Very little is known of Shen Dao's life. He was probably born about 350BC in the state of Zhao. Around 300BC he traveled to the city of Linzi (modern Zibo, Shandong) where he was a member of the Jixia Academy. Shen probably left Linzi after its capture by the state of Yan in 285BC, and died roughly 10 years later.
Shen Dao's own original 42 essays have been lost. With only 7 fragments are still extant, he is known largely through short references and the writings of others, notably Han Fei and Zhuang Zi. A critical reconstruction of the lost book of Shenzi was made by Paul Thompson, and published in 1979 as The Shen Tzu Fragments.
In 2007, the Shanghai Museum published a collection of texts written on bamboo slips from the State of Chu dating to the Warring States period, including six bamboo slips with sayings of Shenzi. These are the only known examples of the text of Shenzi that are contemporaneous with its composition.
The most noteworthy aspect of Shen Dao's philosophy is the fact that it was a precursor of both Taoist and Legalist thought. While these two schools may seem quite opposed to each other in some regards, they both share a view of nature as a fundamentally amoral force, and by extension, reality as an arena without set moral imperative – a stance that differentiates both schools from Confucianism.
In Confucianism, power is legitimized through superior moral character and wisdom. According to Shen Dao, there is no natural basis for moral judgment and authority arises and is sustained due to the nature of actual circumstances, rather than in accordance with human or linguistically formulated moral values. We should abandon such judgments and simply flow on the natural course of the Great Way (Great Tao). Through this idea, it is possible to see a bridge between the mystical simplicity of Taoism and the cynical realism of Legalism.
Knechtges, David R. (2014). "Shenzi 慎子". In Knechtges, David R.; Chang, Taiping. Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature: A Reference Guide, Part Two. Leiden: Brill. pp. 871–874. ISBN978-90-04-19240-9.