Guo Xiang’s conception of xing and the reconciliation of individuality with social hierarchy

Wai Wai CHIU*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


When tracing the reception and development of ideas in the abstruse and thought-provoking classic Zhuangzi, the commentary completed by Guo Xiang 郭象 (henceforth the Commentary) cannot be bypassed.1 Sometimes Guo only plainly expounds on passages in the original text,2 but often he articulates ideas in an unexpected way or even integrates his own thoughts, to the extent that the Zen monk Pu Jüe 普覺 in the Song dynasty states that “it is Zhuangzi3 who comments on Guo Xiang” (Tang 2000, p. 161). As a result, Guo’s work attracts and deserves studies in its own right in addition to its value as a commentary and as a representative of the Xuanxue 玄學 era. This paper examines Guo’s thought by focusing on the idea of xing 性, which emerged long before the Zhuangzi and has received considerable attention throughout Chinese intellectual history.4 Unlike other distinctive ideas introduced by Guo, such as lone-transformation (du hua 獨化), xing is discussed by a wide range of texts across different eras. Although scholars largely agree that xing plays an indispensable role in Guo’s thought (Tang 2000, p. 283; Ziporyn 2003, p. 73; Wang 2006, pp. 236, 307; Fraser 2020, p. 343), they disagree on its precise content and on how Guo uses the term differently from the Zhuangzi. In this paper, I argue that Guo’s conception of xing is distinctive despite being built upon certain ideas in the Zhuangzi. For Guo, xing is subject to no external standard, not even to the “normal” condition proposed by the primitivists, and allows learning as a way of completion. Also, one’s xing can change over time, albeit only within certain boundaries. On this reading, Guo’s conception of xing not only reflects his unique way of expressing spontaneity, but also forms part of Guo’s larger project of reconciling individuality with the necessity of social norms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)26-44
JournalPhilosophy East and West
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2024


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