My spin on Zhuangzi

After years of ruminating on the philosophy of Zhuangzi I have finally published my spin. I say “spin” because it is, of course, but one possible interpretive take–the one that arises from my own personal experience and needs. Perhaps it might inspire you in the pursuit of your own.

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“To remain free from extravagance though born in a decadent age, not wasteful in the use of any of the ten thousand things, making no display in the observance of one’s delineated obligations, rigorously disciplining oneself as if with ropes and cords, and taking upon oneself all the troubles of the world: these were some aspects of the ancient Art of the Dao.” (33; p 119)

And these are the ones that Mozi (fl. ca. 430 BCE) hoped to actualize.

For all but those who study classical Chinese philosophy Mozi has been pretty much lost to historical awareness though in Zhuangzi’s time his philosophy was Confucianism’s greatest rival. I won’t venture to give a full account of Mohism—that is easily accessible for those interested. (I recommend: Only a few aspects of it will serve our purposes here.

From the point of view of Confucianism, one of the greatest challenges of Mohism came in its declaration that we should love (care for) all people equally. This led to a kind of austere political collectivism reminiscent of recent “communist” experiments.

Confucius, on the other hand, taught a rigidly hierarchical love (caring and deference) that began with one’s love for one’s parents and from there extended out into every aspect of familial and societal relations all the way up to the ruler. The younger were to respect and defer to the older, female to the male, peasants to their lords, lords to their overlords.

Though it was not given primacy, I think self-love was the true point of departure in this hierarchy of love. This is seen in Confucius’ “negative” expression of the Golden Rule:  Tsekung asked, “Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?” Confucius replied, “It is the word shu—reciprocity: Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” (Analects 15:23).

This in fact seems to be the intuitive backbone for nearly all ethics, and is seen in both Mozi (“If people regarded other people’s families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself.”) and Laozi (“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”). For an extensive list of such pronouncements see:

The actual expression of Confucius’ model of deferment was guaranteed through ritual, and in the case of many, especially funerary arrangements, these were quite extravagant and costly. Thus the Mohist advocacy for a utilitarian austerity that so rankled Confucians.


Two doctrines affirmed in the introductory comments by the author of the Tianxia suggest his essential agreement with Confucianism. The first is his embrace of the sage as “inwardly a sage and outwardly a king”, a common theme in Confucianism. This was an answer to the assumed Daoist quietism and the putative belief that a sage must remain aloof from the affairs of state. (This is exemplified in the likely apocryphal story of Zhuangzi’s dismissal of an offer to become a prime minister.) Where Daoism does have a sage-king, he remains non-coercive and instead rules by not-ruling—hardly an example of being “outwardly a king”.

Secondly, the author completely embraces the prime Confucian virtues of Benevolence (Humanity) and Responsibility and the six Confucian classics (mentioned by name) that are thought to teach them. His only concession to Daoist thought is to tell us that these virtues cannot be instilled by force of law, though even then they can have a laudable effect.

Moreover, though the ancient Dao has been splintered and obscured, there are still some in whom it remains more or less intact. Who are they? We are told only the regions from which they come—Zou (home of Mencius) and Lu (home of Confucius). (Ziporyn 118, note 3) Again, this extreme reticence bespeaks more an honoring of Confucians rather than their dismissal.

Both Mencius (372-289 BCE) and Xunzi (c.314-c.217 BCE) were residents at the Jixia Academy (ca 315-285 BCE). If, as I conjecture, the author of the Tianxia was also a later resident there, then he was familiar with the teachings of both, yet he purposely doesn’t mention them, probably for the reason given in the preceding post—Confucius is unassailable.

In the final analysis, what all this means in terms of the character of the author’s own philosophy is that he was at heart more a Confucian syncretist than a Daoist syncretist, as is most commonly believed. This helps us to understand and evaluate his critique of other philosophers.


Why did the author of the Tianxia omit any explicit reference to the most revered of historical sages, Confucius, or to his most important interpreters, Mencius and Xunzi? This glaring omission could only have been intentional and only two reasons seem plausible.

Some scholars have suggested that the author was such a committed “Daoist” that he felt Confucianism unworthy of inclusion. I (in agreement with Ziporyn, p 118, note 3) hold the opposite view—Confucius was too worthy for inclusion.

In the case of the first opinion, this does not really hold water since the critique of these philosophers provides the author an opportunity to tell us what the Dao is not as much as it is to tell us what it is. Huizi is included, though “he knew nothing of the Dao.” If the author was indeed anti-Confucian, this would have been a great opportunity to tell us why. Other “Daoist” chapters of the Zhuangzi make a point of ridiculing and diminishing Confucius.

