Zhuangzi and Modern Chinese Literature

By Liu Jianmei

Reviewed by Carlos Yu-kai Lin
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2016)

Liu Jianmei, Zhuangzi and Modern Chinese Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 312pp. ISBN: 13: 9780190238155 (Hardcover: $65.00).

Liu Jianmei, Zhuangzi and Modern Chinese Literature New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
312pp. ISBN: 13: 9780190238155 (Hardcover: $65.00).

The first English-language study of its kind, Liu Jianmei’s Zhuangzi and Modern Chinese Literature is an impressive and ambitious work that investigates as well as situates Zhuangzi’s thought within the formation of Chinese literary modernity. Liu traces the rises and falls of Zhuangzi in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as manifested in the works of an array of intellectuals and writers, thereby demonstrating the enduring influence of Zhuangzi on modern China’s literary and cultural scenes—a process she describes as “a return to the classic” (回歸古典) (3).

One of the key goals of the book is to show how and why modern Chinese intellectuals and writers have appropriated, reinterpreted, and even twisted Zhuangzi for various purposes under different social and political circumstances. Such a perspective of inquiry is illuminating and important to our understanding of the New Culture Movement (ca. 1915-1925), during which Chinese intellectuals were torn between the bipolar forces of Western modernity and Chinese tradition and were constantly faced with the dilemma of either maintaining a local cultural identity or creating a new one that matched a global order in which China no longer was—nor could be imagined as—the center. This historical situation compelled Chinese intellectuals to reengage with and reassess their cultural roots, in an attempt to root out the origins of what they viewed as China’s social, political, economic, and cultural weakness and decay.

Perspectives on China’s decline vis-a-vis its traditions varied from intellectual to intellectual. Liu begins with Guo Moruo, whose interpretations of Zhuangzi underwent multiple transformations throughout his life. In his early years, he was an enthusiastic advocate of Zhuangzi, disseminating as well as developing Daoist philosophy. He eulogized the thought of Zhuangzi by writing a series of articles and poems that emphasize a harmonious relation between man and nature. Liu observes that the Zhuangzian ideas of “oneness with the Dao” (26) and “forgetting the self” (29) were characteristic of his writings at that time. However, in the 1940s, Guo started to apply Marxist historical materialism to his elaboration of Zhuangzi, arguing that Zhuangzi’s “tendency to be cynical and misanthropic” (39) was a result of the sage’s historical context and lamenting that the ruling class had for two thousand years misused Zhuangzi’s “crafty philosophy” (39). While Guo broadly targeted the ideology of the ruling class in the 1940s, in the 1960s he began to specifically disparage Zhuangzi’s thought as “a cunning trap of class deception” (41). Guo’s transformation from a supporter of Zhuangzi in the May Fourth period to a Marxist ideologue thoroughly critical of Zhuangzi’s philosophy during the height of the Cultural Revolution exemplifies the uneven fate of Zhuangzi in the modern era.

Compared to Guo’s radically changing attitude, Lu Xun was a persistent and adamant critic of Zhuangzi. While many scholars have pointed out that Lu Xun drew inspiration from aspects of Zhuangzi’s writings, his criticism of Daoist philosophy is abundantly evident.[1] For most of his early career as a writer, Lu Xun rejected the (Daoist) life of a recluse, insisting on intervening in social reality and committing himself to the life of a cultural warrior against feudalism and social injustice.[2]

Liu points out that, to further reflect on the ineffectual nature of the Daoist personality, Lu Xun wrote The True Story of Ah-Q, in which the main protagonist convinces himself of his “spiritual victory” whenever he is subjected to humiliation and defeat. This imagined victory supplanting a cruel and harsh reality is reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s ideal of “sitting and forgetting” (坐忘) and “no-self” (無己) according to Liu (68). When evaluating Lu Xun’s consistently negative attitude toward Zhuangzi and Daoist philosophy, Liu argues that such an attitude is understandable, because it reflected the national crisis Lu Xun faced and the accompanying sense of urgency he felt at that historical juncture (65).

Liu next turns to Lin Yutang, whose adherence to Zhuangzi was rare in the politically-charged atmosphere of the time and contrasted with the May Fourth (e.g., Lu Xun) criticism of Daoism. Although Lin did not show much interest in Zhuangzi during the New Culture Movement, he became a proponent of Zhuangzi after 1927, endorsing a literature of leisure that emphasizes the value of personal freedom rather than social conformity. In addition, he promoted the discourse of humor by seeing Zhuangzi as “the ancestor of Chinese humor” (107) who always discussed worldly affairs wittily and freely. This seemingly apolitical interpretation of Zhuangzi, however, was actually a political response to utilitarian social perspectives being promoted by others. Lin’s humorous and light-hearted perspective on life was unwelcome in the atmosphere of 1930s China when both leftist and rightist intellectuals were avidly pursuing national salvation through various reform agenda. His promotion of “leisure life” ultimately failed (111).

