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Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi)

The Chuang-Tzu or Zhuangzi, named for its primary author, "Master Chuang" (c. 369-286 BCE), also known as Nan-hua chenching (“The Pure Classic of Nan-hua”), is an important Taoist text composed in the 4th or 3rd century BCE.

The Chuang-Tzu focuses a great deal on the person of Lao-tzu, who is presented as one of Chuang-Tzu's own teachers. It contains several discourses attributed to Lao Tzu, most of which are presented as responses to a disciple's questions, and records interactions between Lao Tzu and Confucius in which the former is the clear superior of the two. The remainder of the work consists of colorful fables, parables, and anecdotes that teach lessons about life and the Tao.1 2

The Chuang-Tzu has 33 chapters, although it may have had as many as 53 chapters in the 4th century CE. Numerous editions of the work, with many variant readings, have appeared since then, making it very difficult to discern its original content. It is generally agreed that Chapters 1-7 are the genuine writings of Chuang-Tzu, but Chapters 8-23 are primarily written by others, though Chuang-Tzu may have had a hand in them.3

The Chuang-Tzu is second in importance in Taoism only to the Tao-te Ching and is regarded as more comprehensive than the Tao-te Ching. The Chuang-Tzu has also been influential in the development of Chinese Buddhism and on Chinese landscape painting and poetry.3

In contrast to the Tao-te Ching, which is addressed to the sage-ruler, the Chuang-Tzu's primary concern is an individual's private life. Servants of the state, participants in state ritual, and logicians are ridiculed and rejected, while the free, humble, mindful life is exalted. The author "compares the servant of state to the well-fed decorated ox being led to sacrifice in the temple and himself to the untended piglet blissfully frolicking in the mire."1

The Chuang-Tzu also touches on the topics of death and the Immortals. Death is equated with life, and the wise are depicted as welcoming the transformation as fusion with the Tao. The Immortals, as they came to be called, are "perfect men" or "supreme men" who have no anxiety, have the faces of children, and effortlessly fly upward with a fluttering (hsien) motion. They exemplify the Taoist ideals of effortlessness and spontaneity, and are praised throughout the Chuang-Tzu. Probably intended as allegorical or literary figures by the author, the Immortals (hsien) came to occupy central interest in religious Taoists, who classified these heavenly beings in a detailed way, attempted to emulate their characteristics, and even to locate them geographically in order to learn their secrets.3

But probably the most well-known part of the Chuang-Tzu is the story of Chuang-Tzu and the butterfly in Book II:

Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly, fluttering about, not knowing that it was Chuang Chou. He woke with a start, and was Chuang Chou again. But he did not know whether he was Chuang Chou who had dreamed that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and the butterfly there must be some distinction: this is what is called "the transformation of things."


  1. Strickmann et al, “Daoism.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.  

  2. “Chuang-tzu.” Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (2004)  

  3. “Zhuangzi.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.  

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