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.


There is an Original Dao, the single and true guiding Dao that was practiced by the ancients. But it has been so obscured that now it is only represented in splinters through the philosophies of mere “nook and cranny scholars”. No one understands this Dao in its wholeness, except, presumably, the author of Tianxia.

One can easily imagine this particular scholar in attendance at the Jixia Academy surrounded by so many diverse opinions about the best guiding dao, attempting to synthesize and transcend the lot.

All these diverse opinions, all this sectarianism, all these denominations—surely there must be a single truth that unites them all. Let us then create the denomination that ends all denominations.

Or let us appeal to a religion that, like an amoeba, can absorb every other religion, though it co-opts and destroys them in the process. Let us destroy the many in favor of our particular version of the One.

All opinions about the nature of things are equal in this: They exclude. They draw a cognitive circle the outside of which must be forgotten. Something is always left out. And that, Zhuangzi tells us, by its very exclusion, becomes the most important thing of all.

“What is it?” asks Zhuangzi. “The sage hides it in her heart” and does not say. It cannot be said. It is contentless; it is emptiness—openness.

Is this the true Dao? No, it’s just another dao. But though dao-less-ness is impossible we are still free to choose the one we deem best contributes to our flourishing, and that, presumably, is one that harmonizes with our actual experience.

“Just be empty”, exhorts Zhuangzi—because experience suggests you already are.


The author of the Tianxia begins with a fundamental premise, namely that there is a true and knowable Dao. This is represented as “the ancient arts of the Dao”, “the total system of the ancients”. (33; Ziporyn, p 119)

If its inclusion in the Zhuangzi was because it was thought to be compatible with Zhuangzi’s radical vision, then “Daoism” as seen in Zhuangzi had already gone completely off the rails.

Of course it had. That vision is just too radical in its challenge to the “natural human inclinations”. We want something fixed and sure. We want something to believe in.

But this alone makes the Tianxia a valuable contribution to the Zhuangzi. We can take the book as a whole as representing Zhuangzi in contrast to nearly all the other contributors, rather than as a more or less coherent whole—as so many scholars seem to do. We better understand ideas through their differences, rather than through their sameness.

We do not, of course, want to forget that sameness. For they are in one sense absolutely equal—something not appreciated in the Tianxia.

This method of referring back to the Dao of the ancients is a very common device and one that Zhuangzi himself employed. The difference rests in how literally it is intended. In Zhuangzi, given his overall playful use of myth, historical fact, and argumentation, we can easily catch the intended meanings while forgetting their vehicle.

This is not the case with the Tianxia however. This is all a very serious business—getting the Dao right, returning to the Original Dao, now fragmented.

Still, this need not stop us from having our own playful romp through this unique presentation of so many classical philosophies.


The Tianxia is generally taken as an early product of the so-called School of Syncretism. This was an attempt to synthesize the many divergent philosophies of the Warring States Period. Confucianism, Mohism, Yin/Yang, Legalism and religious Daoism all had their contributions to make. Together they became what became known as Huang-Lao, a highly political (Legalist or Daoist), cosmologically speculative (Yin/Yang), and religious (Daoism as expressed in the Neiye Chapter of the Guanzi) movement guided by Confucian values. 

“Huang-Lao” designates a fusion of the Yellow Emperor/god, mythological founder of Chinese civilization, and Laozi, the purported founder of Daoism who was himself deified.

This was the historical trajectory of this movement, but we should not superimpose all these developments on the Tianxia itself; it only represents the movement in its nascent form.

Nevertheless, the reader will likely already be alerted to take sense in which the Tianxia represents a clear departure from the philosophy of Zhuangzi. This is not simply a difference in “teachings”, but a movement away from “no positive teachings” at all.

And this radical emptiness of content lies at the very heart of Zhuangzian philosophy. “Just be empty—nothing more.” 


Scholars debate the date for the writing of the Tianxia—as they do pretty much everything else. What we can say with some assurance is that it was written later than most all the other chapters of the Zhuangzi. It was likely written in the late Fourth or early Third Century BCE. This coincides with the dates of the Jixia Academy in the State of Qi (ca.315-285 BCE), and I think it is likely a product of that unique assemblage of philosophers.

It was the goal of many philosophers of that time of political upheaval to find a patron who would not only support them, but also implement their political philosophy. This they found in part at the Jixia Academy, although with so many aspirants to their lord’s ear, they likely must have instead debated philosophy among themselves.

Among the possible thousands who spent time there, many of the philosophers discussed in the Tianxia are believed to have been members of the Jixia Academy. It is even possible that Zhuangzi spent some time there.

Daoists, Confucians, Mohists, Naturalists (School of Yin/Yang), and Huang-Lao (Syncretists) were all in attendance.

One can only imagine the wonderful (and heated) debates and cross-fertilizations that took place there.