It has something to do with Zhuangzi's humor and Laozi's self-seriousness, when they say strange things.
Compare them on death. First Zhuangzi:
When Chuang-tzu was dying, his disciples wanted to give him a lavish funeral. Said Chuang-tzuOf course Zhuangzi's disciples will bury him. They're not going to throw his corpse under a tree! He's razzing them, using the occasion of his death to make a joke -- a joke with a point, of course. In fact, the joke has at least three points: the surface point of challenging the burial traditions taken so seriously by most of his contemporaries, but also points conveyed by his mood and tone -- rejecting solemnity and negativity about death, and undercutting his disciples' attempts to revere him. Challenging tradition, refusing to be unsettled by death, and undermining his own authority are all central themes in Zhuangzi. They come together so nicely here in a crisp joke! Although this fragment isn't from the Inner Chapters, it's a perfect slice of Zhuangzi.
'I have heaven and earth for my outer and inner coffin, the sun and moon for my pair of jade discs, the stars for my pearls, the myriad creatures for my farewell presents. Is anything missing from my funeral paraphernalia? What will you add to these?'
'Master, we are afraid that the crows and the kites will eat you.'
'Above ground, I'll be eaten by the crows and kites; below ground, I'll be eaten by the ants and molecrickets. You rob the one of them to give to the other; how come you like them so much better?' (Graham, trans.)
Now Laozi on death:
To be courageous in daring leads to death;No jokes here! (Or anywhere in the Daodejing.) Laozi is dispensing some serious advice: To be courageous in daring leads to death but to be courageous in not daring leads to life. Wait, "to be courageous in not daring"? What does that mean? Hm, maybe Laozi is advising us to avoid battle even if it means facing scorn? Or at least he's saying that doing so is likelier to preserve your life? Well, no surprise there! Naw, the passage can't be that vapid, can it?
To be courageous in not daring leads to life.
These two bring benefit to some and loss to others.
Who knows why Heaven dislikes what it does?
Even sages regard this as a difficult question.
The Way does not contend but is good at victory;
Does not speak but is good at responding;
Does not call but things come of their own accord;
Is not anxious but is good at laying plans.
Heaven's net is vast;
Its mesh is loose but misses nothing. (Ivanhoe, trans.)
The text continues: "These two bring benefit to some and loss to others." Okay, and...? For a moment, there seems to be a bit of self-doubt. He can't say why. I can almost hear the relief in his voice, though, when he says that even the sages find these questions difficult; there's no real threat to his self-esteem, even if he can't figure it out! And within two lines all is better, with Laozi back to the usual profound paradoxicalizing he seems to find so comfortable: "The Way does not contend but is good at victory", etc.
Laozi sounds so deep! But it is exactly this seeming-profundity I mistrust. It's easy to invent profound-seeming inversions. "The voice that speaks loudest is the one that that is most quiet. The Way is largest in its being tiny. The basketball that misses the hoop is the one that truly goes in." Try ten more as an exercise at home. See, anyone can do it! Almost reflexively, the reader responds with attempts to see the deep sense in such remarks: Is Schwitzgebel saying that one gains more from failure in basketball than from success? Or is he saying that, in life, we should most admire the nothing-but-net swish shot that doesn't even touch the hoop? Or...? Wow, it's so multi-dimensionally profound it can't fully be articulated!
So we come up against the limits of language, or at least seem to. Let's compare Laozi and Zhuangzi on that issue. Here's the famous opening passage of Laozi's Daodejing:
A way that can be followed is not a constant WayJust in case you couldn't tell from the profound-seeming reversals, you are also told explicitly: This is enigmatic! In fact, it's an enigma within an enigma! And this book is your gate to all that.
A name that can be named is not a constant name.
Nameless, it is the beginning of Heaven and Earth;
Named, it is the mother of the myriad creatures.
Always eliminate desires in order to observe its mysteries;
Always have desires in order to observe its manifestations.
These two come forth in unity but diverge in name.
Their unity is known as an enigma.
Within this enigma is yet a deeper enigma.
The gate of all mysteries! (Ivanhoe, trans.)
I admit it, Laozi makes me crabby. Probably I'm too uncharitable in reading him, but I think he's a poser. "Here, I've got secrets. Secrets within secrets, even! Too profound for words! If you're really in tune with the Dao, though, reader, you can start to fathom my depths. If anything I say seems silly or wrong, it's either your fault or the inherent limitations of language."
Contrast Zhuangzi on the limits of language:
Now I am going to make a statement here. I don't know if it fits into the category of other people's statements or not. But whether it fits into their category or whether it doesn't, it obviously fits into some category. So in that respect it is no different from their statements. However let me try making my statement.Now, some interpreters (prominently, A.C. Graham) seem to think Zhuangzi is offering here a serious theory of not-yet-beginning-to-be-nonbeing. Really? It seems so clearly to me to be a parody! It wouldn't be the only parody in the Inner Chapters -- not by a long shot. Zhuangzi is gently mocking his friend the paradoxical logician Huizi and other philosophers advancing abstract general theories -- including maybe the folks who were putting together the Daodejing. But I don't see the humor here as mean-spirited or superior in tone; he brings his own language and theories within the umbrella of his mockery. He too finds his words collapsing around him, suspects his criticism applies to himself as much as it does to others. Once again, Zhuangzi undercuts himself where Laozi hypes himself. At least that's how I read it.
There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don't really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don't know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn't said something. (Watson, trans.)
And to me, that difference in tone is all the difference in the world. A philosopher who says weird paradoxical things while undercutting those very things with humor and self-criticism is a very different philosopher from one who might say some superficially very similar-sounding weird paradoxical things while loudly insisting upon his own unfathomable profundity.