The Gleeful Iconoclasm of Zhuangzi


A Note on Spelling Conventions - Skip if you are not a language nerd:

Since westerners started studying Chinese, they have tried to get around the inadequacy of the Latin alphabet to render it. For years the most popular way was the “Wade-Giles System,” which uses various letter combinations as kludges to represent tones. It is a clever way to operate within the constraints of existing letters, but if you don’t know the code, you’re gonna say everything wrong.

More recently, the People’s Republic of China has introduced the pinyin system. The key feature of which is the use of diacritic marks to indicate tones, which is incredibly useful for ignorant westerners like me. With this, you can be much more straightforward in your use of letters, so even if you get the tones wrong, you’re at least getting the rest right. Because of this, I have decided to ditch the Wade-Giles spellings familiar from my youth and use pinyin without the diacritics (because they are a pain in the ass on an English keyboard).


I decided to take advantage of my vacation in China to read some Chinese philosophy in the land that gave it birth. Looking over my bookshelf, I noticed a book I had purchased for a college class - Zhuangzi. In the class we only read a tiny excerpt, and ever since it’s been on my “meaning to read” list. So I ended up pulling it out of my bag and digging in while floating through a landscape that looks exactly like a Chinese landscape painting. 

First off, let’s provide a bit of context. “Zhuangzi” can refer to both the philosopher (“Master Zhuang”) or to the work ascribed to him (but probably containing material added later by other people as well). Besides the semi-mythical Laozi and his Daodejing, Zhuangzi is the next most foundational work in Daoism. The philosopher was a rough contemporary of Confucius’s in the 4th century BCE. Both of these eminent gentlemen helped to define the explosion of thinking known as “The Hundred Schools of Thought”. In terms of influence on later philosophy, this time period is roughly analogous to the early Hellenisitic age in the west  - a flowering of different approaches that are still discussed, debated, and even followed today. This author of Zhuangzi used this context by telling stories featuring members of other schools of thought - sometimes showing them as fellow seekers of wisdom and other times mercilessly parodying them and their hang ups. 

One of the things that struck me in the book was the similarity of the core of the philosophy with Stoicism and Buddhism. Zhuangzi essentially argues that the world is constantly changing and the only way to not be perturbed by this is align yourself with that change, which is an expression of the universal Way (Dao). Despite some important differences, the core idea that we can’t control circumstances, but we can control how we react to them, will sound familiar to students of the two schools I mentioned. I will have to reread the Daodejing, but I don’t remember such a clear parallel there. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that such a useful and life-changing mental hack was independently discovered in multiple places. 

Which is by no means to say that Zhuangzi is simply a rehash of things you can find elsewhere. It is widely renowned for its imagery, poetry, and imaginative use of metaphor. Some of these struck me as simply bizarre, but many were rather beautiful. One of these poetic sections has become more famous in the west than the book that spawned it: Zhuangzi is the sage who dreamed he was a butterfly and then wondered if he were not a butterfly dreaming of being a man. Besides the imagery, the other ingredient in Zhuangzi’s secret sauce is humor, and there were several times where I would slowly smile or even chuckle as I realized something that I thought was “serious business” was actually the set up for an elaborate joke. When you put these two stylistic traits together, you get a very interesting effect: since you never know exactly where the author stands moment to moment, or even necessarily what he actually means, you have to think for yourself. You can neither buy everything he says uncritically nor dismiss him as someone you disagree with unconditionally. It’s a remarkably effective way to convey something experientially instead of didactically.

To demonstrate this dynamic produced by humor, metaphor, and active engagement, let me share my favorite example. Zhuangzi frequently praises the “useless” and denigrates the “useful.” One image he uses is a gigantic tree that has only been allowed to get so big because no part of it has any usefulness to humans - which would have gotten it cut down or plucked or such like. He similarly points out that useful people get put to work and sometimes even get killed doing that work, and so argues it’s good to be crippled and deformed. I was finding it hard to swallow the whole “useless is good, useful is bad” line of reasoning until one striking metaphor got me:

"A man has to understand the useless before you can talk to him about the useful. The earth is certainly vast and broad, though a man uses no more of it than the area he puts his feet on. If, however, you were to dig away all the earth from around his feet until you reached the Yellow Springs, then would the man still be able to make use of it?”

I had a koan-like flash of insight reading this about all of the other images I had been reading. If not for that moment, I might have written the whole work off as anti-rational nonsense. For you, the “click” might come somewhere else because of a different interaction of the imagery, humor, and your own thoughts.

Though I still find the Daodejing more relevant, Zhuangzi’s skepticism and anti-authoriatarianism was a welcome breath of fresh air in the sometimes puzzling field of Daoism, and gave me a wider understanding of the philosophy than I previously had. It also opened my mind to alternative ways to convey philosophical truths. If you have made previous forays into Chinese philosophy and found them dull or staid, perhaps you should give Zhuangzi a try.


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