30a: Taoism & Chuang Tzu

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Chuang Tzu (350-275 BCE)

According to traditional histories, the major Taoist personality of the Warring States Era was Chuang Tzu (approx. 350-275 BCE). Chuang Tzu might have been a real person. In contrast, Lao Tzu, the Old Master, was probably a mythological personage. Chuang Tzu also might have been the primary author of the writings bearing his name, the Chuang Tzu, though probably not. Regardless of historicity, the book is far more important than the man.

The Chuang Tzu compared to the Lao Tzu

Just as the Lao Tzu was probably an accumulation of writings and saying under the name of Lao Tzu, the Chuang Tzu was also an accumulation of writings under the name of Chuang Tzu. While the Lao Tzu was an accumulation of sayings and popular wisdom, the Chuang Tzu was an accumulation of stories and events. Although much other material has been appended to the writings that bear the name Chuang Tzu, the central core seems to be written by one author. Perhaps accumulating writings under a single name added prestige, just as attaching the name Lao Tzu to the Tao te Ching.

Chuang Tzu, the book, more important than Chuang Tzu the human

Just as the Tao Te Ching acquired an importance independent of Lao Tzu, the Chuang Tzu acquired an importance independent of the Chuang Tzu, the man. This is to be contrasted with the importance of Jesus, Buddha, and Confucius. They were real human beings with a historical impact, independent of any writings that may or may not be associated with them.

Chuang Tzu, the man – Chuang Tzu, the book

A typical Taoist history

Nearly everything about the history of Taoism flies against the facts of common knowledge. As mentioned earlier, the traditional history of Taoism begins with Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching in about 500 BCE. Then a few hundred years later, another great Taoist thinker emerges named Chuang Tzu, who writes a lot of stories about Taoism that link Lao Tzu and Confucius. He’s the funny one.

Cleary’s History

To give an example of this typical abbreviation, let me present a brief history of Taoism conveyed by the great modern translator of Chinese texts, Thomas Cleary.

“The Tao Te Ching is an anthology of ancient sayings, poems, and proverbs; its compilation is attributed to the prototypical Lao-tzu, “The Old Master,” who is regarded as one of the greatest ancestors of Taoism. Chuang-tzu, traditionally said to have been written by a Taoist named Chuang Chou, is a collection of stories and monologues illustrating and expounding the teachings of the Tao Te Ching. Together they present the philosophical and practical core of classical Taoism.

The Tao Te Ching is commonly believed to have been compiled around 500 BC, near the end of the Spring and Autumn era, when the social and political order of China was disintegrating rapidly. The Chuang-tzu was written about 300 BC, during the era of the Warring States, when the classical civilization of China was all but destroyed by civil wars.”8

This history is included in Cleary’s book which he calls The Essential Tao; an Initiation into the Heart of Taoism through the Authentic Tao Te Ching and the Inner Teachings of Chuang Tzu. 

Chuang Tzu, a disciple of Lao Tzu?

A clear implication of Cleary’s book title combined with the introduction is that Chuang Tzu and his book historically followed Lao Tzu with his book, the Tao Te Ching. Together these books represent ‘An Initiation into the Heart of Taoism.’ Second Cleary states that the Chuang Tzu illustrates and expounds the teachings of the Tao Te Ching.  The compact little image one gets is that Lao Tzu with his Tao Te Ching got the Taoist ball rolling, while Chuang Tzu continued his work by writing another book which furthered the teachings of Lao Tzu and Taoism. Further we get the idea that if we read and understand these books that we will be initiated into the Heart of Taoism. This is the common understanding, but is only one of the many veils of illusion that must be removed.9

Taoism and Chaos connected

One of the themes that Cleary develops convincingly, which we will see repeated in Chinese history, is that the emergence and ascendancy of Taoism is linked with the disintegration of Chinese social order. It as if Taoism is most suited to deal with chaotic systems because of its immense flexibility. The more rigid systems are shaken apart when turbulence begins to appear. Taoism rides the crest of these waves due to its formlessness.

