Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Teaching Yang Zhu

In my Classical Chinese Philosophy class I like to include some discussion of why Yang Zhu was seen as such a powerful adversary for Mengzi and the Confucians, but given the paucity of texts the task is not an easy one.

I’ve found John Emerson’s “Yang Chu’s Discovery of the Body” (PEW 46.4) helpful in this regard. Emerson’s article is part intellectual history, part comparative anthropology, part sociology.   There is a lot of discussion of ‘clan life’ and ‘clan rituals’ and I think the anthropological element helps to give flesh to some of the assumptions of the Ru.

Emerson makes the following reconstruction of the Yangist position:  the Yangists were for private life over public life, the family over the court, and highlighted the weakness of the Confucians, who had this hybrid system of clan loyalty and public life that was dangerous and untenable.  Some choice bits:

… the court and the clan are two entirely different social groups, in both their constitution and their function, and the more Chinese culture expanded, the more fictional the psuedokinship bonds became–for example, between the Eastern Chou and the semibarbarous states of Ch’in and Ch’u…  To begin, it has to be shown how the Confucian attempt to model the state on the family was plausible at all. (539)

…the Confucian project amounts to an attempt to extend segmentary clan organization over an entire nation.  But even on a smaller scale such systems are notoriously susceptible to fission, and at a certain indeterminate kinship distance, relatives are normally enemies.  (547)

… For Yang Chu, this whole public world was external and null, more likely a hindrance than a help.  He ignored all public identification and found value only in the private world.  His rejection of the ritual world can be thought of in part as a response to the corruption of public life lamented by Confucius, but his goal was not to rectify the public rituals but to avoid them.  In this corrupted world, splendid ceremonials still dominated public life, but they had been stripped of their ethical content and ritual meaning and were merely entertainments–and risky ones at that.  Because of this loss of meaning and because of the risks (dismemberment and death) involved in the new order, Yang Chu’s rejection of public life and dedication to self-cultivation, originally a bold minority position, became widely persuasive.

Emerson’s (manifestly charitable) interpretation of Yang Zhu helps students in a couple of ways (or so it seems to me): 1) it helps understand why Yang Zhu may have been so influential to begin with (if we take Mengzi’s claim at face value); 2) it helps carve out the early intellectual landscape in terms of Ru-Mo-Yang, and 3) it helps them get out of the habit of thinking Confucian=Chinese.

Do you include Yangism in your classes?  Have you used Emerson?  (Who is Emerson?  I can’t find any affiliations.)  If not, do you assign any other readings?  Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.


November 23, 2009 - Posted by | Daoism, Pedagogy


  1. (Apropos: “Who is Emerson? I can’t find any affiliations.” Here’s an answer, or the answer. I think he’ll be happy we’re discussing him.)

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 23, 2009 | Reply

    • (I suppose one may reply to oneself, with the thought that there are others listening in… Here is a list of John J. Emerson’s publications and other writings, and here is a brief autobiographical account of his intellectual wanderings. Interesting person.)

      Comment by Manyul Im | November 23, 2009 | Reply

  2. I agree Emerson has written some good stuff. I myself quoted when I wrote this piece several years ago:

    Comment by Bao Pu | November 23, 2009 | Reply

  3. Hagop, or anyone else who has an opinion: What do you include among the textual sources for Yangist doctrines? Just curious.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | November 23, 2009 | Reply

    • I tend to toe a A. C. Graham line here (Disputers of the Tao). There are some chapters from the Lushichunqiu identified as “Yangist” in character, on the basis that they exemplify the three-point summary of what YZ stood for (within a Confucius-Mozi-Yangzhu-Mencius dialectic) in the Huainanzi. Mostly for pedagogical reasons.

      Hagop I like what you said in your three points. In this regards, Mozi and Yangzhu are both important ingredients of a baseline story (from which further qualifications can be added): KZ sets an agenda, MZ/the Mohists respond to it, YZ disagrees with both (in different ways), Mencius attempts to restate the RU position in a more sophisticated way by responding to (and also borrowing from) both MZ and YZ.

