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  • Guodian: The Newly Discovered Seeds of Chinese Religious and Political Philosophy
  • Kirill O. Thompson
Guodian: The Newly Discovered Seeds of Chinese Religious and Political Philosophy. By Kenneth W. Holloway. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii + 198. Hardcover $44.00.

These are interesting times for those engaged in the study of early Chinese philosophy. For the last two millennia, nearly all the classics handed down from the Spring and Autumn (422-479 B.C.E.) and Warring States (479-221 B.C.E.) periods had been filtered and processed by first-century B.C.E. Han scholars—who had a mission to codify the [End Page 311] intellectual legacy of the past. To a certain extent, the Han scholars bequeathed a schematic of what in fact had been evolving tableaux vivants of texts and thoughts in those tumultuous earlier periods. But in recent decades a growing number of texts have been excavated from Warring States and early Han tombs1 that antedate the received texts by several decades if not centuries. These texts promise to afford us direct, unfiltered views of the earlier traditions of thought.

These interesting times commenced with the excavation in 1973 of the early Han Mawangdui tomb (sealed in 168 B.C.E.) in Changsha, Hunan. This tomb contained versions of the Laozi, Confucius' Lunyu (Analects), and the Yijing (Book of Changes), which antedate the received editions, as well as several lost Daoist texts. Among the most intriguing texts of the lot was a lost "Confucian" text, the Wuxingpian ("The Five Aspects of Conduct"), with Explanation. This text raised eyebrows because the "Critique of the Twelve Philosophers" chapter of the Xunzi attributes a lost "wuxing" teaching to a second-generation disciple of Confucius, Zisi, and classifies him roughly with Mencius. These interesting times crested with the excavation in 1993 of a Warring States tomb, sealed ca. 330 B.C.E.—that is, after Confucius (ca. 551-479 B.C.E.) and slightly before Mencius (ca. 390-305 B.C.E.)—in Guodian, Hubei. This tomb contained several texts, some that had been lost and some that had been transmitted, which tradition had associated with Zisi (pp. 48-49). Remarkably, the Guodian tomb also contained a copy of the Wuxingpian that was basically the same as the text excavated at Mawangdui. Moreover, it is striking that the Wuxingpian was found presented side-by-side with the Laozi in two tombs that were rather close in time and space.2 Finally, this discovery assured the early provenance of both texts.3

Guodian: The Newly Discovered Seeds of Chinese Religious and Political Philosophy by Kenneth Holloway is the first full-length book in English to take stock of the Wuxingpian as a sort of watershed text in the early formation of Chinese thought. Guodian consists of an incisive introduction and five chapters that characterize, situate, and analyze the text, and then contextualizes it among other texts found in the tomb and considers its probable political and religious functions in society. Finally, the book provides a complete translation of the Guodian Wuxingpian as well as a comprehensive bibliography, copious notes, and an index.

In the "Introduction," Holloway argues that we should view the Wuxingpian strictly on its own terms and eschew assumptions about its supposed meaning in light of the received Confucian canon—for, whatever their merits, Han scholars had manipulated the early Confucian texts and made them somewhat unreliable references for understanding the unadulterated, entombed earlier texts, such as the Wuxingpian.4 In chapter 1, he characterizes the text in light of a putative Guodian religion, which, he surmises, encouraged a harmonious "unification that involves bringing together distinct individuals in society" through "faith" and a practical transition from "individual ethics to a socially conceived system" (p. 8). Chapter 2 situates the Guodian texts as offering a unique presentation of ideas that is more loosely connected to the received Confucian tradition than most scholars have maintained. In chapter 3, the author analyzes salient differences between the terminology, teachings, and purpose of the Wuxingpian and those of the Mencius. He also provides a useful analysis of [End Page 312] the patterns of argument and rhetoric of the Wuxingpian and...