Daoism, The Tillers, Yang Chu, The Primitivist, and Zhuangzi

I-2: Tillers and Daoism

Communication between the Tillers and the Daoists was certainly possible; some scholars consider the utopian Laozi 80 a tract borrowed from the Tillers (Graham 82). “Oh for a small country with few people!” it exclaims.  The people have boats, carriages, armor, and weapons, but do not need to use them.  Other states are within sight, but the people are happy with their own food, clothes, and customs, so they grow old and die without leaving their borders.

The School of the Tillers, as reconstructed by Graham, also shares the following arguments with the Laozi: (1) a leader should not interfere with his people through laws, regulations, or punishments; (2) a leader should humbly place himself below his people; (3) covenants should be faithfully and unselfishly honored.

According to the Tillers, the ideal ruler Shen-nung did not write any laws; he merely promulgated certain agricultural injunctions which the people thought were practical (84).  He did not put anyone to death, and he eschewed punishment of criminals in general (72).  The House of Shen-nung made sure to never conscript its people during the critical harvest season (84), a relevant critique since Mozi accused his contemporaries of ruining the people this way.  “Shepherding the people was easy,” say the Tillers, echoing the wu-wei attitude of the Laozi: “Tao invariably Does Nothing, and nothing remains not done” (37[1]).  The Laozi, in turn, contends that rules and restrictions make people poorer (57).  The state is like an Uncarved Block; cutting it up with rules and names will ruin it (32).  The death penalty is also ineffective (74).  If the ruler does not tire the people with taxes and restrictions, they will not tire of him (72).  The Tiller histories and Laozi 31 both condemn the warlike for the suffering they bring to the world.

“If in the prime of life a man does not plough, someone in the world will go hungry because of it,” notes the Law of Shen-nung, so the king and queen of the time worked alongside the people (67-68, 76-77).  This image is a direct challenge to the lavish rulers of the Tillers’ time.  The Laozi itself says a farmer would be the ideal governor: because he starts early and works diligently, he can eventually accomplish anything (59).  By working for others, he increases what he himself possesses (81).  The king excels by making himself and his speech low, even last among the people (66).  A ruler is best if people are not aware of his existence (17), which is one better than the humility of Shen-nung.

According to the Chuang-tzu, Po Yi and Shu Ch’i reject the state of Chou because it does not meet the standard of Shen-nung.  In his time, people faithfully kept their contracts and covenants, and there was no need to record promises in triplicate because everyone trusted each other (87-88).  The Laozi instructs us to repay our debts and fulfill our contracts without thinking of what is owed to us (79).

I-3: Yang Chu and Daoism

I think the loneliness the Daoist recounts so movingly in Laozi 20 is the best evidence of Yang Chu’s influence on the text.  Emerson credits Yang Chu with the “discovery of the body,” or the distinction between the individual and society.  People of this time did not think of themselves as anything more than the sum of their family, work, and political relationships, but the narrator does not mention his family at all.  He says he is all alone not only because the lacks the traits society values but also because of his beliefs: “I am alone, different from others – treasuring the nourishing Mother.”  The Daoist thus follows the individualistic bent of his predecessor Yang.

It is also of interest that the narrator mentions the “ceremonial feast” given Emerson’s use of the feast as a symbol of the elaborately ritualized society that Yang Chu calls on the Chinese to disregard.  Laozi rejects wealth, fame, and reputation as worthy goals of the wise person (13, 44).  The ritual entertainment of the elite “makes people’s minds go mad,” and classical standards lead them astray (12).  Nor does he consider etiquette important: “’Yeah’ and ‘yes sir’ – is there a big difference between them?” (20)  Respecting something just because others respect it is “craziness” (20).

Yang Chu also cautioned his followers to “Preserve life, maintain the real, don’t get entangled in things.”  The Dao in turn advises its readers to embrace emptiness and stillness (16).  It also contends that there are thirteen life-givers but also thirteen death-bringers, and living lavishly makes the body parts into death spots (50).

It was also said that Yang Chu would not serve in the army or in a besieged city.  This is compatible with Laozi 31’s condemnation of war, and it is sounds much like Laozi 73: “One who shows bravery by being daring will get killed / one who shows bravery by not being daring will survive.”  Further, the best soldier is not warlike, and the best fighter shows no anger; because he is rational, he can survive longer, and a living soldier is certainly more productive than a dead one (68).

