An Alternate Way
Daoist Responses to the Warring States


Next to Confucianism, the most important and influential native philosophy of the Chinese has undoubtedly been Daoism. In many ways the doctrines of Confucianism and Daoism complement each other, running side by side like two powerful streams through all later Chinese thought and literature. To the solemn gravity and burden of social responsibility of Confucianism, Daoism opposes a flight from respectability and the conventional duties of society; in place of the Confucian concern for things worldly and human, it holds out a vision of other, transcendental worlds of the spirit. As the two streams of thought developed in later times, Confucianism has often been understood to represent the mind of the Chinese scholar in his office or study, concerned with matters of family and society, while Daoism represents the same individual in a private chamber or mountain retreat, often seeking surcease from the cares of official life. (SCT, 77)

In Zhuang Zhou — or Zhuangzi — we encounter a true intellectual and spiritual genius, one of the most philosophically challenging and verbally adept contributors to the early Chinese tradition and also one of its wittiest and most intriguing personalities. Zhuangzi probes philosophical depths in ways that are often unsettling and even unnerving; simultaneously he achieves literary heights that are literally breathtaking. While the Daodejing offers its sententious wisdom in the form of a kind of gnomic poetry, the text that bears Zhuangzi’s name is a linguistically flamboyant tour de force, opening with a dazzling flight of the spirit and closing, thirty-three chapters later, with a comprehensive and remarkably sober survey of the world of thought in the late Warring States period. In between there are conversations, often highly fanciful, between real or, more often, imaginary people, along with anecdotes, parables, meditations, and poems. The characters that inhabit the pages of the Zhuangzi include craftsmen, cripples, a slyly reconstructed Confucius, and a talking tree — among a host of others. (SCT, 95)
The Butterfly Dream
Once upon a time, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting about happily enjoying himself. He did not know that he was Zhou. Suddenly he awoke, and was palpably Zhou. He did not know whether he was Zhou, who had dreamed of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhou. Now, there must be a difference between Zhou and the butterfly. This is called the transformation of things. (Zhuangzi, Chapter 2)

Free & Easy Fishing
Once Zhuang Zi was fishing in the Pu River when the king of Chu sent two of his ministers to announce that he wished to entrust to Zhuang Zi the care of his entire domain.
       Zhuang Zi held his fishing pole and, without turning his head said: “I have heard that Chu possesses a sacred tortoise which has been dead
for three thousand years and which the king keeps wrapped up in a box and stored in his ancestral empire. Is this tortoise better off dead and with its bones venerated, or would it be better off alive with its tail dragging in the mud?”
“It would be better off alive and dragging its tail in the mud,
” the two ministers replied.
       “Then go away!” said Zhuang Zi “and I will drag my tail in the mud!” (MOF, 37 [Zhuangzi, Chapter 17])
Zhuangzi’s Sage
A Daoist Response to the Warring States
Chien Wu said to Lien Shu, “I was listening to Chieh Y’s talk  big and nothing to back it up, going on and on without turning around. I was completely dumbfounded at his words  no more end than the Milky Way, wild and wide of the mark, never coming near human affairs!”
       “What were his words like?” asked Lien Shu.
       “He said that there is a Holy Man living on faraway Ku-she Mountain, with skin like ice or snow, and gentle and shy like a young girl. He doesn’t eat the five grains, but sucks the wind, drinks the dew, climbs up on the clouds and mist, rides a flying dragon, and wanders beyond the four seas. By concentrating his spirit, he can protect creatures from sickness and plague and make the harvest plentiful. I thought this was all insane and refused to believe it.”
       “You would!” said Lien Shu. “We can’t expect a blind man to appreciate beautiful patterns or a deaf man to listen to bells and drums. And blindness and deafness are not confined to the body alone 
the understanding has them too, as your words just now have shown. This man, with this virtue of his, is about to embrace the ten thousand things and roll them into one. Though the age calls for reform, why should he wear himself out over the affairs of the world? There is nothing that can harm this man. Though flood waters pile up to the sky, he will not drown. Though a great drought melts metal and stone and scorches the earth and hills, he will not be burned. From his dust and leavings alone you could mold a Yao or a Shun! Why should he consent to bother about mere things?” (The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 33-4 [Zhuangzi, Chapter 1])

Yao wanted to cede the empire to Xu You. “When the sun and moon have already come out,” he said, “it’s a waste of light to go on burning the torches, isn’t it? When the seasonal rains are falling, it’s a waste of water to go on irrigating the fields. If you took the throne, the world would be well ordered. I go on occupying it, but all I can see are my failings.  I beg to turn over the world to you.”
       Xu You said, “You govern the world and the world is already well governed. ... Go home and forget the matter, my lord. I have no use for the rulership of the world! Though the cook may not run his kitchen properly, the priest and the impersonator of the dead at the sacrifice do not leap over the wine casks and sacrificial stands and go take his place.” (The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 32-3 [Zhuangzi, Chapter 1])

The name Laozi simply means “the old master.” Who the philosopher known as Laozi was, when he lived, and what his connection was with the text that has come down to us, are questions that have been debated for centuries. There have also been lively controversies about when the text was compiled and whether it actually appeared any earlier than the third century B.C.E. Contemporary scholars are generally inclined to agree that the book known as the Laozi or Daodejing was likely the work of more than one author, writing over a period of time, and that it contains different textual strata. Still, the compiler or compilers of the work seem to have had a rather consistent integrative vision and despite — or perhaps because of — its brevity the document that has come down to us is one of the most provocative and inspired works in all Chinese literature. (SCT, 78)
Wuwei in the Daodejing
The Advantage of “Doing Nothing”

Devotion to the Way
Devotion to learning means increasing day by day;
Devotion to the Way means decreasing day by day.
Decreasing and decreasing still more, one arrives at doing nothing,
And in doing nothing, nothing remains undone.
If one would take control of all-under-Heaven
one should always refrain from activity;

One who is engaged in activity
is unworthy to control all-under-Heaven.

(SCT, 89-90 [DDJ, 48]; cf.

Do Nothing & Nothing Is Left Undone
The Way is constant: by doing nothing (wu-wei),
nothing is left undone.
If lords and kings can hold on to it, all things will,
of themselves, be transformed.
If, as they are transformed, desires arise,
I suppress them by means of the nameless uncarved wood.
From the nameless uncarved wood comes absence of desire,
Through not desiring one becomes tranquil,
And the empire, of itself, becomes settled.
(SCT, 87 [DDJ, 37]; cf.
The “Primitivist” Perspective

Empty Minds & Full Bellies
Do not exalt the worthy,
and the people will not compete.
Do not value goods that are hard to come by,
and the people will not steal.
Do not display objects of desire,
and the people’s minds will not be disturbed.
Therefore the ordering of the sage
empties their minds,
fills their bellies,
weakens their ambitions,
strengthens their bones.
He always causes the people to be without knowledge,
without desire,
And causes the wise ones not to dare to act.
He does nothing (wuwei), and there is nothing that is
not brought to order.
(SCT, 80-81 [DDJ, 3]; cf.

The Ideal State
Let the state be small and the people be few.
There may be ten or even a hundred times as many implements,
But they should not be used.
Let the people, regarding death as a weighty matter, not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, none shall ride in them.
Though they have armor and weapons, none shall display them.
Let the people return once more to the use of knotted ropes.
Let them savor their food and find beauty in their clothing,
peace in their dwellings, and joy in their customs.
Though neighboring states are within sight of one another,
And the sound of cocks and dogs is audible from one to the other,
People will reach old age and death
and yet not visit one another.
(SCT, 94 [DDJ, 80]; cf.