The Wenzi (Chinese: 文子; pinyin: Wénzǐ; Wade–Giles: Wen-tzu; literally: "[Book of] Master Wen"), or Tongxuan zhenjing (Chinese: 通玄真經; pinyin: Tōngxuán zhēnjīng; Wade–Giles: T'ung-hsuan chen-ching; literally: "Authentic Scripture of Pervading Mystery"), is a Daoist classic allegedly written by a disciple of Laozi. Although generations of Chinese scholars have dismissed the Wenzi as a plagiarism or forgery, in 1973 archeologists excavating a 55 BCE tomb discovered a Wenzi copied on bamboo strips.
The eponymous title Wenzi 文子 "Master Wen", suffixed with -zi 子 "child; person; master (title of respect)", is analogous with other Hundred Schools of Thought texts like Zhuangzi and Mozi. Wen 文 "written character; literature; refinement; culture" is an infrequent Chinese surname, and "Wenzi" is interpretable as a nom de plume denoting "Master of Literature/Culture". Compare the common Chinese word wenzi 文字 "characters; script; writing; written language".
In 742 CE, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang canonized the Wenzi as a Daoist scripture (along with the Daode jing, Zhuangzi, and Liezi) honorifically called the Tongxuan zhenjing 通玄真經 "Authentic Scripture of Pervading Mystery". The emperor posthumously styled Wenzi as the Tongxuan Zhenren 通玄真人 "Authentic Person of Pervading Mystery".
Written references to the Wenzi first appear in the Han Dynasty. The no longer extant 1st century BCE Qilue 七略 "Seven Summaries" by Liu Xiang and Liu Xin said the Wenzi had 9 pian 篇 "chapters". The bibliographical section of the 1st century CE Book of Han records the Wenzi text in 9 juan 卷 "rolls; volumes", says Wenzi was a student of Laozi, a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BCE), and adviser to King Ping of Zhou (r. 770-720 BCE), but adds "the work appears to be a forgery" (tr. Sakade 2007:1041).
In his ca. 523 CE Qilu 七录錄 "Seven Records", the Liang Dynasty scholar Ruan Xiaoxu 阮孝绪 records the Wenzi text in 10 volumes. Bibliographies in the 636 CE Book of Sui and the 945 CE New Book of Tang both record 12 volumes.
The Daozang "Daoist Canon" includes three Wenzi redactions under the Yujue 玉訣 "Commentaries" subsection of the Dongshen 洞神 "Spirit Grotto" section. The oldest extant edition is the Tongxuan zhenjing zhu 通玄真經注 "Commentary on the Authentic Scripture of Pervading Mystery" by Xu Lingfu 徐灵府 (ca. 760-841) of the Tang Dynasty. The Tongxuan zhenjing zhenyi zhu 通玄真經正儀注 "Commentary on the Correct Meaning of the Authentic Scripture of Pervading Mystery" is by Zhu Bian 朱弁 (ca. 1085-1144) of the Song Dynasty. Third is the 1310 CE Tongxuan zhenjing zuanyi 通玄真經纘義 "Collected Explanations to the Authentic Scripture of Pervading Mystery" by Du Daojian 杜道坚 (1237–1318) of the Yuan Dynasty. Judith M. Boltz (1987:219) cites the opinion of Siku Quanshu bibliographers that Du's version was the most reliable Wenzi redaction. She notes that Du Daojian became the rightful literary heir to Wenzi when he discovered a copy of the classic at the Tongxuan Guan 通玄觀 "Abbey of Pervading Mystery" of Mount Jizhou 計籌 in Zhejiang, where hagiographic legend says Wenzi took refuge and wrote down his teachings.
Very little is known about Master Wen or whether he wrote the Wenzi. Even the name Wenzi 文子 can denote "Cultured" or "Literate", comparable with King Wen of Zhou 周文王 or Kong Wenzi 孔文子 (Analects 5.15, tr. Ames and Rosemont 1998:98-99).
The early Wenzi commentary by Li Xian 李暹 (fl. 516 CE) records that Wenzi's surname was Xin辛 and his sobriquet (hao 號) was Jiran 計然, he served under Fan Li 范蠡 (fl. 517 BCE), and studied with Laozi.