It was not until Lin emigrated to the United States in 1936 that he had an opportunity to revive the “leisure life” as an emphasis on the aesthetic and creative sides of human nature. Unlike the politically-intense milieu in China, America’s modernization and industrialization required a philosophy of life that could help citizens escape from the pressures and disillusionment of their alienating society. It was here, Liu shows, that Lin’s Daoist-inspired worldview found belated approval. Lin’s success in the U.S. was also facilitated by his ability to introduce and articulate Daoist philosophy in English. He wrote English-language novels such as Moment in Peking (1939) and The Unexpected Island (1955) to express his interpretation of Daoism. In the former, he created two protagonists who embody an all-embracing Daoist dualism. In the latter, he depicted an imagined utopian community combining Daoist and ancient Greek cultures. Liu demonstrates how Lin’s application of Zhuangzian philosophy to Western individuals and contexts might represent “a fruitful source of an alternative conception of modernity” (106).

Liu’s inquiry into the modern fate of Zhuangzi is not limited to the New Culture Movement. She also ventures into the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, during which the prevailing assessment of Zhuangzi in the PRC was that of a reactionary idealist and irreconcilable enemy of the working class. Chinese intellectuals at the time expended a great deal of effort criticizing Zhuangzi from a rigid Marxist model of class struggle. Guan Feng is the most extreme example in this regard. Liu chronicles that Guan saw in Zhuangzi’s ideas “the residual power of slave masters” (奴隸主殘餘勢力) (145), and invoked Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah-Q, asserting that “Zhuangzi’s subjective idealism has these characteristics: nihilism, Ah Q’s spirit, sophistry, and pessimism” (146). Guan Feng’s criticism of Zhuangzi and Daoism is more malicious than Lu Xun’s, since the former’s fanatic belief in revolutionary collectivism completely ruled out any possibility of affirming the Daoist advocation of a free mind. Liu thus suggests that, if Lu Xun’s literary writing can be seen as putting Zhuangzi in a “literary court” (文學法庭), Guan’s even more hostile and irrational accusation of Daoism can be understood as putting Zhuangzi in “the court of politics” (政治法庭) (144).[3]

Zhuangzi experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s. After the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Chinese intellectuals finally had a chance to re-engage with Zhuangzi in ways that were previously impossible. While some tried to revive an originary Zhuangzi, others appealed to Western worldviews in order to critically reassess Daoist philosophy. For example, Liu Xiaofeng compared the spirit of Christian salvation with the roaming spirit of Zhuangzi, prioritizing the former as the absolute truth from which the latter could be judged (156). By regarding (Christian) God as the only source of ultimate truth, Liu Jianmei argues, Liu Xiaofeng bolstered “the binarism of East-versus-West, ignoring the incommensurable capacities and historical contexts between the two systems of thought” (156). After being tried in a “literary court” in the 1920s and a “political court” in the Mao era, the 1980s saw Zhuangzi being tried in a “religious court” (宗教法庭) (154).

Liu also explores themes that stem from Zhuangzi, Daoism, and even Chan Buddhism in the works of contemporary Chinese writers such as Gao Xingjian and Yan Lianke. Gao, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, is known for his exilic pursuit of spiritual freedom. Gao’s self-exile from his Chinese homeland can be interpreted as a political protest and as an aesthetic adventure—both of which have featured prominently in some of his works. Soul Mountain (靈山), one of Gao’s best known works, depicts the main protagonist’s physical and spiritual journey to find a place called “soul mountain.” Mixing anecdotal plots, lyrical meditations, and fantastic dreams, the story “unfolds a cosmic vision of human existence presented by certain recurring motifs such as death, darkness, solitude, wandering, the mountain, love, and sex” (215). Although Gao never specifies in the novel what is meant by “soul mountain,” the language of Chan Buddhism that permeates the novel indicates that this sacred place is akin to a kind of spiritual freedom found only in the mind of the individual and not in the outer world (216-7). Liu argues that Gao’s insistence on the attainment of spiritual freedom echoes Zhuangzi’s and Chan Buddhism’s notions of spiritual transcendence, and is therefore resistant to any hegemonic political ideology or regime.

