The Liezi (列子 in Chinese characters, Lièzĭ in pinyin) is a Daoist text attributed to Lie Yukou, a philosopher conventionally thought to have lived in the fifth century B.C.E. However, a dearth of historical evidence for Lie Yukou's existence and signs of later accretion in the text itself point to a much later composition date (approximately 300 C.E.).
The text is divided into eight thematically-organized chapters, each addressing a theme relevant to the Daoist quest for direct involvement with the Way (Dao). These topics range from spontaneous action to the limitations of worldly knowledge, though all are concerned with the lived experience of people. For this reason, many consider the Liezi to be the most accessible and practical of the classical Daoist sources. Since the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.), it has been openly acknowledged as a Daoist classic, taking its place in the Daoist Canon as one of the school's three primary texts (the other two being the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi).
Much like Laozi and Zhuangzi, little is known about Lie Yukou (列圄寇 / 列禦寇, c. 400 B.C.E.). He is described in some Warring States texts as a practitioner of the Daoist path who lived sometime in the fifth century, with the most intriguing reference contained in the Zhuangzi, which claims that Liezi was so spiritually advanced that he could "ride the wind" (yufeng, 御風). However, since there is such a dearth of historical evidence for the existence of Lie Yukou as a Hundred Schools of Thought philosopher during the Warring States Period, some scholars believe that he was invented by Zhuangzi, who used him as a paradigmatic Daoist exemplar. Indeed, Western scholarship has a generally dismissive view of Liezi, with Frederic H. Balfour, who translated several Daoist texts, calling Liezi "a philosopher who never lived" (1887) and Graham affirming that "his historicity is doubtful, and [that] it is not even clear when he is supposed to have lived." Such doubts are also found within the Chinese tradition, as summarized by Lionel Giles:
Very little is known of our author [Liezi] beyond what he tells us himself. His full name was [Lie Yukou], and it appears that he was living in the [Zheng] State not long before the year 398 B.C.E., when the Prime Minister [Zi] Yang was killed in a revolution…. On the insufficient ground that he is not mentioned by the historian Sima Qian, a certain critic of the [Song] dynasty was led to declare that [Liezi] was only a fictitious personage invented by [Zhuangzi], and that the treatise which passes under his name was a forgery of later times. This theory is rejected by the compilers of the [great Catalogue of Qianlong Emperor's Library], who represent the cream of Chinese scholarship in the eighteenth century" (12-13). Regardless of the historicity of Lie Yukou, it suffices to say that almost nothing is known about him, including his involvement (if any) with the composition or redaction of the book that bears his name.
The first two (surviving) references to the Liezi text are from the Former Han Dynasty. First, the imperial librarian Liu Xiang (77-6 B.C.E.) notes that he eliminated repetitions in Liezi and rearranged it into eight chapters. Second, the bibliography section of the Book of Han also mentions it, describing its division into eight chapters and postulating that since the Zhuangzi quotes Liezi, Master Lie must have predated Master Zhuang. Following these two citations, there is a three century historical gap during which the text was seemingly forgotten. This lacuna was eventually addressed during the Jin Dynasty, when Zhang Zhan (張湛) (c. 370 C.E.) produced a full-copy of the eight chapter text and appended a commentary onto it. In his preface, Zhang claims that his copy of the Liezi was transmitted down from his grandfather. Intriguingly, all received Liezi texts are derived from Zhang's version, with the obvious ramification that there is no way to analyze the relationship between it and the document described in the Book of Han.
During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty, the Liezi was designated a Daoist classic, completing a trilogy with the more famous Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi. To commemorate this, it was honorifically entitled the Chongxu zhenjing (沖虛真經; True Classic of Simplicity and Vacuity, a title that has also been translated The Classic of Perfect Emptiness). During the reign of Emperor Zhenzong of the Song dynasty, the Liezi was further honored as the Chongxu zhide zhenjing (沖虛至德真經; True Classic of Simplicity and Vacuity and Perfect Virtue).
As mentioned above, the Liezi (as described in the Book of Han and also in the received Zhang Zhan text) is divided into eight thematically-organized chapters. They are listed below (with titles and summaries following Graham's translation (1960)):
|The inevitability (and naturalness) of death
|The Yellow Emperor
|The Daoist philosophy of action (namely, that natural, unconflicted action, wu-wei, yields the most beneficial results)
|Zhou Mu Wang
|King Mu of Zhou
|Life as a dream or illusion (though without the Buddhist or Cartesian pessimism that such images conjure in the Western mind)
|A critique of Confucian pragmatism and valorization of paradoxical reasoning
|The Questions of Tang
|"The limitations of prosaic, everyday knowledge" (92)
|Endeavor and Destiny
|Extreme fatalism (used as a goad towards spontaneity in thought and deed)
|Hedonism—pursuit of pleasure is the only guiding principle for human life (Note: This philosophical standpoint seems so alien to the current of Daoist thought that many (from Graham, 1960, to Chan, 1963) tend to view this chapter as a later accretion)
|Fixed standards are useless for determining behavior, as propriety is always based upon the chance combinations of people, places and events; naturalness and spontaneity are the key
Most chapters of the Liezi are named after famous figures from Chinese mythology and history, including sage rulers, such as the Yellow Emperor (supposedly r. 2698-2599 B.C.E.), King Tang of Shang (r. 1617-1588 B.C.E.), and King Mu of Zhou (r. 1023-983 B.C.E.), and eminent philosophers such as Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) and Yang Zhu (c. 350 B.C.E.).
