ZHUANGZI WAS NOT A DAOIST

Scholars like to point out that none of the so-called Daoist masters were Daoists. I would similarly assert that neither were they “masters”, but that’s a topic for another post. It was not until the Western Han historian Sima Tan (c. 165–110 BCE) organized the various strains of philosophy that emerged during the Warring States era (480-222 BCE) into “schools”. The daojia designates the School of Daoism. Zhuangzi wrote two hundred years prior to this ex facto classification.
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I have never had any real problem with this designation, and have seen the issue as yet another occasion for scholarship to get lost in minutiae rather than actually engaging with the philosophies themselves. There is, however, a serious problem that arises from this classification when the philosophies themselves are interpreted in the context of a larger understanding of “Daoism”. The philosophies lose their distinctiveness in being made to conform to what supposedly describes them all. This is glaringly the case in Livia Kohn’s Zhuangzi: Text and Context, yet another interpretation of Zhuangzi that ignores his radical departure from other so-called Daoists in making him part of a larger imagined and fabricated whole.
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One supposed solution to this problem is to understand daojia as a lineage, an evolving philosophy rather than a fixed school. This suggests that Daoism was improved over time. Fung Yu-lan (A Taoist Classic: Chuang-Tzu, p 117) makes this assertion. But this is again a means of dismissing the unique character of each philosophy in favor of a now fuller Daoism. This very need for a “perfected” view is itself indicative of a human inclination that Zhuangzi sought to overturn. Religious Daoism especially feels the need to “prove” itself through its lineage. Yet none of this has even a remote place in Zhuangzi’s philosophy though he is nonetheless subsumed into that lineage.
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Fung Yu-lan sometimes seems to discern the spirit of Zhuangzi’s philosophy, especially as it pertains to the ability to walk two roads at once, but then he undermines it by making him a “Daoist” and telling us that Daoism (and therefore Zhuangzi) “opposed” all human institutions as artificial and “despised” all knowledge (p 19). This is not the position of Zhuangzi.
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For this reason it seems necessary to declare that Zhuangzi was not a Daoist. His message is a radical departure from the already religiously inclined projects of his proto-Daoist contemporaries and cannot be subsumed in those that followed. He is not part of a Daoist lineage. He stands alone—not as a “great master”, but as a great non-master. And that means that worrying about any of this is to have missed the point of his philosophy.

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