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Water and Iron: The Philosophies of Zhuangzi and Han Feizi

Water and Iron: The Philosophies of Zhuangzi and Han Feizi

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Published by Jonathan Willbanks

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Published by: Jonathan Willbanks on Apr 14, 2011
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Jonathan WillbanksChinese Lives: An Introduction to Chinese HistoryProfessor Joshua Goldstein, Keisha Brown (TA)February 21, 2011Water and Iron: The Philosophies of Zhuangzi and Han FeiziAs the intermittent upheavals of the Eastern Zhou’s Spring and Autumn Period descendedinto the unabated bedlam of the Warring States, the hellish conditions of multi-generationalwarmongering gave rise to two of ancient China’s most enduring philosophies. According to Ebrey,“The ideas expounded in the late Zhou originated in specific geographical and temporalcircumstances (
, p. 58).” First and foremost, they were the intellectual byproducts of perpetualwar. “The preference of the Daoists for private life,” and of the Legalists for authoritarian statism,“[…] can be seen as responses to the brutality of the era (
, p. 58).” Both ideological movementswere essentially responses to the same problems – the manifestations of a desperate people’s desireto bring peace and order to the chaos and violence that had dominated their society and lives for solong. Where they diverged – diametrically so – was in their philosophical protocols for how thisshould be accomplished.Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi (369-286 BC) was a philosopher of the Mid-Eastern Zhao period,and was arguably the chief architect of Daoism (
p. 48). Building upon the core spiritual tenetsoutlined in the earlier 
Zhuangzi – in the masterwork that shares his name – illustratedthrough parable a coherent philosophy of the extraordinarily abstract concept of the Way (i.e., theDao): “[…] the indivisible, indescribable, immaterial force or energy that is the source of all thatexists or happens (
p. 47).”
Voicing strong disapproval of the unnatural and artificial, Zhuanghzi argued that, “Whereasplants and animals act spontaneously in the ways appropriate to them […] humans have separated
themselves from the Way by plotting and planning, analyzing and organizing (
p. 27).”His Daoist philosophy perceived human society as only a small part of a much larger reality. Truefreedom and power, he believed, come from the recognition of our continuity with nature (
p.49). Zhuangzi’s prescription was nothing short of a radical and wholesale rejection of socialconvention in favor of total personal surrender to the spontaneity of cosmic processes (
p.27).On the topic of governance, Zhuangzi implicitly advocated what may best be described as aform of assertive submission to the state (which is not, despite appearances, a contradiction in terms).“If you are of no use at all,” asks Zhuangzi, “who will make trouble for you? (
p. 29)” Inchoosing to be “of no use” to the state, Zhuangzi supplanted a personal stake in politics with adevotion to spiritual freedom (
p. 48).Daoists were inherently skeptical of government, which they viewed as a synthetic socialconstruct whose primary function was to propagate violence and further remove its participants fromharmony with nature. They rejected the premise that government was inherently good or that itsevils could be ameliorated through reform, and thus were content to leave the tinkering to theConfucians, Legalists, bureaucrats, and feuding feudal lords (Ebrey 46). Political involvement – evenwith the noble intent of reform – would invariably lead one astray from the Way. Therefore anysemblance of a Daoist political platform was limited simply to “[…] the defense of private life andthe desire for rulers to leave the people alone (
p. 47).”“Engage in no action and order will prevail,” advises the
p. 28)
Takingthis axiom to heart, the Daoists, by abstaining from government entirely, sought to bring order tochaos by removing themselves from the political equation. Instead, they turned their focus inwardtoward themselves and their families to cultivate a return to their intended state of individual andcollective continuity with nature – a state of peaceful coexistence in which violence and war have no
place. The
describes what this Daoist utopia might look like:
When people are hard to govern it is because they know too much.Those who use knowledge [of the Way] to a rule a stateAre a plague on the country.Those who do not use knowledge to rule the stateAre the country’s blessing […]Make the state small and its people few.Let the people give up use of their tools.Let them take death seriously and desist from distant campaigns.Then even if they have boats and wagons, they will not travel in them.Even though they have weapons and armor, they will not form ranks with them.Let people revert to the practice of rope tying [instead of writing].Then they will find their food sweet,Their clothes beautiful,Their customs enjoyable.People from neighboring states so close that theycan see each other and hear the sounds of eachother’s dogs and chickens will then grow oldwithout ever visiting each other. (
p. 29)
As the foremost student of the
, Zhuangzhi presumably shared its utopian ideals. Paradoxicallythen, it would seem that he was,
a priori,
an advocate of individual liberty, and yet envisioned itsultimate realization as a collectively self-imposed reversion of society to a simpler homeostaticparadigm in which that very mainspring of human progress would not turn – in which subsistencewas wealth, ignorance was bliss, and the proper way for society to move forward was to stay in thesame place.It is a sign of how truly unbearable life in the Eastern Zhao must have been that the Daoistscould conceive of such a quaintly
topian vision of utopia as preferable to their present reality.Zhuangzi, having witnessed rapid technological advancement during his life, and himself a productof the intellectual revolution of the Hundred Schools of Thought, was likely inclined to abandon bothintellectual and technological progress in exchange for the peaceful return to natural order describedin the
; for so misapplied were the fruits of this progress in his time – as engines of war, power,and domination – that he likely came to see them as utterly distinct from and incompatible with astate of human continuity with nature. True knowledge, Zhuangzi felt, could not be taught or passed

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