Mencius’s famous accusation that Yang Chu “would not sacrifice a hair from his leg to profit the whole empire” indicates a potential conflict with Daoism, however, because the Laozi often admonishes the reader to put others first, a classic example being the passage that Heaven and Earth last so long because they do not live for themselves (7).  Whereas Yang Chu advocates ignoring social norms in order to better benefit oneself or possibly one’s family, Lao Tzu thinks inaction is what most benefits society.  The revolution starts with the individual and then inspires everyone:

Cultivate It in your person, its Te will be pure

Cultivate It in the clan, its Te will be abundant

Cultivate It in the village, its Te will be lasting

Cultivate It in the state, its Te will be ample

Cultivate It in the empire, its Te will be all-embracing. (54)

II-2: Wu-wei or “non-action” in leadership

“Governing a large state is like cooking a small fish” (Laozi 60).  The Daoist’s statement that government intervention harms society is also of the premises of American conservatism, and it seems like the most practical application of wu-wei in the era of the welfare state.  As I noted in the section on the Tillers, Lao Tzu advocates freedom of movement and from taxation (72) and opines that rules and restrictions make people poorer (57).  He would reject Great Society-style social projects, saying “the world cannot be worked on” (29), and might even advocate social regress, as he calls on rulers to abandon education and focus merely on sustenance (3, 19).

Daoist foreign policy would probably not make the Republican platform, however: the great state, the author says, is like an easy woman, because it embraces, serves, protects, and yields to others (61, 66).  Such a nation might participate in international peace accords (UN), donate to suffering countries (Asia post-tsunami), and give in to the monetary demands of aggressors (North Korea).  Lao Tzu’s admonition “Do not use weapons to change the world” (30) seems especially applicable to the current administration.

The text does not wholeheartedly advocate incompetent leadership.  It upholds a diligent farmer as the ideal leader (57) and defines good management as “excellence in setting things right” (8).  A great ruler makes no rules just as a great carver does no cutting (28), but since slicing meat is the carver’s job, Lao Tzu must mean the lawmaker’s work is so subtle and natural that it seems effortless.  In this light we can understand Lao Tzu’s challenge to “take over the world by not working” (48, 57) as taking care of official business without breaking a sweat about it (73).

Laozi 17 claims that the worst ruler is despised; the one held in awe is less bad; the one who is universally loved is good, but the best is disregarded.  Hence we can interpret wu-wei in another light: the stronger the people’s feelings about a ruler, the more he is interfering with their lives.  If they love him, he must have saved them from invasion or natural disasters which were plaguing them; if they don’t know him, then such threats were averted altogether.  The people have more contact with the local authorities to whom the ruler has devolved responsibility and power (17, 49).

A dull leader engenders pure subjects while a sharp one owns a bad lot (58).  This does not require the leader to be stupid; rather, it is a statement that even the most intelligent politician cannot know what is best for every person in a state.  “Work but don’t rely on this; preside but don’t rule” (10).  The wu-wei leader hence allows other individuals and nations to order themselves (37), and the choices they make are better than anything the leader could have imagined: “Tao invariably Does Nothing, and nothing remains not done.”

II-3: Primitivist’s denunciation of morality

The Primitivist compares morality to webbed toes or a sixth finger: it issues from man naturally, and we would feel pain if we lost it, but it is superfluous (200).  Depending on morality, like depending on the L-square or compass, weakens one’s instincts and keeps him from attaining what is truly important: contentment.  “The benevolent people of the present age get bleary-eyed worrying about the age’s troubles, the malevolent rip apart the essentials of their nature and destiny by gluttony for honors and riches” (201).

The moralist sages like to think that doing evil has consequences, but robbers often thrive: for example, T’ien Ch’eng and his family stole and held the righteous state of Ch’i for twelve generations securely (207).  The one who dies for good is just as broken as the one who dies for evil, so there is no use being a hero (202).  The sages think they follow a higher way, but they are bartering in the marketplace of ideas just like the rest of us (201).

Those who barter happiness for morality are pitiable, but the sages are horrible.  Just as trainers wreck horses to suit their purposes, sages wreck men (204-205).  Before, everyone was happy with what he had, but after the sages introduced the concept of a “better” way to do things, men became obsessed with profit (206, 209).  There are more evil men now than there were before (208), and because they have learned to circumvent the rules, they are even more dangerous than they were before, the way horses smash crossbars and gnaw through bits (204-205).  Until we kill the sages and destroy all proof of moral standards, we will never be happy (208-209).

The Primitivist tries to make a historical argument, but beyond tales of Shen-nung he has no evidence for his utopia, so it is really just a thought experiment.  I would counter his state of nature with that of Thomas Hobbes, who argued that before men made society, life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short because individuals warred with each other in competition for scarce resources.  Whose account is correct?  The two agree that scarcity of resources or the perception of such is the cause of suffering, so methodologically they are not far apart.  I believe that every society contends with natural disasters or at least droughts.  Besides, humans are innately creative beings, so someone would have created an object to envy.  I prefer Hobbes.