The second explanation is much more consistent with the positions taken in and the demeanor of the text itself. With respect to the latter, this is a critique of these philosophers—they are all seen as in some way falling short of the Dao (with the exception of Zhuangzi, who is too ambiguous to be pinned down to an erroneous view). Confucius, on the other hand, is beyond reproach. It’s comparable to a theologian critiquing various interpretations of the teachings of Jesus—though he wouldn’t deign to critique those teachings themselves. Confucius is too worthy for inclusion in this critique.

Then there are the actual introductory comments which show a great affinity to and appreciation of Confucian values. We will consider these in the next post.


The True Dao has been lost in its wholeness, but inklings of it can still be seen in the many diverse daos of “nook and cranny scholars” even though they foolishly take their narrow and fragmented daos for the True Dao.

The difference between this and Zhuangzi’s view is profound, yet subtle. For Zhuangzi, there is no “True Dao”, no Ideal Form of which daos can be a conditional reflection. For him, Dao is the confluence of all daos no matter what their expression. As such, it is and can be everything and anything—it has no content in itself, but subsumes every content. It is empty and open. It is in effect Openness itself. It is all-embracing, excluding nothing.

The Dao of the author of the Tiantai can be spoken, even if we are currently failing to fully express it. Thus, in his inclusion of “Daoism” in his grand synthesis, he has completely nullified it. Of course, for Zhuangzi, all daos by their nature are nullifying and understanding this opens up to Dao. When this dao nullifies itself all that’s left is an empty space—and openness.

The opening observation above forms the author’s introduction to what becomes a critique of the philosophies of his fellow academics and their principal antecedents. In most cases the author first tells us in what way their philosophies reflected the True Dao, and then proceeds to tell us how they fell short. The only exception is the “Logician” Huizi, who is dismissed as a self-absorbed egoist who knew nothing of the Dao. (So let’s include him especially!)

We will explore both the attributes of the Dao that these worthies imperfectly reflect and the daos themselves as understood by the author. These provide an opportunity to better understand Zhuangzi by means of their sameness and difference.


Somewhat ironically, the recitation of the wonderful attributes of the Dao can become a bit monotonous and tedious, but we will make the effort nonetheless.

But first, we will look at one especially curious and important omission in this parade of philosophers: Confucius and his interpreters Mencius and Xunzi.


There is an Original Dao, the single and true guiding Dao that was practiced by the ancients. But it has been so obscured that now it is only represented in splinters through the philosophies of mere “nook and cranny scholars”. No one understands this Dao in its wholeness, except, presumably, the author of Tianxia.

One can easily imagine this particular scholar in attendance at the Jixia Academy surrounded by so many diverse opinions about the best guiding dao, attempting to synthesize and transcend the lot.

All these diverse opinions, all this sectarianism, all these denominations—surely there must be a single truth that unites them all. Let us then create the denomination that ends all denominations.

Or let us appeal to a religion that, like an amoeba, can absorb every other religion, though it co-opts and destroys them in the process. Let us destroy the many in favor of our particular version of the One.

All opinions about the nature of things are equal in this: They exclude. They draw a cognitive circle the outside of which must be forgotten. Something is always left out. And that, Zhuangzi tells us, by its very exclusion, becomes the most important thing of all.

“What is it?” asks Zhuangzi. “The sage hides it in her heart” and does not say. It cannot be said. It is contentless; it is emptiness—openness.

Is this the true Dao? No, it’s just another dao. But though dao-less-ness is impossible we are still free to choose the one we deem best contributes to our flourishing, and that, presumably, is one that harmonizes with our actual experience.

“Just be empty”, exhorts Zhuangzi—because experience suggests you already are.


The author of the Tianxia begins with a fundamental premise, namely that there is a true and knowable Dao. This is represented as “the ancient arts of the Dao”, “the total system of the ancients”. (33; Ziporyn, p 119)

If its inclusion in the Zhuangzi was because it was thought to be compatible with Zhuangzi’s radical vision, then “Daoism” as seen in Zhuangzi had already gone completely off the rails.

Of course it had. That vision is just too radical in its challenge to the “natural human inclinations”. We want something fixed and sure. We want something to believe in.

But this alone makes the Tianxia a valuable contribution to the Zhuangzi. We can take the book as a whole as representing Zhuangzi in contrast to nearly all the other contributors, rather than as a more or less coherent whole—as so many scholars seem to do. We better understand ideas through their differences, rather than through their sameness.

We do not, of course, want to forget that sameness. For they are in one sense absolutely equal—something not appreciated in the Tianxia.

This method of referring back to the Dao of the ancients is a very common device and one that Zhuangzi himself employed. The difference rests in how literally it is intended. In Zhuangzi, given his overall playful use of myth, historical fact, and argumentation, we can easily catch the intended meanings while forgetting their vehicle.

