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About the Zhuangzi

This text, known simply as the Zhuangzi or sometimes as Nanhuazhenjing ("The Genuine Classic of the Blossoming from the South," the honorific title given to the text by Emperor Xuanzong in 742 C.E.) in Chinese, is reported by Ban Gu (32–92) to have once consisted of fifty-two chapters, but no such version is now extant. The current text took its shape, size, and arrangement from Guo Xiang (c. 252–312), who edited it down to thirty-three chapters. Guo also appended his own commentary, which became the foundation for all further exegesis on the text throughout Chinese history.

Guo's version is divided into three parts: The Inner Chapters (1–7), the Outer Chapters (8–22), and the Miscellaneous Chapters (23–33). The two most powerful modern attempts to classify the various strains of thought in the text are surely those of A. C. Graham and Liu Xiaogan. These two scholars agree that only the Inner Chapters were actually authored by the historical Zhuang Zhou, while most of the traditional Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters are not his work. This is by now a widely accepted scholarly consensus. Liu, unlike Graham, considers all the remaining chapters to be the work of actual followers of Zhuang Zhou. The two scholars also differ in the way they divide the remaining chapters according to philological, stylistic, and philosophical characteristics. Liu divides the authors of the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters into three distinct groups: the Transmitters, the Huang-Lao School, and the Anarchists, viewing the work of the Transmitters (responsible for Chapters 17–27 and 32) as most closely resembling the Inner Chapters of Zhuang Zhou, and coming closest to him in time. The Huang-Lao School, who synthesize Confucian, Daoist, and Legalist ideas, are, in Liu's schema, responsible for Chapters 12–16, 33, and the latter part of 11. The work of the Anarchists can be found in Chapters 8–10, 28–29, 31, and the first part of 11.

Graham also identifies several distinct groups of writers for the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters, calling them the School of Zhuangzi, the Syncretists, the Primitivists, and the Yangists. Within the writings of the School of Zhuangzi—closely comparable to what Liu calls the Transmitter School, to which Graham attributes Chapters 17–22 and some passages in Chapter 25—Graham further distinguishes a Rationalizing strain (for example, the opening dialogue in Chapter 17 and the final dialogue in Chapter 25) and an Irrationalizing strain (for example, Chapter 22).   In both cases Graham believes a significant philosophical departure from Zhuang Zhou has occurred—a position I share. Liu, on the contrary, seems to approve of the traditional consensus that, for example, the Autumn Floods chapter (Chapter 17) is a faithful systematic exposition of the ideas of the Inner Chapters, a view I reject. Graham's Syncretists are represented by Chapters 12–14, the end of 11, 15 and 33, corresponding approximately to Liu's category of Huang-Lao. Graham's Primitivists are represented by Chapters 8–10 and the beginning of 11, and his Yangists—followers of the "egoist" Yang Zhu—whom he considers "non-Taoist," are represented by Chapters 28–31.  These two categories together correspond to Liu's category of Anarchists. Whichever scheme we may adopt, we can safely assume that the traditional book known as the Zhuangzi is the work of many different people working at different times, and reflective of a broad variety of distinct but related points of view.

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