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The Canon of Supreme Mystery (An Old and Rare Book)

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Item Code: NAS319
Author: Michael Nylan
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Language: English
Edition: 1995
ISBN: 8170304477
Pages: 700
Other Details 9.00 X 6.00 inch
Weight 870 gm
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About the Book

This is a translation, with a commentary and a long contextualizing Introduction, of the only major work of Han (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) philosophy that is still available in complete form. It is the first translation of the work into a European language and provides unique access to this formative period in Chinese history. Because Yang Hsiung's interpretations drew upon a variety of pre-Han sources and then dominated Confucian learning until the twelfth century, this text is also a valuable resource on early Chinese history, philosophy, and culture beyond the Han period.

The T'ai hsuan is also one of the world's great philosophic poems comparable in scale and grandeur to Lucretius' De rerum naturum. Nathan Sivin has written that this is one of the titles on the short list of Chinese books every cultivated person should read.

Han thinkers saw in this text a compelling restatement of Confucian doctrine that addressed the major objections posed by rival schools including Mohism, Taoism, Legalism and Yin-Yang Five Phase Theory. Since this Han amalgam formed the ba'sis for the state ideology of China from 134 B.C. to 1911, an ideology that in turn provided the intellectual foundations for the Japanese and Korean States, the importance of this book can hardly be overestimated.

About the Author

Michael Nylan is Professor of Modern and Ancient Chinese Studies at Bryn Mawr College.


As the first grand synthesis of classic Chinese thought, Yang Hsiung's Canon of Supreme Mystery (ca. 4 B.c.) occupies a place in all of Chinese intellectual history roughly comparable to that of the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas in the West. As one of the few original works by a recognized philosophical master to have survived from the formative Han period (contemporaneous with and analogous to the Roman empire), the Mystery provides us today with the single best remaining clue to early attempts to situate the individual in family, state bureaucracy, and cosmos. As one of the first systematic responses to the Book of Changes (Yi ching), the divination manual cum philosophical treatise, the Mystery can also help us reconstruct the original imagery, structure, and meaning of that sacred canon in relation to other classics, such as the Book of Documents and the Book of Odes.

Despite its obvious importance, the Mystery is the only masterwork of early Chinese philosophy that has not been translated into any Western language; its only "modern" scholarly translation is a Japanese rendering that tends to gloss over problematic passages. Still, the Mystery offers much to the modern reader. It is a divination manual that suggests a complex interaction between time and virtue in unfolding human destiny. It is also one of the great philosophic poems of world literature, assessing the rival claims on human attention of fame, power, and physical immortality, while situating human endeavour within the larger framework of cosmic energies. The symbols system of the Mystery is unsurpassed in its richness in the Chinese language. At the same time, the Mystery serves as a repository of early Chinese scientific, philosophical, and technical knowledge.

An accessible (and wherever possible, literal) translation into English is offered here for the complete text of the Canon of Supreme Mystery and its ten auto commentaries. Following Chinese tradition (reflected somewhat in the Wilhelm translation of the Yi ching), supplementary comments are appended to each block of translation in order to indicate the main lines of interpretation for the passage suggested by earlier scoliasts. In addition, these commentaries supply background information about literary allusions and historical facts where pertinent, in the hopes that the modern reader may experience the text in a fashion not unlike Yang's earlier readers. Included in the translator's introduction are short essays dedicated to each of several key terms employed by Yang Hsiung. No translation can ever hope to fully suggest the intricate beauty of the original text by Yang Hsiung. My hope is simply that this study will revive interest in this important thinker. It is an invitation to others to enter into the pleasures of Han philosophy.

Modern literary theory argues that phrases or lines when repeated take on new meanings in view of their new context. The frequent repetition of Appraisal lines in the Fathomings has therefore presented me with an un-usual opportunity to clarify, expand, or shade the translation given in the Appraisal. Accordingly, readers of classical Chinese will find that the same Chinese character in related lines is not always rendered as a single English equivalent. Since Yang Hsiung emphasized the changing values of actions and entities in varying situations, I suspect that he would have preferred this to a more rigid approach to translation. The commentary that follows each section of poetry gives the reader a synopsis of the commentary tradition attached to the Mystery. When all the commentators agree on the basic meaning of the poetry, as often hap-pens, I have not thought it necessary to supply a footnote to indicate this general consensus. When one or more commentators offer variant interpretations, a note directs the reader to the appropriate material. In the very few cases where I have gone beyond the Chinese commentators in my interpretation or speculation, I have tried to indicate this in a note.


