39: Wang Pi (226-249 CE)

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In order to further explore the evolution of religious thought during the Period of Disunity, let us spend a bit of time on Wang Pi. He was a brilliant commentator of the Three Kingdoms Era, early in the Period of Disunity. His discussions of the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching influenced Chinese intellectuals for centuries to come.

Wang Pi’s Interpretation of the Tao Te Ching

What is the meaning of the Tao Te Ching for the literati? The most widely held opinion about the Tao Te Ching is that it deals with the spirit.

“[This idea] was first advanced by the Confucian commentary of Wang Pi …, an interpretation which is widespread among non-Taoists in China. Wang Pi’s commentary has also influenced almost all translations of the Tao-te ching into Western languages. The Tao-te ching actually speaks of all kinds of things at the same time.”1

Wang Pi’s commentary has not only had a great influence upon literati of China, but has come to influence the intelligentsia of the West as well. How does he interpret this Taoist classic?

“From among all the glosses of the Tao-te-ching - and there are several hundred- the official culture of China has retained only the ‘philosophical’ ones. This, as we have seen, is by no means the most ancient tradition. It goes back to a commentary written by the scholar Wang Pi. … This commentary was used by almost all Western translators. … But Wang Pi was not a Taoist. His thinking was even quite removed from what we have come to recognize as the background of the Old Master’s aphorisms, that is: the mystery-religion of ancient China. Wang Pi belongs entirely to the intellectual currents of this time which developed after the fall of the great Han Empire.”2

Wang Pi was not even a Taoist, but a Confucian. Taoism is rooted in transcending the polarity while Confucianism is immersed in polarity, as those obsessed with words tend to be. Hence Wang Pi, as a word worshipper, gives a dualist twist to the Lao Tzu.

“In reading Wang Pi’s commentary, we see how his insistence on the ‘empty’ nature of the Tao leads him to conceive of the Tao as a kind of god. … Wang Pi … thinks in terms of a dualistic system, in which Being and Non-being form two opposite poles and in which the Tao is identified with the Non-Being. But we ask, if it was Non-Being that produced the One and the Ten Thousand Things, what has then become of the Mother, the Chaos and the Obscure Female, who, in the Tao-te ching represent the creative functions? They have no place in Wang Pi’s system. … Having decided to make the Tao a concept, he refuses to abandon the logical structures of thought and to let himself be guided by the fundamental indefinable nature of the body in this world. Wang Pi misses the fundamental meaning of the Tao Te Ching, and instead of clarifying the text, his commentary makes it more difficult to understand.”

Wang Pi turns the Tao into a type of universal God, quite palatable to Christians, Buddhists and intelligentsia everywhere. It fits nicely into the synergetic pattern that truth everywhere is the same. While this is obviously a distortion of the non-dualist Way of the Taoists, Wang Pi’s interpretation gained global acceptance because of its palatability to those with word-addicted minds. He allowed thinkers everywhere to avoid the ultimate paradox of thought.

“The philosophical speculations of this brilliant scholar did, however, greatly impress his contemporaries and gained widespread acceptance, where as the earlier commentaries mentioned above were forgotten. For the Chinese literati, the philosophical interpretation of the Tao Te Ching became the only acceptable one, and from then on they claimed to have the only true key to the text.”3

In the tradition of word-worshipping intellectuals, they now understood the ‘truth’. Interpretations that highlighted paradox and physical practice were obviously misguided, probably linked to the superstitions of the peasants.

Now that the literati had Wang Pi’s Key, they could well afford to set up a Door between Us and Them. We understand the unknowable, while they don’t. We have the Key to get through the Keyless Door.

“Following Wang Pi’s exegesis, the literati made the famous distinction between a ‘philosophical ‘ Taoism that they claimed was noble and pure, and a ‘religious’ Taoism that was supposedly vulgar and materialistic, that is, the Taoism of the people. …These traditions stand condemned because of a so-called lack of philosophy. This measly quarrel is but one of the many aspects of the separation in China between the class of the literati- who call themselves Confucians (and sometimes Buddhists, or in later time, Christians or Marxists) - and the real country.”4

Through the 20th century, the West tended to link the Tao to the Buddha, who is further linked with monistic Gods.

