Western_Jin spirit_jar_found_in_Ningbo

A Western Jin (265–317) Spirit Jar at the Ningbo Museum.

Project (2021)

No Easy Way Out: Ge Hong’s Rejection of Timeless Utopianism and Embrace of Progress

Due to the turbulence and danger of the fragmented early medieval Chinese world, numerous men of letters craned their necks looking for paradises in underground caverns or the high heavens. A literatus named Bao Jingyan blamed the pitiful state of the world on the existence of government and hierarchy. If people could return to the equalitarian conditions of the beginning of time, when man lived in harmony with nature, peace and happiness would return. The eclectic recluse Ge Hong (283–343) devoted an entire chapter of his book, The Outer Chapters of the Master who Embraces Simplicity, to refuting Bao’s views. He believed that the imperfect present was still better than the primitive past. Yet, Ge Hong was not simply a Confucian traditionalist—he was actively engaged in pursuing immortality through alchemy and several other methods. By means of providing the first complete translation of this chapter in English, the purpose of this project is to explore Ge Hong’s notion of historical progress and his justification of a structured and hierarchical world, one that he was keen to criticize and escape from. Although Ge Hong was a unique thinker in many ways, his criticisms of utopianism will provide a window on the complex and multiple ways in which early medieval learned men viewed time and their world.