The warring states period of the Chinese Empire (480 to 230 B.C.) embraced practically all of the philosophies of China, and it ran paralleled with the rise of philosophy in Greece under something of a similar condition.
Yang Chu was a philosopher of this classic age, thought to have lived in the 300’s BCE. He has been associated with the Taoists since the rise of official Confucianism and the mutation of what we recognize these days as ‘Taoism’. But, this is not exactly true. Yang Chu, Chuang Tzu, and Lao Tzu are quite different and they were not considered to be members of a single school in ancient times.
Yang Chu is concerned mainly with enjoying life to its fullest, allowing a person’s individual character the fullest expression possible and not interfering with natural processes. It wasn’t Taoism, but it became a part of the Taoist philosophy.
THE VANITY OF FAME
YANG CHU, when travelling in Lu, put up at Meng Sun Yang’s.
Meng asked him: “A man can never be more than a man; why do people still trouble themselves about fame?”
Yang Chu answered: “If they do so their object is to become rich.”
Meng: “But when they have become rich, why do they not stop?”
Yang Chu said: “They aim at getting honours.”
Meng: “Why then do they not stop when they have got them?”
Yang Chu: “On account of their death.”
Meng: “But what can they desire still after their death?”
Yang Chu: “They think of their posterity.”
Meng: “How can their fame be available to their posterity?”
Yang Chu: “For fame’s sake they endure all kinds of bodily hardship and mental pain. They dispose of their glory for the benefit of their clan, and even their fellow-citizens profit by it. How much more so do their descendants!
Meng: How then can fame be disregarded, and how can fame come of itself?
Yang Chu: The ignorant, while seeking to maintain fame, sacrifice reality. By doing so they will have to regret that nothing can rescue them from danger and death, and not only learn to know the difference between ease and pleasure and sorrow and grief.
THE VANITY OF REPUTATION
YANG CHU said:
“The world praises Shun-Yu, Duke Chow, and Confucius, and condemns Chieh and Chow. Now Shun had to plough in Ho-yang and to burn tiles in Lei-tse. His four limbs had no rest, and rich food and warm clothing were unknown to him.
“His parents and his kinsfolk did not love him, and his brothers and sisters did not bear him affection.
“In his thirtieth year he was obliged to marry without telling his parents.
“When he received the empire from Yao he was already an old man and his mental powers were declining. His son Shang-Chun having no talents, he left the imperial dignity to Yü. Still he had to toil and slave till he died.
“Of all mortals he was the most pitiable and miserable.
“Kun’s services in regulating the water and earthworks being impracticable, he was put to death on Mount Yu Shan.
“Yü, his son, continued his task, served his enemy, and spent all his energy on the earthworks. When a son was born to him he could not take him in his arms, nor in passing his door did he enter. His whole body became withered, his hands and feet hardened by toil. When Shun yielded the empire to him he still lived in a small house and wore only an elegant sash and a coronet. He also had to toil and slave till he died. Of all mortals he was the most overworked and fatigued.
“When King Yü died Cheng was still of tender age, and Duke Chow became Prince Regent.”
“The Duke of Chow was dissatisfied, and spread evil rumours about Chow throughout the empire. Chow stayed three years in the east, caused his elder brother to be beheaded and his younger to be banished, and nearly lost his own life. Till he died he had to toil and slave.
“Of all mortals, he was the most menaced and terrorised.
“Confucius was well acquainted with the principles of the old emperors. He accepted the invitations of the princes of his time. But a tree was felled over him in Sung and his footprints were wiped out in Wei. In Shang and Chow he came to distress, was assaulted in Chen and Tsai, humiliated by Chi and insulted by Yang-hu.
“Till he died he had to toil and slave.
“Of all mortals he was the most harassed and worried.
“All these four sages, while alive, had not one day’s pleasure, and after their death a reputation lasting many years.
“Yet reputation cannot bring back reality.
“You praise them and they do not know it, and you honour them and they are not aware of it. There is now no distinction between them and a clod of earth.
“Chieh availed himself of the wealth of many generations, and attained to the honour of facing south as king. His wisdom was sufficient to restrain his many subjects, and his power great enough to shake the land within the four seas. He indulged in what was agreeable to his eyes and ears, and fulfilled his heart’s desires. He was gay and merry till death.
“Of all mortals he was the most reckless and dissipated.
“Chow also availed himself of the wealth of many generations, and became King.
“Everything yielded to his will.
“Abandoning himself to his desires through the long night, he indulged in debauchery in his seraglio. Nor did he embitter his life with propriety and righteousness.
“He was merry and gay till he was put to death.
“Of all mortals he was the most licentious and extravagant.
“These two villains while alive took delight in following their own inclination and desires, and after death were called fools and tyrants. Yet reality is nothing that can be given by reputation.
“Ignorant of censure and unconscious of praise, they differed in no respect from the stump of a tree or a clod of earth.
“The four sages, though objects of admiration, were troubled up to their very end, and were equally and alike doomed to die.
“The two villains, though detested and hated by many, remained in high spirits up to the very end, and they too were equally doomed to die.”
THE FOUR CHIMERAS
YANG CHU said:
“There are four things which do not allow people to rest:
“Long life. Reputation. Rank. Riches.
“Those who have them fear ghosts, fear men, power, and punishment. They are always fugitives. Whether they are killed or live they regulate their lives by externals.
“Those who do not set their destiny at defiance do not desire a long life, and those who are not fond of honour do not desire reputation.
“Those who do not want power desire no rank.
“Those who are not avaricious have no desire for riches.
“Of this sort of men it may be truthfully said that they live in accordance with their nature. In the whole world they have no equal.
“They regulate their life by inward things.
“There is an old proverb which says:
“Without marriage and an official career a man would be free from half of his yearnings.
“If men could do without clothes and food there would be no more kings or subjects.”
From “Wisdom of the East: Yang Chu’s Garden of Pleasures” (London, 1912)