Why the distortion

Why were Lao Tzu’s practical considerations ignored? On the political level, he seemed to advocate small self-governing, bottom-up units of government. This way of thinking was unpalatable to the imperial Confucians. Better to encourage Buddhism, which has no political philosophy.

“This form of decentralized, almost democratic, nation was the one which the liturgical movement of the heavenly Masters always sought to create. … It is evident that this interpretation and use of the political thought of the Old Master was forever unacceptable to the Confucians. As a consequence, the ancient commentaries were banned.”5

We see that indeed the political implications of the Tao-te-ching had to be suppressed to discourage independence movements within the Empire. Totalitarian governments are never too happy with independent thinking. The political structure of China encouraged Wang Pi’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching because a standard interpretation was threatened the imperial order.

Let us summarize. Wang Pi interpreted the Tao te Ching in a philosophical manner. This interpretation established a dichotomy between philosophical Taoism and practicing Taoist. The first focuses upon the ideas of Taoism, while the second focuses upon bodily practices. Thus we have two levels of Taoism: the more public conception based upon wisdom, and the initiates’ conception based upon non-verbal body techniques that yield vitality.

Tao Te Ching Song-poem 38

In this section we are going to examine Song-poem 38 of the Tao Te Ching in order to elucidate some thematic concepts. This examination will help us to better understand Wang Pi and Shipper's objection and illustrate the difficulties of translation from Chinese to English.

Summary of song-poem

Let us first summarize the 16 sentences of the song-poem.

Sentences 1 & 2: The man of superior virtue is not conscious of it, while the man of inferior virtue is constantly aware of it.

Sentences 3 & 4: The man of superior virtue takes no action and yet still finishes things, while the man of inferior virtue takes action, but doesn’t finish things.

Sentences 5, 6 & 7: The man of superior humanity takes action, but has no ulterior motive. The man of superior righteousness takes action, but has an ulterior motive. The man of superior propriety takes action, and when people do not respond they force them to do it.

The Lao Tzu then goes through a quadruplet of ideas.

Sentences 8, 9, 10, & 11: If the Tao is lost, then the concept of virtue arises.

If virtue is lost, then humanity arises.

If humanity is lost, then righteousness arises.

If righteousness is lost, then Propriety arises.

Sentence 12: Due to the preceding sequence, Propriety is a superficial expression of loyalty and faithfulness and the beginning of disorder.

The Lao Tzu finishes with another quadruplet.

Sentences 13, 14, 15, & 16: Those who are the first to know have the flowers of the Tao, but are at the beginning of ignorance.

Because of this, the great man dwells in the thick, not the thin; the fruit, not the flower; rejecting the one and not the other.

Return to Chinese terms, Tao, te, jen, yi, and li

On the surface, this song-poem is arcane and unintelligible. While we used Chan’s translation, Cleary’s is not any better. If however we restate the song-poem in Chinese terms that we have become acquainted with in the course of this paper, it makes a lot of sense. Basically the song-poem is discussing the relation between the Tao = the way, te = virtue, jen = compassion, yi = righteousness or rectitude, and li = propriety, ritual or ceremony.

Refreshing the memory

Recall that the Confucians stressed li, ceremony and ritual, as the way of controlling society. Confucius stressed jen, love and compassion, as the proper focus. The I Ching considered that the realm of Humans consisted of jen and yi, compassion and justice. The followers of Confucius, Lao Tzu, and the ju class debated the attributes of te, virtue. The Confucians related te to one’s ability in their six ‘Confucian’ talents, which emphasized literacy and ceremony, li. Confucius connected te with social service, which he associated with jen for the culture.

Taoist notion of te, in opposition to Confucius and the ju

In this song-poem, the Taoists who wrote the Lao Tzu are stating what they consider te (virtue) to be. It seems that this song-poem is a Taoist statement in reaction to both Confucius and the Confucians. If so, the song poem would have been composed after and in reaction to Confucius.

