Yang Zhu (simplified Chinese: 杨朱; traditional Chinese: 楊朱; pinyin: Yáng Zhū; Wade–Giles: Yang Chu; 440–360 BC), also known as Yang Zi or Yangzi (Master Yang), was a Chinese philosopher during the Warring States period. An early ethical egoist alternative to Mohist and Confucian thought, Yang Zhu's surviving ideas appear primarily in the Chinese texts Huainanzi, Lüshi Chunqiu, Mengzi, and possibly the Liezi and Zhuangzi.
The philosophies attributed to Yang Zhu, as presented in Liezi, clash with the primarily Daoist influence of the rest of the work. Of particular note is his recognition of self-preservation (weiwo 為我), which has led him to be credited with "the discovery of the body". In comparison with other Chinese philosophical giants, Yang Zhu has recently faded into relative obscurity, but his influence in his own time was so widespread that Mencius (孟子) described his philosophies along with the antithetical ideas of Mozi (墨子) as "floods and wild animals that ravage the land" (Liu: 1967: 358).
Mencius's view of Yang Zhu
According to Mencius, “Yang’s principle is, ‘Each for himself’—which does not acknowledge the claims of the sovereign. Mo’s principle is, ‘To love all equally’—which does not acknowledge the peculiar affection due to a father. To acknowledge neither king nor father is to be in the state of the beast. If their principles are not stopped, and the principles of Confucius set forth, their perverse speaking will delude the people, and stop up the path of benevolence and righteousness” (Durant: 1963: 681).
Mencius criticized Yang Zhu as one “who would not pluck a hair from his body to benefit the world.” However, Yang Zhu emphasized that self-impairment, symbolized by the plucking of one’s hair, would in no way lead to others’ benefit. Although he would not toil for others, he would not harm them for personal gain or advantage, which should be avoided as external to one’s nature (Liu: 1967: 358).
Yang Zhu taught, “If everyone does not harm a single hair, and if everyone does not benefit the world, the world will be well governed of itself.” In other words, everyone should mind their own business, neither giving nor taking from others, and be content with what he has, and in that way one will be happy and also contribute to the welfare of the world (Liu: 1967: 358).
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Although his detractors present him as an hedonist, epicurean, and egoist, Yang Zhu was, according to contemporary sources, an early Daoist teacher identified with a new philosophical trend toward naturalism as the best means of preserving life in a decadent and turbulent world (Liu: 1967: 358).
All beings, thought Yang Zhu, have the survival instinct, but man, the highest of creatures, lacking the strength of animals, must rely on intelligence to survive rather than strength. He felt that strength was despicable when used against others (Liu: 1967: 358).
Yang Zhu directed his thought to attainment of the spiritual self through self-expression and finding contentment (Liu 1967: 358). Henri Maspero (1978:318) described Yang's philosophy as "a mixture of pessimism and fatalism". The Yang Zhu chapter of Liezi says:
One hundred years is the limit of a long life. Not one in a thousand ever attains it. Suppose there is one such person. Infancy and feeble old age take almost half of his time. Rest during sleep at night and what is wasted during the waking hours in the daytime take almost half of that. Pain and sickness, sorrow and suffering, death (of relatives) and worry and fear take almost half of the rest. In the ten and some years that is left, I reckon, there is not one moment in which we can be happy, at ease without worry. This being the case, what is life for? What pleasure is there? For beauty and abundance, that is all. For music and sex, that is all. But the desire for beauty and abundance cannot always be satisfied, and music and sex cannot always be enjoyed. Besides, we are prohibited by punishment and exhorted by rewards, pushed by fame and checked by law. We busily strive for the empty praise which is only temporary, and seek extra glory that would come after death. Being alone ourselves, we pay great care to what our ears hear and what our eyes see, and are much concerned with what is right or wrong for our bodies and minds. Thus we lose the great happiness of the present and cannot give ourselves free rein for a single moment. What is the difference between that and many chains and double prisons? (7, tr. Chan 1963:310)
Yang Zhu agreed with the search for happiness, but he felt one should not strive for life beyond one’s allotted span, nor should one unnecessarily shorten one’s life. Death is as natural as life, Yang Zhu felt, and therefore should be viewed with neither fear nor awe. Funeral ceremonies are of no worth to the deceased. “Dead people are not concerned whether their bodies are buried in coffins, cremated, dumped in water or in a ditch; nor whether the body is dressed in fine clothes. What matters most is that before death strikes one lives life to the fullest” (Liu: 1967: 358).
"Life is full of suffering, and its chief purpose is pleasure. There is no god and no after-life; men are the helpless puppets of the blind natural forces that made them, and that gave them their unchosen ancestry and their inalienable character. The wise man will accept this fate without complaint, but will not be fooled by all the nonsense of Confucius and Mozi about inherent virtue, universal love, and a good name: morality is a deception practised upon the simple by the clever; universal love is the delusion of children, who do not know the universal enmity that forms the law of life; and a good name is a posthumous bauble which the fools who paid so dearly for it cannot enjoy. In life the good suffer like the bad, and the wicked seem to enjoy themselves more keenly than the good” (Quoted by Durant: 1963:679).
- Chan, Wing-Tsit. 1963. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton University Press.
- Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, MJF Books 1963. ISBN 1-56731-012-5
- Graham, A.C., Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Open Court 1993). ISBN 0-8126-9087-7
- Liu Wu-Chi, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 8, Macmillan Inc. 1967.
- Maspero, Henri. 1978. China in Antiquity. Tr. by Frank A. Kierman Jr. The University of Massachusetts Press.