Zhuangzi and the Butterfly Dream

Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu, “Master Zhuang”) was a late 4th century B.C. Daoist philosopher and is the pivotal figure in Classical Philosophical Daoism. It is also the name of a text attributed to him. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The Zhuangzi is a compilation of his and others’ writings at the pinnacle of the philosophically subtle Classical period in China (5th–3rd century B.C.). The period was marked by humanist and naturalist reflections on normativity shaped by the metaphor of a dào—a social or a natural path. Traditional orthodoxy understood Zhuangzi as an anti-rational, credulous, follower of a mystical Laozi. Centuries later, elements of Zhuangzi's naturalism, helped shape Chan Buddhism (Japanese Zen)—a distinctively Chinese, naturalist blend of Daoism and Buddhism with its emphasis on focused engagement in our everyday ways of life." [Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 17, 2014]

Christine Gross-Loh wrote in The Atlantic, Zhuangzi “taught that we should train ourselves to become “spontaneous” through daily living, rather than closing ourselves off through what we think of as rational decision-making. In the same way that one deliberately practices the piano in order to eventually play it effortlessly, through our everyday activities we train ourselves to become more open to experiences and phenomena so that eventually the right responses and decisions come spontaneously, without angst, from the heart-mind. [Source: Christine Gross-Loh, The Atlantic, October 8, 2013 /*\]

Chow Chung-yan wrote in the South China Morning Post, “While Confucius emphasises social virtues, harmonious order and hierarchy, Zhuangzi's works are far more existential and transcendental. His thinking is individual rather than collective, and his poetic writings have inspired generations of writers. In many ways, Zhuangzi is an artist philosopher in the same vein as Friedrich Nietzsche, deemed eccentric by the mainstream but loved by writers and artists. For millennia, Confucius was an honoured and revered sage, his teachings publicly embraced by emperors - who might not necessarily believe in them. Many rulers read Laozi for his ideas on the subtle interplay of opposite forces, although few would endorse his teachings in public. Zhuangzi's stress on individualism and transcendental freedom, however, made him a spiritual haven for intellectuals looking to escape omnipresent collectivism."Source: Chow Chung-yan, South China Morning Post, December 30, 2012]

Good Websites and Sources on Taoism: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Religion Facts Religion Facts Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Education plato.stanford.edu ; Taoist Texts Chinese Text Project ; Taoism chebucto.ns.ca ; Chad Hansen’s Chinese Philisophy hku.hk/philodep

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Zhuangzi; The Text

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The “Zhuangzi”is the most entertaining of all early Chinese texts. It combines a splendid philosophical intelligence with a brilliant literary imagination and humor. Although generally linked to the “Dao de jing” as the second of the two original Daoist texts, it may be that the “Zhuangzi”was the earlier of the two, and that the man whose ideas fill the book aligned himself with no established viewpoint. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Song edition of the Zhuangzi

“The tone of the “Zhuangzi”is very different from the obscurity of the “Dao de jing”, though the text is difficult enough to understand. The structure of the “Zhuangzi”is a series of loosely ordered anecdotes and brief essays. The tales are outlandish, and record straight-faced “facts” that no sane Classical reader could have ever mistaken for anything but intellectual playfulness. (though Western readers sometimes have trouble when they find a text of ancient philosophy so lighthearted). /+/

“If there is a central argument in the Zhuangzi, it is that the distinctions that human beings make among different things in the world are all illusory. The world as it is, the Dao, possesses no 1sort of boundaries, it is a unified whole. The fine lines that we draw as we give things names and use words to make claims about what is so and what is not – these distinctions simply blind us to what is really there. We become able to see only a human world, constructed from language, rather than the real world, which is pre-verbal, or at least prior to any assertions that create in our minds the false notion of a “that which is not.”, To lead us towards erasing these boundaries, the “Zhuangzi”makes us look at things differently. In Zhuangzi’s world vision, the impossible becomes possible, the moral becomes merely puffed up, the ugly becomes beautiful, and the distinction between death and life is erased.” /+/

“Most of the tales in the “Zhuangzi”are parables; that is, they are stories about small events or ideas with much greater implications...The “Zhuangzi”skillfully illustrates a “broad range of ideas and literary devices...The power of his writing to delight is so great that it is probably correct to say that much of the text’s later cultural influence was due to the fact that people simply enjoyed reading it. A genuine work of art itself, one great area of the “Zhuangzi”’s impact was upon traditional Chinese artistic practice. The “Zhuangzi”is also often seen as the ultimate source of the most distinctively Chinese school of Buddhist practice, Chan or Zen Buddhism, which emerged about 1000 years later. /+/

