Composition of the

The Zhuangzi, an early and important work, laid the foundation for the development of Daoism in later generations and shaped Chinese thinking and life for more than two thousand years.

Summary of Event

The Zhuangzi (The Divine Classic of Nan-hua, 1881; also known as The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 1968; commonly known as Zhuangzi, 1991) is an early work on Daoism, one of the most influential philosophical schools in China. Although the thirty-three-chapter work is named after Zhuangzi (Master Zhuang) and traditionally given the compilation date of c. 300 b.c.e., it was not written by him alone and not all at once. The first seven inner chapters are traditionally thought to be the work of Zhuangzi himself, and the remaining outer and miscellaneous chapters are thought to be the contributions of Zhuangzi’s followers. Although the work is a composite, its chapters are consistent in both writing style and basic philosophical orientation. The Zhuangzi was probably first compiled c. 285-160 b.c.e. by Zhuangzi’s followers, but the work is best known as compiled by Guo Xiang, who wrote the commentary Zhuangzizhu (fourth century c.e.). Zhuangzi
Guo Xiang

The composition of the Zhuangzi was based on the first Daoist classic, Dao De Jing (possibly sixth century b.c.e., probably compiled late third century b.c.e.; The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of “the Old Philosopher, Lau-Tsze,” 1868; better known as the Dao De Jing), traditionally attributed to Laozi, who was supposedly a contemporary of Confucius (Kongfuzi, K’ung-Fu-Tzu; 551-479 b.c.e.). The two classics share some fundamental Daoistic beliefs—they both embrace the concepts of dao (the Way) and de (virtue), insist on the spontaneity of all things and harmony (or integration) of humankind with nature, advocate following the way of nature or nonaction (wu wei) in personal life and in government, disparage wisdom and knowledge and institutions, and reject Confucianism. On the other hand, however, the Zhuangzi differs from the Dao De Jing in terms of style of expression and emphasis. The Dao De Jing is composed of terse and abstract statements, many of which are esoteric and subject to different interpretations. By contrast, the Zhuangzi illuminates sophisticated philosophic ideas by using literary devices—amusing stories, parables, and metaphors, which are often about humorous and enjoyable personalities. Furthermore, the Dao De Jing is primarily a political treatise addressed to the ruler who would be a sage-king and is mainly concerned with achieving a good society through harmony with nature, whereas the Zhuangzi, contemptuous of rulership and indifferent to social life, focuses overwhelmingly on personal happiness or personal self-realization. It only derivatively concerns social and political order.

The overriding concern of the Zhuangzi is a quest for personal happiness, a state in which a person enjoys absolute spiritual freedom and that is within the reach of every human being. The achievement of personal happiness is an individual matter that depends solely on an individual’s understanding and following the course of nature and has nothing to do with external things such as material wealth, institutions, or supernatural forces. Any person can be happy if he or she genuinely follows the way of nature. The person who has achieved happiness is portrayed in the Zhuangzi as an Authentic (or True) Person (zhenren). This individual is happy because the person identifies with nature and models his or her conduct on the rhythm and cadence of natural change. Following the way of nature, the Authentic Person makes no distinctions between polarities such as this/that, good/bad, right/wrong, beauty/ugliness, past/present, and life/death. Instead the Authentic Person blends everything into a harmonious whole and sees all things as equal or as one. For example, life and death are one, and right and wrong are the same. Most important, the Authentic Person transcends the distinction between the self and the world, the “me” and the “non-me.” Therefore, the individual has no consciousness of self (or forgets the existence of himself or herself)—the self is totally integrated with the rest of the universe.

Because the Authentic Person has transcended all distinctions, he or she is not affected by the changes of the world; not fettered by desire, hate (aversion), anxiety, and attachment; and not disturbed by things such as worldly gain and loss or good and bad luck. The Authentic Person takes no assertive or deliberate actions, so he or she has neither regret in failure nor self-complacency in success. He or she is noncontentious, not contending or competing for anything; contented, accepting whatever comes to him or her or is inevitable; and not meddling but accommodating; he or she also lives in harmony with both nature and other humans. The Authentic Person even has no anxiety about death, viewing it as just another form of existence and seeing the transformation of life and death as natural as seasonal alternations and the succession of day and night. Living, he or she feels no elation; dying, he or she offers no resistance. In this way, the Authentic Person keeps his or her mind tranquil and imperturbable and free from all concerns and, therefore, enjoys absolute spiritual freedom and personal happiness.

