Zhuang Zhou is thought to have lived during the reign of King Hui of Liang and King Xuan of Qi, in the span from 370 to 301 BCE. Zhuang Zhou was from the Town of Meng (, Méng Chéng) in the State of Song (now Shāngqiū, Henan). His given name or family name was Zhou (, Zhōu),his Personal name was Zhuang.He was also known as Meng Official, Meng Zhuang, and Meng Elder (??, Méng Lì; ??, Méng Zhuāng, and, Méng sou, respectively).
The validity of his existence has been questioned by Russell Kirkland, who writes:
According to modern understandings of Chinese tradition, the text known as the Chuang-tzu was the production of a 'Taoist' thinker of ancient China named Chuang Chou. In reality, it was nothing of the sort. The Chuang-tzu known to us today was the production of a thinker of the third century CE named Kuo Hsiang. Though Kuo was long called merely a 'commentator,' he was in reality much more: he was the actual creator of the 33-chapter text of Chuang-tzu ... Regarding the identity of the original person named Chuang, there is no reliable historical data at all.
However, the existence of a biography of Zhuang Zhou in the Records of the Grand Historian chapter 63 shows that even if not the author of the text Zhuangzi, records of the philosopher Zhuangzi pre-date Kuo Hsiang (d. 312) by centuries. Furthermore, the Han Shu "Yiwen zhi" (Monograph on literature) lists a text Zhuangzi, showing that a text with this title existed no later than the early 1st century CE, again pre-dating Kuo Hsiang by centuries.
‘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).
With writings as profound and vibrant as these the historical Zhuangzi must have had quite a devoted group of followers and it is to them -- in all likelihood -- that we owe both the transmission of his ideas beyond his lifetime and at least six chapters of new material, much of it consisting of narratives written in the style of the ‘Inner chapters’ but generally not demonstrating the same creativity and rhetorical skill. Zhuangzi is a figure in about one quarter of these narratives, which were probably based on stories told by his immediate disciples and written down after his death. The chapters in this section, 17-22, are almost completely devoid of the philosophical essays, jottings, or even the diatribes we find in the first third of the book. Yet they contain some of the most famous narratives in the entire text.
The ‘autumn floods’ passage that dominates chapter 17 continues the theme of the relativity of different perspectives and the wholeness of the Way-centered perspective. This epistemological relativity is also the theme of the well-known dialogue between Zhuangzi and his Terminologist friend and debating rival Huishi while strolling over the Hao River Bridge found in this chapter. Chapter 18, ‘Complete Happiness,’ centers around the theme of the acceptance of death as part of the natural processes of Heaven and Earth and contains the famous narrative about Huishi's visit to Zhuangzi after the death of the latter's wife. Chapter 19 is perhaps the most famous of this grouping as it contains a series of ‘skill’ or ‘knack’ passages that feature heroes who can be seen as masters of the flowing mode of cognition emphasized in the ‘Inner chapters.’ These include the cicada-catching hunchback, the swimmer at Spinebridge Falls, and the bellstand carver who fasts for seven days before undertaking his task, thus recalling the mind-fasting advice Confucius gave to Yan Hui in chapter 4. Chapter 20 contains a group of narratives loosely organized around the theme of uselessness first presented in chapters 1 and 4. Only things that are not of use to anyone else are able to flourish and attain their full potential. Chapter 21 is filled with stories featuring exemplars of self-cultivation who have achieved the utmost inner power. The famous ‘knowledge wanders north’ narrative that begins chapter 22 contains insights on the limitations of the fixed mode of cognition to comprehend the Way. Filled with ideas from Daode jing and with references to breath meditation, it also contains the famous dialogue in which Zhuangzi details where the Way can be found.
Unlike the ‘Inner chapters’ that contain no references to Lao Tzu the man and to the text of the Daode jing, many of these chapters show an awareness of the Daode jing by their use of ideas and quotations from this text. This indicates that they were most likely written after this work began widely circulating in China after in about 260 B.C. E. To the extent that they recast material from the ‘Inner chapters’ in new narrative frameworks and frequently see it in light of ideas from the Daode jing, these chapters represent a unique blending of the two intellectually foundational sources of early Daoism.
