Zhuangzi (traditional Chinese characters: 莊子) was a fourth-century B.C.E. Chinese thinker of startling depth and originality, and author of a text with the same name. Zhuangzi expanded the Chinese understanding of Dao (Tao), explored its relationship with Heaven (or Nature), and firmly planted human beings within this context. Further, the Zhuangzi text described in great detail the means to an optimal human life through a combination of wu-wei and meditation. The text was additionally renowned for its use of humor, parable, and paradox in the dissemination of its teachings. Both Zhuangzi and the text credited to him have influenced many aspects of historical Chinese culture, from the development of Ch’an Buddhism to the styles and methods of Chinese painting, calligraphy, and poetry.

The Historical Zhuangzi

Little is known about the historical Zhuangzi. His biography, written by the historian Sima Qian, states that his personal name was “Zhou” and that he dwelt in Honan province, working in the Lacquer Garden (though the precise meaning of this phrase is presently unknown). He is described turning down an official political appointment, preferring to “drag his tail in the mud” instead of slaving away at the behest of a ruler (Chan 1963; Fowler 2005).

Unlike the cryptic Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching), the Zhuangzi as a text offers some valuable clues towards the historicity and identity of Zhuangzi. In the first case, his text contains copious references to geographical places, ruling families, and other philosophers (namely Confucius and Huizi), which have allowed scholars to (fairly decisively) place him within the fourth century B.C.E. Likewise, the style of the text (discussed in more detail below) exists as evidence of an utterly original thinker. It would not be an overstatement to describe him as a Warring States-era Voltaire, poking holes in the moral and philosophical complacency of his fellows, belittling them not with invective but with humor and mockery (Chan 1963; Graham 1989; Fowler 2005).

Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly (or a Butterfly Dreaming of Zhuangzi)

Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly (or a Butterfly Dreaming of Zhuangzi)

The Zhuangzi Text

Main article: Zhuangzi (Book)

Though many Chinese philosophers and historians (from the esteemed Sima Qhian onward) have grouped the Zhuangzi and the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) under the heading “Daoism” (Taoism), the two texts share as many differences as they do similarities. For instance, though they both possess a similar cosmological scheme (centered on an ineffable, though utterly immanent Way Tao), and both advocate a similar ethic of action (called wu-wei), they present these ideas in a radically different manner. While the Dao De Jing is characterized by short, cryptic aphorisms, the Zhuangzi is notable for its use of multiple (often divergent) styles in making its points. In a given section, the text uses parables, dialogues, paradoxes, and even jokes as teaching tools—each aiding in imparting the philosopher’s unique perspective. To appreciate the Zhuangzi’s sense of humor, one must simply note its frequent tendency to place its most important teachings into the mouths of questionable speakers, including madmen, criminals, talking trees, and philosophical rivals (most often Confucius).

The text itself is typically divided into three sections: the Inner Chapters (sections 1-7), the Outer Chapters (8-22), and the Miscellaneous Chapters (23-33). Of these, only the Inner Chapters are thought to originate from Zhuangzi himself, as they bear an internally consistent style and philosophical outlook. In contrast, the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters vary considerably in terms of approach, philosophical stance, and even quality. This disjunction in quality underlies Arthur Waley’s statement that “some parts are by a splendid poet, others are by a feeble scribbler” (1956: 256).

As with many edited volumes, modern textual criticism has isolated some particular philosophical strata within the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters of the received text. Specifically, they argue for the presence of a “School of Chuang-tzu,” “Primitivist,” “Yangist,” and “Syncretist” strand—each with its own philosophical agenda and idiosyncratic interpretation of the source material (see Graham 1989; Liu 1991). Because of these later accretions, the philosophy sections below will primarily use examples from the Inner Chapters (due to the common consensus that they represent the oldest and most authentic elements of the text).

Philosophical Themes in the Zhuangzi

Tao and Cosmology

The first philosophically notable feature of the Zhuangzi is a cosmology centered on Dao (Tao) and Heaven. In it, Dao has three primary meanings: it is understood as the ontological source of creation, the process of constant change that characterizes the created world, and the path of human action that can align individuals with this overarching cosmic process. Heaven, in this framework, is primarily used both as a counterpart to earth (in descriptions of the natural world) and as a synonym for the “processual” aspect of the Dao (see Chan 1963; Graham 1989).

The Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi feature a notable creation account that demonstrates two of these three understandings of Dao:

The Way has its reality and its signs but is without action or form. You can hand it down but you cannot receive it; you can get it but you cannot see it. It is its own source, its own root. Before Heaven and earth existed it was there, firm from ancient times. It gave spirituality to the spirits and to God; it gave birth to Heaven and to earth. It exists beyond the highest point, and yet you cannot call it lofty; it exists beneath the limit of the six directions, and yet you cannot call it deep. It was born before Heaven and earth, and yet you cannot say it has been there for long; it is earlier than the earliest time, and yet you cannot call it old (Zhuangzi ch. 6, BW 77).

