Beyond the Troubled Water of Shifei

From Disputation to Walking-Two-Roads in the Zhuangzi

By Lin Ma & Jaap van Brakel

Subjects: Comparative Philosophy, Chinese Religion And Philosophy, Asian Studies, Philosophy, Translation
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Hardcover : 9781438474830, 308 pages, June 2019
Paperback : 9781438474823, 308 pages, January 2020

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Table of contents

Note on Referencing

1. Preliminaries
Necessary Preconditions of Interpretation
Against the Ideal Language Assumption
Underdetermination of Meaning and Interpretation
Would “On Its Own Terms” Be Possible?
Part I. The Troubled Water of Shifei

2. Projection of Truth onto Classical Chinese Language
The Harbsmeier–Hansen Dispute
Looking for the “Is True” Predicate in Classical Chinese
Conceptual Embedment of Shi 是 and Its Congeners
Transcendental Pretense in Projecting “Theories of Truth”
The Later Mohist Canons

3. Competing Translations of Shifei 是非
4. Variations of the Meaning of Shi
Shi as a Demonstrative
Shi as Meaning both “This” and “Right”
Modifiers of Shi

5. Dissolution of Dichotomies of Fact/Value and Reason/Emotion
Are There Dichotomies in Classical Chinese?
Fact/Value Dichotomy in Western Philosophy
6. Rightness and Fitting
Nelson Goodman on Rightness and Fitting
Setting up the Quasi-universal of Yi 宜 and Fitting

7. Shi and Its Opposites and Modifiers in the Qiwulun 齊物論
Non-English Translations of Shifei
Bi/Ci (彼/此) and Shi/Fei
Shibushi 是不是, Ranburan 然不然, Kebuke 可不可
Qing 情 and Shifei
Modifiers of Shi in the Qiwulun
Graham’s Contrasting between Yinshi 因是 and Weishi 為是
Translations of Yinbi 因彼, Weishi, and Yinshi
Part II. From Disputation to Walking-Two-Roads in the Zhuangzi

8. Is Zhuangzi a Relativist or a Skeptic?
Zhuangzi and Relativism
Relativities versus Relativism
Hansen and Graham’s Relativistic Interpretations of the Zhuangzi
Zhi 知 and Skepticism

9. Zhuangzi’s Stance
Stance Instead of Perspective or Set of Beliefs
No Fixed Meanings (Weiding 未定)
Walking-Two-Roads (Liangxing 兩行)
Doubt and Rhetorical Questions
Buqi Erqi 不齊而齊: Achieving Equality by Leaving Things Uneven

10. Afterthoughts
Do the Ruists and Mohists Really Disagree?
Is Zhuangzi’s Stance Amoral?

The Zhuangzi—Key Notions
Zhuangzi’s Text(s): What Are the Authentic Chapters?
The Big (Da 大) and the Small (Xiao 小): Early Interpretations and Disagreements
The Qi 齊 and Lun 論 of Wu
The Sages
Dao道, Tian 天, and “the One”
Ziran 自然 and Hundun 渾沌
Wuwei 无為 and Wuyong 无用

Works Cited
Name Index
Subject Index

Offers the first focused study of the shifei debates of the Warring States period in ancient China and challenges the imposition of Western conceptual categories onto these debates.


In recent decades, a growing concern in studies in Chinese intellectual history is that Chinese classics have been forced into systems of classification prevalent in Western philosophy and thus imperceptibly transformed into examples that echo Western philosophy. Lin Ma and Jaap van Brakel offer a methodology to counter this approach, and illustrate their method by carrying out a transcultural inquiry into the complexities involved in understanding shi and fei and their cognate phrases in the Warring States texts, the Zhuangzi in particular. The authors discuss important features of Zhuangzi's stance with regard to language-meaning, knowledge-doubt, questioning, equalizing, and his well-known deconstruction of the discourse in ancient China on shifei. Ma and van Brakel suggest that shi and fei apply to both descriptive and prescriptive languages and do not presuppose any fact/value dichotomy, and thus cannot be translated as either true/false or right/wrong. Instead, shi and fei can be grasped in terms of a pre-philosophical notion of fitting. Ma and van Brakel also highlight Zhuangzi's idea of "walking-two-roads" as the most significant component of his stance. In addition, they argue that all of Zhuangzi's positive recommendations are presented in a language whose meaning is not fixed and that every stance he is committed to remains subject to fundamental questioning as a way of life.

Lin Ma is Associate Editor of Philosophers at the School of Philosophy at Renmin University of China. She is the author of several books, including Heidegger on East-West Dialogue: Anticipating the Event. Jaap van Brakel is Professor Emeritus in the Higher Institute of Philosophy of the University of Leuven in Belgium. He is the author of Philosophy of Chemistry: Between the Manifest and the Scientific Image. Together, Ma and van Brakel are coauthors of Fundamentals of Comparative and Intercultural Philosophy.


"…an attractive (and rewarding) monograph to read for specialists in Chinese philosophy and religion to whom, thus, the volume is warmly recommended." — Religious Studies Review