Heshang Gong

Heshang Gong (also Ho-Shang Kung ) was a reclusive hermit from the 1st century CE who wrote a commentary on Laozi’s Dao De Jing. Little is known about the life of Heshang Gong; however the impact of his writing is extensive in regards to the understanding and translation of the Dao De Jing, and is considered one of the earliest proponents of Daoist meditative practices which cultivate the “three treasures” of vitality, energy, and spirit, and the "dual cultivation" of spiritual nature (xing) and life-and-destiny (ming).

Heshang Gong's name is only known as the epithet Riverside Elder (河上公[1]; Wade-Giles romanization: Ho Shang Kung; pinyin romanization: Heshang Gong).

Of this commentary, Dan G. Reid (2015: ii) says "Heshang Gong’s insights into Daoist wisdom, history, cosmogony, and meditative practices, have been an essential aid to understanding the meaning, applicability, and cultural context of the Dao De Jing throughout Chinese history. He was the first to explain, in written form, its many paradoxical idioms and place them in context of the time and culture in which they were written. Every subsequent commentary, re-editing, and translation of the Dao De Jing has absorbed some degree of influence from his work."

Heshang Gong provides what Kohn (2008:118) calls the "first evidence for Taoist meditation" and "proposes a concentrative focus on the breath for harmonization with the Dao."

Eduard Erkes says (1945:127-128) the purpose of the Heshang Gong commentary was not only to explicate the Daodejing, but chiefly to enable "the reader to make practical use of the book and in teaching him to use it as a guide to meditation and to a life becoming a Taoist skilled in meditative training."

[1] Shang 上 being an early form of “anshang, 岸上, bank/shore” (Reid, 2015:ii)

Dating the Heshang Gong commentary

According to Dan G. Reid (2015: ii-v)

"Given that the Riverside Elder maintained a prudent level of obscurity, as many ascetic mystics do, scholars have determined a wide variety of possible dates for the writing of his commentary. Tradition suggests around 160 BCE, though some scholars suggest the 3rd or 4th century CE, while others suggest closer to the turn of the second century CE.

The primary evidence that Heshang Gong did not write his commentary around 160 BCE is a single use of the term “the ten directions”[1] in chapter ten. This may suggest Buddhist influence because, previous to Buddhist contact in China (mid first-century CE), the directions were referred to as “the eight directions 八極,”[2] “the four corners 四方,”[3] or “the six boundaries (of the universe) 六合.”[4] It was common to mention “the four corners and the six boundaries” in the same sentence to refer to both earthly and celestial space; however, Heshang Gong would have been the first to group these two designations together as “the ten directions.”

Heshang Gong also uses the term “the five natures, 五性” which begins to appear in texts around the middle of the first century CE. In chapter 34, he uses the term "ai yang, 愛養, loving and nurturing/raising" (“(Dao) loves and raises the myriad things”). Ai yang was later changed in this stanza to “yi yang, 衣養, clothing and nurturing/raising.” Ai yang 愛養 was not a very commonly used term, but does appear in other texts from around the turn of the first century CE.

For the above reasons, it appears that Heshang Gong wrote his commentary no earlier than 100CE.

Heshang Gong’s commentary includes references to mystical concepts and terms which began to develop in much greater detail during the 3rd and 4th century, and this has led some scholars to date his commentary to this time period. Some also believed that Heshang Gong edited earlier versions of the Dao De Jing according to changes made by Wang Bi, the editor of what is now the most commonly used Dao De Jing text, and who lived between 226-249 CE.

All of this in consideration, it is safe to date Heshang Gong around 130 CE, thanks to a rather mythological tale about him written by Ge Xuan (164–244 CE), in which Heshang Gong is sought out along the banks of the Yellow River by Emperor Wen of Han (202–157 BCE), who was seeking instruction in the Dao De Jing. In this story, Heshang Gong floats up into the air, and admonishes the emperor’s attempt to ply him with wealth and honour, before giving the emperor his written commentary.

Ge Xuan is a highly revered figure in Daoism, as is his paternal grandnephew, Ge Hong (283–343 CE), both of whom were prominent in the development of Daoist Internal Alchemy (Nei Dan). This story shows that Heshang Gong was already a mythological figure by Ge Xuan’s time, and so could not have based his edits to the Dao De Jing on those of Wang Bi. To put Heshang Gong somewhere after the arrival of Buddhism in China, and long enough before Ge Xuan (164–244 CE) that local stories of him had faded into the wind, it is most probable that Heshang Gong studied near the banks of the Yellow River in and around 130 CE."

[1] Inherited by Buddhism from the Hindu tradition, they include the 8 octagonal directions (north, northeast, etc.), plus above and below

[2] Eight octagonal directions

[3] The northern, southern, eastern, and western directions of the earth

[4] north, south, east, west, above, and below, not limited to the earth



    Erkes, Eduard (1945), "Ho-Shang-Kung's Commentary on Lao-tse" Part I, Artibus Asiae, Vol. 8, No. 2/4 (1945), pp. 121–196.

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