Relative hierarchy of concepts

The song-poem is pointing out the relative hierarchy of ideas. Tao, te, jen, yi, and finally li – in that order. The way, virtue, love, justice, and ritual. Not only does the Tao te Ching put ritual at the bottom of the hierarchy, the book further insults li by calling it the beginning of anarchy, associating it with superficial loyalty and faithfulness. The book is taking a major intentional potshot at the philosophy of the ju class, which was to dominate Chinese politics until modern times. In some ways, the orthopraxy of the Chinese could be related to obsession with rituals of the ju class, which has been such dominant force in Chinese politics.

Impossible to understand word li without Chinese context

A few points in this context: Cleary translates li as courtesy, while Chan translates li as propriety. These words while accurate translations of li give none of the historical and political background behind li. Translating the magnificent li, which has dominated Chinese culture for 4000 years, since the beginning of dynastic China, as courtesy and propriety trivializes the extent of its significance.  To understand the term li, one must understand Chinese culture, history, and philosophical debate to some degree. This paper is a humble attempt to give dimensionality to these Chinese words to give them a social and historical context.

Not criticizing translators, inherent to cultural exchange

We are not criticizing any of the translations of the Tao Te Ching. Instead we are merely pointing out the inadequacies of translating Chinese into European languages. Ritual has not dominated European politics like it has the Chinese. We have no cultural background to understand the depth of the statement that li (ritual) is subservient to yi (discipline). Understanding the subservience of li to yi arises through an understanding of Chinese culture. However, it has major human significance, which we will soon explore.

Some practical examples

Taiji metaphor

Let us employ this song-poem to understand the process of learning Tai Chi. First comes li or the forms. The beginner must focus on the form in order to learn it. Second comes yi or self-rectification. This entails self-correction and adjustment. Third comes jen or compassion. At this point, the practitioner begins teaching the forms as a type of love for humanity. Fourth comes te or virtue. At this advanced point, the individual begins manifesting the Tai Chi principles in his or her day-to-day life, if not spontaneously at least mindfully. The last stage, the Tao, is represented by spontaneous manifestation.

Understanding, a distraction

Understanding, in and of itself, does not allow the individual to jump from the first stage of li to the fifth stage of the Tao. Indeed most beginners start at a point of dis-integration due to the processes of growing up. The internalized pressures of existence have fragmented their soul. Hence their body structure has been shattered. The five stages are the process of reintegration of the body/soul. The work attempts the realignment of one’s body metal with that of Heaven and Earth. Even if one understands the ideas contained herein, it is not the end but just the beginning.

Knowledge ‘beginning of ignorance’

This is the meaning of the end of the song-poem. It states ‘the first to know have the flowers of Tao but are the beginning of ignorance.’ The illusion of mental understanding can be a distraction to body integration and without body integration there cannot be a spontaneous manifestation of the Tao, the final stage. Indeed the ‘knowledge’ that li, i.e. form in this case, is the first and lowest stage, might even encourage the practitioner to attempt to skip this stage in pursuit of the higher levels. Li, the forms, must be integrated into both body and mind before moving to the highest levels.

A musical example

Music provides us with another example of this sequence from the Tao te Ching.In this case, Li would be equivalent to the musical exercises that are practiced to improve technique. Once the movements are internalized then one forgets the exercises. Once technique, yi = discipline, is internalized, it too is forgotten in the service of the music. However, without the internalization of technique, there is no music. Then comes performance and the awareness of the audience – the sharing of jen = love. In the next stage, te = virtue, the performer is mindful of the art behind the music. In the final stage, the performer has achieved complete integration with the Tao and performs spontaneously. It is at this point that musician, instrument, audience, and event are all one.

Note that the spontaneity of the artist, athlete or musician is based upon hours of practice. It does not arise from merely relaxing. It is not the spontaneity of the drunk, but founded in discipline.

Tao higher level than Te, virtue

In the hierarchy of concepts, the Old Master places the Tao before te/virtue. This is indicated by sentence 9, “Therefore when Tao is lost, only then does the doctrine of te arise.”  Another way of phrasing this is “only when the path is lost does the concept of rediscovering it arise.” Placing the Tao above te is at odds with rational Confucianism.

Tung Chung-shu harmonized the many of the polarities of Confucianism. Recall that he was a follower of Confucius in the Former Han, who was instrumental in the state’s endorsement of Confucianism. He stated that man is born good, but that laws are necessary to keep him in line. The Confucian good is defined by the social good. What is good for the greatest number of society is best. It is the duty of cultural training to inculcate this virtue in the citizenry.

