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The Zhuangzi - Book Suggestion

The Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese text from the late 476–221 BC, that is attributed to a man named Zhuang Zhou who is thought to be one of China’s greatest thinkers. The Zhuangzi is one of the earliest texts to contribute to the philosophy that has come to be known as Daojia, or school of the Way.

Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi as he is often known, believed that the greatest of all human happiness could be achieved through a higher understanding and acceptance of the spontaneous nature of things. The Zhuangzi is full of fables and anecdotes which attempt to illustrate the falseness of human distinctions between good and bad, large and small, life and death, and human and nature.

The first seven chapters or ‘inner chapters’ of the Zhuangzi are historically considered the actual work of Zhuang Zhou while the remaining 26 chapters, known as the ‘outer chapters’ and ‘miscellaneous chapters’ are generally accepted to be the result of a process of ‘accretion and redaction’ by other authors responding to the inner chapters. Despite the uncertainty over the later chapters' authorship, scholars accept all of the Zhuangzi's 33 surviving chapters as compositions dating from the 4th to 2nd centuries BCE

Zhuang Zhou drew on the sayings of Laozi but took a broader perspective. He taught that enlightenment comes from the realization that everything is one, the Dao, but that the Dao has no limitations or demarcations and whatever can be known or said of the Dao is not the Dao. He held that things should be allowed to follow their own course and that no situation should be valued over any other.

“Much of the text espouses a holistic philosophy of life, encouraging disengagement from the artificialities of socialization, and cultivation of our natural “ancestral” potencies and skills, in order to live a simple and natural, but full and flourishing life. It is critical of our ordinary categorizations and evaluations, noting the multiplicity of different modes of understanding between different creatures, cultures, and philosophical schools, and the lack of an independent means of making a comparative evaluation. It advocates a mode of understanding that is not committed to a fixed system, but is fluid and flexible, and that maintains a provisional, pragmatic attitude towards the applicability of these categories and evaluations.”

The Zhuangzi contains stories and anecdotes that embody a unique set of principles and attitudes, including living one's life with natural spontaneity, uniting one's inner self with the cosmic "Way" (Dao), keeping oneself distant from politics and social obligations, accepting death as a natural transformation, showing appreciation and praise for things others view as useless or aimless, and stridently rejecting social values and conventional reasoning.

The Zhuangzi often appears strongly anti- rationalist. Whereas reason and logic became the hallmark of Ancient greek Philosophy, and then the entire Western philosophical tradition, Chinese philosophers preferred to rely on moral persuasion and intuition.The Zhuangzi played a significant role in the traditional Chinese skepticism toward rationalism, as Zhuang Zhou frequently turns logical arguments upside-down to satirize and discredit them. A master of language, Zhuang Zhou did not entirely abandon language and reason he sometimes engaged in logic and reasoning, but then turned it upside down or carried the arguments to absurdity to demonstrate the limitations of human knowledge and the rational world and to show that over-dependence on them could limit the flexibility of thought

Unlike other ancient Chinese works, whose allegories were usually based on historical legends and proverbs, most Zhuangzi stories seem to have been invented by Zhuang Zhou himself. The Zhuangzi is full of quirky and fantastic characters, such as the ‘Mad Stammerer’, the ‘Fancypants Scholar’, ‘Sir Plow’ and a man who fancies that his left arm will turn into a rooster, his right arm will turn into a crossbow, and his buttocks will become cartwheels!

I hope that this has given you a glimpse into the Zhuangzi and that you will enjoy the other posts – talks, videos, blogs etc this week

Further reading

(Excellent article via the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy)

The most accessible translations are found in ZHUANGZI, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (1968, reprinted 2002), and Basic Writings (1964, reissued 1996), both translated by BURTON WATSON

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