[Review] 陳少明《夢覺之間:〈莊子〉思想錄》(Chen Shaoming: Between Waking and Dreaming. Reflections on the Zhuangzi)

Chen Shaoming 陳少明, Mengjue zhijian: ‘Zhuangzi’ sixiang lu 夢覺之間:《莊子》思想錄 (Between Waking and Dreaming: Reflections on the Zhuangzi). Beijing: Shenghuo Dushu Xinzhi Sanlian Shudian 生活・讀書・新知三聯書店, 2021. ISBN 978-7-10-807105-7, xvii, 219 pages, 52 RMB.

Reviewed by Dennis Schilling (Renmin University of China, School of Philosophy)

Qui sait si cette autre moitié de la vie où nous pensons veiller n’est pas un autre sommeil un peu différent du premier, dont nous nous éveillons quand nous pensons dormir ? (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, fragment 164)[1]

… who knows whether the other half of our life, in which we think we are awake, is not another sleep a little different from the former, from which we awake when we suppose ourselves asleep? (tr. W. F. Trotter)[2]

When giving his new essay collection the allusive title Sixiang lu, Chen Shaoming may have thought there exists a kind of intellectual affinity between two “classics,” the Pensées of Blaise Pascal and the Zhuangzi – in doubt and reflection, in the way of looking at things, or perhaps in literacy and style. And indeed, some passages in the Pensées look very Zhuangzian in some respects.

Chen Shaoming (born 1958), professor at the Department of Philosophy of Sun Yatsen-University in Canton, is widely known for his studies in intellectual history.[3] Together with Liu Xiaofeng (劉小楓, born 1956) and inspired by Leo Strauss’ (1899–1973) classicism, Chen edited the series Classics and Interpretations (經典與解釋) of European philosophical works.[4] His interest in the “classics” is further documented by methodological reflections on how contemporary philosophical analysis should conduct a dialogue with traditional thought, taking into account the different natures of philosophical expression in earlier times and traditions. Narratives are given particular attention in his methodological considerations. In the foreword of his essay collection Persons, Affairs and Things in the World of the Classics,[5] Chen portrays his approach as an “Imagining of Ideas” (觀念的想像): In order to understand traditional philosophy, we first have to understand its “setting,” i.e., how classical Chinese literature communicates ideas. When reading ancient Chinese philosophical literature, we are often not confronted with questions and concepts but stories reflecting the experiences and views of the ancients. When taking those narratives as a starting point for philosophical analysis, we first must complete our knowledge about content and context, and, having taken into account all the sources available to us, then imagine the world and experiences behind them. Having understood the stories and their thinking, we push our imagination a step further to more abstract ideas portrayed in these specific accounts of philosophical speculation.[6]

The new essay collection Between Waking and Dreaming continues Chen Shaoming’s approach to reading narratives philosophically or, to put it another way, doing philosophy narratively. Once more, we must use our imagination in order to enter the “world” of the Zhuangzi, “a reality free of assigned tasks” (無事實) expressed in “empty words” (空語) (p. 41).[7] Yet Chen’s collection also contains new aspects: Imagination is not merely a hermeneutical tool but a subject of investigation itself.

Between Waking and Dreaming contains twelve essays, all previously published, reflecting 25 years of scholarship on the Zhuangzi. A supplementary essay on methodology serves as a preface. The twelve essays are divided into four sections: Text, Thought, Philosophy, and History. The table below gives an overview of the essays and additional information on previous publications. English titles, if given, have been adopted:

  • Preface

Spiritual Sceneries of Life (生命的精神場景), independently published (not containing the last passage introducing the themes of the twelve essays) in Journal of the Sun Yat-sen University (中山大學學報), 3 (2020), pp. 87–93.

