Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Many people consider Zhuangzi, the great Daoism philosopher, as an utterly free but cold person. This is largely because of his claim of wuqing. Yet to understand Zhuangzi’s wuqing simply as “without feelings, emotions or passions” is superficial and it’s far from his true intent. Zhuangzi, as I understand him, also has feelings about human life, but he is alert to the possible harm qing could do to his body, which is given by tian, therefore, he tries to use li () to free himself from it.

One reason account for Zhuangzi’s content of wuqing is that you (being, existing) and wu (non-being, non-existing), sheng (living) and si (dead) are the same; they are bound together in an interchanging circle.

When Chuang Tzu's wife dies, Hui Tzu went to condole. He found the widower sitting on the ground, singing, with his legs spread out at a right angle, and beating time on a bowl.

'To live with your wife', exclaimed Hui Tzu, 'and see your eldest son grow up to be a man, and then not to shed a tear over her corpse, this would be bad enough. But to drum on a bowl, and sing; surely this is going too far.'

'Not at all', replied Chuang Tzu. 'When she died, I could not help being affected by her death. Soon, however, I remembered that she had already existed in a previous state before birth, without form, or even substance; that while in that unconditioned condition, substance was added to spirit; that this substance then assumed form; and that the next stage was birth. And now, by virtue of a further change, she is dead, passing from one phase to another like the sequence of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. And while she is thus lying asleep in Eternity, for me to go about weeping and wailing would be to proclaim myself ignorant of these natural laws. Therefore I refrain.' 1

Here Huishi represents the conventional perception of life and death, that life is something to be cherished and death is something to be mourned. On the contrary, Zhuangzi views death from a position higher than conventional emotions, appearing calm and rational. In Zhuangzi, the boundary between life and death doesn’t exist for they are forever transforming from one to another just like the sequence of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Many critics have opposed Zhuangzi on this point, for instance, in the Preface of The Orchid Pavilion, the great writer, XiZhi Wang writes: “Well I know it is a lie to say that life and death are the same thing, and that longevity and early death make no difference!” 2

In a passage where Zhuangzi mentions the forms of qing: “Joy and anger, sadness and pleasure, anticipation and regret, fickleness and fixedness, vehemence and indolence, eagerness and tardiness”, he says: “(all these moods), like music from an empty tube, or mushrooms from the warm moisture, day and night succeed to one another and come before us, and we do not know whence they sprout. Let us stop! Let us stop! Can we expect to find out suddenly how they are produced?” It seems that qing to Zhuangzi is vague and traceless. He goes on to say that “It might seem as if there would be a true Governor concerned in it, but we do not find any trace (of his presence and acting). That such an One could act so I believe; but we do not see His form. He has affections, but He has no form.” 3This true Governor who has affection but no form appears to me as natural alterations in moods and feelings.

But when it comes to the sage, Zhuangzi contents that “He has the bodily form of man, but not the passions and desires of (other) men” because “The sagely man lays no plans;-- of what use would wisdom be to him? He has no cutting and hacking to do;-- of what use would glue be to him? He has lost nothing;-- of what use would arts of intercourse be to him? He has no goods to dispose of;-- what need has he to play the merchant? (The want of) these four things are the nourishment of (his) Heavenly (nature); that nourishment is its Heavenly food. Since he receives this food from Heaven, what need has he for anything of man's (devising)?”4 And as a result of not having the feelings of a man, “right and wrong cannot get at him.”5 Here we could see the notion of “right and wrong” (shi/fei) is brought up the table. It seems that the virtue of being without feelings is that people are excluded from the troubles of shi/fei . This connection between shi/fei and qing is clearer stated in the following text:

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, "Can a man really be without feelings?"

Chuang Tzu: "Yes."

Hui Tzu: "But a man who has no feelings-how can you call him a man?"

Chuang Tzu: "The Way gave him a face; Heaven gave him a form - why can't you call him a man?"

Hui Tzu: "But if you've already called him a man, how can he be without feelings?"

Chuang Tzu: "That's not what I mean by feelings. When I talk about having no feelings, I mean that a man doesn't allow likes or dislikes to get in and do him harm. He just lets things be the way they are and doesn't try to help life along."

Hui Tzu: "If he doesn't try to help life along, then how can he keep himself alive?"

