Zhuangzi Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chinese philosopher{$I[g]China;Zhuangzi} Zhuangzi was the greatest thinker of the Chinese Daoist school of philosophy. He went much beyond its founder, Laozi, in constructing an apolitical, transcendental philosophy designed to promote an individual’s spiritual freedom.

Early Life

Zhuangzi (dzwahng-dzur) was born sometime around 365 b.c.e.; according to his biographer, Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien; 145-86 b.c.e.), the philosopher was a native of the town of Meng in the Kingdom of Song. His personal name was Zhou. Beyond this, little is known regarding Zhuangzi’s life and career. He was born into a time known as the Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.), during which China had become divided into many small, fiercely competitive states as a result of the collapse of the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty. Thus, Zhuangzi was a contemporary of the famous Confucian philosopher Mencius (Mengzi; c. 372-c. 289 b.c.e.).

For a brief time, Zhuangzi served as a government official in Qiyuan (Ch’i-yuan), not far from his birthplace. He soon tired of public life, however, and resolved to pursue philosophical meditation and writing. Thereupon, he retired to the state of Qi (Ch’i), where he took up residence on Nanhua Hill, in the prefecture of Caozhou (Ts’ao-chou). Here he spent the remainder of his life.

Zhuangzi’s disillusionment with law and politics is apparent in an anecdote recorded in chapter 17 of the Zhuangzi (traditionally c. 300 b.c.e.; probably compiled c. 285-160 b.c.e.; The Divine Classic of Nan-hua, 1881; also known as The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 1968; commonly known as Zhuangzi, 1991):

Once, when Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi] was fishing in the P’u River, the king of Ch’u [Chu] sent two officials to go and announce to him: “I would like to trouble you with the administration of my realm.”

Chuang Tzu held on to the fishing pole and, without turning his head, said, “I have heard that there is a sacred tortoise in Ch’u that has been dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its bones left behind and honored? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?”

“It would rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud,” said the two officials.

Chuang Tzu said, “Go away! I’ll drag my tail in the mud!”

A portrait of this stubbornly independent thinker has been preserved in Taipei’s National Palace Museum. It shows a rather short, slightly built man with sparse hair and penetrating eyes. He stands with his hands clasped over his chest, a pose that conveys dignity and serenity.

Life’s Work

The Daoism of Zhuangzi’s time derived from the Yijing (eighth to third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1876; also known as Book of Changes, 1986), the ancient manual of divination based on the concept that the world and the laws of change are an ordered, interdependent unit, and from Laozi’s Dao De Jing (possibly sixth century b.c.e., probably compiled late third century b.c.e.; The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of “the Old Philosopher, Lau-Tsze,” 1868; better known as the Dao De Jing), which described the workings of the Dao (the Way), the primordial generative principle that is the mother of all things. Dao was interpreted as “the Way of Heaven,” or natural law, and the Daoists explained natural phenomena and the social order in reference to this principle. Proper human behavior consisted of not interfering with the Dao but living in harmony with it. Thus, the Daoists taught the doctrine of wuwei (not doing), or, more explicitly, wei-wu-wei (doing by not doing). This standard did not imply absolute quietism but rather acting intuitively, spontaneously, and effortlessly in imitation of the Dao, which manages to accomplish everything naturally. Although some Daoists retired entirely from the world and lived as hermits, Daoism was not designed for the hermit but for the sage king, who, though not withdrawing from the world, seeks to avoid interfering with it.

For the Daoists, then, the best government was the least government. Indeed, they reasoned, if all men acted in harmony with the Dao, government as an institution would be unnecessary. Government by law and even the notions of good and evil were regarded by the Daoists as deviations from the Dao and unwarranted interference with it. Such an attitude gave Daoists considerable independence in regard to politics and worldly affairs generally.

It is evident that Zhuangzi’s decision to withdraw from political entanglements was amply supported by Daoist teachings. His interpretations of this and other doctrines have been passed down in the Zhuangzi, an imaginative compilation of anecdote and dialogue. In the words of a modern scholar, in the Zhuangzi “animals speak, natural forces are personified, and dialogues which begin in soberness unexpectedly veer into humor, fantasy, and absurdity.”

Where the Dao De Jing of Laozi sets forth the universal Dao as a political and social ideal, the Zhuangzi is mostly concerned with the individual and his or her intellectual and spiritual freedom. Unlike Laozi’s work, which is addressed to rulers, the Zhuangzi addresses anyone, ruler or private person, who wishes to become a member of the spiritual elite. To achieve this goal, the seeker must begin by achieving an awareness of the existence and workings of the universal Dao and of his or her own relation to the scheme of things.

The Dao is nameless; the name assigned to it is merely a convenient label. Though it is preexistent, formless, and imperceptible, it latently contains all forms, entities, and forces; it permeates all things. All Being issues from it and returns to it. The life and death of human beings take part in this transformation from Non-being into Being and back again to Non-being.

After accepting this metaphysical scheme, the seeker faces the second step on the ladder of knowledge: the realization of the importance of making full and free...

(The entire section is 2590 words.)