Hui Shi

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Hui Shi (Pinyin) or Hui Shih (惠施; 370?-310? B.C.E.), or Huizi (惠子; Hui-tzu; "Master Hui"), was a Chinese philosopher, an outstanding representative of the early Chinese school of thought, known as the School of Names (Sophists or Dialecticians), which flourished during the Warring States Period. He is famous for ten paradoxes about the relativity of time and space, for instance, "I set off for Yue (southernmost China) today and came there yesterday."

The philosophical writings of Hui Shi are no longer extant, but several Chinese classic texts refer to him, including the Zhan Guo Ce, Lüshi Chunqiu, Han Feizi, Xunzi, and most frequently, the Zhuangzi. Only the Zhuangzi, which contains the ten paradoxes, mentions Hui Shih’s philosophical thought. Hui Shih serves as an intellectual foil for Zhuangzi, exchanging witty repartee and enforcing his reputation as an eccentric sage.


Little is known about the life of Hui Shi except that he was a provincial minister. Only ten paradoxes and some fragments of his voluminous writings have survived. Early sources give us three distinct traditions about Hui Shi. One depicts him as a statesman of varying stature and efficacy. The Han anthology Intrigues of the Warring States (Zhanguoce) portrays him as a second-tier government official. In Book 18 of The Annals of Lü Buwei (ca. 235 B.C.E.) he is an important major political figure, traveling with a large retinue and serving as chief minister to King Hui of Wei (370-319 B.C.E.), who respects him so much that he gives him the title “Uncle to the King” (Annals, 18.6). This part of the Annals is critical of Hui Shi, though acknowledging his cleverness. In one story (18.5), Hui Shi elaborated a widely praised law code only to have a rival dismiss it as excessively elaborate and impracticable. Chapter (18.6) cites him as a model of intellectual arrogance, condemns his incompetence, and blames him for the decline of Wei, claiming that his “stupid” policies were “laughed at by the whole world.” Depictions of him in the Zhuangzi (Book 17) and Hanfeizi (Book 9) are noncommittal, however, and the Hanfeizi and a later book of the Annals (21) portray him as a brilliant and persuasive politician.

King Hui of Wei said to Hui Shi, “To govern a state in previous ages, one needed to be a worthy. Now I am really not the equal of you, sir. I wish to hand over the state to you.” Hui Shi refused. The King again pressed his request, saying, “If I do not keep the state here for myself, but hand it over to a worthy, the people's greedy and contentious attitude will stop. This is why I want you to obey me.” Hui Shi said, “If it is like your majesty says, then I cannot obey. You are the lord of ten thousand chariots, yet your offering the state to another can bring this about. Now for me, a commoner, to have the chance to possess a state of ten thousand chariots yet refuse it, this would stop the greedy and contentious attitude even more.” (Annals of Lü Buwei, 18.6, 461)

A second set of tales in the Zhuangzi protrays Hui Shi as a friend and intellectual foil to the carefree nonconformist Zhuang Zhou. A story about their friendship ties Hui Shi to his political role (Book 17), and two stories concern his role as a disputer (Books 5 and 24). A separate mention of Hui Shi alone (Book 2) also ties him to disputation. Nine Zhuangzi chapters mention Hui Shi, calling him "Huizi" 26 times and "Hui Shi" 9 times. Chapter 33, which summarizes Warring States philosophies, contains all of the latter 9 references by name.

None of the passages in Zhuangzi mention his philosophical views or his skill as a politician. His wittiest argument is a famous exchange with Zhuangzi about the happy fish, in which Zhuangzi confounds him by switching between senses of the word ‘whence’ (an):

Zhuangzi and Hui Shi were strolling on the bridge above the Hao river. Zhuangzi said, “Out swim the minnows so free and easy, this is the happiness of fish.” Hui Shi said, “You are not a fish. Whence do you know the happiness of fish?” Zhuangzi said, “You are not me. Whence do you know I don't know the happiness of fish?” Hui Shi said, “Granted that I am not you, I don't know about you. Then granted that you are not a fish, the case for your not knowing the happiness of fish is complete.” Zhuangzi said, “Let's trace back to the root of the issue. When you said, ‘Whence do you know the fish are happy?’, you asked me already knowing I knew it. I knew it from up above the Hao.” (Zhuang zi, and A. C. Graham. 1981. The seven Inner Chapters and other writings from the book Chuang-tzŭ. London: 123)

A third tradition depicts Hui Shi as a clever disputer who propounded sophistries and paradoxes. Pre-Han texts carry only a few passages to support this; some passages in the Xunzi and Xunzi's remark that Hui Shi was “obscured by expressions and did not know reality” (shi, also “stuff” or “things”) (21.4); and a pair of passages in Zhuangzi (Books 2 and 5) that link him to the theme of “hard and white.” The Han History credits him with only a single scroll of writings, now lost. “Under Heaven” provides the only clear evidence that he was a significant thinker. This text dates from the mid-second century B.C.E., 150 years or more after Hui Shih’s death, and may represent his developing reputation as a disputer rather than historical fact.

