Yang Zhu, also known as Yangzi or “Master Yang”, was a Chinese philosopher who lived sometime around the fourth or fifth century BCE, during the Warring States Period in China. We know very little about Yang Zhu himself, and what we know of his philosophy is based on the accounts of other, later writers.
Yang Zhu has always been a controversial philosopher, in part because of his robust emphasis on the importance of care for oneself. He has been criticised for being a monster of self-interest, whose philosophy inevitably leads to the destruction of society. But is this criticism justified?
The monstrous Mr Yang
The fact that we rely on later writers for our knowledge of Yang presents us with a problem. The philosophical tradition has not been kind to Yang Zhu.
The earliest reference to Yang’s work comes from the Confucian philosopher Mencius (327 – 289 BCE). By this time, if Mencius is to be believed, Yang’s philosophy had developed a considerable following. But Mencius says the spread of Yang Zhu’s arguments (and the arguments of the philosopher Mozi) put not just individuals, but the whole of society in danger. He presents Yang’s thought as a slippery slope that can only lead, inevitably, to cannibalism—although it is not clear whether this cannibalism is real or metaphorical.
If the Ways of Yang Zhu and Mozi do not cease, and the Way of Kongzi (Confucius) is not made evident, then evil doctrines will dupe the people and obstruct benevolence and righteousness. If benevolence and righteousness are obstructed, that leads animals to devour people, and then people will begin to devour one another.Mengzi (3B 9.9)
Why this disapproval? The core of Mencius’s objection to Yang Zhu lies in the earlier philosopher’s egoism. Yang is associated with the idea of “being for oneself” (wei wo). Mencius says the following.
Mengzi said, “Yang Zhu favored being ‘for oneself.’ If plucking out one hair from his body would have benefited the whole world, he would not do it.”Mengzi (7A 26.1)
But for all Mencius’s disapproval, other texts that give a more nuanced, less harshly critical view of Yang.
Keeping our nature intact
It seems that Yang was one of the first Chinese philosophers to be explicitly preoccupied with the question of human nature, or ren xing. The Huainanzi, written in the second century BCE, suggests that Yang’s philosophy is about preserving and keeping intact our xing.
Keeping your nature [xing] intact, protect your authenticity,not burdening your form with things:Yangzi proposed these things, but Mencius opposed them…Huainanzi (13.9)
The Chinese written character for xing can be broken down into two parts: a component that means “heart” or “mind”, and a component that means “growing plant.” So human nature, or ren xing, refers to the dynamic unfolding of a human life. Thus, if the Huainanzi is right, at the heart of Yang Zhu’s philosophy is a recognition of the importance of life and wholeness, and the centrality of bodily integrity and well-being to a good life.
The goodness of pleasure
This doesn’t sound like the kind of outright hedonism of which Yang Zhu is often accused. And the fourth century BCE Daoist classic called the Liezi also supports a more nuanced reading of what Yang was up to, presenting him in a much more friendly light.
In the Liezi, __ Yang Zhu is seen arguing that the extent of human life is at most one hundred years, much of which is lost in infancy, sleep, and senility. The question, then, is how to make the most of what is left to us.
Yang Zhu recognises the centrality of bodily pleasure to a good life. By nature, we seek pleasures of the body: food, fine clothing, sex, music. But we are not only driven by bodily desires. We are also motivated by socially sanctioned systems of rewards and punishments. We seek fame and success, and we compete for status and reputation.
In the Liezi, Yang Zhu questions this hunger for success and status. But his objections are not so much moral as they are strategic. For Yang, when it comes down to it, these things are counterproductive. They don’t deliver, but instead they imprison and shackle us, and they put us in the way of danger.
Conformity and escape
So what should we do instead? Yang Zhu’s answer is clear. We should follow the movement of our hearts. We should avoid violating our nature. We should be untroubled by worries about fame and status, and attend to the pleasures of the body. And we should make our way through the world in accord with our nature, not resisting the good things of life, not worrying about posthumous fame, and not worrying about punishment and reward.
In the Liezi, Yang Zhu makes a distinction between two different kinds of people. On the one side are the dunren the “escapists” who attempt to wriggle free of human nature by seeking long life, fame, or status and possessions. For Yang, the escapist position is a tragic one because there is no escape. This desire for long life, fame, status, and possessions leads us into danger and leads us to neglect the well-being of the body. It is, Yang says, a maggot that eats away at our vitality.
So Yang Zhu proposes a different path: the path followed by the shunmin or “the people in conformity with their nature.” The shunmin are those who follow their xing. They attend to their bodily needs and treat any success or reputation like a fleeting guest.
In this reading, Yang isn’t proposing rampant egoism, as Mencius believed. He is suggesting something more intimate: attending to the tenderness, the softness, and the pleasures of bodily existence, avoiding the snares of status, rank and possessions, so that we have the best possible chance of flourishing.
Quotes from Mencius come from Bryan Van Norden’s translation, Mengzi: with selections from traditional commentaries (Hackett 2008).
For the Huainanzi, I used The Huainanzi: a guide to the theory and practice of government in early Han China translated by John S. Major (Columbia University Press 2010). My translation above is modified from Major’s.
There are a couple of translations of the Liezi available. The more readable is Lieh-tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living by Eva Wong (Shambala 2013). A.C. Graham’s The Book of Lieh-tzu: A Classic of Dao (Columbia University Press 1990) is a little more scholarly, and arguably more accurate.
You can find all these texts online at the brilliant ctext.org.
Read this interesting chapter by Kim-Chong Chong on egoism in Chinese ethics.
Image: Joyous Celebration at the New Year by Yao Wen-han (1713-?), Qing dynasty. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.