Many people have helped with the Canon of Supreme Mystery. First among them was Nathan Sivin. Shortly after I finished my Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton in 1982, Professor Sivin offered me the opportunity to co-author an introductory article on Yang Hsiung's book. That opportunity, along with Professor Sivin's support through the years, encouraged me to continue work on Yang Hsiung. Despite his busy schedule, Professor Sivin often took the time to keep my writing "honest." When my translations were poor or my generalizations sloppy, Professor Sivin made constructive suggestions for their improvement. Where the style is clear and the argument tight in the the text I offer here, much of the credit should go to Nathan Sivin. Where there are obvious failings, they reflect my own inability to adequately (in the Chinese phrase) "pair" his lucid mind. For all of his help, I am most grateful.

Some three years into the project, I happened to meet Father Paul Leo-Mary Serruys, whose 1959 dissertation focused on Yang Hsiung's dialect dictionary, the Fang yen. Fortunately, Father Serruys soon became interested in the T'ai hsiian text. Over the course of the next few years, using the T'ai hsitan as a sort of textbook, Father Serruys instructed me in the fundamental principles of early Chinese linguistics. Father Serruys and I discussed nearly every line of the translation offered here. Often we argued. No series of footnotes, however extensive, could adequately convey the magnitude of my intellectual debt to him. As with Professor Sivin, I only hope Father Serruys will be pleased with the result, despite my many errors and omissions.

It was Michael Loewe who introduced me to both the rigors and pleasures of Han thought nearly twenty years ago. More recently, I have benefited from the careful consideration he and Professors Victor Mair and Alan K. Ch'an gave the introduction, the translation, and the appendices. These fine scholars queried certain inconsistencies, suggested further readings, and in general made me think much harder about the claims I was making. Professor Ch'en Shun-cheng of Taiwan National University patiently read through much of the T'ai hsiian text with me, explaining etymologies and allusions along the way. A friend at Bryn Mawr, Stephen Salkever, also deserves special thanks for helping me to refine my reflections and broaden my reading in comparative texts from the Western tradition. Another colleague at Bryn Mawr, Ty Cunningham, helped me devise a simplified method of divination for the popular version of this translation. And an old friend in Classics, William Mullen, used part of his precious leave time to point out ambiguities and infelicities in the introductory chapter, as well as parallels to Yang Hsiung's thought in world philosophy.

At various points, when I was particularly discouraged about the T'ai hsiian project, my esteemed colleagues Sue Glover, Mary Erbaugh, Andrew Plaks, Kathleen Wright, and Raoul Birnbaum all took a look at various parts of the draft and cheered me on. At one stage, when I was in a panic over the loss of a draft version of the introductory chapter, Hans Bielenstein, John Chaffee, Robert Hymes, John Meskill, Martin Amster, and John Reese, as co participants in the Columbia Seminar on Traditional China, generously helped me to locate an early draft of a paper given on the "Mystery." Gerry Boswell talked to me of the varieties of mysticism. And Matthew Portal also deserves credit for his advice on a grant application supporting this project. Robert Jay Litz, one of the best writers around and also my best friend, read and reread every line of poetry and prose, pointing out euphonious alternatives to my own clumsy attempts. He can have no idea how much that meant to me. Various friends from my Princeton circle offered physical assistance in addition to moral support. The staff of Gest Library responded to all my questions with unfailing good humor. Yang Chiu (Joanne Chiang to her Princeton students) and Nancy Norton Tomasko wrote the Chinese char-acters for the version submitted to SUNY Press for initial consideration. Yang Chiu was responsible for the elegant characters found in the revised version submitted to SUNY. Mr. Qian-shen Bai, now studying at Yale University, generously agreed to write the "clerical script" characters for the book cover. He also cut the seal that will grace the front cover. Nancy Norton Tomasko spent days checking my bibliography and footnotes for errors.


