Sheng’an Zhang

Would Zhuangzi Agree with Himself?

            Dating back to the Warring States period, when Confucianism and Mohism were carrying out a heated debate about how to deal with current social and political issues, Zhuangzi was focusing on some fundamental problems. How to deal with the variety of objects? What is behind those complex argument? Responding to these questions, Zhuangzi developed Taoism through his mythical imagination, abstract discussion, and romantic narrative. However, can Zhuangzi’s grand and complex theory justify itself, thus constituting a perfect mansion of Taoism? From my perspective, the answer is absolutely no. Instead, not only do paradoxes exist in his theories, but he makes his arguments less convincing. If Zhuangzi proofread his own works, he would have felt shameful for the disagreement of his theories. He shows different attitudes towards the distinctions of things in different chapters. Meanwhile, although his doubt on the foundation of knowledge eliminates certainty, treating all the arguments as meaningless weakens his own credibility over other schools at that time. I hope Zhuangzi’s paradoxes can help develop a better understanding of how to address the distinction between philosophical ideas and real practice.

            To begin with, it is an important feature of Zhuangzi that he is critical about others’ judgement on objects. In contrast, what he wants to emphasize is “relativism” that the variety of judging standards can cause different estimations (Zuangzhi). It is because of relativism that the effort to figure out distinctions becomes pale. In chapter 2 Discussions on Making Things Equal, when dealing with the distinction of objects, he summarizes those opposing characteristics as “this” and “that” (Zhuangzi, 10). He lists “birth”, “death”, “acceptability”, and “unacceptability” as examples of “this” and “that” (10); therefore, opposite properties of objects can be treated as “this” and “that”. Although they are opposite from each other, surprisingly, Zhuangzi claims, “everything has its ‘that’, [while] everything has its ‘this’” (10). He is implying that we rely on “this” and “that” because “‘that’ comes out of ‘this’, and ‘this’ depends on ‘that’—which is to say ‘this’ and ‘that’ give birth to each other (10). For example, without clarification of ugliness, how can beauty be defined? That is to say, the existence of the other side provides a comparison for the understanding of this side. It is through such a comparison that a complete recognition of objects is established. More importantly, there is no distinction between [this and that]” (Guo 162). That’s because “this” and “that” are relative. In other words, although “this” and “that” are opposite, “apparently opposing judgments can be harmonized when it is recognized that they are made from different perspectives” (Zuangzhi). What does this mean? Different choices of standards can lead to different conclusions. For example, although Mount Tai is undoubtedly high when viewed from the ground, that’s not the case if it is compared with Everest. That’s how reverence changes judgment. Since there is no concrete boundaries between those characteristics due to the variety of conditions, it is fruitless and unnecessary to distinguish big from small, a case of “this” and “that” (Shang 3).

            In this way, Zhuangzi manages to eliminate the very distinction between the seemingly opposing characteristics of objects, arguing the meaninglessness of figuring out the distinction. However, when it comes to the chapter one Free and Easy Wandering, his attitude demonstrates a paradox against his thoughts. On the contrary, he does emphasize the distinction of big and little, advocating the big aspect. In this chapter, the great Peng beats water to rise nine thousand miles and drives a whirlwind to its grand journey to the southern darkness (Zhuangzi 1). Meanwhile, Zhuangzi depicts two little creatures, a cicada and a little dove, who laugh at the meaninglessness of the journey (2). If Zhuangzi still denied the distinction mentioned above, he should have treated the big horizons of Peng and the little one of small creatures equally. But what is his real attitude? As Norden claims, “it seems clear that he finds fault with them […] not only for laughing at Peng, but for the limitations that prevent them from soaring like Peng (8-9). In latter reading, Zhuangzi shows his scorn for them by asking, “What do these two creatures understand?” He continues, “Little understanding cannot come up to great understanding [….] Such is the difference between big and little” (2). While his appreciation for Peng flows out of his poetic description of it, he nevertheless cries, “Isn’t it Pitiful” to criticize small creatures’ limited views (2). Here goes the paradox that although Zhuangzi advocates for the unification of different properties of objects, he cannot neglect them when met with the divergence of big and little. He still enshrines the broad horizons of big Peng and disdains the limited ones of small creatures. In brief, Zhuangzi in chapter one chooses to advocate for the big and belittle the small, where he makes a judgement disagreeing with his own theories in chapter two when put into practice (Shang 3).

