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Master Zhuang’s Philosophical Theory of Freedom Essay

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Updated: Aug 18th, 2021


Zhuang Zi (as transliterated in the pinyin method of romanization) is the name for both the traditional sinological transcription of the name of the putative author, and of the title of his major work Zhuang Zi. “Chuang Tzu” is simply the transliteration according to the earlier Wade-Giles system, which is being steadily replaced in scholarly writing by the more modern pinyin method.

“Zhuang” is the surname of the supposed author of this special book, and “Zi” simply means “master” in the sense of a leading figure in a given school of thought in ancient China. So, it is appropriate to render “Zhuang Zi” as “Master Zhuang.”

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Master Zhuang (ca. 360-280 B.C.E.), the whose given name was Zhou, was a contemporary of the Confucian Master Meng (Mencius) in the Warring States period. Intellectually, the Warring States period was arguably the most exciting and active time in all of Chinese history. Peripatetic philosophers wandered throughout the land trying to sell their ideas to any willing ruler. It is not too much to say that most of China’s great schools of philosophy were established during this period, and that the accomplishments of its thinkers correspond to those of the classical period of Greek philosophy.

According to the account in Shiji (“The Grand Scribe’s Records”) written by the great historian Sima Qian, Zhuang Zhou was a native of a place called Meng, now a part of Shang Qiu Xian in northern Henan province. He is said to have once served as a minor functionary at Lacquer Garden (Qi Yuan).

Meng belongs to the state of Song, and many of the citizens of Song were descended from the early Shang people. The Shang people were artistic in nature, and believed very strongly in ghosts and spirits; their culture was characterized by a vivid mystical and aesthetic essence. This perhaps explains why Confucius and Mencius, who came from the Northern people of the Zhou, emphasized much more the pragmatic aspects of life, such as politics and moral teachings. Master Zhuang, bearing within himself the mystical influence of the Shang people, asserted a more metaphysical aspect of human nature—the struggle to set free the true self.

In addition to the political disruption and the social chaos of the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.E.), Zhuang and his people also suffered from the brutal, tyrannical rule of the King Kang of Song. Viewing the threat from this tyrant as too close for safety, Master Zhuang traveled to the state of Chu in South China.

What we know about Master Zhuang’s personal life is very limited. According to anecdotes in the later chapters of Zhuang Zi and to the legends that have grown up around him, it would appear that Master Zhuang was a highly spiritual person who did not seek riches and social status. Although he was poor, he rejected the job of Prime Minister offered by King Wei of Chu out of concern for his personal and intellectual freedom, saying he was as “happy as a turtle who drags its tail and plays in the mud.”

Master Zhuang, who is said to have worn ragged clothes and to have tied his shoes together with string, satirized those intellectuals who chased after fame and fortune, and by no means considered himself as miserable or unfortunate. Master Zhuang said that he was so rich that he could decorate his coffin with stars and moon, as others did with jades and pearl. He was a man of such unconventional wisdom that he could hide all his treasures in the world without worrying who would steal them away.

The current edition of Zhuang Zi, compiled with commentary by Guo Xiang, has thirty-three chapters. It is divided into three parts, the Inner Chapters (1-7), the Outer Chapters (8-22), and the Miscellaneous Chapters (23-33). The Inner Chapters are considered by the majority of scholars to best reflect the thought of Master Zhuang. Chapters 16-27 are thought to represent the ideas of later members of Master Zhuang’s school. However, there is no trustworthy method for firmly identifying the authentic author or authors of the book. Zhuang Zi is thus a very heterogeneous work that does not speak with a single voice. There is a growing consensus that tends to attribute the Inner Chapters to Master Zhuang himself, so this report is based on the first seven chapters and focuses on the discussion of freedom as conceptualized by Master Zhuang.

For centuries, the spiritual force of Zhuang Zi, which asks for sublimation of both desire and spirit, has motivated readers to the Dao (way) of self-transformation. The classical interpretation of the text is that it is a representation of a great “Chinese soul” in which many different souls are joined together. The compilation work undoubtedly cost great effort and wisdom. When we read it as a product of “group wisdom,” details should not be neglected, but more attention should be given to the power of the author’s original purpose. Zhuang Zi is not only a book of thought, but also a record and program of regular spiritual practice.

The epitomic theme of the Inner Chapters is to live by way of “carefree wandering” (xiaoyao you). This is also the title of the first chapter of the book, indicating the importance of spiritual freedom for Master Zhuang. You (play or wandering) is the essential theme that runs through the Inner Chapters. Michael Crandell states the meaning of “you” brilliantly: Yu (You), referring to a quality of nondirectedness in locomotion; specifies the manner in which that spiritual path should be traversed. Once again, we return to an epigrammatic, conundrum-like formulation of Zhuang Zi’s life attitude, the best direction in which to aim is nondirectedness. This does not connote withdrawal from the world; it connotes absence of attachment to any one particular perspective on it.5 (Crandell 1983:114).

