I've been working on a new paper on ancient Chinese philosophy, "Death and Self in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi" (come hear it Saturday at Pitzer College, if you like). In it, I argue that Zhuangzi has inconsistent views about death, but that that inconsistency is a good thing that fits nicely with his overall philosophical approach.
There are two reasons not to take this approach to Zhuangzi.
First, Zhuangzi seems to think that philosophical theorizing is always defective, that language always fails us when we try to force rigid distinctions upon it, and that logical reasoning collapses into paradox when pushed to its natural end (see especially Ch. 2). Thus, you might think that Zhuangzi should want to resist committing to any final, self-consistent philosophical theory.
Second, Zhuangzi employs a variety of devices that seem intended to frustrate the reader's natural desire to make consistent sense of his work, including: stating patent absurdities with a seeming straight face; putting his words in the mouths of various dubious-seeming sources; using humor, parable, and parody; and immediately challenging or contradicting his own assertions.
Thus, I think we can't interpret Zhuangzi in the way we'd interpret most other philosophers: He is not, I think, offering us the One Correct Theory or the Philosophical Truth. His task is different, more subtle, more about jostling us out of our usual habits and complacent confidence, while pushing us in certain broad directions.
Given the brevity of the text, his comments about longevity and death are strikingly frequent. In my view, they exemplify his self-inconsistency in a fun and striking way. I see three strands:
(1.) Living out your full span of years is better than dying young. For example, Zhuangzi appears to advocate that you "live out all your natural years without being cut down halfway" (Ziporyn trans., p. 39). He celebrates trees that are big and useless and thus never chopped down (p. 8, 30-31). He seems to prefer the useless yak who can't catch rats to the weasel who can and who therefore hurries about, dying in a snare (p. 8). He seems to think it a bad outcome to be killed by a tyrant (p. 25, p. 29-30) or to die because well-meaning friends have drilled holes in your head (p. 54). A butcher so skillful in carving oxen that his blade is still as sharp as if straight from the whetstone is described as knowing "how to nourish life" (p. 23).
(2.) Living out your full span of years is not better than dying young. In seemingly more radical moments, Zhuangzi says that although the sage likes growing old, the sage also likes dying young (p. 43), that the "Genuine Human Beings of old understood nothing about delighting in being alive or hating death. They emerged without delight, submerged again without resistance" (p. 40). He seems to admire groups of friends who are not at all distressed by each others' deaths, who "look upon life as a dangling wart or a swollen pimple, and on death as its dropping off, its bursting and draining" (p. 46-47). Of "early death, old age, the beginning, the end", the sage sees "each of them as good" (p. 43).
(3.) We don't know whether living out your full span of years is better than dying young. This view fits with the general skepticism Zhuangzi expresses in Chapter 2. It doesn't have as broad a base of direct textual support, but there is one striking passage to this effect:
How, then, do I know that delighting in life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like an orphan who left home in youth and no longer knows the way back? Lady Li was a daughter of the border guard of Ai. When she was first captured and brought to Qin, she wept until tears drenched her collar. But when she got to the palace, sharing the king's luxurious bed and feasting on the finest means, she regretted her tears. How do I know the dead don't regret the way they used to cling to life?" (p. 19).You could try to reconcile these various strands into a consistent view. For example you could say that they are targeted to readers of different levels of enlightenment (Allinson), or maybe they reflect different phases of Zhuangzi's intellectual development (possibly Graham), or you might think try to explain away one or the other strand: Maybe he really values death as much as he values life, as part of the infinite series of changes that is life-and-death (possibly Ames or Fraser), or you might think that Zhuangzi's view is that it's only remote "sages" who are lacking something important who are unmoved by death (Olberding). But each of these interpretations has substantial weaknesses, if intended as a means by which to reconcile the text into a self-consistent unity.
[revision 6:40 pm: These statements are too compressed to be entirely accurate to these scholars' views and Olberding in particular suggests that in the course of personal mourning (outside the Inner Chapters) Zhuangzi seems to have a shifting attitude.]
My own approach is to allow Zhuangzi to be inconsistent, since there's textual evidence that Zhuangzi is not trying to present a single, self-consistent philosophical theory. If Zhuangzi thinks that philosophical theorizing is always inadequate in our small human hands, then he might prefer to philosophize in a fragmented, shard-like way, expressing a variety of different, conflicting perspectives on the world. He might wish to frustrate, rather than encourage, our attempts to make neat sense of him, inviting us to mature as philosophers not by discovering the proper set of right and wrong views, but rather by offering his hand as he takes his smiling plunge into confusion and doubt.
That delightfully inconsistent Zhuangzi is the one I love -- the Zhuangzi who openly shares his shifting ideas and confusions, rather than the Zhuangzi that most others seem to see, who has some stable, consistent theory underneath that for some reason he chooses not to display in plain language on the surface of the text.
Related posts: Skill and Disability in Zhuangzi (Sep. 10, 2014) Zhuangzi, Big and Useless -- and Not So Good at Catching Rats (Dec. 19, 2008) The Humor of Zhuangzi; the Self-Seriousness of Laozi (Apr. 8, 2013) [image source]