Wang Pi (226-249) was one of the most brilliant Chinese philosophers. He reinterpreted the Tao-te ching and the I ching and laid the basis for an entirely new metaphysics that inspired Chinese philosophers for centuries to come.
The year 226, when Wang Pi was born, found China divided into three separate kingdoms, each straining to regain control of the entire empire. The fall of the Han, which occurred at the end of the 2nd century A.D. and gave rise to the Three Kingdoms, was a catastrophe that had its repercussions in every aspect of life in China, not least of all in philosophy. Once the imperial state had disappeared, the extraordinarily complex and complete philosophical systems the Han scholastics had compounded were seen to be what they really were: lifeless and arbitrary conglomerations of old theories and superstitions that crudely attempted to provide a metaphysical foundation for the Han hegemony. The disappearance of the great Han state thus created an intellectual vacuum that thinkers hastened to fill; it also left a period of comparative liberty, very rare in China, that was to allow them to present new and bold formulations.
If Wang Pi accomplished so much in so short a space of time, it was perhaps in part due to the fact that he was born into a family active in the most progressive philosophical circles at the end of the Han period and had at his disposition close to 1,000 chapters (chüan) of books, the important library of Ts'ai Yung, given to his father by the first emperor of the Wei dynasty.
Wang Pi seems to have been a somewhat conceited young intellectual aristocrat, good at a traditional dart game, in which the player threw sticks into a long-necked bottle; fond of feasting and carousing; very discriminating in music; and somewhat apt to laugh at others who did not come up to his extraordinary high intelligence. There is a strong streak of something that at first reading looks like frivolity in his work, an overindulgence in paradox and in farfetched analogies, that probably reflects his youth and his playboy tendencies—but only on first reading, for further study shows that he was deadly serious.
Wang's biography tells us that, when he was being interviewed for an important post by the regent Ts'ao Shuang, Wang Pi spoke with the busy head of state on nothing but metaphysics. He did not get the job and caused Ts'ao Shuang to "snicker at him," but the incident is revealing: Wang Pi's metaphysics, which at first seems gratuitous and disembodied, was for its author a vital, "committed" philosophy, something essential for the good administration of the empire. He truly intended to replace the worn-out philosophies of the Han with something new and all-encompassing.
Wang Pi's most important works are two commentaries: one on the Tao-te ching and the other on the I ching. On both these works he has left his indelible mark, but his work on the I ching completely reorganized the book and made it much as it is today; of the extremely numerous early commentaries, moreover, his is the only one to survive in its entirety. It is, of course, very difficult to study a man's philosophy solely by studying his commentaries on other works, but that is what we have to do in Wang Pi's case; for aside from these commentaries, all that remains of his work are fragments of a commentary on the Analects of Confucius, a fragmentary short work on the Tao-te ching (the Lao-tzu chih-lüeh), and the slightly longer, complete Chou-i lüeh-li on the I ching.
Putting it succinctly but without too much distortion, we may say that Wang Pi's philosophy is a combination of Confucian ethics and Taoist metaphysics. He suggests that the Taoist absolute, or ontological substratum of the universe (the tao), is indeed the metaphysical basis of the Confucian social organization, with a single ruler and a hierarchical society harmoniously cooperating according to ritual and the traditional Confucian virtues.
In his commentary to the Tao-te ching, Wang Pi brilliantly shows that the tao is in fact wu. Wu is a term difficult to translate; it is a negation but definitely does not mean "nothing" or "nothingness," as it is often translated. It is "non-," "un-," "without," meaning that it is "undefined," "undetermined"—a true absolute in the Western philosophical meaning of the word. All of creation, all of the diversified universe, all yu (the opposite of wu) —"having" or "with" determination or definition—ultimately depends upon the undefined and undefinable wu for its existence. We must thus model ourselves upon this absolute if we wish to "develop our natures to their full" (ch'üan-hsing) and live out our lives to their limits under the best conditions.
The ancient Taoists did not give much concrete information on just how this was to be done. Wang Pi says we can find this information in the I ching, which for him, as for all his compatriots, contains in its 64 hexagrams all the possible combinations of conditions that a man can encounter in life. His commentary brilliantly exploits the methods and terminology of the I ching, showing the subtle and changing relations between the six lines of each hexagram and explaining in abstract terms just what the obscure remarks of the ancient explanations really mean for us in our moral life.
The fine points of Wang's philosophy have not yet been fully studied, but the underlying nucleus, the motive force that gives the philosophy its basic impulsion, is that the ontological substratum underlying the universe and the universe as we see it are actually only different phases of a single entity: wu is the essence, yu its manifestation (t'i and yung as they are called in later philosophy). Just as the outward manifestations of the world are really only differentiations of a basic unity, so must we, in our activities, attempt to conform to our basic "principle" or "reason for being" (li) in sticking "spontaneously" (tzu-jan) to our "lot" (fen) in life and society. The I ching is a guide to accomplish this, but its traditional Confucianism takes on a new metaphysical dimension in Wang Pi's version as he teaches us that conforming to our "reason for being" and our "lot" enables us to return to the undifferentiated, mystical wuthat underlies all reality.
Wang Pi was not only closely studied and imitated by the early Buddhist thinkers of the 4th and 5th centuries, but his first coherent and complete Confucian metaphysics seems, consciously or unconsciously, to have inspired the Sung Neo-Confucianists.
There is little on Wang Pi in English. Short introductions to his work are in Feng Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 2 (new ed. 1953); Hellmut Wilhelm, Change: Eight Lectures on the I Ching (1960); and Wing-tsit Chan, ed. and trans., A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (1963).