Guoping ZHAO

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Zhuangzi (369–289 bce) remains a key figure for the Chinese because of his passion for and pursuit of individual freedom. His idea of education grows from the Daoist school of thought, and involves deconstructing or breaking down the conventional knowledge and value structure so that the self can be freed of external constraints and internal passions. His ideas also affect education in a broad context of “person making.”

Zhuangzi 庄子, also known as Chuang-tzu, or Chuang Chou, is the successor of Laozi 老子 and the second most important contributor to the Daoist tradition. Not much is known about his life, but it is believed that Zhuangzi lived between 369 and 289 bce, more than a hundred years after Confucius 孔子, about the same time as Mencius 孟子, and a little earlier than Aristotle in ancient Greece. He is said to have worked as a minor official in the town of Meng 蒙. His texts have been compiled into the Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu), thought to have been edited and arranged by the Jin-dynasty commentator Guo Xiang 郭象 (or Kuo Hsiang), who died in 312 ce. The Zhuangzi is divided into three sections: the Inner Chapters 内篇, the Outer Chapters 外篇, and the Miscellaneous Chapters 杂篇. It is generally thought that the Inner Chapters are likely to be Zhuangzi’s own work.

While Confucius and Laozi have often been the focus of political discourse, Zhuangzi has mainly been seen as a recluse whose teaching has little relevance to issues of political governance. Zhuangzi has mostly been inspirational in the fields of poetry, literature, and Chan (Zen) Buddhist philosophy and religion. Unlike Confucius and Laozi, Zhuangzi and his work received little attention in the West for a long time, until recently when comparative philosophers noted that his epistemology resembles that of the ancient Greek skeptics and relativists.

Nevertheless, Zhuangzi remains a core figure and secret favorite in Chinese intellectuals’ spiritual and inner lives due to his passion for and pursuit of individual freedom. In Hyun Höchsmann’s (2004, 238) words, “As a defender of individual freedom against the imposition of authority and tradition, Zhuangzi is unparalleled [in Chinese philosophy].” In periods of severe oppression and constraint in Chinese history, Zhuangzi has helped build the Chinese soul, so that it can transcend the limitations of conventional life and remain spiritually free.

Negative Education: Daoism and Zhuangzi

Virtually all schools of early Chinese thought are overwhelmingly concerned with self-realization and self-cultivation. Zhuangzi is similarly concerned with self-transformation. Such schools are all educational in this sense. Education here is about acquiring knowledge, but also about shaping the self so that one can live and relate to the world differently. As Chris Fraser (2006) suggests, “Education in the early Chinese context must be understood broadly, as a process not merely of acquiring information, but of training and shaping the whole person, including his/her know-how, abilities, dispositions, and habits.” It is a “project of comprehensive ‘person-making’” (Fraser 2006, 531). For Confucius, acquiring knowledge and practicing self-cultivation is directed toward helping the person become a good ruler, a sage, or a dutiful member of the society; for Zhuangzi, however, the purpose of learning is to deconstruct or break down the conventional knowledge and value structure so that the self can be freed of external constraints and internal passions. In many aspects, Zhuangzi, as well as the Daoist tradition, thus differs from the Confucian approach to education to the extent that some have called the Daoist approach “negative education” (see Fraser 2006; Moeller 2006).

This negative education “recognizes the limitations and potential dangers” of learning and acquiring definite knowledge (Fraser 2006, 530). The conventional way of acquiring knowledge, for Zhuangzi, limits and confines people to a world of petty skills and strategies that blinds them to the “great knowledge.” In the first chapter of the Zhuangzi, “Free and Easy Wandering” 逍遙遊, Zhuangzi tells a famous story about how little insects and birds like the cicada, sparrow, and quail take pride in their petty knowledge and mock the massive Peng 鹏 bird who “mounts on the back of the wind, shoulders the blue sky, and nothing can hinder or block him” (Chuang Tzu, 24). For Zhuangzi, the little birds are confined by what they know and what they can know, and the “‘minor’ mastery or achievement in one set of practices” (Fraser 2006, 537) closes them off from the true enlightenment that comes from opening oneself to the great rhythm of the universe. “Little understanding cannot come up to great understanding” (Chuang Tzu, 24).

