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Reviewed by:
  • Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi
  • James Miller
Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi. Edited by Roger T. Ames. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Pp. viii + 239.

"Good grief!" exclaimed the reviewer as he greedily tore open the package from Philosophy East and West. "Not another book on Zhuangzi!"

As it turns out, Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi, edited by Roger T. Ames, was found to be not just "another book on Zhuangzi" but, instead, a wonderful collection of creative essays that genuinely wanders on Zhuangzi's vast spirit and that should appeal to a broad academic audience. Do not be deceived by the publisher's blurb on the back cover: "an excellent balance of philological and philosophical analysis." This summary of the book's contents proves to be fortunately misleading.

The common thread running through this book is that it is dedicated to Yang Yu-wei, who taught many of the contributors while they were graduate students at Taiwan Normal University. Randall P. Peerenboom hilariously describes his first encounter with Professor Yang in a coda to his essay "Living Beyond the Bounds:Henry Miller and the Quest for Daoist Realization":

He darted across the busy main street, dodging traffic, all the while calling out my name in a booming voice sure to attract the attention of the wandering undead and waving his arms in whirlwind fashion, managing somehow to evoke simultaneously images of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Jack Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and the Bodhidharma. Welcome, I thought, to the wonderful world of Oz.

(p. 139) [End Page 125]

This description sets the tone for the essays here, which concentrate on the Zhuangzi's humor, character, and personality, unafraid to stride out across the busy, one-way streets of traditional academic disciplines. While remaining rigorously within the bounds of academic probity, this volume steadfastly resists the dangerous encroachment of desiccating intellectualism upon the wit, intelligence, and charm of one of the world's greatest works of literature.

All of the essays "live beyond the bounds" in some fashion or other. Chris Jochim's "Just Say No to 'No Self' in Zhuangzi" reviews recent writing on self and personhood in the Zhuangzi, and includes the treatment of Zhuangzi in the theories of flow and happiness by the noted psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. Daniel Coyle's study of the zhenren (authentic person), lurks tentatively in the shadows of comparative mysticism. A comparison such as "Theocentrism aside, Zhuangzi's language is Eckhart-like in that it cancels itself out, short-circuiting the intellect so as to open one up to spontaneity and the omnipresence of Heaven" deserves greater exploration than a short essay can afford. James D. Sellmann's essay on the transformative effects of humor is briefly illuminated by a reference to Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1986),1 but this worthy literary intersection is only pursued in a footnote. The question of philosophy and literature is also raised in William Callahan's study of action and decision making in the story of Cook Ding. Callahan, again in footnotes, acknowledges the influence of Kundera, Barthes, and Derrida in his quest to understand what it means to "read" literary philosophy or philosophical literature. His essay, however, owes its chief debt to the linguistic analysis of Chad Hansen and A. C. Graham, and we can only hope that he will soon furnish us with the full fruits of his literary education.

One group of essays deals with particular characters in the Zhuangzi. Kirill Ole Thompson's inventive study of fishermen in the Zhuangzi wades into the waters of Tang poetry, incorporating translations of Zhang Zhihe, Liu Zongyuan, Wang Wei, and Sikong Shu. The literary connection is only in a coda, but it is there nonetheless. A future study would perhaps do well to broaden this research to include works of art. One thinks of Wang Meng's masterpiece of around 1360, Fisherman of Huaxi or the Yuan literatus Wu Zhen's Fisherman Recluse on Lake Dongting, both in the collection of the National Palace Museum, T'aipei.2

Zhuangzi's close companion, Hui Shi, is the subject of...