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(Part 4.3 – – – Part 4.2 – – – Part 3 – – – Part 2 – – – Part 1)

Lao-Zhuang 老、莊

In the first of the three previous blog-essays on this topic, we looked at the earliest mention of a tradition or philosophy now called Classical or philosophical “Daoism.” This occurs in the Historical Records (Shiji 史記) chapter 130, which in Chinese was labelled Daojia 道家. Literally, this translates to Dao-specialists (not “Daoist school”), and was contrasted with the Methods of Yinyang (陰陽之術),[1] Naming-specialists/Logicians (Mingjia 名家), Standards- or Law-specialists/Legalists (Fajia 法家), Mohists (Mozhe 墨者) and Confucians or classicists (Ruzhe 儒者). According to the author, Sima Tan 司馬談, Daojia was an approach to governing (and perhaps life) that appropriated (what he considered) the best of the five other approaches mentioned above as well as concentrating the spiritual energies, joining with “the Formless” (= Dao 道?), shifting with the times, and responding and adapting to changes – all while “doing nothing” (Wuwei 無為) and having few affairs (Shao Shi 少事). While neither Laozi 老子 nor the Laozi (a.k.a. the Daodejing 道德經) are mentioned as representatives of Daojia, it would seem that this text was considered such. Yet as Harold Roth has argued convincingly, this description fits more precisely with the views found in the early Han dynasty text Huainanzi 淮南子, itself influenced heavily by the Laozi, as well as what seems to have been referred to as Huang-Lao 黃老 teachings/methods by his son Sima Qian 司馬遷.[2]

Written roughly two centuries later, (though based on earlier work), the Han Documents (Hanshu 漢書) contains a bibliographical section that lists over 30 texts under the rubric Daojia, including the Laozi (with commentaries), the Zhuangzi 莊子, Liezi 列子, and Wenzi 文子. The thought of Daojia is here described more in terms of humility and self-preservation, purity and emptiness, as well as a rejection of “Confucian” moral values such as ritual/etiquette, benevolence and duty. Another Later Han work, the Lunheng 論衡, also mentions Daojia, Huang-Lao and Laozi, indicating that naturalistic explanations of Nature, quietistic self-cultivation practices and immortality were associated with this tradition.

In the 2nd and 3rd essays in this series we examined the texts and supposed authors of the Laozi and Zhuangzi, the two texts unanimously considered early (Classical/Philosophical) Daoist works. We found that both texts were inarguably written by numerous authors, beginning most likely no earlier than the 4th century B.C.E. and, by-and-large, containing no material from the 1st century B.C.E. or later.[3] While acknowledging that many scholars (e.g., Waley, Lau, Ames, Schipper) regard the Laozi to be an edited anthology taken from diverse sources, the views of LaFargue, Roth and Kirkland appear to be more convincing in that by positing a relatively small community or lineage to be the source of the material, they account for the fact that the various sayings are not found in any other works and do not appear to be all that popular,[4] at least until the 3rd century B.C.E. It should be added that even if the authors operated within a localized lineage of masters and disciples, they did not exist in a vacuum with no interaction or influence from elsewhere in early China. Whether they themselves were “wandering scholars” (Youshi 游士) or whether they simply hosted or communicated with foreign wandering scholars we can only guess, but interaction and influence is clearly evident.

We also noted that many anecdotes featuring Laozi as well as quotations of the text bearing his name occur in the Zhuangzi, and that at least some of the authors were either part of a single lineage that also created the Laozi or mingled with them.[5] The stylistic uniqueness of the Zhuangzi, (e.g., the humourous fictional parables), suggests a unique literary lineage, one which, incidentally, is distinctly different from that of the Laozi. We also must acknowledge that 1) Laozi and Zhuangzi do not appear in the same parables or essays nor is Zhuangzi said to have been a follower or admirer of Laozi’s (as Sima Qian proclaimed), and 2) we do not know that the authors of the passages which treat Laozi as a sage/authority were admirers of Zhuangzi as well or even whether they knew they were contributing to a collection affiliated with Zhuangzi. We do know that the compilers of (what is now called) the Zhuangzi regarded them to be “kindred spirits,” as they included the views of both of them in the anthology.[6]

While the majority of scholars believe the first seven Inner Chapters (Neipian 內篇) of the Zhuangzi to be from the brush of Zhuangzi himself, we found that this is largely unfounded, due to the editing and reediting this text has undergone over the millennia as well as to the silence the earliest witnesses to this text express on his authorship (of the Neipian, or the contents thereof). Sima Qian in fact named several chapters of the work as Zhuangzi’s writings, none of which are found in the Inner Chapters. As a result, this authorial assumption will not be assumed or endorsed here in what follows.

