The Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu (ca. 369-ca. 286 B.C.), also known as Chuang Chou, was the most brilliant of the early Taoists and the greatest prose writer of his time.
Not much is known of the life of Chuang Tzu. The Shih Chi (Historical Records, written about 100 B.C.) tells us that he was a contemporary of King Hui of Liang (370-319) and King Hsüan of Ch'i (319-301). Thus Chuang Tzu seems to have been a contemporary of Mencius (372-289), but neither was mentioned by the other in his extant writings. The Shih Chi also says that Chuang Tzu was born in Meng on the border of Shantung and Honan and that he held a petty official post for a time in Ch'iyüan. However, he seems to have lived most of his life as a recluse, "to be intoxicated in the wonder and the power of Nature."
Legend has it that Chuang Tzu declined the honor of being prime minister to King Wei of Ch'u (339-329), saying that he much preferred to be a live tortoise wagging its tail in the mud than a dead one venerated in a golden casket in a king's ancestral shrine. (The story is apocryphal, but it is highly illustrative of the mentality of the Taoist mystic, who cared more for personal freedom than for high office.)
Chuang Tzu's greatness lay in his bringing early Taoism to its full completion. While he was true to the Taoist doctrine of wu-wei (refraining from action contrary to Nature), he extended the Taoist system and carried out metaphysical speculations never heard of by the early Taoists. The philosophy of Chuang Tzu, as characterized by its emphasis on the unity and spontaneity of the Tao, its assertion of personal freedom, and its doctrine of relativity of things, is essentially a plea for the "return to Nature" and free development of man's inherent nature. It is in fact a kind of romantic philosophy that favors anarchistic individualism and condemns Confucian virtues and institutions—a philosophy, in short, that idealizes the state of natural simplicity marked by no will, no consciousness, no knowledge.
All these ideas are well illustrated in the book bearing Chuang Tzu's name. The Chuang Tzu as it stands today contains 33 chapters, in 3 sections: 7 "inner chapters," 15 "outer chapters," and 11 "miscellaneous chapters." It was probably compiled by Kuo Hsiang (died A.D. 312), the great commentator of the Chuang Tzu. As in the case of the Lao Tzu (also known as the Tao Te Ching), there has been much controversy over the authorship of the Chuang Tzu. The first section is generally regarded as the work of the man called Chuang Tzu. Some of the best chapters of the Chuang Tzu representing the naturalistic aspects of Taoism are not included in the first section, and no definite answer has so far been given as to who else would have written them. In view of the frequent repetitions, many interpolations, and differences of styles in the various parts of the work, most scholars agree that the Chuang Tzuis a compilation of Taoist writings from various hands. However this may be, the Chuang Tzu, which consists of beautiful allegories and lively anecdotes, has rarely been surpassed for beauty of style and felicity of expression.
Further Reading on Chuang Tzu
English versions of the Chuang Tzu were edited by Herbert A. Giles (1889; repr. 1961) and Fung Yu-lan (1963). Extracts may be found in Arthur Waley, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China (1939; repr. 1956), and in the Modern Library's Wisdom of China and India and Wisdom of Laotse. For discussions of Chuang Tzu see Fung Yu-lan, History of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 1 (1952), and Herrlee G. Creel, Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung (1953).