Chuang Tzu Criticism - Essay

Meishi Tsai (essay date 1981)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Meishi Tsai. “The Taoist Imagination: Chuang Tzu's Aesthetic Intimations.” Tamkang Review XI, no. 3 (spring 1981): 226-48.

[In the following essay, Meishi compares Chuang Tzu's philosophy of the reconciliation of opposites, the interdependency of objective and subjective, and the equality in being of all things to the English Romantic poets' aesthetic of the unity of imagination and reality.]


In order to demonstrate Chuang Tzu's creative imagination, it is necessary to turn to the concept of Tao and its manifestation in the Taoist philosophy. Prior to Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu in his Tao Te Ching had already expounded Tao as a formless, nameless, all-embracing first principle. To describe Nonbeing as the creative potential, Lao Tzu uses the epithets of i (elusive), hsi (rarefied), and wei (infinitesimal). The inscrutable mystery of Tao, the shapeless shape, formless form, lies in the metaphysical “emptiness”:

Such [is] the scope of All-pervading Power
That it alone can act through the Way.
For the Way is a thing impalpable, incommensurable.
Incommensurable, impalpable.
Yet latent in it are forms;
Impalpable, incommensurable
Yet within it are entities.
Shadowy it is and dim
Yet within there is a force
A force that though rarefied
Is none the less efficacious.

(Tao Te Ching, XXI)

There is an eternal withdrawal to the “mysterious emptiness” where the creative energy of the universe emanates from the Great Master of all things. Lao Tzu calls this continuing process the ever-renewing Valley Spirit:

It is named the Mysterious Female
And the Doorway of the Mysterious Female
Is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang.

(Tao Te Ching, VI)

Here the mother image is, of course, related to that of the Great Mother found in various myths around the world to represent maternal conception and birth as creativity.1 It is through the creative Tao that formation and transformation take place, a cosmic process later perceived by Goethe thus:

Realm of Image unconfined
Formation, Transformation
Eternal play of the Eternal Mind
With semblance of all things in creation
Forever and forever sweeping around.(2)

Chuang Tzu followed Lao Tzu's definition of Tao closely. To Chuang Tzu, Tao is inaudible, invisible, inexpressible, indescribable and inexhaustible. Tao has its laws and evidences. Devoid both of action and form, it “may be transmitted but cannot be received. Before heaven and earth were, Tao was. It has existed without change from all time … To Tao, the zenith is not high, nor the nadir low, no point in time is long ago, nor by lapse of ages has it grown old.”3 Tao is the life and order of the ten thousand things, and is a Grand Unity of Nonbeing and Being while it is both Nonbeing and Being at the same time. Arnolds Grava has summarized this paradoxical nature of Tao as the potential and the actual in the following words:

The Tao which cannot be named, which is beyond any concepts or conceptual perception, is precisely the primeval condition of this bipolar dynamic tendency before and beyond any differentiation between subject and object … It is this entirely mysterious, incomprehensible potentiality which, in its timeless condition, is characterized or symbolized by rest, permanence, stillness or void … On the other hand, Tao as conceptualized, as form of expression of its inmost bipolar dynamic tendency in the very process of creativity, is characterized or symbolized by restlessness, flux, activity, or change, due to the now actualized bipolar tendency of yin and yang.4

Like Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu wished to construct a system of philosophy whereby man could “appreciate the beauty of heaven and earth, discern the patterns of all things, and justify the ways of the ancients.”5 The “system” was not fully developed in a coherent and unified way because Chuang Tzu, a Taoist magnum opus, is a composite work written by Chuang Tzu himself and his subsequent followers. However, never before had anyone speculated so extensively about the interrelation between Tao and the Mind, between the cosmic principle and creative intuition, as Chuang Tzu conscientiously pronounced the aesthetics of imagination to the ancient world.

Chuang Tzu divides human mental faculty into two categories: the ordinary mind and the superior mind with imaginative perception. Ch'anghsin, a fixed and limited mind, is a condition of one who is concerned with the material, that which is outward and one-dimensional, and whose philosophy is merely rationalization of the perception he receives from the five senses. As such he is, like the cicada and wren in the first chapter of Chuang Tzu, unable to have any communion with the world of eternity. Like Blake's “mortal eye's perverted and single vision,”6 the ordinary mind is hampered by false rhetoric and distorted vision.

