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The Huáinánzǐ (Chinese: 淮南子; Wade–Giles: Huai-nan Tzu; literally: "The Masters/Philosophers of Huainan") is a 2nd-century BCE Chinese philosophical classic from the Han dynasty that blends Daoist, Confucianist, and Legalist concepts, including theories such as Yin-Yang and the Five Phases. It was written under the patronage of Liu An, King of Huainan, a legendarily prodigious author. The text, also known as the Huainan honglie 淮南鸿烈 ("The Great Brilliance of Huainan"), is a collection of essays presented as resulting from literary and philosophical debates between Liu and guests at his court, in particular the scholars known as the Eight Immortals of Huainan.

The Huainanzi was the first Chinese classic text to use the Pythagorean comma, and to precisely analyze 12-tone tuning in Chinese music (McClain and Ming 1979:213, 206), although the latter was preceded by bronze inscriptions on the (433 BCE) bells of the Marquis Yi of Zeng (Temple 1986:199).

The book[edit]

The date of composition for the Huainanzi is more certain than for most early Chinese texts. 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 BCE, he presented a copy of his "recently completed" book in twenty-one chapters.

The Huainanzi is an eclectic compilation of chapters or essays that range across topics of mythology, history, astronomy, geography, philosophy, science, metaphysics, nature, and politics. It discusses many pre-Han schools of thought (especially Huang-Lao 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 (Tao)
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)


The first complete Huainanzi translation into English was by Major, Queen, Meyer, and Roth (2010). Prior translations were limited to parts or chapters of the text. Morgan (1934) freely rendered chapters 1, 2, 7, 8, 12, 13, 15, and 19; and Major (1993) academically translated chapters 3, 4, and 5. Other translations are restricted to Huainanzi chapters 1 (Balfour 1884, Ames and Lau 1983), 6 (Le Blanc 1985), 9 (Ames 1983), and 11 by (Wallacker 1962). In addition, Roth (1992) and Vankeerberghen (2001) have analyzed aspects of the Huainanzi.


  • Ames, Roger T. (1983).The Art of Rulership: A Study of Ancient Chinese Political Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-7914-2062-0
  • Ames, Roger T. and D.C. Lau. (1998). Yuan Dao: Tracing Dao to Its Source. Ballantine Books.
  • Balfour, Frederic H. (1884). Taoist Texts: Ethical, Political, and Speculative. London: Trubner. ISBN 1-59752-175-2.
  • 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. ISBN 962-209-179-2.
  • Major, John S. (1993). Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the Huainanzi. Albany: SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-1586-4.
  • Major, John S., Sarah Queen, Andrew Meyer, and Harold Roth. (2010). The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China, by Liu An, King of Huainan. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-14204-5
  • McClain, Ernest G. and Ming Shui Hung. "Chinese Cyclic Tunings in Late Antiquity," Ethnomusicology, Vol. 23, No. 2 (May, 1979): 205-224.
  • Morgan, Evan S. (1934). Tao, the Great Luminant: Essays from the Huai Nan Tzu. Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh. ASIN: B00085Y8CI.
  • Roth, Harold. (1992). The Textual History of the Huai-nan Tzu. Ann Arbor: AAS Monograph Series. ISBN 0-924304-06-5.
  • Vankeerberghen, Griet. (2001). The Huainanzi and Liu An's Claim to Moral Authority. Albany. SUNY. ISBN 0-7914-5147-X.
  • Wallacker, Benjamin E. (1962). The Huai-nan-tzu, Book Eleven: Behavior, Culture and the Cosmos. New Haven: American Oriental Society. ASIN: B0007DSHAA.

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