“Burton Watson has produced a full translation of the Zhuangzi that is readable and, for the most part, reliable: The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (NY: 1968). Unfortunately, as the title suggests, the available edition uses the older Wade-Giles transcription method. A judicious selection of chapters, originally published in 1964, has been updated in a 2003 pinyin edition: Zhuangzi: Basic Writings. A more daring and partial translation, much admired by scholars, is A.C. Graham’s, Chuang.tzu: The Seven Inner Chapters and Other Writings (London & Boston: 1981). Graham made such advances in our understanding of the critical second chapter of the text that his translation of that chapter entirely supersedes Watson’s. The translations in this reading draw on both these previous translators, as well as scholarly Chinese editions, especially those of Guo Qingfan ( Zhuangzi jishi, which has become a standard edition, collecting a number of previous commentaries) and Chen Guying ( Zhuangzi jinzhu jinyi).” /+/

Zhuangzi: The Man

Dr. Eno wrote: “Zhuangzi, who is supposed to have authored the book, probably lived during the fourth century, and may have come from the east of China – that is, if he ever lived at all. Although significant portions of the first seven chapters appear to have come from a single hand, and that may have been Zhuangzi’s, the book is clearly the product of multiple authorship, and Zhuangzi the person may have been a construct, as was likely in the case of Laozi. Nevertheless, in these pages we will treat Zhuangzi as the author of the entire text that bears his name. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“We feel certain that, unlike Laozi, Zhuangzi existed... His full name is recorded as Zhuang Zhou (“Jwahng Joe”)....From his book we know that he was by all measures the most creative of all early Chinese thinkers. No other philosopher approaches him in pure brilliance of thought, and no other Classical book of any kind compares with the literary originality of the “Zhuangzi”. Tales about Zhuangzi, some of which appear in his book and are presumably insertions by other authors, portray him as a hermit, living with his wife and perhaps one or two followers in a remote area of China. But so many of the tales in “Zhuangzi” are clearly meant to be fictional that we cannot be certain even of these facts. /+/

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ Zhuangzi (also called Zhuang Zhou) was an historically verifiable man who lived somewhere around 360-280 B.C. The long book that bears his name is a combination of material that represents his own thinking and of other writings incorporated by various compilers and editors. Like Confucius, Mencius, Han Fei and others, Zhuangzi lived during the time when the kings of the Zhou dynasty had little real power and the kingdom had disintegrated into feudal states that were constantly at war with each other in shifting patterns of alliances and enmities. During the Warring States period (480-221 B.C.), Zhuangzi and Laozi were not considered to be part of a single school of thought. Zhuangzi is more concerned with escaping from the world; Laozi, with cunning ways of ruling it. During the Han dynasty, both works’ concern with the Dao (the “Way” of Heaven) and their mystical understanding of that term inspired historians to lump them together under the single category of “Daoism.” The name stuck. Zhuangzi and Laozi are now forever linked as the two great progenitors of Daoist philosophy and religion. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]

There are numerous references and stories related to Zhuangzi in the “Zhuangzi.” One story — Zhuangzi Receives a Job Offer — reads: “Once, when Zhuangzi was fishing in the River Pu, the king of Chu sent two officials to appear before him and convey these words: “I would like to burden you with the administration of my realm.” Zhuangzi held on his fishing pole and, without looking round, he said, “I have heard that Chu possesses a sacred turtle, dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral temple. This turtle, now, would it prefer to be dead with its bones preserved and honored, or to be alive with its tail dragging in the mud?” “Alive with its tail dragging in the mud,” answered the two officials. “Then go away,” said Zhuangzi. “I mean to drag my tail in the mud!” /+/

Zhuangzi: The Philosophy

Dr. Eno wrote: “Zhuangzi’s chief rhetorical strategy is to undermine our ordinary notions of value by claiming a very radical form of value relativity, which he often demonstrates by means of closely observed events – only the events he analyzes so closely seem to take place in a world of Zhuangzi’s own imagination: a shamanic world of mysterious transformations which is, at best, a metaphorical ground for the human comedy. The opening story of the text, the tale of the Peng Bird, illustrates precisely the way that Zhuangzi makes his point through a mixture of nonsense, close reasoning, and alluring literary skill. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Zhuangzi believed along with Laozi that our human values are entirely dependent upon our human point of view..they don’t exist in Nature. But even more than that, Zhuangzi creates a world in his book in which we’re entirely unsure about the reality of anything. We never know when to take him seriously.” Zhuangzi wrote: "Where there is impossibility, there is possibility; and where there is possibility, there is impossibility. It is because there is right, that there is wrong; it is because there is wrong, there is right. Thereupon the self is also the other; the other is also the self."