As can be seen, this account explicitly describes the Dao in its roles as cosmic originator and as path of practice. Zhuangzi further explores this unique understanding of Tao and Heaven through the parable of the “piping of the earth.” In it, a student asks his venerable teacher how to effectively meditate (making “the body like a withered tree and the mind like dead ashes”). The teacher replies that doing so requires one to “hear the piping of Heaven.” When asked to extrapolate, he continues:

The Great Clod [Tao] belches forth breath and its name is wind. So long as it doesn’t come forth, nothing happens. But when it does, then ten thousand hollows begin crying wildly…. And when the fierce wind has passed on, then all the hollows are empty again.

Tzu-yu [the student] said, “By the piping of the earth, then, you mean simply [the sound of] these hollows, and by the piping of man [the sound of] flutes and whistles. But may I ask about the piping of Heaven?”

Tzu-ch’i said, “Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself—all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?” (Zhuangzi ch. 2, BW 31–32)

In this tale, the relationship between Tao and Heaven is elucidated: the Tao is the source of change and action in the world (as it is the ultimate cause of the wind), and Heaven is the worldly, instantiated form of this process (as it is credited for directly causing action (by “blowing on [each of] the ten thousand things in a different way”). For this reason, the text suggests that one who can understand “the Way [Tao]…may be called the Reservoir of Heaven” (Zhuangzi ch. 2, BW 40; see also Zhuangzi ch. 6, BW 73).

(Anti-) Epistemology

The second, and likely most distinctive, aspect of Zhuangzi’s philosophy is his distrust of discursive language. Given his emphasis on the transformative and transitory nature of reality (based upon his views of Dao and Heaven as processes of cosmic flux), such distrust is understandable. Names and labels are all-too-human attempts to categorize the world and, in categorizing it, to postulate an unchanging order. For Zhuangzi, this attempt could only end in failure. Further, given his cosmological views, attempts to assign values and categories are fundamentally contrary to the natural functioning of the world, causing him to suggest that “because right and wrong appeared, the Way was injured” (Zhuangzi ch. 2, BW 37).

To demonstrate this point, the text uses its characteristic humor to make traditionally uncontested categories seem contingent and uncertain. For example, one can turn to his discussion of physical attraction:

Monkeys pair with monkeys, deer go out with deer, and fish play around with other fish. Men claim that Mao-ch’iang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run. Of these four, which knows how to fix the standard of beauty for the world? The way I see it, the rules of benevolence and righteousness and the paths of right and wrong are hopelessly snarled and jumbled (Zhuangzi ch. 2, BW 41).

Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that the meanings of words are merely conventional—that there is no ultimate standard for names and preferences: “What is acceptable we call acceptable; what is unacceptable we call unacceptable. A road is made by people walking on it; things are so because they are called so” (Zhuangzi ch. 2, BW 35–36).

This avoidance of traditional categories includes the use of various shocking or surprising tactics to draw his readers into a wordless realization of the contingency of rational language. As one example, Zhuangzi often uses marginalized groups as expositors of truth in his various tales and parables. Chapter 5 of the text features various accounts of criminals and cripples as ultimate teachers (note: often these two categories were synonymous, as the classical Chinese punishment for many infractions was amputation of one or more extremities). In one of these tales, Confucius is described as a willing disciple, one of many crowding around to hear the emancipatory teaching of a former criminal. As another example, the text often discourses warmly on the topic of death, as it is completely a natural part of the cosmic process. Chapter 6 of the Zhuangzi includes numerous tales of sages reacting calmly (and even with humor) to the ailing and deaths of their close friends and relatives. In one of these tales, a sage argues that “the Great Clod [Dao] burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death” (Zhuangzi ch. 6, BW 76). As a final example, the text extends its irreverential reach to the Dao itself, when it admits that, for the Dao to be a universal process, it must be present everywhere (not just in “auspicious” or “savory” places):

Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, “This thing called the Way – where does it exist?”
Chuang Tzu said, “There’s no place it doesn’t exist.”
“Come,” said Master Tung-kuo, “you must be more specific!”
“It is in the ant.”
“As low a thing as that?”
“It is in the panic grass.”
“But that’s lower still!”
“It is in the tiles and shards.”
“How can it be so low?”
“It is in the [urine] and [excrement].” (Zhuangzi used the crude and profane expressions for this.) (Zhuangzi ch. 22, quoted in Watson 1996: 16).

In this way, Zhuangzi argues for two related points. First, such an argument emphasizes the true universality of the Dao (as it is truly present in all places and all things); second, it stresses the futility of imposing artificial categories (as his statements are only shocking when approached through the lens of conventional, discursive, evaluative language).

Practical Ethics

In addition to the philosophical points described above, the Zhuangzi also features extensive discussion of proper ways of behaving within the world. These discussions often take one of two forms: depictions of the actions of exemplary people (the True man or sage does x) or discussions between a teacher and a student, where the teacher’s comments are meant to be enlightening to the reader of the text. Three of the major behavioral/ethical issues addressed through these methods are naturalness, wu-wei, and meditation.


