Meritocracy, Heredity and Worthies in Early Daoism

In: Culture and Dialogue
Andrej Fech Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Hong Kong Baptist University Hong Kong China

Search for other papers by Andrej Fech in
Current site
Google Scholar
Full Access


This study explores the principles of meritocracy and heredity as formulated in the three works of early Daoist philosophy, the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Wenzi. Because Daoist philosophy emerged in critical response to the Confucian worldview, this investigation is placed against the backdrop of pertinent Confucian propositions. To this end, the study begins with a review of Confucian positions on the issue of meritocracy and heredity as expressed in the main transmitted works, as well as newly excavated texts that can be associated with this intellectual tradition. The paper concludes that, while indeed rejecting the Confucian understanding of meritocracy, Daoist texts operated with their own concepts on human excellency. Moreover, the opposition between meritocracy and heredity characteristic of some Confucian works appears less pronounced in early Daoist philosophy.


This study explores the principles of meritocracy and heredity as formulated in the three works of early Daoist philosophy, the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Wenzi. Because Daoist philosophy emerged in critical response to the Confucian worldview, this investigation is placed against the backdrop of pertinent Confucian propositions. To this end, the study begins with a review of Confucian positions on the issue of meritocracy and heredity as expressed in the main transmitted works, as well as newly excavated texts that can be associated with this intellectual tradition. The paper concludes that, while indeed rejecting the Confucian understanding of meritocracy, Daoist texts operated with their own concepts on human excellency. Moreover, the opposition between meritocracy and heredity characteristic of some Confucian works appears less pronounced in early Daoist philosophy.

1 Introduction

The social promotion of especially gifted or knowledgeable individuals regardless of their inherited social positions is often regarded as one of the main distinguishing features of Chinese civilization. Indeed, Chinese history, already in its earliest stages, abounds with stories of people who were able to climb to the top of the social ladder from the lowest strata of society based on their wits, talents, and expertise. The respect for worthies also finds its expression in the early philosophical writings, which advocate enthronization of the most capable men. Usually, these ideas are expressed in a historical setting, depicting the ideal past in which the practice of throne abdication in favor of the worthies was a common practice. These early abdication legends, alongside the maxim of “elevating the worthy” (shang xian), are typically associated with the philosophical schools of Mohism and Confucianism.1

There is sufficient evidence to assume that, in many cases, Daoist thought was created as a critical response to the propositions of these two schools. This criticism also concerns the practice of elevating the worthy – one of the most recognizable features of many Daoist texts. Likewise, some of the Daoist texts are explicit in their disapproval of the practice of throne abdication.2 The aim of this paper is to determine the reasons for the Daoist rejection of Confucian conceptions of meritocracy and what it entails for the political vision of Daoist authors. I focus on three early Daoist texts, the Laozi, the Zhuangzi and the Wenzi. They are associated with Daoism because they all operate with the cosmological notion of “world origin,” the Way or Dao, to explain and justify their characteristic views of the metaphysical structure of the world, the process of self-cultivation and the ideal political system. Moreover, the earliest extant Chinese bibliography of an imperial library, Hanshu yiwenzhi, lists them all as Daoist works.3 Furthermore, the three texts chosen for this study draw out very different philosophic positions so that their analysis will shed light on the variety of possible “Daoist” standpoints.

In an earlier study on meritocracy in early China that included two main Daoist texts, the Laozi and Zhuangzi, Yuri Pines concludes that their rejection of the meritocratic principle was caused by the general dissatisfaction with the “inadequate and misleading definition of ‘worthiness’.”4 I contend, however, that this criticism was not simply prompted by the variety of conflicting views and definitions of “worthiness” (after all, it is difficult to find a philosophical notion in early China not subject to radically different interpretations). Rather, it seems more likely that Daoist authors criticized this practice for ideological reasons. The upcoming section focuses on how the discussion of what constitutes a worthy individual was expressed in conventional abdication legends.

2 Worthiness in Early Sources

“Worthiness” (xian) is not given an exact definition in the early writings. Instead, it is associated with a wide array of characteristics and virtues. In the Confucian texts, it mostly connotes moral excellence. The superiority of morality over practical abilities and technical expertise is characteristic of Confucianism.5 The succinct dictum attributed to Confucius in Lunyu 2.12 that the ideal man, the gentleman (junzi), is not a “vessel,” has been traditionally interpreted as a statement emphasizing the importance of the virtue of cultivation over the ability to perform particular tasks.6 At the same time, Confucians share the belief that high morality should be a defining characteristic of an ideal power-holder. Mengzi 4A1, for instance, states that “only the benevolent man is fit to be in high position.”7 This belief in the preeminence of morality also finds its expression in the newly discovered manuscripts dealing with the issue of abdication.8 There, “worthiness,” as the main prerequisite for the throne candidate, is linked to various moral virtues, such as “filial piety” (xiao), “virtue” (de), ability to learn (xue), “fraternity” (ti), “compassion” (ci), “loyalty” (zhong), “righteousness” (yi), “propriety” (li), “trustworthiness” (xin), “kindness” (hui), “benevolence” (ren), etc.9 In view of the stark differences between these virtues, it is evident that there was no consensus as to what ultimately constituted worthiness.

The prototypical throne abdication legend of the sage King Yao passing the throne on to the commoner Shun goes back to the Warring States period (453-221 BCE) of Chinese history and reflects the great social mobility of that age.10 Accordingly, Shun first became prominent through his exemplary filial piety, which was undeterred even by his father’s attempts to murder him.11 After the initial meeting with Yao, who, in most accounts, seeks out Shun due to his renown and is invariably impressed with him,12 Shun had to undergo a period of probation when Yao entrusted to him administrative tasks to prove his abilities. Common to the Confucian interpretation of the legends of abdication is also the topos of how, once designated as throne successor, a worthy decides to accept the offer only after several attempts to yield the throne to other meritorious men.13 It is only after these requirements have been fulfilled that a worthy can finally ascend the throne.

