ZHUANG ZI Biography - Educators, philosophers & public speakers


Biography » educators philosophers public speakers » zhuang zi


Zhuang Zi(pinyin), Chuang Tzu (W-G), or Chuang Tse (Chinese , literally meaning “Master Zhuang") was a famous philosopher in ancient China who lived around the 4th century BC during the Warring States Period, corresponding to the Hundred Schools of Thought philosophical summit of Chinese thought. He was from the Town of Meng ( Meng Chéng) in the State of Song (now Shangqiu, Henan). His given name was Zhou. He was also known as , Meng Official,Meng Zhuang and  Méng Elder.


The Taoist book Zhuangzi of the same name is a composite of writings from various sources. The traditional view is that Zhuang Zi himself wrote the first several chapters (the “inner” chapters) and his students and related thinkers were responsible for the other parts (the “outer” and “miscellaneous” chapters). Strong proof of direct authorship by Zhuang Zi of any of the text is difficult.


In general, Zhuang Zi’s philosophy is rather antinomian, arguing that our life is limited and things to know are unlimited. To use the limited to pursue the unlimited, he said, was foolish. Our language, cognition, etc. are all biased with our own perspective so we should be hesitant in concluding that our conclusions are equally right for all things (wanwu ). Zhuang Zi’s thought can also be considered a precursor of multiculturalism and pluralism of systems of value. His pluralism even leads him to doubt the basis of pragmatic arguments (that a course of action preserves our lives) since this presupposes that life is good and death bad. In the fourth section of “The Great Happiness” ( zhile, the 18th chapter of the book), Zhuang Zi expresses pity to a skull he sees lying at the side of the road. Zhuang Zi laments that the skull is now dead, but the skull retorts, “How do you know it’s bad to be dead?”


Another example points out that there is no universal standard of beauty. This is taken from the chapter “On Arranging Things", also called “Discussion of Setting Things Right” or, in Burton Watson’s translation, “Discussion on Making All Things Equal:


Mao Qiang and Li Ji [two beautiful courtesans] are what people consider beautiful, but if fish see them they will swim into the depths; if birds see them, they will fly away into the air; if deer see them, they will gallop away. Among these four, who knows what is rightly beautiful in the world?


However, this subjectivism is balanced with a kind of sensitive holism in the conclusion of the section called “What Fish Enjoy” . The names have been changed to pinyin romanization for consistency:
Zhuang Zi and Hui Zi were strolling along the dam of the Hao River when Zhuang Zi said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”


Hui Zi said, “You’re not a fish - how do you know what fish enjoy?”


Zhuang Zi said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

Hui Zi said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish - so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!” Zhuang Zi said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy - so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.”

Section XVII, Autumn Floods, tr. Burton Watson Another well-known part of the book is also found in the “On Arranging Things” chapter. The section is usually called “Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly” (Zhuang Zhuo mèng dié). The section relates that one night, Zhuang Zi dreamed that he was a carefree butterfly flying happily. After he woke up, he wondered how he could determine whether he was Zhuang Zi who had just finished dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who had just started dreaming he was Zhuang Zi. It hints at many questions in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of language and epistemology, such as Descartes’ famous question of how one knows one exists. The name of the passage has become a common Chinese idiom, and has spread into Western languages as well. Zhuang Zi’s philosophy was very influential on the development of Chinese Buddhism, especially Chan, and Zen which evolved out of Chan. The book containing it is widely regarded as both deeply insightful in thought and as an achievement of the Chinese poetical essay form. It uses Chinese language in complex, mutli-layered and often playful ways, and is notoriously difficult to translate. However, some sinologists have tried. A very popular translation is the one by Burton Watson. Other major translations have been done by Thomas Merton and A. C. Graham . Graham’s is, to date, the most academically thorough, but Watson’s is highly praised for its poetic style.