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Zhuangzi (book)

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Author Zhuang Zhou
Original title 莊子
Country China
Language Classical Chinese
Genre Philosophy
Publication date
c. 3rd century BC
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 莊子
Simplified Chinese 庄子
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 南華真經
Simplified Chinese 南华真经
Literal meaning True Scripture of Southern Florescence
Japanese name
Kanji 荘子
Hiragana そうし or そうじ

The Zhuangzi ([ʈʂwɑ́ŋ tsɨ̀]; Chinese: 莊子; Wade–Giles: Chuang-tzu) is an ancient Chinese work from the late Warring States period (3rd century BC) which contains stories and anecdotes that exemplify the carefree nature of the ideal Daoist sage. Named for its traditional author, "Master Zhuang" (Zhuangzi), the Zhuangzi is one of the two foundational texts of Daoism, along with the Laozi (Dao De Jing).[1]

The Zhuangzi is composed of a large collection of anecdotes, allegories, parables, and fables, which are often humorous or irreverent in nature.[2] Its main themes are of spontaneity in action and of freedom from the human world and its conventions.[3] The fables and anecdotes in the text attempt to illustrate the falseness of human distinctions between good and bad, large and small, life and death, and human and nature. While other philosophers wrote of moral and personal duty, Zhuangzi promoted carefree wandering and becoming one with "the Way" (Dào 道) by following nature.

Though primarily known as a philosophical work, the Zhuangzi is regarded as one of the greatest literary works in all of Chinese history, and has been called "the most important pre-Qin text for the study of Chinese literature."[4] A masterpiece of both philosophical and literary skill, it has significantly influenced writers for more than 2000 years from the Han dynasty to the present.[4] Many major Chinese writers and poets in history—such as Sima Xiangru and Sima Qian during the Han dynasty, Ruan Ji and Tao Yuanming during the Six Dynasties, Li Bai during the Tang dynasty, and Su Shi and Lu You in the Song dynasty—were influenced by the Zhuangzi.[5]


Zhuangzi as an old man

The Zhuangzi is named for and attributed to Zhuang Zhou — "Master Zhuang" (Chinese: "Zhuangzi" 莊子) — a man who was born around 369 BC in the state of Song, near the borders of modern Henan and Shandong provinces, and died around 295 or 286 BC.[2][6][7] Almost nothing is concretely known of Zhuangzi's life. He is thought to have spent time in the southern state of Chu, as well as in Linzi, the capital of the state of Qi.[6] Sima Qian's monumental history Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji 史記) has a biography of Zhuangzi, but most of it seems to be drawn from anecdotes in the Zhuangzi itself.[8] East Asia scholar and Zhuangzi translator Burton Watson has noted, "Whoever Zhuang Zhou was, the writings attributed to him bear the stamp of a brilliant and original mind."[9]

Even though the text is generally treated as a single whole, scholars have recognized since at least the Song dynasty that some parts of the book could not have been written by Zhuangzi himself.[1] Since ancient times the first 7 chapters (the nèi piān 內篇 "inner chapters") have been considered to be the actual work of Zhuangzi, and most modern scholars agree with this view.[1] How much, if any, of the remaining 26 chapters (the wài piān 外篇 "outer chapters" and zá piān 雜篇 "miscellaneous chapters") was written by Zhuangzi has long been debated.[10] It is generally accepted that the middle and later Zhuangzi chapters are the result of a subsequent process of "accretion and redaction" by later authors "responding to the scintillating brilliance" of the inner chapters.[2] All of the 33 surviving chapters are accepted as compositions from the 4th to 2nd centuries BC.[11]

Details of the Zhuangzi's textual history prior to the Han dynasty are largely unknown. The Records of the Grand Historian, completed around 104 BC, refers to a 100,000-word Zhuangzi work and references several chapters that are still in the text.[12] The Book of Han (Han shu 漢書), finished in AD 111, lists a Zhuangzi in 52 chapters, which many scholars believe to be the original form of the work.[13] A number of different forms of the Zhuangzi survived into the Tang dynasty, but a shorter and more popular 33-chapter form of the book prepared by Guo Xiang around AD 300 is the source of all surviving editions.[13] In 742, an imperial proclamation from Emperor Xuanzong of Tang awarded the Zhuangzi the honorific title True Scripture of Southern Florescence (Nanhua zhenjing 南華真經), a name still used in certain formal contexts.[6]


Tang dynasty Zhuangzi manuscript preserved in Japan (1930s replica)

Portions of the Zhuangzi have been discovered among bamboo slip texts from Warring States and Han dynasty tombs, particularly at the Shuanggudui and Zhangjiashan Han bamboo texts sites.[10] One of the slips from the Guodian texts, which date to around 300 BC, contains what appears to be a short fragment from the "Ransacking Coffers" ("Qu qie" 胠篋) chapter.[10]

