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Qing-era copy of Huainanzi
Literal meaning[The Writings of] the Huainan Masters

The Huainanzi is an ancient Chinese text that consists of a collection of essays that resulted from a series of scholarly debates held at the court of Liu An, Prince of Huainan, sometime before 139 BCE. The Huainanzi blends Chinese folk religion, Taoist, Confucianist, and Legalist concepts, including theories such as yin and yang and Wu Xing theories.

The Huainanzi's essays are all connected to one primary goal: attempting to define the necessary conditions for perfect socio-political order.[1] It concludes that perfect societal order derives mainly from a perfect ruler, and the essays are compiled in such a way as to serve as a handbook for an enlightened sovereign and his court.[1]

The book[edit]

Scholars are reasonably certain regarding the date of composition for the Huainanzi. Both the Book of Han and Records of the Grand Historian record that when Liu An paid a state visit to his nephew the Emperor Wu of Han in 139 BC, he presented a copy of his "recently completed" book in twenty-one chapters. Recent research shows that Chapters 1, 2, and 21 of the Huainanzi were performed at the imperial court.[2]

The Huainanzi is an eclectic compilation of chapters or essays that range across topics of religion, history, astronomy, geography, philosophy, science, metaphysics, nature, and politics. It discusses many pre-Han schools of thought, especially the Huang–Lao form of religious Daoism, and contains more than 800 quotations from Chinese classics. The textual diversity is apparent from the chapter titles (tr. Le Blanc, 1985, 15–16):

Number Name Reading Meaning
1 原道訓 Yuandao Searching out Dao (Tao)
2 俶真訓 Chuzhen Beginning of Reality
3 天文訓 Tianwen Patterns of Heaven
4 墜形訓 Zhuixing Forms of Earth
5 時則訓 Shize Seasonal Regulations
6 覽冥訓 Lanming Peering into the Obscure
7 精神訓 Jingshen Seminal Breath and Spirit
8 本經訓 Benjing Fundamental Norm
9 主術訓 Zhushu Craft of the Ruler
10 繆稱訓 Miucheng On Erroneous Designations
11 齊俗訓 Qisu Placing Customs on a Par
12 道應訓 Daoying Responses of Dao
13 氾論訓 Fanlun A Compendious Essay
14 詮言訓 Quanyan An Explanatory Discourse
15 兵略訓 Binglue On Military Strategy
16 說山訓 Shuoshan Discourse on Mountains
17 說林訓 Shuolin Discourse on Forests
18 人間訓 Renjian In the World of Man
19 脩務訓 Youwu Necessity of Training
20 泰族訓 Taizu Grand Reunion
21 要略 Yaolue Outline of the Essentials

Some Huainanzi passages are philosophically significant, for instance, this combination of Five Phases and Daoist themes.  

When the lute-tuner strikes the kung note [on one instrument], the kung note [on the other instrument] responds: when he plucks the chiao note [on one instrument], the chiao note [on the other instrument] vibrates. This results from having corresponding musical notes in mutual harmony. Now, [let us assume that] someone changes the tuning of one string in such a way that it does not match any of the five notes, and by striking it sets all twenty-five strings resonating. In this case there has as yet been no differentiation as regards sound; it just happens that that [sound] which governs all musical notes has been evoked. Thus, he who is merged with Supreme Harmony is beclouded as if dead-drunk, and drifts about in its midst in sweet contentment, unaware how he came there; engulfed in pure delight as he sinks to the depths; benumbed as he reaches the end, he is as if he had not yet begun to emerge from his origin. This is called the Great Merging. (chapter 6, tr. Le Blanc 1985:138)

Notable translations[edit]

  • Major, John S.; Queen, Sarah A.; Meyer, Andrew Seth; Roth, Harold D. (2010). The Huainanzi. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-52085-0.
  • Le Blanc, Charles; Mathieu, Rémi (2003). Philosophes Taoïstes II: Huainan zi (in French). Paris: Gallimard.

Translations that focus on individual chapters include:

  • Balfour, Frederic H. (1884). Taoist Texts, Ethical, Political, and Speculative. London: Trübner.
  • Morgan, Evan (1933). Tao, the Great Luminant: Essays from the Huai-nan-tzu. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.
  • Wallacker, Benjamin (1962). The Huai-nan-tzu, Book Eleven: Behavior Culture and the Cosmos. New Haven: American Oriental Society.
  • Kusuyama, Haruki (1979–1988). E-nan-ji 淮南子 [Huainanzi]. Shinshaku kanbun taikei (in Japanese). Vol. 54, 55, 62.
  • Larre, Claude (1982). Le Traité VIIe du Houai nan tseu: Les esprits légers et subtils animateurs de l'essence [Huainanzi Chapter 7 Translation: Light Spirits and Subtle Animators of Essence]. Variétés sinologiques (in French). Vol. 67.
  • Ames, Roger T. (1983). The Art of Rulership: A Study in Ancient Chinese Political Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Le Blanc, Charles (1985). Huai nan tzu; Philosophical Synthesis in Early Han Thought: The Idea of Resonance (Kan-ying) With a Translation and Analysis of Chapter Six. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
  • Major, John S. (1993). Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four and Five of the Huainanzi. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Ames, Roger T.; Lau, D.C. (1998). Yuan Dao: Tracing Dao to Its Source. New York: Ballantine Books.

Television series[edit]



  1. ^ a b Le Blanc (1993), p. 189.
  2. ^ Wong, Peter Tsung Kei (2022). "The Soundscape of the Huainanzi 淮南子: Poetry, Performance, Philosophy, and Praxis in Early China". Early China. 45. Cambridge University Press: 515–539. doi:10.1017/eac.2022.6. ISSN 0362-5028. S2CID 252909236.


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