Zhuangzi (b. 369 BCE)

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(b. 369 BCE)

Zhuangzi, the greatest Daoist next to Laozi, was also known by his private name, Zhou. Not much is known about his life except that he was a minor government official at one time and that he later declined a prime ministership in the state of Chu to retain his freedom. Although Zhuangzi and Mencius were contemporaries, they were not acquainted with each other's teachings. Zhuangzi advanced the concept of Dao and gave Daoism a dynamic character. To him, Dao as Nature is not only spontaneity but also a constant flux, for all things are in a state of perpetual "self-transformation," each according to its own nature and in its own way. If there is an agent directing this process, there is no evidence of it. Things seem to develop from simple to higher life and finally to man, but man will return to the simple stuff, thus completing a cycle of transformation.

In this unceasing transfiguration, things appear and disappear. In such a universe "time cannot be recalled" and things move like "a galloping horse." They seem to be different, some large and some small, some beautiful and some ugly, but Dao equalizes them as one. This is Zhuangzi's famous doctrine of the "equality of all things." According to it, reality and unreality, right and wrong, life and death, beauty and ugliness, and all conceivable opposites are reduced to an underlying unity. This is possible because all distinctions and oppositions are merely relative, because they are the result of a subjective point of view, because they mutually cause each other, and because opposites are resolved in Dao. By the doctrine of "mutual causation" Zhuangzi meant that a thing necessarily produces its opposite; for instance, "this" implies "that," life ends in death, construction requires destruction, and so forth. By the resolution of opposites Zhuangzi meant that a thing and its opposite, both being extremes, need to be synthesized. But the synthesis is itself an extreme that requires a synthesis. At the end Dao will synthesize all, in a dialectic manner not unlike that of G. W. F. Hegel.

In Zhuangzi's philosophy the pure man abides in the great One, wherein he finds purity and peace. He becomes a "companion of Nature" and does not substitute the way of man for the way of Nature. He rejects all distinctions and seeks no self, fame, or success. He seeks "great knowledge," which is all-embracing and extensive, and discards "small knowledge," which is partial and discriminative. He "fasts in his mind" and "sits down and forgets everything"especially the so-called humanity and righteousness of hypocritical society; he "travels in the realm of infinity." In this way he cultivates "profound virtue," and achieves a "great concord" with Dao. Herein he finds spiritual peace and "emancipation."

Both the mystical and fatalistic elements are obvious, and in these Zhuangzi went beyond Laozi. He was also more transcendental, for while Laozi's chief concern was how to govern, Zhuangzi's primary interest was to "roam beyond the mundane world," in spite of the fact that his ideal being is "sagely within" and "kingly without," that is, both transcendental and mundane. Nevertheless, Zhuangzi stresses the individual more than does Laozi. To be in accord with Dao, everything must nourish its own nature and follow its own destiny. The eagle should rise to the clouds, but the dove should hop from treetop to treetop. If a man were to shorten the crane's neck because it is long or to lengthen the duck's leg because it is short, that would be interfering with Nature. Spiritual freedom and peace can be achieved only through knowing one's own nature and capacity and being able to adapt oneself to the universal process of transformation. Although the ultimate goal is oneness with Dao, one's individuality is to be clearly recognized. Individual differences are not to be taken as basis for discrimination, but neither are they to be denied or ignored. This respect for individual nature and destiny eventually led to the emphasis on the particular nature in neo-Daoism.

See also Chinese Philosophy; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Laozi; Mencius.


Available in English is Chuang Tzu, translated by Herbert A. Giles (London: Allen and Unwin, 1961); the authorship of this work is a very controversial matter. Most scholars accept the first seven chapters, the so-called inner chapters, as authentic and the remaining 26 chapters as later additions, either partly or in whole dating from the third to the first century BCE. Selections have been translated in Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963). See also Fung Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1948).

Fung, Yu-lan. A Taoist Classic: Chuang-tzu ; A New Selected Translation with an Exposition of the Philosophy of Kuo Hsiang. Beijing, Foreign Language Press, 1998.

Graham, Angus C. The Inner Chapters. Boston: Unwin Paperbacks, 1989.

Kjellberg, Paul and Ivanhoe, Philip J. eds. Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Mair, Victor Mair ed. Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

Mair, Victor. Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

Watson, Burton. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Wu, Kuang-ming. Chuang Tzu: World Philosopher at Play. American Academy of Religion, Studies in Religion, 26. New York: Crossroad, 1982.

Wing-tsit Chan (1967)

Bibliography updated by Huichieh Loy (2005)