Yang Hsiung (53 B.C.-A.D. 18) initially won fame under Emperor Ch'eng (r. 33-7 B.c.) for long prose-poems (fu) whose satirical content was cloaked in lush imagery, hyperbole, and allusion.' By the reign of Emperor Ai (r. 7-1 B.c.), however, Yang Hsiung had redirected his consider-able talents to the writing of two philosophical works, the Fa yen (Model Sayings) and the T'ai hsiian ching (Canon of Supreme Mystery).2 The Model Sayings, by employing the same dialogue form found in the Analects of the sage-master Confucius (551-479 B.c.), evaluates the conflicting claims of immortality, fame, power, and scholarship, while briefly characterizing the essential points of previous thinkers; in the process, it provides a relatively straightforward catechism for the would-be . sage. The Mystery is a far more difficult text. Like its prototype, the Yi ching (Book of Changes), the Mystery suggests the significant patterns of the universe through different combinations of solid and broken lines accompanied by text.3 Yang Hsiung also composed ten auto commentaries (all still extant) as counterparts to the "Ten Wings" commentaries appended to the Changes. According to two sources, Yang (apparently in an irreverent mood) even composed "commentaries by chapter and verse" (chang chii) in the style of the Han scholastics, though these are now lost.

The impact of Yang Hsiung's philosophy on later Chinese thought is undeniable. The historian Pan Ku revered Yang Hsiung as one of the three great Confucian philosophers of Western Han, in company with Liu Hsiang and Liu Hsin.5 Pan Ku's opinion was shared by the leading Eastern Han thinkers, including Huan T'an, Wang Ch'ung, Chang Heng, Ying Shao, and Sung Chung, all of whom appreciated the breadth and critical acumen of Yang Hsiung's writings.6 Through them, the T'ai hsiian provided inspiration and vocabulary for the Hsiian hsiieh movement (in Chinese, "Mystery Learning") of the post-Han period. The Mystery, in fact, continued to greatly influence Chinese thought for a millennium, until prominent Sung thinkers like Su Hstin (1009-1066) and Chu Hsi (1130-1200) applied contemporary standards retroactively to Yang Hsiung, thereby discrediting him on three counts: (a) his service at the court of the "usurper" Wang Mang (r. 9-23);7 (b) his outright rejection of the theory of huffian nature proposed by the Confucian master Mencius (?371-?289); and (c) his supposed presumption in composing "classics" in imitation of the sages.8 Despite counterarguments posed by equally famous Confucians like Ssu-ma Kuang (1018-86), these aspersions cast upon Yang's character resulted in the eventual demotion of the Mystery from the highly selective category of "[orthodox] Confucian text" (Ju) to that of "numerology" in the famous Ssu k'u shu catalogue of 1782.9 Combined with the inherent difficulties of the text, they also account for the relative paucity of later studies on Yang Hsiung's philosophy .


The term translated as "Mystery" (hsaan) carries a range of meaning from "black" to "darkness" to "hidden" to "mystery." Its overtones are "stillness," "isolation," "non differentiation," and "inaccessibility by purely rational processes." In early Chinese thought" such ideas bear no un-pleasant connotations. They express that dimension of experience that can be known only by quiet and deep contemplation, or by illumination. Yang Hsiung uses hsiian in his book title to indicate the profound stage of darkness, silence, ambiguity, and indefiniteness out of which creation springs. In the cosmogonic scheme, it is the undifferentiated stage out of which yin/yang,* then the Five Phases, and ultimately the myriad phenomena of the experiential world develop.12 In Nature as humans perceive it, it is the latency out of which individual things are born spontaneously and out of which events shape themselves. In the sage-that is, the ideal human being, the perfect student of the Mystery-hsaan is the spiritual inwardness that precedes conscious decision and action, ensuring that they will be in harmony with the divine process known as "the Way." It is, in other words, the creative aspect of the Tao wherever it is manifested. A description of it drawn from an earlier philosophical classic, the Lao tzu, speaks of &Ilan in this way:

The way that can be told is not the common way.

