Lieh Tzu Essay - Critical Essays

Tzu, Lieh


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.

Principal Works

The Treatise of the Transcendent Master of the Void (Book of Lieh Tzu)

Principal English Translations

Taoist Teachings: From the Book of Lieh-Tzu [translated by Lionel Giles] 1925

The Book of Lieh-Tzu [translated by A. C. Graham] 1960

Ch 'ung-Hu-Ch 'En-Ching, or The Treatise of the Transcendent Master of the Void [translated by Leon Wieger] 1992


Lionel Giles (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: Introduction to Wisdom of the East, Taoist Teachings: From the Book of Lieh Tzu, translated by Lionel Giles, John Murray, 1912, pp. 9-16.

[In the essay that follows, Giles locates the book of Lieh Tzu in the more general context of Taoist philosophy, including the thought of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu.]

The history of Taoist philosophy may be conveniently divided into three stages: the primitive stage, the stage of development, and the stage of degeneration. The first of these stages is only known to us through the medium of a single semi-historical figure, the philosopher Lao Tzŭ, whose birth is traditionally assigned to the year 604 B.C. Some would place the...

(The entire section is 1802 words.)

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (essay date 1914)

SOURCE: "Monism," in A Brief History of Early Chinese Philosophy, Probsthain & Co., 1914, pp. 25-33.

[In the following excerpt, Suzuki characterizes Lieh Tzu as belonging to the mystical and monistic tradition of Taoism, which stood in opposition to the more practical Confucianism.]

… There were not lacking, however, in the Ante-Ch'in period certain tendencies that counterbalanced the ultra-practical, positivistic train of thought as represented in Confucianism. Though these tendencies did not attain a full manifestation at any time in the history of Chinese thought, they showed a strong front at this incipient stage to their antagonistic systems. It was quite...

(The entire section is 2909 words.)

H. G. Creel (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "What Is Taoism?," in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 76, No. 3, July-September, 1956, pp. 139-43, 150-52.

[In the following excerpt, Creel argues for a distinction between philosophical Taoism, exemplified by the ideas of Lieh Tzu, and Hsien Taoism, a doctrine oriented toward achieving physical immortality.]

If anyone is apprehensive that I am going to give an answer to the question posed by the title of this paper, let me reassure him at once. I shall not be so foolish as to try to propound a single, sovereign definition of what Taoism is. In fact, the more one studies Taoism, the clearer it becomes that this term does not denote a school, but...

(The entire section is 5255 words.)

Holmes Welch (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "The Taoist Movement," in The Parting of the Way: Lao Tzu and the Taoist Movement, Beacon Press, 1957, pp. 88-97.

[In the essay that follows, Welch discusses the rise of philosophical Taoism, with particular consideration of its connections to medical and scientific beliefs.]

Lists of the world's principal religions usually include "Taoism." We might therefore suppose that "Taoism" was a religion comparable to Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. We might suppose that like them it could be traced back to a founding prophet—in its case, Lao Tzu—whose followers set up a church—the Taoist church; that various branches of Taoism developed as the church divided...

(The entire section is 4247 words.)

A. C. Graham (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: The Book of Lieh-Tzu, translated by A. C. Graham, John Murray, 1960, pp. 1-17, 32-3, 58-61, 74-5, 92-4, 118-21, 135-37, 158.

[In the following excerpt, Graham examines the teachings of Lieh Tzu in relation to other formulations of Taoism and provides an introduction to each chapter of the Book of Lieh Tzu.]

Taoism is the greatest philosophical tradition of China after Confucianism. From its first maturity in the 3rd century B.C. we find references to a certain Lieh-tzu, who travelled by riding the wind. His historicity is doubtful, and it is not even clear when he is supposed to have lived; some indications point to 600, others to 400 B.C. The book which...

(The entire section is 10412 words.)

Derek Bryce (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Translator's Preface," in Ch'ung-Hu-Ch'en-Ching or The Treatise of the Transcendent Master of the Void, translated by Leon Wieger, Llanerch Publishers, 1992, pp. 7-9.

[In the following excerpt, Bryce introduces the Book of Lieh Tzu by briefly recounting what is known of the author's life and teaching. He specifically warns against taking the characters presented in the work as realistic portrayals of historical figures.]

Whereas the Tao-te-ching of Lao-tzu, the most famous of the Taoist (or Daoist) writings, is concise to the point of being difficult to understand, the book of Lieh-tzu proceeds at a more leisurely pace with many points explained by...

(The entire section is 387 words.)

Further Reading

Fung Yu-Lan. "Materialism and Mechanism in the Lieh-tzu." In A History of Chinese Philosophy: Vol. II, The Period of Classical Learning (From the Second Century B.C. to the Twentieth Century A.D.), translated by Derk Bodde, pp. 190-4. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1953.

Examines the central tenets of abandonment and comprehension presented in the Book of Lieh Tzu.

Kaltenmark, Max. "Chuang Tzu." In Lao Tzu and Taoism, translated by Roger Greaves, pp. 70-106. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969.

Briefly describes the wanderings of the soul, presented in the Book of Lieh Tzu as a harmonious relation with the cosmos.


(The entire section is 149 words.)