In its earliest form, however, the principle of meritocracy was used to justify replacement of a ruling house after Zhou overthrew Shang in the late second millennium BCE. This gave rise to the distinctly Chinese idea of the “dynastic cycle,” according to which dynasties are founded by men of virtue and are brought to ruin by their depraved descendants.14 As opposed to abdication legends, the dynastic founders are portrayed here as having been chosen not by a human power-holder but directly by the highest deity, Heaven (tian), which, pleased with their display of “worthiness,” bestows its “Mandate” (ming) upon them. However, in addition to the uncertainty as to what exactly constituted “worthiness” in an individual, there were also conflicting views in regard to the nature of this bestowal. The earlier accounts concerning the Zhou dynasty, such as the bronze inscriptions from the beginning of the Western Zhou, depict King Wen as the sole receiver of the Mandate, while his son, King Wu, is mainly praised for his military conquest of the Shang.15 Later sources, however, do not distinguish between these two founding figures of the Zhou in regard to the receipt of the celestial mandate anymore. They are both depicted as equally possessing Heaven’s blessings to rule over the world.16 And in some cases, this “collective” concept of the celestial mandate was extended even further to include several generations of the Zhou clan.17

While the “collective” concept could explain the historical realities of the first dynasties, which did not collapse even after being led by less capable sovereigns or even outright villains,18 it seems to have the disadvantage of rendering the issue of moral excellence redundant. Because what need is there to nurture one’s moral qualities if the nature of the mandate is such that it is limited to a specific number of generations?

Possibly aware of this problem, most early texts on the topic promoted the “individualistic” model of celestial mandate when depicting dynastic histories. Therefore, they pay great attention to the issue of education of throne successors so that descendants could become worthy of their virtuous predecessors and keep the mandate in their possession.19 According to the traditional Chinese kinship system called zongfa, the throne is to be transmitted based on the principle of primogeniture, that is, to the eldest son of a ruler.20 Thus, this particular group figures prominently in early accounts dealing with the necessity of moral edification.

Regardless of whether power was transmitted to a worthy outside or inside of one’s family, the particular difficulty of virtue-based succession involved assessing the candidate’s level of moral excellency. In the case of a stranger, his worthiness was most likely to be established on his reputation, “yet the reputation itself can be attained through manipulations of one’s partisans.”21 When the successor was a ruler’s kin (usually his eldest son), there was also no guarantee that moral education could transform the heir apparent into a gentleman and that the latter’s display of morality was genuine.22 Although some Confucian texts attempted to circumvent this difficulty by claiming that sincere moral cultivation invariably manifests itself in the external appearance of a person, rendering a worthy easily recognizable,23 insincerity and hypocrisy would remain one of the main critical points against Confucianism.

The Daoist ideas on what makes one worthy, what renders one eligible for the throne and how power is best transmitted were formulated against this ideological background; the next section examines this standpoint.

3 The Laozi

The Laozi is one of the most prominent books in the Chinese intellectual tradition and the foundational text of Daoist philosophy.24 However, due to its terse language, obscure imagery and lack of any references to concrete events or people, it has been the subject of a great variety of conflicting views and interpretations.25 Among the most disputed topics in regard to the Laozi is its stance towards human values and excellence, in particular, and human civilization, in general. Given its rejection of the Zhou notion of Heaven and the human virtues securing the latter’s support (especially the Confucian interpretation thereof26 ), and in view of the prominence of “naturalness” or ziran and “effortless action” or wuwei, the text is often understood as promoting return to the most simplistic forms of social organization, in which the “human” element is reduced to the bare minimum.27 Indeed, in chapter 80, the text seems to promulgate abandoning most mechanisms of a civilized society, including transport and even writing, and returning to the contented life in simple rural communes. However, this chapter is rather unique in the context of the whole book.28 Beyond it, we find a clear preoccupation with strategies of winning All-under-Heaven (tianxia).29 Moreover, it is evident that the Laozi promotes conventional forms of social organization with a Son of Heaven (tianzi)30 or king (wang)31 occupying the top position in society and “three dukes” (san gong) assisting the ruler,32 with officials (guan)33 working in the governmental apparatus and with the people (min) building the lowest strata of the hierarchy.34 Armies are organized to fend off external military threats,35 while dissidents within one’s own state are dealt with the help of an “executioner” (si sha zhe).36 Therefore, I agree with those scholars who interpret “naturalness” and “effortless action” as principles operating within a developed society and ensuring its effective governance.37

The principle of wuwei or “effortless action” the text propagates is sometimes understood as a common spiritual ideal of ancient Chinese philosophers.38 For instance, Confucius, as recorded in Lunyu 15.5, revered Shun as someone who was able to adhere to wuwei by “making himself reverent and taking his proper position facing south.”39 However, the Laozi is the earliest source that explicitly makes wuwei the most efficacious kind of action. After all, it is here that we first find the dictum that wuwei has the effect of “nothing remaining undone.”40 While it can be practiced by anybody, the main champion of this effective way of action is the central element in the Laozi’s philosophy, the Way or Dao.41 Dao’s wuwei, put plainly, consists in its maintaining a low profile and utmost humility42 despite its great merits as the force that creates the universe and then tirelessly and selflessly sustains it.43 In this context, ziran can be then understood as the resultant impression that phenomena in the world unfold on their own.44 Proclaiming this attitude to one’s own actions as the ethical ideal, the Laozi urges people to disengage from the completed tasks and to abstain from the public display of their abilities and merits.45 As a result, the true greatness appears deficient46 and a practitioner of the Way is belittled by the world for his “unworthy” (bu xiao) look.47 The text is adamant that this ethical attitude not only guarantees permanent success, but also enables one to achieve longevity.48

Keeping the above in mind, we can now examine the text’s most vociferous criticism of the practice of elevating the worthy, found in chapter 3:

