Huangdi Sijing

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The Huangdi Sijing (simplified Chinese: 黄帝四经; traditional Chinese: 黃帝四經; pinyin: Huángdì sìjīng; lit. "Yellow Emperor's Four Classics") are long-lost Chinese manuscripts that were discovered among the Mawangdui Silk Texts in 1973. Also known as the Huang-Lao boshu (simplified Chinese: 黄老帛书; traditional Chinese: 黃老帛書; pinyin: Huáng-Lǎo bóshū; lit. "Huang-Lao Silk Texts"), they are thought by modern scholars to reflect a lost branch of early syncretist Daoism, referred to as the "Huang–Lao school of thought" named after the legendary Huangdi (黃帝 the "Yellow Emperor") and Laozi (老子 "Master Lao"). One finds in it "technical jargon" derived of Taoism, Legalism, Confucianism and Mohism.[1]

The four texts[edit]

Part of the list of comet sightings from the Book of Silk (ca. 400 BCE)

Mawangdui is an archeological site, comprising three Han-era tombs, found near Changsha in modern Hunan Province (ancient state of Chu). In December 1973, archeologists excavating "Tomb Number 3" (dated at 168 BCE) discovered an edifying trove of silk paintings and silk scrolls with manuscripts, charts, and maps. These polymathic texts discussed philosophy, politics, medicine, Daoist yoga, Yin and Yang, and astronomy. Most were unknown in the received literature, ranging from a formulary that modern editors entitled Recipes for Fifty-Two Illnesses and two texts on cauterization – the Zubi Shiyi Mai Jiujing and Yin Yang Shiyi Mai Jiujing, both precursors of the Huangdi Neijing – to the unknown Book of Silk, which lists three centuries of comet sightings.

The Mawangdui manuscripts included two silk copies of the Daodejing, eponymously titled "Laozi". Both add other texts and both reverse the received chapter arrangement, giving the Dejing chapters before the Daojing. The so-called "B Version" included four previously unknown works, each appended with a title and number of characters ():

  1. Jing Fa (經法 "The Constancy of Laws"), 5000 characters
  2. Shi Da jing (十大經 "The Ten Great Classics"), 4564
  3. Cheng (稱 "Aphorisms"), 1600
  4. Dao Yuan (道原 "On Dao the Fundamental"), 464

Due to textual lacunae, that is gaps in the written text due to the fragmentary preservation of the original ancient silk manuscripts, the original character counts are also uncertain.

The two longest texts are subdivided into sections. "The Constancy of Laws" has nine: 1. Dao fa (道法 "The Dao and the Law"), 2. Guo ci (國次 "The Priorities of the State"), 3. Jun zheng (君正 "The Ruler's Government").... "The Sixteen Classics", which some scholars read as Shi da jing (十大經 "The Ten Great Classics"), has fifteen [sic]: 1. Li ming (立命 "Establishing the Mandate"), 2. Guan (觀 "Observation"), 3. Wu zheng (五正 "The Five Norms")....

In the decades since 1973, scholars have published many Mawangdui manuscript studies (see Carrozza 2002). In 1974, the Chinese journal Wenwu (文物 "Cultural objects/relics") presented a preliminary transcription into modern characters. Tang Lan's influential article (1975) gave photocopies with transcriptions, analyzed the textual origins and contents, and cited paralleling passages from Chinese classic texts. Tang was first to identify these texts as the "Huangdi sijing", a no-longer extant text attributed to the Yellow Emperor, which the Hanshu's Yiwenzhi (藝文志) bibliographical section lists as a Daoist text in four pian (篇 "sections"). The "Huangdi sijing" was lost and is only known by name, and thus the Daoist Canon excluded it. While most scholars agree with Tang's evidence, some disagree and call the texts the Huang-Lao boshu or the Huangdi shu (黃帝書 "The Yellow Emperor's books").

