Yang Zhu (c. 440–c. 380 BCE)

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(c. 440c. 380 BCE)

Not much has been discovered about Yang Zhu the person from the documents that still exist. However, the Mencius, the Xunzi, the Hanfeizi, the Lushi Chunqiu, the Huainanzi, and the Lunheng all confirm that Yang's school was one of the most influential in pre-Qin China. For Mencius, Yang and Mo Di were the most influential thinkers prior to Mencius's time, although he criticized Yang's emphasis on the individual and its anarchist consequence, as well as his selfishness and apathy to the public interest. These criticisms, however, are somewhat misleading for an understanding of the true nature of Yang's thought.

In the past, Chinese intellectuals were led to believe that "Yang Zhu chooses to exist only for his own self, and does nothing for the world, not even by drawing one hair of his" (Mencius 3B 9). Yet an unbiased understanding, based on existing texts, reveals that Yang cherished the value of life and the authenticity of self. For example, the Hanfeizi said that Yang was one who "despised things and values life" (Hanfeizi Jijie, p. 353). In the Lushi Chunqiu, it was said that "Scholar Yang elevates the self" (Lüshi Chunqiu Jishi, p. 803). And, according to the Huainanzi, "To keep the totality of one's natural life and conserve the authenticy of one's self, not to burden one's body with external things. This is that upon which Yangzi stands, yet it is criticized by Mencius" (Liu An 1985, p. 218).

These comments allow us to reread more coherently the Yang Zhu and other chapters of the Liezi, where many texts related to Yang were presented (even if these works are seen by many scholars as having been forged by later hands). In the Liezi, when Yang is asked by Qinzi whether he would agree to lose one hair to help out the whole world, he answers that the "human world is for certain not to be helped out by one hair" (Liezi, p. 218). Yang's emphasis is on "keeping the totality of one's natural life" and "conserving the authenticity of one's self," statements that can be understood in reference to his philosophy of body, in which he claims that the appropriate satisfaction of human desires and the economy of energy are essential in attaining the wholeness of one's own life.

Yang's emphasis on the authenticity of self is more understandable to twenty-first century readers: He is more like modern thinkers in that he underlines the autonomy of self in respect to all external determinations. Autonomy in this sense means the spontaneous unfolding of one's own naturea nature not to be determined by external entities, either real or ideal, but to be determined internally by one's own self, which is different from Kant's idea of autonomy as positing norms by one's own free will. With his idea of autonomy, Yang made the distinction between "fled-away-persons" (dunren ) and "conforming people" (shunmin ). The dunren were escapists from their own natural self in living at the mercy of external factors. By contrast, the shunmin were those who did not run after external values and were free with the authenticity of their life, closely related to the self's autonomy.

Yang's philosophical anthropology is somewhat similar to St. Augustine's philosophy in City of God and Arnold Gehlen's in Man, His Nature and Place in the World. Yang believed that human intellect developed out of biological weakness, and from these weak biological conditions a person "should use things to nourish his own nature, let his own intellect develop without appealing to physical force" (Liezi, p. 224). The reason to use human intellect was for the purpose of conserving one's life by using natural resources without the necessity of appealing to physical force when competing with stronger animals. Based on this, Yang developed a philosophy of learning. Beginning with the tenet that life is a basic value, and avoiding losing oneself by embarking upon too many different courses of learning, Yang posited the authenticity of life as the final unity of all learning. The Shuofu chapter of the Liezi states that, "Because of too many deviations in roads, one can not find one's lost sheep; with too many deviations in learning, the learner would lose his own life" (Liezi, p. 254). Yang's pragmatist vision of learning meant to learn for the purpose of conserving life and its development according to self-authenticity, which for him were the ultimate values of human existence.

See also Augustine, St.; Chinese Philosophy; Confucius; Determinism and Freedom; Gehlen, Arnold; Han Fei; Kant, Immanuel; Mencius; Mozi; Xunzi.


Graham, Angus C., trans. The Book of Lieh-tzǔ. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Hsü Wei-yü. Lüshi Chunqiu Jishi [Collected commentaries on spring and autumn of Mr. Lü]. Vol. 2. Taipei: Shijie Bookstore, 1988.

Liezi. In Er Shi Er Zi [Works of twenty-two masters]. Vol. 2. Taipei: Prophet Press, 1976.

Liu An. Huainanzi [The book of masters of Huainan]. Annotated by Gao Yu. Taipei: Shijie Bookstore, 1985.

Mencius. Translated by D. C. Lau. Rev. ed. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2003.

Wang Xianshen. Hanfeizi Jijie [Collected explanations of Hanfeizi]. Taipei: Shijie Bookstore, 1988.

Vincent Shen (2005)