From Chinese Wisdom to Irish Wit: Zhuangzi and Oscar Wilde

Article excerpt

In February 1890, there appeared an extraordinary review. Under the title of 'A Chinese Sage', it hailed the 'first complete English translation' by Herbert A. Giles of the works of Zhuangzi (or 'Chuang Tsu' as it was spelled under the old Wade-Giles system later replaced by pinyin). (1) The author was Oscar Wilde. How Wilde came to review this book is not known. His friend Wemyss Reid presumably had asked Wilde to write such a piece for The Speaker, a journal he had just founded, leaving the choice of book to Wilde. But what could have led Wilde to choose to review the thoughts of a man who lived more than two thousand years ago in a very distant country--and one separated by a virtual abyss in terms of civilization? And how can we, as readers, account for its impact on Wilde, evidently galvanized by this Chinese thinker who, in so many ways, contributed to his own evolving creed of the value of the useless, the obnoxious influence of do-gooders, and the importance of doing nothing?

Before the 1890 review of Zhuangzi, China never attracted Wilde's attention, but as early as 1882 he did consider following up his trip to America with one to Japan. (2) Japanese art was coming into vogue, and Wilde seized on it as an example of the new abstract style which would come to define the modern for painters such as his (then) friend James McNeill Whistler. Seven years later, in a key passage of his essay "The Decay of Lying', Wilde extols Oriental art for a rejection of naturalism so complete that, as his mouthpiece, Vivian, argues, the Western perception of Japan has been entirely formed by the art of that country. 'In fact', he concludes, with typical hyperbole, 'the whole of Japan is a pure invention'. (3)

As an early version of this essay was read to William Butler Yeats after Christmas dinner in 1888, a month before the Giles translation was actually published, Wilde's thinking could hardly be said to be influenced by it. Yet the tenor of the argument as well as its mischievous style is uncannily close to that of Zhuangzi's exposition of the ambiguities of 'the real'. From this instance we may surmise that, in reading Zhuangzi's work, Wilde discovered a fellow spirit, one who would, in the event, validate some of his boldest thinking. In fact the best evidence of the Chinese thinker's impact are the numerous echoes of Zhuangzi in Wilde's work after January 1889--occasionally given as direct quotations or as ideas attributed to a 'wise thinker'--but most often simply retailed as Wilde's own. However ascribed, once compiled, the list of parallel quotations, paraphrases, and echoes of Zhuangzi in Wilde's work proves to be as startling as it is long. (4)

But such a catalogue must be only the beginning of any examination of this surprising meeting of minds. No one who has read Zhuangzi and Wilde together at one sitting will miss the distinctive style which each shares: brilliant, unsettling, studded with epigrams which, as often as not, emerge as paradox or parody. Both Zhuangzi and Wilde resort to fables in order to illustrate complex intellectual stances. And both invent dazzling dialogues in which they turn entrenched social positions so completely inside out and upside down that eventually, as if by magic, they seem to be right side up.

As the witty exchanges of 'The Decay of Lying' amply demonstrate, Wilde did not learn these tricks from Zhuangzi. He adapted them, for the same reasons as Zhuangzi, as strategies by which to subvert a world which he had grown to oppose. In fact Wilde's review of Zhuangzi occurred at the very moment when his own philosophy was beginning to take shape. As we will see, in many ways Wilde was already thinking along the same general lines. Thus Wilde should not be described as a disciple of Zhuangzi, because, like Zhuangzi, he believed that 'A man who does not think for himself does not think at all'. (5) Likewise, Wilde shares Zhuangzi's sharp contempt for (as he put it in the review) "a man who is always trying to be somebody else, and so misses the only possible excuse for his own existence' ('A Chinese Sage', p. …