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Z is for Zhuangzi

The Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese text from the late 5th -3rd century BC, that is thought to have been written partly by Zhuang Zhou (who is described as one of China’s greatest thinkers) with later contributions from others inspired by his works at a time that was marked by humanist and naturalist reflections on normativity shaped by the metaphor of a dào—a social or a natural path.

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. 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’ (no’s 8-22) and the ‘miscellaneous chapters’ (no’s 23-33) are generally accepted to be by other authors responding to the inner chapters.

"We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence; like autumn and winter, they gradually pass away." Zhuangzi

We are both social and natural beings; Zhuangzi philosophy is like a bridge that tries to connect the two parts of our being. It encourages us to let go and be more spontaneous and playful in action and free ourselves from human restrictions and conventions so that nature’s wisdom can guide us and give us a greater perspective.

Zhuangzi philosophy “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 categories and evaluations.” *

It is not about rejecting conventions per se though, because that is wasteful and conventions can be useful since they allow coordination and communication. What we are encouraged to do is judge their usefulness from our present standpoint.

The Zhuangzi is written in a distinctive style and is full of stories 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. 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! Immediately challenging our notion of what ‘should’ constitute a serious and profound work!

Nevertheless, the Zhuangzi contains a unique set of principles and attitudes, including living one's life with natural spontaneity, uniting one's inner self with the '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 contrary nature of the work generates optimism that life can be freer than it currently is, if we were to act responsively in light of emergent circumstances.

"Men honour what lies within the sphere of their knowledge, but do not realize how dependent they are on what lies beyond it." Zhuangzi

Zhuang Zhou believed that happiness could be achieved through a higher understanding and acceptance of the spontaneous nature of things and that in order to develop oneself fully and flourish, one needed to tune into and learn to express one's innate ability. We unconsciously absorb knowledge and moral attitudes from others in the very process of growing up. Attitudes that seem natural and spontaneous really only reflect what has become second nature through our ‘guidance’ or ‘indoctrination’ from others or through observation of social norms. If we wish to be spontaneous then we have to be aware that as we have grown up everything is learned so in a sense we have to learn again to be spontaneous by becoming more child-like in our approach.

"For the wise man looks into space and he knows there is no limited dimensions." Zhuangzi

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 and the flow of nature and of the universe has no real limitations or demarcations i.e. by its’ nature and essence it can’t ever be fully understood or limited by description. This could perhaps be likened to flow state or love – there are so many different facets and it is near impossible to describe what is happening when you are working intuitively ‘in the zone’ and there are many types of manifestations of love. Zhuang Zhou also held that things should be allowed to follow their own course and that no situation should be valued over any other.

"All existing things are really one. We regard those that are beautiful and rare as valuable, and those that are ugly as foul and rotten The foul and rotten may come to be transformed into what is rare and valuable, and the rare and valuable into what is foul and rotten." Zhuangzi

Daoism proposes that there is a simple principle called the Tao meaning the way or the path which is at the centre of all existence. It is sometimes conceived of as a oneness that encapsulates all things yet hides beneath an appearance of multiplicity. The goal being to live spontaneously and flow naturally using the practice of wu wei (through effortless action or inaction) rather than contriving to order things and have our egos and wills at the fore

"Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centred by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate." Zhuangzi

The Zhuangzi played a significant role in the traditional Chinese scepticism toward rationalism. 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. Zhuang Zhou frequently turned logical arguments and reasoning upside-down to satirize and discredit them or carried 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.

Zhuangzi reflects in places on the perspective of ‘self,’ he sees the concept of ‘self’ as based on a contrast with ‘other.’ He suggests the deep motive for the “self–other” distinction is that we assume that things like pleasure, anger, sadness, joy, forethought, and regret are held together and governed by something. He observes that these “alternate day and night” and we should give up trying to find a “ruler” of them and merely accept that they are there

I feel that I have only just scratched the surface of The Zhuangzi but from reading, listening and watching various videos it appears that it is a work of encouragement for us to live life more spontaneously and playfully rather than being constrained by what we should, ought or are expected to do or think should happen.

Zhuangzi is about getting comfortable with not knowing and accepting you can’t control everything. It teaches us to embrace uncertainty, challenge assumptions, judgments etc develop a sceptical attitude towards knowledge that we have learned along the way and live more intuitively with acceptance of what is rather than what ought to be or should be going on ie going with the flow rather than struggling against it and fighting to keep control, ‘normality’ or a status quo.

*“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.”

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