Comprehensive Biography for Wang Bi

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Comprehensive Biography for Wang Bi

Unread postby DaoLunOfShiji » Sat Jun 02, 2018 12:22 am

Wang Bi, style Fusi (226-249)

The Wang clan were from Gaoping, in Qingzhou on the eastern coast of China.[1] They were a very well off clan and many of their members became prominent ministers and scholars through the years. The one to bring the clan to true prominence was Wang Gong. He served as Grand Commandant during the Later Han Dynasty, even establishing the Pure Ones political movement that were at odds with the eunuchs in the court.[2]

Wang Bi’s father was one Wang Ye, who succeeded Wang Can’s fief following his death.[3] Wang Ye was a Secretarial Court Gentleman under Wu-di of Wei and Wen-di of Wei.[4] Wang Bi was born in 226 and from his days as a child displayed an incredible amount of intelligence and wisdom. As he developed further in life he grew attached to the writings of Laozi at age 10 and he had a firm grasp on the subject matter, evidently able to discuss it thoroughly.[4]

In Wei resided a man named Pei Hui, one who was said to exceedingly good at spotting talent and often made great friends with them.[5] When Pei Hui was serving as Director of the Ministry of Personnel Wang Bi, still not yet an adult, went to visit him. When Hui and Bi met, Hui was taken aback by just how extraordinary he was.[6] In order to test his wisdom Pei Hui asked Wang Bi, “Nothingness in truth is the source on which the myriad of things depend for existence, yet the Sage was unwilling to talk about it, while Master Lao expounded upon it endlessly. Why is that?” Wang Bi replied “The Sage embodied nothingness so knew that it could not be explained in words, thus did not talk about it. Master Lao, by contrast, operated on the level of somethingness,[6a] which was why he constantly discussed nothingness; he had to, for what he said about it always fell short.”[7]

News of this brilliant new youth began to spread among the literary circles, and Wang Bi drew the attention of two men: Fu Jia and He Yan. He Yan, then Minister of Personnel for General-In-Chief Cao Shuang, was utterly smitten with Wang Bi and famously remarked the words “As the Sage said, "Those born after us shall be held in awe”.[8] It is with such a person as this that one can discuss the relationship between Heaven and Mankind!“[9] He Yan went about surrounding himself with youths of various talents like He Yan, Pei Xiu and Zhong Hui, drawing them from their regional cliques and into his Luoyang garden of marvels.[10] While in the capital Wang Bi was called upon by He Yan to come to his home during one of his many hostings of debates. The finest minds of Wei all lined the main halls of He Yan’s illustrious mansion, and He Yan wished to display Wang Bi’s reputation for the most important eyes in the world. He Yan, whose debating ability was nearly unmatched, conjured up some of his most irrefutable arguments from previous debates that earned him fame, and he stated "These arguments are what we all consider unsurpassed. Do you have any objections?” Calmly Wang Bi take his time to refute each and every argument, and the entire building had taken Wang Bi’s side on the matter. He Yan, in a moment of humbleness, relinquished the hosting privilege to Wang Bi who proceeded to defeat every person that came before him in a debate.[11] Wang Bi, in what may be an homage to He Yan, would himself host many great parties and feasts for the intellectual circle in Luoyang. He was an outgoing man who made many friends at these events and was able to show off his debating skill, as well as his musical prowess. At the time Liu Tao was a celebrated debater in Wei, known for his masterful view of political strategy however when he came face to face with Wang Bi he was defeated time and time again. There was no person alive that could compare to Wang Bi in a debate.[12] It was said that while He Yan had the superior speaking ability, Wang Bi always presented unique insights that won over arguments rather than being bested by Yan’s honeyed words.[13]

Day after day He Yan grew more impressed with his protege, and on the day he completed what he saw as his masterwork, a commentary to Laozi’s work, he payed a visit to Wang Bi. There he had discovered Bi had crafted his own commentary and He Yan was utterly shocked. Wang Bi, in term, was not very impressed with He Yan’s writing and so He Yan tossed aside his own commentary to prop up Wang Bi’s.[14]

Despite all of the popularity he incurred, Wang Bi gave off an air of arrogance and he earned the jealously and enmity of scholars. It is likely through this that he bonded so well with Zhong Hui who was considered his scholarly equal. However Wang Bi would often best him in debates simply due to his enthusiastic personality.[15] Wang Bi would come into conflict with two other ministers. First of which was Xun Rong of the famous Yingchuan Xun. During a gathering of intellectuals He Yan proposed his idea that the true Sage is free of pleasure, anger, sadness or happiness. All passed around his discussion but only Wang Bi held a different position. Wang Bi viewed that the Sage was endowed with numinous intelligence, which is what made him special, but he was still the same as man and shared the five emotions. While Wang Bi was drafting his commentary to the Yijing, Xun Rong found great fault with what Wang Bi wrote. Bi replied with a letter teasing Rong who held the same position as He Yan. He mocked him for being unable to emulate the Sage and freeing himself from emotion, despite this being the key argument made.[16]

