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  • When Fish Were Fish
  • Christopher Rea (bio)
Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D'Ambrosio. Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. x, 221 pp. Paperback $35.00, isbn 978-0-231-18399-4.

Back in the day, men were men, women were women, and fish were fish. You hunt, I gather, they play. If your father was a butcher or a carpenter, you inherited the role and accepted it without question. The modern age supposedly ushered in new freedoms, chief among them the right to choose one's destiny. Yet the liberated person soon encountered a new tyranny: now you have to do the dishes willingly, so as to show that you are no mere slave to the role but rather a free and self-directed individual. To grumble about chores is to betray the modern imperative to find fulfillment and self-actualization in everything one does.

One wonders what Zhuangzi's spouse (if any) would make of his signature work, especially if he was the sort who left dirty dishes in the sink. Going with the flow, or being wu-wei, is easily caricatured as the habitus of the procrastinator or the privilege of those who have someone to clean up after them. The parables of the Zhuangzi raise questions about, among other things, the value of knowing versus doing and of consciousness versus action. Taking the broad view, as the Zhuangzi repeatedly enjoins us to do, can surely help one chill out about career disappointments or a siege going badly. But making sure that you've washed those Kun roe out of the bowl after dinner will do a lot more than embracing cosmic tranquility to save your family from food poisoning.

Zhuangzi (and his ghost-writers—but let's set aside the question of authorship) has always come across as a great guy with whom to share a glass of ale and freewheeling conversation under a shady tree on a summer day. He'd be a swell neighbor in one's retirement complex, an excellent companion for a regular seaside ramble. He's perhaps lower on the list of candidates for general contractor or military commander or babysitter. The Confucian pragmatist in us, concerned with getting the family or kingdom to function, might well wonder about Zhuangzi: Could he carve up in the kitchen as well [End Page 1] as Butcher Ding? Would he pay his employees or troops (or condo fees) on time?

I still don't know, even having re-read the Zhuangzi and now read Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi. But I sure learned a lot more about the classical philosophical work from Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D'Ambrosio's thought-provoking and insightful book, which joins other recent studies such as Liu Jianmei's Zhuangzi and Modern Chinese Literature (2016) and Haun Saussy's Translation as Citation: Zhuangzi Inside Out (2017).

Genuine Pretending is a model coauthored work, a collaboration by a teacher and a former student, which achieves admirable consistency of voice, tone, and scholarship. I found the authors generous in their use of the work of other scholars: they give credit where due and are clear and respectful on points of disagreement. It is a book that draws even the lay reader into the contemporary field of philosophy, its discourse being rarely obscure and never condescending. (In this, it confounds the finding of Michèle Lamont's sociological study, How Professors Think [2010], that philosophy professors believe members of all other disciplines to be unqualified to evaluate philosophers' work.) This book will get you thinking about how to live your life, while getting you caught up on (and in) scholarly conversations about Daoism, especially as related to concepts such as sincerity, authenticity, and genuineness.

I will leave it to other reviewers to evaluate Moeller and D'Ambrosio's contributions to scholarship on pre-Qin philosophy or the validity of their frequent comparisons to European continental philosophers such as Hegel and Wittgenstein. Suffice to say that they enumerate their points with clarity, and I predict that Genuine Pretending will be engaging and comprehensible even for students in introductory courses...


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