Zhuangzi and Mushrooms: The Daoist/Taoist Master(s)

Hello! Ever heard of Zhuangzi? Yes, no, kind of sort of? Well, have no fear, an English major is here! I will be explaining some about Zhuangzi, his writing, and the philosophies of Daoist/Taoist thought and how that connects to Zhuangzi!

A Little History (and context) of Zhuangzi and China

First, before I even begin speaking in-depth about Zhuangzi’s writing, it would be beneficial to give you some base knowledge of who Zhuangzi was, the culture and world he was surrounded by, which influenced his thoughts and writings. The most basic information is this: Zhuangzi was an ancient Chinese writer and Taoist/Daoist who lived ca. 369-286 B.C.E. (Norton, p. 1369). Zhuangzi was more interested in the simple life; he preferred minding his business and writing, unlike his peers – the other master of his time – who gave their insight to rulers during the warring states period (Norton, p. 1369). Let me slow down slightly because I bet you’re wondering, “What’s the warring states period? It sounds so interesting, tell me more!” The warring states period was a period in Chinese history (ca. 481 -221 B.C.E. ). Different rivaling states battles for power over more and more territory –you can find out more here in an article written by Mark Cartwright. Zhuangzi was greatly admired even if he wasn’t involved in politics, which is why he is attributed with writing only seven chapters of The Zhuangzi out of the thirty-three that is in the book (Norton, p. 1369).

Now that we know more about Zhuangzi the writer let us move a little closer to Zhuangzi the book. As said in the Norton on page 1369, “It moves from wise jokes and funny parables to moments of passionate seriousness and tight philosophical arguments…” In the Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi writes about ideals from Daoism/Taoism, which are as follows: naturalness, simplicity, spontaneity, compassion, humility, and something exclusive to Zhuangzi’s philosophies: exuberant joy in questioning. 

Chapter One: Why Is He Talking About Mushrooms?

Alright, now that we have the majority of the history and context taken care of, lets actually dig into the literature of Zhuangzi. The first part I wish to look at is chapter one, or Free and Easy Wandering. Each of Zhuangzi’s chapters has meaning and is connected to one of the Taoist/Daoist main philosophies. In chapter one, the main ones I had noticed immediately was humility and simplicity. It appears that Zhuangzi’s interpretation of the philosophies I mentioned before are more aligned with being content with your place in life. For one example of humility, one page 1375 of the Norton, Zhuangzi wrote: “The morning mushroom knows nothing of twilight and dawn…” and then he goes on to write, “Long, long ago there was a great rose of Sharon that counted eight thousand years as one spring and eight thousand years as one autumn. They are the long-lived.” This section of chapter one is speaking about simple the life and death of a mushroom and rose are. Yet, they do not know nor care, they just know that the life they do live is long and complex, as the rose feels that each spring and each autumn is eight thousand years. I feel that the reason Zhuangzi writes about this is to give people a metaphor for how simple somethings life may be, and yet they appreciate and cherish their lives. This particular part of the texts highlights simplicity well, and Zhuangzi knew what he was doing when he created this example.

Now, we’re still on chapter one, but I wanted to bring up a different part that I think illustrates humility very clearly. Again on page 1372, Zhuangzi wrote about a quail wondering (in a very haughty way, might I add) why Peng – a big bird which is described as having a back like Mount Tai and wings like the clouds – is flying, because the quail thinks that the way he flies is best (Norton, 1372). Zhuangzi uses the quail metaphor to lead into something much larger: a man holding office that is good at his job for one community need to overreach his bounds, much like the little creatures should not overreach their bounds. There is a very strong sense of humility and humbleness that is intrinsically connected to staying in one’s place and knowing one’s bounds.

Chapter Two: Why Is This Lady Yelling About Questions? Please Make Her Stop.

You’ve made it to the best part!!! My favorite piece of Zhuangzi’s writing is one passage that shows that Zhuangzi loved questioning things and loved knowing that he did not know everything, and that was wonderful! Or rather, it shows an exuberant joy in questioning!

“There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don’t really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (Norton, p. 1379).

This passage is my favorite for a few reasons, mostly because:

  1. It is so existential and comfortable with it!
  2. It shows Zhuangzi’s philosophy of having exuberant joy in questioning!

Zhuangzi shows in this passage the value in not knowing and the value in trying to find out. He even states that he isn’t sure whether or not what he has said really means anything, which shows humility, too. Zhuangzi is worth reading, and I feel that he was and is so widely loved is because he shows how hard it is to be human and know nothing. Still, he also shows that we can all be better than we were yesterday through thinking and being kind. The passage I shared above shows this mindset because I think it encapsulates most of the Taoist/Daoist philosophies in a simple way that most people can understand.

In a speedy conclusion… 

Zhuangzi is a very influential Chinese Taoist/Daoist writer and philosopher from ca. 369-286 B.C.E. that made a lot of excellent points that even now, we could really benefit from. I mean, in our fast-paced society that has almost entirely separated itself from nature, we could learn quite a bit from the simplistic and wonderful teachings of Zhuangzi.

Works Cited

Zhunagzi, “Zhuangzi.” The Nortan Anthology, Edited by Peter Simon, W.W. Nortan & Company, Inc, 2018, pp. 1369-1397

Cartwright, Mark. Warring States Period. 21 Sept. 2020, www.ancient.eu/Warring_States_Period/.