Bibliotherapy

HUAINAN ZI-Glimpses from Chapter VIII

MA YUAN, ‘ON A MOUNTAIN PATH IN SPRING’, Southern Song period, early 13th century. National Palace Museum, Taibei.

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Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are a few selections from the ‘Huainanzi’, chapter VIII, paragraphs 9a to 11b. Our exploratory working English translation is based on the French ‘Pleiade’ edition-2003, pages 342-347 with constant verification with the Chinese original.

The title of this chapter is BEN JING (本經訓) , ‘Of the original chain’: Rémi Mathieu, the translator of this chapter comments the title: ‘Everything takes it proper nature from its origin, and it is this ‘root’ which, alike the thread of a cloth, will determine its ‘quality’ throughout its existence, alongside its species ‘existence.

The translator used ‘chain’ in the meaning of root. It reminds us with the Homeric concept of ‘Zeus’ golden chain’ in the Iliad, chapter VIII.

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HYGEIA’s exploratory working English translation.

We can infer that the fame of those we call ‘wise’ or ‘’saint’ is due to the fact that they all faced the trials of troubled times. Today, the perfect man who lives at the heart of a troubled time, absorbs virtue, cherishes the dao within him, embraces a limitless knowledge and muzzles his mouth so to cease talking.


Many are those who, among them, died without uttering a single word. No knowledge under the heavens matches the unspoken word (non-word); because: “The dao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging dao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name”. (Dao De Jing, I, opening- James Legge).


What we write on bamboo or on silk, what we engrave on metal or on stone, to share with mankind, is of a rough nature. The five Emperors and the tree Kings all brought back to the same direction their diverse dealings and always gathered back to the same point from their different paths. (Meaning: differed in their achievements; but all had a common purpose. They went by different roads, but reached the same end)
In the last centuries, scholars, didn’t know that the dao was of a single body, that virtue must be emulated collectively. They followed the spur of long-gone events; sat to converse about them together in solemn ways; they sang and danced about forlorn feats at the plucking sound of string instruments. This is why, even though the scholars heard a lot of stories they couldn’t avoid confusion.


The ‘Shi Jing’ (the classical book of Poems) says: ‘Don’t try to catch a tiger with your bare hands, don’t try to cross the river without a boat; these men only knew how; none knew other things.’

This is what I wanted to say.

The emperors were in communion with the Great One; kings took for law the Yin and the Yang; governors adopted the rule of the four seasons; princes had at their convenience the use of the six musical standards (temperaments or scales similar to the Ottoman and Arabic maquam). Those who firmly held the Great One were engaging Heaven and Earth, molded mountains and tamed rivers, absorbing or rejecting the Yin or the Yang, attracted to them the four seasons, took as string and ropes the eight extremes and the six conjunctions. They protected and comforted (covering and gratifying), lighting and showing the way, dispensing their kindnesses impartially. Whirling or crawling, no living being were born without turning towards virtue.

The Yin and the Yang availing themselves of the harmony of Heaven and Earth, were giving shapes to the bodies of the thousand aspects. Absorbing breathes, they molded beings by creating ‘aspects categories’, dilatating or compressing, winding up or deploying, immersing into the unfathomable, finishing or beginning, emptying or filling, gravitating towards the one-without-origin.

During the four seasons, spring was giving birth, summer provided growth, autumn harvest and winter garnering: there are periods for taking, others for giving; seasons to be outside, others to be inside. Opening or closing, expansion or contraction alternate without reversing their course. Contentment or anger, rigidity or flexibility manifest without straying from the principle ruling them.

Of the six musical standards, to the one giving life corresponds the one taking life; to the one that rewards corresponds the one that punishes; to the one that gives correspond the one that takes, without this there is no Dao. Hence, we take into account the weights and the measuring scale, the level and the line; one pays attention to what is important and to what is not in order to rule the homeland.

It is the reason why, who partakes to the Great One clearly perceives the clarity flowing from Heaven and Earth. He penetrates within the principle of the dao and virtue. His luminous intelligence is brighter than the sun and the moon. His essential spirits communicate with the ten thousand beings. Whether in movement or resting, he is in harmony with the Yin and the Yang. His delights or his angers are in harmony with the four seasons. His virtue spreads his beneficial influence to the faraway lands. The sound of his fame journeys towards posterity.

The virtue of those who take for law the Ying and the Yang composes a trinity with Heaven and Earth. Their lights form a whole with the lights of the sun and of the moon. Their essence is united with the ghosts and the spirits. They wear on their heads the celestial sphere and tread the terrestrial square. They take good care of the gnomon and pay attention to its rope. At home, they know how to rule themselves; outside, how to gain the heart of the people. When they issue laws, or promulgate decrees, everyone under the heavens follow their instructions.

Those who take as ruling guidance the four seasons do not break due to their flexibility, and do not burst due to their firmness. In order to foster all kinds of beings, they are generous without ostentation, austere without excess, compliant and flexible, tolerant and conciliatory. Their virtue allows the fool and endures the incompetent, in complete impartiality.