The Primitivist’s analogue for morality is also shaky.  A sixth finger is an uncommon birth defect, but almost every person or society has a sense of right and wrong.  Since the Primitivist’s arguments are themselves based on sweeping generalizations about the utility of education, I have no qualms about countering with natural law theory.  Morality espouses against killing, adultery, theft, thinks the Primitivist thinks impossible in his utopia.  How, then, could morality have ruined it?
III-1: Individuals praised in the Zhuangzi

The individuals praised in the Zhuangzi seem disparate.  Some have excellent qualities: of these, some arrived at them naturally while others developed them over time.  Another group has excelled while having qualities that we would normally despise.  Finally, there are individuals who have emptied themselves but in doing so have gained great power over others.  Zhuangzi employs irony in all his accounts because he wants to challenge our opinions about what is desirable and lead us to something greater.

Zhuangzi never praises anyone in the outright style of an ode; rather, the protagonists of various tales express opinions which speak for him.  This pattern begins on the very first page, before we even know Zhuangzi is a skeptic: K’un, a massive fish, can become P’eng, a great bird, and soar over everything else in the skies (23-25).  His tiny avian critics simply do not understand his greatness.  Sung Jung-Tzu would have laughed at them just as he laughed at all his peers who tried to judge him by their own values.

P’eng is superior because that is his essence; however, most humans must work for greatness.  One such man is simply clever: he buys the recipe for a small-town medicinal remedy, employs it in a large battle, and receives a fief in return (28-29).  Another, Cook Ding, honed his craft over time (46-47).  The Cook at first saw the ox in the same way we did, but after so many years he can maneuver it with his eyes closed.  Because he follows the contours as they were meant to be cut, he never wears out his knife.  At certain complicated places, he has to work slowly and carefully, but always the ox falls apart before him.  Upon completion, he is reluctant to move on from this achievement, but he must, and he does.  No less an authority than the King says that Cook Ding knows how to care for life.  The cook for his part says he is beyond skill: what he follows is the Way.  Because it is the Way, we can apply the same principles to our own lives.

Sometimes people must overcome personal hardship on the way to honing their gifts.  The Commander of the Right, Wang T’ai, Shen t’u-Chia, and Shu-Shan No-Toes all lost feet to fate or punishment but have their minds and valor intact (48-49, 64-68).  Those who prejudge them are later scorned.  Shen t’u Chia regards his lost appendage as unimportant as “a lump of earth thrown away.”  The Woman Crookback, for her part, still looks young because she has The Way (78).  Lame-Hunchback-No-Lips and Pitcher-Sized-Wen are ministers so skilled that after talking with them, the king doesn’t notice their deformities anymore and instead compares normal people unfavorably to them (71).

“All men know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless” (63).  A classic example is the gourd which Huizi destroyed for being too big but which Zhuangzi would have used to ride down the river (29-30).  Likewise, the oaks which have no use for the carpenters are the ones that are never chopped down, so they become respected for their age (58-62).  Because Crippled Shu can live off charity and no one makes demands on him, he can justifiably say his disability has given him a good life (62).

Finally, Zhuangzi praises those who empty themselves and know that all are one.  He first assigns this quality to those who have mastered the environment, perhaps so our awe of them will move us to do the same: Lieh Tzu in his limited power could ride the wind for fifteen days (26), while Chieh Yu and Lien Shu know of an old man who sucks the wind, drinks the dew, and rides dragons (27).  Natural disasters do not affect the True (or Ideal) Man, nor do profit and loss.  He “could climb the high places and not be frightened, could enter the water and not get wet” (73-74).  The Four Masters, on the other hand, were subject to all the cruelties of nature but didn’t let anything perturb them (80-82).  They get sick and die but simply laugh about it.

Others express their emptiness through psychological mastery.  Ugly Ai T’ai-t’o seduces others because he is like water, which guards what is inside and shows no movement outside (68-70).  Men mirror themselves in the still water or the constant mind, for in this stillness they can see the stillness of other things (65).  Clansman T’ai’s virtue is perfectly true: in his dream-wanderings, he often forgets his very humanity (89), like Chuang Chou who dreams of being a butterfly (45).  Hu Tzu bests an outwardly impressive shaman in psychological combat because he can constantly change his soul (92-94), and this power brings him closer to the true nature of man (77).

All this ties into Zhuangzi’s ideal: the sage “has the form of a man but not the feelings of a man” (71-72).  He binds with others but doesn’t let feelings or moral laws affect him.  “Knowledge is an offshoot, promises are glue, favors are a patching up, and skill is a peddler…Massive and great, he perfects his Heaven alone.”  For the Cook, this is carving; for the gourd, the river.  So in my humble opinion, Zhuangzi is not advocating total relativism but rather an intuitive personality, free of input from society, which follows the way it finds most interesting and natural.  Usually, worldly anxiety prevents us from focusing enough to have Cook Ding’s flow.  Confucius, despite his moments of brilliance (87), cannot become a true sage because his obsession with society has shackled his mind (68).  This is tragic because only fate can answer the “big questions,” and flow is too beautiful to be sacrificed on the altar of other people’s opinions.  We are so worried about life, death, love, and pain that we can never take to the skies like P’eng.


[1] I used the LeFargue translation of the Laozi.

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