Fragmented Essays 1 - Huang-Lao Thought

This is a fragmented messy essay that I was lucky enough to find thanks to my computer's recovery system - it's very messy, jumbled, and incoherent - and this is only a draft of the lost finished version - but I decided to post it in order to be able to revisit the ideas. - - Once again, it is very messy, incomplete, and not very good. The graded essay got a B. e.e;

Huang-Lao: More Complex Than Daoist Legalism

I was driven to research Huang-Lao Daoism because the notion of rulers who utilized statecraft in accordance with the notion of Dao fascinated me. But, when the concepts of Huang-Lao thought were condensed for encyclopedic definitions, the philosophy is simply described as a possible school of Legalism, and basically a combination of Daoism and Legalism, and some scholars agree that this is a satisfactory description.[1] But, diving deeper into research texts on Huang-Lao philosophy, I came to find that major researchers of early Chinese philosophical thought shared major opinions about Huang-Lao thought through their own research.[2] Examining classical texts generally agreed upon to be associated with Huang-Lao thought, modern researchers came to similar viewpoints that Huang-Lao was far more complex in its structure and unique in its concepts than a simple amalgam of Daoism and Legalism.[3] They shared the view that Huang-Lao thought was fundamentally different than Legalism, for a Huang-Lao ruler was bound to govern in accordance with Dao with a keen insight (guan).[4] This is compared to Legalism’s theory where the human ruler’s edict was ultimate law. It is also important to consider the idea of law and the use of the term fa. Between the schools of thought, its interpretation can differ. The fa of Huang-Lao is not the fa of Legalism; in the same way Huang-Lao’s interpretations of the terms Dao and wu-wei are different in meaning than that of Daoism’s. Such concepts show that Huang-Lao thought of the late 3rd century to early 2nd century BC, used by the early Han rulers of China as a political tool, was more complex than a black and white combination of Daoist ideology and use of Legalist law.[5]
First, Legalism must be described so that comparisons can be made later on. Legalism is a retrospective term coined by the lord grand astrologer of the Han court Sima Tan, father of Sima Qian[6]. In Tan’s piece, Essential Points of the Six Schools, he labeled a school of thought as “Fa-jia”, which can be translated to “School of Law”.[7] This was a retrospective terming, as Sima Tan created it in order to systematically analyze various schools of thoughts and their effectiveness in his text.[8] The Legalist theories described for this essay are accredited to Master Han Fei (Han Fei-zi). Han Fei is believed to have lived sometime between 280 and 233 BCE and “ was… a member of the ruling family [of the Han] and an aristocrat…” (Schwartz 342).[9] Han Fei’s interpretation of Legalist ideology provides the essential position of positive law that can be contrasted with Huang-Lao thought. The term positive law implies that law (fa) is made by man (i.e. rulers), and not limited by morality (i.e. Dao). Tu emphasizes how Legalism’s fa, or “government by law” (fa-zhi) is unique to Legalism itself (104). While “his entire system is ultimately designed to eliminate the need for [“men of worth” and “enlightened rulers”]”, Han Fei’s view was that a successful ruler would be worthy enough to bear the title and the responsibility of governing a state, and would be respected because of his authority.[10] Han Fei believed that “[a] sage or “man of worth” can, it is true, do nothing without authority, just as dragons cannot soar without the support of clouds and mist.”[11] There would be no advising ministers, bickering officials, or contradicting theories on Dao interpretation, rather only “one sovereign with ultimate authority over the law” (Peerenboom 142, emphasis added). There would be no need to consider others opinions, because Han Fei believed that “…law is what the ruler says it is; it is what pleases the ruler” (Peerenboom 143). While “Han Fei confers on the ruler the ultimate authority to determine what the laws will be, how they ought to be applied, and whether or not they should be changed”, he also “condones the subordination of morality to the practical demands of political realities” (Peerenboom 143, emphasis added). And though Han Fei had a difficult career in politics, “he finally [gained] access to the young ruler of the [Qin] – the incomparable [Qin Shi Huang-di] – whom he evidently [regarded] as the living embodiment of his ideal of the ‘enlightened ruler’” (Schwartz 342).
It was then that the First Emperor of Qin would come to favor Han Fei’s theory of Legalism. The Qin Dynasty’s use Legalism was a form of harsh jurisdiction, comparable to Hammurabi’s code of laws.[12] After the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty, scholars and government officials all sought unity, creating many various theories on how to master the Dao, or way, in order to try and establish cosmic and political order. While these theories generally agreed that balance and harmony were necessary, it was their ways and means that differed and often contradicted each other. However, the Qin had a simple and straightforward solution for how to handle contradicting schools of thought. It was decided by those in authority, needless to say, that “conformity to the emperor’s view” was the most direct and obvious method for success (Smith). This form of law, developed by Han Fei and utilized by Qin Shi Huang-di is what I refer to as Legalism. From this school of thought, Huang-Lao thinkers adopted their own version of fa.
The notion of fa for Huang-Lao philosophers is very different than that of Legalism’s. While the word fa is used, its meaning is different because Huang-Lao thinkers believe that if the ruler is skilled enough to know the Dao with his guan, than he can understand the laws that need to be applied. This is compared Han Fei’s Legalism and its belief that the ruler determins law as he sees fit. For Huang-Lao rulers who implemented law, they could not do so on whims or fancies. Rather, they had to apply laws in accordance with the natural way of things, or Dao. Tu Wei-Ming explains this thusly:
A rhythmical pattern of governmental activities is set in motion, the king must refrain from excising his personal likes and dislikes in ways that would upset it. He should transcend his own will and conform to the natural turn of events in a disinterested and emotionless manner. It is necessary for the king to establish the “model” (fa)… so that the people as well as the officials can clearly know what is expected of them. (Tu 104)
