Xuanxue is a metaphysical post-classical Chinese philosophy from the Six Dynasties (222-589), bringing together Daoist and Confucian beliefs through revision and discussion. The movement found its scriptural support both in Daoist and drastically-reinterpreted Confucian sources. Xuanxue, or "Dark Learning,” came to reign supreme in cultural circles, especially at Jiankang during the period of division. The concept represented the more abstract, unworldly, and idealistic tendency in early medieval Chinese thought. Xuanxue philosophers combined elements of Confucianism and Taoism to reinterpret the Yijing, Daodejing, and Zhuangzi.


Xuanxue arose after the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in early Medieval China. It is mainly represented by a few scholars, namely Wang Bi (226-249), He Yan (d. 249), Xiang Xiu (223?-300), Guo Xiang (d. 312) and Pei Wei (267-300). In general, these scholars sought to reinterpret the social and moral understanding of Confucianism in ways to make it more compatible with Daoist philosophy.[1] Xuanxue philosophers of the Han dynasty were concerned with restoring unity and harmony to the land, not by condemning the teachings of the sages, but by interpreting them in new ways. Xuanxue thinkers thereby developed their theories by reinterpreting the relationship between Daoist and Confucian texts through an appreciation of their common themes. Through this Neo-Daoist movement, The Way of Mysterious Learning (xuanxue) emerged.

Two influential Xuanxue scholars were Wang Bi and Guo Xiang, editors and leading commentators on the Daodejing and Zhuangzi (book), respectively. For instance, the Daodejing exists in two received versions named after the commentaries. While the "Heshang Gong version" explains textual references to Daoist meditation, the "Wang Bi version" does not. Richard Wilhelm said the Wang Bi commentary changed the Daodejing "from a compendiary of magical meditation to a collection of free philosophical aperçus."[2]

One of the major defining features of Zhengshi Xuanxue is the "Pure Conversation” (清談) gatherings that took place among political and intellectual elites from the 3rd century onward, through which Wei-Jin and Six Dynasties intellectuals questioned tradition and shared their ideas. These sessions were transformed versions of the more politically charged "Pure Criticism” (清議) protests of the later Han, which were, in turn, continuations of political remonstration practices.[2] Much of Xuanxue had become divorced from the realities of life and afforded an escape from it.

During the fifth century CE, xuanxue formed a part of the official curriculum at the Guozijian, together with Rú (Confucian learning), Literature, and History. Although xuanxue does not represent one monolithic school of thought, it does encompass a broad range of philosophical positions.


The name first compounds xuan (玄) "black, dark; mysterious, profound, abstruse, arcane.” It occurs in the first chapter of the Lao Tzu (book) (”玄之又玄,众妙之门“). The word xuan literally depicts a shade of deep, dark red. Chapter 1 of the Laozi speaks of the Dao as xuan, more specifically underpinning the depth, utter impenetrability, and the profound mystery of the Dao.

Xue (學) means "study, learn, learning," literally the "learning" or "study" of the "arcane," "mysterious," or "profound."

Therefore, the meaning of xuanxue can be described as "Learning/Investigation of the Mysterious/Profound". Xuan is the noun, meaning "mysterious/profound/darkness", and xue is the action, meaning "to learn/learning".

In Modern Standard Chinese usage, xuanxue can mean "Neo-Daoism", "Buddhism", "Metaphysics", "Spiritualism" or "Mysticism". The New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness by Xiong Shili defines Xuanxue as "dark/obscure/mysterious/profound learning". The concept can be described by such abstractions as "to initiate no action", "emptiness", "one and the many", "root and branches", "having and not having", and the "emotional responses" and "pattern".[3]

In modern Chinese, Xuanxue is also taken to refer to astrology, geomancy and other popular religious arts. Another translation of Xuanxue could be "Learning of the Dark.”


