Hsuan-Hsueh (Neo-Taoism)

Doctrines The Hsuan-hsueh, or Mysterious Learning movement, was primarily concerned with the revival and reinterpretation of the two main Taoist philosophers, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. It is therefore sometimes referred to as Neo-Taoism by today's scholars. Unlike its sources, however, the movement was not anti-Confucian per se, and indeed its two most eminent thinkers, Wang Pi and Kuo Hsiang, regarded Confucius, not Lao-tzu or Chuang-tzu, as the true Sage. These men in particular sought to move away from the apparent Taoist stress on withdrawal from the world, and develop a Taoist metaphysics and understanding of the Sage which would give support to the Confucian ideal of life in an ordered society.
In his commentary on the Tao-te ching Wang Pi held that the multiplicity of phenomena arise from, and are sustained and governed by, pen-wu - non, or unmanifested, being. Only by transcending distinctions, and returning and identifying with this mysterious source, can the Sage understand and harmonise the manifested world, including society.
By contrast, in his commentary on the Chuang-tzu Kuo Hsiang argued that the universe has no source or Creator, rather it is self-producing and self governing according to its own li, or principle. Each individual thing shares in this principle in its own unique way, and harmony in the universe and society is achieved by each thing accepting and expressing its inner nature naturally, freely, and fully. The Sage is one who by liberating himself from personal preferences and limited human knowledge comes to know, merge with, and accept, all things as equal and necessary.

History The Hsuan-hsueh movement arose around the time of the fall of the Later Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), and lasted for some two centuries. Partly as an escape from the troubled times, and partly as a reaction against the dry scholasticism that had come to characterise Confucian thought, a proportion of the educated elite turned to the works of the ancient Taoist philosophers and the I Ching, or Book of Changes. The escapist motive expressed itself most strongly in elements of that part of the movement called the Ch'ing-t'an or Light Conversation, the most prominent of which were the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a group famed for their care-free unconventional behaviour. However it was the Hsuan-hsueh proper, as represented in particular by the writings of Wang Pi (226-249), one of the founders of the movement, and Kuo Hsiang (d. 312), which was to prove the most significant. Their commentaries on the Tao-te ching and the Chuang-tzu respectively, became the most influential written, while some of the terms and concepts they introduced were to inform much of later Chinese metaphysical thought. This influence began with the dialogue between Hsuan-hsueh thinkers and Chinese Buddhists in the third and fourth centuries, and when the movement started to fade toward the end of the Chin Dynasty (265-420) it was into the then emergent Chinese Buddhism that part of its spirit and energy passed.

Symbols The Hsuan-hsueh is not known to have used any symbols.

Adherents No contemporary adherents.

Main Centre
 The movement was most strong in cities in southern China, for example in the capital of the Eastern Chin Dynasty (317-420), Chien-k'ang.