Education as Knowledge Acquisition

For Zhuangzi, the purpose of acquiring knowledge is to free the self from conventional burdens, not to adhere to or be limited by what one learns. He is interested in “useful knowledge” (Foucault 2005, 238), knowledge that can set people free, instead of “true” or factual knowledge that people must be bound to. To cut people loose from their attachments—along with the anxieties, fears, and worries that come with the attachments—Zhuangzi leads people to the understanding that all things in the universe are in constant transformation. In a well-known story about the death of his wife, Zhuangzi offers an understanding of life and death as only parts of the “continuum of all that exists in the constant transformation of life” (Höchsmann 2004, 241).

In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery, a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter. (Chuang Tzu, 113)

Death is probably the greatest fear of human beings. Death is unknown and unknowable; the only thing known is its absolute inevitability. It is one of the existential conditions we human beings have to live in, and it is beyond our control. To be free, we have to be able to freely and peacefully face this great inevitability. But how can we prepare ourselves for this? Zhuangzi formulates a new perspective that breaks down the great divide between life and death and looks beyond the time span of a person’s life. From this perspective, life is a continuous process with natural changes; death is not the fearful end but only one of the changes. So “the True Man (zhēnrén 真人) . . . knew nothing of loving life, knew nothing of hating death.” (Chuang Tzu, 74) Similar to what Foucault observed in the ancient Greek practice of knowledge, what is involved here is “a liberation from what we do not control to what we can control [at least in the sense that we can look at it in different ways] . . . so that [the self] is no longer enslaved, dependent, and constrained” (Foucault 2005, 210, 212) by death.

In his second chapter, “Seeing All Things as Equal” 齐物论, Zhuangzi expresses the idea that attachments and discriminations are caused by societal value structures and conventions. These structures and conventions set limitations on people’s views and bring anxiety and worry to people’s lives. To cut themselves loose from the attachments, it is necessary to break down the divides and boundaries people have assigned to things in the world. That is why messages such as the following are so readily interpreted as conveying a skeptical epistemology and a relativist position.

Monkeys pair with monkeys, deer go out with deer, and fish play around with 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 all hopelessly snarled and jumbled. How could I know anything about such discriminations? (Chuang Tzu, 41)

Zhuangzi is saying in this message that knowledge depends on perspective, and no perspective is not limited; thus all perspectives should be looked upon with suspicious eyes. We cannot and should not hold onto any of the perspectives. For Zhuangzi, this “loosening up” of our hold on perspectives sheds light on the common social discriminations and attachments that have caused us toil, sorrow, and suffering. Zhuangzi’s ultimate concern in “seeing all things as equal” is to free people so that they are not trapped and harmed by their discriminative minds and conventional attachments. Zhuangzi realizes that we all prefer beauty over ugliness, wealth over poverty, and glory over obscurity, and because of these attachments, we become servants of social conventions and we are not free. To transform our being to achieve the utmost freedom, Zhuangzi deconstructs the worldly standards and prejudices and urges us to overcome our desires and rise above the conventions. “Suspension of judgment is valuable because it and only it provides peace of mind” (Kjellberg 1996, 7).

Zhuangzi’s second chapter ends with a famous story that uses a dream he had to illustrate a crucial awareness.

Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakably Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.” (Chuang Tzu, 45)

The interchangeability of Zhuangzi and the butterfly challenges our tight grip on our self. The naturalness of our dreams is also enough to question and challenge the certainty we credit to our knowledge. So why seek for and hold on to an objective form of knowledge? For Zhuangzi, knowing is never just about acquiring objective knowledge. There are different ways of knowing: some of them set us free and some bind us. The great knowing, or great knowledge (dàzhī 大知), as Lisa Raphals (1996, 41) notes, is “identified with míng 明 and dào 道.” It is the spiritual knowledge that transforms people and guides their living in accordance with the Way, “abiding alone” in the midst of natural transformation.

Hence, Zhuangzi’s notion of education, in terms of acquiring knowledge, differs radically from the Western notion of education.

Education as the Formation of the Self

Education as the formation of the self, or as “person-making,” is also part of the project of freedom in Zhuangzi. Comparative philosophers have debated whether Zhuangzi embraces a notion of the self. Zhuangzi’s statements such as “the zhìrén 至人 (ultimate person) has no self” and “now I have lost myself” have been taken to mean that Zhuangzi has abandoned an attachment to the self or has embraced a notion of “no self.” If there is no self, how can there be self-transformation?