A large number of Zhuangzi fragments dating from the early Tang dynasty were discovered among the Dunhuang manuscripts in the early 20th century by Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot.[14] They collectively form about twelve chapters of Guo Xiang's version of the Zhuangzi, and are preserved mostly at the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.[15] Among the Japanese national treasures preserved in the Kōzan-ji temple in Kyoto is a Zhuangzi manuscript from the Muromachi period.[15] The manuscript has seven complete chapters from the "outer" and "miscellaneous" chapters, and is believed to be a close copy of an annotated edition written in the 7th century by Daoist master Cheng Xuanying (成玄英; fl. AD 630–660).[15]


Almost all of the 33 surviving Zhuangzi chapters contain fables and allegories.[16] Most Zhuangzi stories are fairly short and simple, such as "Lickety" and "Split" drilling seven holes in "Wonton" (chapter 7) or Zhuangzi being discovered sitting and beating on a basin after his wife dies (chapter 18), although a few are longer and more complex, like the story of Master Lie and the magus (chapter 14) and the account of the Yellow Emperor's music (chapter 14).[16] Unlike the other stories and allegories in other pre-Qin texts, the Zhuangzi is unique in that the allegories form the bulk of the text, rather than occasional features, and are always witty, emotional, and are not limited to reality.[16]

"Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly", Shibata Zeshin (1888)

Unlike other ancient Chinese works, whose allegories were usually based on historical legends and proverbs, most Zhuangzi stories seem to have been invented by Zhuangzi himself. Some are completely whimsical, such as the strange description of evolution from "misty spray" through a series of substances and insects to horses and humans (chapter 18), while a few other passages seem to be sheer playful nonsense which read like Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky".[17] The Zhuangzi is full of quirky and fantastic characters, such as "Mad Stammerer", "Fancypants Scholar", "Sir Plow", and a man who believes his left arm will turn into a rooster, his right arm will turn into a crossbow, and his buttocks will become cartwheels.[18]

A master of language, Zhuangzi sometimes engages in logic and reasoning, but then turns it upside down or carries the arguments to absurdity to demonstrate the limitations of human knowledge and the rational world.[18] Some of Zhuangzi's reasoning, such as his renowned argument with his philosopher friend Huizi (Master Hui) about the joy of fish (chapter 17), have been compared to the Socratic and Platonic dialogue traditions, and Huizi's paradoxes near the end of the book have been termed "strikingly like those of Zeno of Elea."[18]

"The Butterfly Dream"[edit]

The best known of all Zhuangzi stories – "Zhuang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly" ("Zhuāng Zhōu mèng dié" 莊周夢蝶) – appears at the end of the second chapter, "On the Equality of Things".

"Once upon a time, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting about happily enjoying himself. He did not know that he was Zhou. Suddenly he awoke, and was palpably Zhou. He did not know whether he was Zhou, who had dreamed of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhou. Now, there must be a difference between Zhou and the butterfly. This is called the transformation of things."

Zhuangzi, chapter 2[18]

The striking image of Zhuangzi wondering if he was a man who dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being a man is so well known that whole dramas have been written on its theme.[19] In it Zhuangzi "[plays] with the theme of transformation",[19] illustrating that "the distinction between waking and dreaming is another false dichotomy. If [one] distinguishes them, how can [one] tell if [one] is now dreaming or awake?"[20]

"The Death of Wonton"[edit]

Another well known Zhuangzi story – "The Death of Wonton" ("Hùndùn zhī sǐ" 渾沌之死) – illustrates the dangers Zhuangzi saw in going against the innate nature of things.[21]

"The emperor of the Southern Seas was Lickety, the emperor of the Northern Sea was Split, and the emperor of the Center was Wonton. Lickety and Split often met each other in the land of Wonton, and Wonton treated them very well. Wanting to repay Wonton's kindness, Lickety and Split said, 'All people have seven holes for seeing, hearing, eating, and breathing. Wonton alone lacks them. Let's try boring some holes for him.' So every day they bored one hole [in him], and on the seventh day Wonton died."

Zhuangzi, chapter 7[22]

Zhuangzi believed that the greatest of all human happiness could be achieved through a higher understanding of the nature of things, and that in order to develop oneself fully one needed to express one's innate ability.[19] In this anecdote, Zhuangzi humorously and absurdly uses "Wonton" – a name for both the Chinese conception of primordial chaos and, by physical analogy, wonton soup – to demonstrate what he believed were the disastrous consequences of going against things' innate natures.

"Zhuangzi's Wife Dies"[edit]

Another well-known Zhuangzi story – "Zhuangzi's Wife Dies" ("Zhuāngzǐ qī sǐ" 莊子妻死) – describes how Zhuangzi did not view death as something to be feared.