When Tu refers to the “natural turn of events”, he is referring to Huang-Lao’s Daoist aspects. Daoism is a term also retrospectively created by Sima Tan for his analysis of the schools of thought in his time.[13] Often, Huang-Lao thought is referred to as Huang-Lao Daoism, because how important the Dao is in its theories.[14] And while Huang-Lao thought does apply Daoist principles and terminology, I refrain from giving it a Daoist label as well as a Legalist Label. This is because Huang-Lao thinkers did not consider the Daoist principles as the Daodejing intended. Rather, Huang-Lao put its own twist on the ideas it adopted from Daoism, just as it took a different approach to fa from Legalism. From Daoism, two terms emerge that are adopted into Huang-Lao thought: the ideas of Dao and wu-wei.
Dao represents a mystical essence that permeates everything in the cosmos. It existed before anything, and shall exist afterwards for it is timeless. Tu summarizes the power and influence of the Dao:
It is undifferentiated, indeterminate, and ineffable. Yet it is generative, autonomous, unchangeable, and complete. As the inexhaustible source of the cosmos, [Dao] can neither be delimited by material things nor delineated by words. It is the One, alone and matchless. It is also the wholeness from which all the divergent beings come into existence; Tu 103.
For Huang-Lao thinkers, Dao could be applied to the political word and interpreted as a way of statecraft. Indeed, even the Daodejing can be interpreted as a guide to statecraft, promoting “the general spirit of noninterventionism and laissez fair” attitudes towards government.[15] These attitudes were absorbed by Huang-Lao thinkers and adapted for their use.[16]
Thus, Tu concludes that “[the] teachings of Huang-Lao are not Legalistic; the idea of “government by law” [fa-zhi], as it is usually understood, is incompatible with the spirit of “pure tranquility and nonpurposeful action” [qing-jing wu-wei]” (Tu 104).
Major, drawing on Peerenboom and Tu, lays out the unique tenets of Huang-Lao thought as follows:
1. Dao is the highest and most primary expression of universal potentiality, order, and potency…
2. Dao is expressed in cosmic order, which embraces both the world of nature and the human world; the human order is a subset of the natural order…
3. The human order presupposes the existence of royal government. But royal government must conform to natural order. For a king to act “contrary to nature” is both futile and wrong; the proper stance of a king is [wu-wei], “non-striving” or “taking no action contrary to nature.”
4. … The king must learn all that can be learned about the natural order, so as to make his actions conform to it.
5. The government if the true king is neither sentimental nor vacillating, and neither arbitrary nor domineering. Being in all respects in conformity with the patterns of the Dao as expressed in the natural order, it is balanced, moderate, and irresistibly strong; (12).
“Tao is… the real source of authority, for it is the ultimate basis on which the fa (model of law) and li (pattern) essential for conducting government affairs are established.” (Tu 103)
The true king, through direct apprehension, can see and hear its subtle manifestations. This unusual perception enables him to reign not by imposing arbitrary rules of conduct upon the people, but by luring them, gradually and without conscious purpose, to a mode of life with regularity and naturalness reminiscent of the evolution of the four seasons. [Dao] is, according to this view, the real source of authority, for it is the ultimate basis on which the fa (model or law) and li (pattern) essential for conducting government affairs is established; Tu 103.
The Huang-Lao School was a product of the late Warring States period, even if it reached its full flowering in the early Han… It asked the question, How (sic) is a ruler to prevail in a world of small kingdoms locked in a mutual, and deadly, struggle for survival? It rejected… the Legalist solution – arms and grain… the Huang-Lao prescription was rather for the ruler to align himself with the power of the Dao itself, to make his actions so conform to the patterns of the natural order as to be irresistible; (Major 51-52).
The term fa in Huang-Lao thought is more complex the the simplicity of the monosyllabic word lets on. The term often used in translation of fa as “law” can misleading. Schwartz suggests that a more accurate translation of fa is derived from Mohist use, where fa is interpreted as “model” or “standard”. However, it can also imply a prescriptive method, or techne for the rules of a craft (Schwartz). Or fa could have refered to penal law, as it is often associated with the term xing. Legalist Law: meaning of fa in legalism, penal law, punishment, strictness, ruler’s word.[17]
Major refers to sections the Huainanzi in his text, Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought. He proposes that Huang-Lao thought was more than traits of Legalism and Daoism combined, because The Huang Di focus of Huang-lao needed to include an understanding that there was an “integration of cosmology into political theory” (9), which could be understood from examining relevant portions of the Guanzi and the Huainanzi that refer to Huang Di.
He mentions that Huang-Lao lacks “the mechanistic despotism of Legalism”, and that it was a syncretic school, “willing to mine any and all other schools of philosophy congenial to [Huang-Lao practitioners].” (12) The rule of the true king proceeds from natural order.
Peerenboom’s boom focuses on the texts excavated from the Mawangdui tombs in Changsha during the 70s. These texts are known as the Huang Di Boshu. When comparing Legalism to Huang-Lao, he notices how Legalism gives a ruler free reign, while the Huang Lao rulers has restrictions. He must follow the dao. He must also use a noninterventionist style, known as qing jing wu wei. Legalism is rule by law, while Huang-Lao Daoism is Rule of law. It is because people follow what they feel is the right way, not the law, that Huang-Lao Daoism is able to be successful. It does not play the ruler above law in the way that legalism’s ruler is the law. (270). It is this moral order in the way of things that Peerenboom calls “natural law”.
Schwartz prefers to refer to Huang-Lao as “instrumental” Daoism, similar to Creel calling it “purposive Daoism.” (237). What makes Huang-Lao different than legalism in his view is that it “lacks the urge to implement Draconian law.” He also refers to Sima Dan’s view on the importance of non-intervention of the ruler.. The terms Huang-Lao and Legalism are retrospectively given to these schools of thought by Han doxographers <(Schwartz 321)>.
The fa of legalism most likely refers to xing, or severly punishment, penal law. <(Schwartz 322)> Even though Huang-Lao texts focus on fa (law) in a manner similar to Legalism, he maintains the Huang-Lao is fundamentally unique. (peerenboom)
The "Thought of Huang-Lao": A Reflection on the Lao Tzu and Huang Ti Texts in the Silk Manuscripts o... more
Tu Wei-Ming
The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Nov., 1979), pp. 95-110
Published by: Association for Asian Studies