“If there is a central argument in the Zhuangzi, it is that the distinctions that human beings make among different things in the world are all illusory. The world as it is, the Dao, possesses no sort of boundaries, it is a unified whole. The fine lines that we draw as we give things names and use words to make claims about what is so and what is not – these distinctions simply blind us to what is really there.We become able to see only a human world, constructed from language, rather than the real world, which is pre-verbal, or at least prior to any assertions that create in our minds the false notion of a “that which is not.”, To lead us towards erasing these boundaries, the “Zhuangzi”makes us look at things differently. In Zhuangzi’s vision of the world, the impossible becomes possible, the moral becomes merely puffed up, the ugly becomes beautiful, and finally, the distinction between death and life is erased. /+/

Zhuangzi texts

Content and Style of the Zhuangzi

Dr. Eno wrote: “The literary style of the “Zhuangzi” is unique, and the format of the text needs to be understood before you begin reading selections from it. Most of the chapters are a series of brief but rambling essays, which mix together statements that may be true with others that are absurd, and tales about real or imaginary figures. It is never a good idea to assume that when Zhuangzi states something as fact that he believes it to be true, or that he cares whether we believe it or not. He makes up facts all the time. It is also best to assume that every tale told in the Zhuangzi is fictional, that Zhuangzi knew that he had invented it, and that he did not expect anyone to believe his stories. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Every tale and story in the “Zhuangzi” has a philosophical point. Those points are the important elements of Zhuangzi’s book (for philosophers, at any rate; the book is famous as a literary masterpiece too). The world in which the events of the “Zhuangzi” occur is not the world in which we live. From its opening passage, which tells us about a ten-thousand mile long bird and what a cicada and dove have to say about it, we enter a world filled with fabulous beasts, imaginary plants, and flying immortals. The human population of Zhuangzi’s world is unusual as well. /+/

“His society is filled with sorcerers, hunchbacks, and mysterious hermits, talking rivers, swimmers who can dive down steep waterfalls without fear, and a butcher who carves up ox carcasses with the same pizzazz as a virtuoso violinist attacking a Bach sonata. Zhuangzi’s world is not the real world, is it a fantasy cartoon world that he uses as a dream ground to act out the issues of life without fear that the facts will get in the way. /+/

“One of the most interesting aspects of the “Zhuangzi” is that one of its chief characters is Confucius. Sometimes Confucius is pictured as a buffoon, a pompous fool despised by characters more in tune with Daoist ideas. But frequently Confucius acts as a spokesman for Zhuangzi’s point of view, and we are left to wonder whether this is just Zhuangzi’s way of taunting his Confucian intellectual adversaries or whether he did not, in fact, feel that his ideas shared certain features with those of Confucius.” /+/

Zhuangzi’s Illusory World and Relativism

Dr. Eno wrote: “The “Zhuangzi” is a big book, about the same size as the “Xunzi”. But it is far more diverse and disorganized than the “Xunzi” and its major ideas much harder to summarize... Zhuangzi’s chief strategy as a writer seems to have been to undermine our ordinary notions of truth and value by claiming a very radical forms of fact and value relativity. For Zhuangzi, as for Laozi, all values that humans hold dear -- good and bad; beauty and ugliness -- are non-natural and do not really exist outside of our very arbitrary prejudices. But Zhuangzi goes farther. He attacks our belief that there are any firm facts in the world. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Walking on a Path in Spring by Song painter Ma Yuan

“According to Zhuangzi, the cosmos is in itself an undivided whole, a single thing without division of which we are a part. The only true “fact” is the dynamic action of this cosmic system as a whole. Once, in the distant past, human beings saw the world as a whole and themselves as a part of this whole, without any division between themselves and the surrounding context of Nature. But since the invention of words and language, human beings have come to use language to say things about the world, and this has had the effect of cutting up the world in our eyes. When humans invent a name, suddenly the thing named appears to stand apart from the rest of the world, distinguished by the contours of its name definition. In time, our perception of the world has degenerate from a holistic grasping of it as a single system, to a perception of a space filled with individual items, each having a name. Every time we use language and assert something about the world, we reinforce this erroneous picture of the world. /+/

