In a study on the Daoist “classic” Zhuangzi, the German sinologist Hans Peter Hoffmann discusses two intriguing articles that might help to shed some light on the origins of the imagery and philosophy of the Daodejing.1 The first of these articles is by the contemporary Chinese scholar Pang Pu2 and presents a hypothesis about the genesis and cosmological background of the term xuan (“dark”) that figures so prominently in the Daodejing. One of its most important appearances is at the end of the first chapter. Here it is stated in relation to the Dao: “Darker even than darkness—Gate of multiple subtleties.” Pang tries to reconstruct why the term xuan combines the three meanings of “dark,” “mysterious,” and “cosmic essence.” He suggests that the Chinese character for xuan, as it appears in its earliest form on oracle bones, depicts two hands that turn something around and around creating the motion of a whirl:. A whirl, Pang concludes, is deep and dark, and can be associated with the mysterious downward spiraling of water—with a black hole of water, so to speak. The whirl functions as a gate that lets all things in and out like a cosmic source through which everything passes. He then refers to a set of objects from a late-stone-age culture named Qujialing that were unearthed in 1955 in the southern Chinese province of Hunan and initially interpreted as a type of ancient spinning reels (Fig. 1). Given the number, color, and the peculiar design of these objects, Pang doubts that they were used simply as spinning tools and instead suggests that they were ritual objects. He assumes that a bamboo stick was put through their empty hub, that they were then spun and, when they turned quickly, their design looked like a whirl in the shape of the letter “S”—very much like the ancient form of the character xuan. The notion of
1. Hans Peter Hoffmann, Die Welt als Wendung: Zu einer literarischen Lektüre des Wahren Buches vom südlichen Blütenland (Zhuangzi) (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2001), 187–206.
2. Pang Pu, “Tan ‘xuan,’” in Yi fen wei san: Zhongguo chuantong sixiang kaoshi (Shenzhen: Haitian, 1995), 284–94.