Those who use the principles of the six musical standards, tackle the trouble-makers, cast away cruelties, promote the wise, repel the incompetent. while sustaining and administrating they show rectitude; while eliminating obstacles they show balance; while restoring equity from twisted businesses they manifest righteousness. They are farseeing in matters of prohibitions and authorizations, of opening and closing. They ride the auspicious flow and use situations to gain and serve the heart of men.

When the emperors cease to be one with the Yin and the Yang, their territories are under attack; when kings cease to take for law the four seasons, their lands are amputated; when the governors cease to rule upon the six musical standards, they are assaulted; when the princes lose the understanding of the level and the line, they are threatened by destitution.

Take a person, of humble origins, he may achieve great things and as a result becomes swollen with emptiness, but he will be unable to feel any solidarity with others. Also, take another person, this time from high birth, he achieves small deeds, becomes narrow and thick headed, but he will be unable to show any generosity. When nobles and commoners stay in their respective social body, the empire is well managed.

Heaven is fond of its essences; the Earth cares for its balances; man nurtures his benevolent dispositions. Heaven’s essences are the sun, the moon, the stars, the sidereal landmarks, thunder, the wind, rain. The balances of the Earth are made of water, fire, metal, wood and earth. Man’s benevolent dispositions are his thought and his mentation, his intelligence and his foresight, joy and anger.

Who closes the four paths (breathes exiting from the natural orifices-eyes, ears, mouth and heart) and clogs the five excesses (related to the five elements in their imbalanced state) is immerged into the dao.

This is why when the gods are hidden in the invisible, the spirit cannot recognize the truth; the eyes are clear but do not see; the ears are sharp but are not listening; the heart is light and thoughtless. By proper inaction we regain flow; by humility we reach harmony. If we find ourselves out of balance, our benevolent dispositions provided by nature and fate, the opponent cannot drag us into confusion.

When the essences flow in the eyes, sight becomes sharp; when they are in the ears, hearing becomes fine; when they are in the mouth, speech becomes appropriate; when they gather in the heart, mentation becomes penetrating. As soon as we close the four paths, throughout our life, we do not suffer any pain; our hundred articulations are without ailment.


Neither dead or alive, neither empty or full, such is the true man.

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French ‘Pleiade Edition’

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Original Chinese

由此觀之,有賢聖之名者,必遭亂世之患。今至人生亂世之中,含德懷道,拘無窮之智,鉗口寢說,遂不言而死者眾矣。然天下莫知貴其不言也。故道可道,非常道;名可名,非常名。著于竹帛,鏤于金石,可傳於人者,其粗也。五帝三王,殊事而同指,異路而同歸。晚世學者,不知道之所一體,德之所總要,取成之跡,相與危坐而說之,鼓歌而舞之,故博學多聞,而不免於惑。詩雲:“不敢暴虎,不敢馮河。人知其一,不知其他。”此之謂也。

帝者,體太一;王者,法陰陽;霸者,則四時,君者,用六律。秉太一者,牢籠天地,彈厭山川,含吐陰陽,伸曳四時,紀綱八極,經緯六合,覆露照導,普氾無私;蠉飛蠕動,莫不仰德而生。陰陽者,承天地之和,形萬殊之體,含氣化物,以成埒類,贏縮卷舒,淪於不測,終始虛滿,轉于無原。四時者,春生夏長,秋收冬藏,取予有節,出入有時,開闔張歙,不失其敘,喜怒剛柔,不離其理。

六律者,生之與殺也,賞之與罰也,予之與奪也,非此無道也;故謹於權衡準繩,審乎輕重,足以治其境內矣。是故體太一者,明於天地之情,通于道德之倫,聰明耀於日月,精神通於萬物,動靜調於陰陽,喜怒和於四時,德澤施于方外,名聲傳於後世。法陰陽者,德與天地參,明與日月並,精與鬼神總,戴圓履方,抱表懷繩,內能治身,外能得人,發號施令,天下莫不從風。則四時者,柔而不脆,剛而不鞼,寬而不肆,肅而不悖,優柔委從,以養群類,其德含愚而容不肖,無所私愛。用六律者,伐亂禁暴,進賢而退不肖,扶撥以為正,壞險以為平,矯枉以為直,明於禁舍開閉之道,乘時因勢,以服役人心也。帝者體陰陽則侵,王者法四時則削,霸者節六律則辱,君者失準繩則廢。故小而行大,則滔窕而不親;大而行小,則狹隘而不容。

貴賤不失其體而天下治矣。天愛其精,地愛其平,人愛其情。天之精,日月星辰雷電風雨也;地之平,水火金木土也;人之情,思慮聰明喜怒也。故閉四關,止五遁,則與道淪。是故神明藏於無形,精神反於至真,則目明而不以視,耳聰而不以聽,心條達而不以思慮,委而弗為,和而弗矜,冥性命之情,而智故不得襍焉。精泄於目,則其視明;在於耳,則其聽聰;留於口,則其言當;集於心,則其慮通。故閉四關則身無患,百節莫苑,莫死莫生,莫虛莫盈,是謂真人。

More about the Huainan Zi here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huainanzi / Original Chinese source: https://zh.wikisource.org/wiki/淮南子/本經訓
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