Chuang Tzu from the Shang state of Sung

To dispel common illusions, let us begin with some reality checks. Chuang Tzu is about as historical as Lao Tzu. Writing nearly 200 years after Chuang Tzu supposedly lived, Ssu ma Chien, China’s premier historian, makes only a few brief references to a historical personage named Chuang Chou. Because Chuang Chou is named in the Chuang Tzu, many writers prior to the 21th century interpreted this as an autobiographical reference. Modern scholarship questions this belief due to lack of hard evidence.

Ssu ma Chien’s account states that Chuang Chou, a.k.a. Chuang Tzu, probably lived in the state of Sung, a remnant of the Shang dynasty and one of the most violent and treacherous states in a violent time. This type of capricious government could have easily inspired the extreme rejection of authority that we find in the Chuang Tzu. However, just as in Lao Tzu’s case, the historical importance of the book far transcends the historical individual.

Chuang Tzu not mythological

Lao Tzu is turned into a mythological character, a Taoist Immortal. In contrast, Chuang Tzu remains an obscure Taoist, who minded his business staying out of trouble. Chuang Tzu never becomes mythological.

Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu reach modern form in the early Han

Because of literary references and allusions, it seems that the Lao Tzu circulated early in the Han dynasty (≈ 200 BCE).10 References to the Chuang Tzu, the book, are rare and highly questionable. Further literary analysts suggest that many stories from the Chuang Tzu seem to have been authored in the early Han or even later. Whether an original author began the accumulation is secondary to the fact that an accumulation of stories were added on to the Chuang Tzu.

7 inner chapters of 52 chapter Chuang Tzu by one inspired author

At the beginning of the 4th century CE, Kuo Hsiang (died 312 CE) condensed an earlier 52-section Chuang Tzu into a 33-section version. This is the version that is known to us today. In other words, the Chuang Tzu, like the Lao Tzu, reached its final form centuries after its purported author died.

Many 21st century scholars believe that Kuo Hsiang didn’t just organize the work, but actually authored much of it.11 Whether true or not, the Chuang Tzu achieved an upsurge in popularity during the relative social chaos of the 3 Kingdoms Era. If the book had even existed before this point, it was just an obscure work that was rarely or questionably referenced.

Kuo Hsiang organized his 33-section version was into 7 inner chapters, 15 outer chapters and 11 miscellaneous chapters. Many scholars feel that the outer and miscellaneous chapters are an inferior accretion of a later date. It seems that a single inspired author wrote the 7 inner chapters at an early date. This author gave the 7 inner chapters titles, while the titles of the rest are merely the first lines of the sections.

“It is generally agreed that the seven ‘inner chapters’ … constitute the heart of the Chuang Tzu. They contain all the important ideas, are written in a brilliant and distinctive –though difficult–style, and are probably the earliest in date, though so far no way has been found to prove this last assumption.”12

Chuang Tzu of inconsistent quality

Although it accrued over centuries, the entirety of the Lao Tzu is revered like a sacred work. The Chuang Tzu is of uneven quality, with translators frequently omitting many of the outer and miscellaneous sections. Burton Watson includes four other sections in addition to the 7 inner chapters in his translation of the Chuang Tzu, while Thomas Cleary only includes the 7 inner chapters in his translation. While it seems certain that the Lao Tzu was the work of many authors over multiple centuries, it seems that one man wrote the primary Chuang Tzu, i.e. the 7 inner chapters.

Dispelling Taoist Myths

The Lao Tzu  and Chuang Tzu  secondary sources

Many consider Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu to be the founders of Taoism and believe their respective books to be the bibles of Taoism. However, the term Taoism was only applied to groups associated with Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu centuries after their deaths. Further, the term was used as a general catchall applying to many different types of shamanistic practices. These practices were not transmitted verbally. Although containing some of the key beliefs and concepts of Taoism, the Chuang Tzu only hints at their practices. Yet for Taoists, practices are more important than words. Although the Chuang Tzu has proved nearly as influential as the Tao Te Ching in the ideational history of Taoism, both are separated by ideas from the practices that are the true heart of Taoism.

