My Spin on Zhuangzi


You are invited to read the ruminations on the philosophy of Zhuangzi posted here and to offer your own observations on them and that philosophy generally.

I have published a second book (THE INDIFFERENCE OF BIRDS: Daily Reflections on the Philosophy of Zhuangzi) which is a compilation of posts which have appeared here. It can be found at:

or at Amazon:


My adaptation of Zhuangzi can be found at by tapping the image to the left or at Amazon:


THE SIMPLE WAY, my latest effort, can be found at:



7 thoughts on “My Spin on Zhuangzi”

  1. Hi Scott,

    David Klein here. I’m a Zhuangzi lover and budding amateur scholar currently perusing All Is Well in the Great Mess with some interest. I’d like to offer some constructive criticism of some of your assertions regarding the Zhuangzi, and see if we can have a fruitful discussion. I’m just going to tackle a bit of the Introduction for now. (Unfortunately I can’t cite specific page numbers from your book since I bought the Kindle edition; I’ll simply cite quotations from the book as “AIW.”) References to the Zhuangzi are from Burton Watson’s Complete Works of Chuang Tzu.

    1. What Difference Do The Facts Make?

    This is by far the strangest rhetorical stance you take in your book, to my mind. In your introduction you admit that you’ve written the book because you believe that you’ve “captured something of the spirit of Zhuangzi” (AIW, Intro); in other words, you believe that you have at least a partial grasp of the true intentions of the philosopher Zhuang Zhou, and know the true meaning of at least portions of the Zhuangzi text. Your implicit commitment is to discovering the true intentions of Zhuangzi. Yet you also claim that searching for answers to questions which would seem fundamental to discovering Zhuangzi’s true intentions—such as the question of whether Zhuangzi in fact wrote any of the Zhuangzi at all—is somehow irrelevant to the purpose of your book:

    “Some [scholars] question whether he wrote any of it. Such ‘facts’ are hotly debated by scholars, but they need not concern us. What difference does it make?” (AIW)

    I would argue that it makes all the difference. What’s more, despite your statement to the contrary, these scholarly questions of fact also clearly make quite a difference to you, since you then immediately make use of the work of A.C. Graham in explaining why your book only covers the Inner Chapters:

    “[In addition to the Inner Chapters], several widely divergent schools of thought are represented, one of which might be labeled ‘School of Zhuangzi.’ These latter, though they demonstrate deep sympathy with the philosophy of Zhuangzi, also frequently diverge from him…For this reason, this present work deals almost exclusively with the Inner Chapters” (AIW).

    So herein lies the problem: Why do you think that the perspective of scholars is irrelevant in some instances, but then follow their lead so closely in others? My best guess is that you don’t want to consider certain questions which scholars have raised, such as the possibility that Zhuang Zhou didn’t write any of the material in the Zhuangzi.

    2. The Inner Chapters Are Philosophically Coherent And Written By One Author

    In your introduction you also write this:

    “It is only for the sake of convenience that I take Zhuangzi to be the author of the first seven chapters, known as the Inner Chapters. These chapters, whoever their author, evince a unified vision and seem to be the work of one hand, and again for convenience sake, I take them as such.” (AIW)

    First of all, I doubt your assertion that you call Zhuangzi the author of the Inner Chapters simply “for the sake of convenience.” Consider the rest of the paragraph, which I quoted previously: you said that you excluded the Outer Chapters from the book despite your belief that some of them evince “deep sympathy with the philosophy of Zhuangzi” (AIW)… yet our only reference point for “the philosophy of Zhuangzi” is the Zhuangzi text itself. You are basically saying that the Inner Chapters are the only authentic material in the book, and you obviously believe Zhuangzi is their author because…well, why?

    As for your belief—by no means uncommon—that the Inner Chapters have a “unified vision” and are by one author, I’m going to have to take issue with that one too. Consider the following sets of juxtaposed passages:

    “In the Northern Darkness there is a fish and his name is K’un. The K’un is so huge I don’t know how many thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird whose name is P’eng. The back of the P’eng measures I don’t know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky.” (Zhuangzi 1, Watson 29)

    “Among The Questions of T’ang to Ch’i we find the same thing. In the bald and barren north, there is a dark sea, the Lake of Heaven. In it is a fish which is several thousand li across, and no one knows how long. His name is K’un. There is also a bird there, named P’eng, with a back like Mount T’ai and wings like clouds filling the sky.” (Zhuangzi 1, Watson 30-31, modified)


    “Forget the years, forget righteousness [yi]. Leap into the boundless and make it your home!” (Zhuangzi 2, Watson 49, modified)

    “In the world, there are two great decrees: one is fate and the other is righteousness [yi].” (Zhuangzi 4, Watson 59, modified)


    “His body decays, his heart follows it—can you deny that this is a great sorrow?” (Zhuangzi 2, Watson 38, modified)

