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ZHUANGZI . Zhuangzi is both the name of the second foundational text of the Daoist philosophical and religious tradition and the name of the putative author of this text after whom the book was titled, who, according to early historical sources, flourished between about 369 and 286 bce. While what we know of the philosophy of Zhuangzi comes primarily from this work, it is important to realize that the Zhuangzi text is not the work of a single author. At the very least there are five authorial voices: the historical Zhuangzi; his disciples; a "Primitivistic" Daoist author with ideas akin to those of the Dao de jing, who responded to the challenge of the followers' individualist thinker Yang Zhu; and the "Syncretic" Daoist authors who likely compiled the original recension of the text. The received version in thirty-three chapters was established by the commentator Guo Xiang (d. 312 ce), who revised a fifty-two chapter original recension first listed in imperial bibliographies circa 110 ce by removing material he thought was superstitious and generally not of philosophical interest. This received Guo version is traditionally divided into three sections: "Inner Chapters" (17), "Outer Chapters" (822), and "Miscellaneous Chapters" (2333). This division is longstanding and is likely to have been part of the original recension.

The Zhuangzi has become renowned for a series of original insights into human nature and the nature of the cosmos, and many of these are found in the "Inner Chapters." These insights are communicated in a variety of literary styles: didactic narratives, poetry, and very short prose essays. Like its famous companion, the Dao de jing, the Zhuangzi is grounded in the complementary ideas of Dao and De. Dao, the "Way," is an ineffable monistic principle that infuses and guides the spontaneous processes of all phenomena; De, "Inner Power," is the manifestation of this Way within all phenomena. Despite sharing these foundational ideas, these two Daoist works discuss them very differently. The Dao de jing often presents the characteristics and features of the Way in a discursive style (e.g.; DDJ 1: "The Way that can be told of is not the Constant Way"). On the other hand, the Zhuangzi often approaches the Way indirectly through narratives and poetry. Witness the following rumination on epistemological relativity that ends with a vivid pointing to the Way:

What is It is also Other, what is Other is also It. There they say, "this is true and that is false" from one point of view; here we say, "this is true and that is false" from another point of view. Are there really It and Other? Or really no It and Other? Where neither It nor Other finds its opposite is called the axis of the Way. When the axis is found at the center of the circle there is no limit to responding with either, on the one hand no limit to what is it, on the other no limit to what is not. (chapter 2)

This questioning of the certainty of knowledge from any normal human viewpoint is another hallmark of the "Inner Chapters," as is the considerable degree of humor and irony with which the most profound insights into the cosmos are presented. This is true as well for Zhuangzi's presentation of Inner Power, which is done through narratives in which the paragons of its cultivation are skilled tradesmen and the outcasts of society. This flaunting of societal prejudices is another way in which Zhuangzi challenges entrenched beliefs and demonstrates the breathtaking freedom from fixed conventions that has delighted readers for two millennia.

The Zhuangzi of the "Inner Chapters" is also known for a thorough questioning of the canons, methods, and value of discursive logic as practiced by contemporary thinkers in the traditions of the Mohists, Confucians, and Terminologists (ming jia ). He skewers the presumed objectivity of their categories, arguing that names are purely arbitrary and reveal no inherent truths about the things that are named. Furthermore, no matter how sophisticated the logic involved, no argument can establish objective truths because all knowing remains confined to the standpoint of the knower:

how do I know that what I call knowing is not ignorance? How do I know that what I call ignorance is not knowing? Gibbons are sought by baboons as mates, elaphures like the company of deer, loaches play with fish. Maoqiang and Lady Li were beautiful in the eyes of men but when the fish saw them they plunged into the deep, and when the birds saw them they flew away. Which of these four knows what is truly beautiful in the world? (chapter 2)

Inspired by such ideas, comparative philosophers have engaged in spirited debate about whether Zhuangzi is a skeptic, a relativist, or a perspectivist. Scholars of religion further maintain that Zhuangzi's philosophical relativism does not apply to the higher level of cognition he calls "great knowledge," which is attained through the "inner cultivation" practices that lead to mystical gnosis. These practices involve sitting quietly and systematically circulating the breath until mind and body become tranquil and the contents of consciousness gradually empty. Taken to its ultimate levels, this practice leads to a direct experience of the Way. In the "Inner Chapters" Zhuangzi epitomizes this meditative practice as "the fasting of the mind" and as "sitting and forgetting:" "I let organs and members drop away, dismiss hearing and eyesight, part from the body and expel knowledge, and merge with the Great Pervader. This is what I mean by 'just sit and forget'" (chapter 6).