In contrast to Gao’s emphasis on and pursuit of inner peace, Liu demonstrates how the works of Yan Lianke manifest the inner conflict of a modern Chinese writer vacillating between different literary traditions and subject positions. On the one hand, Yan carries on the May Fourth belief in the necessity of social intervention; on the other, he reiterates the classical literary theme of a reclusive utopian community that can be traced back to Zhuangzi and Tao Yuanming. Liu takes Yan’s 2004 Lenin’s Kisses (受活) as an example. The novel traces the history of a small village of disabled people called Shouhuo (受活, literally “pleasure”) as it is drawn from an idyllic pastoral state into disastrous participation in a “heavenly” socialist commune, after which its idyllic pre-commune state can never be restored (189). By portraying a pair of failed ideal societies (one traditional, one modern), Yan not only reveals the utopia complex of modern Chinese intellectuals and writers, but also demonstrates how difficult it is to search for an alternative to modernity.

Liu’s scholarship demonstrates the kind of erudition and precision that are needed in research that encompasses both modern and traditional literary discourses. By surveying a variety of twentieth and twenty-first century Chinese intellectuals and writers, the book traces the different ways in which Zhuangzi has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and misinterpreted in the modern era. While Liu’s representative writers have been thoughtfully selected, some readers might be left wondering about Liu’s own assessment of Zhuangzi and how she positions herself vis-à-vis the various interpretations of Zhuangzi. For instance, one might ask if Liu believes in an original and authentic Zhuangzi? And, to what extent she runs the risk of essentializing or prioritizing certain interpretations or aspects of Zhuangzi? Such issues of method and approach are important considerations that Liu does not address in the book.[4] These issues aside, Zhuangzi and Modern Chinese Literature is an invaluable source for any study of modern Chinese literature. It highlights an important question that merits further research in the future: how have modern Chinese intellectuals and writers encountered and creatively engaged with China’s literary and cultural traditions? Where the Daoist tradition and Zhuangzi are concerned, Liu’s book has provided a very interesting and convincing answer to this question—and set a standard worthy of emulation.

Carlos Yu-Kai Lin
University of Pennsylvania


[1] For example, in The Chinese Prose Poem: A Study of Lu Xun’s Wild Grass (Yecao) (New York: Cambria Press, 2014), Kaldis addresses both poles of Lu Xun’s ambivalence towards Zhuangzi and Daoism.

[2] While Lu Xun might agree with aspects of Zhuangzi’s pursuit of individual spiritual freedom, his consistent rejection of Confucian traditionalism dovetailed with his disapproval of the Daoist philosophy of nonaction or inaction (無為), as opposed to the necessity of action and response (有為). As Lu Xun argues in his famous 1907 essay, “On the Power of Mara Poetry” (摩羅詩力說): “The core of Laozi’s 5,000-word book is ‘Don’t disturb anyone’s mind,’ which requires one first to make dead wood of his mind and propagate inaction; acts of inaction transform society, and the world has peace. What an art!” (cited on p. 63). Lu Xun’s contempt for Daoist nonaction is obvious.

[3] “Idealism” and “materialism” were two of the most popular terms associated with Zhuangzi in the 1960s. In addition to Guan Feng’s adjudication of Zhuangzi, Hou Wairu saw Zhuangzi’s philosophy as “subjective idealism” while Yan Beiming viewed Zhuangzi’s thought as “objective idealism.” Ren Jiyu claimed Zhuangzi was a philosopher of “materialism” (45).

[4] Liu does discuss the fact that both Hu Shi and Lu Xun invoked evolution when they sought to reinterpret Zhuangzi. However, she finds Hu Shi’s use of the concept of evolution “partial” (58) and “problematic” (46) while Lu Xun’s is deemed “understandable” (65) and “dialectical” (58) in light of his “sense of urgency about achieving Chinese modernity” (65). However, considering the fact that this sense of urgency was arguably shared by all May Fourth intellectuals, providing an apology for Lu Xun alone doesn’t do justice to those who were equally burdened with the task of finding a way to achieve Chinese modernity. When exploring such issues, it is helpful to distinguish Darwin’s biological idea of natural selection and scientific method from the social Darwinism developed by Darwin’s followers that captured the imagination of a generation of thinkers famously “obsessed” with China’s modern plight. Such a clarification makes for a more nuanced understanding of not only May Fourth intellectuals’ appropriation of the notion of evolution but also the general intellectual upheaval of early twentieth-century China.