It has often been said that the Zhuangzi 莊子 advocates political abstention, and that its putative skepticism prevents it from contributing in any meaningful way to political thinking: at best the Zhuangzi espouses a sort of anarchism, at worst it is “the night in which all cows are black,” a stance that one scholar has charged is ultimately immoral. This article tracks possible political allusions within the text, and, by reading these against details of social, political, and historical context, sheds light on another strand of the Zhuangzi—one that questions prevailing normative values because it is fiercely critical of scholarly complicity with violent imperial territorial consolidation.
Allan, Sarah. 1981. “Shang Foundations of Modern Chinese Folk Religion.” In Chinese Ritual and Politics, edited by E. Ahern. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
______. 1991. The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China. Albany: SUNY Press.
Allinson, Robert Elliott. 2015. “Of Fish, Butterflies and Birds: Relativism and Nonrelative Valuation in the Zhuangzi.” Asian Philosophy: An International Journal of the Philosophical Traditions of the East 25.3: 238–252.
Ames, Roger, and David Hall. 2003. Dao De Jing. New York: Ballantine Books, Random House.
Billioud, Sebastien, and Joël Thoraval. 2015. The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boltz, Judith Magee. 2001. “Taoist Heritage.” In Columbia History of Chinese Literature, edited by Victor H. Mair. New York: Columbia University Press.
Buckley, Chris. 2014. “Leader Taps Into Chinese Classics in Seeking to Cement Power.” New York Times, October 11. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/world/leader-taps-into-chinese-classics-in-seeking-to-cement-power.html (last accessed on May 16, 2019).
Chai, David. 2014. “Daoism and Wu 無.” Philosophy Compass 9.10: 663–671. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/phc3.12171
______. 2019. “Nothingness and Selfhood in the Zhuangzi.” In Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Early Chinese Ethics and Political Philosophy, edited by Alexus McLeod, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, and Tan Sor Hoon. London: Bloomsbury.
Chakrabarti, Arindam, and Ralph Weber, eds. 2016. Comparative Philosophy without Borders. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Chan, Alan K. L. 2002. “Guo Xiang.” In Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy, edited by Antonio S. Cua. New York: Routledge.
______. 2006. “Review: Scott Cook (ed.). Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi.” Monumenta Serica 54: 530–533.
______. 2017. “Laozi.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive (Spring 2017 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/laozi/ (last accessed on May 17, 2019).
Chang, Kwang Chih. 1983. Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cheng, Chung-ying. 2009. “The Yi-Jing and Yin-Yang Way of Thinking.” In The Routledge History of World Philosophies: History of Chinese Philosophy, edited by Bo Mou. London and New York: Routledge.
Chinn, Ewing Y. 1997. “Zhuangzi and Relativistic Skepticism.” Asian Philosophy: An International Journal of the Philosophical Traditions of the East 7.3: 207–220.
Clarke, J. J. 2000. The Tao of the West: Western Tranformations of Taoist Thought. London and New York: Routledge.
Coutinho, Steve. 2013. An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies. New York: Columbia University Press.
Crane, Sam. 2013. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons.
Dallmayr, Fred. 1997. “Introduction: Toward a Comparative Political Theory.” The Review of Politics 59.3: 421–427.
De Reu, Wim. 2015. “A Ragbag of Odds and Ends? Argument Structure and Philosophical Coherence in Zhuangzi 26.” In Literary Forms of Argument in Early China, edited by Joachim Gentz and Dirk Meyer. Leiden: Brill.
Defoort, Carine. 2001. “Is There Such a Thing as Chinese Philosophy? Arguments of an Implicit Debate.” Philosophy East and West 51.3: 393–413.
______. 2012. “Instruction Dialogues in the Zhuangzi: An ‘Anthropological’ Reading.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 11.4: 459–478.
Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Trans. by J. Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Eno, Robert. 1996. “Cook Ding’s Dao and the Limits of Philosophy.” In Essays on Skepticism, Relativism and Ethics in the Zhuangzi, edited by Paul Kjellberg and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Albany: SUNY Press.
Euben, Roxanne L. 2006. Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Fox, Alan. 1996. “Reflex and Reflectivity: Wuwei in the Zhuangzi.” Asian Philosophy 6.1: 59–72.
Fraser, Chris. 1997. “Review Article: Classifying the Zhuangzi Chapters.” Asian Philosophy 7.2: 155–159.
______. 2009. “Skepticism and Value in the Zhuangzi.” International Philosophical Quarterly 49.4: 439–457.
______. 2014. “Wandering the Way: A Eudaimonistic Approach to the Zhuāngzǐ.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 13.4: 541–565.
______. 2015. “Zhuangzi and the Heterogeneity of Value.” In New Visions of the Zhuangzi, edited by Livia Kohn. St. Petersburg, FL: Three Pines Press.
Gentz, Joachim, and Dirk Meyer, eds. 2015. Literary Forms of Argument in Early China. Leiden: Brill.