The purpose of this 4th essay is to explore these two texts to see what similarities and differences exist. If we understand a “school of thought” (modern Chinese: Xuepai 學派) to refer to a system or complex of beliefs, ideas, values and methods, would the various authors of the Laozi and Zhuangzi constitute such a school, as is commonly believed? Or were they two different schools of thought with only slight overlap, perhaps a Laoist school and a Zhuangist school? Is there a “family resemblance” that exists between these two texts that does not between them and others, such as the Mengzi, Mozi, Hanfeizi or Yijing? Jia 家, which commonly meant “house” or “family,” has suggested to Harold Roth that Sima Tan’s use of it “implies that he thought of his six groups as having an important lineage dimension in which masters and disciples functioned according to a family model.”[7] By positing a lineage of masters and disciples (= teachers and students) we come close to the idea of a school (of thought) as well, although whether the contributors to the Laozi and Zhuangzi were two branches of one lineage remains to be seen.

We’ve already explored the nature of ancient Chinese texts and some possible scenarios of how the texts came to be in the earlier essays, especially the 3rd one on Zhuangzi. We have hypothesized that the existence of the Laozi and Zhuangzi required some sort of lineage or group that had compiled and preserved (and added to) these texts, at least until the Han dynasty period where texts were sought out by regional rulers and the imperial government in order to preserve the classical legacy in various libraries. These groups need not have been large, and, further, we do not know if this lineage was unbroken, or whether decades went by where the texts sat neglected in boxes in people’s homes.

The Laozi[8] may have survived under the auspices of a series of aristocratic tutors or teachers and their students. However, there is a certain uniformity of thought and style of writing that one would not expect from just any random teacher or series of teachers who were required to teach a much larger and more varied corpus of material. That is, additions and elaborations that became part of the text seem to come from a largely consistent point of view and style, which suggests a distinct lineage or school of thought.[9] Michael LaFargue has noted that the Laozi itself contains allusions to teaching[10] and a number of scholars have argued that comprehension of the Laozi required a teacher/master.[11] In the 2nd essay we were also forced to admit that Lao Dan (i.e., Laozi) of the 6th century B.C.E. may have existed and that the present Laozi text may contain a few ideas or preserve some of his general attitudes or values. Here and there we find references to disciples of his, (though not in the Laozi itself, of course), who may have transmitted these ideas or attitudes to later generations. As a result, there may have been a lineage that transmitted, if not written works, oral teachings of his or stories about him. On the other hand, these accounts of Lao Dan may be entirely fictional and represent the wishes of later writers who wanted to claim a much older pedigree for their own ideas by attributing them to a little known teacher of Confucius.[12]

Disciples of Zhuangzi are also mentioned in a few places in the Zhuangzi text which present us with the possibility that a small lineage of masters and disciples existed who drew inspiration and authority from him and preserved and added to his written works. Zhuangzi himself quotes his own master (子) in chapter 20: “(If you) enter their customs, (then) follow their customs” (入其俗,從其俗), which sounds like sound advice to someone interested in self-preservation and avoiding danger. This advice is consistent with the Laozi and the “egoist” Yang Zhu 楊朱, but is not nearly enough “evidence” to conclude that he was a representative of either of their “schools of thought.”[13] Granted that the Zhuangzi (and the Laozi) contains the written work of a number of people over probably many decades, we must yield to Graham’s observation that there were undeniably writers/contributors who wrote in the same style and on some of the same themes as Zhuangzi,[14] but whether they were members in a lineage of masters and disciples we cannot know. Likewise, whether the innumerable “scenes of instruction” – parables involving a student seeking knowledge or techniques of self-cultivation from a respected (and usually reluctant) teacher – are evidence of this occurring within a “Zhuangist lineage” is impossible to determine, as they could just as easily be nothing more than an accepted customary trope.[15]

So, it would appear that no one (that we know of) in pre-Han China recognized lineages of master and disciples who taught the contents of the Laozi or Zhuangzi. Some knew of Laozi and knew of Zhuangzi – via their written works and/or word-of-mouth – but we can find no descriptions like those such as found in chapter 50 of the Hanfeizi 韓非子 which names eight lineages of Ru who follow Confucius and three lineages of Mohists. Mostly what we find in the ancient texts are references or critiques of single thinkers, such as Mozi and Yang Zhu in Mengzi 孟子 3B9 or Xunzi’s 荀子 chapter 6 and 17 (among others). As Mark Csikszentmihalyi and Michael Nylan have pointed out, when thinkers are grouped together, there is little consistency found, as authors grouped together different thinkers for their own reasons.[16] However, it would seem that reference to a single person could refer to his followers, as D.C. Lau’s translation of this passage from the Mengzi (7B26) brings out:

孟子曰:「逃墨必歸於楊,逃楊必歸於儒。歸,斯受之而已矣。今之與楊、墨辯者,如追放豚,既入其苙,又從而招之。」
Mengzi said, “Those who desert the Mohist school are sure to turn to that of Yang; those who desert the Yang school are sure to turn to the Confucianist. When they turn to us we simply accept them. Nowadays, those who debate with the followers of Yang and Mo behave as if they were chasing strayed pigs. They are not content to return the pigs to the sty, but go on to tie their feet up.”[17]

The Chinese text contains no word for “followers” here (or “school”), but Lau is surely correct in adding it. The Zhuangzi also contains references to contemporary followers of Mozi and Yang Zhu without including a word for “follower.”[18] We may justly ask, then, whether Xunzi’s criticism of Zhuangzi in chapter 6 referred to Zhuangzi himself or his views as espoused by his followers. It would seem that lack of reference to a lineage (shi 氏?) does not indicate that there was none.[19]

