The Huainanzi text (淮南子 presented in 139 b.c.e. compiled by Liu An 劉安 179–122 b.c.e.), while defining itself as a political guide, is replete with references to Music (yue 樂) itself and music-related terms. While no chapter of the work’s twenty-one chapters is specifically dedicated to the subject of music, no single chapter of it is without musical references. This gives rise to the question: Which functions could music possibly have in such an overtly political text?
What this article will examine are the interactions between music and the social and political spheres in the Huainanzi. An analysis of the text’s musical references reveals an intriguing, multidimensional attitude toward music, touching upon moral discourse, discourse on political power, cosmological perceptions, and much more.
The article suggests a dual function of music in the text—on the one hand, music serves as a rhetorical tool for the authors of the Huainanzi, and on the other hand, it is a subject of discussion in its own right. For each of these functions of music, a model is proposed. The first model depicts the innovative musical conceptions of the Huainanzi; the second demonstrates how, through an analysis of musical references in the text, a model of sagely rulership is revealed. These models are illustrated and embodied in the human realm.