Realistic implications and contemporary philosophical values of Neo-Daoism

This is the term paper written for PH2302 Chinese Philosophical Traditions I. As usual, I only post the introduction and the conclusion here. Please feel free to contact me via email (refer to the Home page) if you would like to read some of my arguments in detail or offer any critic. 


Are Xuanxue (Neo-Daoist) debates about becoming-non-becoming (youwu 有无) escapist? Are they philosophically valuable from contemporary perspectives?


Xuanxue, or Neo-Daoism,[1] emerged as the central intellectual debate during the Wei-Jin period of ancient China (220-420 AD). The term xuan, meaning “mystery”, “hidden” and “unfathomably profound”, was used by Laozi to describe the mystical characteristics of Dao (the way, principle or doctrine). [2] Disappointed by the fall of the Han Dynasty, Xuanxue thinkers questioned Ru Classical Studies that dominated Chinese intellectual development for centuries. While still privileging Ru teachings in the Analects, they mostly sought alternative answers from the Daoist tradition to unlock the mystery of Dao so as to bring taiping (“great peace”) to the country. They believed in Dao as the universal wisdom underlying everything and respected the Laozi, the Zhuangzi and the Yijing as sanxuan (the Three Treaties on the Profound). Unlike Ru’s practical doctrines, Xuanxue teachings are sometimes labelled as escapist and mostly feature abstract metaphysical ideas such as youwu (becoming-non-becoming), li (pattern), xing (human nature), and ziran (spontaneity). In this essay, I will focus on explaining Wang Bi’s interpretation of youwu, use it as the case study to argue that it is too superficial to classify Xuanxue as merely escapist, and eventually discuss the philosophical values of youwu from contemporary perspectives.


In conclusion, I admit that the activity of qingtan expresses disinterest towards public affairs, and Xuanxue philosophers engaging in such activities often indulged in the pleasure of nature. Yet, upon closer examination of Wang Bi’s metaphysical arguments on wu, li, jing, ziran and qing, I think that Xuanxue metaphysical discussions have subtle realistic implications. In particular, Xuanxue debates on youwu have ethical and political applications, and these ideas facilitate the reception of Buddhist philosophy in ancient China. It is therefore too quick to dismiss all these debates as useless to society and only serving to please the unrealistic, indulgent intellectuals. Lastly, although Xuanxue philosophy gradually lost its popularity at the end of the Wei-Jin period, Xuanxue debates on youwu are still philosophically relevant today. Its application in epistemology and political philosophy are just two examples.


[1] It is admittedly a bit misleading to translate Xuanxue as Neo-Daoism because Xuanxue teachings combined ideas from other lineages such as Ru. Nevertheless, the term ‘Neo-Daoism’ captures fact that Xuanxue teachings tend to overlap with Laozi’s and Zhuangzi’s metaphysics, and this essay uses the two terms interchangeably. Neo-Daoism, after all, reflects the idea that Xuanxue philosophers re-vitalise Daoist ideas but still differ from original teachings (Feng and Bodde 168).

[2] “Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders”, excerpt from Chapter One, the Laozi

Works Cited

Balazs, Etienne. Nihilistic Revolt or Mystical Escapism. Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy: Variations on a Theme. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964. Print.

Bird, Colin. An Introduction to Political Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.

Chan, Alan, “Neo-Daoism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, N.J Princeton University Press, 1963. Print.

De Bary, William Theodore, et al. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1st. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Print.

Feng, Yu-lan, and Derk Bodde. A History of Chinese Philosophy Vol. Ii. Princeton U. Pr U6, 1952. Print.

Laozi, and Dagao Chu. Tao Te Ching: A New Translation. Vol. [5th pap.]. London: Unwin, 1972. Print.

Roberts, Moss, and Laozi. Dao De Jing: The Book of the Way. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Print.

Steup, Matthias, “Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < epistemology/>

唐翼明. 魏晋淸谈. 台北 东大图书公司, 1992. Print.

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