  • Text (文本)
  1. The Zhuangzi Seen from the Qi wu lun (從《齊物論》看《莊子》), originally published in Classics and Interpretation (經典與解釋), Guangdong Renmin Chubanshe 廣東人民出版社, 1999; re-printed in Persons, Affairs and Things in the World of the Classics, pp. 223–239.[8]
  2. Between Humans and Things: Understanding the key to the philosophy of the Zhuangzi (人﹑物之間: 理解 《莊子》哲學的一個關鍵), originally published in Chinese Culture (中國文化), 34 (2011), pp. 14–20.
  • Thought (思維)
  1. Access to the World of Imagination (通往想象的世界, originally published in Open Times (開放時代), 6 (2004), pp. 49–65; re-printed in Persons, Affairs and Things in the World of the Classics, pp. 252–276.
  2. Allegorisation of History: An Interpretation of Zhuangzi’s Historical Discourse (歷史的寓言化:對《莊子》歷史論述的一種解釋), originally published in History of Chinese Philosophy (中國哲學史), 2 (2013), pp. 41–47.
  • Philosophy (哲學)
  1. “I Lost My Self”: A Classical Concept of Self (“吾喪我”:一種古典的自我觀念), originally published in Philosophical Researches (哲學研究), 8 (2014), pp. 42–50.
  2. Zhuangzi’s Dream-Watching: Epistemological and Existential Issues (莊子觀夢:物我與生死).[9]
  3. The Broad Dispute about Little and Great (廣“小大之辯”), originally published in Critical Review of Humanities (人文學衡), first series, Hangzhou: Zhejiang Daxue Chubanshe (浙江大學出版社), 2019.
  4. A Refute on Cook Ding’s Splitting Up of the Ox (“庖丁解牛”申論), originally published in Philosophical Researches (哲學研究), 11 (2016), pp. 54–61.
  5. On the Problem of “Knowing” from “Fish’s Pleasure” (由“魚之樂”說及“知”之問題, originally published in Journal of the Sun Yat-sen University (中山大學學報), 6 (2001), pp. 31–37; re-printed in Persons, Affairs and Things in the World of the Classics, pp. 240–251.
  • History (歷史)
  1. Looking on the School of Mind from the Zhuangzi (從莊子看心學), originally published in Studies on Daoist Culture (道家文化研究), vol. 15, Beijing: Sanlian Shudian (三聯書店), 1999, pp. 309–325.
  2. The Teaching of the Mind of Chen Baisha and Daoist Naturalism (白沙心學與道家自然主義), originally published in Studies on Daoist Culture (道家文化研究), vol. 4, Beijing: Sanlian Shudian, 1994, pp. 198–209.
  3. The Zhuangzi Seen from the Perspective of the Enlightenment (啟蒙視野中的莊子), originally published in Journal of the Sun Yat-sen University (中山大學學報), 2 (2016), pp. 129–135.

Except for the final three essays, which focus on readings of the Zhuangzi in the later tradition, the boundaries between the four topics are somewhat permeable. According to Chen’s explanation, the first two essays under the topic “Text” explore the logic in, or, better, behind, the Zhuangzi. The two essays under the heading “Thought” are devoted to the approach of imagination, whilst the five “philosophical” essays represent studies focused on particular passages and themes.

Chen Shaoming became known for his expertise in the philosophy of the Zhuangzi with the monograph The ‘Qi wu lun’ in its Readings (first published in 2004).[10] In this book, he approaches the famous second chapter of the Zhuangzi from the history of interpretation. Instead of settling on one definite meaning, he tries to show how three basic themes underlie the philosophy of Zhuang Zhou (莊周) and how they are reflected throughout the whole book and in the history of its commentaries. The title Qi wu lun 齊物論, “marvellously” chosen by a later scholar, can be used to delineate the scope of Zhuang Zhou’s philosophy almost in an epigrammatic style: When pairing qi with wu“qi wu” lun –, we see a discussion on “equalizing things”: no thing (wu) has more worth or value than the other one. When pairing wu with lun qi “wu lun” –, we are faced with self-critical reflections of “equalizing [our] convictions of things”: our perception and thinking will always be preoccupied with objects which hinder us from making adequate judgments about things and what they are. Both perspectives were discussed in Chinese tradition, the second reading, for instance, by Wang Fuzhi (王夫之; 1619–1692). Instead of seeing these approaches and readings as mutually exclusive, Chen Shaoming affirms textual evidence for both. He even goes a step further and adds a third position: qi wu wo (齊物我), or “equalizing the things and the self,” expressing criticism against subjectivity and exposing the practical purposes of Zhuang Zhou’s philosophy as well. From this triangle, we may approach the philosophy of Zhuang Zhou and the world of the Zhuangzi.[11]

In the essay The Zhuangzi Seen from the ‘Qi wu lun’, first published in 1999, Chen tries to substantiate his claim that Zhuang Zhou’s philosophy can best be approached from its second chapter. Based on statistical comparisons done by Liu Xiaogan (劉笑敢; born 1947), Chen shows how the ideas of the Qi wu lun shape the whole book Zhuangzi;[12] on the one hand, Zhuang Zhou’s philosophy as it is displayed in the Inner Chapters, on the other hand, the compositions done by Zhuang Zhou’s followers preserved in the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters which elaborate on motifs and themes of the Inner Chapter and emulate Zhuang Zhou’s presentation of philosophy and literary style as well.