In the south there was a strange man named Huang Liao, who asked why the sky does not fall nor the earth cave in and the reasons for the wind, rain, and thunder. Hui Shi responded without hesitation, answered without thinking, and explained all the myriad things. He explained without rest, going on without stopping, still thought it too little, and then added some marvel to it. (Zhuang zi, and A. C. Graham. 1981. The seven Inner Chapters and other writings from the book Chuang-tzŭ. London: 77)


Under Heaven” states that Hui Shih had five cartloads of books; it is not clear whether they were his own writings or simply books that he owned. All of his writings are lost, and he is known only for the “Ten Paradoxes,” which are quoted in the Taoist work Zhuangzi. Hui Shih's thought, which bears some resemblance to Taoism, appears to be based on a relative and atomistic view of space and time and to confirm the concept that all things are one.

Hui Shih’s paradoxes are interesting to historians of philosophy because of their resemblance to concurrent developments in Western philosophy, especially the paradoxes of the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea (c. 495–c. 430).

Hui Shih was a man of many devices and his writings would fill five carriages. But his doctrines were jumbled and perverse and his words wide of the mark. His way of dealing with things may be seen from these sayings:

  • "The largest thing has nothing beyond it; it is called the One of largeness. The smallest thing has nothing within it; it is called the One of smallness."

  • "That which has no thickness cannot be piled up; yet it is a thousand li in dimension."

  • "Heaven is as low as earth; mountains and marshes are on the same level."

  • "The sun at noon is the sun setting. The thing born is the thing dying."
  • "Great similarities are different from little similarities; these are called the little similarities and differences. The ten thousand things are all similar and are all different; these are called the great similarities and differences."
  • "The southern region has no limit and yet has a limit."
  • "I set off for Yueh today and came there yesterday."
  • "Linked rings can be separated."
  • "I know the center of the world: it is north of Yen and south of Yueh."
  • "Let love embrace the ten thousand things; Heaven and earth are a single body."

"With sayings such as these, Hui Shih tried to introduce a more magnanimous view of the world and to enlighten the rhetoricians." (33, tr. Burton Watson 1968:374)

The Zhuangzi comments that Hui Shih’s “doctrines were contradictory and his sayings missed the truth.” Most of the other Zhuangzi passages portray Huizi as a friendly rival of Zhuangzi who argues the alternative viewpoint, or criticizes the Daoist perspective, often with moments of humor. According to these ancient Daoist stories, Zhuangzi and Huizi remained friendly rivals until death.

Chuang Tzu was accompanying a funeral when he passed by the grave of Hui Tzu. Turning to his attendants, he said, "There was once a plasterer who, if he got a speck of mud on the tip of his nose no thicker than a fly's wing, would get his friend Carpenter Shih to slice it off for him. Carpenter Shih, whirling his hatchet with a noise like the wind, would accept the assignment and proceed to slice, removing every bit of mud without injury to the nose, while the plasterer just stood there completely unperturbed. Lord Yuan of Sung, hearing of this feat, summoned Carpenter Shih and said, 'Could you try performing it for me?' But Carpenter Shih replied, 'It's true that I was once able to slice like that but the material I worked on has been dead these many years.' Since you died, Master Hui, I have had no material to work on. There's no one I can talk to any more." (24, tr. Watson 1968:269)

Hui Shi and Zhuangzi

In the Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi was portrayed as an unpredictable, eccentric sage, whose clothing was shoddy and patched, and whose shoes are tied to his feet with string in order to keep them from falling apart. In spite of this, he did not consider himself to be miserable, only poor. When his good friend Hui Shi came to console him upon the death of his wife, he found Zhuangzi sitting on a mat, singing and beating on a basin. Hui Shi reprimanded him for behaving so improperly at the death of someone who had lived and grown old with him and had borne him children.

Zhuangzi replied, “When she died, how could I help being affected? But as I think the matter over, I realize that originally she had no life; and not only no life, she had no form; not only no form, she had no material force (ch'i) (qi). In the limbo of existence and non-existence, there was transformation and the material force was evolved. The material force was transformed to be form, form was transformed to become life, and now birth has transformed to become death. This is like the rotation of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, and winter. Now she lies asleep in the great house (the universe). For me to go about weeping and wailing would be to show my ignorance of destiny. Therefore I desist.”

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Baskin, Wade. 1972. Classics in Chinese philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library. ISBN 0802220738
  • Cua, A. S. 2003. Encyclopedia of Chinese philosophy. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415939135
  • Watson, Burton, tr. 1968. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Wu, Jingxiong. 1996. The golden age of Zen. New York: Image. ISBN 038547993X
  • Zhuang zi, and A. C. Graham. 1981. The seven Inner Chapters and other writings from the book Chuang-tzŭ. London: Allen and Unwin. ISBN 0042990106

External links

All links retrieved January 17, 2018.

General Philosophy Sources


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