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  • The Penumbra Unbound: The Neo-Taoist Philosophy of Guo Xiang
  • Haiming Wen (bio)
Brook Ziporyn. The Penumbra Unbound: The Neo-Taoist Philosophy of Guo Xiang. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003. ix, 186 pp. Paperback $22.95, ISBN 0–7914–5662–5.

The Penumbra Unbound is the first English work devoted to Guo Xiang (ca. 252–312), a philosopher in the Wei-Jin period (third through fifth centuries c.e.). In this book, Brook Ziporyn discusses Guo Xiang’s philosophy in detail, especially his theory of the image of traces; the dangers of traces; his idea of “vanishing (into) things, i.e., interactivity without traces”; the unification of independence and interdependence; lone-transformation; and the unity of activity and nonactivity. Ziporyn provides a thorough overview of Guo’s philosophy and its relation to classical Chinese philosophy. Particularly, he describes how Guo’s philosophy emerged out of his understanding of the contemporary problems of spontaneity and morality in the Wei-Jin period Xuanxue . In doing so, Ziporyn shows great understanding of the historical background of Chinese thought. His comparison of different philosophies reveals that he has a great sensibility toward Chinese philosophy, especially when he deals with how Guo developed his ideas out of a preexisting, inherited cultural and philosophical context.

Guo sets up his philosophy through his commentaries on Zhuangzi, one of the two Daoist canons of the pre-Qin era. Through his commentaries, Guo establishes a unique philosophical system that combines seemingly contradictory propositions, which have made great philosophical claims on behalf of indigenous (pre-Buddhist) ancient Chinese philosophy. Insofar as Buddhism borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Daoist texts when it entered China during the Han dynasty, Guo’s philosophy influenced later Buddhism tremendously. Guo’s typical philosophical vocabulary was incorporated into Buddhist translations during the Tang dynasty. Guo’s view that everything both is self-soing and does not stay in any particular moment resonated with the idea of interdependent arising in the Buddhist worldview.

According to Ziporyn, Guo interprets philosophical vocabulary starting with the pre-Qin era. Though Guo offers a theory of “nothingness,” he does not mean that nothingness is totally void, since he typically claims that everything comes from that “nothingness.” He calls the creativity of this nothingness “that which makes each thing what it is” (suoyiran ), based on their own “self-determinacy” (zixing pp. 48–49). This self-determinacy is ultimately dependent on the ability to act spontaneously.

It is in this sense that Guo claims that everything is self-soing (ziran , self-so” as Ziporyn translates). In other words, everything is self-creating or spontaneously becoming, so there is no need to depend on anything outside itself. In this same vein, moreover, there is no need to reference any teleological [End Page 322] motivation or intention. Guo’s simultaneity of conditionality and unconditionality means that things are “unconditioned in the sense that they have no final cause, no conscious goal, but are conditioned in that they are” (p. 91). The dependence of things is simply spontaneously so (p. 92). In Guo’s notion of self-so, conditionality and unconditionality, dependence and independence, as well as constancy and change are continuous (p. 95).

The author examines Guo’s theory on freedom and spontaneity. For Guo, all things feel comfortable (shi ) in a remote “dark joining” (ming ); in this way, everything is “transformation in solitude” (duhua ). This is a special sense of causality that can be found in Buddhist interdependent arising (yuansheng ). The things that interact with their environment are mystically harmonious (minghe , see p. 66), and in this way things and events are continuous with their world through obliteratingly becoming (mingran , p. 67). In Guo’s words, this is to vanish into a oneness by way of creative transforming (zaohua , p. 69).

The coherence between things and their context is explained with the image of traces, an idea that Guo develops from his reading of the fourteenth chapter of the Zhuangzi. In Guo’s perspective, things leave traces when they travel in the world. However, the notion of the trace derives from the imagery of footprints, which mirror the feet, but, as Guo argues, the traces and the...


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