The name that can be named is not the common name.

What has no name is the beginning of Heaven and Earth.

What has a name is the mother of the myriad creatures.

Those without desires contemplate its secrets.

Those who have desires contemplate its periphery.

These two emerge together, but differ in name.

Being together, they are called "Mystery."

Mystery upon mystery,

Gateway to the myriad secrets.

Although it would be unrealistic to expect general agreement on the meaning of this poem, most who take it as serious philosophy believe it discerns the mystic Tao in two different aspects: as the ineffable fountain-head outside of and prior to phenomenal experience, and as the immanent process that differentiates things and events out of potentiality. Joining these two mysteries is the never-broken connection between the change we see and the unchanging ground of all process. The cosmogonic language of this passage describes every aspect of continuous creation in the cosmos, including that which takes place in the heart/mind of the sage.

The Mystery by Yang Hsiung reflects this same vision of hslian in the opening lines to one of its chapters:

The Mystery of which we speak in hidden places unfolds the myriad species, without revealing a form of its own. It fashions the stuff of Emptiness and Formlessness, giving birth to the regulations. Tied to the gods in Heaven and the spirits on Earth, it fixes the models. It pervades and assimilates past and present, originating all categories. It unfolds and intersperses yin and yang, generating the ch'i. * Now severed, now conjoined, [through the interaction of yin and yang ch'i, the various aspects of] Heaven-and-Earth are indeed fully provided."

Yang Hsiung's vision of the Mystery, like that put forward by Lao tzu, bridges the gap between cosmos and consciousness, between the inexpressible and the concrete. Yang attempts to express this again in a second chapter:

The Way of Heaven is a perfect compass. The Way of Earth is a per-fect carpenter's square. The compass in motion describes a complete circle through the sites. The square, unmoving, secures things [in their proper place]. Circling through the sites makes divine light possible. Securing things makes congregation by types possible. . . . Now the "Mystery" is the Way of Heaven, the Way of Earth, and the Way of Man.

In sum, the Mystery includes not only the yin matrix of fecundity and nurturing but the yang impetus toward form. Yang Hsiung makes this ex-plicit through his concern with the energy or vitality (ch'i) that shapes individual configurations.

As is typical for Han, Yang combined his borrowed cosmogonic language with the ethical system espoused by early Confucian tradition. Though Yang freely acknowledged his philosophic debt to Lao tzu,16 he explicitly rejects the -earlier philosopher's disdain for "Goodness and Duty, ritual* and study."17 The Lao tzu had assumed that ultimate value lay in the chaos prior to phenomenal existence; therefore, the best human relations imitated Tao in their unstructured and undirected nature. Yang Hsiung took issue with this un-Confucian vision. In emphasizing the immanent and formative aspects of the Mystery, Yang made a fundamental shift toward accommodation with Confucian ideals. Though without visible form, the Mystery in Yang's Mystery contains unseen all the myriad forms, patterns, and categories that underlie process and interaction. For Yang, then, the model of the Mystery is violated when human beings fail to realize proper distinctions in rank and function as reinforced by ritual precepts, sumptuary regulations, and the penal code.18 This explains why Yang Hsiung not only insisted upon the absolute need for the traditional Five Constant Relations, but in fact emphasized those of father/son and ruler/subject which the Lao tzu singled out for special condemnation.19 Yang also questioned the Taoist stress on "non purposive activity" (wu wei), emphasizing instead the need for conscious adjustment of one's actions to one's position in time.

For Yang Hsiung, traditional Confucian doctrine alone can provide a sufficient key to the true nature of the ineffable Mystery, for it alone is comparably comprehensive. He sees the Five Confucian Classics* as an inexhaustible repository of cosmic wisdom:

Among the explanations of Heaven, there is none more discerning in its language than that of the Changes. Among the explanations for events, there is none more discerning than that of the Documents. Among the explanations for the outward embodiment [of virtue], there is none more discerning than that of the Rites. Among the explanations for intent, there is none more discerning than that of the Odes. Among the explanations for inherent pattern, there is none more discerning than that of the Chronicles. Except in the case of these [Five Classics], discerning language is wasted upon petty subjects.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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