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Taiwan Research Programme
London School of Economics and Political Science
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London, WC2A 2AE


Professor Stephan Feuchtwang

Dr Fang-Long Shih

The Zhuangzi on Life and Death: constructing meaning out of the text

Presented by Dr Dušan Vávra (Center for Chinese Studies, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic)

Presented at the conference 'Cultural Heritage: tradition in dialogue with modernity'

Venue: Room AGWR (the Graham Wallas Room), Old Building,  London School of Economics (LSE)

Date: Friday 12 July 2013, 9am-10am


The proper human attitude to the fact of death is an important recurring topic in the text of the Zhuangzi. However, the text presents the reader with differing ideas about the significance of death (often mutually incompatible), defying  the reader’s intuitive attempt at constructing a coherent meaning out of the text. The paper explores the reading strategies implied by the text, and tests them against the passages concerning the individual’s proper attitude towards life and death.

The paper accords with recent trends in ancient Chinese textuality scholarship which view Warring States period texts as composed of short textual units, the original social context of which is unknown or known only fragmentarily. The paper explores the possibilities of meaningful reading of an early Chinese text. Instead of attempting to reconstruct the original context, looking for coherent patterns within the Zhuangzi  itself, or looking for the text’s significance for a contemporary reader, the paper reads the textual units as specific instantiations of (cosmological) theories shared across the field of Warring States philosophical discourse. It is argued that the implied reading of a textual unit within the Zhuangzi is informed by ideas beyond the unit‘s immediate content and context.

The paper  argues that although the individual textual units may have originated in specific social contexts of which we know very little, during the process of transmission they were rearranged into a new social context. This they share with other texts known as 'philosophical works' (zhuzi) – that of human perfection based on realization of cosmic powers within oneself (with political implications). The textual units were reset within the framework of intertextual cosmological theory, which redirected their implied reading without deleting their original content.

About the Speaker

Dušan Vávra graduated in sinology at Charles University in Prague (MA)  and in religious studies at Masaryk University in Brno (PhD) He also spent two years in Chinese language programmes in China (Zhejiang University) and Taiwan (Tamkang University). Currently, he is working as assistant professor at Masaryk University in Brno. Here he took part in establishing a new Center for Chinese Studies in 2009, of which he was appointed head In 2013.

Dušan Vávra's research area includes early Chinese thought and cultural history, focusing mainly on early Daoist texts and their early medieval commentaries. Presently he will start a research project exploring cosmology and self-cultivation in the Zhuangzi in the context of other  early texts. The project aims to analyze how similar narratives in these texts are used to convey diverse meanings. Special stress is laid on ideas of cosmology and self-cultivation, and the ways these ideas are formed and communicated by the text.