Zhuangzi is clearly taking us for a ride. He’s having us on. Missing this is missing the spirit of his philosophy. Consider his use of Confucius. Sometimes he is the protagonist advocating for something suggestive of Zhuangzi’s philosophy; other times he’s the arch-Confucian, the voice of an imposed morality. There is method in this madness. There is a message in this medium. And part of that message is that we should not take any of it too seriously. Seriousness and literalism are the antithesis of the spirit of Zhuangzi, the spirit of play.

When we play, we take things both very seriously and unseriously at once. We agree to follow arbitrary rules and to give our all to win. We agree to pretend that it matters whether we win or lose. But we know that winning and losing are of no ultimate value at all. It’s how we play the game that counts. This is called good sportsmanship. The Zhuangzian sage is a good sportsperson; she takes life very seriously even while knowing it isn’t serious at all. And sages are extremely rare.

When Zhuangzi has a few of his made-up characters discuss the likely facticity of a fantastic sage who subsists on only wind and dew, and who rides on the backs of dragons, what is he up to? In agreement with the madman who proposed such a sage and his belief in him, the most sagacious interlocutor seems to suggest that this is entirely possible. Are we also meant to believe? Or are we simply meant to open our minds to the possibility of experiences beyond the conventional?

These are subject of Zhuangzi’s “big words”—“useless” from the point of view of “winning” the game of life. But if winning is the all-in-all, then life becomes so serious an affair that it is no fun at all. It is the useless understanding that life need not be taken so seriously that becomes the most useful thing of all.

When Zhuangzi speaks of qi, the supposed stuff of which all things are composed and the most rarefied form of which the sage accumulates so as to become “spiritual”, is he telling us he believes in any such thing or project? Or is he simply making use of the materials at hand to make another point altogether?

When we take Zhuangzi literally we make of him yet another overly serious advocate for fixed religious beliefs and projects. We destroy his message and rob him of the spirit of play.

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