The Liezi is generally considered to be the most practical of the major Daoist works, especially when compared to the philosophical writings of Laozi and the rambunctious, anti-linguistic narratives of Zhuangzi. For example, the text provides a detailed description of the pure (or mystical) Daoist experience:
My body is in accord with my mind, my mind with my energies, my energies with my spirit, my spirit with Nothing. Whenever the minutest existing thing or the faintest sound affects me, whether it is far away beyond the eight borderlands, or close at hand between my eyebrows and eyelashes, I am bound to know it. However, I do not know whether I perceived it with the seven holes in my head and my four limbs, or knew it though my heart and belly and internal organs. It is simply self-knowledge (chap. 4, tr. Graham 1990:77-78).
The parallels with the Zhuangzi are apparent, as the earlier text states that "the Perfect Man uses his mind like a mirror—going after nothing, welcoming nothing, responding but not storing. Therefore he can win out over things and not hurt himself" (chap. 7, tr. Watson). Though the content is similar, the Liezi is notable for its clearer exposition of the relevant themes.
As suggested above, the text is most notable for its parables and prose dedicated to praxis—often expostulating on either the virtues of living spontaneously or exalting in the weak (a thesis inherited from the Dao De Jing):
In the world there is a Way (Dao) by which one will always conquer and there is a way by which one will never conquer. The former is called Weakness, the latter is called Strength. The two are easy to recognize, but still men do not recognize them. Hence the saying of the men of the most ancient times: "The strong surpass those weaker than themselves, the weak surpass those stronger than themselves." The man who surpasses men weaker than himself is in danger when he meets someone as strong as himself, but the man who surpasses men stronger than himself is never in danger. The saying "By this you conquer your own body and make it your servant, by this you employ the whole world as your servant" means that you conquer not others but yourself, employ not other but yourself (Liezi, ch. 2, Graham 52).
Likewise, it argues for spontaneity instead of dedication to worldly standards of behavior (li):
The highest man at rest is as though dead, in movement is like a machine. He knows neither why he is at rest nor why he is not, why he is in movement nor why he is not. He neither changes his feelings and expression because ordinary people are watching, nor fails to change them because ordinary people are not watching. He comes alone and goes alone, comes out alone and goes in alone; what can obstruct him? (Liezi. ch. 6, Graham 130).
Although the Liezi has not been extensively published in the West, it remains an important text for a number of reasons: First, it contains some of the clearest descriptions of Daoist praxis found in the entire Daoist Canon (as mentioned above); second, it is an eminently readable consolidation of themes from the Daoist philosophical tradition; and third, it preserves the styles of thought and philosophical positions of various thinkers (from the egoistic hedonism of Yang Zhu to the paradoxical arguments of the Logicians, including Gongsun Long) whose primary textual sources have been lost.
Liezi scholars have long recognized that it shares many passages with other pre-Han texts, like the Zhuangzi, Daodejing, and Lüshi chunqiu (呂氏春秋; "Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals"; third century B.C.E.). Barrett (1993) says opinion is "divided as to whether it is an ancient work with later interpolations or a forgery confected from ancient sources," as on one hand, the Liezi could contain a core of authentic writings from Lie Yukou (c. 400 B.C.E.); and on the other, it could be a compilation forged by Zhang Zhan (400 C.E.) (298). Though this issue can never be definitively resolved, it is clear that the text contains some materials that could be dated to the late Warring states period (400-250 B.C.E.).
Of these shared sources, the Liezi has the most in common with the Zhuangzi. They share many characters and stories, such that Graham (1990) lists sixteen complete episodes plus sections from others that were entirely borrowed from the earlier source (12). Conversely, the Zhuangzi mentions Liezi in four chapters and Lie Yukou in three, a fact that prompted speculation about the historicity of Liezi as a figure. The most famous of these depictions states:
[Liezi] could ride the wind and go soaring around with cool and breezy skill, but after fifteen days he came back to earth. As far as the search for good fortune went, he didn't fret and worry. He escaped the trouble of walking, but he still had to depend on something to get around. If he had only mounted on the truth of Heaven and Earth, ridden the changes of the six breaths, and thus wandered through the boundless, then what would he have had to depend on? Therefore I say, the Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame (chap. 1, tr. Watson).