Taoism practiced, not understood

Learning Taoism from the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu without physical practices would be akin to learning about biking by reading a manual that was meant to popularize the sport written by a great bicyclist without having a bike; learning about wine from a book written by a great wine connoisseur without tasting any wine; learning from a book written by a master violinist about how to play the violin without a violin. The words of the Tao Te Ching or the Chuang Tzu are certainly not going to be able to encompass the non-verbal nature of the Tao.

The Lao Tzu  and Chuang Tzu  differ significantly

Further the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu differ significantly. Although there is concurrence, one is composed of ideas while the other of stories. Chuang Tzu’s stories attempt to shatter one’s verbal reality, while the Lao Tzu establishes a verbal reality. As mentioned, the Chuang Tzu is funny, poking fun at everyone including himself, while the Lao Tzu is serious. Both contain passages that are a reaction to the Confucian school. The two books could easily have evolved concurrently from two separate schools.

 “The person who wrote what we find in the Chuang Tzu was certainly not trying to explain or build upon anything we find in the Tao te Ching. … The Chuang Tzu can be seen as a repository of a specific range of ideas and interests, which do not even overlap in most ways with the specific range of ideas and interests that we see in the Tao te Ching.”13

It is evident that modern 21st century scholarship is clearly at odds with Cleary’s assertion that the Chuang Tzuillustrates and expounds the teachings of the Tao Te Ching’.

Themes of the Chuang Tzu

Poking fun at authority

Poking fun at authority in any form, whether political or philosophical, is one of the major themes of the Chuang Tzu. The book is fun loving, playful and humorous. Its wisdom is that of laughter and smiles rather than that of somber thinking. Neither the Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, the Four Gospels of Jesus, the Bible, nor much of traditional Buddhist writings contain anything that is intended to make one laugh. In contrast, the Chuang Tzu is filled with funny situations and many chuckles.

Paradox and contradiction

In its nature of poking fun at dogmatism and authority, it takes nothing seriously, including itself. One of its thrusts is to break the mindset of the reader. In one story Lao Tzu appears to be wise, while in another he might appear foolish. The Chuang Tzu is filled with paradox and contradiction. It shows wise men acting foolishly and foolish men acting wisely. Everything is topsy-turvy in the Chuang Tzu. While the Lao Tzu is philosophically paradoxical, it is not playful. The future playfulness of Chan Buddhism, commonly called Zen, is more rooted in the Chuang Tzu, not in the Lao Tzu.

The Chuang Tzu regularly makes fun of verbal understanding, especially Confucian. Many of the stories imply that mental constructs block the ability to wander freely. Ideas seem to prevent the ‘ideal’ True Man from experiencing life directly. The theme of freedom pervades the text. However the book does not tell us how to break our ideational chains, just that we should aim in the direction of mental freedom.

Lao Tzu meets Confucius

One of the common techniques of the Chuang Tzu is to show historical and mythological personages interacting. Some of his dialogues show the interaction of Confucius and Lao Tzu. Although there is little evidence that they ever interacted, even if Lao Tzu really did exist, later writers took this as historical evidence that Confucius was a younger contemporary of Lao Tzu. It seems sure that Chuang Tzu, or whoever wrote the book, is laughing from his Immortal grave. Although many of his stories had to do with the relative nature of truth in the face of the reality of humor, later writers took his words as historical truth. He would be proud that his words created a non-existent reality. When this veil of illusion is removed, it further exposes the relative nature of truth.


8 Cleary, The Essential Tao, p. 2

9 Cleary is not to be blamed for the illusions that he creates any more than Chuang Tzu could be criticized for the illusions he creates. Cleary is attempting to draw the public in to read these works. Perhaps the public will be drawn into the real practices of Taoism in attempting to understand these works. Cleary himself is not merely an academic, but has experienced Golden Flower consciousness through deep meditation practices associated with a Master.

10 Chuang Tzu basic writings, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 1964, p. 8

11 Kirkland, Taoism, the Enduring Tradition, Routledge, 2004, p. 34

12 Watson, p. 14

13 Kirkland, 2004, p. 36


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