This position implies that there are absolute standards of human morals. Lao Tzu, the Old Master, might disagree, as the morality of the nameless Tao transcends the absolute black and white morality of humans. This disagreement is the basis of the adoption of Confucianism by the state and its rejection of Taoism. Confucianism stands behind popular standards of morality, while Taoism advocates flexibility and change.

Wang Pi on Song-poem 38

Now let us see what Wang Pi says about the song-poem:

“How is virtue to be attained? It is to be attained through Tao. How is virtue to be completely fulfilled? It is through non-being as its function. As non-being is its function, all things will be embraced. Therefore in regard to things, if they are understood as non-being, all things will be in order, whereas if they are understood as being, it is impossible to avoid the fact that they are products [phenomena]. Although Heaven and Earth are extensive, non-being is their mind and although sages and kings are great, vacuity is their foundation … Although it is valuable to have non-being as its function, nevertheless there cannot be substance without non-being.”5a

Brilliant interpretation

Wang Pi correctly interprets the focus of the song-poem as the emphasis upon the nature of virtue, te. Further he accurately connects te with the non-being of the Tao. This would correspond with the concept that if you’re aware of it, then you’re not there. He also differentiates between substance and function, pointing out that emptiness, or vacuity, is the function that manifests as substance. These ideas, all of them, are incredibly insightful. What is Shipper’s problem with Wang Pi?

Flowers of Tao beginning of ignorance

It is all contained in the song-poem sentence number 13: “Those who are the first to know have the flowers of Tao but are the beginning of ignorance.”  Wang Pi’s flowers of Tao knowledge are a distraction from the process of firing – integration through intense physical practices. His words and ideas are beautiful flowers, which distract us from the fruit, the essence.

In a similar way, one of the thrusts of this book is that the Tao Te Ching, itself, only represents the flowers of Taoism, not its fruit. This work also only represents the beautiful flowers. Hopefully the words of this book have not distracted the Initiate from practice – the real firing process. Hopefully the words of this book are pointed enough towards practice that these words will not be the beginning of ignorance but are instead the beginning of practice.

Flowers on the edge of the fruit

Just as the flowers attract insects to the fruit, so does the Tao Te Ching attract us to the real fruit. Further Wang Pi’s flowers also reveal something about the fruit. The dangers of Wang Pi’s flowers is that they are so beautiful that one gets lost in them rather than tasting the fruit. It is not because of falsehood or misinterpretation. Wang Pi, the Lao Tzu, the Chuang Tzu, and this work can all be dangerous as word distractions from the essence of bodily practice.

Confucius in Tao, Lao Tzu not

Curiously Wang Pi uses this same polarity argument against Lao Tzu. Wang Pi says that Lao Tzu has obviously not found the Tao because he talks about it. Conversely, Confucius doesn’t talk about it because he has already found it. Confucius doesn’t need to talk about it. Lao Tzu is saying that talk about virtue means you’ve lost the Tao, while Wang Pi is saying that talk about the Tao means you’ve lost it.

Fundamental misunderstanding of Taoism

This statement indicates Wang Pi’s fundamental misunderstanding of Taoism. He is not realizing that body practices and life experience lead to the Tao, while words merely point to it. A more accurate criticism of the Tao Te Ching and Lao Tzu is that they talk about the Tao so much that their followers might forget their physical practices and life experience in the midst of the many words. While this is a valid criticism, Wang Pi has contributed to this trend with his pretty words. By talking about the Tao Te Ching with such flowers of wisdom, he has distracted the rest of the world from the essence of the Tao. The authors of the Tao Te Ching knew full well that they were only pointing out the correct direction. Understanding the meaning of the words only helped one to get onto the path, but was not the goal. A signpost is not the destination.

Flowers attract us to the fruit

Remember that the only problem with the flowers is that it is possible to get distracted by their beauty and lose sight of the fruit, the essence. However if you can get past the beauty of the flowers, the fruit is underneath. Hence ideally the flowers lead to the fruit.