Du Daojian's commentary notes Wenzi was a nobleman from the Spring and Autumn period state of Jin, his surname was Xin 辛 and courtesy name (zi 字) was Xing 銒. He was also called Song Xing 宋銒 referring to his home of Kuiqiu 葵丘, which was in Song (state).
The dates of Wenzi's birth and date are unknown. The Book of Han (above) contradictorily places the lifetime of Wenzi in the 8th century BCE (King Ping of Zhou) and the 6th-5th centuries BCE (Confucius, Laozi). Some commentators explain this two century difference by proposing there were two philosophers called Wenzi, others suggest a mistake for King Ping 平王 of Chu (r. 528-516 BCE).
Although the Wenzi has traditionally been considered a Daoist text illustrating Laozi's thinking, it contains elements from Confucianism, Mohism, Legalism, and School of Names. The Wenzi represents the "Huang-Lao" philosophy named after the legendary Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) and Laozi 老子 "Master Lao" (see Peerenboom 1995).
The textual format records Laozi answering Wenzi's questions about Daode jing concepts like Wu wei. Besides citing passages from Daoist classics like Zhuangzi and Huainanzi, the Wenzi also cites others like the Yijing, Mengzi, Lüshi Chunqiu, and Xiao Jing. Regarding the received Wenzi text, Yoshinobu Sakade concludes:
While these references make the Wenzi appear as a source of ancient thought, in the form we know it today it is a forgery, with about eighty percent of the text quoted from the Huainan zi, and the rest consisting of an amplification of the Daode jing or quotations from other texts. The present version contains expression similar to those found in the Taoist scriptures … These elements suffice to show that the extant Wenzi was written between the third and eight centuries, before the time of Xu Lingfu. (2007:1042)
In 1973, Chinese archeologists excavated a Han Dynasty tomb near Dingzhou 定州 (or Dingxian 定縣) in Hebei. Its occupant is identified as King Huai 懷王 of Zhongshan, who died in 55 BCE. Tomb furnishings included a precious Jade burial suit, jade ornaments, writing tools, and remnants of eight Chinese classic texts, including the Wenzi and Confucian Analects copied on hundreds of bamboo slips (jian 簡). These bamboo manuscripts were fragmented, disordered, and blackened by fire, perhaps accidentally caused by tomb robbers.
The specialized project of deciphering and transcribing this ancient Wenzi copy was delayed owing to a 1976 earthquake at Tangshan that further damaged the Dingzhou bamboo slips. The team published their first report in 1981 and their Wenzi transcription in 1995 (both in the archeological journal Wenwu 文物 "Cultural Relics").
Ongoing sinological studies of the so-called Dingzhou Wenzi (Le Blanc 2000, Ho 2002, van Els 2006) are providing both specific details of the presumed urtext edition and general insights in the early history of Daoist texts. Portions of the Dingzhou Wenzi are basically consistent with 6 of the 12 chapters in the received text. Consensus is building that this excavated Wenzi dates from the early 2nd century BCE, while the transmitted text was repeatedly corrupted by copyists and amended by editors.
The question-and-answer format is a significant difference between the bamboo and received Wenzi versions. Ames and Rosemont explain:
Consistent with the court bibliography in the History of the Han, the Dingzhou Wenzi has Wenzi as teacher who is being asked questions by a King Ping of the Zhou 周平王. The received text, on the other hand, has the teacher Laozi 老子 being asked questions by the student Wenzi, certainly less appropriate given that texts are usually named for the teacher rather than the student. (1998:273-4)
Compared with the numerous English translations of familiar Daoist texts like the Daode jing and Zhuangzi, the presumably apocryphal Wenzi has been disregarded. Thomas Cleary (1991) wrote a popularized Wenzi translation, which he attributes to Laozi [sic].
There is no authoritative English Wenzi translation based on the groundbreaking Dingzhou readings, nothing comparable with the Analects translation by Ames and Rosemont (1998). The closest is the unpublished PhD dissertation of Paul van Els (2006).