Wu Wei Ching (Kuo Hsiang's Commentary on the Chuang Tzu)
"The flow of nature is melodic: both inevitable and spontaneous." Thus begins this rendition of Kuo Hsiang's Chuang Tzu Chu,
his commentary on the Taoist classic Chuang Tzu. The Wu Wei Ching (Book of No Action) constitutes a deep meditation on freedom and self-expression,
improvisation and self-control, that is one of the great theoretical and practical philosophies ever articulated.
Kuo Hsiang is responsible for the Chuang Tzu canon: the current arrangement of chapters (including the
emphasis on the first seven, "inner" chapters) and the selection among works attributed to Chuang Tzu
during Kuo Hsiang's era. Kuo Hsiang's text consists of interpolations in the text of the Chuang Tzu, which is probably
responsible for its relative obscurity in the West. It may be thought that he is a mere interpreter
or elaborator. And it may also be thought that his philosophy could only be presented in its
context within the Chuang Tzu, so that to do a translation would require a massive volume consisting of
both. However, I think the treatment here, in which thoughts of Kuo Hsiang are presented as
brief chapters by analogy to the structure of the Tao Te Ching, has much to recommend it. First
of all - though if you know the Chuang Tzu the connections are obvious - Kuo Hsiang's writings make perfect sense
on their own. Second, the very fact that they do consist of relatively brief comments makes them
natural to present in this style.
The treatment below is, hence, loose. It unmoors the commentary from its source. It rearranges
the bits thematically, since they are now independent of the Chuang Tzu's's almost random development. And it intends to
reconstruct the text into something that flows well in English and captures the essence of Kuo
Hsiang's Taoism (or indeed, in my view, of Taoism in general).
Though Kuo Hsiang is often thought of as a syncretist, and though he actually said that
Confucius was the greatest sage (because his teachings were more practical than those of Lao
Tzu), it seems to me that this text is in some ways the most satisfactory philosophical expression
of Taoism. It is far less cryptic than the Tao Te Ching, and far more systematic than the Chuang
Tzu. It does indeed, however, give a more "active" account of inaction, which is what one might
expect from an official. And it was certainly a major influence on neo-Confucianism and a key
moment in the development of Ch'an Buddhism.
It is worth mentioning that Kuo Hsiang was accused of plagiarizing this commentary from one Hsiang
Hsiu, and that for this and perhaps other reasons, he was described by one ancient source as "a petty man."
In the absence of some dramatic new textual discoveries, we are unlikely ever to determine the truth of this
literary scandal. But whatever the truth, we can certainly assert that whoever wrote this commentary - which displays
remarkable clarity, profundity, and scope - was not a petty man.
What follows is my own rendition of portions of the text translated by Wing-Tsit
Chan in A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, by Fung Yu-Lan in his translation of the
Chuang Tzu (which is long out of print), in History of Chinese Philosophy, volume 2, and by Livia Kohn in Early Chinese Mysticism.
The central theme of this work is perhaps the proper interpretation of the Taoist concept of wu
wei or "non-doing," "inaction" (hence the title I have given it: "Wu Wei Ching" or the book of inaction). But in exploring this topic, Kuo Hsiang gives what I think is the
most satisfactory Taoist metaphysics. He beautifully elucidates the Taoist conception of nature.
And though he is often called a "fatalist" (and one can see why), in fact he is what we might call
a radical compatibilist: he holds both that all events are absolutely necessitated and that
everything is perfectly spontaneous.