Master Zhuang’s philosophy of life contains two parts, the critique of the existing value system and the alternative elevating of one’s spiritual nature above it. To begin with, it is essential to ask what caused Master Zhuang to develop his own ways of soteriology. One can sense two aspects of the answer to this question. One aspect is Zhuang’s vexations about life. The way life is so vulnerable and finite sorrows his heart. Owing to his sensitivity, he sees that all the things in the world are changing at every moment. After all, he sees through the vicissitudes of good and evil; life’s changefulness is palpable for him. The other aspect that influences Zhuang’s philosophy of life is his uncertainty about our consciousness of reality. Zhuang uses many dream metaphors to express his uncertainty. These two issues urge Zhuang to speculate on the existential meaning of life and, perhaps, lead him to seek a right path to enable one to elevate one’s spiritual nature.

To understand Zhuang’s sorrow and uncertainty, let us review the following passage in the Chapter of “On the Equality of Things”:

Once we have received our complete physical form, we remain conscious of it while we await extinction. In our strife and friction with other things, we gallop forward on our course unable to stop. Is this not sad? We toil our whole life without seeing any results. We deplete ourselves with wearisome labor, but don’t know what it all adds up to. Isn’t this lamentable? There are those who say that at least we are not dead, but what’s the good of it? Our physical form decays and with it the mind likewise. May we not say that this is the most lamentable of all? Is human life really so deluded as this? Am the only one who is so deluded? Are there some individuals who are not deluded? (4/2/18-21; Mair 14)

Here, Master Zhuang is frank about his doubts and sadness about life. Apparently, the encounter with Tian Dao changed his life attitude. There are passages with exclamations about the greatness of Dao (or heaven and earth) and a sense of contentment and tranquility that emerges from flowing with it. He encourages us to fulfill our destiny, and he confirms the ability of humans to ascend to the very highest spiritually. In Chapter Five, we read:

Of those who received their destiny from heaven, only Yao and Shun were correct—at the head of the ten thousand things. Fortunately, they could correct their own lives and thereby correct a host of lives…. If a man who seeks fame can do this out of personal ambition, how much more so should one who takes heaven and earth as his palace and the myriad things as his treasury, his trunk and limbs as a mere lodging, his senses as phenomena; who treats as a whole all that knowledge knows; and whose mind never dies! He would simply pick a day and ascend to the heights. (13/5/10-13; Mair 43-44)

For those who attain the state of flowing with Dao, their life merges with it and they never “die.” They are the same people as they were before, but their life attitude is changed. They take their physical body as a temporary lodge; their spirit of life ascends to the heights.

Although Master Zhuang’s revelations of a spiritual path were not written for academic purposes, I need to articulate them systematically. We always need to keep in mind that it is not Zhuang’s original intention to set up any system of theory or any formula of instructions for practice. Basically, Zhuang wants to interact with his readers and to inspire us to adapt our own ways of flowing with Dao.

In order to conceptualize the teachings of Master Zhuang it is prudent that we approach Master Zhuang’s spiritual goal in light of the relationship between the Dao and humans. To put them in a systematic way, Zhuang’s spiritual goals will be approached under three topics, the integrity of personhood, spiritual freedom, and, finally, joining the unity of Tian Dao.

Indeed, Master Zhuang counsels a free-spiritedness that is not based on negative attitudes, one should avoid the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, fame and gains, instead, adopting a transcendental attitude about life. In other words, one’s living goes beyond the realm of forms and bodies. If one harbors no particular sentiments or personal preferences that would encourage a feeling of acquisitiveness or protectiveness, one simultaneously attains the ultimate freedom in life.

Brilliantly, Master Zhuang suggests a way of life that is “dependent on nothing” (wusuo dai). What is the life “dependent on nothing” like? The sage wanders without reliance on the fixed opinions and prized possessions that constitute the normal standards of life for those with common values” (Crandell 1983, 115). Master Zhuang elaborates this ideal state of spirituality in a mythological passage about Master Lie:

Master Lie could ride upon the wind wherever he pleased, drifting marvelously, and returning only after fifteen days. Although he was not embroiled in the pursuit of blessings and thus was able to dispense with walking, still there was something that he had to rely upon. Supposing there was someone who could ride upon the truth of heaven and earth, who could chariot upon the transformations of the six vital breaths and thereby go wandering in infinity, what would he have to rely on? (2/1/19-21; Mair 5).

Master Lie has not reached the stage of “dependent on nothing;” he still needs to rely upon external conditions. As a matter of fact, “ride upon the truth of heaven and earth” and “chariot upon the transformations of the six vital breaths,” for Zhuang, symbolizes one kind of inner spiritual activity in which one transcends the limits of external conditions. It is also one kind of subjective experience in which one flows unconditionally with the vital breaths (qi). Therefore, we are able to say that the sage who attains to this stage of “dependent on nothing” also joins in unity with Dao. That is why Zhuang states that one would go wandering in infinity with nothing to rely on.


I propose that this freedom of carefree wandering is simultaneously the stage of Zhuang’s mystical quest that is attaining unity with Dao. Carefree wandering is a manifestation of the mystical unity with Dao. After one enters the extrovertive transformed consciousness that is derived from one’s daily experience of “carefree wandering,” one experiences the world free from egoistic bias. Simultaneously, one begins to enter the introvertive unitive consciousness of total merging with the Dao.


Mair, Victor H., Ed. Experimental Essays on Chuang Tzu. Hawaii: U of Hawaii P, 1983.

—. trans. Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. New York: Bantam, 1994.

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