Dirk Meyer believes it to be “impossible” and “ill-founded” to attempt to reconstruct a “philosophical edifice” or coherent system of thought for a text like the Laozi, since the textual community that first compiled the anthology no longer exists and their orally-transmitted interpretations are “irretrievably lost.” At best, he argues that we can only devise an “idiosyncratic interpretation” of the philosophy behind the text in but “highly tentative and hypothetical terms.”[20] Even though the Zhuangzi is much less cryptic than the Laozi, this is, to a degree, true of this text as well. In what follows, I will not be attempting to construct a philosophical edifice, or even a coherent religio-philosophical system. Instead, we will explore the various interests, concerns, attitudes and practices that we find in these texts and identify where these differ from other thinkers or traditions in early China. We have seen already that both texts contain some rather hostile attitudes towards the much-touted moral concepts of the Confucians (Ru) and Mohists (e.g., 仁 and 義). Authors of the Zhuangzi do not hold the legendary culture heroes Yao and Shun in esteem, do not follow the custom of quoting the revered Odes or Documents, do not advocate adhering to traditional etiquette or ritual behaviour (禮), and, not surprisingly, do not count themselves as Confucians, Mohists or, apparently, Yangists. Even if we were to deny the existence of masters and disciples who developed the thought and practices found in the Laozi and Zhuangzi, we could still ask what Daojia 道家, as a bibliographical category of the Hanshu, was believed to entail. Why were the Laozi, Zhuangzi, Liezi, etc. placed under the rubric of Daojia?

Before we do this, I would like to recap what we know about the perceived relationship between Laozi and Zhuangzi and what various scholars have observed or felt. Our reason for asking this question in the first place stems from both Sima Qian’s claim that Zhuangzi’s views were “essentially rooted in and returned to the teachings of Laozi (要本歸於老子之言) and that he “clarified the methods of Laozi” (明老子之術) and the placing of the Zhuangzi in the Hanshu Yiwenzhi’s Daojia category along with the Laozi.[21] The basis for Sima’s assessment is unknown to us, but it may have been the Zhuangzi text itself.[22] The Zhuangzi (presumably) contains not only the views of Zhuangzi as well as many anecdotes featuring him, but also anecdotes featuring Laozi and numerous quotations or parallel passages with the Laozi. At least one scholar has referred to this text as the earliest Lao-Zhuang text.[23] Indeed, the Zhuangzi is the earliest text we have that contains both Laozi and Zhuangzi and likely the thought of both textual lineages. Zhuangzi is not portrayed as a follower of Laozi, however. The “sophist/logician” Huizi 惠子 appears in most of the anecdotes with Zhuangzi, although never as his teacher, and never suggesting Zhuangzi shared his views.[24] Confucius is sometimes treated favourably, like Laozi, although when this is the case, he never is expressing anything resembling what his disciples and later followers record as his views. The authors were not Confucians. The last chapter of the Zhuangzi (Tianxia 天下), which describes the views of a number of thinkers, links Laozi with Guan Yin 關尹, but not with Zhuangzi. They are both treated with esteem, however.

We find brief criticism of both Laozi and Zhuangzi in the Xunzi (chapters 17 and 21 respectively);[25] both are mentioned in the Lüshi Chunqiu (1.4, 2.4, 13.3, 17.7 for Laozi, 13.3 and 14.8 for Zhuangzi); and, both are mentioned in the Hanfeizi (31, 38, 46, 20, 21 for Laozi, 32 for Zhuangzi) but in none of these is there is any connection made between them.[26] The Huainanzi, (c. mid-2nd century B.C.E.), has many parallels with both texts, often quoting Laozi or Lao Dan. There are only three chapters which do not quote either the Laozi or Zhuangzi – 4, 5 and 21.[27] The author of chapter 12, Daoying 道應, seems to be the first one to acknowledge a Zhuangzi text. This chapter presents fifty-six anecdotes, all but three capped with a quotation of the Laozi. One of the other three is capped by “Therefore the Zhuangzi says” (故莊子曰), which introduces a short quotation from chapter 1 of that text. Many of the anecdotes in this chapter are in fact also found in the Zhuangzi, which may have served as a source text. It is perhaps for this reason that in the summary of this chapter found in Huainanzi 21 we read: “(It) picks out and draws together the relics of past affairs, pursues and surveys the traces of bygone antiquity, and investigates the reversals of bad and good fortune, benefit and harm. It tests and verifies them according to the techniques of Lao and Zhuang, thus matching them to the trajectories of gain and loss” (攬掇遂事之蹤,追觀往古之跡,察禍福利害之反,考驗乎老、莊之術,而以合得失之勢者也。).[28] It would seem that the author of Huainanzi 12 was both familiar with and admired both Laozi and Zhuangzi but he stops short of claiming that Zhuangzi was in any way a follower of Laozi’s.