      Comment by Hui-chieh Loy | November 24, 2009 | Reply

  4. I excerpt the “original” passages from Graham as well as a traditional reading of the Yangists as egoists. If Emerson and Graham are right, how did the egoist interpretation come to prevail by the time of Mencius? Yang Zhu is “who would not pluck a hair from his body to benefit the world,” etc.

    Comment by Kelly James Clark | November 24, 2009 | Reply

  5. I’ve only used Graham’s chapter on Yangism to show that parts of the Zhuangzi (particularly 德充符) parody the Yangists, not the Ruists, on the conflation of bodily integrity with de 德 — read as some poly-semic complex of “virtue-power-integrity.” I had never read the J Emerson piece, but now that I’ve skimmed it, it also seems useful for this purpose.

    I’m kind of interested in how Mencius focuses on the several guan 官 — “officials”/”organs” — and their relationship to the heart-mind as indicating a potential, interior “disintegration” within one body. That seems to me to work into the scheme of Mencius responding to the Yangists’ “discovery of the body.” The individual body, or self, itself is problematic, according to Mencius, in just the same way as the body politic. So the Yangists haven’t seen that preservation of the body carries over into concern for the body politic, by some principle of consistency or by analogy. I’m thinking out loud here…

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 24, 2009 | Reply

  6. I include Yang Zhu in my intro-level survey course, but we only spend one week on him and read Graham’s translation of the “Yangist” chapters of the Zhuangzi. I think that material in particular is helpful for making finer distinctions about the range of positions on xing 性. In Graham’s translation it’s relatively simple to juxtapose Yangist and Primitivist (Daoist) conceptions of xing 性 and use that as a jumping off point to compare it with a wider range of texts (most fruitfully Mengzi, of course). To be fair, I’ve only taught this course once before, so the jury is still out for me as to whether that comparison really helps students’ understanding of the connections between texts. I do think it’s well worth it to teach Yang Zhu though, because as Hagop mentioned, it’s one more reason to get students thinking about early Chinese philosophy as not just Confucianism and/or Daoism.

    Comment by Matt Duperon | November 24, 2009 | Reply

  7. I think the much-neglected Lüshi Chunqiu should be consulted. Not just is regard to “Yangism,” but other topics as well.

    Comment by Bao Pu | November 24, 2009 | Reply

  8. In response to Hagop’s initial post: I think Mencius’s report that Yangist teachings, like Mohist ones, were influential is corroborated by the Lǚshì Chūnqiū and Zhuangzi. So in surveying early Chinese thought, I’d say it’s important to discuss Yangism at least briefly.

    The passages quoted from Emerson seem speculative and ungrounded in the textual sources. I’d hesitate to include this article in a syllabus.

    As a follow-up to my earlier question about sources, let me point out a few problems and complications in Graham’s approach.

    The Huainanzi is a Han text, not a source contemporaneous with the Yangist movement. It provides a retrospective characterization of Yangist teachings in terms familiar to the HNZ writers. These are people to whom the most salient elements of Confucius’s teachings are music, dancing, ritual, and fancy funerals. I’m not suggesting we ignore the HNZ account, but we should keep in mind that it might be as lopsided as the account of Confucius. In particular, all three of the Yangist themes it mentions, “keeping one’s nature whole,” “preserving the genuine,” and “not burdening oneself with things,” are echoed in numerous Zhuangzi passages. Going by the HNZ account, many parts of the Zhuangzi might count as “Yangist.” Maybe the extension of “Yang” was indeed that broad, but we’d need more evidence for that conclusion than just the HNZ.

