The Wenzi (Chinese: 文子; pinyin: Wénzǐ; Wade–Giles: Wen-tzu; literally: "[Book of] Master Wen") is a Daoist classic allegedly written by a disciple of Laozi. The text was widely read and highly revered in the centuries following its creation, and even canonized as Tongxuan zhenjing (Chinese: 通玄真經; pinyin: Tōngxuán zhēnjīng; Wade–Giles: T'ung-hsuan chen-ching; literally: "True Scripture of Understanding the Mysteries") in the year 742 CE. However, soon afterwards scholars started questioning its authenticity and dismissing it as a forgery that was created between the Han dynasty and the Tang dynasty. The text's fate changed in 1973, when archeologists excavated a 55 BCE tomb and discovered remnants of a Wenzi copied on bamboo strips, which offer us a glimpse of what the text looked like prior to its drastic revision into the textus receptus.
The title Wenzi 文子 "Master Wen", suffixed with -zi 子 "child; person; master (title of respect)", is analogous with other Hundred Schools of Thought texts like Mozi, Zhuangzi, Guiguzi, and Baopuzi. Wen 文 "written character; literature; refinement; culture" is an infrequent Chinese surname, and hence Wenzi is interpretable as "Master Wen." Wen is also frequently used in given names, posthumous names, et cetera, due to its positive connotations. For example, King Wen of Zhou 周文王 or Kong Wenzi 孔文子 (Analects 5.15, tr. Ames and Rosemont 1998:98-99). Hence, Wenzi is also interpretable as a nom de plume denoting "Master of Literature/Culture." Nothing can be said for certain about Wenzi, no matter how this name is interpreted. Although we do not know his true identity, various hypotheses have been proposed.
The bibliographical section of the 1st century CE Book of Han says Wenzi was a student of Laozi, a contemporary of Confucius 孔子 (551-479 BCE), and an adviser to King Ping of Zhou 周平王 (r. 770-720 BCE). This cannot be true, as King Ping and Confucius lived two centuries apart, and it fueled suspicion of the text's forged status in later centuries. To solve the chronological inconsistency, some commentators suggest a mistake for King Ping of Chu 楚平王 (r. 528-516 BCE), whose reign does coincide with Confucius' lifetime.
The later Wenzi commentary by Du Daojian (1237-1318) furthermore notes Wenzi was a nobleman from the Spring and Autumn period state of Jin, his surname was Xin 辛 and courtesy name (zi 字) was Xing 銒. He was also called Song Xing 宋銒 referring to his home of Kuiqiu 葵丘, which was in Song (state).
Written references to the Wenzi first appear in the Han Dynasty. The no longer extant 1st century BCE Qilue 七略 "Seven Summaries" by Liu Xiang and Liu Xin said the Wenzi had 9 pian 篇 "chapters". The bibliographical section of the 1st century CE Book of Han records the Wenzi text in 9 juan 卷 "rolls; volumes", says Wenzi was a student of Laozi, a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BCE), and adviser to King Ping of Zhou (r. 770-720 BCE), but adds "the work appears to be a forgery" (tr. Sakade 2007:1041), presumably because King Ping and Confucius lived two centuries apart.
In his ca. 523 CE Qilu 七录錄 "Seven Records", the Liang Dynasty scholar Ruan Xiaoxu 阮孝绪 records the Wenzi text in 10 volumes. Bibliographies in the 636 CE Book of Sui and the 945 CE New Book of Tang both record 12 volumes.
In 742 CE, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang canonized the Wenzi as a Daoist scripture (along with the Daode jing, Zhuangzi, and Liezi) honorifically called the Tongxuan zhenjing 通玄真經 "True Scripture of Understanding the Mysteries". The emperor posthumously styled Wenzi as the Tongxuan Zhenren 通玄真人 "True Man Who Understands the Mysteries".
The Daozang "Daoist Canon" includes three Wenzi redactions under the Yujue 玉訣 "Commentaries" subsection of the Dongshen 洞神 "Spirit Grotto" section. The oldest extant edition is the Tongxuan zhenjing zhu 通玄真經注 "Commentary on the Authentic Scripture of Pervading Mystery" by Xu Lingfu 徐灵府 (ca. 760-841) of the Tang Dynasty. The Tongxuan zhenjing zhengyi zhu 通玄真經正儀注 "Commentary on the Correct Meaning of the Authentic Scripture of Pervading Mystery" is by Zhu Bian (ca. 1085-1144) of the Song Dynasty. Third is the 1310 CE Tongxuan zhenjing zuanyi 通玄真經纘義 "Collected Explanations to the Authentic Scripture of Pervading Mystery" by Du Daojian 杜道坚 (1237–1318) of the Yuan Dynasty. Judith M. Boltz (1987:219) cites the opinion of Siku Quanshu bibliographers that Du's version was the most reliable Wenzi redaction. She notes that Du Daojian became the rightful literary heir to Wenzi when he discovered a copy of the classic at the Tongxuan Guan 通玄觀 "Abbey of Pervading Mystery" of Mount Jizhou 計籌 in Zhejiang, where hagiographic legend says Wenzi took refuge and wrote down his teachings.