But Zhuangzi also frequently proposes, for example, “fasting of the mind” (xīnzhāi 心斋), a process in which one is “laying down, forgetting, or putting outside of oneself the extraneous layers, feelings, and concerns which characterize the socialized self, and moving towards or uncovering the inner core of spirit or inborn nature (Tao or Dao)” (Berling 1985, 113). Chinese scholars typically suggest that Zhuangzi recognizes a “true self” above the false, the physical, or the unauthentic self; they believe that the statement “the ultimate man has ‘no self,’” actually refers to a step on the way to the realization of the true self.

The difficulty in understanding Zhuangzi’s notion of self comes partly from Zhuangzi’s writing, which at times refers to an experiential sense of self but at other times clearly decries the existence of the idea of self, and yet declares a spiritual state of mind in Dao. Since Zhuangzi is always concerned about boundaries and attachments, which for him bring constraints, inequalities, and unfreedom, his realization that life is in constant transformation and that everything has the trace of the other necessarily deconstructs a notion of substantial, separated, and bounded self-identity similar to the Western idea. Zhuangzi asserts that the ultimate freedom comes when a person reaches the stage of ultimate being, or nonbeing in the Dao. So, rather than having no sense of the self, perhaps his notion of the self can be characterized as a nonbeing/nothingness self. It is his way of conceptualizing the self as transcending all limited entities and beyond all boundaries and yet generating and completing all things, as conveyed in the Daoist term, 无 (nonbeing).

In Cook Ding’s story 庖丁解牛, he describes how, when a person reaches the Dao, or the nonbeing self, the practice of cutting the ox is conducted as if following the Way’s natural path and there are no more obstacles. The nonbeing self is immersed in and expanded to the rhythm of the great universe and becomes part of nature’s spontaneous process and therefore is no longer constrained by internal or external impediments. The nonbeing self dissolves the fear, the worries, and the burdens that trap humanity in this world. Using characteristically beautiful prose and poetic language, Zhuangzi describes such persons:

The Perfect Man is godlike. Though the great swamps blaze, they cannot burn him; though the great rivers freeze, they cannot chill him; though swift lightening splits the hills and howling gales shake the sea, they cannot frighten him. A man like this rides the clouds and mist, straddles the sun and moon, and wanders beyond the four seas. Even life and death have no effect on him, much less the rules of profit and loss! (Chuang Tzu, 41–42).

No worldly stress, anxiety, passion, or illness, or even a shortened life span can bother the self that has reached such a stage. Zhuangzi’s nonbeing self is the highest stage the self can reach through the education of self-transformation.

Further Reading

Berling, Judith. (1985). Self and whole in Chuang Tzu. In D. Munro (Ed.), Individualism and holism: Studies in Confucian and Taoist values. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies.

D’Ambrosio, Paul. (2007). Students feed monkeys for education: Using the Zhuangzi to communicate in a contemporary system of education. Kritike: An Online Journal of Philosophy, 1(2), 36–48.

Foucault, Michel.(2005). The hermeneutics of the subject: Lectures at the Collège de France 1981–1982. (Frédéric Gros, Ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fraser, Chris. (2006). Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and the paradoxical nature of education. Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 33(4), 529–542.

Höchsmann, Hyun. (2004). The starry heavens above –Freedom in Zhuangzi and Kant. Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 31(2), 235–252.

Kjellberg, Paul. (1996). Sextus empiricus, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi on ‘Why Be Skeptical?’ In Paul Kjellberg & Philip J. Ivanhoe (Eds.), Essays in skepticism, relativism, and ethics in the Zhuangzi. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Moeller, Georg. (2006). No child left behind? A Daoist critique of some humanist ideals of education. Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 33(4), 517–528.

Raphals, Lisa. (1996). Skeptical strategies in the Zhuangzi and Theaetetus. In Paul Kjellberg & Philip J. Ivanhoe (Eds.), Essays in skepticism, relativism, and ethics in the Zhuangzi. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Zhuangzi. (1996/1964). Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings (Burton Watson, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Guoping Zhao. (2012). Zhuangzi. In Zha Qiang (Ed.), Education in China: Educational History, Models, and Initiatives. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.