The establishment of an authoritarian empire and the long-lived but philosophically dogmatic (Confucian) Han dynasty temporarily drained the vibrancy from Chinese philosophical thought. Classical Daoist philosophy was successfully extinguished by the imperial suppression of analytic thought. Confucian authoritarians like Xunzi argued that analysis of names leads to confusion and disorder. The substitution of the Qin ruler's superstitious search for long life through alchemy and his consequent fostering of Huang-Lao religioun combined with suppression of dialectic thought initiated China's philosophical “Dark Age.” The later substitution of Confucianism as the official orthodoxy during the Han cemented the intellectual stagnation firmly in place. Only Huang-Lao thinking remained as a live influence and archivist of Daoist texts. Its superstitions and cosmologies mingled in the emerging eclectic Han-Confucianism.
The fall of the Han some 400 years later saw the emergence of a modified worldview drawing on the perserved texts which we call Neo-Taoism. Its most influential writers, Wang Bi and Guo Xiang who wrote commentaries respectively on the Daode Jing and the Zhuangzi, were avowed Confucians. Their philosophy reinvested a stoic spirit which they interpreted as the point of their new-Taoism. They expressed their combination of Confucian social activity with their version of Daoist quietism in the enduring slogan “Sage within, king without.” They framed their Taoism as a kind of inner emptiness or non-commitment coupled with a meticulous conformity to one's actual role in the times — whatever fate might have it. Thus they were Confucians on the outside and Daoists inside. This elaborated, for Neo-Daoists, the concept of wu-wei (non-deeming action).
They buttressed this social stoicism with metaphysical systems focused on the puzzle of “being and non-being.” The drew this topic from one of Laozi's frequent inclusion of this pair to illustrate his contrast theory of language. Trying to figure what the background of a being and non-being contrast was formed a central issue for their “abstruse studies.” Wang Bi (ca. 300) took non-being to be the background and thus to “give rise to” being. He interpreted the Laozi alongside a Confucianized cosmological divination manual, The Book of Changes (I Ching or Yijing). The Book of Changes with its yin-yang account of change and its generational cosmology thus entered the list of Daoist texts and the Daode Jing was transformed in conventional wisdom into a detached cosmology.
Wang Bi identified dao with non-being while still treating it as the source of all creation — the basic substance (which he associated with the taijiGreat ultimate of the Yijing). While the basic substance is nothing, its “function” is being — thus being depends on non-being, from which it is constantly produced as a kaleidoscopic function of an unchanging, paradoxical reality of nothing. (The ideal Daoist-Confucian person mirrors this cosmology—an expression of being a “Sage within; king without”.)
The second famous Neo-Daoist, Guo Xiang commented on the Zhuangzi . His cosmology developed an interesting twist on that of Wang Bi. Non-being, he argued, did not, after all, exist. It was simply nothing and thus could not create anything. Simply put, there is no non-being — there is only being. And so there is no “giving rise to.” Being always was and comes of itself. It generates and changes itself constantly by the totality the interrelations among its parts. These differences in emphasis partly reflect the differences in the original texts — the Daode Jing's emphasis on wunon-being-values and the Zhuangzi's diverse pluralism and sense of freedom from any ultimate cosmic source of guidance.
Pragmatically, the two pictures were not very different. Each still had nothing at the center (Daoist sage) and being (Confucian King) around the edges, but Guo Xiang deemphasized any lines of force from non-being to being and emphasized instead the situation and contextual relations within the realm of being. Both similarly read their cosmologies as ways of viewing things that support and help achieve the shared lifestyle slogan “sage within, king without.”