Lieh Tzu Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Lieh Tzu fl. c. 5th-7th century B.C.

(Also transliterated as Lieh-tze.) Chinese philosopher.

One of the three major figures in Taoist philosophy, Lieh Tzu produced one of the most accessible texts of Taoism. The anecdotal and dramatic form of his only work, The Treatise of the Transcendent Master of the Void, more commonly known as the Book of Lieh Tzu, lends itself to elaborating the mystical and highly abstract beliefs that constitute philosophical Taoism. Although less well known in the west than Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, Lieh Tzu exhibits a unique literary style and theoretical worldview. His insightful and often ironic narrative enhances contemporary understanding of the diversity within the philosophical tradition of Taoism and provides a rich and entertaining representation of Taoist teachings.

Biographical Information

Very little is known of Lieh Tzu beyond his single work, and some early scholars challenged his very existence and claimed that the book was written by Chuang Tzu. However, ancient Chinese sources indicate that the term "master" (Tzu) was bestowed upon a historical figure by the name of Lieh YÜ-K'ou. This thinker lived "in obscurity and poverty" but had disciples who probably produced the Book of Lieh Tzu by recording oral teachings, either during Lieh Tzu's lifetime or shortly thereafter. Most contemporary historians agree that Lieh Tzu lived between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C., during the late Chou dynasty. This was a time when Confucianism had been largely accepted as the dominant school of philosophy, despite challenges from Taoism. Chronologically, Lieh Tzu stands between the two great pillars of Taoist thought: Lao Tzu, the first well-known author to articulate Taoist beliefs (in the Tao-Te-Ching), and Chuang Tzu, who produced a relatively systematic treatment of Taoism. Chuang Tzu briefly mentions Lieh Tzu as someone who "travelled by riding the wind," which figuratively suggests Lieh Tzu's purity of spirit and ability to commune with the rhythms of nature. The Book of Lieh Tzu itself provides almost no information about its author.

Major Works

The Book of Lieh Tzu, divided into eight chapters, expresses a profoundly mystical world-view, contrary to the Confucian focus on the establishment of social institutions. In spite of this transcendental emphasis, its anecdotal teachings are accessible and often humorous, unlike the more obscure Tao-Te-Ching. Lieh Tzu is also distinguished as a Taoist thinker by his articulation of a cosmogony, according to D. T. Suzuki: the Book of Lieh Tzu provides a model of the universe that encompasses both determinate phenomena and an unnameable and indeterminate void, the ground of all phenomena. Taoism is the set of beliefs and practices that encourage the contemplation of this void, which leads to "heightened perceptiveness and responsiveness," rather than complete withdrawal from the ordinary world. The meditative practices associated with Taoism thus have no final goal or state of being, but are ways of comporting or orienting oneself in relation to the world. Lieh Tzu suggests that the two major tasks of Taoism are the abandonment of social and moral conventions and the comprehension of the natural order, so that one may bring oneself into harmony with that order. For Lieh Tzu, there is no natural or human freedom; instead, the universe operates through a predetermined, cyclical movement. Some scholars have associated Lieh Tzu with a strand of Taoism concerned primarily with physical immortality. Although his book does refer to immortality, this reference is probably allegorical, for other chapters explicitly condemn the search for eternal physiological life. The work has several inconsistencies, the most glaring appearing in the seventh chapter, which advocates an extreme form of hedonism that departs from the Taoist emphasis upon accordance with "the way."

Textual History

The Book of Lieh Tzu was in all likelihood compiled over a number of years (between 300 B.C. and 300 A.D.) by several disciples, and survives only in an edited and appended form. However, a core group of writings seem to have been recorded by Lieh Tzu's immediate disciples or their students. Some passages are taken directly from other sources; the anomalous seventh chapter (titled "Yang Chu," after the Chou dynasty philosopher) probably dates from the fourth or fifth century A.D.—later than the rest of the work.

Critical Reception

What has most impressed scholars about the work of Lieh Tzu is the dramatic character of the anecdotes, which display "real insight into human nature," as Lionel Giles has suggested, as well as a frequently ironic or humorous tone. The vivid and fantastic stories are directly and simply narrated. As a collection of fables, the work has been judged highly accessible and even entertaining, but its allegorical meaning often remains obscure. Hence the Book of Lieh Tzu does not present an ordered and thorough articulation of Taoist beliefs, but rather an impressionistic complement to the more structured and scholarly works of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Lieh Tzu juxtaposes realistic characters in highly dramatic (and sometimes fantastic) situations to teach Taoist practices. Although Confucius himself appears in the work, critics have warned that this portrayal is not to be taken as historically accurate, but rather as a stylized rendering serving a particular role in a Taoist text responding to a dominant way of thinking. Many contemporary scholars consider Lieh Tzu's work to be less philosophically systematic than that of Chuang Tzu or Lao Tzu, but more colorful and richly narrated. In this regard, Lieh Tzu stands as an essential complement to more familiar works of Taoism.