Advice for Rulers, Charioteers and Cyclists: the Huainanzi

The Huainanzi, a fascinating Han dynasty guidebook for rulers, on resonance, non-action, charioteering, and how not to fall off a bicycle.

Will Buckingham
9 min readJun 4, 2022

Image of cyclists (1912). Rijksmuseum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Many Voices of the Huainanzi

In the year 139 BCE, Liu An (劉安 179–122 BCE), the scholarly-minded King of Huainan, wanted to ingratiate himself to his cousin once removed, the Emperor Wu of Han. So he did what any self-respecting scholar king would do. Anxious to demonstrate his usefulness and his political nous, he convened a group of scholars to put together a text on the art of leadership to present to the young emperor. The resulting text, the Huainanzi, was an ambitious work: a compilation of everything a self-respecting ruler should know, a manual for running an effective state.

Liu An was not only the king of Huainan, but also a scholar in his own right who wrote poems, and treatises on topics as diverse as music, alchemy, and philosophy. And the Huainanzi reflects this breadth of interests. It covers a dizzying array of topics: from statecraft to military strategy; from metaphysics to the prediction of good and bad fortune; from the art of rhetoric to the challenges of ruling over an empire that encompasses a broad diversity of peoples and customs.

It is this diversity and range that make the Huainanzi so fascinating. It is more an anthology than a single-authored text, a text that not only was composed by many hands, but that contains many voices. Not only are the topics in the text astonishingly wide-ranging, but so are the philosophical sources on which the text draws. The Huainanzi ranges freely between Confucian, Daoist, and Legalist perspectives. It draws the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, but also on the Book of Changes, the Spring and Autumn Annals, the philosophy of Mozi, the thought of Confucian thinkers including Mengzi and Xunzi, and the legalist thinker Hanfeizi. And all of this is by design. The postface to the text says that:

We have not
followed a path made by a solitary footprint
or adhered to instructions from a single perspective
or allowed ourselves to be entrapped or fettered by things so that we
would not advance or shift according to the age…

Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham