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  • A New View of the Huainanzi
  • Nathan Sivin (bio)
John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen, Andrew S. Meyer, and Harold D. Roth, translators. The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. xi, 988 pp. Hardcover $75.00. isbn 978-0-231-14204-5.

In 139 b.c.e., Liu An 劉安, king of Huainan, presented The Book of the Master of Huainan to his nephew, who had recently become the Martial Emperor (Wudi 武帝). Until recently, few historians of philosophy found his writings worth thinking about. Fung Yu-lan’s massive survey gives the book a mere five pages; it was “a miscellaneous compilation of all schools of thought, and lacks unity.” Wing-tsit Chan’s sourcebook accords only three pages to brief extracts from four chapters, because Liu An’s “ideas are no more than reiteration and elaboration of Laozi and Zhuangzi.” Benjamin Schwartz’s The World of Thought in Ancient China cites the Huainanzi a couple of times but does not give it so much as a paragraph of discussion. A. C. Graham dispenses with the whole period by declaring that rationality “develops with the controversies of the schools, and dwindles as they fade after 200 b.c.1

Scholars now approach the thought of the early Han period more open-mindedly. The book’s main progenitor, The Springs and Autumns of Master Lü (Lü shi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋) of a century earlier, is now available in an excellent scholarly translation. So is the Book of Master Guan (Guanzi 管子), much of which comes from the Han. An estimable French version of the Huainanzi appeared a decade ago.2 Sarah Queen’s English translation of the Huainanzi’s main contemporary, Abundant Dew on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu fan lu 春秋繁露, is nearing completion.

The four who collaborated on this translation have spent a considerable part of their working lives in study of this book.3 They have provided an introduction on its historical circumstances, sources, and intellectual affiliations, and a preface to each chapter that explains its title, summarizes it, outlines its sources, and sums up its place in the book as a whole.

Just as original as the rendering of the text into English is the translators’ understanding of it. Unlike the historians of philosophy cited above, they have read the text closely enough to uphold the Huainanzi’s claim to be unprecedented, carefully structured, and comprehensive. It was designed to be not an encyclopedia or anthology, but rather — as the subtitle puts it — a systematic “guide to the theory and practice of government.” It grounds governance in the physical universe and the Way, for it was written to prepare a ruler step by step for ideal emperorship. It borrows more often from The Springs and Autumns of Master Lü than from the Zhuangzi. What it takes from the latter book and from the Laozi it [End Page 436] regularly places in a context that gives it a new meaning. Unlike the Zhuangzi’s monarch, the Huainanzi’s is neither reluctant to rule nor a minimalist; unlike the Laozi’s tiny community, the Huainanzi’s is the largest polity conceivable, the Han empire.

The Springs and Autumns of Master Lü (despite its even greater neglect by historians until recently) was the most influential of several early writings that proposed a new kind of monarch: a mystically adept sage whose rituals kept the cosmic and political spheres in harmony, giving society the balanced dynamism of nature. The ruler was to be not the ultimate manager but a meditator and high priest. His subordinates could manage and administer, but only he was so spiritually enlightened that he could respond unerringly to the first stirrings of change. The Huainanzi develops this idea further.

Major et al. suggest plausibly that this book was initially planned for the Luminous Emperor (Jingdi 景帝, r. 156–141 b.c.e.), already a patron of the Laozi, and was meant to hint that the king of Huainan would make a good successor. Jingdi’s death before the book was finished and his replacement by the teenage Wudi would have required a change...