Acknowledging textual coherence but granting flexibility in interpretation as well – this allows Chen Shaoming to move throughout the Zhuangzi quite freely, either to discuss passages of different strata and chapters as sharing the same perspective or, if convenient, to point out differences between them as elaborations of the same topic and theme.

Looking at the Qi wu lun chapter on the whole Zhuangzi, the essential theme of Zhuang Zhou’s philosophy is “things” (wu 物) and their various relationships: the relativity between things and things; the opposition between things and the Way (dao道) treated as the opposition between difference and identity or individuality and wholeness; and the dependency of human beings on their world which touches the other two relationships quite closely as well. In other words, the philosophy of the Zhuangzi can be analyzed as a chain of multiple relationships between “thing,” “mind” (xin 心) and the Way (p. 21).

According to Chen Shaoming, human beings are ambiguous entities in the “thing-philosophy” of Zhuangzi. As being “things,” their existential condition does not differ from other things. But, at the same time, they stand out from other things because they are endowed with a conscious and spiritual “mind” (xin) (p. 28). Referring to Xu Fuguan’s (徐復觀; 1940–1982) outstanding study, The History of the Chinese Philosophy of Human Nature,[13] Chen ascertains that the philosophy of Zhuangzi indeed contains a “learning of the mind” (xin xue 心學), a philosophical current we are more familiar with when discussing Song and Ming Confucian philosophy (pp. 28–32).

Chen Shaoming provides various explanations of how we shall understand this “mind.” In the essay Looking on the School of Mind from the Zhuangzi, he distinguishes two different notions of xin; one is the “common or empirical mind” (世俗的或經驗的), the other is the “ideal as well as transcendental mind” (理想的也是超越的). The first one has a negative connotation, and the Zhuangzi demands us to forget it, whilst the latter one, in a dialectical manner, represents the way to, as well as the aim of, realizing the dao (p. 174).

From the latter’s perspective, Chen Shaoming speaks of the “identity” (統一體) of the dao and the human mind. He further distinguishes a particular “learning of the mind” (xin xue) in the Zhuangzi, which differs from other texts of the pre-Qin era like the Mengzi (孟子) and Xunzi (荀子) (pp. 174–176). Yet, the Zhuangzian “learning of the mind” had an impact on Confucian philosophy as well, especially in the late 15th century when philosophers such as Chen Xianzhang (陳獻章; 1428–1500; better known under the name Chen Baisha 陳白沙) gave prominence to the “natural spontaneity” (自然主義) in their moral psychology of the mind. This blending of Daoist and Confucian psychology incorporates Zhuangzian thought but does not tend to nihilism (虛無主義), as naturalism does in the Laozi and the “primitivist” chapters (Graham) of the Zhuangzi. Chen Baisha does not negate any values or refute social order as such, nor does he propose equality. Instead, he re-affirms the Confucian social hierarchies and ritual system but supplements it with a spiritual teaching of letting the mind not become distracted by sense perception and desire but keep to its own natural spontaneity (pp. 199–201).

Closely connected to the problem of the human mind is the overall topic of this volume, the idea of “seeing” (kan 看). In the introductory chapter, Chen shows how “seeing” shapes the human epistemic approach to the world in general and how the philosophy of the Zhuangzi reflects this approach in particular. “Seeing” and “perspective” shape the particular style of reasoning exposed in the narratives. Like many other researchers of the Zhuangzi, Chen Shaoming develops his approach to the narrative style from the statement that Zhuang Zhou widely used “dwelling words” (寓言) – as is said in the last chapter “All under the sky” (Tian xia 天下). This category of speaking is often understood as parables or dialogues attributed to historical or imagined figures. Chen affirms that the ratio of parables counts for the greatest part of the book. Such “dwelling words” depict a particular view of how we live and see ourselves in our world. For these reflections on human existence, historical accuracy is not needed, nor does philosophical analysis, but a living plot (情節) or scenery (場景) that invites us to share the narrator’s perspective. The famous dialogue between the “God of the Yellow River” (河伯) and the “God Ruo of the Northern Sea” (北海若) in the Autumn Floods chapter (Qiu shui 秋水) reveals the boundedness of “perspective” and requests one to look on things and one’s self from the unbounded “perspective of the Way” (以道觀之). As Chen Shaoming points out,

從“思想視角”考察莊子,不是我們做的比喻,而是從分析視覺經驗的內在機制出發,對莊子講述方式的一種刻畫。莊子反常規的視角所展示的精神場景,與其致力於為人生揭蔽的思想立場密切相關。