Not to honor men of worth will keep the people from contention; not to value goods which are hard to come by will keep them from theft; not to display what is desirable will keep them from being unsettled of mind.49

This criticism may pertain to several aspects of the given practice. First, public display of merits and moral superiority is evidently at odds with the “unworthy” appearance of the practitioner of the Way. Moreover, the text claims that openly valuing someone’s exceptional abilities will make the people contentious. This can be interpreted to the effect that when the people realize that the public association with virtuous behavior brings a person a good social position and considerable material benefits, they will compete with each other in the public display of their virtues. In fact, such lofty moral qualities can be compared to the “goods that are hard to come by” and the people feigning their possession can be compared to the thieves attempting to appropriate something they do not have. Furthermore, by the time of the Laozi’s composition, worthiness was firmly associated with Confucian values of “benevolence” (ren), “righteousness” (yi) and “propriety” (li). Their importance was such that the Mengzi regards them, together with “wisdom” (zhi), as inborn qualities of human beings, in the incipient form of the “four sprouts” (si duan), thus constituting the goodness of human nature.50 Accordingly, a distinguishing feature of a worthy is to fully dedicate oneself to development and realization of the “four sprouts” even at the cost of one’s life. The famous passage from the Mengzi provides a good illustration of this ideal:

Fish is what I want; bears palm is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would rather take bears palm than fish. Life is what I want; righteousness is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would choose righteousness rather than life. On the one hand, though life is what I want, there is something I want more than life. That is why I do not cling to life at all costs. On the other hand, though death is what I loathe, there is something I loathe more than death.51

Mengzi’s readiness to sacrifice his life to preserve righteousness contradicts Laozi’s pronounced criticism of this moral value as well as attempts to formulate conditions under which one could achieve longevity. According to the Laozi, Mengzi should have pursued the opposite course of action. After all, the distinguishing feature of a wise man in Laozi 75 is “exceling at valuing life” (xian gui sheng). The appearance of the term xian (as a verb, “to excel”) in chapter 75 is significant at this juncture insofar as it shows that the text was not only not opposed to the idea of the human excellence, but even used the same notion for it, provided it was made devoid of Confucian connotations. In fact, it is hard to imagine that the text would disparage someone excelling at abiding by the principles of the Way.

The person with a firm grasp of the Way is called the “sage” (sheng ren) in the Laozi. Several passages dealing with sages reveal how their discernment of the highest reality plays out in their actions.52 Most pertinent for this study are the excerpts addressing the social position of the sages, because they shed light on Laozi’s view of social promotion. The first noteworthy point here is the ambiguity of the sages’ social standing. In some cases, as in the following sentences from chapter 28, a sage is represented as a minister:

When the uncarved block shatters it becomes vessels. When the sage is employed he becomes the chief of the officials.53

The notion “chief of the officials” (guan zhang) is sometimes interpreted as referring to a sovereign.54 However, in the early available sources it mostly signifies a head of the administrative apparatus of a state as distinct from a ruler.55 In the most direct sense, these lines show that the Laozi’s government system was meritocratic, allowing social elevation of the able. It goes without saying that the text’s ideal must have differed from the usual ways of elevation of worthies, criticized in chapter 3 as having the potential to give rise to controversies among the people. Laozi 66 gives an example of such an unconventional promotion by showing how a sage uses humility to win unanimous support of the people. Further, the ascension of the sage to the “chief of the officials” should also demonstrate the efficacy of the Way. At the same time, it is also likely that the passage from Laozi 28 hints at the necessity of a ruler, who is able to recognize the potential of the sage and allows him to enter official service. After all, the exemplary man of the Laozi, while being exceptionally efficient, is lacking the glorious appeal of the conventional worthies (especially, of the Confucian mold). That recognizing a sage was indeed not an easy task follows also from the depiction of an exemplary shi in chapter 15:

Those who were good at being a shi in antiquity were without doubt subtle and profound, mysterious and penetratingly wise. So deep that they cannot be known.56

Accordingly, even in his outer appearance, the ideal man resembles the Way and thus cannot be known by people with ordinary power of cognition. To be recognized and employed, the sage requires someone who is, to some degree, also wise. This is reminiscent of the “founding minister” theme – the minister commonly portrayed as having been raised from obscurity to a high administrative position through wise power-holders.57 Only Laozi’s sage is even harder to discover due to his affinity with the unfathomable Way. In view of this, it stands to reason that an inept ruler would not recognize the value of a sage and would not heed his advice even if the latter managed to climb the top of official hierarchy by virtue of his talent. This shows that to be implemented on the highest political level, the system of the Laozi requires support from the most august authority in a state, the monarch.

In addition to his role as minister, the sage is also repeatedly (and even more emphatically) referred to as ruler.58 This ambiguity is prominent and may carry a subversive message because it can be interpreted to the effect that a sage minister, due to his extraordinary merits, has the right to occupy the throne. Indeed, some passages seem to suggest that certain characteristics entitle a person to be a ruler over All-under-Heaven, regardless of his social standing. For instance, the closing lines of chapter 13 read:

Hence he who values his body more than dominion over the empire can be entrusted with the empire. He who loves his body more than dominion over the empire can be given the custody of the empire.59

Was the Laozi then promoting the view that the possession of the Way alone would qualify a person for the throne? This position would come very close to the above-mentioned Confucian challenge of the old aristocratic order. However, the Laozi does not contain any concrete depictions of such a transfer of power to a sage. Neither does it talk about the situations common to the abdication legends, such as when a ruler has no able sons to inherit his throne. Instead, we find a statement that actions congruent with the Way will have the effect that “the offering of sacrifice by descendants will never come to an end.”60 When applied to the ruler, this statement means that possession of the Way is the best means to secure the political power within one family for many generations to come. This goes well with the text’s emphasis on endurance and longevity as temporal manifestations of the Way.61 In view of this, it stands to reason that undermining existing political authority was not the goal of Laozi. The subversive aspect of the Way was that, while being a tremendously powerful political tool, it was available to anyone who understood how to appropriate it.62 Yet the author of the text seems to have held up the hope that it comes into the possession of a ruler. After all, only a ruler, as a person who has the power to influence his subordinates’ lives, is the real counterpart of the Way on the cosmic scale.

