Who Is Zhuangzi And What Did He Do?

Daoism, which is also known as Taoism, is one of the most influential religious philosophies in the history of China, and it has existed for over 2,000 years. It emphasizes living in harmony with the Dao/Tao, which is the universe and it advocates for humility and religious piety. One of the influential philosophers who advocated for Daoism during the Warring States Period was Zhuangzi. Read on to learn more about his philosophy, life, paradox, and his book.

Who is Zhuangzi in Daoism?

 Zhuang Zhou, who was popularly known as Zhuangzi and Chuang Tzu, was one of the influential philosophers who lived around the 4th Century BC and particularly the Warring States Period. Zhuangzi is recognized as the author of the book known by his name ‘Zhuangzi’, which is one of the foundational references of Daoism. He is considered the most significant and relevant early interpreters of the Daoism philosophy. According to most literary texts and scholars, his book is twice as comprehensive as the Daodejing, which was written by Laozi – the first and highly respected philosopher of the Taoist school of thought. Along with that, his teachings exerted an influence on the development of the Chinese Buddhism religion and his works impacted Chinese poetry and landscape painting.

Just like other ancient philosophers that lived during the Warring States Period, very little is known about his life and early years. According to Sima Qian, who was the Grand Historian of the Han Dynasty, Zhuangzi was a native of Meng state, and his personal name was Zhou. He was also a minor government official at Qiyuan, which was his home town. He lived and became influential during the reign of Prince Wei of Chu, who died in 327 BC.

He was a contemporary of an eminent Chinese scholar, known as Mencius. Supposedly, all of Zhunagz’s teachings and ideas were primarily drawn from the quotes and sayings of Laozi, but he had a much broader perspective and took the time to explain things at a much deeper level. He also used his philosophical knowledge and literary skills to refute the Mohists, who advocated for concern for everyone and the Confucians, who were popular at the time.

Zhuangzi Butterfy Dream/ Who did Zhuangzi speak to in a dream?

One of the most popular Daoism parables that are attributed to Zhuangzi/Chuang-Tzu-the Chinese philosopher is the story of the butterfly dream. According to most interpreters and other Chinese historians, the story of the butterfly dream serves as a clear articulation of the Daosim challenge towards the definition of reality and that of illusion. Reportedly, the story has hand great impact on later philosophies that came up in the Eastern and Western parts of the world.

The story of the butterfly dream as translated by Lin Yutang, tells that once upon a time, he Zhuangzi slept and dreamed that he was a butterfly, flitting and fluttering around, in a happy and ecstatic manner doing whatever he pleased whenever he wanted to. Supposedly, all he was conscious about was his happiness as a butterfly and he was completely unaware that he was Zhang Hou. All of a sudden, he woke up and found that he was Zhuangzi, a solid and unmistakably human man and not a butterfly as his dream had earlier revealed to him. According to him, he didn’t even know whether he was dreaming that he was the butterfly or whether the butterfly dreamed that it was Zhuang Zhou. Despite the confusion, he claims that between a man and a butterfly there is actually a distinction. He claimed and wrote that the distinction is what is called ‘the transformation of material things’. Based on that, he further explained that the transformation of things is a particular change in consciousness between reality and illusion. The constant alteration between dreams and awakening openly leads the ‘self’ to actively change from being completely unaware of the distinction of material things to be aware about the clear and definite distinction between and among things around man.

Why is Zhuangzi Important?

Generally, Zhuang Zhou is best known through the famous book that bears his name – the Zhuangzi, which is also known as ‘the Pure Classic of Nanhua (Nanhua Zhenjing). He plays an important role in China’s history and culture as he is considered the author of the Zhuangzi, which is respected as the primary and comprehensive source for the Daoist School of Thought.

Daoism has played an integral role in Chinese culture and history for over 2,000 years. Its practices and ethics have given birth to popular Chinese martial arts such as the Qigong and Tai Chi. Additionally, Daoism has advocated for healthy living, such as exercise and practicing vegetarianism. Also, the Daoist texts have codified Chinese views on behavior and morality, regardless of religious affiliations. Because of this, influential philosophers such as Zhuangzi are important to the history and culture of China. Without him and other founding fathers, such philosophies wouldn’t really exist.

Zhuangzi Philosophy

Zhuang Zhou, popularly known as Zhuangzi, taught that what is often known and said of the Dao/the universe, is not what the Dao truly is. According to his teachings and beliefs, the universe doesn’t have an initial beginning nor a final end, nor any demarcations and limitations that we seem to have created for ourselves as human beings. He believed that life is the ongoing transformation of the Dao, in which there is no good or evil, nor a better or worse. In that case, things around us should be allowed to seamlessly follow their own course and human brings should never value a particular situation over another.

