The Wenzi 文子 "Master Wen"， canonic title Tongxuan zhenjing 通玄真經 "The perfect book penetrating the mystery" is a Daoist treatise written during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). There is actually nothing known about the author. He was perhaps a prince from the state of Jin 晉. His name is said to have been Song Jin 宋釿, Xin Jian 辛銒 or Xin Bing 辛鉼 (according to Du Daojian's 杜道堅 Tongxuan zhenjing zuanyi 通玄真經纘義), his courtesy name Jiran 計然, and his style Wenzi. He is therefore also called Jiranzi 計然子 "Master reckoning what is by nature". Xin Jian hailed from Kuiqiu 葵邱 and was a disciple of Laozi 老子 and a teacher of Fan Li 范蠡. He was a contemporarian of Confucius 孔子 and gave advice either to King Ping of Zhou 周平王 (r. 770-720 BCE; this seems to be an error made by the Tang period 唐 (618-907) historian Yan Shigu 顏師古), or King Ping of Chu 楚平王 (r. 528-516). It might be quite probable that Wenzi and Jiranzi were two different persons, or that there were, at least, two books with the respective titles Wenzi and Jiranzi. The Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534) scholar Li Xian 李暹 mixed up the two. It is also said the Wenzi was made a grand master (dafu 大夫) of King Goujian 句踐 of the state of Yue 越 and helped him to take revenge by annihilating the state of Wu 吳. Because he was not rewarded for his merits, he retired and became a Daoist master living in the mountains.
The 12 chapters long book Wenzi is basically a Daoist writing, yet is includes a lot of other philosophical thought to be found in Confucian, Mohist or legalist books. Many quotations from the Laozi are identical to the received version of the Daodejing 道德經, but there are also differences to be found. The explanation of the Dao, the "Way" of nature, plays an important role in the Wenzi. In some respects, the book can be seen as a kind of loose commentary to the Daodejing. The Dao is, according to Wenzi, so high that it can not be reached, and so deep that it can not be fathomed. It embraces Heaven and Earth in a shapeless unity. The origin of the Dao is obscure, yet is spreads out to everywhere without bring depleted. The unclear is clarified by quietness, meaning the return to the original state. The Dao controls and connects everything. Dark by itself, it is able to enlighten. Soft by itself, it is able to penetrate all matters. Containing the Yin, it sends out Yang to make bright stars, sun, and moon. Mountains are high because of the Dao, and the seas are deep because of the Dao. Animals can move because of it. The Dao itself is shapeless and void, it is even and changeable, pure and quiet, soft and weak, clear and refined. A man who has found out the true nature of the Dao will be able to become like the Dao itself. Pureness and quietness are ideal ways to identify oneself with the Dao, to nourish one's life, to acheive perfect virtue, motionless harmony, and an inner liberation of the disturbances of life. These methods can be applied for the own mind, the body, and a society as well as a state.
As a political advisor of King Ping (of Chu) Wenzi explained that the Dao and the way of virtue were able to rectify those who "spread the evil" (kuang xie yi wei zheng 匡邪以為正), to bring order into those who "waved the banner of rebellion" (zhen luan yi wei zhi 振亂以為治), and to make austere those who "succumbed to luxury" (hua yin bai yi wei pu 化淫敗以為樸). Virtue and peace all depended on one single person, namely the ruler. He was seen as the "instrument of the people" (shang zhe, xia zhi yi ye 上者，下之儀也). It the ruler lived in (moral) beauty, the people would have enough to eat, and if the ruler exerted the virtue of the Way, the people would live in kindheartedness and rightousness (ren yi 仁義), and the latter was the precondition for peace and order in a state.
The Wenzi has been criticised as a forgery. The quality of the text was much too high, the argument goes, as that it could have been compiled during the Warring States period, at least according to the Tang period scholar Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元. It was, nonetheless, during that time that the book Wenzi was canonized as core of the important Daoist writings. In 742 Master Wenzi was officially bestowed the title of Tongxuan zhenren 通玄真人 "Perfect man penetrating the mystery", and became one of the four great Daoist masters (with Zhuangzi 莊子, Liezi 列子 and Kangcangzi 亢倉子). The imperial bibliography Yiwenzhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 says the book Wenzi included 9 chapters, the bibliography Jingjizhi 經籍志 in the Suishu 隋書 and the bibliography Qilüe 七略 speak of 12 chapters. Li Xian and the Tang period scholar Xu Lingfu 徐靈府 speak of a length of 12 juan "scrolls". The version included in the collectaneum Siku quanshu 四庫全書 is only 2 juan long. Inspite of all these different arrangments of the text, the content seemed not to have changed over the centuries. Modern scholars date the compilation of the Wenzi to the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), a time when books of similar content, like the Huainanzi 淮南子, were compiled. In 1973, an original Wenzi text was discovered in a Han period tomb in Dingxian 定縣, Hebei. The greatest part of the text differs to the received version, yet in the chapter Daode 道德, six paragraphs are identical. This fact shows that the Wenzi was indeed a text compiled during the Warring States period but was subject to an extensive later revision, or that authors of a new text borrowed the name Wenzi to enhance the status of their book.
The received version of the Wenzi is to be found in the Daoist Canon Daozang 道藏, the Siku quanshu, the Shuofu 說郛, Mohai jinhu 墨海金壺 and Yuan-Ming shanben congshu shizhong 元明善本叢書十種. The Daoist Canon includes also several commentaries to the Wenzi, namely Moxizi's 默希子 Tongxuan zhenjing zhu 通玄真經注 from the Tang period, Zhu Bian's 朱弁 Tongxuan zhenjing zhu 通玄真經注 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279), and Du Daojian's above-mentioned commentary Tongxuan zhenjing zuanyi from the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368).
Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰 (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典, vol. 2, p. 2295. Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe.
Qing Xitai (1994) 卿希泰. Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教, vol. 2, p. nnn. Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe.
1 道原 Daoyuan The origin of the Way|
2 精誠 Jingcheng The sincerity of the essence
3 九守 Jiushou The nine observances
4 符言 Fuxin Words from registers
5 道德 Daode The virtue of the Way
6 上德 Shangde The virtue of the ruler
7 微明 Weiming The illumation of the minuscule
8 自然 Ziran Nature
9 下德 Xiade The virtue of the people
10 上仁 Shangren The kindheartedness of the ruler
11 上義 Shangyi The righteousness of the ruler
12 上禮 Shangli The propriety of the ruler