Although the Han Dynasty was restored after the tragic reign of Wang Mang, the droughts which led to starvation and he social unrest which undermined political order continued. Growing disunity amongst the regions of China became so evident that the last forty years of Han rule, from 180 to 220 C.E., were only nominally under the dynasty's control. When a usurper founded the short-lived Wei Dynasty in 220, the new rulers adhered to the failed policies of the past and thereby inaugurated a "period of disunity" which lasted for centuries. Early in this era of growing turmoil, the Confucian philosophy, inaugurated by Tung Chung-shu and incorporating yin-yang theories, had degenerated into little more than ritual and superstition. Because the perspectives it rep resented were based on texts written in a modernized Chinese script, these views were subsumed under the rubric New Text (or New Script) school. Against them, a number of scholars insisted on returning to the older Confucian teachings, written in an earlier script, and they became known as the Old Text (or Old Script) school. By the end of the Han era, these competing schools had exhausted their insights, and learning languished, whilst the social and political milieu decayed. Within this context, an individual of spectacular genius arose to provide a new impetus to Taoist and Confucian thought.
Wang Pi was born in 226 and died twenty-three years later, leaving no trace of his personal life for historians to record. His genius manifested itself early on, so that by the time he departed the human arena, he had launched a new Taoist movement, known as hsuan hsueh, 'the dark learning' or neo-Taoism. He also provided the impulse that would emerge as tao hsueh, 'learning of the Truth' or neo-Confucianism. Joining a growing number of scholars who saw no point in serving corrupt and ineffectual governments, Wang Pi rejected the stifling and mechanical court ritual propagated in the name of Confucius. Instead, he sought a freer life with fellow scholars who enjoyed sojourns in the countryside, philosophical debates, and discussions divorced from the immediate demands of governance. Whilst the New Text school had elevated Confucius to the rank of a god, the Old Text school once again saw him as a remarkably wise individual. Wang Pi accepted this latter view and revered Confucius all the more for his attainments as a human being. He was, according to Wang Pi, the one great Sage in Chinese history. Yet despite his awe for Confucius, Wang Pi turned to the ancient Taoist teachers to understand the nature of things.
From Wang Pi's standpoint, the pervasive ritualism of Han and Wei scholars made the teachings of Confucius appear superficial. The fact that Confucius refused to speak of ultimate matters, save for an occasional allusion, did not mean, Wang Pi thought, that they were of no consequence. Rather, his silence indicated their transcending importance, and one had to penetrate that silence to understand the teachings of Confucius. Though trained in the Confucian classics, Wang Pi turned to Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu for illumination. Here he found the contrasts and categorical statements a veil over the meaning of their doctrines, even though they pointed beyond themselves. Mastering Confucian and Taoist techniques of analysis and argumentation, Wang Pi rejected as useless scholarly concern with epigraphy and the authentication of texts, and turned to the fundamental meaning of each treatise by seeking to find the ultimate principles upon which it was based. In doing so, he sought the elusive philosophical standpoint behind the crafted written statements of the ancient Sages, and he brought a rigorously philosophical mind to his efforts.
Wang Pi took the word hsuan from the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching and made it the key to his commentary on the text. Hsuan means 'dark' or 'mysterious', and in speaking of the tao, Lao Tzu had said:
Wang Pi held that behind the activities of Nature, behind words written down, behind concepts in consciousness lay hsuan, the darkness or mystery which is the root of all. In elucidating this central idea, Wang Pi founded hsuan hsueh, the dark learning, which brought together Taoist principles and Confucian concepts. He taught that Confucius was the greatest Sage in history, but he had a Taoist conception of the Sage. This fusion of Taoist and Confucian thought was fully reflected in Wang Pi's commentary on the I Ching, the Chou Yi Lueh-li, which compelled Chinese thinkers to reconsider traditional ideas.
Wang Pi, like many of his contemporaries, was skilled in ming li, name-principles, that is, adept in distinguishing terms and analyzing principles. Chuang Tzu had used logical analysis to sift meaning from the paradoxes of his interlocutors, but Confucians typically avoided ming ii because it had no direct bearing on governing the state. For Wang Pi, however, analysis of concepts was no mere game or amusement. Although such activity lacked immediate bearing on daily affairs, it could establish criteria for sense and meaning. Whilst others recognized its negative value – showing, for example, that any action once taken could never be undone, however much one reversed the resulting circumstances – and learnt about the problems of conceptualization – how, for example, can a general concept apply to more than one concrete thing – Wang Pi used ming li for metaphysical purposes. Accepting the view that the world consists of innumerable irreversible instants and that the relation between concepts and things is elusive, Wang Pi rejected the sceptical standpoint which seemed to follow. Rather, the mystery (hsuan) behind the attempt to understand is not a nescient void but the indescribable plenum of ultimate reality, which defies the categories of space and time and escapes the reach of every concept.