As the Zhuangzi’s cosmology stresses the variability of the natural and human worlds, the optimal behavioral response is to calmly accept the vicissitudes of fate as being natural. The text eloquently argues for the advantages of living one’s life as naturally as possible—to accept one’s inclinations and aptitudes as they are, instead of gauging them in response to social pressures and stigma. This perspective is echoed in the Zhuangzi’s many “parables of the useless”:

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, “I have a big tree called a shu. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice….”

Chuang Tzu said, “…Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why not plant it in…[the Tao], relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain? (Zhuangzi ch. 1, BW 29–30)

This same point is made throughout Chapter 4, with the depictions of various creatures that are inappropriate for sacrifice (sporting blemishes that are, in fact, highly advantageous to the animals in question) (59–63). This lionization of naturalness in thought yields a particular mode of action when practiced, namely wu-wei.


Wu-wei (literally “non-action”) is simultaneously one of the most intriguing and one of the most confounding elements of Daoist thought. Fortunately, the Zhuangzi’s philosophical tenets provide an elegant backdrop for understanding this concept. As with many other thorny philosophical issues, Zhuangzi approaches wu-wei primarily through parable (instead of discursive argument). The text is peppered with tales of skillful archers, butchers, and cicada catchers, lowly folks who have achieved mastery of their various fields through the application of “action-less action.” One of the most famous of these accounts is the tale of Cook Ting:

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-Hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee—zip! Zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he was performing the dance of the Mulberry grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years, I no longer saw the whole ox. And now—now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint….

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until—flop! The whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off my knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life” (Zhuangzi ch. 3, BW 46–47).

It is not an exaggeration to state that virtually every description of an exemplary person within the text features (or is predicated upon) accepting the natural and acting accordingly (through wu-wei). For example, consider the practical advice given by Confucius to a disciple in Chapter 4:

To serve your own mind so that sadness or joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to be content with it as with fate—this is the perfection of virtue. As a subject and a son, you are bound to find things you cannot avoid. If you act in accordance with the state of affairs and forget about yourself, then what leisure will you have to love life and hate death? Act in this way and you will be all right” (Zhuangzi ch. 4, BW 56; see also Zhuangzi ch. 6, BW 74, 85; Zhuangzi ch. 7, BW 95).

By doing so, the sage “doesn’t allow likes or dislikes to get in and do him harm. He just lets things be the way they are and doesn’t try to help life along” (Zhuangzi ch. 5, BW 72). For Zhuangzi, this is the practical path to a successful life.


A final innovation of the text was to provide one of the earliest descriptions of a meditative lifestyle in Chinese literature. While the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) was often (re)interpreted as a meditation manual throughout its storied history, the Zhuangzi features numerous passages that openly discuss meditation practices and the advantages gained by utilizing them. For example, Chapter 4 features a dialogue between Confucius and a student, in which the student asks his master how to achieve success in his worldly affairs. Confucius replies that he must fast, but then elaborates:

Do you think it is easy to do anything while you have a mind? If you do, Bright Heaven will not sanction you…. [Instead,] make your will one. Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind. No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and waits on all things. The Way gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the Mind” (Zhuangzi ch. 4, BW 53–54).

In the above section, Confucius advocates a meditational process of emptying the mind and making oneself receptive to the Way. In a similar manner, a later dialogue between Confucius and Yen Hui (one of his disciples) turns their relationship on its head following Confucius’s realization of his student’s meditational achievements:

Yen Hui said, “I’m improving!”

[Confucius replied,] “What do you mean by that?”

“I can sit down and forget everything!”

Confucius looked very startled and said, “What do you mean, sit down and forget everything?”

Yen Hui said, “I smash up my limbs and body, drive out perception and intellect, cast off form, do away with understanding and make myself identical with the Great Thoroughfare [Tao]. This is what I mean by sitting down and forgetting everything.”

Confucius said, “If you’re identical with it, you must have no more likes! If you’ve been transformed, you must have no more constancy! So you really are a worthy man after all! With your permission, I’d like to become your follower” (Zhuangzi ch. 6, BW 87).

In both of these cases, meditation is seen as the primary means of aligning oneself with Heaven. However, as Graham suggests, the text acknowledges that a person cannot live forever in this realm, which is why it advocates both meditation and wu-wei, allowing an individual to live both “in Heaven’s party” and “in man’s party” (1989: 196).


Due perhaps to the text’s difficulty in meaning and to its critique by Sima Qian, the Zhuangzi never attained the height of popularity that the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) enjoyed. However, it remained a vital component of Chinese intellectual culture, influencing the development of Ch’an (later Zen) Buddhism and inspiring generations of painters, artisans, poets, and philosophers (Chan 1963).

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia