A summation of what it means to be a “genuine pretender” can be had in a consideration of Zhuangzi’s pivotal conclusion to his opening argument: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name.” (1:8; Ziporyn)


Again, the historical/philosophical context for this declaration is of first importance. Zhuangzi was responding to self-improvement projects presently in vogue. Chief among these was Confucianism, a most laudable project of moral growth (merit). Everyone is a someone (a fixed identity), and every someone is defined by the roles in which she or he finds her- or himself. The proper performance of these roles (as handed down from the Zhou dynasty) constitutes moral rectitude when there is “dual correspondence” between performance (behavior) and intention. One does what is right not because it is right, but because one is right. Such a one is a
“steadfast knight” (consummate person), a sage with a name—a Moral Someone. (All this is as per Moeller and D’Ambrosio as I have understood them).


Another contemporary self-improvement project was Neidan, Inner Training, a proto-Daoist regime of meditation intended to fill oneself with qi, the vital energy that constitutes all things. The goal was to become a Spiritual Someone like Liezi who could “ride the wind” (1:8).  These are the roots of dao jiao, religious Daoism. (Though the authors allude to the relevance of this to Zhuangzi’s response, they do not develop it in any depth. To my knowledge, I alone make this case.)


Zhuangzi says that these (and other) achievements are indeed praiseworthy, but the point is to go beyond the desire for praise altogether. The point is to have no need to be someone at all, that is, to depend on nothing. He does not prescribe this, however; he simply asks a hypothetical question: “But suppose you were to chariot upon what is true both to Heaven and to earth, riding atop the back-and-forth of the six atmospheric breaths, so that your wandering could nowhere be brought to a halt. You would then be depending on—what?” (1:8) What would it be like to entertain this possibility?


The key to Zhuangzian wandering is to abandon the idea of being a fixed-self and thus every project of self-improvement. We may be someone, but who that someone presently is is of no great consequence. We can be anyone as necessary. Because we can be anyone, we can also be everyone. The “genuine pretender” is she who has no-fixed-identity and thus has no real investment in becoming any special someone. She can thus play every role required of her without taking any of it too seriously.


Is this possible? How could I know? Is there practical value in entertaining the possibility? I think so. But isn’t even this a project of self-improvement? How could it be otherwise? “Thus I say”, the Consummate Person wanders in her inability to wander, laughs at her own ceaseless attempts to achieve merit and fame.

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