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The Craft of a Chinese Commentator: Wang Bi on the Laozi (SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture) Paperback – 6 Jan 2000


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About the Author

Rudolf G. Wagner is Professor of Chinese Studies at the Institute of Chinese Studies, University of Heidelberg, Germany. His previous books include Reenacting the Heavenly Vision: The Role of Religion in the Taiping Rebellion, The Contemporary Chinese Historical Drama: Four Studies, and Inside a Service Trade: Studies in Contemporary Chinese Prose. He received the Leibnitz Award for scholarly excellence from the German Research Foundation in 1993.


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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: HASH(0x960850f8) out of 5 stars 2 reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x957d1e58) out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: The First Installment 25 Dec. 2004
By Ian M. Slater - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"The Craft of a Chinese Commentator" is the first, and probably by far the most accessible, of Rudolf G. Wagner's three volumes on Wang Bi (226-249; Wade-Giles transliteration, Wang Pi), and his commentary on the "Laozi," or "Daodejing" (Wade-Giles, Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching). The text of the "Laozi" usually translated by Western Sinologists is the edition known as the "Wang Pi text," and three English translations of the "Wang Pi Commentary" had appeared when this book was published.

Wang Bi, although occasionally dismissed by those who prefer religious readings of the "Tao Te Ching" as a logic-chopping "born metaphysician," is probably by a wide margin the traditional commentator most admired by Western scholars. Unhappily for the serious study of his commentaries, that isn't saying much. An almost Protestant zeal to get at the "real meaning" of a Chinese Scripture by stripping away layers of what is presumed to be obfuscation has combined with the recognition that many "received" interpretations were, in fact, politically motivated, to make the whole subject seem of minor importance to serious scholars. (Arthur Waley, although, or because, he was aware of the importance of commentary in the Jewish tradition, explicitly tried to by-pass the Chinese equivalents as much as possible.)

Rudolf Wagner finds it necessary to point out in "Craft," that, although the fact was generally ignored, it had already been demonstrated that the "Wang Pi text" of the "Laozi" did not match the commentary, and was in fact a much later edition, with several layers of added corruption. And the text of the Commentary itself was not in the best shape either! Demonstrations of these matters, and their solutions, however, is postponed.

One main focus of this book is the investigation of the traditional accounts of the young genius, who, in a very short life, changed the direction of study of both the "Laozi"and the "Yijing" (I Ching; or, less familiarly, the "Zhouyi," "'Changes' of the Chou Dynasty"). Wagner clears away a good deal of mythologization; and, of even greater value in some ways, deals with what the legend-making process tells us about how Wang Bi was perceived.

We learn how a very young man came into possession of one of the greatest private collections of manuscripts in all of China, a matter of great importance when the Imperial libraries were destroyed in an age of upheaval; how being a provincial nobody probably saved his life when his more highly placed friends were wiped out in a purge of the "Pure Speech" movement (sounds very modern); and how his early death was attributed, not to the authorities, but the outraged spirits of the Han commentators he disdained -- and whose works are now lost.

There is also a literary and linguistic side of the study, analyzing Wang Bi's understanding of the stylistic features of classical Chinese which function to some extent as the written language's grammar (a category which some Chinese have been only too glad to follow some Westerners in denying is relevant; a position finally abandoned, although its traces remain in the literature). I found this fascinating, although harder to follow than the biographical and historical material. Presumably a reader who actually knows Chinese, particularly Classical Chinese, would find it less of a strain. Or maybe not; Wagner seems to be challenging some assumptions embedded in how the language is taught.

Wagner's description of what he calls the "Interlocking Parallel Style" (IPS), and Wang Bi's use of it as a reading technique, and in his own exposition, seemed to me to be convincing. Of course, I at first associated the term Parallel Style with ancient western poetries (Biblical Hebrew, Old English, and others), and not all the connections I was making were helpful to following the argument. Wagner's translation of Wang Bi should make it clearer whether this concept is as useful as it seems to be in examples provided here. (To anticipate a comment below, for whateve it is worth, I think it does.)

The actual substance of Wang Bi's "Laozi" commentary, and his philosophy, are given only a cursory treatment in "Craft," for the very good reason that they are the subject of two later books, then already being prepared for publication. One of these, "Language, Ontology, and Political Philosophy in China: Wang Bi's Scholarly Exploration of the Dark (Xuanxue)," I have yet to try reading.

I am working my way, slowly, through Wagner's "A Chinese Reading of the 'Daodejing': Wang Bi's Commentary on the 'Laozi' with Critical Text and Translation," which establishes a critical text of two works (one long thought lost) by Wang Bi, with translation and commentary, and a reconstruction of the Laozi text he was using, based on other Chinese editions, and the ancient manuscripts excavated at Mawangdui and Guodian, the former of which, in particular, seemingly have a common ancestor with Wang Bi's preferred text, although not identical to it. So far, the Interlocking Parallel Style approach does seem to clarify the translation, even if Wagner's method of displaying it on the page is at first a little distracting.

I can report, therefore, that "The Craft of the Chinese Commentator," although it can stand alone, proves to be the essential introduction to this larger, and much more technical volume; and I assume it has the same relationship to "Language, Ontology, and Political Philosophy."
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x95430ccc) out of 5 stars For specialists only 21 Feb. 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is a very technical analysis of the structure of Wang Bi's Laozi commentary, and it is clearly written. As a general reader (non-sinologist) I was able to read it, my interest in Wang Bi had been sparked by John Lynn's translations of the Laozi and Yijing commentaries, and Alan Chan's "Two Visions of the Way". But at the end of the book, I had the feeling of being unable to set the sinological data of Wagner in the broader context of the Chinese culture of the time.
For the non-specialist; I would recommend the two following volumes by R. Wagner, his actual translation of the commentary: "A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing" and his analysis of it in the third book : "Language, Ontology, and Political philosophy in China - Wang Bi's Scholarly Exploration of the Dark (Xuanxue)"
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