Some more of Wang Pi’s flowers

Let us use one more of Wang Pi’s flowers to lead us to the fruit:

“Images are the means to express ideas. Words are the means to explain the images. To yield up ideas completely there is nothing better than images, and to yield up the meaning of the images, there is nothing better than words. … Similarly  ‘the rabbit snare exists for the sake of the rabbit; once one gets the rabbit, he forgets the snare. And the fish trap exists for the sake of fish; once one gets the fish, he forgets the trap.’ Therefore  someone who stays fixed on words will not be one to get the images, and someone who stays fixed on the images will not be one to get the ideas.” 5b

Form distracts from essence

Wang Pi is pointing out that obsession with form distracts from essence. While the form attracts us to the essence, acting as a snare, it must be thrown away or discarded once essence is found else we will be trapped on the surface. Musicians who become obsessed with notes at the expense of the music, writers who become obsessed with words at the expense of meaning, waiters who become obsessed with financial reward at the expense of customer happiness, Taiji practitioners who become obsessed with external form at the expense of internal essence, all these are individuals who have become obsessed with the snare, forgetting the rabbit they sought to catch.

This is what it means in the Tai Chi Classics when it says in the Eight Truths of Taiji,

“1. Do not be concerned with form. Do not be concerned with the way form manifests. It is best to forget your own existence.” 6

I Ching Song-Poem 51: Thunder

Wang Pi’s commentary on the I Ching was also incredibly influential on the intelligentsia. Let us just look at one example to get a flavor of his style. We will examine Song-Poem 51 of the I Ching. The hexagram is called Thunder because it consists of two identical trigrams by that name. The trigram for Thunder is a single yang line beneath two yin lines.

The Judgment

Wilhelm translates the judgment as follows:

“Shock brings success.

Shock comes – oh, oh!

Laughing words – ha, ha!

The shock terrifies for a hundred miles,

And he does not let fall the sacrificial spoon and chalice.”

Wilhelm/Confucian interpretation

The Wilhelm interpretation, loosely based upon the Confucian commentary, interprets the Shock as the sound of divine manifestation from the depths of the earth, which startles the listener into a greater respect for the divine, which brings success. First there is fear followed by laughter. The listener is so centered on the great rite that he performs the ritual properly even though others are scared.

“This is the spirit that must animate leaders and rulers of men – a profound inner seriousness from which all outer terrors glance off harmlessly.”6a

Wang Bi’s commentary

In contrast, Wang Bi interprets this passage from the viewpoint of the leader. To control the people, the leader inspires awe, which is followed by fear. This will lead to prosperity because it will shake the lazy out of their indolence and ‘they will have constant rules to live by.’ Because of this, their initial fear will turn to happiness. If one’s influence can extend 100 miles in every direction, the ancestral rituals will be performed properly because one’s influence will be exerted even though one is absent.7

While the Wilhelm translation stresses inner calm to avoid being startled by external events, Wang Bi gives it a patriarchal twist. Establish dominance by awe and fear. His thrust is entirely about external power, rather than inner transformation. Control the world by fear and no one will dare give you problems. Wang Pi’s first line is interpreted as “Quake means prevalence.” indicating the dominator metaphor at work.

Liu I Ming’s Taoist commentary

Liu I Ming, a19th century Taoist, interprets the first line as ‘Thunder is developmental.’ His interpretation like the Wilhelm commentary stresses the inner transformation that is taking place. He says that this particular hexagram focuses upon the contrast between inner and outer work. The focus must be on the inner transformation, then external events will not disturb the interior work. Further he says that it is necessary to nurture the energy without agitating it. The way to do this is by constantly focusing upon the mind of the Tao rather than on the conditioned human response. Our conditioned human response is to fear and overreact to external events rather than focusing upon inner transformation.

Removing impurities in the midst of action

Liu I Ming further points out:

“It is necessary to remove impurities in the midst action in order to accomplish the task. This is because the Tao is alive in movement; it is neither material nor void. We use worldly realities to practice the reality of the Tao, and use human affairs to cultivate celestial virtues; both striving and non-striving, comprehending essence and comprehending life, the endless work all must be done in the midst of activity.”8

Because the Tao is alive in movement, the purification and integration process does not occur outside the field of action, but instead in the midst of it. In other words, one does not retreat from the world to purify. Instead one uses worldly realities and human affairs to achieve purification. This is difficult because of our multitude of conditioned responses. As long as one focuses upon the essence of transformation, one can always rectify one’s mistakes rather than being swept downstream by them.