     "Zhuangzi's wife died. When Huizi went to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. 'You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,' said Huizi. 'It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing – this is going too far, isn't it?'
     Zhuangzi said, 'You're wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn't grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there's been another change and she's dead. It's just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.
     Now she's going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don't understand anything about fate. So I stopped.'"

Zhuangzi, chapter 18[23]

Zhuangzi seems to have viewed death as a natural process or transformation, where one gives up one form of existence and assumes another.[24] His writings teach that "the wise man or woman accepts death with equanimity and thereby achieves absolute happiness."[24]


The other major philosophical schools of ancient China, such as Confucianism, Legalism, and Mohism, were all concerned with concrete social, political, or ethical reforms designed to reform people and society and thereby alleviate the problems and suffering of the world.[25] However, Zhuangzi believed that the key to true happiness was to free oneself from the world and its standards through the Daoist principle of "inaction" (wúwéi 無為), action that is not based on any purposeful striving or motives for gain.[26] In one instance, Zhuangzi has a man named "Rufus Southglory" ("Nanrong Chu" 南榮趎) visit Laozi, who asks him: "Why have you come with such a host of people accompanying you?"[27] Southglory, who had come by himself, looked behind himself but saw no one, for Laozi actually meant the "host of people" to mean "the baggage of old ideas, the conventional concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, life and death, that he lugged about with him wherever he went."[28]

In order to illustrate the mindlessness and spontaneity he felt should characterize human action, Zhuangzi most frequently uses the analogy of craftsmen or artisans.[26] As Burton Watson writes, "the skilled woodcarver, the skilled butcher, the skilled swimmer does not ponder or ratiocinate on the course of action he should take; his skill has become so much a part of him that he merely acts instinctively and spontaneously and, without knowing why, achieves success."[26] The term "wandering" (yóu 遊) is used throughout the stories of the Zhuangzi to describe how an enlightened person "wanders through all of creation, enjoying its delights without ever becoming attached to any one part of it."[26]

The Zhuangzi vigorously opposes formal government, which Zhuangzi seems to have felt was problematic at its foundation "because of the opposition between man and nature."[29] The text tries to show that "as soon as government intervenes in natural affairs, it destroys all possibility of genuine happiness."[30] It is unclear if Zhuangzi's positions were "tantamount to anarchy, and he was by no means in favor of violence."[29] The political references in the Zhuangzi are more concerned with what government should not do rather than what kind of government should exist.[29]

Western scholars have long noticed that the Zhuangzi is often strongly anti-rationalist. Mohism, deriving from Zhuangzi's possible contemporary Mozi, was the most logically sophisticated school in ancient China. Whereas reason and logic became the hallmark of Greek philosophy and then the entire Western philosophical tradition, in China philosophers preferred to rely on moral persuasion and intuition.[3] The Zhuangzi played a significant role in the traditional Chinese skepticism toward rationalism, as Zhuangzi frequently turns logical arguments upside-down to satirize and discredit them. However, Zhuangzi did not entirely abandon language and reason, but "only wished to point out that overdependence on them could limit the flexibility of thought."[3]


The Zhuangzi is one of the most influential works in the history of Chinese literature. Jia Yi, in his 170 BC work "Fu on the Owl", the earliest definitively known fu rhapsody, sought consolation in Zhuangzi's words, which he does not reference by name but cites for one-sixth of the poem.[31] Virtually every major Chinese writer or poet in history, from Sima Xiangru and Sima Qian during the Han dynasty, Ruan Ji and Tao Yuanming during the Six Dynasties, Li Bai during the Tang dynasty, to Su Shi and Lu You in the Song dynasty were "deeply imbued with the ideas and artistry of the Zhuangzi."[5] Several explicitly stated their admiration of the Zhuangzi, such as in Ruan Ji's essay "Discourse on Summing Up the Zhuangzi" (Dá Zhuāng lùn 達莊論), Wang Anshi's essay "Discourse on the Zhuangzi" (Zhuāngzǐ lùn 莊子論), and Su Shi's essay "A Record of the Memorial Shrine of Master Zhuang" (Zhuāngzǐ cítáng jì 莊子祠堂記).[16]

Outside of China, however, the Zhuangzi lags far behind the Dao De Jing in general popularity, and is rarely known by non-scholars.[30] In the introduction to his 1994 translation of the Zhuangzi, the noted sinologist Victor H. Mair wrote: "I feel a sense of injustice that the Dao De Jing is so well known to my fellow citizens while the Zhuangzi is so thoroughly ignored, because I firmly believe that the latter is in every respect a superior work."[3]


"Inner chapters" (Nèi piān 內篇)
"Outer chapters" (Wài piān 外篇)
"Miscellaneous chapters" (Zá piān 雜篇)