Finally, with regards to our early primary sources, Yan Zun 嚴遵 (c. 80–0 B.C.E.), a diviner from what is now Sichuan who wrote a commentary on the Laozi (i.e., the Laozi Zhigui 老子指歸) and taught it to students is said to have “leaned heavily on what Laozi and Zhuang Zhou adduced” (依老子、嚴(莊)周之指) in Hanshu 72. In Hanshu 70, the literatus Huan Tan 桓譚 expressed interest in books from Ban Si 班嗣, who was partial to the “methods of Lao-Zhuang” (老嚴(莊)之術). Similarly, the diviner Sima Jizhu 司馬季主 (fl. early 2nd century B.C.E.?, from Chu 楚) explains in Shiji 127 that true worthies are sometimes found occupying lowly positions (and have a greater beneficial effect than thought) and quotes Laozi 38 (上德不德,是以有德) to support his conviction. Immediately after, he quotes an apparently lost Zhuangzi passage which reads: “Zhuangzi has said, ‘At home the gentleman does not worry about cold and hunger; abroad he has no fear of being robbed. If he is in a superior position he commands respect; if in an inferior one he suffers no harm. This is the way of the gentleman” (莊子曰:『君子內無饑寒之患,外無劫奪之憂,居上而敬,居下不為害,君子之道也。』).[29] Burton Watson points out that this is not in the present Zhuangzi (note 6), but we may also mention that it shows little affinity with anything now found in the Zhuangzi. A master Chu 褚先生 (a.k.a. Chu Shaosun 褚少孫, c. 105-30 B.C.E.) concludes the chapter, saying, Sima Jizhu practiced Huang-Lao methods. We may note that Sima Jizhu, a diviner from the south, quoted both Laozi and Zhuangzi, and Yan Zun, another diviner from the south-west, relied on Laozi and Zhuangzi in his teaching. We have earlier discussed the Laozi’s apparent southern origins (in Chu 楚) as well as a Chu king requesting Zhuangzi’s services: this is suggestive that Lao-Zhuang thinking thrived in the south, but is far from conclusive.

Many scholars have different views on what similarities and differences exist between the Laozi and Zhuangzi. Lin Yutang 林語堂 once perceived that the “character” of the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi was “almost identical,” however he noticed a number of differences. Since I have a fondness for Lin’s writing, I shall quote him in full:

First, the principal teaching of Laozi is humility. His recurrent theme, on which he spoke more than on any other single subject, was gentleness, resignation, the futility of contentions (‘Never be the first of the world’), the strength of weakness and the tactical advantage of lying low. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find parallel sayings of Zhuangzi on the subject. To be sure, starting from the same basic philosophy, Zhuangzi had to believe in humility, but he never could quite say it. Where Laozi spoke of the virtue of non-contention, Zhuangzi was inclined to speak of the virtue of quiescence, of keeping and preserving one’s spiritual power through tranquility and rest. To Laozi, water is the ‘softest of all substances’ and a symbol of the wisdom of ‘seeking lowly places,’ but to Zhuangzi it is a symbol of tranquility of the mind and clarity of spirit, and of enormous reserve power in action. While Laozi urged the importance of failure, or at least of appearing to fail (for Laozi was the first philosopher of camouflage), Zhuangzi scoffed at the glitter of success. Laozi praised the humble; Zhuangzi lambasted the great. While Laozi preached contentment, Zhuangzi’s most characteristic teaching was to let man’s spirit ‘roam in the metaphysical sphere,’ the sphere above physical things. And while Laozi frequently mentioned the strength of ‘the female’ in ‘overcoming the male,’ Zhuangzi remained a man’s man and had nothing to say on the subject. The second difference is: Zhuangzi not only developed a complete theory of knowledge and reality and the futility of language, but felt and expressed more poignantly the pathos of human life. What was philosophy in Laozi became poetry in Zhuangzi. With all the consolation of philosophy, Zhuangzi felt the pang and sorrow of man’s short life, and certainly his most beautiful passages are on the subject of life and death.[30]

Angus Graham appears to have regarded the esteem for spontaneity to be the main – and perhaps only – similarity between them[31] and that there is no reason to conceive of any direct relationship between them: they were both classed under the Daojia rubric because there was nowhere else to put Zhuangzi.[32] Laozi was assumed his intellectual predecessor because legend had it that he lived long before Zhuangzi.[33] Graham’s entire interpretation of early Daoism is tied to and coloured by his belief that the Neipian – the first seven chapters – are the work of a 4th century thinker named Zhuang Zhou, and he has tended to neglect the rest of the text. In fact, most scholars neglect the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters of the Zhuangzi in making their evaluations. In his response to Harold Roth’s paper in Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts, Graham accepts Roth’s claim that the thought of the Laozi and Zhuangzi is not the heart of Daoism, but rather is the inner cultivation practice found in a number of texts, especially the 49th chapter of the Guanzi 管子, “Inner Workings” (Neiye 內業), although he admits that this inner cultivation was not restricted to those we call Daoists.[34] On this view, it is the means to discover the Dao – i.e., inner cultivation practice – that is the heart of Daoism, not any philosophy or worldview evolving from or with it. We will return to this topic later.

