A Collection of Wisdom
Chinese Philosophy

Yangism / Yang Chu

Yang Chu (lived c400s BC) is the main figure associated with a Chinese School of philosophy now generally known as Yangism or the Yang Chu School. The details of his life and even his teachings have been for the most part lost over time, but we do have enough information to piece together some idea of his and the school’s basic thought.

Yangism emphasizes the individual over macro-society, and life, health, and genuineness over external things, reputation, and mere ceremony. According to the philosophy’s basic teachings, the world cannot be put in order by individuals—and any individual who attempts to do so will not only act in vain, he will inevitably end up neglecting his own self and life. In other words, it is not necessary for an individual to run the world and bring it to order—and not only will such an attempt ultimately fail to truly reform the people morally, nobody really has the leisure to undertake such a task if he or she is to properly attend to his or her own personal duties in life.

It is enough to be a healthy person, live our true lives, and consider and weigh matters and risks based on what is genuinely useful, beneficial, and life-nourishing. And since life is what is clearly what is important and most valuable, we should have slight regard for mere external “things” themselves, and never treat them as more important than life. External things should only be used to nourish, benefit, enhance, and preserve life—and to damage the self in order to benefit is a serious confusion over the order of importance of matters.

“Here is a man [Yangist]. His policy is to not enter a city in danger, not to remain in the army, and not give one hair of his shank/shin for the great profit of the world. Rulers inevitably follow him and pay him courtesy. They value his knowledge and exalt his conduct, because he is a scholar who has slight-regard-for/despises [mere] things, and values life / holds life as something important / prizes life.” (Han Fei Tzu Ch. 50) (Chuan 19, p.8)

Yang Chu, when traveling in Lu, put up at Meng Sun Yang’s.

Meng said to him, “A person is a person—so why do people still trouble themselves about fame/reputation?”

Yang Chu answered, “If they do so, it is in order to become rich.”

“But when they have become rich, why do they not stop?”

“They aim at getting honors/rank.”

“Why then do they not stop when they have attained them?”

“On account of their death.”

“But what can they desire still after their death?”

“They think of their posterity.”

“How can their fame/reputation be available to their posterity?”

Yang Chu said, “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! Howbeit becomes those desirous of real fame to be disinterested, and disisterestedness means poverty; and likewise they must be unostentatious, and this is equivalent to humble condition. How then can fame be disregarded, and how can fame come of itself? 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.”

One hundred years is at the heights of a long life. Less than one in a thousand people attain it.

Let us take an example [typical] of someone who does. Much of it is taken up by infancy and old age. Much of the rest is taken up by sleep ans wasted time. And much of what’s left is filled up with pain and sickness, sorrow and grief/death/loss/fear/toil/misfortune/suffering, ruin/actual-losses/death and loss/missed-opportunities, and anxieties/worry and fears.

This perhaps leaves several years—and of this, I reckon that the time he is truly content and liberated barely amounts to much at all.

So what is human existence for, and what/where makes it pleasant/is its joy/find happiness?

Only comfort/clothing/beauty/wealth and elegance/good-food/wealth/luxury? Only music/color and beauty/sound/senses/beautiful-women?

Ah, but we cannot always be satisfied by comfort/beauty and elegance/wealth, nor incessantly enjoy beauty/color and music/sound.

Besides, there is the stimulus/extortion/seduction of rewards and the warning/check of punishments/penalties, the urging of fame/reputation and the repelling of laws. People are constantly rendered anxious/nervous/busy competing/striving/arranging/struggling for one vain/hollow moment of glory/praise/fame, and providing/scheming for the splendor/glory that is to survive/outlast/be-remembered-after their death—even in solitude, they contemplate/careful and abide by /comply with what they think/see others want them to see, hear, think, feel, and do, and they discredit/repent what their own selves feel and think. They vainly lose/miss the realest enjoyments of life’s time, and cannot really give way for a moment. How different is this from being a chained in prison?

The ancients knew that all creatures enter life in a moment, and must depart in death at one moment. Therefore they followed their hearts and did not deny themselves these natural/spontaneous inclinations/desires. During life, they were not seeking/tempted-by fame/reputation, but were only led-by/following/roaming their own nature/instincts. They went smoothly on their path unvaried from their inclinations/desires. They did not seek for posthumous fame/reputation. They were out of the reach of external disapproval, and were not concerned with glory, fame, rank, or position during their lifespan.

All beings differ in life and are alike in death.

During life there are differences in intelligence and dullness, honor and lowliness. In death, there is the equality of rottenness and putrefaction. …

Some die at the age of ten, some at one hundred. The wise and benevolent die, as do the stupid and cruel.

Living, they are known as Yao and Shun, or Chieh and Chou. Dead, they are indistinguishable bones.

But if we hasten to enjoy our life, we have no time to trouble about what comes after death.

Po Yi was certainly was not free of desire—yet his [narrow] ideal of purity led him to death by starvation [when he fled his state in protest of a new dynasty coming in power that did not accord with his father’s wishes].

Chan Ch’in [a.k.a. Fui Hsia Hui] certainly was not free of passion—yet his [narrow] ideal of virtue/correctness caused him to reduce/weaken his family/clan [due to his asceticism that prevented him from having children].