A Theme of The Journey

This was a major theme of Journey to the West. The five members of the pilgrimage started with the correct intent, i.e. supporting Tripitaka’s quest. Although their individual impurities regularly threatened the Quest, they were always able to rectify their problems by focusing upon the goal.

Wang Bi, just a kid

For all his brilliance, Wang Bi was not even 30 years old when he died. He was just a kid. His imperial interpretation is based around an optimistic political orientation. As a member of the ju class, he felt that his class in conjunction with the rulers could make a difference. He lived just after the end of the Han, when the imperial system retained some semblance of order. Had he reached old age, his youthful exuberance would have probably been tempered by experience. Within his short life, he began as a protégé of an influential official. He fell out of favor, dragging Wang Pi’s political fortunes with him. That Wang Pi’s interpretation was so popular for so long shows the external orientation of the age – the stress upon external action to enforce internal order.

Taiji interpretation

Let us examine the song-poem from a Tai Chi perspective. The power of manifestation emerges from the bottom. The energy is transferred through the waist to shock the world around us. Because the power arises internally from heel and waist, it comes from the depths of the earth. As it travels through the yin energy, it surprises one’s opponent with the depth of its power. On the external level, the integrity of this unobstructed inner strength is irresistible to the outer world because it is aligned with the Tao of Heaven and Earth. Further the integrity of the movement is so deep that its influence spreads 100 miles. Its intensity resurrects the sacred ritual, inspiring others to inner transformational work. Also the power is so rooted that external events do not unbalance or disturb the process.

Diversity of interpretation

One of the purposes of this section is to show the diversity of interpretations possible from a single hexagram of yin and yang lines. The Wilhelm/ Confucian, the Wang Bi, and the Liu I Ming interpretations rested heavily upon the song-poem given us by King Wen, father of the Chou dynasty. While our Taiji interpretation also used that ancient song-poem it also incorporated the abstract body interpretation of the lines. Again the universal quality of the yin/yang polarities transcends the interpretations. In other words, while King Wen’s judgment was a helpful aid to interpretation, it was not essential or necessarily the only one.

Emerging from a common starting point

Wilhelm interprets this Hexagram in terms of internal transformation based upon internal stability in the face of frightening external events. Wang Bi interprets it in terms of external political activity generating fear in order to inspire and set the people in order. Liu I Ming interprets it as the personal transformation that results as a balance of internal and external activity. The Taiji interpretation looked at the Thunder Hexagram in the sense of an internal manifestation of power from the roots to transform the world, while not getting knocked off balance. The diversity of interpretation combined with the similarity of starting point exhibits the firmness and flexibility of the I Ching in dealing with different stages of personal growth.


In summary, Wang Pi, a brilliant thinker who lived just after the fall of the Han, provided a commentary on both the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching. His commentary had a huge impact upon future interpretations of these Chinese classics. Because he was a Confucian, he interpreted these works from the perspective of ideas rather than the inner cultivation techniques, i.e. bodywork and meditation, that underlies the Taoist experience. Because of the prestige of his insightful commentaries, future word masters of the Confucian persuasion, multiplying words upon words, which were eventually picked up by the west, interpreted the Tao Te Ching as a philosophical work representing ideas rather than as a practical text that illuminated body practices. This led many intelligentsia of the West and East to seek verbal understanding rather than the integration of body and mind.


1 The Taoist Body  by Kristofer Schipper, University of California Press, 1993, p. 186

2 Schipper, p. 192

3 Schipper, p. 194

4 Schipper, p. 194

5 Schipper, p. 195

5a The Way of Lao Tzu, p. 168

5b General remarks by Wang Pi in his introduction to his commentary on the I Ching in the section called Clarifying the Image, page 31

6 Tai Chi Classics, p. 126

6a Wilhelm p.198

7 Wang Bi, I Ching, p. 460

8 Taoist I Ching, p. 191


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