Song Xing saw personal transformation as the means to the transformation of society. Though this differs radically from those who turned it around and said that society (government) must transform the individual (Xunzi who believed humans to be essentially “warped” and in need of “straightening boards” and the Legalists who advocated for harsh laws), the fundamental motivation and use of action (wei) was the same. Change is necessary, and we have to make it happen.

Zhuangzi saw the transformation of society as only incidental to personal transformation and personal transformation as only incidental to depending on nothing. Freedom from the need for change is the occasion for the most effective change.

As is so often the case, this kind of thinking brings us to a paradox. Or, we might call it an unsolvable self-contradiction. Isn’t the Daoist strategy of having-no-strategy still a strategy? If we take non-dependence as our goal, are we not depending on non-dependence?

These are only problems because we are not sages. We are still thinking inside the box. Why all this discussion about how to improve ourselves and the world? Why this covert need to justify the Daoist position vis-à-vis our moral inclinations? We are still dependent.

And so, to my thinking, shall we remain. This understanding is of immense importance. Seeking non-dependence we further our dependence. What are we to do? Live the contradiction. Be imperfect and enjoy being so. There’s some approximating non-dependence in that.

Zen faces a similar conundrum. Meditation will not make one a buddha, but one cannot become a buddha without meditation. The difference, it seems to me, is that Zen believes one can somehow “arrive”, and this can lead to a Mozi-like “disciplining oneself as if with ropes and cords.”

Whatever turns your crank. It all amounts to the same thing in the end, does it not?

But what of those who claim they have “arrived”? I don’t believe. Why should I?

Why this experience rather than another? Why this god instead of that one? Why this claimant rather than his counter-claimant? Well, because any belief is believed to be better than “drift and doubt”. This, no doubt, explains my belief in “drift and doubt”.


“Unbound by conventions, unadorned by possessions, undemanding of others, not hostile to the mob, purifying the mind with the aspiration that all in the world enjoy peace and security, not stopping until both oneself and others have enough to nourish themselves with . . .”

Song Xing’s Mohist sympathies are reflected in his overt concern for the material betterment of the human world. There will be a clear shift in the author’s description of the aspects of his Dao reflected in the more “Daoist” philosophies as he understands them. These are far more concerned with personal transformation, than societal. Is this a fair assessment?

Superficially, it is. And looked at on this level it gives credence to the author’s primary thesis: that all these daos reflect but one sliver of the True Dao which includes both political action and personal transformation (“Inwardly a sage and outwardly a king.”)

On the other hand, this view seems to miss the paradoxical Daoist strategy of doing through non-doing, concern expressed by way of non-concern, and practically, the transformation of society through the transformation of the individual.

How best to rule the world mess? Leave it alone; let it transform of itself, and it will find its own harmony. But this will be a compromised harmony, a messy harmony, needless to say. It is only human, after all.

It’s like frying small fish—too much turning and they’ll end up a mush. (Laozi 60)

In the end, it’s the motivating impulse that’s different. But the Daoist strategy is very hard to articulate in as much as it consists of no-strategy. It doesn’t seek the transformation of society through personal transformation. It doesn’t seek personal transformation. In its own messiness, it seeks not to seek.

As previously mentioned, Chad Hansen sees Song Xing as a bridge between Mohism and Daoism, and this is seen in his goal of transforming society through personal transformation: “purifying the mind with the aspiration that all in the world enjoy peace and security”. But this is little different than the Confucian strategy of instilling Humanity in individuals in order to create a well-ordered society. Nor is it all that different from Mohism that took universal love (caring for all people equally) as its point of departure.

With the exceptions of Xunzi and the Legalists (Han Feizi) what we can say of classical Chinese philosophy generally is that it suggested that we “be the change”—transform ourselves in order to transform society. Daoism’s unique twist is that we be the change through “non-being the change”.


