Skilful Performances and the Zhuangzi's Lessons on Orientation

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Among all extant texts that bear a pre-Qin master’s name, the Zhuangzi is best known for expressing its philosophical vision through a variety of skill stories. Although in the Warring States period (403– 221 BCE) 1 it was common to make a living by mastering a skill, the phenomenology, physiological, and psychological mechanism of skill performance had received relatively little attention from the then contemporary mainstream thinkers such as the Confucians and the Mohists. Zhuangzi, 2 however, gives us paradigms for understanding human psychology and action through his meticulous observation and reflection on a range of skills. Even the very focus on skill masters from lower social classes can be read as an implicit response to the social and political setting at that time. Regardless of whether they are working, their performances are elegant and extraordinary. While their elegance does not come at a cost to effectiveness, Zhuangzi does not measure their performance by productivity or conformity to social roles. Rather, he ponders the features that drive and underlie their outer elegance and inner peace.

In this chapter, I highlight the perlocutionary force of the skill stories, which involve the transformation and reorientation of readers through a number of stages. The stories refocus readers’ attention, from habit to skill, from outcomes to performance, and eventually to life. In what follows, I work through each of these stages, hoping also to demonstrate how and why skill mastery occupies an irreducible place in Zhuangzi’s philosophy.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSkill and Mastery : Philosophical Stories from the Zhuangzi
EditorsKaryn LAI, Wai Wai CHIU
PublisherRowman & Littlefield
ISBN (Electronic)9781786609144
ISBN (Print)9781786609120, 9781786609137
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jul 2019

Publication series

NameCEACOP East Asian Comparative Ethics, Politics and Philosophy of Law
PublisherRowman & Littlefield


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