. His role was similar to that of a modern-day general editor. At this time, being seen as the author of a treatise gave one political power and authority; and by virtue of the treatise, Liu An hoped to be seen as commanding all the knowledge needed for a sage ruler and, hence, fit to rule or advise the emperor. Liu An Wudi

At the time the Huainanzi was being written, the early Han emperors were becoming more autocratic. They were attempting to restrict the power of the kings by shrinking their authority, territories, and armies and concentrating power, including intellectual opinion and moral values, in the central court. The kingdom of Huainan was especially threatened by this centralization. Just as the Han emperors were trying to unite regions that had their own political and cultural traditions, the Huainanzi examines many pre-Han philosophic traditions (Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism) and melds them into a grand synthesis of the main currents of early Han philosophy.

During a visit to court in 139 b.c.e., Liu An offered the treatise to his nephew, Wudi. Presenting the treatise was probably an attempt to gain favor with the emperor. Confucianism prevailed at the imperial court, and the treatise can also be seen as an attempt to convince the court of the merit of a Daoist-inspired government. The treatise was placed in the royal library. However, because the Han emperor was beginning a campaign to centralize power, he was no longer open to including earlier pre-Han traditions, and the Huainanzi remained forgotten in the archive.

In 124 b.c.e., Liu An was charged with disloyalty to the emperor, and the following year, he was accused by the emperor’s officials of plotting a revolt and convicted at a trial. To avoid the humiliation of punishment, he committed suicide in 122, and his kingdom was dismantled. There is dispute whether Liu An was actually plotting a revolt or was framed by the emperor’s officials. One scholar, Griet Vankeerberghen, argues that it was Liu An’s claims to have the moral knowledge necessary for a sage ruler (and suggesting that those who ignored him or disagreed with his book did not) that were interpreted as signs of disloyalty or rebelliousness.

The exact date of the Huainanzi in its present form cannot be known for certain. It is probable that the original treatise of 139 b.c.e. continued to be revised during Liu An’s lifetime, and after his death, it was probably subject to editing and revision by later scholars and commentators.

Its effort to present a synthesis of pre-Han traditions gives the Huainanzi two features: It covers an unusually wide range of topics, and it borrows heavily from earlier treatises. The Huainanzi originally contained twenty-one inner chapters (or treatises) and thirty-three outer chapters devoted to the philosophy of other schools (these are now lost). The first eight chapters deal with Daoist and yin-yang principles and the cosmos: (1) the nature of the dao (tao; the Way or Path); (2) cosmogony; (3) astronomy and astrology; (4) topography; (5) ritual or astrological calendars; (6) resonances (or correspondences) between things of the same kind; (7) physiology and psychology; and (8) history.

The central chapters apply these principles to social and political life from the point of view of the sage ruler: (9) rulership; (10) art of communication; (11) ritual systems, both Chinese and non-Chinese; (12) exegesis of passages from the Dao De Jing (possibly sixth century b.c.e., probably compiled late third century b.c.e.; The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of “the Old Philosopher, Lau-Tsze,” 1868; better known as the Dao De Jing); (13-14) guidelines for the behavior of the sage ruler; (15) the military; (16-17) lists of topics useful in persuasion; (18) the causes of success and failure; (19) the importance of human effort; and (20) interactions between the cosmic and human worlds. Chapter 21 is a conclusion that spells out the book’s purpose and presents the Huainanzi as a treatise that could be put to practical use.

Special emphasis in the Huainanzi is given to central doctrines of Daoism, and the work quotes extensively from many earlier Daoist texts. For these reasons, the Huainanzi has often been considered a Daoist treatise. However, it should not be classified solely as one because it also includes ideas from the Confucian and Legalistic traditions. Hence, recent scholars are stressing that it should be seen and studied as a creative adaptation with its own originality.