The goal of Xuanxue is to bring to light the nature and function of Dao, which appears dark and impenetrable. It started from the assumption that all temporally and spatially limited phenomena—anything "nameable”; all movement, change, and diversity; in short, all "being”—is produced and sustained by one impersonal principle, which is unlimited, unnameable, unmoving, unchanging, and undiversified.[4] Rather than a school of set doctrines, xuanxue is a broad, dynamic intellectual front. Many xuanxue scholars argued that "words cannot fully express meaning,” as meaning transcends the limiting confines of language. Xuanxue seeks to bring together Confucian and Daoist ideologies with fresh annotation and discourse, working with the classical definitions, doctrines, and rules set by previous philosophers.

The concept of is central to xuanxue. It is translated as "nothing", "nothingness", "non-being", and "negativity".[5] The Dao can literally only be described as nameless and formless, not having any characteristics of things. That the Dao is the "mother of all life” is also central to xuanxue ideology. Because of the Dao being the beginning of all things, while simultaneously being indescribable and non-being, the Dao is said to be "dark” or "mysterious” (xuan).

Xuanxue should not be misinterpreted as interchangeable with the Dao. Rather, xuanxue is the study of the mystery and darkness of the intangible. Dao represents xuan, the darkness that is central to the philosophy. The Dao supplies the subject matter/basis for the "Dark Learning” that underpins the thinkings and teachings of xuanxue.

Misinterpretations of Xuanxue

Xuanxue aims at unlocking the mystery of the Dao, but should not be confused with Neo-Daoism. Xuanxue is nonetheless committed to analytic rigor and clarity in explicating the meaning of Dao, employing a new language of the age. Critics sometimes condemn it as "dark,” because they judge it obfuscating and detrimental to the flourishing of The Way. They would use phrases like "dark words” (xuanyan) or "dark discourse” (xuanlun) in a pejorative sense, indicating that to them Xuanxue was nothing but convoluted empty talk. In these contexts, "xuan” may be translated as "abstruse", "obscure" or words to that effect.

To call xuanxue "Neo-Daoism” misleadingly reinforces suggestions that Wei-Jin thinkers were simply "reinterpreting Confucianism through the lens of Daoism” (Chan 2010: 5). Chan points out that since xuan (玄) is already something "obscure” and "insubstantial” in Chinese, xuanxue can be left "untranslated, though not unexplained” (Chan 2010: 6). Xuanxue is also often classified as "Profound Learning". Although "profound” is more appropriate than "dark", ambiguity is still an issue with this classification.

Xuanxue is not a kind of scholasticism that pitches one school against another. Instead of seeing them as attempting to reconcile Confucianism with Daoism, it may be suggested that they were primarily concerned with the substantive issue of the relationship between mingjiao and ziran.


  1. ^ Chan, Alan. "Neo-Daoism", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. ^ Bo Mou (27 October 2008). The Routledge History of Chinese Philosophy. Routledge. pp. 303–. ISBN 978-1-134-24938-1.
  3. ^ Shili, Xiong (2015). New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. p. 110.
  4. ^ Zürcher, Erik; Twitchett, Denis C. China - Dong (Eastern) Han, Britannica.com.
  5. ^ JeeLoo Liu; Douglas Berger (13 June 2014). Nothingness in Asian Philosophy. Routledge. pp. 214–. ISBN 978-1-317-68384-1.

Further reading

External links

Chinese philosophy

Chinese philosophy originates in the Spring and Autumn period and Warring States period, during a period known as the "Hundred Schools of Thought", which was characterized by significant intellectual and cultural developments. Although much of Chinese philosophy begins in the Warring States period, elements of Chinese philosophy have existed for several thousand years; some can be found in the Yi Jing (the Book of Changes), an ancient compendium of divination, which dates back to at least 672 BCE. It was during the Warring States era that what Sima Tan termed the major philosophical schools of China: Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism, arose, along with philosophies that later fell into obscurity, like Agriculturalism, Mohism, Chinese Naturalism, and the Logicians.

Chongxuan School

The Chongxuan (Chinese 重玄, pinyin Chóngxuán) school was a Daoist philosophical current influenced by Buddhist Madhyamaka thought. It first appeared in the fifth century, and was influential from the eighth to tenth centuries during the Tang dynasty. It was not a structured philosophical school; it was identified and named by the Daodejing commentator Du Guangting (杜光庭, 850-933). · . Chongxuan's most important representatives were Cheng Xuanying (成玄英, fl. 631-655) and Li Rong (李榮), both from the seventh century CE.

