Wang Bi Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chinese philosopher{$I[g]China;Wang Bi} Wang Bi was a major creative force behind the most important philosophical school of his day, and his commentaries on some of the most revered Chinese classics still help shape their interpretation.

Early Life

Wang Bi (wahng bee) died at the age of twenty-three. It is therefore difficult to separate the story of his early life from that of his mature period of productivity. A further handicap to the student of Wang Bi is the fact that very little is actually known about the details of his life. In an uncharacteristic omission, the Chinese dynastic histories do not even contain a biography for him.

Most of what is known about Wang Bi comes from a few short paragraphs appended as footnotes to the biography of another man and incorporated into a history called the San guo zhi (third century; San Kuo: Or, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1925). Wang Bi’s thought, however, survives in the commentaries he wrote to three Chinese classics: the Yijing (eighth to third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1876; also known as Book of Changes, 1986), 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 Confucius’s Lunyu (late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e.; The Analects, 1861).

Wang Bi was a precocious child, and he soon proved himself remarkably adept at conversation—a skill that was much in vogue among the elite of third century China and that accounts for much of his contemporary reputation. He was a thorough master of the polite arts of the day, but, in keeping with his image as enfant terrible, he also was not quite sensitive enough to others’ feelings and offended many of his acquaintances with his overly clever manner. He served in the relatively minor post of departmental secretary, which had also been his father’s job, but failed to reach higher office because his patron, Ho Yen (He Yan; 190-249 c.e.), was outmaneuvered at court in his efforts to have Wang appointed. However, Wang was not really interested in administration anyway and preferred to devote his time and energy to philosophical speculation.

Wang flourished in the era of the Zhengshi reign (Cheng-shih; 240-249 c.e.), which is often cited as the high point of the so-called Neo-Daoist movement in China. This period came to an abrupt end in 249 c.e., when a coup d’état stripped real power away from the ruling family of the Wei state in northern China, where Wang lived, and placed it in the hands of a military dictator. Ho Yen perished in the wake of this coup, and Wang himself was dismissed from office; he died later that same year of unknown natural causes.

Life’s Work

Wang Bi and his patron, Ho Yen, are traditionally credited with founding the movement known in the West as Neo-Daoism. This name is misleading, however, since the movement really grew as much out of Confucianism as it did out of Daoism. It began with studies of the Confucian classic the Book of Changes, was enthusiastically discussed with reference to the Daoist Dao De Jing and 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) in the later third century, and in the fourth century finally merged into a newly triumphant Mahāyāna Buddhism. The movement is probably most accurately known by its Chinese name: xuanxue (mysterious learning).

Wang himself stands accused of trying to interpret a Confucian classic, the Book of Changes, in Daoist terms, and, in the single most famous episode in Wang’s life, of praising Confucius as the supreme Daoist because he knew better than to try and say anything about the ineffable Dao. The truth is that Wang was not much concerned with—indeed, he completely rejected—labels such as “Confucian” and “Daoist” and instead strove to unearth the ultimate truths concealed in each.

During the waning years of the Han Dynasty (206-220 c.e.), various thinkers, notably the great Wang Chong (Wang Ch’ung, 27-c. 100 c.e.), had become increasingly disillusioned with standard Confucian metaphysics, which in the mid-Han era had emphasized elaborate systems of correspondences between Heaven, Earth, and Man, cycles of the so-called Five Elements, and attempts to predict the future based on these. The desire to understand the basic principles of the universe was not lost, nor were the basic ideas entirely rejected, but the simplistic excesses—the teleology and the easy belief that Heaven was regular, purposeful, and concerned with humankind—were shaved away. At the same time, the so-called New Text versions of the Confucian classics that had supported the elaborate Han cosmological systems lost their standing and gradually were replaced by versions of the texts purporting to be older. These “Old Texts” did not fit neatly into vast cosmological systems and left a cosmological void in...

(The entire section is 2176 words.)