Notable translations[edit]

  • Giles, Herbert (1889), Chuang Tzu, Mystic, Moralist and Social Reformer, London: Bernard Quaritch; 2nd edition, revised, Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh (1926), rpt. London: George Allen and Unwin (1961).
  • Legge, James (1891), The Texts of Taoism, in Sacred Books of the East, vols. XXXIX, XL, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fung, Yu-lan (1933), Chuang Tzu, a new selected translation with an exposition on the philosophy of Kuo Hsiang, Shanghai: Shang wu (only translates first 7 "inner" chapters).
  • Ware, James (1963), The sayings of Chuang Chou, New York: Mentor Classics.
  • Watson, Burton (1964), Chuang tzu: Basic Writings, New York: Columbia University Press; 2nd edition (1996); 3rd edition (2003) converted to pinyin.
  • – – – (1968), The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • (Japanese) Akatsuka, Kiyoshi 赤塚志 (1977), Sōshi 荘子 (Zhuangzi), in Zenshaku kanbun taikei 全釈漢文大系 (Fully Interpreted Chinese Literature Series), vols. 16-17, Tokyo: Shūeisha.
  • Graham, A.C. (1981), Chuang-tzu, The Seven Inner Chapters and Other Writings from the Book Chuang-tzu, London: George Allen and Unwin.
  • Translation notes published separately in 1982 as Chuang-tzu: textual notes to a partial translation, London: School of Oriental and African Studies.
  • Mair, Victor H. (1994), Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu, New York: Bantam Books; Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press (1997).
  • Ziporyn, Brook (2009), Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.


  1. ^ a b c Roth (1993), p. 56.
  2. ^ a b c Mair (1998), p. 21.
  3. ^ a b c d Mair (1994), p. xliii.
  4. ^ a b Mair (1998), p. 20.
  5. ^ a b Mair (1998), p. 22-23.
  6. ^ a b c Mair (1994), p. xxxi.
  7. ^ Knechtges (2014), p. 2314.
  8. ^ Mair (1994), p. xxxi-xxxiii.
  9. ^ Watson (2003): 3.
  10. ^ a b c Knechtges (2014), p. 2315.
  11. ^ Kern (2010), p. 105.
  12. ^ Roth (1993), p. 57.
  13. ^ a b Roth (1993), p. 58.
  14. ^ Roth (1993), p. 61-62.
  15. ^ a b c Roth (1993), p. 62.
  16. ^ a b c d Mair (1998), p. 23.
  17. ^ Mair (1998), p. 23-24.
  18. ^ a b c d Mair (1998), p. 24.
  19. ^ a b c Mair (1994), p. xl.
  20. ^ Graham (1981), p. 21-22.
  21. ^ Mair (1994), p. xxxix.
  22. ^ Mair (1994), p. 71.
  23. ^ Watson (2003 [1964]), p. 115.
  24. ^ a b Mair (1994), p. xxxiv.
  25. ^ Watson (2003 [1964]): 3.
  26. ^ a b c d Watson (2003 [1964]): 6.
  27. ^ Mair (1994), p. 228.
  28. ^ Watson (2003 [1964]): 4.
  29. ^ a b c Mair (1994), p. xli.
  30. ^ a b Mair (1994), p. xlii.
  31. ^ Mair (1998), p. 22.
  32. ^ Translations from Mair (1998): pp. 21-22.
Works Cited
  • Graham, A. C. (1981). Chuang-tzu, The Seven Inner Chapters and other writings from the book Chuang-tzu. London: George Allen and Unwin. ISBN 0-04-299013-0. 
  • Kern, Martin (2010). "Early Chinese literature, Beginnings through Western Han". In Owen, Stephen. The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, Volume I: To 1375. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–115. ISBN 978-0-521-85558-7. 
  • Knechtges, David R. (2014). "Zhuangzi 莊子". In Knechtges, David R.; Chang, Taiping. Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature: A Reference Guide, Part Four. Leiden: Brill. pp. 2314–23. ISBN 978-90-04-27217-0. 
  • Mair, Victor H. (1994). Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-37406-0.  (Google Books)
  • ——— (1998). "Chuang-tzu". In Nienhauser, William. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, Volume 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 20–26. ISBN 0-253-33456-X.  (Google Books)
  • ——— (2000). "The Zhuangzi and its Impact". In Kohn, Livia. Daoism Handbook. Leiden: Brill. pp. 30–52. ISBN 978-90-04-11208-7. 
  • Roth, H. D. (1993). "Chuang tzu 莊子". In Loewe, Michael. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China; Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California Berkeley. pp. 56–66. ISBN 1-55729-043-1. 
  • Watson, Burton (2003) [1964]. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231129599. 

External links[edit]