[1] Schwartz, 237
[2] Du, Peerenboom, Schwartz, and Major
[3] Texts include the Silk Manuscripts of Huang-Lao and relevant sections of the Huainanzi.
[4] Tu translates guan as “penetrating insight”, 104.
[5] Theories shared by Schwartz (237) and Tu (103)
[6] Sima Tan and the Invention of Daoism, "Legalism," "et cetera". Kidder Smith and Sima Tan. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Feb., 2003), pp. 129-156. Published by: Association for Asian Studies
[7] Peerenboom
[8] Schwartz ch. 8 321
[9] Dates qtd. from Schwartz’s notes from Qian Mu, p. 477
[10] Schwartz 342
[11] Schwartz paraphrasing Han Fei zi chi chieh, cap. 40, p. 297. (343)
[12] Schwartz
[13] Sima Tan and the Invention of Daoism, "Legalism," "et cetera". Kidder Smith and Sima Tan. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Feb., 2003), pp. 129-156. Published by: Association for Asian Studies
[14] Consult Major’s tenets of Daoism.
[15] Schwartz 252
[16]Major speaks of Huang-Lao’s pluralism in his text.
[17] Sima Tan and the Invention of Daoism, "Legalism," "et cetera"
Kidder Smith and Sima Tan
The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Feb., 2003), pp. 129-156
Published by: Association for Asian Studies

Works Cited Not included for this essay

Written for Prof. Raphals' AST107 Daoist Traditions - March 9th 2010

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