Skilful Practice in the Zhuangzi: Putting the Narratives in Context



The Zhuangzi, like many other early Chinese texts, is a composite work consisting of relatively short textual units. Despite its composite nature, the Zhuangzi is often approached as a philosophical work, which (at least in part or parts) can be viewed as philosophically coherent. As a result, the Zhuangzi as a whole (or several wholes) is usually taken (at least implicitly) as the context in which all the textual units are read and understood.

In contrast, this paper explores alternative ways to establish context for individual textual units in the Zhuangzi. The famous short narratives about skilful practice (often introducing the idea of perfect craftsmanship) are taken as an example, and the possible contexts are examined along two lines of inquiry: 1) the narratives are read within their immediate context of the textual unit; 2) the vocabulary used in the narratives is checked against other textual units in the Zhuangzi where the vocabulary appears. The paper argues that diverse contexts can be established for seemingly similar narratives. The narratives about skilful practice are viewed as a literary device that can be used in various contexts for various purposes. The paper thus demonstrates that the received Zhuangzi can be read as a process of putting shared narratives and terms in contexts and using them for different ends. The paper concludes by suggesting that the proposed reading highlights and retains meanings that are necessarily obscured by any reading that establishes the whole Zhuangzi as the primary context.


Zhuangzi, Daoism, philosophy, textuality, reading strategy

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