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 what 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 thins 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 bigness, 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 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 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 the things you have 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 States of Song who was named Zhuang 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
circumstances and sometimes 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 States 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 was adamant in declining the 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 essays on Taoism and written a number of humorous fables through which he succeeded in explicating some abstract philosophical theories and making them easy to understand.

For example, there is this fable titled “Creating Features for Hun Tun” (Making Apertures in the Nebulae). According to the fable, there is in ancient
times an emperor in the south named Shu and another emperor in the north named Hu. In between lies the territory of the Central Emperor 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 hospitality. It occurs to them that although everyone has eyes, ears,
mouth and nose with in Chinese are 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 to tamper at will with what is created by nature. This is
the so called 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 that
it 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, Dongguozi 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!” But Zhuangzi continued, “Dao is in tiles and bricks.” Getting more and more confused, Dongguozi hastened to ask, “Why are you speaking more
and more lowly of it?” At this, Zhuangzi smiled and said, “It exists 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 can not 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.