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  • Laozi sixiang de shiguan tese (The characteristics of a court historian in Laozi's thought)
  • Wim De Reu (bio)
Wang Bo. Laozi sixiang de shiguan tese (The characteristics of a court historian in Laozi's thought). Dalu diqu boshi lunwen conggan. Taibei: Wenjin Chubanshe, 1993. 364 pp. Paperback NT $310, ISBN 957-668-152-9.

The identity and status of Laozi and the Laozi have been much disputed in the scholarly world. Few Western authors, if any, have seriously considered the early records in which Laozi is described as a historian of the Zhou court. Wang Bo tries to make sense of, among other things, these traditional sources. As the title suggests, his book is both a historical search into Laozi's background and an exposition of how the thought presented in the Laozi relates to this background. Discussions of the aspects of this background and thought constitute the two main parts of Wang Bo's book.1

Wang discusses Laozi's background from three different aspects: his status as historian, his clan, and certain myths prevalent in early China. In his discussion [End Page 546] of the first and most important topic, the author starts off by reviewing some early records on the origin of the "nine schools" and on Laozi (Lao Dan) as historian at the Zhou court. This leads to the initial hypothesis that Laozi occupied the post of taishi, supreme historian. The author then corroborates this on the assumption that if Laozi was indeed supreme historian and the writer of the Laozi, then the Laozi must show evidence of an intense interest in the pursuits of a supreme historian. Thus, Wang focuses on the chapters of the Laozi that deal with a knowledge of rituals and the art of warfare, pays attention to similarities between the Laozi and other writings kept at court, and discusses the relation between tiandao and dao. The latter is of special interest. Unsatisfied with the general conception of tiandao as the expression of the will of the "heavenly ghosts" (tianshen), Laozi, according to Wang, places dao in the center and emphasizes its authority by claiming that it is the origin and law (faze) of both heaven and earth.

After this initial corroboration, Wang concentrates on three specific characteristics of the Laozi and shows how they are related to the occupation of supreme historian. A first feature is the interrelation of the natural sphere and the human or social sphere; this corresponds with the supreme historian's task of observing the sky patterns and relating them to human events. In Wang's view, this feature explains some major differences with early Greek philosophy: while the Milesian philosophers were interested in nature per se and so came to question the origin of the universe, Laozi was not primarily interested in cosmology because the natural and human spheres were not separated. Thus, Laozi does not pay much attention to questions we would think of as important, for example how the dao precisely created the wanwu and whether they go back to the dao. Another characteristic is the tendency to think in terms of opposites, a current already present in writings of earlier historians, but more developed in the Laozi. Last, the central figure in the Laozi is the ruler, not the common people; as a counselor at court, the supreme historian naturally considers every event from the standpoint of the ruler. The reason why the author of the Laozi sometimes sympathizes with the common people is to make the ruler attentive to their influence on the security of the state and, by extension, the ruler's own safety.

As for the elaboration on Laozi's clan, Wang takes a genealogy written down in the Shiji as his main interpretative scheme. It features the totality of ancient Chinese heroes and kings as descendants of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, and shows a clear division between the leaders of Yu-Xia on the one hand and Shang-Zhou on the other. Although this scheme dates from the Han dynasty, Wang Bo advocates it on the basis of earlier documents and recent excavations. He then goes on to argue that there exists a relation between the...


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pp. 546-549
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