“[t]he ‘perspective of thinking’ is not our metaphor for exploring his philosophy, but sketches the narrative style of Zhuangzi from analyzing the inherent structure of sight experience. The scenery of spirituality that appears in the non-ordinary perspective of Zhuangzi is closely connected to the attitude which is directed towards uncovering what is concealed by human life.” (Preface p. 15)

The five essays in the section “Philosophy” deal with well-known passages and questions. How shall we understand the two first-person pronouns in the statement “I have lost myself” (吾喪我矣)? Chen Shaoming ascertains the semantic difference between wu 吾 and wo 我 and explains the latter as being the self in contrast to others. Having lost this relational self, the “me” (wu) remains as a self-conscious (自我意識) entity:

不過,這時它的功能主要不在於對身的掌控,或者通過身向世界展示自身並爭得一個生存的空間,而是意識的自我理解與把握。它不是空間的、向外的,而是時間的、內向的。“吾”的內涵必須在時間中尋找,秘密就在記憶中。

“However, its function at this point is not primarily to control the body, or to present itself to the world through the body and fight for a place to live, but rather the self-understanding and grasp of consciousness. It is not spatial, it is not outward, it is temporal, it is inward. The meaning of the ‘me’ (吾) must be found in time: It secretly lies in memory.” (pp. 100–101)

Chen Shaoming recognizes in “I have lost myself” a spiritual practice like the fasting of the mind (心齋) of chapter four of the Zhuangzi: The loss of the ego that sets itself apart from others leads to a purification of all worldly expectations. Being untroubled by external things, attention is narrowed to one’s own self. Through constant reflection on one’s own inwardness and observation of what constitutes the self in the experiences of life, the self remains in constant motion, renewing itself in the process whereby carrying out the task of steering one’s person through life (pp. 107–108).

The essay on dreaming can be considered to present the leitmotif of the whole collection. It begins with the famous butterfly dream of Zhuang Zhou and discusses all the other dream episodes in the Zhuangzi. Chen argues that the philosophy of the Zhuangzi is a philosophy of “observing dreams” (觀夢). When observing us in our dreams, we shift our own ego-perspective to a perspective of self-observation. The focus is not on the epistemological or existential questions but on their practical consequences. When we imagine ourselves dreaming, we take on a perspective that enables us to take a distance from ourselves and look at ourselves from the lookout of the dao (p. 122).

Another feature of the philosophy of the Zhuangzi is what we may call the metaphysics of the ordinary. In the “Disputation of Small and Big” (小大之辯), not the most comprehensive or universal concepts or the first principles of being get discussed but rather concepts we use in our daily world of perception as small and big. However, our usage of these concepts is ambiguous: Small and big may denote either size or value. And often, we value what is big and despise what is small. Placing small first already shows the deconstructivist attitude of the Zhuangzi. In the end, the metaphysical treatment entails a therapeutic significance. We lower our subjective motivation of setting limits and values and become aware of the whole mechanism of how our mind is entangled in the world as it is stated in the Zhuangzi’s second chapter: “Sometimes clashing with things, sometimes bending before them [the mind] runs its course like a galloping steed and nothing can stop it” (與物相刃相靡,其行盡如馳,而莫之能止) (p. 140).[14]

In his analysis of the story of Cook Ding’s cutting of the ox, Chen Shaoming opens four different but intertwining “circles” to illuminate its semantic texture: the skill, the Way, the tool and human vitality, the last being the aim of the whole procedure. “Skill” does not only expose the cook’s capacity. It initiates the motions of the Way. The Way of the tool transforms into the Way of its handling, becoming manifest in the realm of experience, whilst the experience of its handling also becomes realized in the tool. The motion culminates in the last circle, the vital constitution of the cook who exercises his task with the skill by means of the tool. Seeing life as a perfection of practice teaches how to cope with the adversities and challenges of the daily changing world and shows that life equips people and their bodies with the inherent power and ability to do so (p. 156).