They are people who transgressed [the Mean] by pursuing false virtues of purity and virtue.

Yuan Hsien / Yuan Ssu [Disciple of Confucius mentioned in Analects 14:2] lived in mean circumstances in Lu, while Tzu Kung amassed wealth in Wei.

Yuan Hsien’s poverty galled/injured him, while Tzu Kung’s riches distressed him.

So neither poverty nor wealth is necessarily suitable.

But what is?

I answer: Enjoy life and take-one’s-ease/free-yourself-from-care. Those who know-how/are-good-at enjoy life are not poor, and he that lives at ease requires no riches.”

Yang Chu had a visit with the King of Leang.

Yang Chu said, “Governing the world is as easy as turning your palm around.”

“You have a wife and a concubine,” replied the King, “and are unable to govern them. You have a garden of three acres, and are unable to weed it. How then can you tell me that governing the world is like turning your palm around?”

Yang Chu said, “Your Majesty, consider the shepherds. A young boy can be put in charge to shoulder a whip and drive a hundred sheep, and they will go whichever direction he wants them to. But have Yao drag a sheep and Shun follow with a whip, and they will be unable to advance even a yard.”

“Whales do not enter small rivers. Wild geese that soar on high do not light on low marshes, but are born over in their flights. The notes C and Cis do not harmonize with brisk and lively airs, for the sound is too different.

“Thus, he who manages important matters does not trouble himself about trifles, and he who accomplishes great deeds does no small ones. That was my meaning.”

The memory of ancient happenings had faded. Who recollects them?

Of the time of the three generations of Emperors, a little is preserved, but almost all is lost. Of the time of the Five Rulers, there is some known, but most is just guessed at. Of the events during the time of the Three Emperors, some are veiled in deep obscurity and some are clear, yet not even one thousandth of one percent is recollected. Of the things of our present life some are heard, others seen, yet not one hundredth of one percent is recollected.

It is impossible to calculate the number of years elapsed from early ancient times to the present day. Only from Fu Hsi downwards there are thousands of years. And through this time, there have been brief and long appearances made by intelligent people and stupid people, beautiful people and ugly people, successful people and unsuccessful people, and right people and wrong people.

Should we care so much for one hour’s blame or praise, that by torturing our spirit and body in the present life, we struggle for reputation that endures several hundred years after our death? Will the halo of glory revive a person’s dried bones, or give it back the joy of living?

One day, Yang Pu was outside wearing a white outfit, and it began to rain. Yang Pu went inside, changed his clothes, and came back outside with a black outfit.

His dog saw him, but was unable to recognize him in the black suit, and began barking and rushing at him.

Yang Pu became enraged and was about to beat the dog, but was stopped by Yang Chu, who said, “Do not beat him—you are no wiser than he. Suppose your dog went away white and came home black—do you mean to tell me that you would not think it was strange?”

Yang Chu / Yangism Notes

Have a policy of not entering a dangerous region, or serving in the army.

The ancients would not take possession of the entire world even it were offered to them—they would not even be willing to exchange a hair on their body for it. If everyone has this type of principle, regulating themselves with individual self-responsible lives and extending this to the world, then the world would be in perfect order. A person should be satisfied being a person and putting himself in order—so why should he want an Empire, or wealth, or to rule and put the world in order?

Life is what is important and takes precedence to everything else—so we should preserve it and avoid any harm or injury to it. Do not allow excesses, externals, or unreal desires to harm life. And it is unallowable to sacrifice the self or risk another’s life for patriotic concerns.

Yangism nourishes life by considering risks and weighing things out—a rational ends and means method entirely from the standpoint of the individual.

And it makes T’ien [Heaven / what is natural] the standard, rather than human impressions.

defensive response to an enormous increase in the power of the increasingly inhuman and impersonal state.

public life is external, and an individual must take into account its risks, such as the dangers of wars, intrigues, and greed, and their lack of moral, ethical, and public-spirited concern.

Yangism is not so much about rejecting Confucianism as is about rejecting the world’s corruption, and choosing to not attempt to reform it or put it in order.

judge every action in terms of its immediate personal effects, with no emphasis at all on rank, honor, reputation, tradition, or public opinion that did not contribute to personal effects

Yangist Themes:

Lu Shih Ch’un Chiu: self-interested state service, no asceticism or gluttony, rational, do not let the means (wealth, pleasure, the world) damage the end (self, life)

self-care—not ascetic or gluttonous.

wei wo

wei: do, for, deem, for the sake of, deem to be, regard as, make, do, artifice

wo: I, me, self

1. Preserving life/nature/personality’s-integrity

Completeness of living (Ch’uan sheng)

2. Maintaining/holding-fast-to reality/what-is-genuine

Preservation of what is genuine

3. Refusing/not-allowing things/circumstances to entangle your/one’s person

Not allowing yourself to be ensnared by things

—these are what Yang Chu established/promoted/created/advocated.

(Huai Nan Tzu Ch. 13.7a, p. 155)

Valued self


Nurture / honor / complete / preserve life / nature / self /purity