The first group of the ‘Miscellaneous chapters,’ 23-27, and chapter 32 are much more heterogeneous in their content. They appear to contain more writings of the followers of Zhuangzi into which are interspersed passages from the other major authorial voices in the complete work, mostly the Zhuangzi of the ‘Inner chapters,’ the Primitivist, and, on occasion, the Syncretist. Given this lack of coherence, these ‘Miscellaneous chapters’ could contain material from some of the nineteen chapters that Guo Xiang deleted from the original recension of the text. In these chapters Zhuangzi's followers continue their engagement with their master's teachings from the ‘Inner chapters’ and attempt to integrate it with the teachings of the Daode jing now often attributed in narratives to Lao Dan, the shadowy fifth-century B.C.E. figure to whom this text began to be attributed after about 250 B.C.E. Perhaps the most interesting narrative in this grouping is the one that constitutes almost the entirety of chapter 23. In it the character Nanguo Chu goes on a quest for mystical knowledge and ends up being instructed by Lao Dan in a meditative practice that blends together ideas from the ‘Inner chapters,’ the Daode jing, and other sources of ‘inner cultivation’ such as Guanzi's ‘Inward Training’ (Neiye) text (Roth 1999). This narrative, as well as several others in this group of chapters from the disciples of Zhuangzi, indicates that such meditation practices continued to be as central to the followers of Zhuangzi as they were to their teacher himself.
3.2 The Yangist Chapters
Chapters 28-31 of the received recension of the Zhuangzi were the first to be perceived as so different from the philosophy of the renowned ‘Inner Chapters’ that they were thought to be the work of an entirely different intellectual lineage. Indeed, these chapters are now seen to be similar in thought to five essays from the first two chapters of the compendium Lüshi chunqiu (240 B.C.E.) that consitute the only surviving works of the long-lost tradition of the philosopher Yang Zhu. Graham regards these Zhuangzi chapters themselves as Yangist while Liu Xiaogan links them to the ‘Primitivist’ material. Close examination reveals many common philosophical themes between these two groups of chapters but also reveals some key differences as well, as we shall see.
Yang Zhu was a fourth century B.C.E. contemporary of Mencius who engendered great antipathy in this Confucian thinker for suggesting that the basic tendencies of human nature were not what we might call ‘other-regarding.’ Mencius condemned Yang for being so egotistical as to be unwilling to sacrifice even a single hair in order to benefit the state (Mencius 7A26; Lau, p. 275). However if we are to base our understanding of Yang's doctrines on these two surviving sources, a much more complex and interesting picture of his philosophy emerges.
Yang Zhu may have been the first Chinese philosopher to speak of the concept of human nature (xing), and the parameters for all early Chinese discussions of this concept seem to have been established by Yang and Mencius. In brief, human nature is given to us by Heaven, the power responsible for everything in life beyond human control. The early Chinese conceived of two major aspects of our lives that fall into this category: ming (fate, destiny), the various things that occur as the result of agencies other than ourselves and xing (nature), the sum total of our genetic inheritance both as a species and as unique individual members of it. According to Graham and Ames, human nature in early China is conceived as totally dynamic, in contrast to the implicit static basis of human nature we find in the West (Graham 1967, Ames 1991). The Chinese concept of human nature can be best understood as referring to the spontaneous tendencies that an individual has from birth that govern its development as a particular individual within a species and which also act as forces in its daily life. Thus this concept implies both the potential to develop in a certain way and the spontaneous tendencies for this development and for certain characteristic types of activities. We might call the former tendencies ‘genetic’ and the latter tendencies ‘instinctive.’ Mencius argued that the essential goodness of human nature rested in the spontaneous tendencies to act selflessly and respectfully, tendencies that persist throughout the lifetime of an individual even if left undeveloped. In other words, it is a basic human instinct to act selflessly. For him the purpose of self-cultivation was to nurture these spontaneous instinctive tendencies until they blossomed into complete ethical virtues. The Yangist challenge to the social emphasis of the Confucians consisted in the primacy they placed on the maintenance of the individual life and the fact that they supported this mode of living with the theory that to act in this fashion was to nourish the nature that we receive from Heaven. Since Confucians placed a high value on the sanctions and approvals of Heaven, it was incumbent upon them to argue for a different vision of human nature.
The single most basic of the spontaneous tendencies of human nature for the Yangists is longevity. They argued that human beings tend to live long if they keep themselves from being disturbed by the ‘external things’ of this world such as fame and profit. The second important aspect of human nature is the desire of the five sense faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, skin) for sense-objects. It is the senses' desire for their objects that in a fundamental way helps to maintain the health and the development of the organism, thus enabling it to realize its inherent tendency for longevity. However the senses themselves need to be regulated and limited to only the ‘suitable’ amount of stimulation. Over-stimulation causes the senses to be impaired and eventually damaged. Thus there is a suitable amount of stimulation that is conducive to the health and development of the human organism and that suitable amount must be determined by Sages; the senses on their own do not have the ability to do this. Self-cultivation for the Yangists therefore consists of nourishing one's inherent nature by strictly limiting sense stimulation to the appropriate degree needed to maintain health and vitality. One of their principal practices was to prevent the loss of one's finite supply of jing (essential vital energy), which is lost due to over-stimulation of the senses. The Yangists shared an understanding of how the human organism functioned with the thinkers of the ‘inner cultivation’ tradition and with early Chinese medical philosophers and practitioners who envisioned a body-mind complex made up of various systems of qi (vital energy). It is also worth noting that, in keeping with their dynamic concept of human nature, the Yangists included the senses' desire for sense objects in it and not the senses themselves, which would imply a static basis.
