The Types and Uses of Humor in Zhuangzi Essay

The Chinese philosopher known to us as Zhuangzi was born sometime around the year 350 BC in the present-day region of Shangqiu. This period in Chinese history is called the “Warring States Period” by scholars, during which local warlords in various regions of the country began their conquest of smaller states, thus consolidating and increasing their power – and ultimately coming into conflict with one another. It should be noted that the Warring States Period was also a time of transition in terms of military technology and tactics, as significant for its time and area as the First World War was for early 20th Century Europe. It was the beginning of the Iron Age in China, when such weapons were replacing those made of bronze; new and more destructive weaponry such as the pikestaff and the crossbow were being developed. In addition, the use of chariots was being supplanted by faster and more mobile cavalry and infantry troops. It was during this period that Sun-Tzu penned  The Art of War, which has been used by military strategists for centuries (and more recently, predatory capitalists). As in the case of the present-day U.S. arms merchants became quite wealthy and powerful, adding fuel to the fires.

            In this kind of environment, it is not surprising that certain elements of society, particularly the intelligentsia, should seek to find some reason and solution to the madness around them. The Warring States Period saw the rise of numerous schools of philosophy, including Confucianism and Taoism. Although the writings of Zhuangzi do not reflect what we might consider “mainstream Tao,” this philosophy was most certainly an influence on them (Ebrey et. al., 2006).

            It can be seen how a philosophy such as Tao might have taken root as a reaction to the violence and militarism prevalent at the time. Tao emphasizes compassion, moderation and humility (the so-called “Three Jewels” of Tao) as well as spontaneity and what is known in Mandarin as wu-hei, or “non-action” – a rather Buddhist outlook that we in the West might phrase as “let go and let God.” In fact, Tao and the writings of Zhuangzi, which predate the arrival of Buddhism in China, have been of great influence on Zen Buddhism.

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            In times of tragedy and hardship, it is also said that we “laugh so we don’t scream.” Given the social deterioration of the Warring States period, it should not be surprising that Zhuangzi might

employ forms of humor in order to get his point across.

            It is important to understand that humor is in many ways a culturally relative concept; that which may be considered humorous in one region may not be in another. There are however some elements of existence which serve as a universal source of amusement. One of these, frequently found in the writings of Zhuangzi, lies in the area of cultural and social assumptions that we take for granted.

Zhuangzi’s philosophy is a precursor to both some types of New Age thought as well as certain elements of social libertarianism.  Through the use of humor as well as devices such as metaphor and paradox, Zhuangzi explores and offers explanations of the relationship between Tao, Nature and (often flawed) humanity. In  An Introduction to the Philosophy and Religion of Taoism, author Jeanene Fowler suggests that like late-eighteenth century satirist Voltaire and many progressive authors of modern America (such as Jim Hightower, Mark Marron and Rachel Maddow), Zhuangzi wields humor as a weapon against the complacent and corrupt (2005).

            Zhuangzi begins by forcing us to question our assumptions. In one anecdote, he describes how human males were quite taken with a pair of lovely courtesans, considering them quite attractive; however, he goes on to point out that various fish, fowl and woodland creatures would flee in their prescence. Zhuangzi asks us who is really an authority on what constitutes true beauty? Based on this argument, Zhuangzi finds that  “the rules of benevolence and righteousness and the paths of right and wrong are hopelessly snarled and jumbled” (Watson, 1996).

            Burton Watson uses one of Zhuangzi’s more amusing dialogues to further  illustrate aspects of Zhuangzi’s skepticism. In the following exchange taken from Watson’s translation, Zhuangzi has an argument with fellow philosopher Hui Shi over the file of minnows as they observe these small fishes

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swimming at the base of a waterfall :

ZHUANGZI: See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish

                        really enjoy!

HUI-SHI:        You’re not a fish — how do you know what fish enjoy?

ZHUANGZI: You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?

HUI-SHI:        I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re                                      certainly not a fish — so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy.

ZHUANGZI: You asked me how I know what fish enjoy — so you already knew I knew it when you

                        asked the question. I know it by standing here. (Watson, 1996)

The humor here lies in the fact that the source of Zhuangzi’s knowledge of fish and what they enjoy should be obvious – and why is there even a discussion?

            Like the Rabbi of Nazareth (Jesus) and the Greek philosopher Aesop, Zhuangzi frequently uses parables in which the protagonist and hero is someone that would have been considered a “commoner” in order to explain the concept of wu-hei (“non-action”).  Among the better known of these is a parable about a servant named Ting who was preparing an ox for his employer’s meal. The employer, Lord Wen-Hui, expresses his admiration for Ting as he watches him skillfully butchering the carcass. Ting explains his method, in which he moves from the general – or the “Big Picture” to the smallest details, working from the outside in. When he begins, Ting explains, he could see only the large carcass. As he progresses however and encounters the more complicated parts of the body, he moves slowly and methodically until the job is completed. Thus, Lord Wen-Hui learns from his servant how to approach life in general (Watson, 1996).