This is not the case with the Tianxia however. This is all a very serious business—getting the Dao right, returning to the Original Dao, now fragmented.

Still, this need not stop us from having our own playful romp through this unique presentation of so many classical philosophies.


The Tianxia is generally taken as an early product of the so-called School of Syncretism. This was an attempt to synthesize the many divergent philosophies of the Warring States Period. Confucianism, Mohism, Yin/Yang, Legalism and religious Daoism all had their contributions to make. Together they became what became known as Huang-Lao, a highly political (Legalist or Daoist), cosmologically speculative (Yin/Yang), and religious (Daoism as expressed in the Neiye Chapter of the Guanzi) movement guided by Confucian values. 

“Huang-Lao” designates a fusion of the Yellow Emperor/god, mythological founder of Chinese civilization, and Laozi, the purported founder of Daoism who was himself deified.

This was the historical trajectory of this movement, but we should not superimpose all these developments on the Tianxia itself; it only represents the movement in its nascent form.

Nevertheless, the reader will likely already be alerted to take sense in which the Tianxia represents a clear departure from the philosophy of Zhuangzi. This is not simply a difference in “teachings”, but a movement away from “no positive teachings” at all.

And this radical emptiness of content lies at the very heart of Zhuangzian philosophy. “Just be empty—nothing more.” 


Scholars debate the date for the writing of the Tianxia—as they do pretty much everything else. What we can say with some assurance is that it was written later than most all the other chapters of the Zhuangzi. It was likely written in the late Fourth or early Third Century BCE. This coincides with the dates of the Jixia Academy in the State of Qi (ca.315-285 BCE), and I think it is likely a product of that unique assemblage of philosophers.

It was the goal of many philosophers of that time of political upheaval to find a patron who would not only support them, but also implement their political philosophy. This they found in part at the Jixia Academy, although with so many aspirants to their lord’s ear, they likely must have instead debated philosophy among themselves.

Among the possible thousands who spent time there, many of the philosophers discussed in the Tianxia are believed to have been members of the Jixia Academy. It is even possible that Zhuangzi spent some time there.

Daoists, Confucians, Mohists, Naturalists (School of Yin/Yang), and Huang-Lao (Syncretists) were all in attendance.

One can only imagine the wonderful (and heated) debates and cross-fertilizations that took place there.


The 33rd and final chapter of the Zhuangzi, “Tianxia” (“Under Heaven”), is the first extant summation of the philosophies of the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). As such it is an especially helpful window into not only the philosophies themselves, but also their synthesis into a new philosophy.

For the author of the Tianxia clearly had his own philosophical agenda and this guided his interpretation of all the others.

It is my modus operandi to interpret and critique the other chapters of the Zhuangzi in the light of the philosophy presented in the Inner Chapters (1–7), rather than the other way around. This is frequently not the case with more scholarly studies of Zhuangzi. Not only is his philosophy interpreted in the light of these other chapters, but also in the context of a wider understanding of “Daoism”. Even when contrary to the stated purpose, we often see the superimposition of external ideas onto Zhuangzi. Because he is taken as a “Daoist”, he must be expressing a Daoist point of view—even though it took form long after he wrote.

Because I take Zhuangzi’s philosophy as quite unique in a radical sense, this study of the Tianxia will be as much about contrast as about agreement.


“Far-flung and unfettered” are two adjectives Zhuangzi uses to describe wandering. They are mutually implying.

The first speaks to the boundlessness of the experience. Wandering is an excursion into vastness, limitlessness, emptiness, The Great Openness. These are “our homeland of not even anything” because they do not signify a something but merely a quality of experience. Openness is openness only when it remains open-ended, and that is possible only when it ultimately designates nothing in particular.

The second speaks to the quality of unfixedness so central to Zhuangzi’s vision of freedom. Most important is the experience of no-fixed-self. One identifies with Transformation rather than one’s immediate self-experience. One’s present self-identity becomes a lightly held moment in time to pleasurably enjoy the mysterious Totality.

This core unfixedness affects our interface with everything else. We are no longer bound by fixed truths—nothing has to be true for us to be able to wander. We are no longer bound by the hopes and fears associated with “benefit and harm”, but equally wander in whatever transpires. Life and death become a single string when there is no fixed-self to lose.

These are framed in negation, though they are actually all about affirmation. It’s all good. All is well. We might then also mention that to wander is to play, and that implies being playful. And that implies having a self that playfully plays. And this equates to the enjoyment of life—nothing more.

All this is just an imaginative exercise, needless to say. None of it is true. It’s just a wandering.