For Wang Pi, the dialectical exercise of ming ii provided the epistemological basis for understanding ontology, and the meta physical expression of reality was best given in the classic I Ching or Book of Transformations. The I Ching consists of sixty-four hexagrams or sets of six horizontal solid or broken lines set out in every possible arrangement. Drawn, some say, from the cracks which appear when tortoise shells are heated by diviners seeking oracular understanding in the patterns thus produced, or derived, according to others, from quadratic algebraic descriptions of the cube of space, these enigmatic figures constitute the heart of the book. The venerated Duke of Chou and King Wen are said to have written the basic text which explicates the images, whilst Confucius is the traditional author of the commentaries on the text. Each hexagram represents both a mode of transformation and the nexus wherein that change occurs. The hexagrams do not represent things or even states of affairs, therefore, but rather the dynamic alterations in all things and states of affairs. They are, for Wang Pi, the paradigms of all concepts as well as their origin.
Each hexagram represents conceptual and de facto unity, because one line in each hexagram is the ruler of the whole. Further, this is the still line which gives sense and order to the activity represented in the remaining lines of the hexagram. For example, the twenty- fourth hexagram is fu or 'return', depicted as five broken lines above a solid line. Reversion is a persistent theme in the Tao Te Ching, and Wang Pi was inspired to write regarding fu:
Being, yu, depends on non-being, wu, for its existence, which is not a something that stands against non-being, but rather a ceaseless activity each moment of which is an aspect of its origin. Wu is the function (yung) which makes yu active and therefore useful, but wu is also ultimate substance (t'i) from which all substances (yu) derive. (Wang Pi was the first Chinese philosopher to distinguish yung and t'i, concepts critical to later neo-Confucian thought.) In a way reminiscent of Shiva Nataraja, yu is the eternal dance of wu, which is ever still in its own nature.
For Wang Pi, non-being is the origin of being. He saw the same truth taught in the archaic yarrow-stalk method of consulting the I Ching, in which fifty stalks are present but only forty-nine are used in divination.
Wu, for Wang Pi, stands beyond yu, which is archetypically represented in the sixty-four hexagrams. Wit is not an empty nothing, however, but a plenum which eludes conceptualization or depiction. It is the Supreme Ultimate (t'ai chi) of the I Ching and the tao of the Tao Te Ching. "All things and shapes may be reduced to oneness," Wang Pi wrote, "but from what derives this oneness? It derives from wu." The oneness of the ruling line is wu immanent in yu, whilst wu in itself transcends yu as its mysterious Urgrund.
Wang Pi maintained the studied ambivalence of Chuang Tzu in respect to representation and language.
Having declared in favour of symbols and words, indicating the power of symbols to completely express ideas, he added:
In fact, he argued, if one clings to words, one will fail to grasp symbols, and if one is fascinated with symbols, one will fail to realize the ideas. It is essential, he held, that one forget words once symbols are understood and forget symbols once ideas are grasped. His contemporaries had difficulty in understanding what to them seemed to be an inconsistent doctrine, and Wang Pi's meaning was not fully comprehended until the neo-Confucian renaissance seven hundred years later.
The I Ching constitutes the paradigm of Wang Pi's view. The hexagrams are abstract symbols of ideas of modes of transformation. The words of King Wen, the Duke of Chou and Confucius are explanations of the symbols. Once the hexagram is fully understood for what it is, one may – indeed must – forget the words. Yet once the idea of a distinctive nexus of transformation is grasped, even the symbol must be forgotten. Failure to let go when on the threshold of insight leaves one playing with words and symbols. Words can completely express symbols, but words cannot substitute for symbols; symbols can completely express ideas, but they cannot replace them. The general principle (li) which Wang Pi seems to indicate is that yu can be completely depicted or described save for its ground and origin, wu, which transcends ideas and yet is immanent within them. For Wang Pi, the dark learning is the sensing of non-being within being, and being within non-being. Wu or non-being is pen-t'i, pure being. If it were wholly inexpressible, it could not be intimated, much less expressed, in words. But if it were wholly expressible, it would not be pure. This standpoint allowed Wang Pi to preserve the Confucian concern with conceptual detail and with principles (li) whilst also adhering to the Taoist teaching of the unique source of all being.
