- New Visions of the Zhuangzi ed. by Livia Kohn
New Visions of the Zhuangzi edited by Livia Kohn presents thirteen different essays on the Zhuangzi that will appeal to readers from any number of different backgrounds. The eclecticism of these essays, ranging in content from neuroscience to fashion shows, highlights the ever-increasing scope and relevance of ancient Chinese works like the Zhuangzi to contemporary life and thought. Also, the enterprising move of some essays away from a traditional schools-based approach also serves as an inspiration for future scholarly work. The essays will be discussed in this review by grouping several according to overlapping themes, leaving the more stand-alone contributions to be addressed last.
First of all, the cripple characters of the fifth chapter in the Zhuangzi are the focus of articles by Hans-Georg Moeller, Lucia Q. Tang, and Robert E. Allinson. Viewing the protagonists of this chapter as "counter-images of vain cultivation ideals set up by the Confucian tradition" (p. 76), Moeller, in "Paradoxes of Health and Power in the Zhuangzi," highlights the paradoxical ability of such cripples and criminals to serve as exemplars of another breed while having no recognized exemplary features: "the superior efficacy, power, or 'complete health' of the various cripples and criminals appears as based on essentially nothing" (p. 79). By presenting such figures as powerful precisely through their total lack of aspiration or socialized virtue, Moeller brings out the Daoist alternative presented in the Zhuangzi of supremely efficacious individuals who thrive within society without internalizing its constraints and the insecurities it produces or by developing the (Confucian) qualities that it demands of exemplars.
Next, Lucia Tang's "Zhuangzi x Comme des Garçons" draws an unconventional comparison between avant-garde fashion, specifically the "tumour pieces" of clothing of Rei Kawakubo's work in the Comme des Garçons 1997 Spring/Summer fashion collection, and the underlying aesthetic relativism of the Zhuangzi present in the ugliness of figures like the cripples. Tang argues that the same subversion of beauty standards seen in the cripple examples, and the underestimated efficacy derived from their abnormal forms, can be seen to be at work in the unflattering pieces in the clothing of Kawakubo's 1997 work. The analysis begins by assessing several negative aspects of the fashion scene, suggesting that "a kind of funereal logic pervades the glamour of [cat-walks]" (p. 82) and that it is "possible to see in the fashion model's [End Page 1292] own body a gaunt evocation of the grave" (ibid.). Tang then highlights the fact that Kawakubo's design for the collection, which implements unflattering hunchbacks and distended shapes through the very same technology used for beautifying fashion pieces, both critically "[gestures] at the artificial and arbitrary nature of canonical beauty" (p. 83) and, "by seeming to burden it with the markers of sickness and deformity, … paradoxically brings the death-image of the fashion model back to life—to the warmth of human distinctiveness" (p. 91), a process mirrored in the lessons that the Zhuangzi provides with the cripple stories.
Third, Robert E. Allinson's "How Metaphor Functions in the Zhuangzi: The Case of the Unlikely Messenger" focuses on the metaphorical literary devices in the Zhuangzi as tools capable of bypassing the limitations of conventional language, providing a cognitive insight into the mind necessary for greater spiritual freedom. The relevant devices are those that Allinson refers to as "monsters"—the same cripples and hunchbacks of the Zhuangzi previously discussed, described as such because of the invaluable "shock" involved in their abnormal characterization. Allinson writes that if "the monster image 'works,' we suspend our consciously learned preconceptions in order to embrace the values imparted in just the same way as we have to overcome our abhorrence of the misfit and the reject in order to be receptive to what they are saying" (p. 102). Such a receptivity is only possible "through the act of suspension of conscious evaluation through a subliminal, non-conscious, or...