“Unbound by conventions, unadorned by possessions, undemanding of others, not hostile to the mob, purifying the mind with the aspiration that all in the world enjoy peace and security, not stopping until both oneself and others have enough to nourish themselves with”—these were some aspects of the ancient Art of the Dao that Song Xing and Yi Wen attempted to embody.

Nothing is known of Yi Wen beyond what is offered in the Tianxia, and little more is known of Song Xing. Zhuangzi makes use of him as an example of someone who had insight into the value of not depending on the opinions of others for one’s own self-esteem, though he failed to realize the value of not depending on even that. (1:7)

He is generally identified as mostly sympathetic with Mohism, and we can see clear similarities in the description of his aspirations above and those previously attributed to Mozi. There are, however, significant differences between them, and Song established his own “school”, as seen in his adoption of a special funny hat: “They wore caps in the shape of Mt Hua . . .” (p 121) Chad Hansen sees him as a bridge between Mohism and early Daoism (A Daoist Interpretation of Chinese Thought; p 332).

This can be seen in significant parallels between his thought and that of Zhuangzi, in particular his use of the metaphor of “separating pens” (pie yu) (A C Graham, Disputers of the Tao, p 96) to suggest our chronic habit of being bound to one particular point of view. This is the cause of much of our conflict with others, and has its worst expression as an impetus to war.

If we can understand how our mental processes necessarily divide up the world and separate us from the perspectives of others, we will be able to practice greater tolerance. We all dwell in our own self-imposed separating pens; and though we cannot escape them, we can at least attain another, higher point of view from which we can see them as the same and equal to all other similar pens. Imagine viewing a pig farm from above. Yes, my sty may be cleaner than some, but it is a sty nonetheless.

This, of course, is precisely the point of Zhuangzi’s perspectival relativism, though he suggests a mystical leap that takes it beyond mere intellectual ascent. Seeing that sense in which all opinions are the same, the sage “goes by the ‘rightness’” of the one presently before her. She lets oneness inform her not-oneness.


“This is indeed the best kind of disorder, but the worse kind of order.” (Ziporyn; p 120) Thus does the author of the Tianxia sum up Mozi’s political vision.

Whatever the best kind of order might be, it is merely utopian. “Utopia” means “no-place”. And that’s the sum of it.

This being the case, we might conclude that Mozi’s best kind of disorder is the best we can do, given that whatever we do will be some form of disorder. But no, even if we dismiss the utopian idea that there can be perfect order, we can still practically approximate it. There are better political daos than Mozi’s.

Eu-topias (“good places”) are most always situated in a fabled past, which is why they are really always just utopias. The present is generally regarded as unusually chaotic: “But the world is presently in great chaos.” (p 119) Things were better in the good old days. The future is thus often seen as an opportunity to return to the past. The idea of “progress”, a new and greater betterment, has largely taken over our modern vision of the future, however. When it isn’t dis-topian (a “bad place”).

When eu-topias are able to guide us even when understood as utopias, whether past or futuristic, they can be most useful. This parallels all the various imaginative visions of sagacity and enlightenment; taken as actually realizable, they are more likely to shackle than to free us. Taken as merely imaginative, they can guide without becoming burdensome.

Let’s conclude with a bit of Zhuangzian equalization. There is always some order in disorder, and some disorder in order. Furthermore, to order one thing is to disorder something else, and vice versa. Is there then really any order or disorder? There isn’t—and there is.

Where there isn’t, what is there? Just things being what and as they are—which is to say, just being happenings reflective of the Great Happening which we affirm as eu-topia. All is Well in the Great Mess. Yes. Thankfulness arises.

Where there is, we have work to do.


Mozi’s dao entailed “taking upon oneself all the troubles of the world” and this, according to the author of the Tianxia, was in agreement with “the ancient Arts of the Dao”. When it comes to socio-political ethics—how engaged we should be in furthering universal flourishing—nothing could be more all-embracing.

