Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

East Asian Languages & Civilizations

First Advisor

Paul R. Goldin


In the field of sinology, a widespread truism is that mind-body holism is a defining characteristic of early Chinese conception of human life. In this dissertation, we wish to demonstrate that contesting notions of life and death co-exist in early China, against the presumption that mind-body dualism never arises in early China. First, through examining elite burials from Western Zhou through the Han, we demonstrate how the diametrically opposed visions of the dead (that of an ancestral spirit who lacks eternal existence and that of an immortal with a transcended physical form) were seamlessly combined in the burial practices from Eastern Zhou to the Han. Second, through studying the visions of life and self-cultivation practices as portrayed in several early Chinese texts, we demonstrate that mind-body holism and mind-body dualism co-exist in early China, with the former prominent in “Neiye,” Mencius and parts of Huainanzi, and the latter prominent in Zhuangzi and the other parts of Huainanzi. Although “Neiye” and Mencius endorse different kinds of self-cultivation, their strands of self-cultivation both involve a transformation of the mental-spiritual as well as physical-physiological aspects of life. In contrast, Zhuangzi has a prominent body-mind dualism, holding that the body disintegrates upon death and joins in the cosmic transformation, but the spiritual entity, if properly attended to, can transcend the physical form and gain an eternal existence through merging with the cosmic ancestor. Self-cultivation in Zhuangzi, therefore, primarily involves the attendance to the spiritual aspect of life. Huainanzi portrays two diametrically opposed views of human life, each of which fits a special type of human exemplar. Parts of it follow the Zhuangzian dualism and hold that the spirit may remain eternally unchanged despite corporeal decay. Parts of it follow the “Neiye” tradition and hold that life is sustained by the union of the spirit and body, both of which are depletable or destructible. With the distinction between the two types of human exemplars predestined in the cosmogonic process, they diverge fundamentally in their impact on the cosmic order, and the boundaries between them can never be crossed through self-cultivation.

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