The two instantiations of the sage as monarch and minister possibly reflect the author’s ideal of unity between a wise minister and a heedful sovereign. Given the relative prominence of the shi (members of low aristocracy) in the Laozi,63 it seems relatively likely that it, like most of the philosophical works in early China, was composed by a representative of this social stratum. The emphasis on the obscurity of a man of the Way may indeed betray the identity of the author as someone who, while seeing political engagement as his natural element, was removed from the ruler’s court and his appreciative attention.

Summarizing the above, we see that the Laozi attempted to formulate the criteria for bringing a society displaying the (then) conventional forms of organization into accord with the Way. To this end, every member of society (even the executioner) had to fulfill obligations corresponding to his rank and office in accordance with wuwei and ziran.64 This system was meritocratic, yet large-scale social mobility was unlikely due to the repeated admonitions to “know the contentment” (zhi zu).65

At first glance, the Laozi appears to have introduced more tangible criteria for determining people’s abilities than Confucian thinkers by focusing on the results and efficacy of actions. Yet, the promulgation of wuwei and ziran weakens the link between actions and their subjects, complicating the assessment of one’s worth (at least for ordinary people). Thus, this system is by no means more practical or viable than the one promoted by Confucians; its implementation in the political sphere depends just as heavily on the person of an enlightened ruler. Such a ruler, the text seems to suggest, would distance himself from prominent ministers, especially those who engage in public displays of their abilities and accomplishments, and seek advice from the less known members of the officialdom.

To safeguard the long-term political success of a ruling family, transmission of the Way down to its future generations needs to be ensured. The hereditary transmission of the Way was a well-established practice in the Daoist religious tradition, as exemplified by the generations of the Zhang clan leading the organization of Celestial Masters.66 While the Laozi provides no concrete information in this regard, its support of this practice seems very likely. Many important questions, however, remain unanswered. Among them: how does the ideal monarch educate his sons; how does he determine their abilities; would he circumvent the rule of seniority to designate the most able son as successor? These questions show that a Daoist exemplary monarch would face similar problems as his Confucian counterpart.

4 The Zhuangzi

The next work under review is the Zhuangzi. Traditionally ascribed to a philosopher named Zhuang Zhou who lived in the late fourth century BCE, nowadays, the text is seen as a compendium of various traditions associated with Daoism.67 In its most characteristic part, the “Inner Chapters,” mainly seen as having been penned by Zhuang Zhou himself, the text stresses the primacy of the personal experience of the highest reality designated the Way or the Heaven.68 Zhuangzi’s “Heaven” is very different from the same concept as used by Confucians, who associate it with the cultivation of specific moral virtues.69 In the Zhuangzi, Heaven signifies state of mind, which is barred from any attachment to a particular psychological or intellectual perspective and which enables a person to find appropriate responses to the ever-changing flow of events.70 To distance himself from Confucian ideals, Zhuangzi (especially in chapter 5) depicts individuals with crippled and ugly outer appearances as embodiments of this spiritual ideal. Yet the text is adamant that, by emptying his psyche, a person becomes able to perform tasks in the most efficient way. This point is demonstrated in the famous set of stories involving skillful craftsmen. For instance, cook Ding can cut up a whole ox seemingly effortlessly, as if performing a ritual dance, because he discards sensory perception and goes at it “by spirit.”71 And woodworker Qing is able to produce the most marvelous bell stand by forgetting his physical form and reaching the level of highest concentration.72 In fact, the practical effects of this state of mind are supposed to be so great that order in the world – the ultimate goal of Confucian political aspirations – manifests itself simply as its byproduct. For instance, chapter 7 contains a story of an encounter between the fanciful characters “Heaven’s Root” and “Nameless Man,” in which the former inquires into the principles of governance. Annoyed with the profane question, the “Nameless Man,” who is used to wandering in the village of “not-even-anything” and to dwelling in the plain of “broad-and-borderless,” answers only after his interlocutor repeats the question:

Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are, and make no room for personal views – then the world will be governed.73

Evidently, the claim here is that to establish a well-ordered society one should not rely on decrees and laws but instead achieve the state of mind concomitant with “wandering in simplicity.”74 Consequently, the text criticizes conventional champions of political authority, including the heroes of abdication legends such as Yao and Shun, who, upholding their lofty Confucian virtues, are ridiculed as blatant hypocrites.75 In other parts of the book, their inauthentic behavior is even identified as a starting point for misery and chaos in the world.76

This criticism notwithstanding, it would be too far-fetched to assume that the authors of the book rejected any form of political organization or activities. While the relation between spiritual realization and politics comes clearly to light in the above quotation, it finds many expressions throughout the Zhuangzi. The artisan accounts, for instance, are mostly said to provide important lessons to power-holders. The impersonal state of the “fasting of the mind” (xin zhai), to which Confucius introduces Yan Hui, should help the latter deal with the young and reckless ruler of the state of Wei.77 I agree with Yuri Pines that such stories express “the normality of political engagement” in the Zhuangzi.78

Evidently, it is not necessary to become a recluse to obtain this state of mind, therefore, every person can practice it while operating in his position within society. Would the Zhuangzi approve of the social promotion of such individuals? And how was the ideal society construed? As noted above, the textual composition of the work is rather complex. We find a number of passages here promulgating abandonment of any social organization.79 But, at the same time, we also find accounts depicting a Daoist flavored organization of society, such as in this fascinating passage from chapter 23, “Gengsang Chu:”

