Brief Introduction of Zhuang Zi

Era Information
Time: 770 B.C.-256B.C.
Location of Capital:Disunity of the country
Emperors: Five hegemony in Spring and Autumn, Seven Kings in Warring States
Replaced by: Qin Dynasty

Zhuangzi in China's history ‘Zhuangzi’ is the name of the second foundational text of the Daoist philosophical and religious tradition and the name of the putative author of this text, who early historical sources say flourished between about 350 and 300 B.C.E. As one of the two most popular Daoist texts in the Chinese tradition, the Zhuangzi has been the subject of more than sixty major East Asian commentaries since the third century C.E., some of which contain philosophically significant interpretations of the text. The most important of these are the commentary by Guo Xiang, which focuses on his understanding of Zhuangzi's philosophy of spontaneity, the commentary by Cheng Xuanying (ca. 620-670), a religious Daoist master with strong interests in emptiness theory, and commentaries by the following Sung and Ming dynasty literati scholars: Wang Pang (1042-76), Lin Xiyi (ca. 1200-73), Lo Miandao (ca. 1240-1300), and Jiao Hong (1541-1620).

None of these has been fully translated into English and modern studies of them in any language are few, thus yielding a fertile field for future research. The existence of these commentaries demonstrates the great popularity of the Zhuangzi among Chinese literati who saw within it support for a withdrawal from a life of social and political service into a private life of reclusion and self-cultivation. If Confucianism came to stand for the foundational philosophy of this ethos of self-sacrifice, the Daoism of the Zhuangzi came to stand for its opposite, the escape from societal pressure into an individual path of freedom. While thus important to literati scholars, the work was also significant for Daoist religious practitioners who often took ideas and themes from it for their meditation practice, for example Sima Chengzhen's ‘Treatise on Sitting and Forgetting’ (ca. 660 C.E.) (Kohn 1987).

What we know of the philosophy of Zhuangzi comes primarily from this work but readers of translations of the received recension (Watson, Graham 1981, Mair 1998) should be aware of the following provisos.

First, the received recension contains thirty-three chapters and is not the original recension of the text. Guo Xiang (d. 312 C.E.) revised a fifty-two chapter original recension first listed in Imperial bibliographies circa 110 C.E. by removing material he thought was superstitious and generally not of philosophical interest to his literati sensibilities. He appended a philosophical commentary to the text that became famous and within four centuries his shorter and snappier expurgated recension became the only one known. This recension is traditionally divided into three sections: ‘Inner Chapters’ (1-7), ‘Outer Chapters’ (8-22), ‘Miscellaneous Chapters’ (23-33). This division is quite old and is likely to have been part of the original recension.

Second, the Zhuangzi text is clearly not the work of a single author and it is difficult to affix definitive authorship to any one person. At the very least there are five authorial voices best summarized by A.C. Graham: the historical Zhuangzi, later followers of Zhuangzi, followers influenced by the individualist thinker Yang Zhu, a ‘Primitivist’ Daoist author whose ideas are akin to those of the Daode jing, and the ‘Syncretist’ Daoist authors who Graham thinks compiled the first recension of the text (Graham 1979).

While it is true that many of the philosophical insights for which this work has become renowned in China and more recently in the West are found in the ‘Inner Chapters’ that have traditionally been ascribed to the historical Zhuangzi, we cannot fully understand these ideas and their significance without grasping how they relate to the entire thirty-three chapter text and the variety of ideas it contains. In this entry we shall accept the convention that a historical Zhuangzi authored most of the seven ‘Inner chapters’ while noting that there have been questions about this attribution that are not sufficient to overturn this traditional belief.

The Zhuangzi has become renowned for a series of original insights into human nature and the nature of the cosmos and many of these are found in the ‘Inner chapters.’ These insights are communicated in a variety of literary styles: didactic narratives, poetry, and very short prose essays. Like its famous companion, the Daode jing, the Zhuangzi is grounded in the complementary ideas of Dao and De. Dao, the ‘Way,’ is an ineffable monistic principle that infuses and guides the spontaneous processes of all phenomena; De, ‘Inner Power,’ is the realized manifestation of this Way within all phenomena. Despite sharing these foundational ideas, these two Daoist works discuss them very differently. The Daode jing often presents the characteristics and features of the Way in a direct discursive analysis (e.g., DDJ 1: "The Way that can be told of is not the Constant Way"). On the other hand, the Zhuangzi often approaches the Way indirectly through narratives and poetry. Witness the following rhetorical pointing to the Way: