Seeking Pleasure, Avoiding Danger: Ancient Chinese Advice on Living

The ancient Chinese philosopher Yang Zhu argued that pleasure and bodily well-being are central to the good life.

Image: Joyous Celebration at the New Year by Yao Wen-han (1713-?), Qing dynasty. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Yang Zhu, also known as Yangzi or “Master Yang”, was a Chinese philosopher who lived sometime around the fourth or fifth century BCE, during the Warring States Period in China. We know very little about Yang Zhu himself, and what we know of his philosophy is based on the accounts of other, later writers.

Yang Zhu has always been a controversial philosopher. He was a hedonist who put a robust emphasis on the importance of care for oneself. As a result, he was often criticised for being a monster of self-interest, whose philosophy inevitably leads to the destruction of society. After all, hedonism is bad, isn’t it?

Or is it? Is this criticism justified? Or is the search for pleasure an important aspect of a well-lived life?

Yang Zhu’s Philosophy

The monstrous Mr Yang

The fact that we rely on later writers for our knowledge of Yang presents us with a problem. The philosophical tradition has not been kind to Yang Zhu.

The earliest reference to Yang’s work comes from the Confucian philosopher Mencius (327–289 BCE). By this time, if Mencius is to be believed, Yang’s philosophy had developed a considerable following. But Mencius says the spread of Yang Zhu’s arguments (and the arguments of the philosopher Mozi) puts not just individuals, but whole societies in danger. He presents Yang’s thought as a slippery slope that can only lead, inevitably, to cannibalism — although it is not clear whether this cannibalism is real or metaphorical.

If the Ways of Yang Zhu and Mozi do not cease, and the Way of Kongzi (Confucius) is not made evident, then evil doctrines will dupe the people and obstruct benevolence and righteousness. If benevolence and righteousness are obstructed, that leads animals to devour people, and then people will begin to devour one another.

Mengzi (3B 9.9)

Why this disapproval? The core of Mencius’s objection to Yang Zhu lies in the earlier philosopher’s egoism. Yang is associated with the idea of “being for oneself” (wei wo). Mencius says the following.

Mengzi said, “Yang Zhu favored being ‘for oneself.’ If plucking out one hair from his body would have benefited the whole world, he would not do it.”

Mengzi (7A 26.1)

But for all Mencius’s disapproval, other texts that give a more nuanced, less harshly critical view of Yang.

Keeping our nature intact

It seems that Yang was one of the first Chinese philosophers to be explicitly preoccupied with the question of human nature (or, in Chinese ren xing 人性). The Huainanzi, written in the second century BCE, suggests that Yang’s philosophy is about preserving and keeping intact our xing or our nature.

Keeping your nature [xing] intact,
protect your authenticity,
not burdening your form with things:
Yangzi proposed these things,
but Mencius opposed them…

Huainanzi (13.9)

The Chinese written character for xing can be broken down into two parts: a component that means “heart” or “mind”, and a component that means “growing plant.” So human nature, or ren xing, refers to the dynamic unfolding of a human life. Thus, if the Huainanzi is right, at the heart of Yang Zhu’s philosophy is a recognition of the importance of life and wholeness, and the centrality of bodily integrity and well-being to a good life.

The goodness of pleasure

This doesn’t sound like the kind of outright hedonism of which Yang Zhu is often accused. And the fourth century BCE Daoist classic called the Liezi also supports a more nuanced reading of what Yang was up to, presenting him in a much more friendly light.

In the Liezi, Yang Zhu is seen arguing that the extent of human life is at most one hundred years, much of which is lost in infancy, sleep, and senility. The question, then, is how to make the most of what is left to us.

Image: A Chinese wine cart. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Yang Zhu recognises the centrality of bodily pleasure to a good life. By nature, we seek pleasures of the body: food, fine clothing, sex, music. But we are not only driven by bodily desires. We are also motivated by socially sanctioned systems of rewards and punishments. We seek fame and success, and we compete for status and reputation.

In the Liezi, Yang Zhu questions this hunger for success and status. But his objections are not so much moral as they are strategic. For Yang, when it comes down to it, these things are counterproductive. They don’t deliver, but instead they imprison and shackle us, and put us in the way of danger. We aim for promotion, and we wear ourselves out, risking the rivalry of our peers. We struggle to get the job we want, only to find that the job just makes us sick. Many of our ambitions often fail to bring us happiness, and only compound our misery.

Conformity and escape

So what should we do instead? Yang Zhu’s answer is clear. We should follow the movement of our hearts. We should avoid violating our nature. We should be untroubled by worries about fame and status, and attend to the pleasures of the body. And we should make our way through the world in accord with our nature, not resisting the good things of life, not worrying about posthumous fame, and not worrying about punishment and reward.

In the Liezi, Yang Zhu makes a distinction between two different kinds of people. On the one side are the dunren the “escapists” who attempt to wriggle free of human nature by seeking long life, fame, or status and possessions. For Yang, the escapist position is a tragic one because there is no escape. This desire for long life, fame, status, and possessions leads us into danger and leads us to neglect the well-being of the body. It is, Yang says, a maggot that eats away at our vitality.

So Yang Zhu proposes a different path: the path followed by the shunmin or “the people in conformity with their nature.” The shunmin are those who follow their xing. They attend to their bodily needs and treat any success or reputation like a fleeting guest.

In this reading, Yang isn’t proposing rampant egoism, as Mencius believed. He is suggesting something more intimate: attending to the tenderness, the softness, and the pleasures of bodily existence, avoiding the snares of status, rank and possessions, so that we have the best possible chance of flourishing.

Further Reading

Books

Quotes from Mencius come from Bryan Van Norden’s translation, Mengzi: with selections from traditional commentaries (Hackett 2008).

For the Huainanzi, I used The Huainanzi: a guide to the theory and practice of government in early Han China translated by John S. Major (Columbia University Press 2010). My translation above is modified from Major’s.

There are a couple of translations of the Liezi available. The more readable is Lieh-tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living by Eva Wong (Shambala 2013). A.C. Graham’s The Book of Lieh-tzu: A Classic of Dao (Columbia University Press 1990) is a little more scholarly, and arguably more accurate.

You can find all these texts online at the brilliant ctext.org.

Online Resources

Read this interesting chapter by Kim-Chong Chong on egoism in Chinese ethics.

A version of this story was first published on Looking for Wisdom on 15th April 2021. If you want to sign up for free weekly Philosopher Files sent straight to your inbox, you can do so at the link below.

Writes nonfiction & fiction. PhD in philosophy. Next book “Hello, Stranger” (Granta 2021). www.willbuckingham.com www.lookingforwisdom.com.

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