The first complete English translation of the Huangdi sijing was produced by Leo S. Chang (appended in Yu 1993:211-326). Subsequent translations include scholarly versions by Yates (1997) and by Chang and Feng (1998), as well as some selected versions. Ryden (1997) provides an informative examination of "The Yellow Emperor's Four Canons".

Philosophical significance[edit]

The Huangdi sijing reveals some complex connections within Chinese philosophy. Take, for example, the first lines in "The Constancy of Laws":

The Way generates standards. Standards serve as marking cords to demarcate success and failure and are what clarify the crooked and the straight. Therefore, those who hold fast to the Way generate standards and do not to dare to violate them; having established standards, they do not dare to discard them. [Missing graph] Only after you are able to serve as your own marking cord, will you look at and know all-under-Heaven and not be deluded. (Dao fa, 1.1, tr. De Bary and Lufrano 2001:243)

This passage echoes concepts from several rival philosophies, Daoism, Legalism, Mohism, Confucianism, and School of Names. De Bary and Lufrano (2001:242) describe Huangdi sijing philosophy as "a syncretism that is grounded in a cosmology of the Way and an ethos of self-cultivation".

"Prior to the Mawangdui discovery," says Peerenboom (1993:1), "sinologists were more confused than clear about the school of thought known as Huang-Lao." Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian says many early Han thinkers and politicians favored Huang-Lao doctrines during the reigns (202-157 BCE) of Emperor Wen, Emperor Jing, and Empress Dou. Sima cites Han Fei, Shen Buhai, and Shen Dao as representative Huang-Lao philosophers, advocates that sagely rulers should use wu wei to organize their government and society. However, after Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141-87 BCE) declared Confucianism the official state philosophy, Huang-Lao followers dwindled and their texts largely vanished.

The Huangdi sijing texts provide newfound answers to questions about how Chinese philosophy originated. Carrozza (2002:49) explains that, "For a long time, the focal point in the study of early Chinese thought has been the interpretation of a rather limited set of texts, each attributed to a 'Master' and to one of the so-called 'Hundred Schools'." For instance, tradition says Mozi founded Mohism and his students compiled the Mozi text. Conversely, Mawangdui textual syncretism reveals "the majority of the ancient texts" are not written by individual authors, "but rather collections of works of different origins."


  1. ^ R. P. Peerenboom 1993 p.xi,3. Law and Morality in Ancient China.
  • Carrozza, Paola. 2002. "A Critical Review of the Principal Studies on the Four Manuscripts Preceding the B Version of the Mawangdui Laozi," B.C. Asian Review 13:49-69.
  • Chang, Leo S. and Yu Feng, trs. 1998. The Four Political Treatises of the Yellow Emperor: Original Mawangdui Texts with Complete English Translations and an Introduction. University of Hawaii Press.
  • De Bary, William Theodore and Lufrano, Richard John, eds. 2001. Sources of Chinese Tradition: from 1600 through the Twentieth Century. Columbia University Press. 2 vols.
  • Peerenboom, Randall P. 1993. Law and Morality in Ancient China: the Silk Manuscripts of Huang-Lao. State University of New York Press.
  • Ryden, Edmund, tr. 1997. The Yellow Emperor's Four Canons: a Literary Study and Edition of the Text from Mawangdui Han tombs. Guangqi chubanshe.
  • Tang Lan 唐蘭. 1975. "Mawangdui chutu Laozi yiben juanqian guyishu de yanjiu (馬王堆出土《老子》乙本卷前古佚書的研究 "Research on the ancient lost manuscripts preceding the B Version of the Mawangdui Laozi)." Kaogu xuebao (考古學報) 1:7–38.
  • Yates, Robin D.S. 1997. Five Lost Classics: Tao, Huang-Lao, and Yin-Yang in Han China. Ballantine Books.
  • Yu Mingguang 余明光. 1993. Huangdi sijing jinzhu jinyi (黃帝四經今註今譯 "The Huangdi Sijing with modern annotations and translations"). Yuelu shushe.

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