    The only thing that pre-Qin sources tell us directly about Yangism is that it values the individual self, by contrast with Mohism, which supposedly values the whole world. One Qin (?) source about Yang, LSCQ 17.7, uses a phrase (貴己) that is similar to the title of LSCQ 1.3 (重己). So it seems plausible that the content of 1.3 might represent a version of Yangism, and to the extent that 1.2, 2.2, and 2.3 converge with 1.3, they might, too. (So might 21.4.) I’d emphasize, though, that the grounds for taking these as sources for Yangism are conjectural, and these parts of LSCQ might have been written long after Mencius 3B9.

    Still, it seems that the most plausible place to look for an explanation of the justification for and appeal of Yangism is those LSCQ chapters. The arguments in them are certainly interesting. I think students would enjoy discussing them. They provide an intriguing dialectical foil for Mencius, who might counter them by arguing that a commitment to Ruist morality is a natural outcome of nurturing the self or keeping one’s nature whole (6A14-15).

    It’s fair also to point out that Zhuangzi 28 shares phrases with, for instance, LSCQ 2.2 and perhaps reflects some of the same strands of thought. But I’m unconvinced by Graham’s proposal that ZZ 29-31 are Yangist texts. The thematic link between the LSCQ chapters and ZZ 29 is tenuous at best, and I don’t see any convincing connection to ZZ 30 and 31. ZZ 31, in particular, is concerned with applying “the genuine” to human relations in a way that doesn’t sound like being “for oneself.”

    Comment by Chris Fraser | November 24, 2009 | Reply

    • I had a feeling someone was writing a long comment while I was writing mine. If I read you right, you seem open to teaching the material that Graham classed as “Yangist”, but not as examples of something called Yangism. I agree: I think the themes in those texts ramify throughout the corpus (especially in their home anthologies of ZZ and LSCQ), which argues in favor of teaching them just as it weighs against fusing them into remnants of a lost -4th cent Yang Zhu school.

      Comment by Stephen C. Walker | November 24, 2009 | Reply

      • An excellent suggestion, I think. Identify this set of themes for students and point out the partial overlap between Mencius’s attacks on Yang, the themes we find in LSCQ and the connection to ZZ 28, and the themes in HNZ and how they sum up certain ideas in ZZ. There is a “Yangist” discourse (which intersects the “Zhuangist” one), but the strands in that discourse don’t necessarily add up to a fixed set of doctrines called “Yangism.”

        Comment by Chris Fraser | November 24, 2009 | Reply

  9. I’m insufficiently persuaded that Graham’s “Yangist” corpus represents a coherent point of view. Yang Zhu’s situation is similar to that of Song Xing: he was obviously talked about during the Warring States, and the testimonia (plus scant fragments) can be assembled to yield interesting, if sketchy, portraits. A step beyond such sketchy portraits lies the historical claim that Yang or Song was important in the overall narrative of WS thought, for instance by “discovering the body” or the “problem of subjectivity”. A still further step assigns whole blocks of text to Yangist or “Songist” authorship, as some mainland scholars did with the Guanzi xinshu essays in the latter case. Phrases and concepts are usually the critical links between those texts and the newly sketched lost philosophers; Graham’s “Yangist” chapters certainly don’t claim any affiliation with Yang Zhu. (Though there is “Our Master Hua” in the LSCQ.)

    My position on the material is that there was clearly (1) a preoccupation with maintaining and cultivating bodily health, (2) an ethos of self-preservation, (3) an ethos of socio-political renunciation in the interest of self-preservation, (4) the notion that only somebody disinterested in kingship could be trusted with it, and several other intellectual currents we could identify. These currents appear in different combinations in different texts, and it is hard to escape them by the -3rd century. It is not clear that these various currents were ever part of a “package deal” , let alone that the package deal was early (mid -4th?) and hence attributable to the personal influence of Yang Zhu. I think the target LSCQ chapters are probably best approached as LSCQ chapters, and ZZ chapters like “Yu Fu” and “Dao Zhi” as among the latest additions to the text. (“Shuo Jian” was likely added out of a confusion about who its protagonist was, as there was more than one Master Zhuang out there.)