Textual studies have noted that the final two chapters of the Liezi have heterogeneous contents that differ from the unilaterally Daoist approach of previous sections. Chapter 7 records the hedonist philosophy of "Yang Zhu" (Yangzi), made infamous through Mencius's criticism that "if he could have helped the whole world by plucking out a single hair, he would not have done it" (chap. 7A, tr. Muller). Zhang Zhan speculates that this chapter, focusing on indulgence in physical and temporary pleasures, was from Lie Yuko's earlier years as a hedonist, before he became a Daoist. The well-known scholar of Chinese philosophy, Wing-Tsit Chan (1963) calls the "Yang Zhu" chapter "negative Daoism," seeing it as a life-denying, spiritually empty variant of the "positive Daoism" found in the Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Huainanzi (as each of these three contained an exciting new metaphysical insight) (309). Likewise, much of the material found in Chapter 8 ("Explaining Conjunctions") is primarily taken from other early sources, not only Daoist but also Confucian and Mohist texts, though it is all used for the singularly Daoist end of encouraging spontaneous (and non-ritualized) conduct.
Angus C. Graham, Professor Emeritus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, has made some illuminating statements concerning the text's provenance. After translating the Liezi in 1960, Graham linguistically analyzed the text for internal grammatical evidence and textual parallels, specifically attempting to answer questions of dating and authorship (1961). In doing so, he discovered many cases where the Liezi is "clearly secondary to other texts, but none where it is the primary source for a passage." An additional result of this research, expressed in the Preface to his revised Liezi translation (1990), explores a significant change in his original views concerning the text's authorship:
Although in 1960 most scholars in China already recognized the late date of [Liezi], most Westerners were still disinclined to question its antiquity. My own textual studies, not yet completed when this translation first appeared, supported the Chinese dating, which by now prevails also in the West. … One result of the textual investigation came as a surprise to me. The present book describes the hedonist 'Yang [Zhu]' chapter as 'so unlike the rest of [Liezi] that it must be from another hand … The thought is certainly very different, and it does show the signs of editing and interpolation by the Taoist author … But although close scrutiny generally reveals marked differences in style between the body of the book and passages borrowed from earlier sources, I could find none to distinguish the hedonist chapter from the rest (xiii).
Finally, due to occasional textual misunderstandings in Zhang Zhan's commentary, Graham concludes that the "guiding hand" which redacted the texts into its received form probably belonged to Zhang's father or grandfather, which would give it a date of approximately 300 C.E.
There are fewer English translations of the Liezi than of many other Daoist texts. Initially, it was only available in partial versions, including Lionel Giles's translation of chapters 1-6 and 8, and Anton Forke's rendition of the much disputed "Yang Zhu" chapter (both published in 1912). More recently, A.C. Graham (1960, 1990) prepared what is commonly acknowledged as "the best translation into a Western language to date" (Barrett, 307). The most recent versions include Eva Wong's Lieh-tzu: A Guide to Practical Living (2001) and Tsai Chih Chung's illustrated edition entitled, Liezi Speaks: Thoughts to Ride the Wind (2006).
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Barrett, T.H. "Lieh tzu 列子." In Michael Loewe, ed., Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China, 1993. ISBN 1557290431
- Balfour, Frederic H. Leaves from my Chinese Scrapbook. London: Trubner, 1887.
- Chan Wing-Tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NH: Princeton University Press, 1963. ISBN 0691019649
- Giles, Lionel, tr. Taoist Teachings from the Book of Lieh-Tzŭ. London: Wisdom of the East, 1912.
- Forke, Anton, tr. Yang Chu's Garden of Pleasure. London: Wisdom of the East, 1912.
- Graham, A.C. "The Date and Composition of Liehtzyy," Asia Major 8: 139-198. 1961.
- Graham, A.C., tr. The Book of Lieh-tzǔ: A Classic of Tao. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. ISBN 0-231-07237-6
- Lafitte, J-J, tr. Traité du vide parfait. Paris: Albin Michel, 1997. ISBN 2-226-09426-1
- Wong, Eva, tr. Lieh-Tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living. Boston: Shambhala, 2001. ISBN 1570628998
All links retrieved October 25, 2022.
- Lieh-tzu: A Biographical Note, Taoism Initiation Page.
- Taoist Teachings Translated from the 'Book of Lieh-Tzu', Giles' translation, Internet Sacred Text Archive.
- Liezi, Laurenţiu Teodorescu.
- Lieh-tzu or the Ch'ung-hsu chen-ching, Taoism Initiation Page.
- Yang Chu's Garden of Pleasure, Forke's translation, Internet Sacred Text Archive.
- Liezi 列子, Chinese Text Project (in Chinese).
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