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Yang-tzu, a Double Personality?


  • 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 chapter VII of 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 Yang-tzu in Lieh-tzu's book is astonishing, because the accent is put there on hedonism and moral indifference.

So, in 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 to 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 to help their human fellows."(3)

Still, this example - along with others alike, which seem to contrast with Taoist ethics (seeemingly cherishing the benevolence and humanity) - 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 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)

  • Yang-tzu's Taoism

In his so to speak Taoist variant, Yang-tzu distinguishes himself by other features: meekness, like in the words: "Be wise so that you do not have to be aware of your deeds as wise". (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 "Taoists".(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. He 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 trying to sensitize a category of people that consider themselves either philosophers, 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 about the dialogue between Yang-tzu and Mr. Meng (On Fame) where Yang-tzu notes the difference beetween truth and hypocrisy, just like a true Taoist would do.

However, Yang-tzu is not necessarily on the side of honest behavior, he remains impartial and is content with highlighting the difference between frankness and hypocrisy.

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.

Paper by Jhian

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