Wang Bi and Guo Xiang Revive Daoism

Wang Bi and Guo Xiang provided insightful commentaries on the two foundational works of Daoism, the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi. Their works were instrumental in the revival of Daoism in the third century c.e. and charted a new course for the development of Chinese philosophy.

Summary of Event

The third century c.e. in Chinese history was a period of great political uncertainty and military strife, characterized with rebellion, usurpation, civil war, invasion, and desperate economic conditions. However, it was also an era of great intellectual vitality and achievement, which was particularly marked by the revival of Daoist thought. Wang Bi
Guo Xiang

This revival of Daoism was a reaction to the scholastic tendencies of Confucian learning in the earlier period, the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), and to the decline of the credibility of Confucianism in the late Han and the immediate post-Han period. Confucianism was adopted by the Han rulers as an official ideology, and the study of Confucian classics constituted the primary academic endeavor during the Han. Han Confucian learning emphasized the correspondence between the human and the heavenly realms, which tended to render Confucianism superstitious and mystical. It attached more importance to grammatical or lexical explanations than to the meaning of a text as a whole—this often led to inordinately long and cumbersome discussions on the multiple meanings of a particular word or phrase. This kind of Confucian learning proved unable to provide a moral basis for human conduct. It only served to stifle intellectual creativeness and was used by unscrupulous politicians and partisans to justify their various “unethical” activities. To the young generation of scholars in the post-Han era, the Han-style Confucianism seemed both superficial and hypocritical. Seeking an ideological or philosophical alternative, these scholars turned to Daoism and put new insight into it. The result was the revival and development of Daoist philosophy.

The Daoist revival was led and represented especially by Wang Bi and Guo Xiang, commentators on the two earliest Daoist classics, 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) and the Zhuangzi (traditionally c. 300 b.c.e., probably compiled c. 285-160 b.c.e.; The Divine Classic of Nan-hua, 1881; also known as The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 1968; commonly known as Zhuangzi, 1991), respectively. In their commentaries on the two classics, Wang and Guo expressed their own ideas about Daoism. Their discourse on Daoism has been more commonly known as “profound learning” (xuanxue, also translated as “mysterious learning” or “the learning of dark)—profound” because the discourse addressed fundamental concepts and meanings not easily intelligible to the common people.

Wang Bi’s Daoist discourse focused on the concept of nonbeing or nothingness (wu). Wang took this concept from Laozi, but gave it a different understanding. In Wang’s commentary on the Dao De Jing, “nonbeing” was used to describe the nature of Dao. Without physical form or image, nonbeing constitutes the “ultimate source” or “fundamental substance” (ben) of the myriad things (wanwu) in the universe. All things or beings (you) with names and forms are only “branch tips” (mo) and originate from nonbeing and depend on it for their utility. Instead of being independent of the myriad things, nonbeing covers and permeates them and actually exists in them; it can only be understood through these things. Because nonbeing is so important, it should be venerated or enhanced (chong).

Some scholars identify Wang Bi’s “nonbeing” with the concept of “abstract,” as opposed to “concrete”; and thus they believe that Wang’s “nonbeing” does not mean nothingness (or emptiness) in the real sense of that word but actually means something, something that is abstract (for example, principle) as the opposite of what is concrete (the myriad things). They also insist that Wang Bi’s understanding of nonbeing is ontological, for it is concerned with the question of being, its nature and source. It thus differs from previous philosophical analyses including Laozi’s, which are cosmological, for they concentrate on the question of how the universe comes into being and of its makeup.

Although viewing nonbeing as the source of all things, Wang did not identify it with a god or a divine creator. Nonbeing does not produce these things nor does it interfere with them. Instead of being designed or created artificially, the myriad things came into existence (from nonbeing) naturally and spontaneously; and they function by following the course of nature. This is what Wang meant by the terms “naturalness” (ziran) and “nonaction” or “nonassertive or deliberate action” (wu wei). These terms are identical in meaning and were all used by Wang to reveal the attribute of dao. For all things in the universe including humans, to act naturally (or by way of nonaction) results in success, safety, contentment, and happiness, while to act with design and effort leads to failure, danger, dissatisfaction, and misery.

Applying his ideas about nonbeing to politics, Wang Bi advocated governing by means of nonaction. According to him, an ideal ruler remains tranquil and refrains from actively making plans; he gains without seeking and achieves without action; he repudiates intelligence by displaying pristine simplicity and gets rid of cleverness and craft by minimizing his own personal desires. Such a ruler can be regarded as possessing the highest virtue. Following his model, people also will be simple and without excessive desires and therefore will not commit any treacherous activities. The result will be the achievement of order and peace.