Concepts and principles underlie the phenomenal world, whilst ideas are the veridical impressions of these concepts and principles upon consciousness. Like Plato, who taught that Ideas or Forms are eternal and objective and that the highest aspect of the soul is "most like the Ideas" and so can understand them, Wang Pi held that when human consciousness practises fu, return, it can understand the mind of Heaven and earth. For Wang Pi, Confucius was the greatest of the Sages, even though he never spoke of wu, non-being, because he spoke of everything from the standpoint of wu. Lao Tzu spoke of wu, thereby providing others with the critical key to the mysterious learning, but in doing so, he had to speak from the standpoint of the fullest understanding of yu, being – outside wu, so to speak.
Ho Yen, who died in the same year as Wang Pi, argued that the Sage differed from other men in that he is free of emotions, a view that was typical of earlier philosophers. Despite his penchant for metaphysical abstraction, Wang Pi insisted that his teachings are reflected in every aspect of the phenomenal world. Since Confucius was indubitably a Sage, and since he lamented the death of Yen Hui, his favourite disciple, how could the Sage be said to have no emotions? The Sage is not an inane spiritual entity but an embodied consciousness. His intelligence is spiritual, that is, beyond the snares of form and habitude. Nonetheless, as a being in the world with a body, he shares in the five emotions – joy, anger, sorrow, pleasure and hatred. Being spiritual in mind, however, the Sage identifies with the harmony of the whole and is imbued with wu, non-being. Thus when emotions arise in him as reactions to states and events, he is aware of them but does not become ensnared by them. For Wang Pi, the greatness of the Sage is not his indifference to human experience but his ability to avoid being trapped by any particular experience. Identifying with the human condition, he can teach and guide human beings; shunning the grip of the emotions, he remains aloof with unclouded knowledge, ever impartial and unshaken.
Wang Pi provided the framework for this view of the Sage in his commentary on the Tao Te Ching. In section 20, Lao Tzu taught that "the Sage shuns excess, extremes and smugness". Wang Pi wrote:
The Sage is great because he does consciously and with a minimum of expended energy what everything in Nature does without being aware of it. He is neither an aberration nor a prodigy; rather, he is the exemplar for humanity from the standpoint of the whole of Nature.
Wang Pi succinctly expressed the dynamic harmony of all existence in his comments on section 25 of the Tao Te Ching, where Lao Tzu said:
Elaborating this brief reference to a dynamic pattern in the cosmic order, Wang Pi wrote:
Wang Pi's philosophical subtlety is reflected in his perspicacious elucidation of the hierarchical order of being. Lao Tzu had spoken of destiny, ming, in ways which fit comfortably with the concept of the decree of Heaven, t'ien ming. Shortly after Wang Pi's time, Kuo Hsiang would argue that Nature is spontaneous in its ceaseless transformations, and that 'Heaven' is nothing more than a name for the general process. Wang Pi did not wish to slip into the avoidable theistic superstitions which had plagued omen-mongers during the later Han Dynasty. Yet the immanentist view of Kuo Hsiang invited a deterministic perspective in which the Sage could have no role as a teacher of human beings – since nothing can really be altered from its causally pre-ordained fate in a deterministic universe. Wang Pi replaced the old Taoist ming with the Confucian li, principle, but gave li a transcendental meaning. The order of things does imply a destiny for Wang Pi, but the transcendental nature of its underlying principles means that they are manifested in various possible activities. The Sage represents the most universal and harmonious reflection of those principles, and individuals can become better reflectors by following the teachings of the Sage.
"If we understand the activities of things," Wang Pi declared, "we shall know the principles which make them what they are." When Wang Pi turned to composing a commentary on the I Ching, he showed how his broad metaphysical perspective suggested a coherent ethical direction in a human being's life. "Differences vary in a thousand ways," he said in his introduction, "but the leading, ruling principle remains." In explaining hexagram 38, k'uei or parting', he added that the superior man sees "similarity in general principles but diversity in functions and facts". The unity of yu or phenomenal being, rooted in wu, non-being, implies a harmony within and without. In respect to external relations, he remarked on hexagram 16, yu or 'happiness':
Yet good relations with others are based upon internal unity and balance. In expounding the meaning of hexagram 6, sung or 'contention', Wang Pi advised:
Although Wang Pi died before he reached the traditional Confucian age of full adulthood, he had permanently altered the Taoist perspective and furnished many of the concepts which would revitalize the Confucian tradition. Buddhists coming into China in the fourth and fifth centuries found his concepts and phraseology congenial to their philosophical views. He synthesized Taoist and Confucian thought so effectively that he disconcerted those of more traditional views for generations, and even those who strongly disagreed with him marvelled at his sheer genius. Yet he rooted his teaching in the deceptively simple idea that a single reality could be found within and behind the shimmering tapestry of the world.