Hiding the World in the World

Submitted by James Miller on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:38
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HIDING THE WORLD IN THE WORLD: UNEVEN DISCOURSES ON THE ZHUANGZI. Edited by Scott Cook. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Pp. x + 317. Paper, $25.95, ISBN 0-7914-5866-0.


This edited volume contains ten articles on the Zhuangzi (Book of Master Zhuang). The articles are as follows: “Bimodal Mystical Experience in the ‘Qiwulun’ Chapter of the Zhuangzi” by Harold D. Roth; “How Many Are the Ten Thousand Things and I? Relativism, Mysticism, and the Privileging of Oneness in the ‘Inner Chapters’” by Brook Ziporyn; “Harmony and Cacophony in the Panpipes of Heaven” by Scott Cook; “From ‘Merging the Body with the Mind’ to ‘Wandering in Unitary Qi’: A Discussion of Zhuangzi’s Realm of the True Man and Its Corporal Basis” by Rur-bin Yang; “Guru or Skeptic? Relativistic Skepticism in the Zhuangzi” by Chad Hansen; “Aporetic Ethics in the Zhuangzi” by Dan Lusthaus; “Reflex and Reflectivity: Wuwei in the Zhuangzi” by Alan Fox; “A Mind-Body Problem in the Zhuangzi?” by Paul Rakita Goldin; “Nothing Can Overcome Heaven: The Notion of Spirit in the Zhuangzi” by Michael J. Puett; and “Transforming the Dao: A Critique of A. C. Graham’s Translation of the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi” by Shuen-Fu Lin.


Most of the essays in this volume continue the ongoing debate in American sinology over the question if Zhuangzi is a total skeptic and relativist, or if he has a normative, ethical point of view and perhaps even some mystical intuition. Chad Hansen defends his view of Zhuangzi as a “relativist skeptic” against those who show “chronic nostalgia for the lost ‘guru’” (129), that is to say, those who challenge Hansen’s view of Zhuangzi. Brook Ziporyn says that his whole argument is “just elaborating on Hansen’s immortal early insight that Zhuangzi’s central insight is simply that uncompromising skepticism and absolute mysticism are one and the same thing” (55). Dan Lusthaus argues that the skeptical moments in Zhuangzi are superceded by “prescriptive exhortations” that are “invariably ethical” (163). Scott Cook says that “Zhuangzi’s philosophy offers us the chance to learn how to live our lives aesthetically, to appreciate that all we encounter are simply themes and variations upon the ever-changing melody of the Great Transformation” (76). Alan Fox concludes that Zhuangzi’s ideal of wuwei is the “perfectly well-adjusted person” who is able “to blend or ‘fit’ (shi) into any given situation” and “‘respond’ (ying) effortlessly and spontaneously” (220-222).


These essays clearly show that this kind of “philosophical” treatment of Zhuangzi has exhausted itself. Instead of expanding our understanding of Zhuangzi, the “philosophical” interpreters regurgitate the same well-known arguments in almost obsessive detail. Ritual repetition of a limited number of themes (skepticism, relativism, rationality, etc.) is indeed characteristic of modern professional philosophy, but this very narrow notion of philosophy cannot do justice to the depth and scope of Zhuangzi’s thought. 


In contrast to these “philosophical” essays that are reluctant to enter into a substantial discussion of mysticism in Zhuangzi, Rur-bin Yang braves the deep waters of comparative mysticism. His discussion of how the body of the perfected person in the Zhuangzi is transformed and merges with a universal, unitary “energy” (qi) is enlightening. Similarly, Harold D. Roth describes Zhuangzi’s “bimodal mystical experience,” that is to say, an experience of unity that in turn leads to a transformed view of the multiplicity of the world. This mystical experience is a result of the “inner cultivation practice” that Roth has made the focal point in his reading of Zhuangzi. Roth has argued that the mystical praxis of Zhuangzi is similar to that found in contemporary manuals of inner training. Michael Puett, however, shows that “Zhuangzi’s vision of spiritual power” as it is implicit in his notion of “spirit” (shen) is “radically different” from the notion of self-cultivation found in the Neiye chapter of the Guanzi. What strikes one in reading these discussions of Zhuangzi’s “mystical” thought is that they are much more clear, textually grounded, and informative than the “philosophical” discussions mentioned above.


In fact, it is the “philosophers” that now seem to be the most prejudiced readers of Zhuangzi. Paul Rakita Goldin points out that in the study of early Chinese thought “the very suggestion of a mind-body dichotomy has attained the status of a taboo” (232). Goldin’s point is exemplified by Chad Hansen’s remark earlier in the volume: “Notoriously, Chinese metaphysics lacks much evidence of the Indo-European mind-body dualism” (139). Goldin provides evidence that Zhuangzi and other early Chinese thinkers do in fact have a notion of mind and body as “metaphysically distinct entities.” Finally, Shuen-fu Lin takes a critical look at A. C. Graham’s translation of the Zhuangzi. Lin acknowledges Graham’s great achievement but argues that the Inner Chapters are not just, as Graham thought, a series of “disjointed pieces” but contain an “inner logic” in their unfolding, similar to a piece of music. Lin also argues that several of Graham’s attempts to “restore” the text of the Zhuangzi by moving passages around within the text are not well founded.


Four of the essays in this collection have been published elsewhere. As mentioned in the “Acknowledgments”, Roth’s essay was first published in Journal of Chinese Religions (2000), Shuen-fu Lin’s essay in Translation Quarterly (1999), and Alan Fox’s essay in Asian Philosophy (1996). In addition, Puett’s article is a slightly revised version of pages 122-133 of his book To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China (2002).


The volume is, as its subtitle says, “uneven.” Apart from one or two essays, this third collection of essays on Zhuangzi from State University of New York Press brings us little new and even less exciting scholarship on the Zhuangzi. Nonetheless, comparative philosophers and scholars of Chinese intellectual history may find some aspects of the book relevant. 


Eske Møllgaard

St. Lawrence University

May 17, 2004