Yet for Zhuangzi this experience of "merging with the Great Pervader" (the Way), although profound, is relatively easy compared to the challenges of bringing this gnosis into the everyday world: "to stop making footprints is easy but it is difficult to walk without touching the ground" (chapter 4). This type of ungrounded "walking" has a significant epistemological dimension: a distinctive mode of cognition that Zhuangzi refers to as "flowing" (yin-shi: literally "to affirm by following along") in contrast to the "fixed" mode of cognition (wei-shi: literally "to affirm by forcing") that is bound to one individual perspective (chapter 2).

Zhuangzi further makes clear that abandonment of fixed cognition is concomitant with abandonment of attachment to the self and with the embracing of a new perspective grounded in the Way. From this perspective, just as the Way is able to "pervade and unify" all things, to see them just as they are, without bias and without preference, so too are sages able to see "all things as equal." It is just this kind of mystical seeing that is the essential defining characteristic of the "great knowledge" or "illumination" of the flowing cognition that is developed through inner cultivation practice. Zhuangzi's questioning of logic and his skepticism and relativism are based upon this shift from fixed cognition to flowing cognition, from self-centered perspective to "Way-centered" perspective. His epistemological critique is thus applied to knowledge derived from fixed cognition. Flowing cognition is exempted from this critique because it is this continually changing "Way-centered" perspective from which the critique is made.

These complementary mystical experiences (merging with the Great Pervader and pervading and unifying all things through flowing cognition) are critical for understanding other important philosophical themes for which the Zhuangzi is renowned. Political involvements are useless entanglements that only inhibit the opportunity to realize these experiences. Naturalness and spontaneity arise directly from the flowing cognition that is free of attachment to any one limited perspective. When sages act from this cognitive mode they can spontaneously respond without self-consciousness to whatever situation in which they find themselves. This freedom from attachment to any individual perspective also leads to the freedom from fear of death and acceptance of it as part of the natural processes of life that is another of the hallmarks of this work.

The Disciples of Zhuangzi

With writings as profound and vibrant as these, the historical Zhuangzi must have had quite a devoted group of followers. It is to them that we owe both the transmission of his ideas beyond his lifetime and at least six chapters of new material, much of it consisting of narratives written in the style of the "Inner Chapters" but generally not demonstrating the same creativity and rhetorical skill. Zhuangzi is a figure in about one quarter of these narratives, which were probably based on stories told by his immediate disciples and written down after his death. The chapters in this section, 1722, are almost completely devoid of the philosophical essays, jottings, or even the diatribes we find in the first third of the book, yet they contain some of its most famous narratives.

Unlike the "Inner Chapters," which contain no references to Laozi the man and to the text of the Dao de jing, many of these disciple chapters use ideas and quotations from the Dao de jing. Thus they were most likely written after this work began circulating widely in China circa 260 bce. To the extent that they recast material from the "Inner Chapters" in new narrative frameworks and frequently see it in light of ideas from the Dao de jing, these chapters represent a unique blending of the two intellectually foundational sources of early Daoism. Chapters 23 through 27 and 32 are much more heterogeneous in their content and contain fragmentary writings of the followers of Zhuangzi mixed with passages from the other authorial voices in the text.

The Primitivist Chapters

Four chapters (810, 16) and half of a fifth (11) espouse a philosophical position similar to that found in the Dao de jing, differing principally in that it is not addressed to the ruler. Because of their advocacy of a return to a government and social organization similar to that found in primitive tribal utopias, they have been labeled "Primitivist." They shared a utopian vision and critique of the Confucians with the Yangists and, under their influence, developed the first Daoist theory of human nature that derived from "inner cultivation" and was cast in terms of the Way and Inner Power. Rather than totally eschewing political life, they advocated a government by non-action (wuwei) similar to that found in the Dao de jing.