Among the attendants of Lao Dan was one Gengsang Chu, who had mastered a portion of the Way of Lao Dan, and with it went north to live among the Mountains of Zigzag. His servants, with their bright and knowing looks, he discharged; his concubines, with their tender and solicitous ways, he put far away from him. Instead, he shared his house with drabs and dowdies and employed the idle and indolent to wait on him. He had been living there for three years when Zigzag began to enjoy bountiful harvests, and the people of Zigzag said to one another, ‘When Master Gengsang first came among us, we were highly suspicious of him. But now, if we figure by the day, there never seems to be enough, but if we figure by the year, there’s always some left over! It might just be that he’s a sage!’80

An alleged disciple of Laozi, Gengsang Chu is reported here to have employed the techniques of his master by removing those among his servants who looked bright and knowing, and instead employing the lazy and idle. Evidently, Gengsang Chu took his master’s maxim of rejection of the worthies (referred to here as bright and knowing) at face value. At the same time, he interpreted this maxim to imply the elevation of the deficient (lazy and disordered) ones. However, he seems to have missed the point that, in the Laozi (and in the other parts of the Zhuangzi), exemplary men only appear deficient, while, in reality, possessing an abundance of virtue. Therefore, it seems that this inverted hierarchy does not reflect the spirit of the two works.

To sum up, while we can assume the “normality of political engagement” in the Zhuangzi, it is unclear how its authors envisioned the ideal form of governing and power transfer. Perhaps, we can conclude this part of the discussion with the following statement from chapter 17, “Qiu shui”:

In ancient times Yao abdicated in favor of Shun, and Shun ruled as emperor; Kuai abdicated in favor of Zhi, and Zhi was destroyed. Tang and Wu fought and became kings; Duke Bo fought and was wiped out. Looking at it this way, we see that struggling or giving way, behaving like a Yao or like a Jie, may at one time be noble and at another time be mean. It is impossible to establish any constant rule.81

Possibly, we can interpret this account to the effect that the ideal ruler is not dogmatic about the mode of power transfer, making his decisions in accordance with particular political situations.

5 The Wenzi

The final text to be discussed is the Wenzi or Master Wen. The Wenzi goes back to the early decades of the Western Han and shows clear syncretistic characteristics. Most prominently, it integrates the conventional Confucian virtues “benevolence,” “righteousness” and “propriety” into its philosophical system. Yet, the Laozi is still undoubtedly the primary source for its philosophical inspiration.82 The original text was constructed as a dialogue between a certain Master Wen, an alleged close disciple of Laozi, and a ruler, King Ping, usually identified as King Ping of Zhou (r. 770-722 BCE).83 The fragments of the bamboo manuscript of the Wenzi, which provide insights into the content and features of an early version of the text, were discovered in Dingzhou in 1973. However, they support only a small portion of the received text. Thus, in the following, I discuss either the contents of the bamboo strips or the parts of the received text with parallels to the latter.

In the Dingzhou fragments of the Wenzi, King Ping is portrayed as a ruler who, while being interested in the Way, has not yet gained a full understanding of it. The bamboo strip with the inventory number 0976 is inscribed with the following statement: “King Ping said: ‘Excellent! I am fond of the Way, but I have not yet heard the Way.’”

At a certain point in their conversation, the sovereign eventually acknowledges, as recorded on the bamboo strip 2477, that: “[Now] I have already heard the Way. May I ask …”

Evidently, the text purports that Master Wen is in possession of the Way, which he transmitted onto his royal interlocutor by means of instruction. Despite this elevated position, a wise advisor or a minister is never perceived in the text as a potential threat to the sovereign’s position. Instead, this threat emanates from one’s external enemies, the population of one’s own state and, perhaps most poignantly, the local lords (zhuhou). In fact, the ministers and officials play only a marginal role in the text.

In close keeping with the Laozi, the possession of the Way manifests itself in one’s ability to endure, both physically and politically. Likewise, the text identifies a humble public appearance as one of the most important means to achieve this goal. Consequently, the ruler is admonished to refrain from public displays of worthiness (especially in military affairs).84

Interestingly, the Wenzi mentions the conventional heroes of abdication Yao and Shun as practitioners of the Way and Virtue, as in the following passage from chapter 5 of the textus receptus:

He who accumulates the Way and Virtue, the heaven rewards him, the earth helps him, ghosts and spirits support him. Phoenixes soar above his court, unicorns roam in his outskirts, and dragons dwell in his ponds. Therefore, who governs All-under-Heaven with the Way, is the blessing for All-under-Heaven. Who governs All-under-Heaven without the Way is the calamity for All-under-Heaven. When the ruler makes All-under-Heaven his enemy, he will not succeed in establishing a long-lasting rule, even if he wishes so. This is why Yao and Shun prospered and Jie and Zhou vanished.85

The passage is different from Confucian sources in that the latter, like Mengzi 4A1, identify the main distinguishing feature about Yao’s and Shun’s rule as benevolence (ren).86 The event of throne abdication is not mentioned here, so it cannot be claimed that the Wenzi viewed this practice as part of the cultivation of the Way. Rather, the focus is on the overwhelming support that the practitioner of the Way receives from all living creatures. This impression is supported by the fact that Yao and Shun are confronted with the two most vicious rulers in Chinese pre-imperial history, Kings Jie and Zhou, who greatly antagonized their subordinates. Therefore, this passage is significant as it shows how, in this particular case, early Chinese history was reinterpreted in Daoist terms.

