Categories: Chinese Culture | Taoism | Philosophers
Chuang Tzu or Chuang Tse (literally meaning "Master Zhuang") was a famous Chinese philosopher in ancient China who lived around the 4th century BC during the Warring States Period, corresponding to the Hundred Schools of Thought philosophical summit of Chinese thought. He was from the Town of Meng State of Song.
The Taoist book Chuang Tzu of the same name is a composite of writings from various sources. The traditional view is that Chuang Tzu himself wrote the first several chapters (the "inner" chapters) and his students and related thinkers were responsible for the other parts (the "outer" and "miscellaneous" chapters). Strong proof of direct authorship by Chuang Tzu of any of the text is difficult.
In general, Chuang Tzu's philosophy is rather antinomian, arguing that our life is limited and things to know are unlimited. To use the limited to pursue the unlimited, he said, was foolish. Our language, cognition, etc. are all biased with our own perspective so we should be hesitant in concluding that our conclusions are equally right for all things (wanwu). Chuang Tzu's thought can also be considered a precursor of multiculturalism and relativism|pluralism of systems of value. His pluralism even leads him to doubt the basis of pragmatic arguments (that a course of action preserves our lives) since this presupposes that life is good and death bad. In the fourth section of "The Great Happiness" (the 18th chapter of the book), Chuang Tzu expresses pity to a skull he sees lying at the side of the road. Chuang Tzu laments that the skull is now dead, but the skull retorts, "How do you know it's bad to be dead?"
Another example points out that there is no universal standard of beauty. This is taken from the chapter "On Arranging Things", also called "Discussion of Setting Things Right" or, in Burton Watson's translation, "Discussion on Making All Things Equal" (the second chapter of the book):
Mao Qiang and Li Ji [two beautiful courtesans] are what people consider beautiful, but if fish see them they will swim into the depths; if birds see them, they will fly away into the air; if deer see them, they will gallop away. Among these four, who knows what is rightly beautiful in the world?
However, this subjectivism is balanced with a kind of sensitive holism in the conclusion of the section called "What Fish Enjoy" . The names have been changed to pinyin romanization for consistency:
Chuang Tzu and Hui Zi were strolling along the dam of the Hao River when Chuang Tzu said, "See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That's what fish really enjoy!" Hui Zi said, "You're not a fish - how do you know what fish enjoy?" Chuang Tzu said, "You're not I, so how do you know I don't know what fish enjoy?" Hui Zi said, "I'm not you, so I certainly don't know what you know. On the other hand, you're certainly not a fish - so that still proves you don't know what fish enjoy!" Chuang Tzu said, "Let's go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy - so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao." Section XVII, Autumn Floods, tr. Burton Watson
Another well-known part of the book is also found in the "On Arranging Things" chapter. The section is usually called "Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly". The section relates that one night, Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a carefree butterfly flying happily. After he woke up, he wondered how he could determine whether he was Chuang Tzu who had just finished dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who had just started dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. It hints at many questions in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of language and epistemology, such as Descartes' famous question of how one knows one exists. The name of the passage has become a common Chinese idiom, and has spread into Western languages as well.
Chuang Tzu's philosophy was very influential on the development of Chinese Buddhism, especially Chan, and Zen which evolved out of Chan.
The book containing it is widely regarded as both deeply insightful in thought and as an achievement of the Chinese poetical essay form. It uses Chinese language in complex, mutli-layered and often playful ways, and is notoriously difficult to translate.
However, some sinologists have tried. A very popular translation is the one by Burton Watson. Other major translations have been done by Thomas Merton and A. C. Graham. Graham's is, to date, the most academically thorough, but Watson's is highly praised for its poetic style.
The book Chuang Tzu is a part of A.'.A.'.'s student curriculum.
- Wikipedia. (2004). Zhuang Zi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhuang_Zi). Retrieved Sept. 21, 2004.
- The Book Chuang Tzu (http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/gthursby/taoism/cz-list.htm)
- The 33 sections of the Chuang Tzu (http://users.compaqnet.be/cn111132/chuang-tzu/index.htm) translated by Burton Watson.