    Hui-chieh refers to the “baseline story” for which Yang Zhu is useful. I wonder how much that story really changes if we concede that YZ is a shadowy figure and reconstructions of his school speculative. Mengzi, the main text affected by this particular bit of narrative, stands pretty well on its own testimony. We certainly know what MZ thought of YZ, which is more solid evidence for the impact of YZ’s thought than essays written a century or more later that claim no relation to him. An anti-involvement ethos and a concern for physical health did emerge, and MZ appears to react to both of them, but this is a long way from Graham’s Yangist movement.

    Bao Pu: yes on LSCQ. Luckily it seems to be gaining in stature, even if Graham’s focus on the “Yangist” chapters was the main early impetus! Several present contributors have used LSCQ in their published work.

    Comment by Stephen C. Walker | November 24, 2009 | Reply

    • It is not clear that these various currents were ever part of a “package deal” , let alone that the package deal was early (mid -4th?) and hence attributable to the personal influence of Yang Zhu.

      Yup, exactly. All we can say for sure is that during the time of Mencius 3B9 (whenever that was), there was a perceived ethic of self-interest or self-devotion attributed to Yang. The LSCQ chapters are one possible, albeit later, account of the grounds for this self-centered ethic. But the tie between them is speculative.

      I’m intrigued by the difference between wèi wǒ 為我 (being for oneself) in the Mencian criticism of Yang and “valuing oneself” (貴己, 重己) in the LSCQ description. Of course, the Mencian characterization of Yang as wèi wǒ might just be straw-man rhetoric. But supposing it isn’t, here Yangism sounds like it advocates selfishness, whereas what the LSCQ chapters present is a conception of individual flourishing grounded in psychophysical health. The stance in those chapters is hardly selfish and isn’t really appropriately characterized as wèi wǒ.

      Comment by Chris Fraser | November 24, 2009 | Reply

      • I haven’t looked at the opening LSCQ chapters in a while, but I think in general that the whole anthology deserves much more attention. I know I’m not supposed to trust origin scenarios for texts penned by people like Sima Qian, but the impression I’ve gotten is that we have a clearer idea when, how, and for what reason the LSCQ came together than we do for other writings. Also, the fact that it seems like an explicitly, systematically synthetic project means it might give us crucial insight into what early people thought about the ideas we usually study only in our more familiar half-dozen textual environs. (Early responses to X being extremely informative in general when X itself is confusing or in doubt.) I suspect that the difference between 為我 and 貴己/重己 will be best illuminated by study of the LSCQ, and investigation of how the 貴己/重己 parts relate to the rest of the work. Starting-point could be the fact that they’re filed under spring, and so take their place alongside other seasonal teachings as part of an overall yearly program. Whether or not 貴己/重己 discourse was originally associated with selfishness or political disengagement, the LSCQ compilers probably thought it could be integrated into their politically engaged and extensively ethical project.

        Comment by Stephen C. Walker | November 24, 2009 | Reply

        • And it seems significant that they chose to start the whole thing with essays on attention to “life” and “oneself.”

          On the chronology of the LSCQ, I think we’ve good grounds for attributing books 1-12 to ca. 239 BCE. It’s possible that “phase 1” of the project concluded then, since an introduction to the project was inserted after Book 12. So the dates of “phase 2” and “phase 3” are less clear. But presumably it’s all pre-Han.

          Comment by Chris Fraser | November 24, 2009 | Reply

      • Second thoughts the next morning: Then again, maybe wèi wǒ really just is a Mencian straw-man distortion of “valuing oneself” (貴己, 重己). I’ve tended to treat wèi wǒ in MC 3B9 as a reliable report of a Yangist slogan, parallel to the reliable report of the Mohist slogan jiān ài 兼愛 in the next clause. But given the overheated rhetoric of the whole passage–it winds up calling both Yang and Mo “beasts” 禽獸–maybe that’s a mistake.

