Monday 12 March 2018

Student bookshelf. The DaodeJing and the Zuangzi by Aurelia Paul

Aurelia Paul is a senior year student at Boston University, studying comparative literature and Chinese. In her fortnightly column Student bookshelf she shares responses to texts she's reading in her classes.

Here she discusses Zuangzi's curiosity and Laozi's austerity in the DaodeJing and the Zuangzi, two foundational texts of Daoist philosophy.

The DaodeJing (Tao Te Ching ) is a Chinese classic text traditionally accredited to the 6th-century BCE sage Laozi. It deals with metaphysics, morals and politics.

The Zhuangzi contains stories and anecdotes exemplifying the carefree nature of the Daoist sage. It is traditionally accredited to Zuangzi, another influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BCE. (Zhuangzi, as on the book cover, is a variant spelling.)

So, over to Aurelia…

The DaodeJing and the Zuangzi are Daoist examples of Chinese Masters Literature. The texts are both split into short chapters, however these chapters take very different forms in each of them. The Zuangzi includes parables, conversations between men, general contemplations on life, and even autobiographical episodes. In my opinion, the Zuangzi is the more exciting to read because the narrative voice is one that conveys a sense of exuberance for life. In a section of chapter two, Zuangzi discusses human emotion. He writes: "Joy, anger…willfullness, candour, insolence-music from empty holes, mushrooms springing up in dampness, day and night replacing each other before us, and no one knows where they sprout from. Let it be! Let it be!" Here, it seems that the narrator is delighting in the intensity and unpredictability of our emotions. Zuangzi maintains this energy throughout the text, by employing fast-paced dialogue, descriptions of fantastical events, and a tone of eager curiosity. In chapter 18, Zuangzi questions a skull and asks it about its cause of death. He excitedly proposes five different reasons for demise, and we see that even when it comes to death, Zuangzi is filled with curiosity.

In contrast to this curiosity that is so apparent in the Zuangzi, the DaodeJing contains hardly any questions. Instead, Laozi's narrator instructs and informs. The only questions included are rhetorical. These are concerned with differences or distances between opposing ideas, for example: "Between good and evil, how great is the distance?" and "is not the space between heaven and earth like a bellow?" I think that the absence of genuine questions was intended to lend authority to the narrator, because he appears certain about everything; he does not expect readers to doubt him.

Details: the DaodeJing and the Zuangzi are both available in many editions.