The Primitivists argue that it is the inherent nature of all people to be "simple and unhewn." The "simple" (so ) and the "unhewn" (pu ) are important ideas in the Dao de jing wherein to be simple means to be unselfish (DDJ 19) and to be "unhewn" means to be without desires (DDJ 19, 38). These ideas suggest a state of mind totally devoid of self-consciousness, a state of mind in which people act spontaneously and without self-reflection. It is a state of mind that is reminiscent of the flowing cognition of the "Inner Chapters." For the Primitivists, it is human nature to attain this state of mind when people are left on their own, when the institutions of culture do not interfere with spontaneous human tendencies. To attain this state is to realize one's Inner Power.

Throughout their writings the Primitivists harken back to an earlier utopian age when people lived in selfless harmony with one another and with all things in the world and when the Way and Inner Power were fully realized. The Confucian sage-rulers, who established cultural norms and thereby forced people to think about how to attain them, destroyed this harmony and made it much more difficult for people to attain the simple and unhewn state of mind. However by doing away with the sages and their cultural norms we can return to a primitive utopia. Then society can be governed by a ruler who learns how to practice non-action.

Chapters 2831 of the received recension of the Zhuangzi are similar in thought to five essays from the first two chapters of the compendium Lüshi chunqiu (240 bce), which constitute the only surviving works of the lost Yangist tradition. While some regard these Zhuangzi chapters themselves as Yangist, close examination reveals that they are a heterogeneous collection of writings likely compiled and created by the Primivitists to respond to the intellectual challenges of the Yangists in the debates at the Qin court of Lü Buwei, where the Lüshi chunqiu was written.

The Syncretist Chapters

The final stratum of the Zhuangzi contains a distinctive and largely consistent viewpoint that connects with the rest of the text and with a larger philosophical context. It is contained in three complete essays: (1) the first two-thirds of chapter 13, "The Way of Heaven"; (2) chapter 15 "Inveterate Ideas"; and (3) the final chapter, 33, "Below in the Empire," as well as in narratives that play key roles in chapters 12 and 14. This material shares a common cosmology of the Way and interest in inner cultivation that we have seen in most of the rest of the text but veers in a different direction in its political thought, advocating a hierarchical social and political structure that incorporates the best ideas of other earlier intellectual lineages within a Daoist cosmological framework. Nonetheless, it agrees with the Primitivist idea that government should be led by a sage enlightened through inner cultivation techniques. In its general intellectual viewpoint it exemplifies many of the characteristics of the Daoist tradition that were first enunciated by the Han dynasty historian, Sima Tan (d. 110 bce), the man who coined the very term "Daoism" (daojia ). According to him, Daoists assert that:

  1. Humans can cultivate themselves to attain harmony of body and mind and to realize their essential connection to the Way and to the entire cosmos.
  2. When rulers become adept at such "inner cultivation" they can govern dispassionately and humanely according to the greater patterns of heaven and earth, upon which they model their social and political institutions.
  3. While remaining faithful to this general Daoist orientation rulers should make use of the best ideas of other early intellectual lineages.
  4. With these institutions and practices established, rulers can govern by taking no action while leaving nothing undone.

All these ideas are found in the Syncretist Zhuangzi. Inner cultivation practice is advocated to attain a deep and tranquil state of mind to enable both sages and rulers to act efficaciously in the world. They then make use of this experience to act spontaneously and harmoniously while being guided by the greater patterns of the cosmos. This is the Syncretists' version of attaining the flowing mode of cognition advocated in the other parts of the text. The Syncretist author of chapter 13 argues that this flowing mode can be applied to a variety of life circumstances: ruler and minister, politician and hermit, sage and commoner can all utilize flowing cognition; but when it is applied to rulership, it attains its greatest flourishing. Government by enlightened sages who attain flowing cognition is the pinnacle of Daoist political thought for the Syncretist: it is symbolized by the phrase "in stillness a sage, in motion a king," which is elsewhere referred to as being inwardly a sage and outwardly a king. It is with this cultivated mind that the sage ruler establishes human society in parallel to the greater patterns of the cosmos. This coordination of human society with cosmic patterns is a characteristic tenet of the early Daoist syncretic lineage that historians first called the "Way of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi" (Huang-Lao zhi dao ), and some scholars have argued that these Syncretist chapters are the products of this intellectual lineage.

