Guo Xiang

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Guo Xiang (Chinese: 郭象; pinyin: Guō Xiàng; Wade–Giles: Kuo Hsiang; d. 312 C.E.), was a Chinese Neo-Daoist philosopher, credited with the first and most important revision of the text known as the Zhuangzi, written by Zhuangzi (莊子; 庄子, Zhuāng Zǐ; Chuang Tzŭ; "Master Zhuang"), an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the fourth century B.C.E. during the Warring States Period, and, along with the Laozi (老子; Lao Tzu), one of the great Daoist philosophers of ancient China.


Guo Xiang’s version of the Zhuangzi, redacted from 58 to 33 chapters, became the only known version by the eight century. Guo Xiang appended a commentary which was an original philosophical work in itself. He concluded that there was no agent of causality in the universe, that all things spontaneously produced themselves, and that each thing had its own nature. Unlike other Daoist contemporaries, Guo Xiang considered the political and social spheres to be a natural result of this spontaneous production, and believed that the true self was to be found by fulfilling one’s natural role in society. Guo Xiang’s synthesis of Confucian morality with Daoist ontology became a model for future Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist philosophers, who developed systems drawing elements from all three traditions.


Very little is known about the life of Guo Xiang. He had a successful political career, maintaining a high position within one of the six rebellious factions that contributed to the rapid demise of the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 C.E.). Unlike his contemporaries Ji Kang (223-262 C.E.) and Ruan Ji (210-263 C.E.) who retired from what they perceived as a corrupt governmental system to live as private scholars, Guo remained active in his role as a public dignitary.

Thought and Works

Commentary on the Zhuangzi

Guo Xiang was a high government official who adapted and completed another philosopher's unfinished commentary on the writings of Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi (莊子, 庄子, Zhuāng Zǐ, Wade-Giles: Chuang Tzŭ) was an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the fourth century B.C.E. and, along with Lao Tzu (Laozi) is regarded as one of the great Daoist philosophers.

Guo Xiang is responsible for the current arrangement of the Zhuangzi in 33 chapters, divided into ‘Inner Chapters’ (1-7), ‘Outer Chapters’ (8-22), ‘Miscellaneous Chapters’ (23-33). This division into three sections is quite old and is likely to have been part of the original recension. Guo Xiang revised the original edition of 52 chapters by removing material that he thought was superstitious or not of philosophical interest. His appended commentary to the text added many original ideas and represents a substantial philosophical achievement that has been compared to the Zhuangzi itself. Within four centuries his shorter recension became the only one known.

There is some question over the true authorship of Guo's commentary to the Zhuangzi. The earliest source, the Jin Shu (Standard History of the Jin Dynasty), accuses Guo of plagiarizing all but two chapters of the commentary from Xiang Xiu (d. 300 C.E.), who wrote a generation earlier. Current scholarship acknowledges that Guo made use of Xiang Xiu's work and other earlier commentaries, but still credits Guo as the principal author because the most original philosophical features in the commentary do not correspond with those in other works by Xiang Xiu. In the early twentieth century, a postface to the commentary was discovered, detailing the work Guo had carried out. Linguistic analysis and references in other works also support Guo as the author.

Along with Wang Bi (Wang Pi, 226-249 C.E.), the other great figure of the xuanxue (mysterious or profound learning) movement, Guo sought to synthesize traditional Confucian morality with an ontological system encompassing the insights expressed in the Zhuangzi and the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching). Guo’s method of presenting his philosophy within the framework of a Daoist classic became a model for later Confucians, Daoists and Buddhists who constructed systems of thought which incorporated elements from all three systems.

Individuality and Interdependence

Guo interpreted dao ("the way") as nothingness, and argued that it could not be a "first cause" or produce being. He concluded that there was no agent of causality in the universe, that all things spontaneously produced themselves, and that each thing had its own nature. Guo emphasized the individuality and interdependence of all things. Reality was a process Guo called "self-transformation" (zihua) or "lone transformation" (duha) in which each thing was responsible for its own creation and the relationships that existed between itself and the rest of the world. At each moment, “lone transformation” was conditioned by all the self-transformations preceding it, and in turn affected all the self-transformations that followed it.