Along with that, he taught that a truly virtuous man is completely free form the bondage of tradition, continuous need to reform his world, personal attachments and circumstance. Based this philosophical idea, he openly declined an offer to become a prime minister of the state of Chu simply because he did not want any entanglements associated with a court career.

His philosophy greatly focuses on the social perspective and the main target of his philosophical thoughts is the way conflicting attitudes come from using different moral languages that are often contradictory. To describe this, he often used the moral debate between Mohists and Confucians who have different perceptions of what is right and wrong. Their moral point of view is what is in dispute.

Besides that, Zhuangzi spent time reflecting on the perspective of ‘self’. Borrowing from Laozi’s emphasis on contrasts and other ideas of self, Zhuangzi believes that there is a difference between self and others. He suggests that the deep motive of the distinction between these two concepts bring in the assumption that concepts such as forethought, anger, pleasure, joy, regret, and sadness are interdependent and are governed by a particular thing. He identifies them as reality inputs and emphasizes the need to find a ruler of these concepts.

His philosophy also explains the fact that the relativity of all experiences is in constant tension in the universe with the unity of all things. Whenever anyone asked Zhuangzi where the Dao/ the way was, he always mentioned that it was omnipresent in nature and could be found everywhere.

Zhuangzi Quotes

“Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”

 “The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?”

“Flow with whatever may happen, and let your mind be free: Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.”

 “A path is made by walking on it.”

 “Rewards and punishment is the lowest form of education.”

 “The wise man knows that it is better to sit on the banks of a remote mountain stream than to be emperor of the whole world.”

 “Happiness is the abscence of the striving for happiness.”

“To a mind that is still, the entire universe surrenders.”

“During our dreams we do not know we are dreaming. We may even dream of interpreting a dream. Only on waking do we know it was a dream. Only after the great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream.”

“I cannot tell if what the world considers ‘happiness’ is happiness or not. All I know is that when I consider the way they go about attaining it, I see them carried away headlong, grim and obsessed, in the general onrush of the human herd, unable to stop themselves or to change their direction. All the while they claim to be just on the point of attaining happiness.”

 “Forget the years, forget distinctions. Leap into the boundless and make it your home!”

Zhuangzi Paradox

Zhuangzi’s dream argument has become one of the most distinguished and most renowned skeptical hypotheses. In the Eastern philosophy, the dream argument is greatly identified as the ‘Zhuangzi Paradox’. The argument is the assumption that the act of dreaming provides preliminary evidence that the specific senses that we trust to actively distinguish reality from illusion shouldn’t be trusted wholeheartedly. For this reason, any state that is dependent on our five senses should be carefully examined and tested in a rigorous manner to determine whether it is actually part of reality.

The paradox identifies that when one dreams, they barely know that they are actually dreaming. On certain instances, the dream could be inside another dream, so when one dreams, they can’t really know that they are dreaming. This concept has led various philosophers to wonder whether it is possible for anyone to be certain that they aren’t dreaming at all, or whether it is possible for anyone to remain at a perpetual dream state and never get to experience the reality of being awake.

In western philosophy, the Zhuangzi paradox was referred to by the Academic skeptics, Aristotle, and Plato , and it is now popularly known from the renowned ‘René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy’.

Zhuangzi Book

The Zhuangzi, which is named after the influential Chinese philosopher-Zhuangzi, is one of the ancient texts from the late Warring States period, which was from 476 BC to 221 BC. Reportedly, the book contains stories anecdotes and stories that demonstrate the carefree nature of the ideal Daoism sage. It is considered one of the two foundational texts of Daoism/ the Taoist philosophy, along with the famous Dao De Jing.

The book is composed of thirty three comprehensive chapters and it contains a large collection of fables, allegories, anecdotes, and parables, which are considered very humorous and irreverent. The main themes outlined in the book are those of freedom from the human world and its crazy conventions and the theme of spontaneity in action. The anecdotes and the fables found in the book attempt to describe the falseness of human distinctions between human and nature, life and death, good and bad, large and small, and reality and illusion. Generally, every other ancient Chinese philosopher that existed before him mostly focused on moral and personal duty, but Zhuangzi advocated carefree wandering and the need to become one with the ‘path’ or the ‘way’, which is the Dao, by following nature and its provisions.

In as much as his text is more of a philosophical text, it is also known as one of the greatest literary works in the history of China. In addition to that, it is regarded the most important pre-Qin literary document that is used for Chinese literature. It is a masterpiece and it is valued for its philosophical and literary skill. Also, it has influenced multiple writers for over 2,000 years since the Han Dynasty, which reigned between 206 BC and 220 AD, till date.

Final Thoughts

Zhuangzi is an important and influential philosophical figure in China and he greatly influenced China’s history and culture. Along with that, he has greatly influenced thinking far beyond China and East Asia, and he is considered the Chinese forerunner of evolution.

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