“We call this approach “relativism” because Zhuangzi’s basic claim is that what we take to be facts are only facts in relation to our distorted view of the world, and what we take to be good or bad things only appear to have positive and negative value because our mistaken beliefs lead us into arbitrary prejudices. The dynamic operation of the world-system as a whole is the Dao. The partition of the world into separate things is the outcome of non-natural, human language-based thinking. Zhuangzi believed that what we needed to do was learn how to bypass the illusory divided world that we have come to “see before our eyes,” but which does not exist, and recapture the unitary view of the universe of the Dao. Like Laozi, Zhuangzi does not detail any single practical path that can lead us to achieve so dramatic a change in perspective. But his book is filled with stories of people who seem to have made this shift, and some of these models offer interesting possibilities.

Characters from the Zhuangzi—and the Messages They Convey

Dr. Eno wrote: “One of the most well known of these stories is the tale of Cook Ding, a lowly butcher who has perfected carcass carving to a high art. In the “Zhuangzi” Cook Ding describes how the world appears to him when he practices his dance-like butchery: When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now -- now I meet it with my spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are.’ [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Confucius, a character in the Zhuangzi

Another artistic master who appears in the book is a hunchback who has perfected the fine art of catching cicadas on the end of a pole with sticky grease smeared on it, a skill he performs in a clearing deep in the woods. Zhuangzi composes the following description of the hunchback’s experience: I hold my body like a bent tree trunk and use my arm as an old dry limb. No matter how huge heaven and earth or how numerous the things of the world, I’m aware of nothing but cicada wings. These exemplars seem to have found a way to re-perceive experience through the mastery of certain types of skill, and this may be one route that Zhuangzi is suggesting to guide us towards the new world perspective that escapes the prison that language has built for us. In another section, Zhuangzi has Confucius formulate the following regimen, called “the fasting of the mind,” for his disciple Yan Hui: Make your will one. Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind. No, don’t listen with your mind, listen with your qi. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but qi is empty and waits on all things. The Dao gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind. /+/

“Confucius’s description seems to suggest some form of meditation practice, but the results look similar to the outcome of Cook Ding’s more athletic performance of ox-carving. These portraits of ways towards wisdom suggest that while Zhuangzi believes that our ideas about facts in the world are fundamentally distorted forms of knowledge, he does not hold a completely relativistic view of knowledge. Cook Ding and Zhuangzi’s Confucius do seem to have reached some level of wisdom, but it their knowledge seems to be of a very different kind from the knowledge people more ordinarily prize. There is no single Zhuangzi syllabus that can compare to the elaborate ritual syllabus that Confucius devised for his school. But Zhuangzi does seem different from Laozi in trying to give concrete hints about the path to his vision of perfected wisdom.” /+/

Themes in the Zhuangzi

Dr. Eno wrote: “Sometimes the playful humor of Zhuangzi’s writing and the cartoon-like simplicity of his tales hide the philosophical seriousness of his ideas. As his book twists its way through bizarre anecdotes and oddly phrased ruminations, Zhuangzi employs his central interest in picturing our knowledge and values as relative to explore a variety of interesting and important themes. Among these are the following: [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“1) Relative magnitudes in time and space: Zhuangzi uses the tale of the Peng Bird, which opens his book, to attack ordinary confidence in basic categories of dimension. He considers the different ways the world appears to very large and very small beings, and the different perspectives on life of short and long lived species. Ordinary human life exists in arbitrary dimensions of size and duration. Why should we believe that the human perspective has any intrinsic validity, and why should we not wonder whether we could experience the world from other standpoints. /+/

“2) The emptiness of words: Zhuangzi presents the most sophisticated analysis of the way language operates in all of Classical Chinese thought. In an extended and often dizzying series of arguments and prose experiments, Zhuangzi attempts to show not only the arbitrary way that words “slice up” the unity of the cosmos, but also the way our faith in words gradually undermines our sensitivity to lived experience. Several tales in the “Zhuangzi” claim that Zhuangzi was best friends with the most famous logician of the Classical period, a Mohist named Huizi. When the two are portrayed in philosophical debate, Zhuangzi always emerges victorious (unsurprising, it’s his book). The interplay between these two does alert us to the fact that though Zhuangzi is the foremost advocate of the view that words and argument can only distort and never lead to knowledge, he nevertheless argues this point, and with skills that only Xunzi among early Chinese thinkers can match. /+/