Although the Wenzi has traditionally been considered a Daoist text illustrating Laozi's thinking, it contains elements from Confucianism, Mohism, Legalism, and School of Names. The textual format records Laozi answering Wenzi's questions about Daode jing concepts like Wu wei. Besides citing passages from Daoist classics like Zhuangzi and Huainanzi, the Wenzi also cites others like the Yijing, Mengzi, Lüshi Chunqiu, and Xiao Jing. Regarding the received Wenzi text, Yoshinobu Sakade concludes:
While these references make the Wenzi appear as a source of ancient thought, in the form we know it today it is a forgery, with about eighty percent of the text quoted from the Huainan zi, and the rest consisting of an amplification of the Daode jing or quotations from other texts. The present version contains expression similar to those found in the Taoist scriptures … These elements suffice to show that the extant Wenzi was written between the third and eight centuries, before the time of Xu Lingfu. (2007:1042)
In 1973, Chinese archeologists excavated a Han Dynasty tomb near Dingzhou 定州 (or Dingxian 定縣) in Hebei. Its occupant is identified as King Huai 懷王 of Zhongshan, who died in 55 BCE. Tomb furnishings included a precious Jade burial suit, jade ornaments, writing tools, and remnants of eight Chinese classic texts, including the Wenzi and Confucian Analects copied on hundreds of bamboo slips (jian 簡). These bamboo manuscripts were fragmented, disordered, and blackened by fire, perhaps accidentally caused by tomb robbers.
The specialized project of deciphering and transcribing this ancient Wenzi copy was delayed owing to a 1976 earthquake at Tangshan that further damaged the Dingzhou bamboo slips. The team published their first report in 1981 and their Wenzi transcription in 1995 (both in the archeological journal Wenwu 文物 "Cultural Relics").
Ongoing sinological studies of the so-called Dingzhou Wenzi (Le Blanc 2000, Ho 2002, van Els 2018) are providing both specific details of the presumed urtext edition and general insights in the early history of Daoist texts. Portions of the Dingzhou Wenzi are basically consistent with certain section in chapter 5 of the received text. Consensus is building that this excavated Wenzi dates from the 2nd century BCE, while the transmitted text was created after the 2nd century CE (van Els 2018:43-47, 129).
The question-and-answer format is a significant difference between the bamboo and received Wenzi versions. Ames and Rosemont explain:
Consistent with the court bibliography in the History of the Han, the Dingzhou Wenzi has Wenzi as teacher who is being asked questions by a King Ping of the Zhou 周平王. The received text, on the other hand, has the teacher Laozi 老子 being asked questions by the student Wenzi, certainly less appropriate given that texts are usually named for the teacher rather than the student. (1998:273-4)
Compared with the numerous English translations of familiar Daoist texts like the Daode jing and Zhuangzi, the presumably apocryphal Wenzi has been disregarded. Thomas Cleary (1991) wrote a popularized translation of the transmitted Wenzi, which he attributes to Laozi.
There is no authoritative English Wenzi translation based on the groundbreaking Dingzhou readings, nothing comparable with the Analects translation by Ames and Rosemont (1998). English translations of select Dingzhou Wenzi bamboo strips can be found in the monograph by Paul van Els (2018).
- Ames, Roger T. and Henry Rosemont, Jr. 1998. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. Ballantine.
- Boltz, Judith M. 1987. A Survey of Taoist Literature, Tenth to Seventeenth Centuries. University of California.
- Cleary, Thomas, tr. 1991. Wen-tzu: Understanding the Mysteries, Further Teachings of Lao-tzu. Shambhala.
- Ho, Che Wah. 2002. "On the Questionable Nature of the Texts Found in Lushi Chunqiu and the Plagiarizing Relationship between the Huainanzi and the Wenzi," Journal of Chinese Studies 11:497-535.
- Le Blanc, Charles. 2000. Le Wen zi à la lumière de l'histoire et de l'archéologie. Presses de l'Université de Montréal.
- Peerenboom, Randal P. 1995. Law and Morality in Ancient China: the Silk Manuscripts of Huang-Lao. State University New York (SUNY) Press.
- Sakade Yoshinobu. 2007. "Wenzi," in The Encyclopedia of Taoism, Fabrizio Pregadio, ed., Routledge, 1041-1042.
- van Els, Paul. 2006. The Wenzi: creation and manipulation of a Chinese philosophical text. PhD dissertation. Leiden University.
- van Els, Paul. 2018. The Wenzi: Creativity and Intertextuality in Early Chinese Philosophy. Leiden: Brill.
- The Perfect Book of Pervasive Mystery, Taoist Culture and Information Centre