Guo Xiang (c. 252–312 CE)

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(c. 252312 CE)

A champion of the Learning of the Mysterious (Xuanxue ) or neo-Daoism that gained prominence in third-century China, Guo Xiang (c. 252312 CE) is best known for his commentary to the Zhuangzi, which offers to reconcile orthodox teachings (mingjiao ) with Daoist naturalness (ziran ).

Like other neo-Daoist philosophers, notably Wang Bi (226249), Guo recognizes the creative power of Dao; however, contrary to Wang, Guo rejects that "beings originate from nonbeing," which establishes Dao as the metaphysical ground of being (Zhuangzi commentary, chs. 2 and 23). The appeal to an anthropomorphic heaven or original substance as the source of creation should, according to Guo, be rejected, for it begs the question of the cause of its own being. Nonbeing, however, is not the answer, because nonbeing remains an abstraction and abstractions cannot bring about creation. Being and nonbeing are mutually exclusive, according to Guo, who writes "nonbeing cannot change into being" (Zhuangzi 22). Consequently, the only logical explanation of the origin of being is that "being spontaneously produces itself" (Zhuangzi 2).

This explanation introduces Guo's concept of "self-transformation," for which he is particularly famous. Whereas Wang Bi values nonbeing, Guo favors being. At the most basic ontological level, being is "so of itself" (ziran ), and Guo believes that "we may know the causes of certain things and affairs near to us. But tracing their origin to the ultimate end, we find that without any cause, they of themselves come to be what they are. Being so of themselves, we can no longer question the reason of their being, but should accept them as they are" (Zhuangzi 14).

Self-Transformation Affirms the Immanence of Dao

Guo explains that the Dao pervades and informs nature as vital energy (qi ) and that all beings are endowed with a "share" or "allotment" of the inexhaustible energy of Dao, and this defines their nature (xing ) and capacity. Significantly, "benevolence and rightness" stem from nature (Zhuangzi 14); and, moreover, the state of ziran depicts an organized regime governed by principles and marked by interdependence and hierarchical order.

Given that individual qi -endowment varies, differences in capacityfor example, lifespan and intelligenceshould be recognized. This is destiny (ming ), in that "what one is born with is not something undue or vain" (Zhuangzi 5). This, then, begs the question: Is Guoas many scholars holda fatalist?

Destiny dictates that one is born of sagely character or average capacity. Yet, Guo also attempts to distinguish ming as fact from value, and to affirm development in human flourishing. Fundamentally, differences in endowment do not constitute any basis for value judgment. Rather, as the Zhuangzi urges, what should be recognized is the "equality of things."

Unlike Wang Bi, who emphasizes the "one," Guo embraces the "many." Individuality and authenticity should be cherished (Zhuangzi 10). The Daoist goal can be defined as the realization of one's nature, and in particular the optimization of one's inborn capacity. As nature blossoms, "destiny" is fulfilled.

While this may not detract entirely from the charge of fatalism, Guo introduces a dynamic view of nature and destiny. The world of ziran is never static; it changes and renews itself constantly. Limits notwithstanding, one's potential should not be underestimated. The sage or person of Dao nourishes his nature and adapts to change, which brings out the meaning of nonaction (wuwei ). Nonaction "does not mean folding one's arms and keeping quiet" (Zhuangzi 11). It is also not a technical skill; rather, nonaction stems from a discernment of ziran, which translates into a mode of being and a spirit of action, according to which one performs all functions.

Politically, nonaction means that the ruler enables the people to develop their nature and potential. Artificial restrictions and interference should be minimized, and because needs and circumstances change, sociopolitical practice should not be fossilizedtimely adjustments ensure renewal and harmony in a dynamic realm. In this way Guo tries to reconcile the mingjiao (orthodox teachings) with ziran. Whereas the former refers to doctrines of propriety and government, the latter aspires towards transcendence and freedom from mundane concerns. Conflict arises, then, when orthodox teachings are seen to impinge on nature, or when transcendence is equated with renunciation. For Guo, howeverbecause social and natural phenomena are governed by the same set of principlesmingjiao and ziran merge into one.

See also Chinese Philosophy: Daoism; Wang Bi.


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Knaul, Livia. "Kuo Hsiang and the Chuang-tzu." Journal of Chinese Philosophy 12 (1985): 429447.

Robinet, Isabelle. "Kouo Siang ou le monde comme absolu." T'oung Pao 69 (1983): 73107.

Ziporyn, Brook. The Penumbra Unbound: The Neo-Taoist Philosophy of Guo Xiang. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Alan K. L. Chan (2005)