Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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Laozi and Zhuangzi

Lao Dan, alias Laozi, was a man from the state of Chu who was probably born before Confucius by scores of years. He had been a low-ranking official in the palace of the Zhou Dynasty and his job was to look after the library. While he was at the job, he engaged in philosophical studies and came to the conclusion that the universe consisted of sky, earth, humanity and where he called "principles" or "ways" for which he coined the term "dao". According to him, dao is a priori, from which everything else in universe is derived. According to him, all things are governed by objective natural laws. A man may live or die. A thing may be big or small. And a human being can be handsome or ugly. These are contradictions and yet depend on each other. That is to say, without life there is no death; without biggness, there is no smallness; and without beauty there is no ugliness. Furthermore, bad things can often turn into good things and it is also true that the other way round. However, Laozi was opposed to seeking change through conflict and believed in the principle of "leaving things well alone." He proposed that there was no need for intelligence, nor for wisdom, in the world and hoped that man would become as simple-minded as was possible and be easily contented. Laozi was a thinker-philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.) in Chinese history.

In his last years Laozi grew very much discontented with the actual conditions of society. He felt a strong nostalgia for the primitive society of bygone days and hoped for a return to the social conditions of that time so that people could live in a world without war and without disparity between the rich and the poor. He envisioned a world where people had no need to have anything to do with each other and where barely knowing of each other's existence through barking dogs and crowing cocks was enough. So he was thinking of leaving the palace job and living the secluded life of a recluse. One day when riding on the back of a cow on his way through the Han Gu Guan Pass, the local officials said to him, "Now that you have made up your mind to withdraw from the world, please write down for us all things you have thought about and all your theories." So Laozi committed to paper an essay of more than 5,000 words which was given the title "Dao De Jing" (Taoist Teachings of Laozi), often shortened to Laozi. That is why he is considered as the founder of Taoism in China.

By the time of what in Chinese history is called the Period of the Warring States (475-221 B.C.), Taoist thinking or philosophy was inherited and developed by a scholar from the State of Song who was named Zhuaug Zhou and often referred to as Zhuangzi. As a representative of the Taoist school of thought, Zhuangzi is as well known as Laozi. Hence the two names often go together as Lao Zhuang.

All his life Zhuangzi lived in straitened curcumstances and sometiems had to earn his rice by making straw sandals or even to borrow from others. But he was not at all interested in an official position or offering his service to any ruler. There was a king that went by the name of Wei Wang in the State of Chu. When he was told that Zhuangzi was very learned and talented, he sent an emissary to the later inviting him to become his prime minister with a huge salary. Zhuangzi as adamant in decliningthe offer, saying, "I would prefer never to have anything to do with the official world and hope for spiritual contentment only." By this he meant the life of a recluse which would make it possible for him to devote his time exclusively to the study of the thinking of Laozi. In his life he had authored many essages on Taoism and written a number of humorous fables through whichhe succeeded in explicating some abstract philosophical theories and making them easy to understand.

For example, there is this fable entitled "Creating Features for Hun Tun" (Making Apertures in the Nebulae). According to the fable, there is an ancient times an emperor in the south named Shu and another emperor in the north named Hu. In between lies the territory of the Cental Empeor whose name is Hun Tun. Being close friends Shu and Hu make constant visits to each other and so have to cross the territory of Hun Tun frequently who is ever so hospitable. For this Shu and Hu are very grateful and they have always wanted to repay his hopitality. It occurs to them that although everyone has eyes, ears, mouth and nose which in Chinese ae called the seven apertures, Hun Tun somehow has been deprived of them. Consequently they decide to create the seven apertures for him. So everyday they go and dig one aperture in Hun Tun. Who can imagine that this should have ended up in a great tragedy! For at the end of the seven days, Hun Tun is dead. With this fable, Zhuangzi aims to make it clear that man should not be allowed totamper at will with what is created by nature. This is the so callled Lao Zhuang philosophy of "leaving things well alone" or "doing through not doing."

Zhuangzi had a friend who went by the name of Dongguozi. He was puzzled by the question of where to find dao which the former often referred to. So he went to Zhuangzi for an answer, only to be told thatit was everywhere. Dongguozi was not satisfied and asked again, "Please be more specific. Where can it be? I still do not know." Zhuangzi said in reply, " Dao is seen in crickets and ants." More puzzled, Donguozi asked , "How can dao be something so worthless?" In answer, Zhuangzi only said, "it is in millet and weed." More nonplussed, Dongguozi asked, "Why, this is even more worthless!" Bugt Zhuangzi continued, "Dao is in tiles and bricks." Getting more an dmore confused, Dongguozi hastened to ask, "Why are you speaking more and more lowly of it?" At this, Zhuangzi smiled and said, "It existes even in human waste." Believing that Zhuangzi was kidding, Dongguozi thought better of saying anything more. But Zhuangzi went on, "You want me to be specific about where dao is. I cannot make you see where it  is unless I can make you see that it is found in the most lowly and common things." Dongguozi nodded, although not quite understanding.

The philosophy and literary works of Lao Zhuang have had a far-reaching influence all through the feudal age of China, a period lasting thousands of years.       


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