Jonathan Willbanks Chinese Lives: An Introduction to Chinese History Professor Joshua Goldstein, Keisha Brown (TA) February 21, 2011 Water and Iron: The Philosophies of Zhuangzi and Han Feizi As the intermittent upheavals of the Eastern Zhou’s Spring and Autumn Period descended into the unabated bedlam of the Warring States, the hellish conditions of multi-generational warmongering 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 temporal circumstances (China, p. 58).” First and foremost, they were the intellectual byproducts of perpetual war. “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 (China, p. 58).” Both ideological movements were essentially responses to the same problems – the manifestations of a desperate people’s desire to bring peace and order to the chaos and violence that had dominated their society and lives for so long. Where they diverged – diametrically so – was in their philosophical protocols for how this should 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 (China p. 48). Building upon the core spiritual tenets outlined in the earlier Daodejing, Zhuangzi – in the masterwork that shares his name – illustrated through parable a coherent philosophy of the extraordinarily abstract concept of the Way (i.e., the Dao): “[…] the indivisible, indescribable, immaterial force or energy that is the source of all that exists or happens (China p. 47).” Voicing strong disapproval of the unnatural and artificial, Zhuanghzi argued that, “Whereas plants and animals act spontaneously in the ways appropriate to them […] humans have separated

themselves from the Way by plotting and planning, analyzing and organizing (Sourcebook p. 27).” His Daoist philosophy perceived human society as only a small part of a much larger reality. True freedom and power, he believed, come from the recognition of our continuity with nature (China p. 49). Zhuangzi’s prescription was nothing short of a radical and wholesale rejection of social


convention in favor of total personal surrender to the spontaneity of cosmic processes (Sourcebook p. 27). On the topic of governance, Zhuangzi implicitly advocated what may best be described as a form 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? (Sourcebook p. 29)” In choosing to be “of no use” to the state, Zhuangzi supplanted a personal stake in politics with a devotion to spiritual freedom (China p. 48). Daoists were inherently skeptical of government, which they viewed as a synthetic social construct whose primary function was to propagate violence and further remove its participants from harmony with nature. They rejected the premise that government was inherently good or that its evils could be ameliorated through reform, and thus were content to leave the tinkering to the Confucians, Legalists, bureaucrats, and feuding feudal lords (Ebrey 46). Political involvement – even with the noble intent of reform – would invariably lead one astray from the Way. Therefore any semblance of a Daoist political platform was limited simply to “[…] the defense of private life and the desire for rulers to leave the people alone (China p. 47).” “Engage in no action and order will prevail,” advises the Laozi (Sourcebook p. 28). Taking this axiom to heart, the Daoists, by abstaining from government entirely, sought to bring order to chaos by removing themselves from the political equation. Instead, they turned their focus inward toward themselves and their families to cultivate a return to their intended state of individual and collective continuity with nature – a state of peaceful coexistence in which violence and war have no

place. The Laozi 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 state Are a plague on the country. Those who do not use knowledge to rule the state Are 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 they can see each other and hear the sounds of each other’s dogs and chickens will then grow old without ever visiting each other. (Sourcebook p. 29)


As the foremost student of the Laozi, Zhuangzhi presumably shared its utopian ideals. Paradoxically then, it would seem that he was, a priori, an advocate of individual liberty, and yet envisioned its ultimate realization as a collectively self-imposed reversion of society to a simpler homeostatic paradigm in which that very mainspring of human progress would not turn – in which subsistence was wealth, ignorance was bliss, and the proper way for society to move forward was to stay in the same place. It is a sign of how truly unbearable life in the Eastern Zhao must have been that the Daoists could conceive of such a quaintly dystopian vision of utopia as preferable to their present reality. Zhuangzi, having witnessed rapid technological advancement during his life, and himself a product of the intellectual revolution of the Hundred Schools of Thought, was likely inclined to abandon both intellectual and technological progress in exchange for the peaceful return to natural order described in the Laozi; 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 a state of human continuity with nature. True knowledge, Zhuangzi felt, could not be taught or passed

on. Therefore to pursue it through the words and teachings of others was misguided and ill-fated. Illustrating this through an analogy drawn from his own experience as a wheelwright, he explains:
In my case, I see things in terms of my own work. When I chisel at a wheel, if I go slow, the chisel slides and does not stay put; if I hurry, it jams and doesn’t move properly. When it is neither too slow nor too fast, I can feel it in my hand and respond to it from my heart. My mouth cannot describe it in words, but there is something there. I cannot teach it to my son, and my son cannot learn it form me. So I have gone on for seventy years, growing old chiseling wheels. The men of old died in possession of what they could not transmit. So it follows that what you are reading is their dregs. (Sourcebook p. 31)