Roger Ames believes the difference between the two not to be of substance but simply emphasis, that Zhuangzi emphasizes personal spirituality whereas the Laozi the social and political consequences of this spirituality.[35] The concern with sociopolitical matters has been noted by many as a difference between the two texts, as has the style of writing found in them.[36] Russell Kirkland suggests that “what the Daodejing and Zhuangzi share is not disinterest in society or the political order per se, but doubt that collective individual/societal effort, without reference to life’s deeper realities [i.e., the Dao], can effect desirable change.”[37]

Chad Hansen accepts that the Laozi preceded Zhuangzi, but rather than simply elaborating on and emphasizing different aspects as per Ames and others, Zhuangzi developed, improved upon, and even refuted some of the Laozi’s insights under the influence of exchange with other “schools” or “textual communities.” Hansen’s interpretation stresses progress, not only from Laozi to Zhuangzi, but from Confucius on, involving all the traditional schools of thought.[38] He also argues that “one stark difference between the two main texts of Daoism is the relation to the School of Names. The Laozi, though clearly having a theory of the pragmatics of naming, betrays neither exposure to the doctrines nor the analytical terminology developed by the dialectical Mohists for dealing with theory of language. The Zhuangzi clearly does reveal that exposure.”[39] Hansen also maintains that the Laozi’s political advice/vision “fits poorly with the meta-ethical detachment that underlies Zhuangzi’s criticism of Confucians and Mohists,” because it “risks formulating a rival conception of governing with the same assumptions as Confucians and Mohists.”[40]

A good starting point in identifying categories or domains of discourse common and unique to the early “Daoists” is the work of Harold Roth. Roth, who has worked more than any other (Western) scholar on defining early Daoism discerns three categories that define Daoism (or Daojia):

cosmology: a cosmology based on the Dao as the predominant unifying power in the cosmos;

inner cultivation: the attainment of the Dao through a process of emptying out the usual contents of the conscious mind until a profound experience of tranquility is attained;

political thought: the application of this cosmology and this method of self-cultivation to the problems of rulership.[41]

For Roth, it is the inner cultivation practice, which constitutes their technique or art (shu 術), that forms the essential basis of this tradition, as the cosmology and political applications derive from it.[42] Roth appears to be the first scholar to notice that shu 術 were an important part of Sima Tan’s definitions of his Six Jia, especially Daojia, which should be considered alongside the “philosophy” of the various groups.[43] For example, he writes, “the early Daoists were more a community of practitioners who wrote philosophy to elucidate, define and transmit their practice than a group of philosophers who thought about the world as an object of intellectual inquiry.”[44] Roth has also proposed to call “Daoist” the three aspects mentioned above and “Daoistic” “those teachings that at least meet the most important of them, that is, those that accept the Dao as the ultimate ground of the cosmos.”[45] In this view, much of the Zhuangzi is not Daoist but Daoistic, as it lacks the political dimension.[46] He believes that this political dimension gradually developed as these inner-cultivation adepts encountered other thinkers in their travels.[47] But some scholars take issue with this stance. Edward Slingerland, for example, believes that “the pursuit of individual, bodily salvation divorced from any political context is in fact a later development in Warring States thought.”[48] Livia Kohn and Isabelle Robinet also maintain that the preoccupation with internal states of mind was a later development in Warring States thought, which is seen much more in the Zhuangzi than the Laozi (and, as Kohn points out, much more in Mengzi than Confucius).[49] After all, politics was a familiar topic in early China long before inner cultivation practices developed. Moreover, if the roots of Daoism are to be found instead in an eremitic tradition, or with individualists like Yang Zhu, for example, – as some like Feng Youlan, Robert Eno, and Joseph Needham have believed – then the development of inner-cultivation may have developed after they had disengaged from society. In this case, these recluses or individualists may well have had a primitivist political philosophy prior to having any mystical experiences.[50]

Liu Xiaogan 劉笑敢 also affirms three aspects of early Daoism, which are “first, it emphasizes the significance of the concepts of the Way, spontaneity, non-action, and tranquility; second, it tends to criticize traditional and orthodox values; third, it pays more attention than other schools to personal perfection, either spiritual or physical. Among these three points, the first is the most essential and radical.”[51] Indeed, it is their unique usage of dao 道 that appears to have originated the terms Daojia and Daoism.

