This article examines self and identity in the “Inner Chapters” (neipian 內篇) of the Zhuangzi 莊子. Previous scholarship on this topic has tended to support its arguments by defining the “Way” (dao 道) as either a normative order or an objective reality. By contrast, this article argues that the Way is a neutral designation for the composite, ever-changing patterns of the cosmos that does not provide normative guidance.
Within this cosmos, the human “self” (shen 身) is likewise defined as a composite, mutable entity that displays “tendencies” (qing 情) of behavior and thought. Two of these tendencies include the positing of unitary agents and the creation of “identities” (ming 名)—imaginative constructs used for self-definition. As a result of combining and reifying the two tendencies, most humans conflate their identities with their larger selves. The result is a simplified vision of an essential self that gives rise to normative judgements, blinds humans to the changing cosmos, and creates problematic social structures.
The text advocates that one should retrain the tendency toward identity by cultivating an inviolate “sense of self” or “virtue” (de 德) that is empty of specific identity. Virtue acts as an emotionally safe space in which the mirror-like mind can temporarily take on the identities of other creatures. This practice increases practitioners’ empathetic understanding of the world, detaches them from destructive social structures, and has the potential to generate new versions of human society.