Implicit in the Yangist authors' inclusion of longevity within human nature is the understanding that the various systems of vital energy that constitute a living organism tend to function harmoniously if left unimpaired. Nurturing the nature by limiting the senses to their appropriate degree of stimulation and avoiding activities that would damage the organism involve assisting in this inherent tendency for harmony. Human beings, as well as all things in the world, cohere and function if undamaged; they do not fall apart. The individual microcosm, just as the universal macrocosm, is not random and chaotic. It functions according to certain basic laws and patterns. To understand them, and to live according to them, to understand the spontaneous tendencies of human nature and to nurture them by conscious choice, is the basis of the Yangist method of self-cultivation.
Given their concept of human nature and their resultant ideas about self-cultivation, and their emphasis on avoiding placing oneself in jeopardy for fame and profit, it is not surprising that the Yangists do not proffer an elaborate social and political philosophy. "The most genuine in the Way is for supporting one's own person ..." reads Zhuangzi 28, (‘Yielding the Throne’), "its left-overs are for running a state, its discards are for ruling the empire. Seen from this viewpoint, the achievements of emperors and kings are the left-over deeds of the sage, they are not the means by which he keeps his person whole and nurtures life." (Graham, p. 227) In chapter 29 of Zhuangzi (‘Robber Zhi’) we find the dictum: ‘If you can't look after yourself, you can't look after others.’ (Graham, p. 238) In the ‘Valuing Life’ essay of the Lüshi chunqiu, we read, "only those who would not impair their natures are able to be entrusted with ruling the empire" (Riegel/Knoblock p. 80, mod.). A very similar idea is expressed in chapter 13 of the Daode jing: "Hence he who values his body more than dominion over the empire can be entrusted with the empire." (Lau 1982, p. 19) This seems to imply that such a ruler would treat others as carefully as he treats himself, although the ethical implications of putting oneself first for government are never worked out in the surviving Yangist documents.
What we do find in the Yangist-oriented chapters of the Zhuangzi are many stories in which the concern for not impairing one's nature leads people to either resign the throne, or to never accept public office. The life of the recluse is commended, but the authors are sharply critical of those moralists who would rather kill themselves than participate in government. The Yangist political philosophy is clear: do not seek after fame, wealth, and power, all of which are far beyond your essential needs. Never do anything to impair your inherent tendency to live a long and fulfilling life. To know this is to differentiate the important from the unimportant, to understand, in the words of the ‘Giving Weight to the Self’ essay in Book 1 of the Lüshi chunqiu, ‘the essentials of our nature and destiny’ (xingming zhi qing) Riegel/Knoblock, pp. 67-68 mod.) Only those who can do this are truly fit to govern.
Structurally, the four Yangist-oriented chapters of the Zhuangzi are each unique. Chapter 28 is a collection of eighteen narratives, ten of which are found in slightly varying forms dispersed throughout the Lüshi chunqiu. Chapter 29 contains only three narratives, including the famous long one in which Robber Zhi berates Confucius, accusing him of practicing a way that ‘is a crazy obsession, a thing of deception, trickery, vanity, and falsehood [that] will not serve to keep the genuine in us intact...’(Graham, 239). Chapter 30 consists of one short narrative in which Zhuangzi demonstrates the inferiority of sword fighting. Chapter 31 contains a dialogue between Confucius and a hermit known as the ‘Old Fisherman,’ who teaches him that the art of self-cultivation lies in ‘guarding the genuine within you.’ He defines ‘the genuine’ as the spontaneous expression of emotions. This concept of ‘guarding the genuine’ resonates most closely with the central theme of the rest of the text, that of cultivating the flowing mode of cognition. However, there are virtually no mystical elements in these Yangist chapters and this both distinguishes them from the remainder of the Zhuangzi and prevents them from being classified as ‘Daoist.’ Yet in their discussion of human nature, their attacks on the Confucians and their praise of ancient primitive Utopias, they so much echo ideas from the Primitivist chapters that scholars such as Liu Xiaogan conclude they belong to the same intellectual tradition.