The final chapter of the Zhuangzi, "Below in the Empire," exemplifies this kind of syncretism in its analysis of earlier intellectual traditions. After establishing its own position, the comprehensive "Way of Heaven and Earth," it analyzes how each of these earlier traditions understood one part of this comprehensive Way but ultimately failed to grasp the whole. Zhuangzi himself is included in this analysis. The Syncretist author praises Zhuangzi for his depth of mystical cultivation but chides him for failing to realize that there are practical affairs in the world that must be attended to. It is an interesting yet telling comment. The Syncretist criticizes the very impracticability for which Zhuangzi later became renowned.

Thus the text called the Zhuangzi is a multilayered work that transmits the ideas of an important early Daoist philosophical and religious lineage founded by the historical figure of Zhuangzi towards the end of the fourth century bce. His writings were conveyed to later generations by his disciples who added to the work over the better part of a century, during which the developing text passed through the Qin court of Lü Buwei, circa 240 bce, and was completed at the court of Liu An (c. 180122 bce), second king of Huai-nan, circa 150 bce. While the lineage of Zhuangzi elaborated upon the master's original thought by developing Primitivist and Syncretist political dimensions, each in its own way remained true to his advocacy of cultivating the spontaneous flowing mode of cognition.

See Also

Daoism, overview article.


There are three scholarly modern translations of the Zhuangzi currently in circulation that are worthy of consultation. All others are outdated, derivative, or not grounded in Sinological scholarship. There are the complete translations of Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (New York, 1968), and Victor Mair, Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (Honolulu, 1998). Both are more literary than philosophical, and while each is appealing for its rendering of the humorous flair of the original, the Mair translation is preferable because of its well-founded semantic subdivisions within each chapter and Mair's tendency to translate the meaning of proper names, which skillfully helps to communicate the irony of these names in the original narratives.

The philosophically most interesting and the most linguistically precise translation is Angus Charles Graham, Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters (London, 1981; Reprint, Boston, 2000). Despite its title, it contains about eighty percent of the original text organized by each of the five philosophical positions Graham has identified in the work: (1) the historical Zhuangzi; (2) his disciples; (3) The Primitivist; (4) The Yangists; and (5) The Syncretists, with additional passages translated under narrative categories such as "stories about Zhuangzi," etc. This is at once a strength and a weakness of the Graham translation: it clearly distinguishes philosophical voices that most translations do not. However, organizing the translation along these lines makes it maddening to attempt to compare different translations or to check Graham's translation with the original Chinese text.

There are a number of excellent essay collections that deal with various aspects of the philosophy and the textual history of the Zhuangzi: Roger T. Ames, ed., Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi (Albany, N.Y., 1998); Scott Cook, ed., Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi (Albany, N.Y., 2003); Paul Kjellberg and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds., Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi (Albany, 1996); and Victor Mair, ed., Experimental Essays on the Chuang Tzu (Honolulu, 1983). Each collects essays by at least a dozen specialists in either Chinese thought or in comparative philosophy, and each has its stronger and weaker contributions, with none standing out from the rest.

There is a thoughtful collection of essays on various aspects of the philosophy of Zhuangzi by Jean Francois Billeter titled Études sur Tchouang-Tseu (Paris, 2004). It assembles five of his essays published in academic journals and adds a number of new ones. Harold D. Roth's A Companion to Angus C. Graham's Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters (Honolulu, 2003) is a useful collection of Angus Graham's essays on Zhuangzi that also includes Graham's rare textual notes to his translation of Zhuangzi and an assessment of his text-analytical scholarship by Roth. In addition there are several other works on the textual history of the Zhuangzi: Angus C. Graham, "How Much of Chuang Tzu did Chuang Tzu write?" reprinted in Roth, A Companion, presents his ideas of the stratification of the text; Liu Xiaogan, Classifying the Zhuangzi Chapters (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1994) is a thorough book-length study of this same topic that reaches similar conclusions on the strata but sometimes different conclusions about the authorship of these strata; Harold D. Roth's "Chuang Tzu" in Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, compiled and edited by Michael Loewe (Berkeley, Calif., 1993), succinctly summarizes Western and East Asian scholarship on the textual history and textual analysis of the Zhuangzi. Finally, Harold D. Roth's "Who Compiled the Chuang Tzu? " in Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts, ed. Henry Rosemont, Jr. (LaSalle, Ill., 1991) argues that the Syncretist compilers of the Zhuangzi were members of the early Daoist Huang-Lao lineage who were part of the intellectual circle of Liu An, second king of Huai-nan in about 150 bce.

Harold D. Roth (2005)