Birds and beasts often appear in the Zhuangzi, in fables and parables meant to be read analogically as instructions for human thought and behavior. Whereas the analogical significance of some fables is obvious, in others it is obscure and in need of explication, and even the readily accessible can be made to yield more clarity thanks to commentaries. This paper explores contributions made by the commentaries of Guo Xiang (252–312) and Cheng Xuanying (ca. 620–670) to the understanding of such fables. Guo Xiang and Wang Bi 王弼 (226–249) are the two most important figures in the xuanxue 玄學 “arcane learning” or “Neo-Daoism” movement of early medieval China (third to sixth century C.E.), which combined elements of Confucianism with the thought of Daoist foundational texts, especially the Daode jing (Classic of the Dao and Virtue) and the Zhuangzi (Sayings of Master Zhuang). Focus of the movement was the promotion of the concept and practice of the sage-ruler as a catalyst for the regeneration of self and society, leading to the foundation of a worldly utopia. Guo’s is the earliest intact philosophical commentary to the Zhuangzi and one of the most widely read during premodern times. Cheng Xuanying composed the only subcommentary to Guo’s commentary. Its more explicit style is most helpful in deciphering Guo’s too often cryptic and elliptical statements. However, it also tends to shunt Guo’s statecraft reading of the Zhuangzi more in the direction of explicating philosophical and religious dimensions of the text. Whereas Guo’s observations about sagehood, self-fulfillment, and the good life largely focus on the sage-ruler and his relation to his people, Cheng’s approach tends more to explore issues of personal self-realization and individual enlightenment, and, as such, is far more “religious” than Guo’s. However, when it comes to accounts of birds and beasts, parodies and satires, which address the limitations, failures, delusions and faulty assumptions, narrow-mindedness, and other human foibles, both Guo and Cheng see them all rooted in self-conscious thought and knowledge, and thus deadly impediments to enlightenment. Other passages about beasts and birds use animal fables as exemplars of truth concerning endowed personal nature and the natural propensity to stay within the bounds of individual natural capacity. Since the commentaries of Guo and Cheng add important dimensions to these accounts, this study explores these as well.
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