Taoism > Masters > Yang-tzu

Yang-tzu - A Double Personality?

By Jhian Yang

  • Who Was Yang-tzu?

Evidence about Master Yang, his school or his doctrine, can be found in Mencius (1) and Chuang-tzu, while Lieh-tzu dedicated him a whole chapter in his Classic of Perfect Emptiness.

Some scholars think that, in fact, there are two Yang-tzu characters: one historical, cynical and selfish - like the one in Lieh-tzu's book -, and the other one a Taoist philosopher, a disciple of Lao-tzu - in other fragments.

What is the reason of this confusion? Part of the references from Lieh-tzu's book which "are using only seldom the word Tao", especially with a physical meaning, from which any trace of religious or transcendental has been removed, which, according to Benedykt Grynpas, are the peculiarities of Taoism.(2)

  • Yang-tzu and Lieh-tzu

The presence of the Master in Lieh-tzu's book is astonishing, because the accent is put there on hedonism and moral indifference. So, in the paragraph #11 of the chapter dedicated to him (VII), we find the following comments: "Po-ch'ong Tzu Kao wouldn't have sacrificed a piece of hair help a human fellow. He abandoned the kingdom and went in solitude to cultivate his field, while the great Yu dedicated his body and soul to public work, without any benefit. His body dried out like hollow wood. Ancient people wouldn't have sacrificed a piece of hair help their human fellows."(3)

Still, this example - along with others alike, which seem to contrast with Taoist thinking - could be the echo of the attitude against Confucianism, which stressed the necessity to cultivate moral values within society. The indirect attacks towards Yang-tzu's school, led by Mencius, could confirm this point of view. On the other hand, we can't exclude the possibility that ideas like the above one were a legitimate reaction against excessive altruism and reckless tendency towards sacrifice, specific to Chinese society of his time. Because the same Yang-tzu seemed to have declared: "ancient people used to say that, during their lives, people should show compassion [our emphasis, J. Y.] for each other, in order to be able to give up the others when they die."(4)

  • Tang-tzu's Taoism

In his so to speak Taoist variant, Yang-tzu distinguishes himself by other features: meekness, like in the words "Live like wise men. So, you won't act as if you were aware of your deeds as wise men" (VII, 23); accent on determinism, according to which there is a time to live and a time to die, and fatalism, like in the words "Things are as they are and one shouldn't try to understand what naturally exists. This is destiny" (VII, 2). But, above all, the stress put on skepticism - like in the story "of the multiple roads" (VII, 29) - explains the classification of Master Yang in the category of "Taoism".(5)

In our opinion, the whole confusion emerging from Master Yang's apparent oscillation between hedonism and Taoism has no support. Generally, his statements have only the aspect of remarks. The Master is a good and impartial observer of the reality, which he unscrupulously describes (from here, the impression of cynicism and amorality). Yang-tzu doesn't give advice and doesn't build doctrines (like pedantically does Confucius). When he openly speaks about what is, which do not agree with Confucian teachings, Yang-tzu does nothing else but render sensitive a category of people that consider themselves either philosophers, or scholars, or blameless (manifested altruists).

Surely, modern commentators have missed these aspects, and hence the feeling that we are dealing with two Yang. Besides, our hypothesis is sustained also by the story (its interpretation) which accompanies these notes (details here). Like any self-respecting Taoist, Yang-tzu appreciates frank, openhearted behavior, the consistency with reality, instead its falsification for the sake of doctrine (even if it were pious).

1. Meng-tzu, Mencius in Latin (372-289 BC.), Confucian philosopher, representing the idealist branch. His basic thesis postulates that, by birth, man is good, this being one of the features which differentiate him from animals.

2. Lie tseu - Le vrai classique du vide parfait, Gallimard, 1961, p. 16-17.

3, 4. Lieh tseu... p. 21.

5. Lie tseu... p. 18-19.

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