Knowledge and progress must therefore be cultivated at the individual level through, and by extension, be measured in purely relative terms. There is no objective ‘good’, for the notion itself was deemed a construct of human origin obfuscating the natural state, by which unnatural human value judgments were imposed upon natural systems (Zhuangzi Speaks p. 7). This philosophical law of relativity elevated to new heights the notion of individual freedom sans the ‘judgment’ of institutionalized control, but invoked such notions not by a desire for social progress, but instead so that such desires might be ended to give way to collective peace. But in the midst of the aptly named Warring States Period, such a peace could be idealized, but hardly hoped for. As Ebrey elaborates:
By the third century B.C. as small states one after another were conquered by large ones and the number of surviving states dwindled, those rulers still in contention were receptive to political theorists who claimed to understand power and the techniques that would allow rulers to strengthen control over officials and subjects. These advisors argued that strong government depended […] on establishing effective institutional structures. Because of their emphasis on laws, these thinkers were usually labeled the Legalists. (Sourcebook p. 32)

Enter Han Feizi, Zhuangzhi’s ideological polar opposite and the Yang to his proverbial Yin. Han Feizi was the major synthesizer of Legalist thought, which, in the broadest sense, “[…] concentrated on proposing political solutions to disorder and techniques for the accumulation of power (China p. 51).” Han and the other Legalists held “[…] a highly authoritarian vision of order,” in which law was merely “[…] something rulers decreed for the interests of the state (China p. 5253).” In this sense, Legalism was quite literally synonymous with authoritarian statism.



By analyzing situations from the ruler’s perspective, Han Feizi was no doubt in high demand among the remaining feudal lords (China p. 51). “Given the propensity of subordinates to pursue their own selfish interests,” Han advised, “[…] the ruler can not afford to be candid or warm towards any of them. Rather, he should keep them in awed ignorance of his intentions and control them by manipulating competition among them (China p. 52).” This proto-Machiavellian philosophy relied heavily upon the establishment of strict hierarchical relations which, according to Ebrey, “[…] had to be based on the power to reward or punish, affection or example were not adequate (China p. 52).” Han argued that firm but consistent rulers with clearly defined rewards and automatic punishments would make common people tractable, “[…] with the result that the state will get rich and the army will be strong. Then it will be possible to succeed in establishing hegemony over other states (Sourcebook p. 35).” Legalism sought to establish order from within the political establishment itself, advocating a particularly heavy-handed variation on the age-old ‘peace through strength’ mantra. Possessing a uniquely formidable political intellect, Han maneuvered himself into the employ of power-hungry warlords-turned-dictators, advising them on techniques and strategies to accumulate power, obtain hegemony, instill order through force, retain their power, and spread their empires. He sought peace only in the nominal sense, a state of superficial order imposed through authoritarian dictatorship and autocratic force of law.
When present-day scholars counsel rulers, they all tell them to rid themselves of thoughts of profit and follow the path of mutual love. […] These are immature ideas, false and deceptive. Therefore the intelligent ruler does not accept them. (Sourcebook p. 35)

The Daoist and Legalist philosophies of Zhuangzi and Han Feizi were, respectively, like water and iron. Zhaungzi’s Daoism advocated a return to peace and order by surrendering to the spontaneity of cosmic processes. By refusing to participate in the machinations of the warfare state in favor of an individual path of spiritual cultivation, Zhuangzi became like water – impossible to harm or coerce – and attained an ordered spiritual life unfazed by the chaos of the era. Han Feizi, on the other hand – by asserting his influence from within the very heart of the political/warfare apparatus –



became like iron: blunt and unyielding in his imposition of order through domination and force. Like water and iron, the philosophical modalities of Zhuangzi and Han Feizi, though not explicitly adversarial, are clearly incompatible, occuping opposite ends of the spectrum of Chinese thought. Yet despite the mutual exclusivity of their philosophies, the ideas of Zhuangzi and Han Feizi would echo profoundly through Chinese history for millennia to come.

Note: Block quotes excluded from word count.


Works Cited Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. Chinese Civilization: a Sourcebook. New York: Free, 1993. Print. Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print. Zhuangzi, and Brian Bruya. Zhuangzi Speaks: the Music of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.

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