Like Roth, Herrlee Creel believed that what he called “contemplative Daoism” preceded the more political and practical “Purposive Daoism,”[52] and, like Liu and many others, asserted that their unique notion of the (cosmic) Way (Dao) “provides perhaps the only sure touchstone by which early Daoism can be distinguished from other contemporary philosophies. If this concept of Dao as the sum total of reality is present, we are clearly dealing with Daoism or at least with Daoist influence. If the concept of the cosmic Dao is neither present nor implied, the question of whether or not we have Daoism is uncertain.”[53] Arthur Waley similarly argued that only quietists that acknowledged the cosmic Dao were Daoists.[54] Although Creel believes the Daoist conception of Dao derives from an earlier concept of Tian Dao 天道 – Nature’s Way(s), Waley and others allow that inner cultivation was the means to discover this cosmic Dao that transcends the physical universe. Aaron Stalnaker, in his paper “Aspects of Xunzi’s Engagement with Early Daoism,” explains it this way: “For the purposes of this essay I assume that ‘Daoism’ when applied to the fourth and third centuries B.C.E. denotes the practices of a range of people, first, who interpreted and shaped themselves by means of a vocabulary centered on the Dao or ‘Way’ as a cosmic source (i.e., not as a merely human tradition), and, second, who prized and sought to develop, probably by means of various cultivational practices, what they felt was a profound insight into the workings of the cosmos and a tranquil, flexible mode of existence.”[55] In other words, quietistic inner cultivation practices led to insights into the workings not only of the world, but of the source of all things. Additionally, these practices and insights led to a “tranquil, flexible mode of existence.” These quietistic practices and the (often ineffable) insights gained are what has led many scholars of the past to label the early Daoists “mystics.” We will address this topic later on.

Lastly, while Chad Hansen believes “Dao” to be at the centre of early Daoism, it is not the cosmogonic Dao, the Dao that gave rise to the Heavens and Earth, but instead a “second-level metadiscussion” of dao as “guiding discourse,” or prescriptive ways of acting, a usage familiar with all the “philosophers” in early China, but neglected by most interpreters.[56] He also finds distinctive their anticonventional attitudes[57] as well as their metaethical discourse (i.e., their critique of traditional moral concepts).[58]

This concludes this lengthy introduction to this fourth part of this series on Classical Daoism. In future blog—essays, (e.g., 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, etc.) we will explore Daoist concepts and themes such as Dao, self-cultivation & mysticism, primitivism, ethics, politics, Wuwei, and a few other things. First to be explored, naturally, will be Dao 道.


[1] Later, in the Hanshu Yiwenzhi 漢書 • 藝文志, this was named Yinyangjia 陰陽家: Yin-Yang-specialists.

[2] See Roth’s “Psychology and Self-Cultivation in Early Taoistic Thought” in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 51.2, 1991, p. 606-7, and other works. This description also corresponds fairly closely to the “philosophy” endorsed in chapter 15 of the Zhuangzi, though the Ru, Mo, Yinyang, Mingjia and Fajia are not explicitly named. Herrlee Creel has also pointed out some similarities this description has with the ideas of Shen Buhai 申不害, whom Sima Qian regarded as Huang-Lao (Shiji 63); (Shen Pu-Hai: A Chinese political Philosopher of the Fourth Century B.C., University of Chicago Press, 1974, p. 166-7)

[3] The Zhuangzi probably contains material from the early 2nd century B.C.E., but not the Laozi.

[4] We must acknowledge, however, that we have but a fraction of the written material of early China.

[5] Chad Hansen suspects that it was Zhuangzi’s followers who wrote or compiled the Laozi (Tao Te Ching on The Art of Harmony: The New Illustrated Edition of the Chinese Philosophical Masterpiece, Duncan Baird, 2009, p. 8)

[6] Both Laozi and Zhuangzi are always authorities or masters in the text, whereas Confucius, who actually appears more often, is sometimes the (non-Confucian) authority and sometimes the student. It should be noted again that many of the anecdotes containing Laozi do not appear to derive from ideas found in the Laozi.

[7] Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 176. Stephen Bokenkamp argued along very similar lines with regards to Ban Gu’s use of jia in his Early Daoist Scriptures, University of California Press, 1997, p. 24-5 n10. Jung H. Lee follows Roth, claiming that “jia (literally “family”) referred to traditions organized around master-disciple lineages, with the master serving as the parent figure” (“The Way of Poetic Influence: Revisioning the ‘Syncretist Chapters’ of the Zhuangzi” in Philosophy East and West, 58.4, 2008., p. 564 n3).

[8] or what came to be called the Laozi.

[9] Both the Guodian and Mawangdui tomb texts were found with other texts which do not share the same concerns, values or style of writing.

[10] Tao and Method, SUNY Press, 1994, p. 27.

[11] For example, Donald Harper, “The Sexual Arts of Ancient China as Described in a Manuscript of the Second Century B.C., Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 47.2, 1987, p. 561; Mathias L. Richter, “Textual Identity and the Role of Literacy in the Transmission of Early Chinese Literature” in Writing & Literacy in Early China: Studies from the Columbia Early China Seminar, Li Feng and Prager Branner eds., University of Washington Press, 2011, p. 220; Dirk Meyer, Philosophy on Bamboo: Text and the Production of Meaning in Early China, Brill, 2012, p. 227-8, 233-4, Harold Roth, “Third-Person and First-Person Approaches to the Study of the Laozi” in Teaching the Daode Jing, Gary D. DeAngeles and Warren G. Frisina eds., Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 21.

[12] As argued by Angus Graham in “The Origins of the Legend of Lao Dan” in Lao-Tzu and the Tao-Te-Ching, Michael LaFargue and Livia Kohn eds., SUNY Press, 1998 (originally published in 1986 and 1990).