        Perhaps all we can justifiably say is that “Yang” was a recognized position which advocating putting oneself first, in some sense, just as “Mo” was a position that advocated equal consideration of all. “Yang” was probably not so extreme as to deny one’s duties to political society, just as we know that “Mo” was certainly not so extreme as to deny one’s special relationship with one’s own father.

        But the detailed account in the early LSCQ chapters represents at best only one version of the idea of putting oneself first, and there’s little reason to identify it with a historical Yáng Zhū 楊朱.

        Comment by Chris Fraser | November 24, 2009 | Reply

        • I can’t tell if this talk on 為我 is connoting Yang Zhu’s work as a life-affirming doctrine, so this may just be an aside.

          To Chris, I’ve found all of the commentaries on Yang Zhu to be straw man arguments against what (we more commonly agree that) Yang wrote himself or that other thinkers wrote by his inspiration.

          I think that the segments of the Liezi and the Zhuangzi that remove a lot of import in 貴己 as central to Yangist thought can clarify the issue. They really suck the marrow out of claims to the intrinsic worth to life that readers often associate with 為我.

          Comment by Joshua Harwood | November 26, 2009 | Reply

  10. Great feedback!

    Manyul–thanks for those links. Interesting person, indeed.

    Kelly–here is a relevant bit of guesswork from Emerson, FWIW:

    “Even his supposed refusal to sacrifice a hair from his leg to benefit the empire can be seen to be a transformation of a legend about the altruistic cultural hero Yu, who labored so diligently for the public good that he wore all the hairs from his thighs. Our version of Yang’s refusal comes from hostile sources, but with the help of variants of the Yu legend we can guess at the original Yangist story: in many versions of the legend of Yu, Yu not only wore the hairs from his legs but also made himself lame, and in all versions he went for several years without seeing his family. The Yangist version of the story must have contrasted the good family man Yang Chu to the masochistic, inhuman altruist Yu (representing the Mohists)”

    Chris–I think the account is self-consciously speculative. As you say, we don’t have any reliable sources dating back to Mencius or before, so I feel that some speculation might be okay given that it serves a function–in this case, a pedagogical one. In particular, I like Emerson’s attempt (speculative at that) to give a plausible story of the roots of Yangism within traditional Chinese religion and society. E.g.:

    “Yang Chu’s doctrine was solidly founded on Chinese traditions of family piety older than Confucius. Traditional Chinese religion was a religion of life, fertility, and nurture. Sacrifices were thought of as food returned to the spirits in gratitude for the fruits of the earth, and long life, health, and descendants were the blessings prayed for by the devout. (One of the Odes prays for “the fullness of life” mi sheng in language that prefigures Yangism.) To the ancient Chinese, a man’s body (or life) was not his own, but belonged to his parents and ancestors. It was his offering to them, and was impure if blemished or mutilated in any way. Since war, with all its perils, was always one of the main avenues to high position, and since mutilation was the customary punishment for failures even in civilian service, there was an inescapable tension between a man’s duty to his ancestors and his duty to the State.”

    Whether one thinks the account justified or not, I found it helpful in teaching the course this time around to provide such a speculative narrative given the paucity of sources and given the hostile nature of Mencius’s account.

    Thanks to Bao Pu, Chris and others for mentioning the LSCQ. I’ll definitely consider this for the next iteration of the class. Any suggestions for sources?

    Comment by hagop sarkissian | November 24, 2009 | Reply

    • Keep forgetting that we have this ‘reply’ function. 🙂

      Comment by hagop sarkissian | November 24, 2009 | Reply

  11. I’m too pleased that people are discussing my idol (of very, very few) to really interject with much at this point. Nevertheless, I should mention that any portrayal of Yangism that is entrenched in secondary, rival resources is almost assuredly skewed against any fledgling stance of the sort of egoism and “social minimalism” that Yang Zhu’s work describe and defend.