Chuang Tzu's Perfect Man, a paradigm of Taoist ideals, is a personified creative imagination. For the Perfect Man, Tao is the central power and the necessity of the Mind because he recognizes that Tao manifests itself as … ching-shen (spirit) or in our modern terminology, creative imagination in the human mind. Just as Edgar Allan Poe expounded that imagination is “a lesser degree of the creative power in God,”7 the creative imagination in Chuang Tzu is the mental agent of Tao, and the high perception of the Mind. It moves back and forth from the self to the external world, from multiplicity to Tao.

As opposed to the limited vision of ch'ang-hsin, the mind of the Perfect Man is described as t'ien-fu (heavenly domain), ling-fu (spirit's abode) or ling-t'ai (spirit's plateau) because the Perfect Man transcends the ego-consciousness and comes into contact with Tao and his own inmost being.8 When the imagination is passive and inactive, his Mind is pure, still, and receptive. It resembles water, a mirror, or the valley as described by Lao Tzu. Quite simply, Chuang Tzu's image of the mirror is somewhat like Zen:

For the Perfect Man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives, but does not keep. And thus he can triumph over matter, without injury to himself.

(VII, Giles, 97-98; Watson, 97)

Perfect equilibrium and inaction is likened to water, a reflection of the universe in the pure mind:

When water is still, it is like a mirror, reflecting the beard and eyebrows. It gives the accuracy of the water level, and the philosopher makes it his model. If water thus derives lucidity from stillness, how much more the faculties of mind? The mind of the Sage, being in repose becomes the mirror of the universe, the speculum of all creation.

(XIII, Giles, 157-158; Watson, 142)

To exhibit the vital freedom and great mobility of the imagination, Chuang Tzu uses an elaborate metaphor of airborne journey. Here, in the imaginative capacity, Chuang Tzu introduces sublime consciousness involving an encounter of the mind with something larger and more overwhelming. When the Imagination moves toward the spatial and temporal outer limits, it takes an expanding and ascending spiritual journey. The imaginary voyage is certainly a universal symbol of how the limited field of ego-consciousness is taken into “an enlarged sphere of awareness, whose pivot point is no longer the ego, but a new center which appears as the fount of all life and power.”9 The Taoists would agree that traveling out of a locale indicates that the mind is awakened from lethargy and limited vision, but they treat it as a paradox. Lao Tzu regards self-confinement indoors as being conducive to spiritual cultivation, whereas Lieh Tzu recommends “internal sightseeing” as the highest form of travel.10 Their view of travel within is expressed by Lao Tzu:

Without leaving his door
He knows everything under Heaven
Without looking out of his window
He knows the way of Heaven …
Therefore the Sage arrives without going
Sees all without looking
Does nothing yet achieves everything.

(Tao Te Ching, XLVII)

Real travel to Chuang Tzu is an inner experience of spiritual expansion. He regards hsiao-yao-yu (easy and free wandering), a key concept of the imaginative voyage of the Mind, as the highest form of travel. The enormous P'eng bird in the first chapter of Chuang Tzu is an emblem of the upsurging imagination:

In the northern darkness there is a fish and his name is K'un. The K'un is so huge I don't know how many thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird whose name is P'eng. The back of the P'eng measures I don't know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the sea begins to move, this bird sets off for the southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven.

The Universal Harmony records various wonders, and it says: When the P'eng journeys to the southern darkness, the waters are rolled for three thousand li. He beats the whirlwind and rises ninety thousand li, setting off the sixth month gale.

(I, Watson, 29; Giels, 1)

Kuo Hsiang (d. 312 a.d.), the annotator of Chuang Tzu, sees in the above passage the identity of the large and the small in their own individual space,11 but most critics regard hsiao-yao-yu as a symbol of spiritual liberation. Izutsu argues that the Bird is an “apt symbol for the Perfect Man who, transcending the pettiness and triviality of human existence, freely wanders in the void of infinity and nothingness.”12 That the flight of the P'eng bird opens the whole book is not accidental. The metamorphosis of fish into bird and the coverage of the vast space suggest the power of the creative imagination. In addition, Chuang Tzu uses Lieh Tzu in the same chapter as an archetypal cosmic voyager to illustrate that a man, by having communion with Tao, can make an imaginative excursion to the supramundane spheres. He can ride the wind and soar casually in the cool breeze. Yet Lieh Tzu's free wandering must depend upon the vital breeze, which is a metaphorical equivalent of the Imagination.