[13] At the end of Zhuangzi 3 is an anecdote recording Lao Dan’s funeral and a discussion between his friend Qin Shi 秦失 and a disciple (弟子) of Laozi’s. Was this an entirely fictional story or was it transmitted to the author (Zhuangzi?) from within his lineage? It is curious that we never again hear of Lao Dan’s death, as if it were taboo: Sima Qian’s biography instead transmits a more mysterious disappearance of Laozi from China, apparently leaving open room to speculate that he enjoyed miraculous longevity.

[14] Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, Hackett Publishing, 2001, p. 115, (originally published in 1981).

[15] See Carine Defoort’s “Instruction Dialogues in the Zhuangzi: An ‘Anthropological’ Reading” in Dao 11.4, 2012 for a facinating discussion of this topic.

[16] “Constructing Lineages and Inventing Traditions Through Exemplary Figures in Early China” in T’oung Pao LXXXIX, 2003, p. 62-3.

[17] Mencius: A Bilingual Edition, Revised Edition, The Chinese University Press, 2003, p. 321 (originally published in 1979).

[18] It is interesting to note that both of these texts acknowledge a lineage of sorts for Yang Zhu, though Sima Tan, in his list of six Jia ignores him and his legacy. This is probably because Yang Zhu was largely irrelevant to the art of governing, which appears to be Sima’s principle evaluating criterion. For the same reason, Angus Graham believed that Sima Tan would not consider Zhuangzi relevant (Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China,, Open Court, 1989, p. 171).

[19] Texts in both the medical and military traditions were also preserved and transmitted over centuries, perhaps by lineages of teachers and students. Much was preserved and transmitted orally, for certain, but there were likely short texts as well.

[20] Philosophy on Bamboo: Text and the Production of Meaning in Early China, Brill, 2012, p. 232-4.

[21] Shiji 63 and Hanshu 30. It may also be relevant to mention that Shiji 63 is capped with a judgement of Sima Tan, who writes that although Zhuangzi scattered Dao and De and was unrestrained in his discussions (散道德,放論), he ultimately turned to a vision of naturalness/spontaneity (要亦歸之自然), of which is endorsed in the Laozi as well.

[22] Tu Wei-Ming has speculated that “while Zhuangzi elaborated Laozi’s philosophy of personal inner freedom (ziran, self-so), Shen Buhai and Hanfei [also included in the chapter] developed the sayings of Laozi into different methods of political control.” (“The ‘Thought of Huang-Lao’: A Reflection on the Lao Tzu and Huang Ti Texts in the Silk Manuscripts of Ma-wang-tui” in The Journal of Asian Studies, 39.1, 1979, p. 102.

[23] Taeko Brooks, “Jwangdz 33天下篇” in WSWG Note 127, 1997, p. 132.

[24] This is not to say that Zhuangzi was immune to his intellectual sparring partner’s influence. Chad Hansen argues that this was Zhuangzi’s chief influence (“Taoism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), first published on Wed Feb 19, 2003. It was last modified on Dec 19, 2012).

[25] Chapter 17 also appears to contain criticism of Zhuangzi; see Zhuangzi essay.

[26] Yang Xiong 揚雄 (53 B.C.E.-18 C.E.), mentions Zhuangzi alongside Yang Zhu (ch. 8), Zou Yan 鄒衍 (chs. 4 and 6), Hanfei (ch. 3) and Hanfei and Shen Buhai (ch. 4) in his Fayan 法言, but never with Laozi, who is mentioned separately in chapters 4 and 7. It may or may not be worth mentioning that the Guodian and Mawangdui tombs which contained the proto-Laozi/Laozi texts contained many other “philosophical” works, but did not contain any material found in the Zhuangzi.

[27] Charles Le Blanc, Huai-nan-tzu: Philosophical Synthesis in Early Han Thought, Hong Kong University Press, 1985, p. 83.

[28] Trans. Sarah Queen and Judson Murray, in The Huainanzi by John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Seth Meyer and Harold D. Roth, Columbia University Press, 2010 p. 427, 854.

[29] Records of the Grand Historian of China, Volume II: The Age of Emperor Wu, 140 to circa 100 B.C., Columbia University Press, 1961, p. 473.

[30] The Wisdom of Laotse, Greenwood Press, 1979, p. 10-11 (originally published in 1948).

[31] Disputers of the Tao, p. 172; Chuang-Tzu, p. 6.

[32] Disputers of the Tao, p. 171.

[33] Ibid. p. 172.

[34] Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts, Open Court, 1991, p. 281-2.

[35] Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi, SUNY, 1998, p. 1.

[36] See Robert Henricks, Lao-Tzu: Te-Tao Ching, Random House, 1993, p. xiii-xiv (originally published in 1989); Angus Graham, Disputers of the Tao p. 170 ff.; Yuri Pines, Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era, University of Hawai’i Press, 2009, p. 36-7.

[37] Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, Routledge, 2005 p. 33.

[38] A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 11-12 ff. W. Allyn Rickett also takes this approach as found in his Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China, Vol. II, Princeton University Press, 1998, p. 17-18.

[39] “Taoism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition). While this suggests that the Laozi is older than the Zhuangzi and the Logicians, it could also suggest that it was composed in an environment isolated from those thinkers. See also Hansen’s Tao Te Ching on The Art of Harmony, p. 24.