Besides, Zhuangzi doesn’t stop at unifying objects. The title for chapter two in Chinese is Qi Wu Lun, where Qimeans equalize, Wu means object, and Lun means discussion. A common understanding is A Discussion on Making All Things Equal, which is considered to be a more comprehensive and explicit title (2). In other words, not only does Zhuangzi want to eliminate the difference between opposing properties of objects, but he also wants to treat opposing arguments and opinions as the same.

When equalizing discussions, Zhuangzi casts doubt on the foundations of common views. He argues that nobody can determine the victory of a debate because that guy also judges from personal views instead of something absolutely true (17). For him, the absolute objective base never exists, but arguments are always made from one’s own subjective perspectives, which causes the debate between true and false (Chen 3). For example, Confucianism’s foundation is humanity and rightness, emphasizing filial piety a lot, while Mohism focuses on universal love. Thus, “For Confucians, having greater concern for one’s own relatives than for total strangers is benevolent; for Mohists, it is unbenevolent” (Norden 5). Since every argument is made from subjective views, “every creature with exception considers itself right and the others wrong” (Guo 135). Therefore, Zhuangzi, never confined to the judgement of right and wrong, considers all arguments as nothing but results of personal perspectives. The debate of Confucianism and Mohism “refers[s] to attitudes particular individuals (or groups of individuals) have toward certain things” (Norden 5).

However, when Zhuangzi achieves his target of unifying all the arguments, he makes a logical paradox without recognizing it. While he is criticizing Confucianism and Mohism for making meaningless and equivalent arguments simply by referring to what others call right and wrong (10), he puts his own arguments and criticism at equal position with those he is criticizing: “He would have to acknowledge that his Taoist philosophy […] is no improvement over Confucianism after all, and that it is no less short-sighted than the logic-chopping of the Mohists (Zhuangzi). Just like in a debate competition, Zhuangzi was questioning Confucius and Mozi by claiming that they were making arguments totally from their own subjective viewpoints. Under this circumstance, Confucius and Mozi wouldn’t hesitate to ask him back: That’s because Zhuangzi had already denied the everlasting, objective, and absolute foundation for arguments by claiming that “speech has no constancy” (13). As a result, his own arguments can also come from nothing but his own subjective perception, so his wisdom is no better than that of Confucius or Mozi. In a nutshell, although Zhuangzi pursues the unification of all discussions by questioning their foundation, he fails to distinguish his own viewpoints when dealing with practical arguments.

To conclude, while Zhuangzi considers the struggle to figure out the distinction of objects to be meaningless, he still advocates for the big and dismisses the small; while he treats all discussions equally, his own arguments also fall into that trap. All the paradoxes mentioned above originated from the contradiction of philosophical ideal and real practice. He wanted to achieve the state of Sage, but he couldn’t stop admiring the big horizons; he wanted to get rid of secular debates of other schools, but he still offered guides against the chaos and disorder in the Warring States. Despite all these failures, Zhuangzi did spare no efforts to achieve his ideal by making enlightening arguments. No doubt it is hard to reach the philosophical ideal due to the restrictions of reality, but what really matters is the consistent efforts to realize the ideal.


Works Cited

Chen, Shaoming. “‘CHINESE CHARACTERS’ [Three Meanings of Making Things Equal].” A History of Chinese Philosophy2 (2001): 40-46.

Coutinho, Steve. Zhuangzi. Bristol U. Accessed 21 April 2018.

Guo, Xiang. “Selections from Traditional Commentaries on the Inner Chapters.”. The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Brook Ziporyn. Indionapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2009.

Norden, Bryan. “Competing Interpretations of the Inner Chapters of the ‘Zhuangzi.’” Philosophy East and West46.2 (1996): 247-268.

Shang, Yongliang. “CHINESE CHARACTERS[Contraditory Zhuangzi and Zhuangzi’s Paradox].” Academic Journal of Suzhou Universityno. 1, 2001: 77-83.

Zhuangzi.The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.