Chongxuan is also an appellation of the immortal embryo in internal alchemy, or Neidan, reflecting some influence of Chongxuan thought on Neidan.


Grotto-heavens (Chinese: 洞天; pinyin: Dòngtian) are a type of sacred Taoist site. Grotto-heavens are usually caves, grottoes, mountain hollows, or other underground spaces. Because every community was supposed to have access to at least one grotto, there were many of them all over China. They were first organized systematically in the Tang Dynasty by Sima Chengzhen 司馬承禎 (647–735, see Zuowanglun) and Du Guangting 杜光庭 (850-933). The most sacred of these sites were divided into two types: The ten greater grotto-heavens and the thirty-six lesser grotto-heavens.Locations of the ten greater grotto-heavens are as follows:

Mt. Wangwu grotto 王屋山 (Henan)

Mt. Weiyu grotto 委羽山 (Zhejiang)

Mt. Xicheng grotto 西城山 (Shanxi)

Mt. Xixuan grotto 西玄山 (Sichuan)

Mt. Qingcheng grotto 青城山 (part of Huashan, Shanxi)

Mt. Chicheng grotto 赤城山 (Guangdong)

Mt. Luofu grotto 羅浮山 (Guangdong)

Mt. Gouqu grotto 句曲山 (Jiangsu, in Lake Tai)

Mt. Linwu grotto 林屋山 (on Maoshan, Jiangsu)

Mt. Kuocang grotto 括蒼山 (Zhejiang)

Guo Xiang

Guo Xiang (Chinese: 郭象; pinyin: Guō Xiàng; Wade–Giles: Kuo Hsiang; died 312 AD) is credited with the first and most important revision of the text known as the Zhuangzi which, along with the Tao Te Ching, forms the textual and philosophical basis of the Taoist school of thought. He was also a scholar of xuanxue.

The Guo Xiang redaction of the text revised a fifty-two chapter original by removing material he thought was superstitious and generally not of philosophical interest to his literati sensibilities, resulting in a thirty-three chapter total. He appended a philosophical commentary to the text that became famous, and within four centuries his shorter and snappier expurgated recension became the only one known.

This Zhuangzi recension is traditionally divided into three sections: ‘Inner Chapters’ (1-7), ‘Outer Chapters’ (8-22), ‘Miscellaneous Chapters’ (23-33). This division is quite old and is likely to have been part of the original recension.

Guo's redaction focuses on his understanding of Zhuangzi's philosophy of spontaneity (Chinese: 自然; pinyin: zìrán; Wade–Giles: tzu jan; literally "self so"). This practiced spontaneity is demonstrated by the story of Cook Ding, rendered as Cook Ting in the Burton Watson translation (which is itself ultimately derived from the Guo Xiang recension):

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee, zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou Music.

"Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!"

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint."

"A good cook changes his knife once a year, because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month, because he hacks. I've had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I've cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there's plenty of room, more than enough for the blade to play about it. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

Here, the careful yet effortlessly spontaneous way in which Cook Ding is described cutting up the ox is both an example of the cognitive state of mind Zhuangzi associated with the Tao and the assertion that this state is accessible in everyday life.

He Yan

He Yan (c. 195 – 9 February 249), courtesy name Pingshu, was an official, scholar and philosopher of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period of China. He was a grandson of He Jin, a general and regent of the Eastern Han dynasty. His father, He Xian, died early, so his mother, Lady Yin, remarried the warlord Cao Cao. He Yan thus grew up as Cao Cao's stepson. He gained a reputation for intelligence and scholarship at an early age, but he was unpopular and criticised for being arrogant and dissolute. He was rejected for government positions by both emperors Cao Pi and Cao Rui, but became a minister during the rule of Cao Shuang. When the Sima family took control of the government in a coup d'état in 249, he was executed along with all the other officials loyal to Cao Shuang.

