When we think of traditional influences on Chinese political theory, Confucianism often comes to mind, because it has drawn increasing government support in the post-Mao era (including from President Xi Jinping). There is also Sunzi’s Art of War, which has been appropriated in the West for everything from business strategy to poker. Those with a bit more knowledge of Chinese history may think of Han Feizi, sometimes called the Chinese Machiavelli. However, Daoism—a school of Chinese philosophy—has also had a surprisingly high degree of political influence. Laozi, the supposed author of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and Virtue ) is the best-known Daoist. He was even cited by Ronald Reagan in his 1988 State of the Union Address. However, cognoscenti of Chinese thought know that Zhuangzi is the most profound and fascinating Daoist. His writings, known simply as the Zhuangzi (莊子), might seem like an unlikely source for political inspiration, since they advocate emotional detachment from the world. Nonetheless, Zhuangzi came to be associated with anti-government peasant uprisings in ancient times, and continues to be a source of inspiration for critics of the Chinese government even today.
Zhuangzi lived in the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.E.), an era in which the nominal monarch reigned but did not rule. Actual power was in the hands of the dukes who ruled the seven major states into which China was divided. In the absence of a strong central power, these states routinely invaded one another, and casually made and betrayed alliances. In the earlier Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 B.C.E.), a duke could sometimes temporarily enforce peace among the other states through a combination of innate military strength and shrewd diplomacy. However, this “hegemony” was intrinsically unstable, as jealousy of the hegemon eventually lead the other states to ally against him. (China’s fondness for accusing the United States of “hegemony” consciously appropriates the vocabulary of this era.) By Zhuangzi’s lifetime, the political situation was too chaotic for even a hegemon to enforce peace, and some dukes went so far as to usurp the title “king.”
Rulers avidly sought good advisors, and several factions developed among theorists of government policy. Confucians might loosely be described as the idealists of the period. They held that successful governments lead through moral charisma and inspiration. The aggressive use of military power, they claimed, could only be justified if it was necessary to save the subjects of another state from tyranny. In contrast, the Legalists (most famously, Han Feizi) advocated a realist approach. In their view, humans are largely self-interested, so subjects must be guided by explicit laws that are enforced with lavish rewards and harsh punishments. Internally, the goal of these laws is to maximize social order and agricultural production, in order to provide economic resources. Externally, the goal is to create a large, well-equipped, and well-disciplined army that can deter attack, but also invade other states when it is strategically advantageous to do so. Legalist policies are said to have helped the ruler of the state of Qin defeat the other states and successfully unite China in 221 B.C.E., thus becoming the first emperor of China—the English name of which is derived from Qin. Due to a succession crisis following his death, the Qin Dynasty was short-lived, and part of the ideology of the following Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) was that they governed in accordance with the humane practices of Confucianism, rather than the cruel teachings of Legalism. However, historians now recognize that the Han, and every other successful Chinese dynasty, incorporated many of the ideas and insights of Legalist thinkers, while paying lip service to Confucianism.
A third school of thought, Daoism, defies easy summary. There are religious Daoists, who have traditionally sought to achieve immortality through alchemy, yoga, and magic; the first emperor may have died as a result of ingesting mercury that was an ingredient in a Daoist longevity elixir. Then there are philosophical Daoists; among them, the Zhuangzi has had the greatest influence. One of its most famous passages is the charming story of how Zhuangzi awoke from a dream of being a butterfly, but then was not sure whether he was Zhuangzi who had dreamed that he was a butterfly, or was a butterfly now dreaming that he is Zhuangzi. Equally influential is the story of the butcher whose effortless skill in carving up an ox carcass amazes his ruler. The butcher explains that his secret is to spontaneously “rely on the Heavenly patterns” as he cuts, rather than on his own subjective perceptions. His ruler then exclaims: “Excellent! I have heard the words of a butcher and learned how to care for life!” Both the butterfly dream and the story of the butcher had a deep influence on Chinese Buddhism, in which the skillful performance of practical activities (like a Zen master doing calligraphy or engaging in swordsmanship) allows one to overcome the illusory distinction between the self and others.
At first glance, Zhuangzi seems resolutely apolitical. In a fictional dialogue between Confucius and a disciple, the disciple explains that he plans to travel to a nearby state to dissuade a ruler from policies that are causing his subjects to die “like falling leaves in a swamp.” Confucius, acting as Zhuangzi’s mouthpiece in this dialogue, replies: “Sheesh! You’re just going to get yourself hurt!” In general, Zhuangzi recommended against actively pursuing power, wealth, or political reform. Admittedly, these were dangerous goals in Zhuangzi’s society, as can be seen from the fates of many of those who sought them. Confucius was almost killed on more than one occasion, and the Legalist philosopher Han Feizi was forced to commit suicide while imprisoned.
Despite the anti-political tone of much Daoism, it has long been associated with politics. The first philosophical commentary on the Daodejing was written by Han Feizi, who interpreted its cryptic pronouncements as strategic advice. When the Daodejing says that the sage should be “empty” and “still,” Han Feizi explains that this means that one should “remain empty, still, and without concern, so that you may secretly observe the defects of others.” The fantastic elements of Daoism have also been politically influential. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China , is set during the fall of the Han dynasty. Its opening describes how Zhuangzi (depicted as an immortal sage) gives a book of magic spells to a villager, who uses them to defeat government forces during the Yellow Turban uprising. Although the description of Zhuangzian magic is obviously mythical, the Yellow Turbans were in fact followers of the Daoist religion who claimed supernatural powers. (Incidentally, Romance of the Three Kingdoms was Mao Zedong’s favorite book, and is still very much worth reading for insight into Chinese strategic thought.)
The political influence of Daoism continues. On a visit to China just a few years after the Tiananmen Square Incident, I met some intellectuals who were critical of the government. More than one was inspired by the pluralistic and non-interventionist aspects of the Zhuangzi. The text opens with the story of the huge Peng (鹏/鵬) bird, whose back is thousands of leagues across. The Peng “spirals up on a whirlwind to ninety thousand leagues, and goes six months at a stretch.” Given her immense size, this sort of flying is necessary for the Peng. However, a cicada and a quail criticize her. In the words of the quail: “Where is she going? I rear up and don’t go more than a few yards before coming down, soaring and roaming amid brambles and briars—this indeed is the perfection of flying!” Zhuangzi points out that the perspective of these little creatures is narrow: “What do these two little bugs know? Little knowledge does not measure up to big knowledge.” This could be read as a parable about the dangers of judging others without a complete understanding of their individual needs, situation, and perspective. The continued relevance of this story is reflected in the fact that the first class of students to graduate from Wuhan University after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) paid to erect a statue of the Peng on campus, symbolizing the rebirth of higher education in China.