3) The imperative of self-preservation: The Daoist movement originally grew out of the impulse to escape from the dangers of Warring States society. Zhuangzi applies his concept of linking up with the Dao through skill mastery to picture the perfected social actor as the person who learns to dance towards self-preservation in every act, never allowing empty values such as loyalty, righteousness, or ren to distract him from his main task of evading the dangers of the political world. /+/

“4) The non-distinction between life and death: Despite his commitment to self-preservation in the context of dangerous times, Zhuangzi claims that the line human beings draw between life and death is a non-natural one, and there is no reason for us to cling to life or fear death. The Dao embraces all as one, and once we come to view who we are only in terms of our participation in the Great Dao, we discard the illusion that somehow participation as a live human being is somehow more important or more desirable than participation as a rotting corpse fertilizing the fields, or in any of the endless forms that we may emerge as thereafter.” /+/

Hui Shi

Hui Shi (often referred to as Huizi) was a contemporary of Zhuangzi. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “He probably developed his ideas late in the fourth century (his dates are sometimes given as c. 380-305). Most of our information on Hui Shi is derived from the final chapter of the “Zhuangzi”, which was appended to that work during the century following the reunification of China as a retrospective overview of Classical thinkers. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Hui Shi was famous for logical paradoxes. We know little about his life, but the general thrust of his paradoxes suggest that they were devised to support a type of monistic worldview that would have been most congenial to the Mohists. In this respect, his role would have been somewhat similar to that of the Greek thinker Zeno, whose paradoxes, many of which seem to have paralleled Hui Shi’s, were devised in the service of the monistic metaphysics of his teacher, Parmenides. /+/

“The 31 paradoxes that are associated with Hui Shi’s name are of particular interest because they show a concern with mathematical reasoning as well as with logic and language. The very first of the paradoxes, which are translated below, engages concepts of the infinite and the infinitesimal which we do not see on the philosophical agenda prior to Hui Shi’s time. Perhaps this is why the impact of Hui Shi was, in the end, itself infinitesimal. The philosophical enterprise on which he was engaged, like the Mohists’, in many ways related more closely to ancient Western agendas than to the enterprise of those with whom he was debating in China.” /+/

Paradoxes of Hui Shi

“The paradoxes of Hui Shi are 1) Ultimate greatness leaves nothing outside; it is called the Great Unity. Ultimate smallness leaves nothing inside; it is called the Small Unity.
2) What is without thickness cannot be piled up, but its size may extend over a thousand li. (A li is a measure of distance, about ⅓mile.), We can see in these first two citations a concern with concepts related to geography in building philosophical foundations: a linkage we discussed in the Greek thinker Zeno.
3) Heaven is as low as earth; mountains and lakes are level.5, The reasoning for this has been lost, and though one may imagine a number of possible lines of argument, this paradox joins a number of those below in having no definitive explication traced to Hui Shi. [Source: The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

4) The instant the sun is at its zenith it is declining. The instant a thing is born it is dying. We will see this referred to in the Daoist text Zhuangzi, as is also true of #7, 10, and 20 below.
5) Things may be alike in large ways and different in small ways: this is called the small likeness and difference.
The things of the world are in the end the same and in the end different: this is called the great likeness and difference.
6) The South has no end and has an end.
7) I go to Yue today and come there in the past.
Perhaps relying on a past.progressive tense for ‘come’, indistinguishable from present tense in Classical Chinese.
8) Interlocking rings may be separated.
9) I know the center of the world: it is north of Yen and south of Yue. Yen was the northernmost state at this time, Yue the southernmost.
10) Broadly love the things of the world; heaven and earth are one body. This group of ten is recorded as the most basic definitions and paradoxes of Hui Shi. The last serves as a climax or conclusion from those that came before, and is the principal basis for considering Hui Shi’s paradoxes to have been in the service of a Mohist agenda.

Hu Shi

11) Eggs have hair.
12) Chickens have three legs.
13) The city of Ying contains the world.
14) A hound may be taken as a sheep.
15) Horses lay eggs.
16) Frogs have tails.
17) Fire is not hot.
18) Mountains emit mouths.
19) The wheel does not touch the ground. This, like #25, and 30 below, seems to build upon Zeno-like concerns with the existential status of the infinitesimal point. If an ideal wheel is conceived as touching the ground at only one point, and that point is infinitesimally small, then its point of contact is indistinguishable from none.