    This kind of crude dismissal is even seen in contemporary Chinese philosophers like (another favorite) Hansen, who in “A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought” treats the egoistic backdrop for Yangism (a variant form of egoism) as though it were a Chinese mime for Hobbes’s egoism (and in that frame, had been well rebuked by Joseph Butler). Seeing how much of a stickler Hansen is for contextual sensitivity, not conflating histories, and not injecting one’s own folk theories into the philosophies of other cultures, it’s odd to say the least that his discussion of egoism is so brief and a toss off to the house that Hobbes built and that his talk of Yang Zhu would be so scarce that it doesn’t justify that kind of move.

    Anyway, I think everyone named all of the major primary and dominant secondary resources for Yangism already, so I’ll leave it at this for now.

    Comment by Joshua Harwood | November 25, 2009 | Reply

  12. Glad Joshua popped in.

    I’d like to mention a passage in chapter 50 of the Hanfeizi which undoubtedly refers to Yang Zhu:

    … There is a man who on principle refuses to enter a city that is in danger, to take part in a military campaign, or in fact to change so much as a hair of his shin, though it might bring the greatest benefit the world … a man who despises [belittles] material things and values his life [above everything else].
    (trans. Watson p. 121)

    This may, or may not be pre-Qin.

    The hermit/recluse/madman stories in the Lunyu when claiming “danger” as their reason for their lifestyles might be seen as Yangists.

    Comment by Bao Pu | November 25, 2009 | Reply

    • It’s really hard to pinpoint a Yangist lineage. The Rujia maintained a much more detailed record of students and instructional ties than a Yangist school would ever bother to do. (Keeping care of that kind of lineage would be out of place with what we see of Yang Zhu’s philosophy.) This lack of organization, despite substantial notoriety, may very well be a contributing factor to Yangism’s disappearance by the Qin dynasty.

      Yang Zhu is clearly in the tank of thinkers who I would call “lone wolf philosophers.” We can interestingly conjecture that Yang Zhu made Meng Sunyang his “executor,” more or less, but after that, we’re totally in the dark. Too many burned pages from histories, a decimated population, and a barrage of straw-man-propping enemies will do that to a tradition.

      However, the Lunyu was probably completed before Yang Zhu began philosophizing. They’re likely not Yangists, but could perhaps be the historically figured egoists that Yang Zhu defends.

      Comment by Joshua Harwood | November 26, 2009 | Reply

      • Hi Joshua,

        I believe the consensus is those late chapters of the Lunyu date from the 3rd century BCE. Yang was well known by then.

        Comment by Bao Pu | November 26, 2009 | Reply

        • I should look for interesting historical research on this. It sounds plausible, since I don’t know how many generations down it was for the Lunyu’s completion, and I’m better with stringing lifetimes together than I am with dates.

          Yangzi and Mengzi are virtually overlapping contemporaries. Mengzi is the fourth generation of Ru scholars. How many generations did the Lunyu take to complete? I see some radical variants there, from thirty to two hundred years (or one to five generations). I would definitely go back to the Lunyu for Yangist criticism reading if there was a good historical basis for it (Google Wave invitations, anyone?).

          Comment by Joshua Harwood | November 27, 2009 | Reply

  13. I have been collecting information on Yang Zhu lately and came across something in Robert Eno’s The Confucian Creation of Heaven, p. 258 n41. He mentions Ts’ai Yuan-p’ei’s theory that Yang Zhu is a variant name for Zhuang Zhou, put forth in Yen Ling-feng’s Wu-ch’iu-pei chai Lieh Tzu chi-cheng 1971:12.139-40. Eno says there are some difficulties with this theory, but nothing fatal. Is there anyone here that can track down this theory and tell me/us about it?

    Comment by Scott "Bao Pu" Barnwell | November 1, 2012 | Reply

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