Although the Zhuangzi takes death lightly and sometimes even suggests that death is preferable to life, its emphasis is still on preservation or longevity of life. The best way for people to achieve longevity is to live in accordance with nature and do nothing artificially to increase what is already in their lives. Because death is inevitable and natural, it is futile and unnecessary to worry about it. Worrying about death, an inevitability, only hurts a person’s life, while indifference to it will help preserve or prolong life.

Given its overriding concern with how to live a happy personal life, the Zhuangzi can be viewed as a book on the philosophy or art of living. This philosophy is naturalistic because it does not attribute personal happiness to a creator or god and does not promise immortality; rather, it stresses following nature as the only way to personal happiness and sees death as a natural change. This philosophy is also imbued with individualism in the sense that it places the individual’s happiness above anything else (for example, the interests of the society or the state) and holds that such happiness can be attained by the individual.

The insistence of the authors of the Zhuangzi on following the course of nature led them to oppose anything that they believed to be unnatural, such as institutions (laws, governments, morals, or ethics). The Zhuangzi holds that institutions are nothing more than artificial structures imposed on individuals and that they constitute a primary cause of social troubles and human miseries. Institutions function to distort human nature—humankind’s innate disposition to be free or to be left alone. Applying institutions to humankind is like putting a halter around a horse’s neck or a string through an ox’s nose; it is also like lengthening the legs of the duck or shortening those of the crane—what is natural and spontaneous is changed into something artificial. Therefore, institutions are not only unnecessary but also detrimental to the well-being of humankind.

The Zhuangzi is critical of other schools of thought, especially Confucianism, because these schools insist on using institutions to regulate people’s behavior. For instance, it denounced the Confucian advocacy of “benevolence and righteousness” and “rituals and music” and identified this advocacy as a source of confusion and disorder. Throughout the text, Confucius is depicted as a humble and modest figure, ready to learn the dao (the Way) from Daoist masters, which implies that Confucianism is inferior to Daoism.

The Zhuangzi states that the ideal way to govern is through nonaction (wu wei): Rulers should refrain from interfering with people’s lives and leave them alone to exercise their own natural ability fully and freely. If rulers follow this course of nonaction, the world will remain in order and people will be happy. However, if rulers act assertively and contrive to control people’s lives through such means as laws and morals, punishments and rewards, and schemes and wisdoms, people will become cunning and treacherous, and the world will fall into disorder.

The Zhuangzi thus projects a political philosophy, which is characterized by its opposition to institutions and the stress on governing through nonaction. This political philosophy is derived from and consistent with the philosophy of living that is elaborated in the Zhuangzi. The two philosophies share a common theme—following what is natural is the source of all happiness and good, while following what is artificial is the source of unhappiness and bad.


The composition of the Zhuangzi constitutes a major contribution to the development of Daoism. Through stories, parables, metaphors, and other literary devices, this work sheds light on basic Daoistic beliefs, some of which were first put forward but not well explained in the Dao De Jing, and it helped establish Daoism as a major school of thought.

The individualistic spirit and nonconformist attitude expressed in the Zhuangzi has the effect of liberating humankind’s mind and thus poses a potential challenge to any established or official ideology that stresses conformity and obedience. Throughout history, the Zhuangzi has been popular among Chinese of different social strata. Politicians drew from it inspirations on governing, and scholars of the Profound or Mysterious Learning (xuanxue) from the third to sixth centuries c.e. based their theories on it. People, especially intellectuals, found comfort in it during troubled times or when they were frustrated in their careers. Daoist priests as well as others used it as a guide for self-cultivation, and writers learned its literary style of expression. Many stories from the Zhuangzi were included in school textbooks and thus had a direct impact on young students.

Further Reading

  • Ames, Roger T. Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. A collection of essays on different themes expressed in the Zhuangzi.
  • Fung, Yu-lan, trans. Chuang-Tzu: A New Selected Translation with an Exposition of the Philosophy of Kuo Hsiang. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989. An English translation of the first seven chapters of the Zhuangzi with commentaries by the translator and Guo Xiang.
  • Palmer, Martin, et al., trans. The Book of Zhuangzi. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1996. An English version of the Zhuangzi.
  • Watson, Burton, trans. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. A standard translation of the Zhuangzi.
  • Wu, Kuang-ming. Chuangzi: World Philosopher at Play. New York: Scholar Press, 1982. An analysis of various philosophical views presented in the Zhuangzi.

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