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Debate on identity of Zhuangzi reflects diversified culture in modern China

Author  :  WEI YIXIA     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-03-13

Pictured here is the painting Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly created by Fan Ji in 1988. The book Zhuangzi recorded that Zhuangzi did not know whether he had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed it was Zhuangzi, which exemplified his philosophical thinking about the transformation of things.

During the Spring and Autumn (770-476 BCE) and Warring States (475-221BCE) periods, there emerged many great thinkers, such as Laozi, Zhuangzi, Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Mozi and Hanfeizi. They stated their views on society from different perspectives, which gradually coalesced into schools of philosophy represented mainly by Taoism, Confucianism, Mohism and Legalism. These philosophies came to be known as the “Hundred Schools of Thought.”

In terms of the connections between these schools and their advocates, thinkers in modern China offered different interpretations. During the period, China was gripped by domestic strife and foreign aggression, and Chinese intellectuals attempted to explore new theories to save the country and its people. In this context, modern Chinese philosophy witnessed the introduction of Indian and Western philosophy as well as the integration of Confucianism, Mohism, Taoism and Legalism, making it far more open, diversified and inclusive compared with ancient times. The debate about the intellectual pedigree of the philosopher Zhuangzi (c. 369-286 BCE) at that time is a typical example of this.

Five identities

Modern Chinese thinkers faced the historical mission of answering the questions of cultural identity and self-identification, which would enable the Chinese nation to build up a sense of national confidence and pride, and resist bullying from outside powers. They were keen to probe into philosophical thoughts of pre-Qin times, which were the academic origins of Chinese culture. As a result, identities of pre-Qin philosophers also became a hot topic for modern Chinese thinkers. Among these philosophers, perceptions on the identity of Zhuangzi differ greatly.

Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a prominent political thinker and reformer of the late Qing Dynasty, put forward at least five points of view on the identity of Zhuangzi, covering almost all the positions of modern Chinese thinkers.

The first point of view looked at Zhuangzi in relation to Confucius (551-479 BCE). Kang argued that Zhuangzi is an inheritor of Confucius’s proposition of “social harmony,” highlighting his role in the Confucian school. From the second perspective, Zhuangzi was viewed as a follower of Laozi (c. 571-471 BCE). Kang put him on a par with Laozi, highlighting his role in the Taoist School.

The third position argued that Zhuangzi mainly follows the philosophy of Confucius and then that of Laozi. From the fourth perspective, it was argued that Zhuangzi mainly follows the philosophy of Laozi and then that of Confucius. Kang regarded Legalist scholars Shenzi (c. 400-337 BCE) and Hanfeizi (c. 280-233 BCE) as the direct inheritors of the philosophy of Laozi. From the fifth perspective, Zhuangzi is treated as independent of Confucius and Laozi. Kang emphasized that theories of Zhuangzi are closely related to those of Liezi (c. 450-375 BCE).

It should be noted that Kang offered strong arguments for the five fundamentally different viewpoints.

Influence of personal stands

It is clear that modern Chinese thinkers held different views on the identity of Zhuangzi. Chinese scholar Tan Sitong (1865-98) believed Zhuangzi to be a follower of the philosophy of Confucius. Tan drew upon different evidence from Kang Youwei to argue that Zhuangzi was a follower of the Confucian school. Other scholars, such as Yan Fu (1854-1921), Liang Qichao (1873-1929) and Zhang Binglin (1868-1936), believed Zhuangzi a follower of the philosophy of Laozi, each of them adopting a different perspective.

Perceptions of modern Chinese thinkers on the identity of Zhuangzi are closely related to their own attitudes toward ancient philosophers and the overall outlook for Chinese culture. Those who admired Confucius, such as Tian Sitong, tended to regard Zhuangzi as a follower of the Confucian school, while those who admired Laozi, such as Yan Fu and Zhang Binglin, tended to regard Zhuangzi as a follower of Laozi.