The Perfect Man's feeding upon the air and dew and riding on the clouds with the mythological dragons is a metaphor of the imaginative faculty's ability to contact the pure elements of the universe and grasp the primordial creative force. Charioting on Tao, he moves about the “six limits of space” and dashes beyond the bound of mortality or materialism. He also connects the past, present and the future in an infinite scale by roaming from the “beginning to end of all creation.”13 In the marvelous journey, the Perfect Man can come to grips with the cosmic order:

He mounted the subtle ether of Heaven and Earth
And enthroned the changes of the six breaths.

(I, Watson, 32; Giles, 5)


The dynamic imagination in Chuang Tzu resembles the manifesto of the Romantic poets. What Hoxie Neal Fairchild notes in the direction of the Romantic mind is an appropriate generalization:

Wordsworth usually enlarges his personality by absorbing nature into himself, while Shelley prefers to achieve the same end by projecting his mind outward into Nature in order to share, with enhancement rather than the loss of selfhood, the benign energy of west wind and skylark and cloud.14

Wordsworth and Coleridge, for instance, perceive the interrelation of the mind with both the sublime and beauteous forms of nature, but the uniqueness of self remains paramount. In their poetry, self-projection endows the phenomenal world with a visionary quality, but the ego becomes “the basic certainty in which all else is rooted.”15

In Keats we find that the self-annihilating process starts with the expansion of the self to the natural object, but continues to be engaged in self-effacement. He removes all the boundaries and restrictions, and identifies the self with the object. Keats's letter to Richard Woodhouse on October 27, 1818 is a representative statement about the sympathetic imagination at work:

As to the poetical character, it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet.16

The poetical character, by imaginative projection, is “continually infor[ming] and filling some other Body.” He offers the “Negative Capability” as a mental quality of being “in uncertainty, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”17 By this means Keats can project himself into a nightingale, a sparrow, the sun, and the moon, and knows by experience “the alertness of a stoat or the anxiety of a deer.”18

Keats' sympathetic imagination fully conforms to Chuang Tzu's Perfect Man who has no self, and remains “blankly passive as regards what goes on around him.”19 The dialogue between Chuang Tzu and Hui Shih on the bridge over the River Hao in Chapter XVII of Chuang Tzu demonstrates the identification of Taoist imagination with the flux of the external world. While strolling on the bridge, Chuang Tzu admires the minnow fish swimming freely in the water. The fish arouse the Taoist's sympathetic imagination while he projects his own self-consciousness to them. The philosopher sees the fish ignite his own imagination so that they become interfused with his own state of mind. The witty argument with Hui Shih shows how Chuang Tzu loses himself into the fish beneath him in the water, and how Hui Shih is limited by the distinction between “I” and “Thou”:

“See how the minnows are darting about! That is the pleasure of fishes,” observed Chuang Tzu.

“Your not being a fish yourself,” said Hui Tzu, “how can you possibly know in what consists the pleasure of fishes?”

“And your not being I,” retorted Chuang Tzu, “how can you know that I do not know?”

“If I, not being you, cannot know what you know,” urged Hui Tzu, “it follows that you, not being a fish cannot know in what consists the pleasure of fishes.” “Let us go back,” said Chuang Tzu, “to your original question. You asked me how I know in what consists the pleasure of fishes. Your very question shows that you knew I knew. I knew it from my feelings on this bridge.”

(XVII, Giles, 218-219; Watson, 188-189)

Like the Romantics, Chuang Tzu's concept of oneness of existence starts with the loss of self-identity. Assuming Tao as the center of Reality, the Perfect Man proceeds from the self, Coleridge says, “in order to lose and find all self in God.”20 By abandoning his own ego, the Perfect Man is able to render everyday living or technological skill into things of aesthetic interest and aesthetic value. The “knack” passages in Chuang Tzu present the Taoist progress of aesthetic synthesis through “self-forgetfulness.”

In the well-known episode of P'ao Ting Prince Hui's cook, the senses first inform P'ao Ting of the presence of the bullock as a natural object, and then provide him with the information about its physical characteristics. But through the enactment of the imaginative perception, the cook discerns why things are the way they are and grasps the relationship between the carving and the carved bullock. The great “knack” begins in the integration of a more inward-looking into the subject with the outward-looking of the object. The eidetic manifestations of the bullock's size, shape, color, and structure, and the cook's carving become visionary:

What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began to carve, I fixed my gaze on the animal in front of me. After three years I no longer saw it as a whole bull, but a thing already divided into parts. Nowadays I no longer see it with the eyes. I merely comprehend it with the inward vision. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.

