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HUAINAN ZI-Glimpses from Chapter VIII

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


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 Běn jīngxùn (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.


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.


French ‘Pleiade Edition’


Original Chinese





More about the Huainan Zi here: / Original Chinese source:淮南子/本經訓
HUAINAN ZI-Glimpses from Chapter VIII

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