the lieh tzu

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I, Robot: Self as Machine in the Liezii
Jeffrey L. Richey



Q. I thought you were dead.
A. Technically I was never alive, but thanks for your concern.ii

 [ii Human detective Del Spooner to robot Sonny in I, Robot (dir.
Alex Proyas, 20th Century Fox, 2004).]

The commitment of early Taoist thought to so#called “natural” values has been much remarked upon, and it is not difficult to understand why this is so. Organic metaphors permeate texts such as Laozi 老子and Zhuangzi 莊子. Contrasts between the “artificial” realm of culture (wen 文) and the “authentic” realm of the Tao 道 are frequently drawn, and organisms such as fishes and trees are favorite representations of the “perfected person” (zhenren 眞人).iii “Nature,” of course, is a semantically slippery term in any language, but it may be said that what early Taoists mean by “nature” is expressed in the term ziran 自然: “what is so of itself”
or “spontaneity.” According to these early texts, that which is so of itself is “natural,” while that which alters its original pattern is not.

It may come as a surprise, then, to discover within the Liezi 列列 (a fourth#century CE text eponymously titled after the thinker who is supposed by pious Taoists to have lived six or seven hundred years earlier) two tales that celebrate embodiments of artificiality: an uncannily lifelike mechanical man, and an actual man who moves like a “machine” (xie 械). In the first episode, King Mu of Zhou 周周周 (r. 900s BCE) is first entertained, then scandalized, and finally wonderstruck by a man#made humanoid contraption that performs music and dances for his court. In the second, a quotation from the apocryphal “Book of the Yellow Emperor” (Huangdi zhi shu 黃黃黃黃) describes the “highest man” (zhiren 至至) as one “like a machine” (ruoxie 若械), whose actions are autonomous and
unconscious. Why did the compiler(s) of the Liezi choose to tell these stories? What position do these perfectly unnatural figures occupy within the work as a whole? Finally, what can their appearance in the Liezi tell us about Taoist thought about the self and embodiment on the cusp between the classical and medieval periods?


Edited by dawei

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