Another remarkable example of such Daoist historical reinterpretation can be found in the long passage from the same chapter of the received Wenzi. In it, at some point in the transmission of the work, the names of the protagonists were changed from King Ping and Wenzi in the original, to Wenzi and Laozi respectively. Hence, in the textus receptus, it is Laozi himself who provides the following instruction:

Wenzi asked: ‘Now, you, Master, say that the world cannot be put in order except with the Way and Virtue. However, among the kings of former ages, as they inherited and passed down the rule, there were also those who were not in possession of the Way and yet did not suffer any harm or loss to the end of their days. What was the reason for this?’ Laozi replied: ‘From the Son of Heaven down to the commoners, everyone has his share of life, abundant for some, scarce for others. That, in the world, states frequently vanish and families disintegrate is due to the absence of the Way and Virtue…. If Jie and Zhou had followed the Way and implemented the Virtue, then kings Tang and Wu, for all their ability, would not have been able to establish their merits…. When someone not in possession of the Way does not suffer any harm or damage, [it is because] benevolence has not yet died out, and righteousness has not yet vanished. But even though benevolence has not yet died out and righteousness has not yet vanished, the local lords treat their superior lightly. When the local lords treat their superior lightly, they are not respectful at his court and do not follow his orders. When benevolence has [finally] died out and righteousness vanished, the local lords turn their back [on their superior] and rebel [against him].’87

Accordingly, the main factor guaranteeing the survival and thriving of a dynasty is the possession and transmission of the Way and not the “Mandate of Heaven”, the conventional means of power legitimation. The display of benevolence and righteousness, guaranteeing Heaven’s support in Confucian sources, is shown here as insufficient to effectively secure political power. Moreover, the supremacy of the Way over Heaven is established in the message that the illustrious dynastic founders, kings Tang and Wu, despite their worthiness and celestial support, would not have been able to replace Jie and Zhou, if the latter had practiced the Way and Virtue.88 This, on the other hand, suggests that, in principle, any ruler can change his evil ways and start acting in accordance with the main principle of the text. Most importantly, the passage shows that heredity was viewed as the only viable option for transmission of the Way. This, certainly, again, speaks to the importance of the right education of throne contenders.

The normativity of the hereditary transmission of power and of the Way is also established in the bamboo strip 0892:

If the king is able to obtain the Way, not discard it, and transmit it to his descendants …

In view of the above, it stands to reason that the text did not regard throne abdication to a worthy and ideal form of power transfer.

6 Conclusion

This article analyzed three early texts associated with Daoist philosophy in regard to their views on worthiness and the meritocratic principle of power transfer. The investigation showed that, while disagreeing with the Confucian interpretation of exemplary human virtues, the three texts appear to have a more practical understanding of what constitutes human excellence. Accordingly, its trademark is the ability to follow the main principle these texts promulgated, the Way, which enables one to act in a most effective and effortless way. While, in each particular case, this ability was defined differently, this more pragmatic focus seems to be directed at amending Confucians’ overly moralizing discourse. However, despite their more practical orientation, the overall political system these texts draw up is barely an improvement in terms of practicality and feasibility when compared to Confucian models. Among the main reasons for this is certainly the central Daoist principle of “naturalness” that aims to detach actions from their subjects. That is, ideally, a man of real worth and genuine virtue cannot be identified at all.

While most texts analyzed here seem to lean toward heredity as the main means of power transfer, meritocracy still plays an important role because, to ensure political “endurance” of a ruling family, throne successors need to comply with the Way. In this regard, Daoist sources face the same problem as Confucian educational projects, because there is just no guarantee that a throne successor will prove astute enough to recast himself in the spirit of the teaching.

Another major reason for the Daoist reservations against transfer of power to the worthy individuals was that, despite some revolutionary traits in Daoist philosophy, such as the challenge of the Zhou notion of tian and virtues ensuring its support, Daoist thinkers still operated within the framework of traditional notions of political stability. And the cornerstone of this framework was (and remained for the next two and a half millennia) the principle of hereditary succession.


Andrej Fech received his PhD in Chinese Studies and Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He currently teaches courses on Chinese intellectual history as assistant professor in the Department of Chinese Literature and Language at Hong Kong Baptist University. His research focuses on early Daoist thought, excavated manuscripts, as well as comparative philosophy.


Sarah Allan, Buried Ideas: Legends of Abdication and Ideal Government in Early Chinese Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 17, 164-65. When talking about Mohism, I mainly refer to ideas expounded in the book Mozi, while the main representative works of Confucianism as discussed here will be the Lunyu, the Mengzi and the Xunzi.


For an analysis of abdication legends in the Zhuangzi, see Yuri Pines, “Disputers of Abdication: Zhanguo Egalitarianism and The Sovereign’s Power,” T’oung Pao 91 (2005), 282-86.


Hanshu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1962), 30.1729-30.


Yuri Pines, “Between Merit and Pedigree: Evolution of the Concept of “Elevating the Worthy” in Pre-imperial China,” in The East Asian Challenge for Democracy: Political Meritocracy in Comparative Perspective, eds. Daniel A. Bell and Chengyang Li (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 180 (161-202).


Doh Chull Shin, “How East Asians View Meritocracy: A Confucian Perspective,” in The East Asian Challenge for Democracy: Political Meritocracy in Comparative Perspective, ed. Daniel A. Bell and Chengyang Li (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 265; Yuri Pines, “Between Merit and Pedigree,” 174-75.


Edward Slingerland, trans., Confucius: Analects (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003), 12.


D.C. Lau, trans., Mencius (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2003), 151.


Most manuscripts in question have been lost thousands of years ago and are not part of the transmitted corpus. Needless to say, they present us with an invaluable source of new information on ancient China. In some cases, these texts were excavated by official archeological expeditions. However, some of them were looted from ancient graves and sold on antiquity markets; thus, neither the scope and location of the respective tombs nor the identity of their occupants can be known. Therefore, “looted” texts, as invaluable as they are, provide us only with snippets of possible information.


The manuscripts in question are Rongchengshi, Tang Yu zhi dao, Zigao, and Zhou xun. For the concept of worthy in the first three texts, see Allan, Buried Ideas, 121, 174, 176, 236. For the Zhou xun, see Andrej Fech, “The Zhou xun and Elevating the Worthy,” Early China 41 (2018), 149-78.


Pines, “Disputers of Abdication.”