He Yan was, along with Wang Bi, one of the founders of the Daoist school of Xuanxue. He synthesised the philosophical schools of Daoism and Confucianism, believing that the two schools complimented each other. He wrote a famous commentary on the Daode Jing that was influential in his time, but no copies have survived. His commentary on the Analects was considered standard and authoritative for nearly 1000 years, until his interpretation was displaced by the commentary of Zhu Xi in the 14th century.

Konrad (assassin)

Konrad is a fictional character in William Gibson's novel All Tomorrow's Parties. An anonymous and quasi-mystical assassin, Konrad is moved by the Tao in all his actions, regardless of the demands of his employers. He is clad in nondescript clothing and carries a tantō, which he wields with sublime and thoughtless skill. He is haunted by the memory of his lost lover, Lise.

Li Hong (Taoist eschatology)

Li Hong (Chinese: 李洪) is a messianic figure in religious Taoism prophesied to appear at the end of the world cycle to rescue the chosen people, who would be distinguished by certain talismans, practices and virtues. Myths surrounding Li Hong took shape in literature during the Han dynasty. He is depicted in the Taoist Divine Incantations Scripture as an ideal leader who would reappear to set right heaven (tian) and earth (dì) at a time of upheaval and chaos. Li Hong is sometimes considered to be an avatar or reincarnation of Laozi, with whom he shares the surname Li. Prophesies concerning Li Hong's appearance have been used to legitimize numerous rebellions and insurgencies, all of which rallied around a Li Hong. These were particularly prevalent during the fifth century, and continued to appear until the Song dynasty.

List of Chinese philosophers

This article is a list of Chinese philosophers.

List of Taoists

List of Taoists contains list of historical figures in Taoism. Other mystic figures are not listed.


Qīngtán (Chinese: 清談; Wade–Giles: Ch'ing1-t'an2; literally: 'pure conversation') was a movement related to Taoism that developed during the Wei-Jin (魏晉) period and continued on through the Southern and Northern dynasties. Qingtan involved witty conversation or debates about metaphysics and philosophy.

Taoist philosophy

Taoist philosophy (Chinese: 道家; pinyin: dàojiā; lit. "school or family of the Tao") also known as Taology (Chinese: 道學; pinyin: dàoxué; lit. "learning of the Tao") refers to the various philosophical currents of Taoism, a tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (Chinese: 道; pinyin: Dào; literally: 'the Way', also romanized as Dao). The Tao is a mysterious and deep principle that is the source, pattern and substance of the entire universe.Throughout its history, Taoist philosophy has emphasized concepts like wu wei (effortless action), ziran ("naturalness"), yin and yang, Ch'i ("life energy"), Wu (non-being), and personal cultivation through meditation and other spiritual practices. Taoism differs from Confucianism in putting more emphasis on physical and spiritual cultivation and less emphasis on political organization.

Since the initial stages of Taoist thought, there have been varying schools of Taoist philosophy and they have drawn from and interacted with other philosophical traditions such as Confucianism and Buddhism. While scholars have sometimes attempted to separate "Taoist philosophy" from "Taoist religion", there was never really such a separation. Taoist texts and the literati and Taoist priests that wrote and commented on them never made the distinction between "religious" and "philosophical" ideas, particularly those related to metaphysics and ethics.The major texts of this loose philosophical tradition are traditionally seen as the Tao Te Ching, and the Zhuangzi, though it was only during the Han Dynasty that they were grouped together under the label "Taoist" (Daojia). The I Ching was also later linked to this tradition by scholars like Wang Bi.

Taoist temple

A Taoist temple (traditional Chinese: 觀; simplified Chinese: 观; pinyin: guān, also 道观 dàoguān, literally "[place] where the Tao is observed/cultivated") is a place of worship in Taoism.

Structure and function can vary according to the Taoist school the temple belongs to. For example, guān of the Quanzhen School are monasteries where celibate Taoist priests live.

The title gōng (traditional Chinese: 宫) "palace" is often used for large temples built with imperial or governmental patronage.

