Chuang Tzu Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Chuang Tzu c. 369 b.c.-c. 286 b.c.

(Also transliterated as Chuang Chou, Zhuangzi, Zhuang Zi, and Zhoung Zhou) Chinese philosopher.

Chuang Tzu is known as one of the most significant and paradoxical philosophers of Taoism, a mystical philosophy that presents reality as an illusion created by infinitely shifting appearances. He presented his ideas in a collection of short fables and allegories known as the Chuang Tzu. The best known of these is his “Butterfly Dream” sequence, a narrative in which Chuang Tzu dreams of being a butterfly and then awakens from the dream unsure whether he really slept and dreamt of being a butterfly, or whether he really was a sleeping butterfly who was imagining that he was Chuang Tzu. According to Chuang Tzu, nothing in this world is absolute and it is a mistake to think of “being” as a state that is different from “non-being.” Instead, posits Chuang Tzu, non-action is action, and things humans believe they know are really not known. His work is often contrasted with the ideas of Confucius, whose philosophy emphasizes order, formality, and a code of behavior.

Biographical Information

Chuang Tzu was a native of the town of Meng, in the kingdom of Sung. Little is known about his life, but according to legend, he was a minor government official for a brief time, but lived most of his life in the state of Ch'i, engaged in meditation devoted to the Taoist philosophy of non-relativism that was first formulated by Lao Tse, the founder of Taoism. Like Lao Tse, Chuang Tzu expounds on the need to adhere to Natural order. Most of his ideas are explicated in the Chuang Tzu, which comprises thirty-seven chapters in three sections. There are seven “inner chapters,”—thought to be written by Chuang Tzu himself—fifteen “outer chapters,” and eleven “miscellaneous chapters.”

Major Works

The Chuang Tzu is a collection of tales, fables, and parables that challenges the individual to achieve intellectual and spiritual freedom by embracing, and ultimately internalizing, a series of Taoist tenets. To begin on this path to spiritual enlightenment, the individual must first become aware of the existence and workings of the universal Tao and of his or her own relation to the scheme of things. Chuang Tzu offered an alternative to the philosophies of his era in that he placed an emphasis upon individual freedom above the goal of a peaceful community ruled by the Sage king.

Critical Reception

While never as influential or widely-read as the Tao-te Ching, the Chuang Tzu was studied and appreciated by later Chinese rulers and thinkers, including philosophers Hsiang Hsiu (circa a.d. 221–circa 300) and Kuo Hsiang (died circa a.d. 312), both of whom wrote commentaries on the Chuang Tzu that sought to reconcile its ideals with those of Confucius. The influence of the Chuang Tzu on Western philosophy is considerable, and includes the works of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose concepts of the spirit and the diacritical process recall Chuang Tzu's theory of the Tao and the underlying unity of opposites. The works of later scholars, including those of Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Ricoeur, Carl Jung, Jacques Maritain, Jacques Lacan, and Thomas Merton, all evidence a consideration of Taoism and the thoughts of Chuang Tzu. The Chuang Tzu has been analyzed as a work of literature by critics who delineate the proficiency with which Chuang Tzu employs sophisticated rhetorical devices, satire, fantasy, metaphor, jokes, dreams, and parody. Chuang Tzu's fictionalization of such historical characters as Confucius and his use of characters as foils for protagonists—both of which are cited as influences upon later Chinese fictional genres such as hsiao-shuo and chih-kuai—have also been the subjects of scholarly examinations of the Chuang Tzu.