Shiji 史記 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959), 1.32-33. For translation, see William H. Nienhauser, The Grand Scribe’s Records. Volume I: The Basic Annals of Pre-Han China (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 11-12.


Yuri Pines, “Political mythology and dynastic legitimacy in the Rong Cheng shi manuscript,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 73, No. 3 (2010), 510.


Pines, “Political mythology and dynastic legitimacy,” 514.


According to Sarah Allan, the idea of dynastic cycle makes China stand out among other cultures of the world and it embodies the conflicting principles of ruling by virtue and ruling by heredity. Allan, Buried Ideas, 9-11.


The Shang was the second dynasty in Chinese history. It replaced the Xia dynasty, whose founder was the Great Yu, chosen by Shun to rule over China based on his great merits. After several generations of able rulers, Shang’s power gradually declined until this ruling house was replaced by the virtuous kings of Zhou.


Luo Xinhui, “Omens and Politics: The Zhou Concept of the Mandate of Heaven as Seen in the Chengwu,” in Ideology of Power and Power of Ideology in Early China, eds. Yuri Pines, Paul R. Goldin, and Martin Kern (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 58-64.


Shiji 40.1700. “In the past, King Cheng fixed the tripods at Jiaru. He questioned the oracle, [which indicated that the Zhou House] would reign for thirty generations and seven hundred years. This is the mandate given by Heaven. Now although the virtue of Zhou is declining, the Mandate of Heaven has not changed. [Thus] the weight of the tripods, [is something] you still cannot inquire about.” (William H. Nienhauser, The Grand Scribe’s Records. Volume V.1: The Hereditary Houses of Pre-Qin China, Part I (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 395).


Zhou kings Li (r. 857-842 BC) and You (r. 781-771 BC) from the first part of the Zhou dynasty are examples of such inept and depraved sovereigns. For more, see Shiji 4.141-49. For translation, see Nienhauser, The Grand Scribe’s Records. Volume I: The Basic Annals of Pre-Han China, 70-74.


Education of the heir apparent is the main topic in a number of manuscripts, including the Bao xun and Zhou xun.


Cho-Yun Hsu, “The Spring and Autumn Period,” in The Cambridge History of China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C., ed. Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 566.


Pines, “Between Merit and Pedigree,” 182.


Joseph Chan, “Political Meritocracy and Meritorious Rule: A Confucian Perspective,” in The East Asian Challenge for Democracy: Political Meritocracy in Comparative Perspective, eds. Daniel A. Bell and Chengyang Li (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 35-36.


Mark Csikszentmihalyi, Material Virtue: Ethics and The Body in Early China (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 113.


For an overview of the standpoints regarding the date of its creation, see Liu Xiaogan, “Did Daoism Have a Founder? Textual Issues of the Laozi”, in Dao Companion to Daoist Philosophy, ed. Liu Xiaogan (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015), 27-29.


For the differences between the two most prominent early commentaries of the text penned by Wang Bi (226-249) and, allegedly, by the legendary Heshang Gong, see Allan K.L. Chan, Two Visions of the Way: A Study of the Wang Pi and the Ho Shang Kung Commentaries on the Lao-Tzu (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), 159-93.


While the received Laozi demonstrates a strong anti-Confucian sentiment, the criticism of Confucianism is also palpable, if in somewhat weaker form, in the early versions of the text excavated in the last decades. Xiaogan Liu 刘笑敢, “Jianbo ben Laozi de sixiang yu xueshu jiazhi – yi Beida Han jian wei qiji de xin kaocha 簡帛本《老子》的思想與學術價值 – 以北大簡為契機的新考察” (The Thought and Academic Value of the Bamboo and Silk Manuscripts of the Laozi – New Observations Based on the Peking University Bamboo Strips) Gu jian xin zhi 古簡新知 [Old Bamboo Strips, New Understanding) (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2017), 124.


For a related discussion, see Andrej Fech, “Reflections on Artisan Metaphors in the Laozi: Who Cuts the ‘Uncarved Wood’?” (Parts 1 and 2), Philosophy Compass Vol. 13, Issue 4.


Franklin Perkins suggests that the last 15 chapters of the received Laozi, to which chapter 80 belongs, express a philosophical position at odds with the rest of the book, “Divergences within the Lǎozǐ: A Study of Chapters 67-81,” T’oung Pao 100 (2014), 1-32.


Daodejing, chapters 29, 48, 57.


Ibid., chapter 62.


Ibid., chapters 16, 25, 32.


Ibid., chapter 62. For the definition of the term “three dukes” and its historical development, see Charles O. Hucker, A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Taipei: Southern Materials Center, 1985), 399.


Daodejing, chapter 28.


While chapter 57 in its transmitted form criticizes the implementation of law, the early excavated versions all show that, originally, the text targeted the practice of “imitating things” (fa wu). Gao Ming, Boshu Laozi jiaozhu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju), 106.


Daodejing, chapters 31, 57, 69.


Ibid., chapter 74.


Xiaogan Liu, “Laozi’s Philosophy: Textual and Conceptual Analyses,” in Dao Companion to Daoist Philosophy, ed. Xiaogan Liu (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015), 78-89.


Edward Slingerland, Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 5-6.


Slingerland, Confucius: Analects, 175. This passage is sometimes seen as exemplifying a close connection between wuwei and de, commonly translated as virtue. As such, the possession of virtue does not only justify but also enables someone to be ruler. Philip J. Ivanhoe, “The Concept of de (“Virtue”) in the Laozi,” in Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi, ed. Mark Csikszentmihalyi and Philip J. Ivanhoe (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), 241-42.


Daodejing, chapter 41.


Ibid., chapter 37.


Ibid., chapter 8.


Ibid., chapter 51.


Ibid., chapter 17.


Ibid., chapters 2, 9, 34, 77.


Ibid., chapter 45.


Ibid., chapter 67.


Ibid., chapters 7, 16, 44, 59.


Ibid., chapter 3.