Daoist concepts of qi (vapor or breath), the dao (tao, or the Way or Path), yin-yang (dark and light, rest and activity, cold and heat), and the doctrine of five phases (or elements) are used to explain the universe and classify Earth’s living creatures. The Huainanzi sees the natural world as a single, seamless unit of which human beings must realize they are but a part. Everything is made of qi; nature works in alternating balances or interactions of the complementary dual forces of yin and yang; and natural processes of creation pass through major cycles of five phases (wuxing; wu hsing) of birth, decay, and rebirth. Hence, there is a tendency in Chinese thought to form categories and correspondences (ganying) of things in fives (planets, gods, colors, elements, and so on). The dao is the order of nature in which all those rhythms and processes operate; all human effort must conform to, harmonize with, and not contradict the dao.

What ties the Huainanzi together is its focus on defining a perfect social and political order and particularly its function as a political handbook for the ruler in governing according to the same patterns that govern the natural world. A sage ruler becomes a bridge between heaven and earth; hence, political and social order derive from a sage ruler. Because the ruler is the guardian of a cosmological balance, he must know how to perfect himself; he must understand the operation of nature not for its own sake but in order to govern. The ruler must align his actions with those of the universe and rule in accord with its natural rhythms and harmonies. He must know about the calendar, for example, because he must engage in the proper rituals according to the astronomical, meteorological, and religious characteristic of each month or else the balance of the cosmos would be upset.

The sage ruler must also practice self-cultivation. This means abandoning selfish desires or excessive attachment to material things and connecting with something higher and larger than the self, such as following the Way (the dao), what is right (yi), what is good (shan), and human nature (xing). A ruler who understands the intricate relationship between all things in the world should be able to achieve success and avoid failure. In some passages of the Huainanzi, though, certain actions are due to fate (ming). Thus, self-cultivation will produce inner contentment, and following the Way will make the sage ruler indifferent to failure.

Cultivated people or sages have within themselves guidance for their actions and standards of right and wrong. Laws, rituals, and virtues should be followed not blindly but to the extent they agree with what each person or sage finds within himself. The sage ruler must not practice only one virtue but, for example, must be kind, respectful, or courageous, depending on the circumstance. Likewise, the sage must know when rules should be bent.


The Huainanzi is the most comprehensive philosophic and scientific work of the Han period. By offering it to Wudi, the king Liu An was both making a gesture of loyalty and demonstrating that he possessed all the knowledge needed for a sage ruler.

The treatise is a compendium of earlier pre-Han thought, drawing on Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism, and is one of the primary sources of information about early Han Daoism. Its chapters contain a systematic explanation of the universe and its mode of operation, and show how all elements fit into the cosmic system.

The Huainanzi is best seen as an eclectic text that does have its own unity of thought and purpose. Its overriding purpose is to synthesize all the knowledge that is necessary for a sage ruler. It teaches rulers that to govern successfully, they must understand nature and keep themselves and their kingdoms aligned with nature and the dao.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ames, Roger T. The Art of Rulership: A Study of Ancient Chinese Political Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Study of the Huainanzi and the political philosophy of China and translation of book 9.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Le Blanc, Charles. “Huai-nan Tzu”: Philosophical Synthesis in Early Han Thought: The Idea of Resonance (“Kan-Ying”) with a Translation and Analysis of Chapter Six. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1985. Discussion of the treatise’s philosophical system and translation of chapter 6.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loewe, Michael. Chinese Ideas of Life and Death: Faith, Myth, and Reason in the Han Period (202 b.c.-a.d. 220). London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982. Survey of Chinese cosmological and mystical ideas, with reference to the Huainanzi.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Major, John S. Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the “Huainanzi.” Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. Detailed discussion of early Han cosmology and translation of chapters 3, 4, and 5.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vankeerberghen, Griet. The “Huainanzi” and Liu An’s Claim to Moral Authority. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Thorough coverage of the political climate surrounding the Huainanzi and Liu An’s rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vankeerberghen, Griet. “The Huainanzi (Huai-nan Tzu) Text.” In Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy, edited by Antonio S. Cua. New York: Routledge, 2003. Good overall summary of the text and the reason for its composition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallacker, Benjamin E. The Huai-nan-Tzu, Book Eleven: Behavior, Culture, and the Cosmos. New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1962. Brief introduction and translation of chapter 11.
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