Yang Zhu


published on 20 December 2012

Yang Zhu (440-360 BCE, also known as Yang Chou or Yang Chu) was a hedonist philosopher who lived and wrote during The Warring States Period in China. Little is known of his life but his work survived through the writings of the Confucian philosopher Mencius and others who condemned his ideas (as well as those of Mo Ti) as subversive and dangerous. In summarizing Yang Zhu’s thoughts, the historian Durant writes,

Life is full of suffering [and so] its chief purpose is pleasure. There is no god…and no afterlife; men are the helpless puppets of the blind natural forces that made them, and that gave them their unchosen ancestry and their inalienable character. The wise man will accept this fate without complaint, but will not be fooled by all the nonsense of Confucius and Mo Ti about inherent virtue, universal love, and a good name: morality is a deception practised upon the simple by the clever; universal love is the delusion of children who do not know the universal enmity that forms the law of life; and a good name is a posthumous bauble which the fools who paid so dearly for it cannot enjoy. (Durant, 679).

Yang Zhu argued that the virtuous life has no profit while the life of sensual enjoyment, no matter how vile one’s reputation, is the only meaningful one.

Citing four great men, and two of the most evil, Yang Zhu argued that the virtuous life has no profit while the life of sensual enjoyment, no matter how vile one’s reputation, is the only meaningful one. He examined the lives of Shun and Yu, notable hero-kings of the pre-historic Chinese Xia Dynasty who exemplified virtue, along with the lives of the two other sages Chou-Kung and Confucius, and compared them with two of the greatest villains in Chinese history, Emperor Chieh (also known as `Jie’, the last emperor of the Xia) and Emperor Chou Hsin (last emperor of the Shang Dynasty). Through a careful comparison and contrast of the lives of these six figures, Yang Zhu concluded that it is better to live for one’s own pleasure than to concern oneself with others or with how one is remembered.

These four sages, during their lives, had not a single day’s joy. Since their death they have had a fame that will last through myriads of ages. But that fame is what no one who cares for what is real would choose. Celebrate them – they do not know it. Reward them – they do not know it. Their fame is no more to them than to the trunk of a tree, or a clod of earth. On the other hand, Chieh came into the accumulated wealth of many generations…He indulged the pleasures to which his eyes and ears prompted him; he carried out whatever it came into his thoughts to do. Of all mortals never was one whose life was so luxurious and dissipated as his. Chou Hsin came into the accumulated wealth of many generations…he indulged his feelings in all his palaces, he gave the reins to his lusts through the long night, he never made himself bitter by the thought of propriety and righteousness. These two villains, during their lives, had the joy of gratifying their desires. Since their death, they have had the evil fame of folly and tyranny. But the reality of enjoyment is what no fame can give. Reproach them – they do not know it. Praise them – they do not know it. Their ill fame is no more to them than the trunk of a tree, or a clod of earth. (Durant, 680-681).

Even so, Yang Zhu did not believe one should emulate Chieh and Chou Hsin in their wickedness, only in their lack of regard for what others thought of them and in their pursuit of pleasure. He would have found approval with the Greek hedonist Aristippus or the Roman philosopher Epicurus in that, like them, he believed pleasure was not necessarily the pursuit of physical gratification but simply pursuing that which was good for oneself. Like Epicurus, Yang Zhu would argue that reading a book or taking a walk in the woods is as pleasurable as drinking too much wine and all forms of enjoyment are worthy of pursuit. As man is an animal, and animals act out of self-interest, man should do likewise. At the same time, however, he condemned those in power who used their positions to further their own ends, believing that one should be prudent in the exercise of authority over others. Essentially, by accepting a position of power, one had pursued one’s pleasure and now had to `pay’ for it by exercising that power responsibly. He considered those in government who placed their personal desires above the just rule of the people to be despicable.

His seemingly contradictory views were certainly formed by the age in which he lived. The Warring States Period was a time of continuous strife in which seven independent states battled each other almost incessantly for control of China. Mencius reports that Yang Zhu was originally a Taoist teacher who preached the self-reflection and eremitism of Lao-Tzu. His apparent abandonment of Taoist principles for a philosophy focused on self-interest could have been caused by the misery of the people he saw all around him every day. According to legend, Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, exiled himself from China because he could no longer endure the mendacity and ineptitude of the government and the suffering this caused the people; Yang Zhu seems to have simply chosen his own method of dealing with the same situation which so troubled the Taoist master. He was not the first philosopher, nor the last, to depart from altruistic benevolent beliefs in favour of self-interest. His contemporary, the poet Ch’u P’ing, after having contemplated existence sufficiently in The Warring States Period, drowned himself rather than endure more and both Mo Ti and Mencius eventually gave up their efforts to transform tyrants into philosophers.

Like the stoics of Greece and Rome, Yang Zhu considered death a natural part of life and nothing to be feared since one would not experience anything following. He claimed that “What matters most is that, before death strikes, one lives life to the fullest.” This pursuit of the good life, however, was at odds with acceptable behaviour as dictated by Confucian principles and practised by the majority. Mencius wrote,

Yang’s principle is `Each for himself’ – which does not acknowledge the claims of the sovereign. Mo’s principle is `To love all equally’ – which does not acknowledge the peculiar affection due to a father. To acknowledge neither king nor father is to be in the state of a beast. If their principles are not stopped, and the principles of Confucius set forth, their perverse speaking will delude the people and stop up the path of benevolence and righteousness. (Durant, 682).

Mencius and his followers were successful in discrediting Yang Zhu’s philosophy while he lived. With the rise of the Qin Dynasty, the first emperor Shi Huangti ordered the burning of all books which disagreed with his own personal philosophy and view of history and Yang Zhu’s works were among them. Where he was born or how he died is not known and only fragments of his philosophy, cited by others, survive.

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He teaches ancient history, writing, literature, and philosophy.

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  • 440 BCE - 360 BCE
    Life of Chinese Hedonist Philosopher Yang Zhu.
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