            Zhuangzi also points out the folly of the social masks we wear, and the various ways in which we attempt to constantly re-invent or remake ourselves in order to fit the expectations of society. He

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asks if it is not better to live in the moment and exist as the gods created us rather than constantly reacting to social pressures to “fit in.”  Might such natural existence ultimately be advantageous to

one’s survival? He makes this argument frequently in what Watson identifies as his”parables of the useless.” In one such parable, Hui-Shi complains that on his property there stands a large tree which is

so gnarled and bent that it is useless for any building purposes, lamenting that “no carpenter would look at it twice.” To this, Zhuangzi replies that his friend may as well make the best of it, suggesting that he

“lie down for a free and easy sleep under it.” After all, he suggests, if there’s no use for it, how can it then ever cause him grief or troubles? In fact, this theme of flaws (such as blemishes that make animals unsuitable for ritual sacrifice) can be quite advantageous when it comes to survival (Watson, 1996).

            Tao, the nearest translation of which is “path” or “The Way,” is also taken to mean “nature.” It shares certain similarities with an early American philosophy known as Deism, in which God is not in fact a judgmental Being sitting on a throne up in the clouds, but rather more like the “Force” – an energy or presence that runs through all of existence and connects everything. It therefore cannot be described, named or even classified. This is a reason why Tao is at once simple yet so complicated that few ever truly grasp it (Kim, 2003). It is not a religion, but a way of looking at existence. It is the explanation of this concept that is at the heart of Zhuangzi’s writings, and why he would use mild – and sometimes rather earthy – humorous devices in order to get the point across.

            Earlier, it was suggested that while humor is often culturally relative, certain elements of life – particularly sex and bodily functions – are found quite funny in virtually all cultures across the planet. Zhunagzi does not shy away from this this as he attempts to explain that Tao is not something with a fixed location – or even a “thing” in the way most people, in their endless efforts to classify, quantify and categorize everything in existence understand it. In another dialogue (here translated by Burton Watson), Zhuangzi tries to get this point across:

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TUNG-KUO: This thing called the Way – where does it exist?

ZHUNANGZI: There’s no place it doesn’t exist.

TUNG-KUO: You must be more specific!

ZHUANGZI: It is in the ant.

TUNG-KUO: As low a thing as that?

ZHUANGZI: It is in the panic grass.

TUNG-KUO: But that’s lower still!

ZHUANGZI: It is in the tiles and shards.

TUNG-KUO: How can it be so low?

Finally, Zhuangzi explains that Tao is found even in a person’s bodily wastes – his feces and urine Acording to Watson, Zhuangzi used vocabulary here that we would consider rather crude and even obscene. It is suggested that such language was chosen for its shock value, just as latter-day comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Robin Williams and the late George Carlin have been known to employ when making their own social commentary.

            Even death, which in Western culture is considered a tragedy (even when it comes naturally at the end of a long and healthy lifespan) is fodder for Zhuangzi, who in the Taoist way, accepts death as a natural part of existence, and even a gift. In one tome, a teacher says that Tao – which Zhuangzi often refers to as “The Great Clod [of Dirt]” – “burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death.” There fore, the teacher says,  “…I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death” (Watson, 1996). This question is also explored in a piece the title of which translates as The Great Happiness, in which Zhuangzi finds a human skull lying on the side of the path. When he expresses sorrow for the passing of the person whose skull it was, the skull suddenly speaks to him, asking how he knows that death is necessarily  a “bad” thing.”

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In the writings of Zhuangzi and his use of humor that forces us – in an entertaining way – to question our assumptions, we see an early reflection of latter-day social commentators who have similarly used humor for the same purpose. Consider a quip by Will Rogers, the early 20th Century American entertainer and “cowboy philosopher, who said “Congress…every time they make a joke, its a law – and every time they make a law, its a joke,” or Mark Twain, who said “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress – ah, but I repeat myself…” Here is what Zhuangzi had to say when offered a job in the government: “[I] would prefer to drag my rear in the the mud” (Fowler, 2005). Actually, the term he used was not “rear,” but something rather more piquant – but one gets the point.

            When we preach or lecture about the nature of things, our audience will often tune us out, or even become resentful and push back. Zhuangzi learned long ago that laughter – or even amusement – is the sweetener that makes such views more palatable, difficult concepts easier to comprehend – and  ultimately, make us more willing to question our own assumptions and seen life in a new and interesting way.


Ebrey, Patricia, Anne Walthall and James Palais.  East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 2006.

Watson, Burton (translator).  Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996

Chan, Wing-tsit. A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Fowler, Jeaneane. An Introduction to the Philosophy and Religion of Taoism. Portland,: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.

Kim, Ha Poong. Reading Lao Tzu: A Companion to the Tao Te Ching With a New Translation. Philadelphia: Xlibris Corporation, 2003.