Wang Bi

Wang Bi (226–249), courtesy name Fusi, was a Chinese neo-Daoist philosopher.


Wonderism is a term coined by French sinologist Terrien de Lacouperie (1845-1894) to differentiate the proto-Daoism of Jixia Academy from the philosophical Daoism of Laozi, although his ideas were received with skepticism at the time of assertion and have since been discredited by modern sinology.Lacouperie believed that Chinese civilization was influenced by early sea traders from the Erythraean Sea and Indian Ocean who established a settlement in East China circa 675 BCE. It was located in the Zhou Dynasty state of Qi 齊 (present day Shandong Province) at Langye 琅琊 (near Linyi) and Jimo 即墨 (northeast and southwest of Jiaozhou Bay). In the history of Ancient Chinese coinage, Jimo was an important mint where large bronze knife money called "Qi knives" were manufactured.

These foreigners, Sabaeans, Syrians and Hindus introduced new notions, such as astrology and superstitions, and by their sailors' yarns awakened a curiosity for the wonderful. The social and political condition of the country was favourable to a movement of this sort. The Chinese princes were anxious of novelty to show their independence from the once respected and now disregarded suzerainty of the Kings of Chou. It was really an age of wonderism.

According to Lacouperie, this school of thought combined with early philosophical Daoism to create religious Daoism.

The school of Wonderism, which had grown out of the influence of the trader-colonists of the Indian Ocean settled at Lang-ya and Tsih-Moh who had taught Astrology and an overrated conception of the transforming powers of nature, amalgamated with the pure Taoism of Lao-tze, and formed henceforth what may be called the Neo-Taoism or Tao-szeism, while Confucianism remained in opposition to it, such as his founder had conceived it against the encroachments of Wonderism, Taoism, and Shamanism. It was indeed the rising of Confucianism which led to the fusion of these various elements.

This terminology is outmoded. "Taoszeism" (from the French romanization tao-sze for daoshi 道士 "Daoist master, Daoist priest/priestess") was used by Léon de Rosny in reference to religious Daoism. "Neotaoism" or "Neodaoism" usually refers to Xuanxue 玄學 (lit. "arcane studies").


Wu-liu pai (Chinese: 伍柳派; pinyin: Wŭliŭpài; "School of Wu [Ghong-xu]-Liu [Hua-yang]"), or Wu-liu fa pai (Chinese: 伍柳法派; pinyin: Wŭliŭfăpài; "School of Teachings of Wu [Ching-xu]-Liu [Hua-yang]"), also known as Xianfo (Chinese: 仙佛; pinyin: Xiānfó; "[School] of Immortals and Buddhas") — a school of Taoism with main focus on internal alchemy (neidan).

Xun Can

Xun Can (c. 209–237), courtesy name Fengqian, was a scholar and xuanxue philosopher of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period of China. He was a son of Xun Yu.

Zhang Jue

Zhang Jue (; died 184) was the leader of the Yellow Turban Rebellion during the late Eastern Han dynasty of China. He was said to be a follower of Taoism and a sorcerer. His name is sometimes read as Zhang Jiao (), since the Chinese character of Zhang's given name can be read as either "Jiao" or "Jue". "Jue" is the traditional reading, while "Jiao" is the modern one.

Zhengyi Dao

Zhengyi Dao (Chinese: 正一道; pinyin: Zheng Yi Dào) or the Way of Orthodox Unity is a Chinese Daoist movement that emerged during the Tang dynasty as a transformation of the earlier Tianshi Dao movement. Like Tianshi Dao, the leader of Zhengyi Daoism was known as the Celestial Master.


Ziran is a key concept in Daoism that literally means "self so; so of its own; so of itself" and thus "naturally; natural; spontaneously; freely; in the course of events; of course; doubtlessly". This Chinese word is a two-character compound of zi (自) "nose; self; oneself; from; since" and ran (然) "right; correct; so; yes", which is used as a -ran suffix marking adjectives or adverbs (roughly corresponding to English -ly). In Chinese culture, the nose (or zi) is a common metaphor for a person's point of view.

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