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Chinese Mysticism

Self-cultivation As A Secular Pursuit: C. 400 B.c.e.–1600 C.e.

"Self-cultivation" shows how a certain praxis grew out of the substrate to become an important cultural artifact. At an early point it became entangled in the catch-all (and confusing) category "Daoism." By the late 1700s European sinologists began to examine texts haphazardly denominated "Daoist." For example, the roughly third century B.C.E. commentary to Yi jing (The book of changes) titled "Wenyan," in a passage that discusses "aesthetic grace" (mei), reads at one point: "A man of quality: [attuned to basal] yellow [at the] center; transmitting a system-pattern. He uprightly sets [his] position; makes an abode [within his] outline-shape. With [aesthetic] grace on his inside, [he can be] at ease in [his] four limbs." Interpreters conflated ideas like this with what little they knew of "philosophic Daoism," which often was seen as a crypto-Legalist Confucianism. In the 1920s Richard Wilhelm translated the foregoing, in part, as "The superior man is yellow and moderate … makes his influence felt … through reason.… His beauty is within" (The Yi jing, p. 395), the assumption being that "yellow" referred to moderation and a yielding nature. This relates to late-imperial Confucian ethics and eremitism, but misses important links to an ancient context.

Scholars are now able to apply finer nuances. Since about 1975, archaeology has brought to light manuals, implements, and texts from pre-and early-Han tombs (roughly 400 to 100 B.C.E.) that evidence practices of divination, siting, sexual hygiene, demon-quelling, longevity arts, and mind-evacuation. Examples are "Recipes for Nurturing Life" and "Ten Questions," texts from the Mawangdui cache. Donald Harper carefully explains that these may have been the practical bases from which later self-cultivation pursuits developed. Such tombs were constructed in an era when imperial courts devoted money and energy to complicated rites programs, which in turn found parallels in local culture. Thus the commentary passage, above, apropos of the Yi jing phrase "yellow lower garment," actually carries a mustikos—objects in closed-off tombs and the secretive, frequently agonistic, court struggles over systems of music and dress. In fact, "Yellow Bell" was the name of an elusive, theoretical pitch regulation for establishing tuning "systems." Harmonics in turn were seen as "transmitting" cosmic beauty, which emanated from the "man of quality" at the "center"—that is, local royalty or, later, the emperor. The "Wenyan" passage thus glides on the edges of several readings: an indirect, mostly metaphorical exhortation on centering; a paean to court music and the computations of its harmonics experts; an alchemy of nurturing the homunculus emperor (or sage) within oneself; and reconciling inner and outer commitments in one's public life. Later in the Han period, and with important revivals during Tang and Song (see below), other texts carried self-cultivation forward, with instructions in mystical practice that became more specific.

If the above interpretation of a passage of commentary to Yi jing is controversial, nevertheless, self-cultivation is read quite confidently from passages of famous works such as Laozi, Huainanzi, Guanzi, and Zhuangzi that discuss breathing, sitting still, and removal of all perception and emotion. Such readings are seen by Harold Roth to reflect a historical development whose very earliest period emphasized "cosmology and the inner transformation of the individual leading to the attainment of 'mystical gnosis'" (Roth, pp. 6–9). Through the textual work of Roth, Livia Kohn, and others it is better understood that early China contained a whole culture of self-cultivation, with fairly common terminologies, texts, and aims.


"[T]he five tones originate in the breath blown in and out from the mouth.… Spread out energy forms the six roots of the senses." Mystical practice as described in fifth-century Daoist text "Xisheng jing." Note the reference to ritual music, similar to the deep context of the earlier, non-religious "Wenyan" commentary to Yi jing.

SOURCE: Taoist Mystical Philosophy: The Scripture of Western Ascension, translated by Livia Kohn. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, p. 237.

Beginning around 100 C.E., scholar-officials restored and reinterpreted ancient texts. The Yi jing, especially its anonymous commentaries (as above), was researched anew, as was the relativistic and transcendent logic of Laozi and Zhuangzi. The second to fourth century scholar-Daoists, often referred to as "neo-Daoists" or "Mystery Adepts," brought relativist logic and psychological inquiry into public discourse, and many practiced eremitic stances and withdrawals. Most did not identify the ancient traces of mystical praxis per se in their classics, but their metaphysics and ontology spurred mystical speculation later on among monk-scholars and Daoist revelators.

In this same period, anonymous writings known as "weft-texts" (wei) and numero-calendric "charts" (tu) were thought to augment hermetically the "warp" of the Confucian classics. Essentially, they were revelatory texts that claimed sage-authorial voice for their political predictions and comments on sociocosmic timing and justice. Beginning about 350 C.E., revealed texts of various types influenced southern Daoist scholars and scriptural communities; and they remain in use in Daoist communities of the early twenty-first century.

Around 1000 C.E. neo-Confucian discussions reclaimed ancient approaches to self-cultivation, this time fully conscious of the mystical program, unlike earlier reclaimers. Many judged Daoist practices as undesirable and the cosmologies and belief-systems of Mahayana Buddhism as anathema; but the influential Shao Yong (1011–1077), for example, borrowed from both, sparking interest among scholar-intellectuals in psychocosmic resonance and correlation, as well as in self-cultivation. In fact, self-cultivation became prominent in the aspirations and writings of Wang Yangming (1472–1529), his disciple Wang Ji (1498–1583), and follower Li Zhi (1527–1602), to name a few. Their mysticism centered around the notion (even praxis) of "innate knowledge"—promoting instinctual mental (and moral) response over the machinations of academic learning. In fact, Wang Yangming wrote of practicing a Zen-like contemplation and the subsequent redirecting of it into political action. His ideas made a deep impact on elite-scholar life for over two hundred years.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterChinese Mysticism - China's "mantic Way": Knowledge Through Insight And Technics, Self-cultivation As A Secular Pursuit: C. 400 B.c.e.–1600 C.e.