Kang Youwei, on one hand, idolized Confucius, claiming that six Chinese classics—Odes, History, Changes, Spring and Autumn, Rituals, and Music—were created by Confucius, and that all schools of thoughts derived from the philosophy of Confucius. Believing that the theories of Laozi were contrary to the purposes of Confucian philosophy, he advocated Confucianism as the leading school for the nation while downplaying the propositions of Laozi. Under the circumstances, Kang regarded Zhuangzi as an inheritor of Confucius’s proposition of “social harmony.” On the other hand, he could not deny a favorable view of Laozi, believing Zhuangzi to be a representative of Laozi’s proposition of health preservation.


Kang Youwei viewed Zhuangzi as a follower of Confucius or Laozi in different contexts to testify to the thoughts of Confucius or Laozi by drawing support from Zhuangzi. The premise is that Zhuangzi can be independent of Confucius and Laozi, adding uncertainty to his identity. However, such uncertainty is more a peculiarity of the philosophy of Zhuangzi than a feature given by modern Chinese thinkers.

It is for this reason that there have been differing opinions on the identity of Zhuangzi throughout history. In the chapter Ranked Biographies of Laozi and Hanfeizi of his book Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), a Chinese historian of the Han Dynasty, regarded Zhuangzi as a follower of Laozi. However some dissented from the mainstream view, regarding Zhuangzi as a follower of the Confucian school.

The profound teachings of Zhuangzi and the all-encompassing book of Zhuangzi leave endless room for interpretation by later generations. However, such inclusiveness is not afforded to Mencius, Xunzi and Hanfeizi.

The inclusiveness of the ideas of Zhuangzi was mirrored by the integrated and diversified modern Chinese culture, which is the main reason why modern Chinese thinkers liked discussing Zhuangzi. Based on this, they elaborated on the philosophy of Zhuangzi from various perspectives. Kang Youwei interpreted Zhuangzi from a Confucian perspective, asserting that Zhuangzi emphasized the philosophy of the mind, like Confucius. From a Taoist perspective, it could also be argued that Zhuangzi advocated metaphysics like Laozi. Kang even blended the philosophy of Laozi and Buddhism, which already was a fashion during the Wei and Jin dynasties. Other modern Chinese scholars Tan Sitong, Yan Fu, Liang Qichao and Zhang Binglin also interpreted the philosophy of Zhuangzi based on different identities they gave to Zhuangzi.

Bridge for Chinese, Western culture

In addition to probing pre-Qin philosophy, modern Chinese thinkers started an enlightenment movement to learn from the West. They attempted to draw on available academic resources at all times and around the world to push forward modernization of Chinese culture. In the process, they integrated Western learning and Buddhism into the thoughts of Zhuangzi. In turn, they paid attention to its similarities with Western learning and Buddhism when interpreting the philosophy of Zhuangzi.

Whether Zhuangzi is a follower of Confucius or Laozi, there are similarities between his ideas and Buddhism. Zhuangzi is most closely related to Buddhism, Kang Youwei argued. By proposing five different identities, Kang offered different explanations in terms of the similarities between the philosophy of Zhuangzi and Buddhism. Kang even praised Zhuangzi as the Buddha of China.

Different perceptions of modern Chinese thinkers on the identity of Zhuangzi lend support to the view that Zhuangzi was independent from both Confucius and Laozi. However, they all agreed on similarities between the philosophy of Zhuangzi and Buddhism.

Modern Chinese thinkers pointed out similarities and differences between Zhuangzi’s ideas and Western learning. In this way, they introduced modern values and perceptions to Chinese culture. Moreover, this supports the reasonability and even superiority of Chinese culture. The inclusive and diversified philosophy of Zhuangzi served as a bridge between the East and West in the history of modern China. And this is the root cause why modern Chinese thinkers were keen on studying Zhuangzi and appropriated different identities to him.


Wei Yixia is from the Research Center of Modern Chinese Thinking and Culture at Heilongjiang University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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