[40] Tao Te Ching on The Art of Harmony, p. 243.

[41] Original Tao, p. 7.

[42] He writes, “a distinct group of people existed who can justifiably be labeled Daoists because they followed and recommended to others an apophatic practice of breathing meditation aimed at the mystical realization of the Way and its integration into their daily lives” (p. 173). Elsewhere Roth states, “I would argue that it is precisely the practice of inner cultivation, carried to its ultimate conclusion, that produces the profound noetic experiences from which this characteristic cosmology [of Dao] derives” (“Evidence for Stages of Meditation in Early Taoism” in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Volume 60.2, 1997, p. 296). Some others who believe that meditation or inner cultivation forms the core of early Daoism are Bruce and Takeo Brooks, The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and his Successors, Columbia University Press, 1998, p. 7; Mark Edward Lewis, Writing and Authority in Early China, SUNY Press, 1999, p. 69; Russell Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition p. 29, 59, etc..

[43] Original Tao, pp. 178—185.

[44] “Evidence for Stages of Meditation in Early Taoism,” p. 314, emphasis mine. One wonders whether all members in these communities had to practice inner cultivation. Roth acknowledges that evidence of inner cultivation is sparse in the Laozi (Original Tao, p. 147) and perhaps overstates and over-extends himself with regards to the Laozi. Cf. Roth’s “The Laozi is the Context of Early Daoist Mystical Praxis” in Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi, Mark Csikszentmihalyi and Philip J. Ivanhoe eds., SUNY, 1999.

[45] “Psychology and Self-Cultivation in Early Taoistic Thought,” p. 607. Roth maintains that the syncretist chapters of the Zhuangzi (i.e., chs. 12, 13, 14, 15, and 33), the Guanzi’s Neiye, Xinshu shang 心術上 and Xinshu xia 心術下 and the Huainanzi 淮南子 belong to the same lineage of thought that Sima Tan called Daojia and his son called Huang-Lao (“Who Compiled the Chuang Tzu” in Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts: Essays Dedicated to Angus C. Graham, Open Court Publishers, 1991). Although the affinity to the Laozi is much weaker in all but the Huainanzi, Roth still believes these to be its successors and would class them all as truly Daoist texts.

[46] In fact, Roth argues that Lao-Zhuang Daoism did not exist until centuries later. See his “Psychology and Self-Cultivation in Early Taoistic Thought” p. 606. Regarding chapters 17-22 of the Zhuangzi, however, he later wrote, “To the extent that they recast material from the ‘Inner chapters’ in new narrative frameworks and frequently see it in light of ideas from the Daodejing, these chapters represent a unique blending of the two intellectually foundational sources of early Daoism,” (“Zhuangzi,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/zhuangzi/&gt;. First published Sat Nov 10, 2001, minor correction 2008.) This blending sounds like some formulation of a Lao-Zhuang tradition.

[47] Original Tao, p. 174. (See Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, p. 60, with regards to the Laozi text itself.) Although Allyn Rickett believes the Neiye, a “Daoistic” essay regarding cultivating the mind, seems to “come from about the same time as the oldest sections of the Laozi,” he also has noticed that it discourses on a number of concepts barely mentioned, if at all, in the Laozi, and yet would appear not as developed or as sophisticated as the Zhuangzi in matters of inner cultivation. He asserts that it is the product of “an entirely separate branch of Daoism” (Guanzi, Vol. II, p. 38) Thus, it would seem he sides with Roth that the inner cultivation practices is the common denominator of all early Daoist texts, although he regards the origins of Daoism to lie elsewhere as well (see p. 18).

[48] Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China, Oxford University Press, p. 281.

[49] Livia Kohn, Daoism and Early Chinese Culture, Three Pines Press, 2002, p. 27, (originally published in 2001); Isabelle Robinet, translated by Phyllis Brooks, Taoism: Growth of a Religion, Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 31.

[50] See Feng Youlan (a.k.a. Fung Yulan), A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Free Press Publishers, 1966/1948, Derk Bodde ed., p. 60-1, Joseph Needham, via Colin A. Ronan in The Shorter Science and Civilization in China I, 1980, p. 85-6, and Robert Eno’s online paper “The Daodejing,” found here: http://www.indiana.edu/~p374/Daodejing.pdf

[51] Classifying the Zhuangzi Chapters, University of Michigan’s Center for Chinese Studies, 1994, p. 167. We can note that the Legalists also criticize orthodox values.

[52] “What is Taoism” Journal of the American Oriental Society 76.3, 1956, p. 167.

[53] Ibid. p. 169.

[54] The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Tê Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, Grove Press, 1958, p. 51, (originally published in 1934).

[55] “Aspects of Xunzi’s Engagement with Early Daoism” in Philosophy East and West 53.1, 2003, note 1.

[56] A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, p. 202, 204. Cf. “A Tao of Tao in Chuang-tzu” in Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu, University of Hawai’i Press, 1983, pp. 25-7.

[57] Ibid. p. 204.

[58] “Taoism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), first published on Wed Feb 19, 2003. Last modified on Dec 19, 2012.

Questions and comments welcome.