    “The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death.” (Zhuangzi 6, Watson 85)


    “Heaven and earth were born side by side with me, and the ten thousand things and I are one.” (Zhuangzi 2, Watson 43, modified)

    “Since we are already one, how can there be words?” (Zhuangzi 2, Watson 43, modified)


    “Even so, there is a worry. Knowledge must wait for something before it can be applicable, and that which it waits for is never certain. How, then, can we know that what we call Heaven is not really man, and what we call man is not really Heaven?” (Zhuangzi 6, Watson 77, modified)

    “There must first be a True Man before there can be true knowledge. What do I mean by a True Man? The True Man of ancient times did not rebel against want, did not grow proud in plenty, and did not plan his affairs. A man like this could commit an error and not regret it, could meet with success and not make a show. A man like this could climb the high places and not be frightened, could enter the water and not get wet, could enter the fire and not get burned.” (Zhuangzi 6, Watson 77)

    The number of questions raised by this handful of passages alone is astounding;

    1. Is the author of the first story of P’eng and K’un really the same person who wrote the passage referring us to material which now survives in the current Liezi? (See Graham’s translation, p. 98)

    2. Are we supposed to simply “forget” the Confucian/Mohist ideal of righteousness, or is it one of the “great decrees” which we are bound to observe our entire lives?

    3. Why is death described as a “great tragedy” in chapter 2 and then described as a blessing in chapter 6?

    4. Why is the author’s claim in chapter 2 that he is “one with the ten thousand things” met with an immediate and sardonic response to the contrary?

    5. Why is the question about the agency of Heaven versus man immediately followed by a deadly serious and dogmatic rhapsody about the “True Man” and his abilities?

    I could go on, but it’s getting late! To sum up, what sort of “unified vision” can be wrested from all of these blatant contradictions and inconsistencies? Is it truly obvious that all this material is by a single hand? I don’t think so. Any comments or questions you might have for me would be greatly appreciated!