Girardot, Norman. 1988. Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Graham, Angus C. 1989. Disputers of the Tao. La Salle: Open Court.
______. 2001. Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
______. 2003. “How Much of Chuang Tzu Did Chuang Tzu Write?” In A Companion to Angus C. Graham’s Chuang Tzu, edited by Harold Roth. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Graziani, Romain. 2005. “When Princes Awake in Kitchens: Zhuangzi’s Rewriting of a Culinary Myth.” In Of Tripod and Palate: Food, Politics, and Religion in Traditional China, edited by Roel Sterckx. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hansen, Chad. 2003. “Guru or Skeptic? Relativistic Skepticism in the Zhuangzi.” In Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi, edited by Scott Cook. Albany: SUNY Press.
Hansen, Chad. 1992. A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Henricks, Robert G., trans. 1989. Lao Tzu: Te-Tao Ching. New York: Ballantine, Random House.
Hsu, Cho Yun. 1999. “The Spring and Autumn Period.” In The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C., edited by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hung, William, ed. 1956. A Concordance to Chuang Tzu 莊子引得. Harvard-Yenching Institute Sinological Index Series, Supplement No. 20. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Israel, George L. 2016. “The Renaissance of Wang Yangming Studies in the People’s Republic of China.” Philosophy East and West 66.3: 1001–1019.
Ivanhoe, Philip J. 1993. “Zhuangzi on Skepticism, Skill, and the Ineffable Dao.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 61.4: 639–654.
Jenco, Leigh, ed. 2017. Special Issue: Confucianism and Its Contexts: European Journal of Political Theory 16.4.
Jiang, Tao. 2016. “The Problem of Authorship and the Project of Chinese Philosophy: Zhuang Zhou and the Zhuangzi between Sinology and Philosophy in the Western Academy.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 15.1: 35–55.
Karlgren, Bernhard. 1946. “Legends and Cults in Ancient China.” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 18: 199–366.
Kern, Martin. 2005. “Poetry and Religion: The Representation of ‘Truth’ in Early Chinese Historiography.” In Historical Truth and Historical Criticism and Ideology: Chinese Historiography and Historical Culture from a New Comparative Perspective, edited by Helwig Schmidt-Glinzer, Achim Mittag, and Jörn Rüsen. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
Kjellberg, Paul, and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. 1996. Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi. Albany: SUNY Press.
Klein, Esther. 2011. “Were There ‘Inner Chapters’ in the Warring States? A New Examination of Evidence about the Zhuangzi.” T’oung Pao 96: 299–369.
Kohn, Livia. 2012. A Source Book in Chinese Longevity. St. Petersburg, FL: Three Pines Press.
Lagerwey, John, and Marc Kalinowski, eds. 2009. Early Chinese Religion: Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC – 220 AD). Leiden and Boston: Brill.
Lai, Karyn. 2007. “Ziran and Wuwei in the Daodejing: An Ethical Assessment.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 6.4: 325–337.
Larson, Gerald James. 1988. “Introduction: The ‘Age-Old Distinction between the Same and the Other’.” In Interpreting Across Boundaries: New Essays in Comparative Philosophy, edited by Gerald James Larson and Eliot Deutsch. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lau, D. C., trans. 1994. Tao Te Ching. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Legge, James. 1891. The Writings of Chuang Tzu. In Chinese Text Project, edited by Donald Sturgeon. https://ctext.org/zhuangzi (last accessed on May 27, 2019).
Lewis, Mark Edward. 1999a. Writing and Authority in Early China. Albany: SUNY Press.
______. 1999b. “Warring States: Political History.” In The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C., edited by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
______. 2009. “The Mythology of Early China.” In Early Chinese Religion: Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC – 220 AD), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
Lin, Shuen-Fu. 2003. “Transforming the Dao: A Critique of A. C. Graham.” In Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi, edited by Scott Cook. Albany: SUNY Press.
Liu, Xiaogan. 1994. Classifying the Zhuangzi Chapters. Trans. by William E. Savage. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Lo, Y. K. 2002. “Wandering and Imaginal Realms in the Analects and Zhuangzi.” Monumenta Serica 50: 75–93.
Lowe, Lisa. 2015. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
MacPherson, C. B. 1962. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mair, Victor H. 1994. Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
______. 2001. “Introduction: The Origins and Impact of Literati Culture.” In The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, edited by Victor H. Mair. New York: Columbia University Press.
Major, John S., Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Seth Meter, and Harold D. Roth, trans. and edited. 2010. The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China. New York: Columbia University Press.
Matthews, William. 2017. “Ontology with Chinese Characteristics: Homology as a Mode of Identification.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7.1: 265–285.
McNeal, Robin. 2017. “Spatial Models of the State in Early Chinese Texts: Tribute Networks and the Articulation of Power and Authority in Shangshu ‘Yu Gong’ 禹貢 and Yi Zhoushu ‘Wang Hui’ 王會.” In Origins of Chinese Political Philosophy: Studies in the Composition and Thought of the Shangshu (Classic of Documents), edited by Martin Kern and Dirk Meyer. Leiden: Brill.
