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Xunzi Versus Zhuangzi: Two Approaches to Death in Classical Chinese Thought

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The contrasting approaches to death and bereavement in classical Confucianism and Daoism epitomize the different orientations of the two ethical traditions. Confucianism, here represented by Xunzi, interprets and manages death and bereavement through distinctive cultural practices, specifically rituals and associated norms of propriety, which are intended to bring order, harmony, and beauty to human events and conduct. Daoism, here represented by the Zhuangzi, contextualizes and copes with death and loss through an understanding of and identification with natural processes. Both approaches address death and bereavement through a systematic, naturalistic philosophy of life that makes no appeal to a conception of divinity or a personal afterlife. For Xunzi, the heart of this system is ritual propriety, through which all human affairs—including inevitable, natural events such as death—must be mediated. For the Zhuangzi, by contrast, rigid, ritualized cultural forms are an obstacle to coping efficiently with natural processes such as death. Rather than constructing a sphere of “the human” as distinct from “the natural,” the Zhuangzi urges us to situate the human within nature in a way that removes the opposition between the two. This essay contrasts and critiques the two approaches, contending that although Xunzi’s theory of ritual presents a plausible account of the relation between humanity, culture, and nature, it fails to address death appropriately as an inexorable, natural event. By contrast, the Zhuangzi presents an attractive way of relating human life and death to nature and thus perhaps offers a means of finding solace concerning death. The essay suggests, however, that the Zhuangist stance may be grounded primarily in a certain ethical or aesthetic attitude, rather than in an objectively compelling argument. Ultimately, both approaches may rest as much on contrasting ethical and aesthetic sensibilities as on rational argumentation.


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