(III, Watson, 50-51; Giles, 34)

When the imaginative perception arises from the act of carving, the cook blends the outer and inner, the sensory acuteness and the depths of subjectivity. The process starts with the dissolution of the barrier between mind and the hand, between the eye and the bullock. The right comprehension of Tao is the necessary ground for the cook's practical excellence. The cook does not appeal to intellectuality which supports ordering, analysing, remembering, and judging the why, when, and where of his experience. Instead, the Way, or the creative principle which dominates the overall act of carving, feeds the imagination with some source of energy. The imagination penetrates the invisible forces and patterns:

Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whshh of rent flesh, every chhk of the chopper, was in perfect harmony.

(III, Giles, 33; Watson, 50)

One may argue that not...

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Ming Wu Kuang (essay date 1981)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Wu Kuang, Ming. “Trying without Trying: Toward a Taoist Phenomenology of Truth.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 8, no. 2 (June 1981): 143-66.

[In the following essay, Wu Kuang explores the philosophical tension Chuang Tzu creates when he formulates the conflict between trying-not-to-try and not-trying-to-try.]

Nothing defies classification as does the thought of Chuang Tzu. Elements of joy and suffering, magic and politics, buffoonery and austerity, poetry and science, and above all, jokes, philosophy and ignorance, all consort together in symbiotic bliss. His words are obviously inspired, yet they engage the reader as no aphorisms of irresponsible genius...

(The entire section is 9284 words.)

Graham Parkes (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Parkes, Graham. “The Wandering Dance: Chuang Tzu and Zarathustra.” Philosophy East and West: A Quarterly of Asian and Comparative Thought 23, no. 3 (July 1983): 235-50.

[In the following essay, Parker examines the similarities between the philosophies of Chuang Tzu and Friedrich Nietzsche.]

Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the collection of chapters known as the Chuang Tzu are philosophical texts from quite different times and places, written in absolutely unrelated languages and stemming from totally disparate historical and cultural circumstances. The Chuang Tzu dates from the end of the Warring States period in ancient China...

(The entire section is 8639 words.)

David Hall (essay date 1984)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Hall, David. “Nietzsche and Chuang Tzu: Resources for the Transcendence of Culture.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 11, no. 2 (June 1984): 139-52.

[In the following essay, Hall explores the similarities in the thought between Nietzsche and Chuang Tzu, arguing that both developed a philosophy that exists outside of their own cultures.]

Establishing a suitable context within which valuable comparisons of thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche and Chuang Tzu might be made presents problems associated with differing histories, languages, and institutional relationships as obvious as they would be tedious to rehearse. One way of escaping many of these difficulties is...

(The entire section is 5137 words.)

Robert E. Allinson (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Allinson, Robert E. “Early Literary Forms of Self-Transformation in the Chuang-Tzu.Tamkang Review 17, no. 2 (winter 1986): 97-108.

[In the following essay, Allinson argues that the Chuang Tzu uses literary methods rather than discursive or argumentative ones in preparing the reader for its philosophical message of self-transformation.]

Already in chapter one of the Chuang-tzu we can discover literary devices which illustrate that the theme of the Chuang-tzu as a whole will be that of self-transformation. All too often, such literary devices are brushed aside in efforts to get at the “philosophical meat” of the text. As a...

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Shuen-fu Lin (essay date 1987-88)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Shuen-fu Lin. “Confucius in the ‘Inner Chapters’ of the Chuang Tzu.Tamkang Review 18, nos. 1-4 (autumn 1987-summer 1988): 379-401.

[In the following essay, Shuen-fu Lin argues that Chuang-Tzu uses the persona of Confucius to voice a Taoist philosophy of emptiness which repudiates the philosophy of virtue taught by Confucius.]

It is interesting to note that Confucius (551-479 b.c.) figures prominently in the early Taoist philosophical text Chuang Tzu. In total he is mentioned on more than fifty occasions in the text and his appearance is also quite evenly distributed over the three divisions of the “Inner Chapters” (nei-p'ien),...

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Chi-hui Chien (essay date 1990)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Chi-hui Chien. “‘Theft's Way’: A Comparative Study of Chuang Tzu's Tao and Derridean Trace.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 17, no. 1 (March 1990): 31-49.

[In the following essay, Chi-hui Chien argues that there is a conceptual similarity between the ideas of Chuang Tzu and those of French philosopher Jacques Derrida because of the way in which both give authority to a shifting viewpoint rather than a fixed reality which can be definitively signified.]