20) The eye does not see.
21) The pointing finger does not reach, but reaches unbroken. ‘Pointing finger’ is also the term used to denote linguistically connoted ‘meaning’.
22) A turtle is longer than a snake.
23) The carpenter’s square is not square; a compass cannot make a circle.
24) The mortise does not surround the bit of a chisel.
25) The shadow of a flying bird has never yet moved.
26) The arrow flies fast, but there are times when it neither advances nor rests.
27) A puppy is not a dog.
28) A tan horse and a black ox make three.
29) A white dog is black.
30) An orphan colt never had a mother.
31 Take a stick one foot in length and cut off half of it every day: it will never be exhausted, even after ten thousand generations.

Zhuangzi’s Relevance to the Modern World

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh wrote in the Wall Street Journal: But how do you train your mind to stay open, you ask? Zhuangzi, another ancient Chinese philosopher, has the answer: Make a point of breaking out of your limited perspective every day. Live spontaneously at every moment. But don’t we do that already? We live in a culture that positively reveres spontaneity. We find predictability boring. We chafe at rules. We admire the free thinker, the person who dares to be different, the lone genius who dropped out of college on a whim and founded a startup. But spontaneity, for Zhuangzi, wasn’t about doing whatever you want whenever you want. What we call spontaneity, he would call the unfettered expression of desires, and there’s no way anyone can embrace that sort of a life all of the time. [Source: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh, Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2016 *^*]

“Zhuangzi embraced “trained spontaneity.” When you train yourself to play the piano or learn tennis, trying to reach a joyful place where you can play a Mozart sonata or gracefully arc a lob, you are following his advice. You are putting effort into reaching a moment when your mind does not get in the way. You are training yourself not to fall into the trap of seeing yourself through one fixed perspective. You are training yourself to spot the shifts that make for an expansive life.*^*

“Doing this doesn’t require formal mastery of an activity; it can happen in everyday life, too. Take a walk with someone very different from you: a toddler, your grandmother or even a dog. Notice that they experience the walk differently from you: The toddler stops to gaze at every rock; your grandmother, an avid gardener, names every flower she sees; the dog tunes into a world of scent. Realize that each of us moves through a narrow set of instincts. One of them has to do with how we define ourselves: This is what I’m good at, this is what I’m doing to build my life toward the future; these are my leisure activities, which I fit in on the weekends. *^*

“But there’s a reason that so many Nobel Prize winners are also musicians, artists, actors, dancers and writers, just as there’s a reason why Steve Jobs drew on his knowledge of calligraphy, which he’d studied in college, when he designed his iconic typography for the Apple computer. It isn’t that diverse activities, so unconnected from the primary work of scientists, help them to loosen up. It’s that a breadth of experiences and perspectives helps break them out of their pathways and see new connections and opportunities everywhere. With this kind of trained spontaneity, you become able to make connections so that you’re not even waiting for those breaks. In fact, you create the conditions in which they will happen. And you are no longer attempting to fit the diverse experiences you have into a definition of who you are. You are training yourself to see your life as a constant flow of possibilities.” *^*

Zhuangzi in Modern China

Chow Chung-yan wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Just as Confucius has been rehabilitated on the mainland, Zhuangzi is making a comeback in Chinese culture. Unlike the revival of Confucianism, which is fully backed by the government, the rediscovery of Zhuangzi is less trumpeted and more spontaneous. The reception of Zhuangzi has taken a drastic turn over the past century, his fate closely entwined with that of China. Ever since the Opium War, China had suffered a series of humiliating defeat at the hands of foreign powers. These calamities dealt not only financial and political death blows to the Qing dynasty, but also shocked Chinese civilisation to its core. Chinese intellectuals began to realise for the first time in history that the civilisation they were so proud of was lagging behind foreign powers they used to deem inferior. [Source: Chow Chung-yan, South China Morning Post, December 30, 2012 +++]

“The shock was so profound we can still feel its impact today. Following the Qing dynasty's demise, many Chinese intellectuals attacked traditional values and thinking - some advocated that only total westernisation could save and rejuvenate the country. Meanwhile, outside threats provided fertile ground for the growth of nationalism - arguably the most powerful force in shaping China's destiny. Such intellectual fermentation reached its climax during the May Fourth Movement in 1919. Suddenly, Zhuangzi's preaching sounded irrelevant, almost callous. Writer Lu Xun mercilessly criticised the philosopher, and other writers such as Guo Moruo, who once held him in high esteem, later publicly denounced him. It was not until the 1980s that the Chinese rediscovered their love for Zhuangzi as the mainland finally emerged from the mania of the Cultural Revolution and embraced the open-door policy. Individualism, freedom and transcendence beyond good and evil are back in vogue. Hence, Zhuangzi has become popular again. “ +++

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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