    1. Hello David, and thanks for your comments most of which I will try and answer below.
      1) Concerning “the spirit of Zhuangzi”. The spirit of Zhuangzi refers not so much to the objective content of his work as to the method and the non-verbal message contained therein (spill-over goblet words, perhaps). He is playful, purposely self-contradicting (self-negating, self-effacing), excessive, fantastic, tentative, tricky—ultimately ungraspable. The message is in this medium and thus does not easily reduce to clear and precise doctrines. What we take away is what we wish to take away. His desire is not to establish objective knowledge in us, but to free us from our need for such. But we will nonetheless have to present it as objective knowledge if we wish to speak of it. The important thing to remember is that it is our knowledge, our subjective take and thus neither necessarily Zhuangzi’s “true” intention (about which we cannot be sure) nor the same that others will rightfully take away.
      I would suggest that many of your concerns tend toward the logical and analytic, which certainly have their place, but are not by their nature in the spirit of Zhuangzi. Reason is great and wonderful, but when it does not “come to rest in what it does not know”, but rather insists that all “knowing” must bend to its will, it separates us from our larger more immediate and unmediated experience. It “adds to the process of life”. I see the Inner Chapters as one big koan; we know better than to try and “explain” a koan. The point is to experience it. Having done so, any attempt to describe that experience is necessarily going to fall short though it is legitimate to try and do so with that in mind. The “true meaning” of Zhuangzi is that we need to go beyond such a need to discover true meanings. We will thus necessarily find ourselves in continual contradictions.
      My (one-sided) relationship with scholars and scholarship is one of genuine thankfulness and frequent consternation. The latter comes from an apparent clinical interest in Daoism with absolutely no engagement. As I so often argue, you can’t “get it” unless you experience it. (Nor do you need to “get it right” to get it.) I sympathize with their conundrum; to start advocating for some experience is to stop doing scholarship. This is not helpful in receiving tenure or in gaining the respect of one’s peers. We can advocate for ideas because we are all on the same field of play, but to advocate from a position of immediate experience is to break the rules. That’s fine; I just think it would be helpful if they acknowledged their limitations in this regard. Instead they explain wandering, wuwei, no-self and the like for us, very much like Zhuangzi’s virgin girl who enters her marriage thinking she’s got sex all figured out. I use the example of Zen. Zen has so sufficiently intimidated scholars that none would be so silly as to explain satori for us. Scholars will tell us about Zen, but they won’t tell us what it is. They know better. A similar respect for Daoism might also be a good idea.
      2) In recent posts (As the Cookie Crumbles) I have tried to take yet one more step back from pretending that I am representing Daoism or Zhuangzi. My spin is my spin—something new (as much as anything can be new). If, as Zhuangzi seems to be saying, we would do best not to depend on anything, then it would be a mistake to depend on a belief that Zhuangzi wrote the Inner Chapters, that it is the work of one hand, or that its message is coherently one. If these things have to be true for us to proceed we would do best to not proceed. They do not; and “for convenience” I take them as such so that I can proceed. I say “Zhuangzi said” when I refer to the Inner Chapters rather than having to constantly qualify (a common practice even among scholars). I do not require that it be so. I can be wrong and it will still be right for me; I don’t need to get Zhuangzi right, nor do I need him to be a sage who himself got it right. I don’t depend on any of these things. To the analytic mind this is nonsense. I agree. However, to my thinking, the spirit of Zhuangzi says “forget Zhuangzi”, “forget getting the definitive meaning; find your own, and then forget that”. Thus can we wander free of the need to know something for sure. We begin, proceed, and end without a foundation—in “drift and doubt” just as before.
      I do take the Inner Chapters as presenting one coherent philosophy (even as that philosophy dismisses the idea of any real and final coherence). Perhaps I’m wrong. But if it’s my philosophy that I’m taking away, then it doesn’t matter if I’m wrong. This is not about Truth. If it were, it would not in any way be sympathetic with the philosophy of Zhuangzi. My agreement with scholars on some things and not others is not a deep contradiction. I do not throw reason out the window. The understanding that I have of the Inner Chapters finds that most all (if not all) of the other chapters deviate from them. Ziporyn is the strongest advocate for this position that I have read. It may very well be that there are additions to the Inner Chapters, but they can be absorbed into the larger context where “positive teachings” are not the goal in any case. I take the text as a raw resource and mine it for the helpful ore. Gold is where you find it, but it doesn’t hurt to know some geology. Scholarship is the geology; helpful but it can’t tell me were lies the gold, nor can it enrich me with the ore. Scholarship, like reason, is necessary and wonderful—only it has its limits.
      3) Most of your list of apparent contradictions between various passages can be understood as simply Zhuangzi not giving a damn about consistency. He’s at play. He’s play with us. He’s playing with your rationalism (if I may make bold to say). Maybe the contradiction is the message. Maybe he’s trying to get us to stop worrying about logical consistency and “forget words”. Again, I think the spirit of Zhuangzi is to be discovered in these apparent contradictions. Literalism, in any case, will not take us very far in the Zhuangzi. There are meanings in each of these statements, but they are not necessarily going to be discovered in logically consistency, because they are not about logic or principles or beliefs or doctrines. They are about a certain sensibility irreducible to words.
      I can’t really address all your examples of apparent contradictions here. One I will comment on, however, is that between the apparent allusion to Huizi’s “heaven and earth are one body” and Zhuangzi’s subsequent critique of statements about oneness. This is so very complicated with scholars disagreeing about whether Zhuangzi agrees with this statement or not. I think he does and exclaims it ecstatically. Then he shows how that can’t stand logically. He does this frequently—as if, as Graham says, he was thinking on his feet and backtracking. I think it’s more purposeful than that. He’s weaving back and forth, unpinning everything he has pinned, de-constructing everything he constructs. Experience does not reduce to words. He would never advocate for One as a statement of fact. It is something he might have experienced and found really cool and helpful—but that doesn’t make it True. He doesn’t need that it be true.
      The “contradiction” between his statement of the existential distress typical of the human experience (bemoaning death) and his remedy (embracing death) is no contradiction at all. Zhuangzi presumably experienced both (though my guess is that his remedy was largely something to which he was only approximating).
      Finally, I think most of these supposed contradictions arise from a desire to parse the text analytically. We might instead try to see where these contradictions can take us. Isn’t Daoism forever self-effacing? Why?
      I think that as you read more of ALL IS WELL many of these questions will be answered, though I doubt that they will satisfy you—they will simply be my own best effort.
      I’m going to stop here. Sorry I haven’t addressed everything, but that would be more than a “reply” could reasonably contain. I look forward to more discussion! Scott

  2. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for your generous reply! I’m sure that as I read more of your book I’ll get a better sense of your approach to the Zhuangzi, and I’ll do my best to put myself in your shoes as I read.

    As for my “rationalist” approach to the text, it comes from my time studying the Zhuangzi with Aaron Stalnaker, a wonderful professor at Indiana University where I went to college. I took his seminar course on the work which familiarized me with Zhuangzi scholarship. In the class I also repeatedly ran into my own tendency to believe things about the text and its putative author simply because I wanted them to be true. Having finally ironed most of that habit out of myself, I try to rely on hard textual evidence, sensitivity to context, and a careful consideration of all possibilities. I’ve even made some effort at studying Classical Chinese on my own so I’m less prone to accept translated passages at face value, a mistake I’ve made before.

    So I’m still learning, and there’s always room for improvement. I’ll definitely write back with some more observations once I finish your book. Thanks again for taking the time to respond, and hopefully this is just the beginning of an illuminating correspondence.


  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful exchange between Scott and David. The inspiration derived from the “Zhuangzi” by the western reader is truly amazing. This is something markedly absent among native students of classical Chinese thought.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *