The Texts of
Ma Wang Dui - 馬王堆

Mawang Dui 馬王堆 - the Horse King Mound - is an archaeological site located in Changsha, China. It is the site of three tombs belonging to the first Marquis of Dai, his wife, and a male who is believed to be their son. The site was excavated from 1972 to 1974. Most of the artifacts from Mawangdui are displayed at the Hunan Provincial Museum. This discovery was monumental, one of the most significant of the 20th century and has changed our view of the history of medicine and Daoism in China.

The tomb contained various medical texts, including depictions of qigong (dao yin) exercises. For our purposes we will mainly focus on these philosophical and medical texts, but the tombs contained political and historical texts as well.

the texts

These text were “written to advise ruling Han dynasty authorities on how to attune themselves to the cosmos at a time of rapidly changing political and social climate.”

From the sleeve of Yates' Five Lost Classics :

“In 1973, among the many unique documents discovered in the richly furnished tomb of a Han-dynasty aristocrat, were five books written on silk, primary texts of Huang-lao Daoism and Yin-yang philosophy that had been lost to mankind for more than 2,000 years. A discovery as important in China as the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls was in the West, the Mawangdui texts created a sensation when they were first published, even leading to the foundation of a new religion on Taiwan…

The recovery of the five lost classics sheds new light on a critical transitional period of Chinese political and intellectual history. Implicit in the texts is the assumption that a ruler who strives to align himself with the unknowable, transcendent order of the cosmos will become a "true king" capable of commanding the allegiance of a unified China. To this end, the essays deal with concrete questions of self-cultivation and political insight rather than with the abstract considerations typical of Western philosophy.

The first four texts focus on different facets of Huang-lao Daoism while the fifth is devoted to Yin-yang philosophy:

Law unfolds the essence of the Tao and explains why rulers must abide within the boundaries of the law.
The Canon is largely cast as a series of stories and dialogues between the mythological Yellow Emperor and his leading officials.
Designations is a collection of fifty-four aphorisms expounding the eternal dilemmas of the human condition.
Tao the Origin is an essay on the origin of the Tao.
The Nine Rulers, the fragmentary fifth text, is a Yin-yang essay that considers the laws of nature which effective rulers must understand and obey. It is the only Yin-yang text which has survived almost whole into the Twentieth Century, and is valuable because its philosophy is basic to the origins of Huang-Lao tradition.”

Suggested translation

Yates, Robin D.S., Five Lost Classics: Tao, Huang-lao, and Yin-yang in Han China (Classics of Ancient China), New York: Ballantine, 1997

This translation includes the original text in Chinese, commentary and introduction to the work. It covers the Huang Lao texts and yin yang theory in the Mawangdui texts.

other translations

Harper, Don,. Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts, Kegan Paul International. 1998.

Buck, David D. Three Han Dynasty Tombs at Ma-Wang-Tui. World Archaeology, 7(1): 1975: 30-45.

huang lao daoism
The Four Huanglao Silk Scrolls - Huanglao Boshu 黄老帛書

The Mawangdui tomb contained a rich collection of Huang-Lao Taoist texts. Huang Lao is one of the three schools of Daoism, Laozi and Zhuang zi being the other two. Huang refers to Huangdi and Lao to Laozi. The term first appears in the Shiji Records of the Grand Historian (109-91 BCE).

Huang Lao was the most influential philosophy of the Western Han dynasty rulers, Emperor Wu (141-87BCE) and Emperor Jing (157-141). After them, Confucianism was established as the state philosophy, and later many Huanglao texts were destroyed.

Huang Lao daoism enjoyed renewed popularity In the Eastern Han period, during Empress Dou’s rule 88-92 CE, between the reigns of her husband Emperor Zhang and son Emperor He. Although born into a poor family in Qinghe, Empress Dou (Wen) became one of the first politically dominating female figures in Chinese history.

The Huangdi Neijing is one of the only surviving Huang-Lao text before the discovery of the Mawangdui tombs. There are modern scholars who argue that the four Huang Lao silk texts could be the long-lost Huangdi Sijing, Yellow Emperor’s Four Classics.

further reading

Carrozza, Paola. (2002), A Critical Review of the Principal Studies on the Four Manuscripts Preceding the B Version of the Mawangdui Laozi, B.C. Asian Review 13:49-69, 2002.

Tu Wei-ming, The 'Thought of Huang-Lao': A Reflection on the Lao tzu and Huang ti Texts in the Silk Manuscripts of Ma-wang-tui, Journal of Asian Studies 39:95-110.:1979

Yates, Robin D.S., Five Lost Classics: Tao, Huang-lao, and Yin-yang in Han China, Ballantine Books, 1997.

Yates, Robin D.S., Huang-Lao 黃老, in The Encyclopedia of Daoism, ed. by Fabrizio Pregadio, 508-510, 2008

online resources

For the Original Chinese text ›

From Chinese Text Project, under pre-Qin and Han texts - excavated texts.

Other Resources

·  A presentation of the Huanglao Boshu (silk texts) and of Huanglao Daoism from Ullrich Theobald : ›

·  A downloadable study review from a class at Indiana University about Huang Lao Daoism with a short introduction to what it is and Mawangdui with translated materials : ›