Wang opposed the use of Legalist ruling techniques such as laws and systems and rewards and punishments as artificial and intrusive. He also rejected Confucian “benevolence and righteousness” and “rituals” (or propriety) as hypocritical and causes of disorder. For this reason, Wang was accused by one of his contemporaries of abandoning the way of Confucius. According to other scholars, however, Wang only attempted to reconcile Confucianism and Daoism and reinterpret Confucianism in a Daoist manner: Confucian ethics or morals should be treated as “branch tips” and be based on its “root” or source, namely, the Daoist nonbeing.

Another leading figure of the revival of Daoism was Guo Xiang, whose major intellectual effort was compiling and commentating on the Zhuangzi. Through his interpretation of this classic, Guo put forward his own philosophical ideas, which are essentially Daoist.

The core of Guo Xiang’s philosophy was the stress on “self-production” and “self-satisfaction” of the myriad things (beings). Guo insisted that everything in the universe spontaneously produces itself and is by no means produced by others. In other words, the source or root of everything lies in the thing itself, and there is no external reason for its existence. Guo denied the existence of any divine creator and even did not accept that things were produced by dao. He also rejected Wang Bi’s nonbeing as the source of all things. According to him, dao and nonbeing all represent nothingness or emptiness, and nothingness cannot exist before something is created and cannot produce things. Guo Xiang further argued that everything is spontaneously what it is and has its own nature and capacity. Following its own nature and allowing full play to its natural capacity, everything enjoys satisfaction and happiness in its own way. All things can be equally happy if they are allowed to act in accordance with their own natural capability. On the other hand, troubles will ensue if they act beyond their natural ability.

Guo Xiang’s concern with individual and concrete things (beings), their nature and happiness, resonates with the individualistic spirit expressed by Zhuangzi. However, there are some differences between Guo Xiang and Zhuangzi in their understanding of what is natural. For instance, Zhuangzi held that a horse’s nature is to gallop and graze at ease on its own, and it is against the horse’s nature for human beings to harness and ride it. However, to Guo Xiang, being harnessed and ridden by human beings is utterly in accordance with the horse’s nature, for the horse by nature exists for people to ride. Thus Guo Xiang’s “nature” actually contains something artificial. Zhuangzi regarded the pursuit of external things (for example, wealth and fame) as unnatural and an obstacle to achieving personal happiness, whereas Guo Xiang saw no contradiction between the two—external things and personal happiness. He believed that a person can be an accomplished ruler and a Daoist sage simultaneously.

Guo Xiang embraced the concept of nonaction as a major governing principle. By nonaction, Guo meant that the ruler should act or govern according to his natural ability. If he is endowed with great ability, he should do more; if not, then he should do less. Refraining from using his natural ability is unnatural. This perception of nonaction allows room for rulers’ initiatives and thus departs from Zhuangzi’s view, which discourages rulers from taking any initiatives.

Guo Xiang did not oppose institutions (government, laws, and morals). He believed that institutions are, like all other things, part of natural existence and that they spontaneously produce themselves. He also insisted that institutions are not immutable but transform with the passage of time and the change of social circumstances. New times require new institutions, and it is inappropriate to turn to ancient times for models of governing. In all these respects, Guo’s views differ from those of Zhuangzi and seem more realistic Daoist theories.


More speculative and metaphysical than all previous philosophical discussions, the Daoist thought elaborated by Wang Bi and Guo Xiang represented a new stage in the development of Daoist philosophy and influenced not only Daoist thinking but also Confucian learning in later generations. It particularly contributed to the rise of the New-Confucianism.

Wang and Guo demonstrated a tendency to reconcile different alternatives: Daoism and Confucianism, being a sage and being a king, and political career and quiet personal life. This orientation had significant impact on Chinese scholars, scholar-officials in particular and on Chinese culture in general in that one major feature of Chinese culture is the emphasis on harmony.

Further Reading

  • Chan, Alan K. L. Two Visions of the Way. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. Contains chapters about Wang Bi’s commentary on the Dao De Jing.
  • Fung, Yu-lan. Chuang-Tzu: A New Selected Translation with an Exposition of the Philosophy of Kuo Hsiang. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989. An English translation of the first seven chapters of the Zhuangzi with commentaries by Fung Yu-lan and Guo Xiang.
  • Guo Xiang. Nanhuo zhenjing zhu. Reprint. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1987. Chinese version of the Zhuangzi with commentaries by Guo Xiang.
  • Lin, Paul J. A Translation of LaoTzu’s “Tao Te Ching” and Wang Pi’s Commentary. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1977. An English version of the Dao De Jing and Wang Bi’s commentary.
  • Lynn, Richard John. A New Translation of the “Tao-te ching” of Laozi as Interpreted by Wang Bi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Contains Wang Bi’s essay, Laozi zhilue (outline introduction to the Dao De Jing), which highlights the main theme of the Dao De Jing.
  • Wagner, Rudolf G. Language, Ontology, and Political Philosophy in China: Wang Bi’s Scholarly Exploration of the Dark (xuanxue). Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Focuses on Wang Bi’s views on nonbeing and government.

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