We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Craft of a Chinese Commentator, The

Wang Bi on the Laozi

Rudolf G. Wagner

Publication Year: 2000

A systematic study of Wang Bi's (226-249) commentary on the Laozi, this book provides the first systematic study of a Chinese commentator's scholarly craft and introduces a highly sophisticated Chinese way of reading the Taoist classic, one that differs greatly from Western interpretations. The Laozi has been translated into Western languages hundreds of times over the past two hundred years. It has become the book of Chinese philosophy most widely appreciated for its philosophical depth and lyrical form. Nevertheless, very little attention has been paid to the way in which this book was read in China. This book introduces the reader to a highly sophisticated Chinese way of reading this Taoist classic, a way that differs greatly from the many translations of the Laozi available in the West. The most famous among the Chinese commentators on the Laozi—a man appreciated even by his opponents for the sheer brilliance of his analysis—is Wang Bi (226–249). Born into a short period of intellectual ferment and freedom after the collapse of the Han dynasty, this self-assured genius, in the short twenty-three years of his life, dashed off two of the most enduring works of Chinese philosophy, a commentary on the Laozi and another on the Book of Changes. By carefully reconstructing Wang Bi’s Laozi text as well as his commentary, this book explores Wang Bi’s craft as a scholarly commentator who is also a philosopher in his own right. By situating his work within the context of other competing commentaries and extracting their way of reading the Laozi, this book shows how the Laozi has been approached in many different ways, ranging from a philosophical underpinning for a particular theory of political rule to a guide to techniques of life-prolongation. Amidst his competitors, however, Wang Bi stands out through a literary and philosophical analysis of the Laozi that manages to “use the Laozi to explain the Laozi,” rather than imposing an agenda on the text. Through a critical adaptation of several hundred years of commentaries on the classics, Wang Bi reaches a scholarly level in the art of understanding that is unmatched anywhere else in the world.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title Page, Copyright

pdf iconDownload PDF (78.8 KB)
pp. iii-iv


pdf iconDownload PDF (47.3 KB)
pp. v-vi

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (61.9 KB)
pp. vii-ix

It has taken many years, and several other books, to finish this study of which the present book is the first of three volumes. In fact, the writing of this study took as many years as Wang Bi, its subject, lived, namely twenty-three. Debts of gratitude for spiritual and...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (95.2 KB)
pp. 1-8

During my dissertation work on early Chinese Buddhist thinkers, especially Shi Daoan (312-385) and Shi Huiyuan (334-416), I found Buddhist arguments were often understood and expressed in a language originating in...

read more

Chapter One: Wang Bi: A Biographical Sketch

pdf iconDownload PDF (212.2 KB)
pp. 9-26

Martin Heidegger is said to have reacted to a request by students to provide some introduction to Aristotle's life by starting his next lecture with the words: "Aristotle was born, worked, and died." He then continued to hold forth on the philosopher's philosophy....

read more

Chapter Two: The System of the Classics

pdf iconDownload PDF (479.3 KB)
pp. 27-51

Wang Bi's biographers, as well as his opponents, have described him as a philosopher bent on establishing a coherent and systematic argument through his commentaries and treatises. In his "Biography of Wang Bi," He Shao writes...

read more

Chapter Three:Technique and the Philosophy of Structure: Interlocking Parallel Style in Laozi and Wang Bi

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.4 MB)
pp. 53-113

Wang Bi's (226-49) commentary to the Laozi is not the first of its kind. By his time, the market was flooded with other commentaries, and Wang Bi's readers were most likely to have first read the Laozi through one or the other of these earlier commentaries...

read more

Chapter Four: Deconstructing and Constructing Meaning

pdf iconDownload PDF (2.9 MB)
pp. 115-255

Wang Bi not only wrote commentaries on the Laozi and the Zhouyi, which have had a formative influence on the reading of these texts in later centuries down to the present; he is also the first commentator from whom texts are transmitted that outline the philosophic...

read more

Chapter Five: The Craft of Wang Bi's Commentary

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.0 MB)
pp. 257-300

The general strategy of Wang Bi's commenting is to reduce to a minimum the ambivalence of the individual passages and terms of the text. This ambivalence was in practical fact evident in the coexistence of wildly varying readings of the very same words by...


pdf iconDownload PDF (898.2 KB)
pp. 301-336


pdf iconDownload PDF (1.7 MB)
pp. 337-350


pdf iconDownload PDF (162.9 KB)
pp. 351-361

E-ISBN-13: 9780791493380
E-ISBN-10: 0791493385
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791443958
Print-ISBN-10: 0791443957

Page Count: 372
Publication Year: 2000