The second person Wang Bi came into conflict was named Wang Li. At the time the position of Director of the Chancellery was vacant and Cao Shuang had saught to fill those position. He Yan, looking to counter Ding Mi’s negative influence, installed Jia Chong, Pei Xiu and Zhu Zheng into this position and he as well proposed Wang Bi take the final position. However Ding Mi asserted himself and with his poisoned words added his protege Wang Li into the talent pool. Cao Shuang chose Li over Bi, meaning that Bi was relegated to a man of minial power as a Court Secretary. Further more Wang Li died suddenly not long after and Wang Chen was promoted in his place. This series of events troubled He Yan greatly, and during Wang Li’s life it caused he and Wang Bi to cease being friends.[17] Wang Bi never held significant rank and thus never joined the high ranks of the Cao regime, and so he resigned himself from caring for his duties and simply took on philosophical matters more and more. However in the year 249 Xuan-di of Jin rose up in revolt and murdered Cao Shuang, He Yan, Ding Mi and the others, assuming control of Wei. Wang Bi was stripped from office and at this time he grew ever more increasingly ill due to pestilence before finally passed away at the young age of twenty three. He had no sons and so his in ended. When Jing-di of Jin heard of this he sighed and mourned dearly for Wang Bi.[18][18a]

An alternate account of Wang Bi’s death appears in the Shishuo Xinyu. While Wang Bi writing his Commentary on the Zhuoyi, in which he made fun of Zheng Xuan who was a very important scholar. He remarked that Zhen Xuan was “an old fuddyduddy” and is “completely without brains”. Later that night he awoke to the sound of footsteps outside, which stopped right at the door. Wang Bi opened it and suddenly a figure appeared and spoke, “You are so young, how dare you poke holes into my writings and pick at my phrases, going so far as to make fun of this old man?” He looked furious, and suddenly vanished. It was the ghost of Zheng Xuan. Wang Bi was shocked and terrified, eventually falling ill and dying. [19] This story is obviously an anecdote, not to be taken as fact. It reflects the kind of environment these scholars had. They were arrogant men that thought the previous commentators were without thought in their writings. The Shishuo Xinyu clearly disagrees with them, though Wang Bi’s writings would become standard for thousands of years. Sima Guang’s commentary states that these men had little respect for the classics.

An absolute prodigy of a philosopher and a man whose career was undone through political maneuvering. Despite seeming like somewhat of a dick to Xun Rong he made many friends in life, and even his political adversary mourned him. However here I sit 1,800 years after Wang Bi died and I am still able to read the same words he penned back then. As I am no philosopher much of it goes right over my head, but the idea that this 23 year old created something that has lasted longer than the Roman Empire is truly spectacular. Wang Bi was a fascinating guy.

[1] Rafe de Crespigny, Biographical Dictionary of the Later Han to Three Kingdoms
[2] Rafe de Crespigny, Biographical Dictionary of the Later Han to Three Kingdoms
[3] Richard John Lynn, He Shao, Wang Bi Beizhuan
[4] Richard John Lynn, He Shao, Wang Bi Beizhuan
[5] Rafe de Crespigny, Biographical Dictionary of the Later Han to Three Kingdoms
[6] Richard John Lynn, He Shao, Wang Bi Beizhuan
[6a] Somethingness here implies some level of physical or phenomenal existence
[7] Richard John Lynn, He Shao, Wang Bi Beizhuan
[8] Analects 9.22
[9] Richard John Lynn, He Shao, Wang Bi Beizhuan
[10] Rudolf G. Wagner, The Craft Of a Chinese Commentator Wang Bi on the Laozi
[11] Richard B. Mather, Liu Yiqing, Shishuo Xinyu: A New Account of Tales of the World
[12] Richard John Lynn, He Shao, Wang Bi Beizhuan
[13] Richard John Lynn, Sun Sheng, Weishi Chunqiu
[14] Richard B. Mather, Liu Yiqing, Shishuo Xinyu: A New Account of Tales of the World
[15] Richard John Lynn, He Shao, Wang Bi Beizhuan
[16] Rudolf G. Wagner, The Craft Of a Chinese Commentator Wang Bi on the Laozi
[17] Richard John Lynn, He Shao, Wang Bi Beizhuan
[18] Richard John Lynn, He Shao, Wang Bi Beizhuan
[18a] For a full account of this rebellion please read A Case for Sima Zhao
[19] Richard B. Mather, Liu Yiqing, Shishuo Xinyu: A New Account of Tales of the World
Last edited by DaoLunOfShiji on Tue Dec 31, 2019 10:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Comprehensive Biography for Wang Bi

Unread postby Jia Nanfeng » Sat Jun 02, 2018 12:44 am

I must admit I knew very little about Wang Bi before now outside of the ol' ghost story! Thanks for introducing me. :mrgreen:

I wonder what Chinese character translates to "fuddyduddy"... :lol:
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Re: Comprehensive Biography for Wang Bi

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Sun Jun 03, 2018 3:11 pm

Nice to know more of the Wang clan and Wang Bi shows a good reflection on the new scholars attitudes towards ye olde
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Re: Comprehensive Biography for Wang Bi

Unread postby Zyzyfer » Mon Jun 04, 2018 3:27 am

This was great and really informative, thank you.
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Re: Comprehensive Biography for Wang Bi

Unread postby DaoLunOfShiji » Tue Dec 31, 2019 10:30 pm

Edited this to fix some major errors, and trimmed out much of the information about the Wang clan prior to Bi.
"To triumph without fighting is the greatest enterprise of the sovereign. Better to capture a state intact than to wreck it; better to capture an army complete than to destroy it. These are the principles of warfare."
— Zhong Hui
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