Chuang Tzu: "The Way gave him a face; Heaven gave him a form. He doesn't let likes or dislikes get in and do him harm. You, now - you treat your spirit like an outsider. You wear out your energy, leaning on a tree and moaning, slumping at your desk and dozing - Heaven picked out a body for you and you use it to gibber about `hard' and `white'!" 6

In this passage, Zhuangzi’s recognition of the ability of distinguish shi/fei as the unique character of human beings seems to resonate with the teachings of Mencius and Xunzi. As Xunzi says: “[A human being] is not as strong as the ox, nor as swift as the horse, and yet he makes the ox and the horse work for him. Why? Because he is able to organize himself in society and they are not. Why is he able to organize himself in society? Because he sets up hierarchical distinctions” 7However, Zhuangzi’s attitude towards this ability are almost exactly the opposite of these held by the other Confucian philosophers. In another word, while Mencius and Xunzi advocate this ability of mankind, saying man should exercise it to a full extent in order to be a complete human being, Zhuangzi preaches that it is exactly the ability one should do without. Because it seems that the other Confucian philosophers’ goal is to be make the full use of the capacities of human, to be as human as possible, the goal of Zhuangzi is to be a sage, which is as far from human and conventional life as possible. Just as Slingerland says, “Indeed, the tendency to fall under the sway of shi/fei distinctions seems to Zhuangzi to be a deeply rooted human disposition: he refers to it as the ‘essence’ (qing) of human beings (i.e. that which distinguishes human beings from other living beings), and describes it as something that the Daoist sage must learn to do without”.8

So according to Zhuangzi, how should we lead our lives? Zhuangzi hasn’t provide us with a straight forward answer, because to do so means he has to dictate some doctrine or principle upon people, telling them shi/fei, which runs into contrary with the Daoism principle that everything revolves in a cycle. So what Zhuangzi does is to give us a description of a person who leads a life he advocates. Zhuangzi says: “The True men of old knew nothing of the love of life or of the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned them no joy; the exit from it awakened no resistance. Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning bad been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted (their life) and rejoiced in it; they forgot (all fear of death), and returned (to their state before life).” And the result of this is that in those people there are “what is called the want of any mind to resist the Tâo, and of all attempts by means of the Human to assist the Heavenly”.9

This shows a picture of a truly free man, who has reached a state of which Zhuangzi calls xiao yao. Such a man is wuqing. Since the boundaries of men are created by his surroundings, by being wuqing, not caring about the surroundings, the True men can do anything he wants and are not bound to the conventional principles, or restricted by shi/fei. Wuqing means he has no desires, feelings, attitudes, or positions. He would not argue with people and he would not be argued against. He doesn’t care other people’s opinions to him, thus he could be truly independent in his conducting and thinking. This “advice seems unable to conform to the actual human situation. One may push a bit further in interpretation: If one follows Zhuangzi’s advice and abandons his existing desires, feelings, and ideas, he then no longer insists on any certain thing. As a consequence, he enters a field in which his current ideas, attitudes, and positions will lose control of him. Such a release will enable him to transform into a stage of life containing new ideas, attitudes, and positions.”10

It seems that Zhuangzi endorses a kind of disconnectedness with one’s surroundings and that he tents to cut off one’s relationships with the outside, however, it is not the case. The purpose of wuqing is not wuqing itself, but to avoid hurting one’s body which is given by the heaven and considered “true” (zhen). He contents that one should use li to reform qing and let qing follow li. Wangbi, a great scholar of the Wei Era, best describes this idea of wuqing: “conforms to subjects but not to be burdened by them” (應物而不纍於物).

Digging into the bottom of Zhuangzi’s idea of wuqing, we could see that it actually comes from the notion of “one and thousand as the same” (齐一万物)and “life and death as the same” (混同生死), which rooted in the Daoism philosophy as early as Laozi.

This reminds me of what is said in the Daodejing about the heaven and earth being wu qing ( or as later found in earlier text as bu ren ): “Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt with. The sages do not act from (any wish to be) benevolent; they deal with the people as the dogs of grass are dealt with.”11 As Roger Ames comments: “Repeatedly the Daodejing expresses a fascination for the way in which an indeterminate source spontaneously and inexhaustibly gives rise to the provisionally determinate phenomena that we experience around us… Rather than relying upon externally acquired and often ineffectual learning, we should look to this inner source.”12

1 Chuang Tzu. Chuang Tzu. Translated by Herbert A. Giles. First edition, 1889; second edition, 1923. Chapter 18

2 Yutang, L., 1998. The Importance of Living. City: Perennial Currents. Xizhi Wang, Translated from The Orchid Pavilion by Yutang Lin

3 James Legge, The Writings of Chuang Tzu, Julian Press (1959). Khî Wû Lun, or 'The Adjustment of Controversies.'

4 Ibid. Teh Khung Fû, or 'The Seal of Virtue Complete.'

5 Watson, Burton. Basic Writings of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. The Sign of Virtue Complete

6 Ibid. The Sign of Virtue Complete)

7 Hs ̈un Tzu: Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press. 1963. 45

8 Edward Slingerland. Effortless Action: Wu-wei As Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006. P286

9 James Legge, The Writings of Chuang Tzu, Julian Press (1959). Tâ Tsung Shih, or 'The Great and Most Honoured Master.'

10 Wenyu Xie, Approaching the Dao: From Lao Zi to Zhuang Zi, Journal of Chinese Philosophy Volume 27, Issue 4, Page 469-488, Dec 2000

11 Lao-Tse, The Tao Teh King [Daodejing], Or The Tao And Its Characteristics . Translated by James Legge. Chapter 5

12 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. Daodejing “Making This Life Significant”. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 2003. 25

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