And yet, something doesn’t seem quite right here. And that is reflected in another so-called attribute of the Dao—disciplining oneself “as if with ropes and cords”.

We could say that there are two kinds of “troubles”, those that are inflicted upon us, and those which we inflict upon ourselves. Of the latter, there are many that are disconnected from the former—hypochondria might be a good example. Taking every “suspicious” symptom as a dread disease and psychologically dying a death of a thousand cuts is certainly troubling ourselves unnecessarily. Daoism offers its remedy to this kind of malady, but that doesn’t directly address the subject at hand.

“Troubles inflicted upon us”, in the context of Mozi’s dao, speaks to the vast multitude of injustices in the world. Starvation, poverty, exploitation, pre-mature death, the impacts of war, voicelessness—these are some of the troubles that Mozi took upon himself and sought to remedy. They are all injustices, because they are all unnecessary. Their existence evinces our collective lack of true and practical universal caring.

Does Daoism advocate for true and practical universal caring? No. It advocates for an experience of cosmic unity—a kind of cosmo-centrism—that issues in universal caring. The distinction may seem subtle, but the implications are vast. In a very real sense Daoism has no “ethics” at all, because doing what is “right” is understood as a secondary consequence of the flourishing of our own humanity. The end is putatively the same, but the motivational means are radically different—and this makes for significantly different results.

Mozi was strong on ethics, and consequentially his universal caring became tyrannical. (“Morality” inspires enforcement.) His pacifism resulted in his armies being among the most feared in China. (Mohists, being “pacifists”, would come to the defense of states deemed unlawfully attacked.) And his own self-flourishing was greatly diminished. Having taken all the world’s troubles upon himself, he himself was troubled. He took all the fun out of life.

Cosmo-centrism—an identification with both the “world under heaven” (Tianxai) and “heaven” itself (the great ambiguity)—moves us in two directions at once: We are instilled with a universal caring, and we are freed from the tyranny of all troubles—ours and the world’s.

Our self-flourishing issues in caring for the flourishing of the world—if it were otherwise, it would not be self-flourishing, but mere egoism.


“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)

From the perspective of Zhuangzian “Daoism” can we agree that these attributes are expressions of Dao?

Before answering this, it is worth noting that the usage of “the Dao” here fits well with Ziporyn’s translation as “the Course”. This Dao, however exalted, is not at all metaphysical, but simply a philosophy of life. It tells us how best to live, and we learn that by study, ideally at the feet of someone who has already learned it. It is, in effect, a course of study.

With the possible exception of “disciplining oneself as if with ropes and cords”, all these could be taken as attributes of Zhuangzi’s sage. But underlying them all is a sense of volitional activity that belies an altogether different spirit than we find in Daoism. For Daoism, the attributes of sagacity, no matter how they manifest, naturally arise without intention.

“To be doing this without knowing it, and not because you have defined it as right, is called ‘the Course’”. (2:23)

Clearly, this is only an ideal; in the real world some dialectic between purposed and unmediated activity is required. The point then is to engage in that dialectic.

In Mozi no such dialectic was in play and in consequence his “universal love” became tyrannical. It was enforced. After reciting a list of human activities Mozi rejected because they didn’t contribute to the universal good—singing, crying, making-merry—the author asks, “does he really have any fellow-feeling for them?” (p 120)

Nor did his dao allow him to love himself: “And to put it into practice personally certainly shows no love for oneself!” And his successors, “They thought self-torture was the greatest achievement.”

All this puts us in mind of present day fundamentalist religiosity. It is the prioritization of law over grace, negation over affirmation, “morality” over openness, judgment over kindness, self-negation over self-acceptance. Nor, frankly, are practitioners of supposedly more enlightened disciplines immune from such attitudes.

As long as we adhere to a “right” way, this is pretty much unavoidable. Zhuangzi’s solution? “Just go by the ‘rightness’ of the present ‘this’”.


“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: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mohism/.) 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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule.

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.