Lau, Mencius, 73. While the Laozi does not contain a discussion on human nature, its position on innate human dispositions can be construed as rather positive. However, given the discussion on the limiting nature of such notions as “good” in Laozi 2, some scholars find it fitting to describe its related stance as “transcending good and evil”. Xiaogan Liu, Laozi gujin 老子古今 (Laozi: Ancient and Modern), (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2016), 621.


Adapted from Lau, Mencius, 253.


Daodejing, chapters 7, 60, 63.


Ibid., chapter 28. This passage is quoted according to the early Han version of the Laozi, which was excavated in Mawangdui (Hubei province) in 1973. The transmitted versions of the text have a particle “it” (zhi), resulting in the reading “when the sage uses it (the uncarved wood), he becomes the chief of the officials”.


Hongkyung Kim, The Old Master – A Syncretic Reading of the Laozi from the Mawangdui Text A Onward (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012), 243.


See, for example, Mozi “Shang xian zhong”, for translation see Ian Johnston, The Mozi: a Complete Translation (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2010), 63; Guanzi “Wu Fu”, for translation see W. Allyn Rickett, Guanzi: Political, Economic and Philosophical Essays from Early China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 198; Lüshi chunqiu 20.1 “Shi jun”, see translation in John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel, The Annals of Lü Buwei (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 512-13.


This chapter is rendered here based on the earliest fragments of the Laozi found at Guodian and approximately dated to 300 BC. Translation adapted from Robert G. Henricks, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 39.


For a comprehensive study of the topic, see Sarah Allan, “The Identities of Taigong Wang in Zhou and Han Literature,” Monumenta Serica 30 (1972-1973), 57-99.


Daodejing, chapters 3, 49, 57, 66, 77, 78.


Ibid., chapter 13.


Ibid., chapter 54.


Ibid., chapters 7, 22, 24, 44, 54, 59.


The cosmological connotations of the Way as something present at any given moment in time and available to everybody had a great impact on the philosophy of the day. Franklin Perkins, “The Laozi and the Cosmogonic Turn in Classical Chinese Philosophy,” Frontiers of Philosophy in China 11(2) (2016), 194.


Daodejing, chapters 15, 41, 68.


The text is adamant that even the lowest strata of society need to comply, if necessary, with the assistance of power-holders (ch. 64), with the Way. For more, see Fech, “Reflections on Artisan Metaphors in the Laozi” (Part 1), Philosophy Compass Vol. 13, Issue 4, 4-5.


Daodejing, chapters 33, 44, 46.


Russell Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (London: Routledge, 2004), 81.


Angus C. Graham, “How much of Chuang tzu did Chuang Tzu write?,” in Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), 283-321. Harold Roth, “Who Compiled the Chuang Tzu,” in Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts, ed. Henry Rosemont, Jr. (La Salle: Open Court, 1991), 79-128. Xiaogan Liu with Yama Wong, “Three Groups of the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters,” in Dao Companion to Daoist Philosophy, ed. Liu Xiaogan (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015), 221-37.


Liu Xiaogan, “Zhuangzi’s Philosophy: A Three Dimensional Reconstruction,” in Dao Companion to Daoist Philosophy, ed. Liu Xiaogan (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015), 195-96.


Csikszentmihalyi, Material Virtue, 45-47.


Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. Ambrosio, Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 353, see this ability as constructive for the Zhuangzi’s notion of “authenticity”.


Chapter 3. Watson, The Complete Works, 19-20. On the political implications of the Cook Ding story, see Robert Eno, “Cook Ding’s Dao and the Limits of Philosophy,” in Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi, ed. Paul Kjellberg and Philip. J. Ivanhoe (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), 136-39.


Chapter 19. Watson, The Complete Works, 152-53. On the significance of artisan stories in the Zhuangzi, see Lee H. Yearley, “Zhuangzi’s Understanding of Skillfulness and the Ultimate Spiritual State,” in Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi, 152-82.


Zhuangzi, chapter 7.


This is akin to the concept of “transformation by means of spirit” (shen hua) that gained prominence in such later works as the Huainanzi. However, in the latter, only a person invested with the highest power was in the position to influence the world in such a way. The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China, tr. and ed. John Major et al., (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 793n7. See also, Angus C. Graham, Chuang-tzu: The Inner Chapters (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2001), 45.


Yuri Pines, “Disputers of Abdication,” 282-86. For the related stories, see chapter 28. For translation, see Watson, The Complete Works, 239-48.


See chapters 11 and 14. For translation, see Watson, The Complete Works, 74, 116-17.


Watson, The Complete Works, 22-25. For more on the “fasting of the mind” story, see Yearley, “Zhuangzi’s Understanding of Skillfulness,” 166-67.


Pines, Envisioning Eternal Empire, 161.


Zhuangzi, chapter 10.


Ibid., chapter 23.


Ibid., chapter 17.


For an English introduction of the Wenzi’s philosophy, see Paul van Els, “The Philosophy of the Proto-Wenzi,” in Dao Companion to Daoist Philosophy, 325-40.


For the identity of the Wenzi protagonists, see Andrej Fech, “The Protagonists of the Wenzi in Light of Newly Discovered Materials,” Oriens Extremus 54 (2016), 209-48.


Fech, “Righteous War,” 15-16.


Compare the translation in Thomas Cleary, Wen-tzu: Understanding the Mysteries (Boston: Shambala Publications), 78.


Lau, Mencius, 149.


Compare the translation in Cleary, Wen-tzu, 74-75.


This is very different from the argumentation found in a number of late Zhou and early Han philosophical texts, which use the same two royal pairs of Tang/Wu and Jie/Zhou to claim that neither moral depravity nor moral excellence alone are sufficient to produce dynastic change. Rather, such change of rule can only take place when the two conditions coincide. See for instance Lüshi chunqiu 14.3 and Huainanzi 14.9.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 221 0 0
Full Text Views 134 100 8
PDF Views & Downloads 366 264 22