Where there is recognition of right there must be recognition of wrong; where there is recognition of wrong there must be recognition of right. Therefore the sage does not proceed in...

(The entire section is 5880 words.)

Wayne D. Owens (essay date 1990)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Owens, Wayne D. “Radical Concrete Particularity: Heidegger, Lao Tzu, and Chuang Tzu.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 17, no. 2 (June 1990): 235-55.

[In the following essay, Owens contends that there is a great deal of similarity between the concepts of being and acting, signified by the terms Ereignis and Gelassenheit in the philosophy of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, and by the terms Tao and wu-wei in the teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu.]

There is abundant evidence of Heidegger's familiarity with and continuing interest in Taoist thought.1 This might lead one to expect to find in Heidegger's published works...

(The entire section is 7199 words.)

Francis K. H. So (essay date 1992-93)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: So, Francis K. H. “The Taoist Romantic Consciousness and Its Non-Mimetic View of Literature.” Tamkang Review 23, nos. 1-4 (autumn 1992-summer 1993): 512-35.

[In the following essay, So argues that in contrast to the western models of philosophy, based primarily on the works of Plato and Aristotle, the Taoism of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu fosters a non-mimetic literature and art intent on depicting the inner harmony of the Tao rather than the outer fluctuations of nature.]

According to Plato, the highest order of reality is the Idea or the ideal Form which can be attained by thinking. Below it is the worldly thing which can be perceived by the senses and is...

(The entire section is 6851 words.)

Franklin M. Doeringer (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Doeringer, Franklin M. “Imaging the Imageless: Symbol and Perception in Early Chinese Thought.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 20, no. 1 (March 1993): 5-28.

[In the following essay, Doeringer compares the theory of symbolic language formulated by twentieth-century French philosopher Paul Ricoeur with the one devised by the authors of the Chuang Tzu, noting that Ricoeur's work is rooted in early Chinese thought.]

The “revivification of philosophy through contact with the fundamental symbols of consciousness” which the Hermeneutician Paul Ricoeur so eloquently called for in his Symbolism of Evil has, I believe, particular relevance for the...

(The entire section is 7815 words.)

Chenyang Li (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Chenyang Li. “What-Being: Chuang Tzu Versus Aristotle.” International Philosophical Quarterly 33, no. 131 (September 1993): 341-53.

[In the following essay, Chenyang Li examines the differing methods by which Chuang Tzu and Aristotle determine what something is.]

In a way, the philosophy of Chuang Tzu (b. 369 b.c., China) is radically non-commonsensical. For instance, he says “nothing in the world is bigger than the tip of an autumn hair, and Mount T'ai is small.”1 Nevertheless, behind Chuang Tzu's willingness to depart from ordinary ways of talking, there is a metaphysics of everyday reality. The purpose of this paper is to compare Chuang...

(The entire section is 7757 words.)

Joel Kupperman (essay date 1996)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Kupperman, Joel. “Spontaneity and Education of the Emotions in the Zhuangzi.” In Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the “Zhuangzi,” edited by Paul Kjellberg and Phillip J. Ivanhoe, pp. 183-95. Albany: State University of New York, 1996.

[In the following essay, Kupperman explores the key role of spontaneity in Chuang Tzu's philosophy.]

A working title of this paper had been “A Cicada Propounds Three Theses About Zhuangzi.” This had been intended not only to be modest, but also to allude to the perspectivism with which the Zhuangzi opens. Part of the greatness of the Zhuangzi is that it is rewarding from so many...

(The entire section is 6104 words.)

Scott Cook (essay date 1997)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Cook, Scott. “Zhuang Zi and His Carving of the Confucian Ox.” Philosophy East and West: A Quarterly of Asian and Comparative Thought 47, no. 4 (October 1997): 521-52.

[In the following essay, Cook examines the differences and similarities in the works of Chuang Tzu and Confucius.]

In an article dated to 1944, Guo Moruo puts forth the unusual conjecture that Zhuang Zi (Zhuang Zhou, ca. 365-ca. 285 b.c.) may originally have been a student of the Yan Hui (Yan Yuan, 521-481 b.c.) branch of Ruism.1 As Guo notes, Yan is a recurring figure throughout the Zhuang Zi, especially in the “inner chapters,” and in nearly all cases is made either to...

(The entire section is 15666 words.)