The myriad things have myriad attributes, the adopting and discarding [of their attributes] is different, as if there was a true ruler making them do so. But if we search for evidence or a trace of this ruler, in the end we will not find it. We will then understand that things arise of themselves, and are not caused by something else. (Zhuangzi commentary, chapter 2)

Since all things shared equally in the creation of the world, all things were of equal value in spite of the differences among them. The fact that one person was less talented or capable than another did not make him less worthy, but only defined the role he would play in society and the world. Happiness came from following one’s distinctive nature, and dissatisfaction and regret come from failing to follow it.

The Sage

Traditionally, a Daoist sage removed himself from the mundane world, but Guo regarded this notion as false and misleading. He viewed the social and political world as no less natural than a forest or mountaintop. The proper course of action was to fulfill one’s natural role in society, participating in a continuous act of creation. The Sage (shengren) was someone who directed his talent and understanding for the benefit of society. Guo believed that someone who was a sage would necessarily act as a ruler (neisheng waiwang) Chapter one of the Zhuangzi contains the story of the sage ruler Yao, who attempted to cede his throne to the recluse Xu You, but was rebuffed. In Zhuangzi’s original story, it was clear that Xu You has a greater level of understanding than Yao, but according to Guo's commentary Yao was more qualified to be a leader:

Are we to insist that a man fold his arms and sit in silence in the middle of some mountain forest before we say that he is practicing nonaction? This is why the words of Laozi and Zhuangzi are rejected by responsible officials. This is why responsible officials insist on remaining in the realm of action without regret … egotistical people set themselves in opposition to things, while he who is in accord with things is not opposed to them … therefore he profoundly and deeply responds to things without any deliberate mind of his own and follows whatever comes into contact with him … he who is always with the people no matter what he does is the ruler of the world wherever he may be. (Zhuangzi commentary, chapter 1)


Guo's redaction focuses on his understanding of Zhuangzi's philosophy of spontaneity (自然; zìrán; tzǔ jan). Ziran is a compound of two different terms zi, meaning "self" and ran, meaning "to be so," and can be translated as "nature," "the self-so," or "things as they are." Nearly all the philosophers of the xuanxue (mysterious or profound learning) movement held that ziran, naturalness or spontaneity, was somehow in opposition to orthodox Confucian teachings (mingjiao) about proper behavior for each role in society. Guo's concept of ziran, however, encompassed all governmental and social spheres. There was no difference between natural abilities and social obligations. The roles required by Confucian propriety were not imposed upon an otherwise chaotic natural system, but were a natural result of spontaneous self-transformation. Chaos resulted when people failed to acknowledge their proper roles. Thus, Guo sought to provide a specific interpretation of the doctrine of nonaction (wuwei). He writes that "taking no action does not mean folding one's arms and closing one's mouth" (Zhuangzi commentary, chapter 11). This practiced spontaneity is demonstrated by the story of Cook Ding, rendered as Cook Ting in the Burton Watson translation (which is itself ultimately derived from the Guo Xiang recension):

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee, zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to tile Ching-shou Music.

"Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Yen-hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!"

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint."

"A good cook changes his knife once a year, because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month, because he hacks. I've had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I've cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there's plenty of room, more than enough for the blade to play about it. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone. (Chapter 3 - The Secret of Caring for Life)

The careful yet effortlessly spontaneous way in which Cook Ding is described cutting up the ox is both an example of the cognitive state of mind Zhuangzi associated with the Dao and the assertion that this state is accessible in everyday life.

See also


  • Cleary, Thomas F., Laozi, and Zhuangzi. 1993. The essential Tao: an initiation into the heart of Taoism through the authentic Tao te ching and the inner teachings of Chuang-Tzu. [San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco. ISBN 0062502166 ISBN 9780062501622
  • Höchsmann, Hyun, Zhuangzi, and Guorong Yang. 2007. Zhuangzi. The Longman library of primary sources in philosophy. New York: Pearson Longman. ISBN 0321273567
  • Kohn, Livia. 1985. Guo Xiang and the Zhuang zi. Honolulu: Dialogue Pub.
  • Zhuangzi, and Youlan Feng. 1989. Chuang-tzu: a new selected translation with an exposition of the philosophy of Kuo Hsiang. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. ISBN 083511970X *Ziporyn, Brook Anthony. 2003. The Penumbra unbound the neo-Taoist philosophy of Guo Xiang. SUNY series in Chinese philosophy and culture. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 1417506849

External links

All links retrieved January 23, 2014.

General Philosophy Sources


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