The last essay in the section “Philosophy” deals with the famous Happy Fish Dialogue from the Autumn Floods chapter. Chen Shaoming notes that the real problem of “knowledge” was not properly recognized by commentators like Guo Xiang (郭象; died 312 CE) and Wang Fuzhi. He attributes this to the fact that the linguistic and semantic ambiguities in the statement “I know” were not later treated systematically in Chinese philosophy. Going back to Wittgenstein’s well-known reflections on George Edward Moore’s “truisms,” Chen Shaoming draws a distinction between “I know”-propositions that refer to the experiential knowledge of common sense and which are not doubted per se (“I know that the other person has two hands”; “I know that I can drink boiled water” etc.) and “I know”-propositions in which doubt is appropriate, and the speaker can be asked to prove the accuracy of what she or he said (“I know that he keeps a lion in his house”; “I know that this tree is 500 years old”). Now, Zhuang Zhou’s statement that he knows that the fish are rejoicing is not everyday knowledge and therefore Hui Shi’s question of how (or whence) he does know it is justified. Instead of immediately enlightening him, Zhuang Zhou introduces him to a logical debate, which seems to be incongruous with the attitude of the author of the Qi wu lun chapter. Why didn’t Zhuang Zhou simply reply, “so what, it makes no difference whether you believe it that I know or not?” (p. 166)

Another of Chen Shaoming’s considerations is of interest here: Going back to the Qi wu lun chapter, living creatures such as fish and deer are definitely considered to have knowledge of their proper habitat and knowledge of what they love and dislike. Fish “know” that water is their habitat, and deer “know” that the beauty of Xi Shi (西施) does not attract them. This knowledge of the right place and the right pleasure is given to all living beings. People can certainly recognize the well-being of other living beings. And going into the water to imitate the pleasure of the fish does not improve their knowledge about them.

The title Reflections characterizes Chen Shaoming’s studies very well. His essays illuminate contexts and aspects without getting too much involved in theoretical and philological discussions. Chen shows great skill in contrasting divergent positions by means of simple terms, for example, when he derives the different readings from the title of the Qi wu lun or when he discusses the aspects of “knowing”, “not-knowing”, and “self-knowing” in the Happy Fish Dialogue. Even for readers who do not share his view on the structure and textual coherence in the Zhuangzi or who might miss theoretical acuity or philological rigorousness in his analyses, the essays are sure to be a stimulating read.


[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, opuscules et lettres, ed. Philippe Sellier, reprint, Paris: Classiques Garnier,  2010, pp. 220–221.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, tr. W. F. Trotter [1908], published as e-book, South Bend: Infomotions2000, p. 80 [fragment no. 434].

[3] Readers interested in Chen Shaoming’s philosophical research may consult the English translation of an interview from 2007, see https://erccs.hypotheses.org/756.

[4] This series was published by Hua Xia Chubanshe (華夏出版社). Please note that Chen Shaoming also edited a collection of essays on ancient Chinese philosophical texts with the same title Classics and Interpretations (經典與解釋), published by Guangdong Renmin Chubanshe (廣東人民出版社) in 1999.

[5] Chen Shaoming, Jingdian shijie zhong de ren, shi, wu 經典世界中的人、事、物 (Persons, Affairs and Things in the World of the Classics), Shanghai: Shanghai Sanlian Shushe 上海三聯書社, 2008.

[6] Chen, Jingdian shijie zhong de ren, shi, wu, p. 5.

[7] This is referring to Sima Qian’s (司馬遷) description of Zhuang Zhou’s rhetoric, see Shi ji 史記, ch. 63 (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中華書局, 1982), p. 2144.

[8] In previous editions, Li Fenhe (李芬和) is mentioned as co-author; this information, however, is not given in the present collection.

[9] It is stated that the essay originally was published in Philosophical Researches (Zhexue yanjiu), 11 (2019); I could not find the essay in the given issue of the journal.

[10] Chen Shaoming, “Qi wu lun” ji qi yingxiang 《齊物論》及其影響, Beijing: Beijing Daxue Chubanshe 北京大學出版社, 2004; re-printed Shanghai: Shangwu Yinshuguan 商務印書館, 2018.

[11] See The ‘Qi wu lun’ in its Readings, pp. 26–29; The Zhuangzi Seen from the ‘Qi wu lun’, pp. 6 seq.

[12] Liu Xiaogan, Zhuangzi Zhexue jiqi yanbian 莊子哲學及其演變 (The Philosophy of the Zhuangzi and later developments), Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe 中國社會科學出版社, 1988; the first part dealing with issues of textual criticism was translated into English by William E. Savage under the title Classifying the Zhuangzi Chapters, Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1994.

[13] Xu Fuguan, The History of the Chinese Philosophy of Human Nature: Pre Qin Era (中國人性論史・先秦篇), first published in Taichung 1963 by Donghai University (私立東海大學).

[14] Translation (modified): Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, New York: Columbia University Press, 1968, p. 38.



Cite this blog post
schilling (2022, December 28). [Review] 陳少明《夢覺之間:〈莊子〉思想錄》(Chen Shaoming: Between Waking and Dreaming. Reflections on the Zhuangzi). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/oha5

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