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Reviewed by:
  • The Four Political Treatises of the Yellow Emperor
  • Robert Eno (bio)
Leo S. Chang and Yu Feng. The Four Political Treatises of the Yellow Emperor. Monographs of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy, no. 15. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1998. 230 pp. Paperback $20.00, ISBN 0-8248-2008-8.

This book is the second English translation to appear within a year of a group of Huang-Lao School texts unearthed in 1973 from a Han-period tomb at Mawangdui in Hunan Province. The texts treated here are the same as those translated by Robin Yates in his Five Lost Classics, a volume reflecting exceptionally good scholarship.1 While it is natural to ask whether the publication of a second full translation is warranted, Leo S. Chang and Yu Feng have produced an approach so different from Yates' that the value of their alternative rendering is unquestionable. Moreover, the interpretive framework of their analysis has provocative implications for our understanding of early traditions of philosophy and statecraft, and conveys with new clarity the reason why the discovery of these texts was an intellectual landmark.

The basic story of these texts is now well known. Early sources frequently refer to the Huang-Lao School, and identify it as the dominant ideology of the early Han dynasty (from its founding in 206 B.C. to approximately 135 B.C., when Confucianism gained initial recognition as state orthodoxy). However, prior to the discovery of the "Four Treatises," the nature of Huang-Lao thought was very poorly understood. Scholars had little more to go on than the name of the school (a conflation of terms for the Yellow Emperor and Laozi ), a few surviving characterizations, and some knowledge of the policies of early Han rulers identified as Huang-Lao adherents. The recovery of the "Four Treatises" changed this picture fundamentally. The text was immediately recognized as conforming closely to extant descriptions of Huang-Lao thought, and its four very different chapters of highly syncretic material, stitching together themes from Daoist, Legalist, Naturalistic, Militarist, Confucian, and even Mohist thought, have been viewed almost as an encyclopedic overview of the main concepts of Huang-Lao. [End Page 399]

In a lengthy interpretive introduction, Chang and Feng argue that the text should be seen first and foremost as a manual for zhushu, or "the art of rulership" (pp. 22-23). They see the text as a naturalistic presentation of a political "arcanum," intended for practical application by rulers. Most of the introduction is devoted to delineating the central doctrines of the texts in light of this framework, and to establishing an intellectual lineage of zhushu in which this Huang-Lao text may be placed.2 Its central ideas are pictured as reconfigurations of the recorded wisdom of three key figures: Guan Zhong , prime minister of Qi in the mid-seventh century B.C., Zichan , chief minister of Zheng in the mid-sixth century, and Fan Li , a royal adviser in Yue during the early fifth century B.C. (p. 10). Chang and Feng credit these political actors with a number of innovations that led Chinese states from the patrician-dominated feudal polity of the Spring and Autumn period toward the more centralized and militarized states of the Warring States era, including the design of law codes, meritocratic processes of promotion, and economic planning (pp. 12-17). Thus the intellectual lineage of the "Four Treatises" is pictured principally as one devoted to technocratic innovation. Consequently, in the view of Chang and Feng, the treatises must be read first and foremost as practical, prescriptive texts, rather than as theoretical justifications for a set of philosophical doctrines. This approach contrasts with views of the text that highlight resemblances to Laozi-style Daoism or to the theoretical Legalism of the Han Feizi and the Shangjun shu. It is a perspective very different from that adopted by Yates, who, though recognizing the syncretic nature of the texts, is inclined to see them as most essentially guided by the views of Daoist and Yin-Yang naturalistic traditions, both highly concerned with theoretical issues.3

This distinction of interpretive frameworks has a fundamental effect on the translations we find...


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