Michael, Thomas. 2015. “Hermits, Mountains, and Yangsheng in Early Daoism: Perspectives from the Zhuangzi.” In New Visions of the Zhuangzi, edited by Livia Kohn. St. Petersburg, FL: Three Pines Press.
Needham, Joseph. 1956. Science and Civilization in China, vol. 2: History of Scientific Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nelson, Eric. 2008. “Questioning Dao: Skepticism, Mysticism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi.” International Journal of the Asian Philosophical Association 1: 11–22.
Nylan, Michael. 2016. “Academic Silos, or ‘What I Wish Historians Knew About Early History in China’.” In The Bloomsbury Handbook of Chinese Research Methodologies, edited by Tan Sor-Hoon. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
Perkins, Franklin. 2014. Heaven and Earth Are Not Humane: The Problem of Evil in Classical Chinese Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Powers, Martin. 2006. Pattern and Person: Ornament, Society, and Self in Classical China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.
Puett, Michael J. 2000. “Violent Misreadings: The Hermeneutics of Cosmology in Huainanzi.” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 72: 29–47.
______. 2001. The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
______. 2004. To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-divinization in Early China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Raphals, Lisa. 1994a. “Poetry and Argument in the Zhuangzi.” Journal of Chinese Religions 22: 103–116.
______. 1994b. “Skeptical Strategies in the Zhuangzi and Theaetetus.” Philosophy East and West 44.3: 501–526.
Roth, Harold D. 1985. “Review: N. Girardot. Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 2: 234–238.
______. 2015. “Daoist Apophatic Meditation: Selections from the Classical Daoist Textual Corpus.” In Contemplative Literature: A Comparative Sourcebook on Meditation and Contemplative Prayer, edited by Louis Komjathy. Albany: SUNY Press.
Schwartz, Benjamin I. 1985. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Belknap; Harvard University Press.
Schwitzgebel, Eric. 2017. “The Unskilled Zhuangzi: Big and Useless and Not So Good at Catching Rats.” Draft. http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/ZZSkill.htm (last accessed on May 17, 2019).
Sellman, James. 1992/1993. “On the Myth of Cosmogony in Ancient China.” Analecta Husserliana 47: 211–220.
Slingerland, Edward. 2003. Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Soles, Deborah H., and David E. Soles. 1998. “Fish Traps and Rabbit Snares: Zhuangzi on Judgement, Truth and Knowledge.” Asian Philosophy: An International Journal of the Philosophical Traditions of the East 8.3: 149–164.
Sterckx, Roel. 2011. Food, Sacrifice and Early Sagehood in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sturgeon, Donald. 2015. “Zhuangzi, Perspectives, and Greater Knowledge.” Philosophy East and West 65.3: 892–917.
Tan, Sor Hoon, ed. 2016. The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Chinese Philosophy Methodologies. New York: Bloomsbury.
Tilly, Charles. 1985. “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.” In Bringing the State Back In, edited by Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Van Norden, Bryan. 2015. “China’s Apolitical School of Thought.” The National Interest, May 7. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/chinas-apolitical-political-school-thought-12823 (last accessed on May 17, 2019).
______. 2016. “Zhuangzi’s Ironic Detachment and Political Commitment.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 15.1: 1–1:17.
Wang, Aihe. 2000. Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Watson, Burton, trans. 2013. The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. New York: Columbia University Press.
Williams, Melissa S., and Mark E. Warren. 2014. “A Democratic Case for Comparative Political Theory.” Political Theory 42.1: 26–57.
Yearley, Lee H. 1996. “Zhuangzi’s Understanding of Skillfulness and the Ultimate Spiritual State.” In Essays on Skepticism, Relativism and Ethics in the Zhuangzi, edited by Paul Kjellberg and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Albany: SUNY Press.
Yu, Pauline, Peter Bol, Stephen Owen, and Willard Peterson, ed. 2000. Ways with Words: Writing about Reading Texts from Early China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Zhang, Qizhi. 2015. An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Heidelberg: Springer.
Ziporyn, Brook. 2003. “How Many Are the Ten Thousand Things and I? Relativism, Mysticism, and the Privileging of Oneness in the Inner Chapters.” In Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi, edited by Scott Cook. Albany: SUNY Press.
Ziporyn, Brook, trans. 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett.
The author would like to thank Tan Sor Hoon, Alan Chan, Leigh Jenco, the editor and anonymous reviewers of Dao, as well as participants of the Philosophy Colloquium of the Philosophy Department, Nanyang Technical University (Singapore, August 2017) for their helpful suggestions for this article. Open access publication of this article has been made possible by Cardiff University.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Kwek, D.H.B. Critique of Imperial Reason: Lessons from the Zhuangzi. Dao 18, 411–433 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11712-019-09673-4
- The Zhuangzi 莊子