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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2590

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,...

(The entire section contains 2590 words.)

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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 use of his natural ability. Whatever ability he possesses stems from his , the power within him that comes directly from the Dao. The individuated forms of things come from their , which confers on them their natural properties and abilities. Things differ both in their nature and in their natural abilities. One kind of bird can fly a thousand miles; another kind has difficulty flying from one tree to another. It is no use for a man to discuss the ocean with a frog that has lived its whole life in a well.

It is important for the seeker to distinguish between what is heavenly—that is, of nature—and what is entirely human. What is heavenly is internal; what is human is external. The human is all that is artificial: the artifacts of man; his institutions of government, education, and religion; his cultural codes of etiquette, law, and morals. All these artificialities involve restrictions on man’s independence and freedom. To the extent that a person can exercise his natural abilities independently of or in spite of the restrictions imposed on him, he ought to do so. In so doing, he will achieve a measure of happiness, although it will be a relative, not an absolute, happiness. Interference with nature should be avoided, according to Zhuangzi’s teachings. Government that seeks to rule people by strict laws and strong institutions is pictured as putting a halter around a horse’s neck or a cord through an ox’s nose. The use of violence by governments is like trying to lengthen the short legs of a duck or to shorten the long legs of a crane.

Relative happiness, then, can be attained by making good use of one’s natural ability; yet, other factors such as avoiding injury and disease and overcoming fear of death are also necessary to happiness. If the seeker gains a proper understanding of the nature of things, he can greatly mitigate his anxiety regarding death as well as the grief he may feel when a loved one dies. Chapter 18 of the Zhuangzi, “Perfect Happiness,” records an anecdote that illustrates this notion. Zhuangzi’s wife had died, and Huizi (Hui-tzu) had gone to pay his condolences to the philosopher. On entering his house, Huizi was amazed to find the master “sitting with his legs sprawled, pounding on a tub and singing.” Scandalized, Huizi hastened to remind Zhuangzi that he had lived with his wife a long time, that she had borne and reared his children, and that she had grown old along with him. Huizi reproached his friend: “It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing—this is going too far, isn’t it?” Zhuangzi replied:

You’re wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.

Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.

Thus, death is simply a phase in the turning of the wheel of fortune that is the Dao. The turning of the wheel voids the identity and disintegrates the material body of the dead person. From the standpoint of the Dao, however, no state of being is more desirable than another. As a natural event in the cycle of human life, death is neither to be feared nor to be sorrowed over.

How does the seeker reach the third and last rung of his upward way? To answer this question, Zhuangzi proposed an epistemology, a theory of knowledge. Knowledge, he said, is of two kinds: lower and higher. The lower involves sense perception, reason, and language; it depends on relativity, finitude, and memory. Higher knowledge involves suprasensible perception, intuition, and silence; it depends on the unity of opposites, infinitude, and forgetfulness. Lower knowledge lacks understanding. Higher knowledge is filled with understanding, a condition in which everything is illuminated by “the light of Heaven.”

To achieve higher knowledge, the seeker must forget the knowledge that he has acquired. He must transcend all relativity, finitude, and apparent contradictions implied in conventional opposites such as right and wrong, great and small, life and death. The seeker can transcend such distinctions when he realizes that the Dao makes them all one. Once he has attained this realization, he has no use for categories. Where “ordinary men discriminate and parade their discriminations before others,” the enlightened man “embraces things.” Thus, forgetfulness and “no-knowledge” constitute the highest wisdom.

The lower level of knowledge permits the use of speech. Good language is dispassionate and calm; bad language is “shrill and quarrelsome.” At the higher level of knowledge, however, language is inadequate: “The Great Way is not named; Great Discriminations are not spoken. . . . If discriminations are put into words, they do not suffice.” The holy man does not speak, for him silence reigns supreme. Content within himself because he has forgotten self and the world, he may be said to have entered Heaven. He has achieved absolute happiness.


If the real Zhuangzi is a barely perceptible shadow cast by the dim light of history, he is brightly visible in the pages of the Zhuangzi. Here he emerges as a living, breathing, dynamic human being, radiant of mind, wide-ranging in imagination, full of wit and humor. The Zhuangzi is a monumental book and a great classic of Chinese literature. Its style is brilliant, full of clever rhetorical devices, satire, fantasy, metaphor, jokes, dreams, and parody. Although it is a work of philosophy, it may also be termed “protofictional.” It not only uses historical characters, such as Confucius, fictionally, but also creates fictional characters as foils for its protagonist. In this way, the Zhuangzi contributed to the development of later Chinese fictional genres such as xiaoshuo and zhiguai.

Philosophically, Zhuangzi went beyond Laozi in offering a clear alternative to the philosophies of his age. He emphasized the personal ideal of the emancipation of the individual for his or her own sake in place of the social ideal of the harmonious society ruled by the Sage king. Although the Zhuangzi never gained the popularity and influence of the Dao De Jing, it continued to command the interest and admiration of Chinese rulers and philosophers. The Neo-Daoist philosophers Xiang Xiu (Hsiang Hsiu; c. 221-c. 300 c.e.) and Guo Xiang (Kuo Hsiang; d. c. 312 c.e.) both wrote commentaries on the Zhuangzi, seeking to reconcile the social ideal of Confucius with the private ideal of Zhuangzi. Despite their criticism of Zhuangzi, they performed the important service of transmitting his work and preserving it for posterity.

In the West, the Zhuangzi has made a decided impression on numerous prominent thinkers, beginning perhaps with the great German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who in 1816 lectured at the University of Heidelberg on Daoism and Confucianism, based on the Book of Changes and the Zhuangzi. His concept of the Absolute as a process rather than a source and his description of the dialectical process (thesis and antithesis merging into a synthesis) are reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s concept of the Dao and the underlying unity of opposites. Later twentieth century thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Carl Jung, Jacques Maritain, Jacques Lacan, and Thomas Merton all show evidence in their writing of an intimate acquaintance with Daoism and the thought of Zhuangzi.

Benton| Richard P.

Further Reading:

Ames, Roger T., ed. Wandering at Ease in the “Zhuangzi.” Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Eleven essays on the Zhuangzi, which collectively are intended to comprise a primer on how to read this Daoist classic.

Hochsmann, Hyun. On Chuang Tzu. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001. A brief introduction to Zhuangzi’s life and thought, intended as a guide for students.

Kjellberg, Paul, and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the “Zuangzi.” Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. A collection of nine essays, whose main focus is the source and nature of Zhuangzi’s cheerfulness.

Merton, Thomas. The Way of Chuang Tzu. 1965. Reprint. Boston: Shambhala, 1992. The author was a poet, prose writer, mystic, and Trappist monk. Knowing no Chinese, he made an effort here to capture his intuitive sense of Zhuangzi’s spirit on the basis of translations in Western languages. He succeeds as well as the translators.

Roth, Harold D. A Companion to Angus C. Graham’s “Chuang Tze: The Inner Chapters.” Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003. Collects the notes and commentary of one of the premier Zhuangzi scholars and translators.

Zhuangzi. The Inner Chapters. Translated by A. C. Graham. 1981. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Hackett Publishing, 2001. A translation of the Zhuangzi as well as an extensive collection of ancient commentary. Also includes a thorough introduction, notes, a list of characters, and index.

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