The first two references to the ''Liezi'' book are from the Former Han Dynasty. The editor notes he eliminated repetitions in ''Liezi'' and rearranged it into eight chapters . The Book of Han bibliography section says it has eight chapters and concludes that since the ''Zhuangzi'' quotes Liezi, he must have lived before Zhuangzi. There is a three-century historical gap until the next evidence of the ''Liezi'': the commentary by Zhang Zhan 張湛 . Zhang's preface claims his ''Liezi'' copy was transmitted down from his grandfather. All received ''Liezi'' texts derive from Zhang's version, which is divided into eight chapters .
During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, the ''Liezi'' was designated a Daoist classic, completing the trilogy with the more famous ''Daodejing'' and ''Zhuangzi'', and it was honorifically entitled the ''Chongxu zhenjing'' . This "Simplicity and Vacuity" is Wing-tsit Chan's translation; ''chongxu'' usually means "soar aloft, rise high; carefree, unburdened with ambition". During the reign of Emperor Zhenzong of Song, the ''Liezi'' was further honored as the ''Chongxu zhide zhenjing'' .
The eight ''Liezi'' chapters are shown below .
|1||天瑞||Tian Rui||Heaven's Gifts|
|2||黃帝||Huang Di||The Yellow Emperor|
|3||周穆王||Zhou Mu Wang||King Mu of Zhou|
|5||湯問||Tang Wen||The Questions of Tang|
|6||力命||Li Ming||Endeavor and Destiny|
|7||楊朱||Yang Zhu||Yang Zhu|
|8||說符||Shuo Fu||Explaining Conjunctions|
Most ''Liezi'' chapters are named after famous figures in Chinese mythology and history. Either sage rulers like the Yellow Emperor , , and King Mu of Zhou ; or philosophers like Confucius and Yang Zhu .
The ''Liezi'' is generally considered to be the most practical of the major Daoist works, compared to the philosophical writings of Laozi and the poetic narrative of Zhuangzi. Although the ''Liezi'' has not been extensively published in the West, some passages are well known. For example, Gengsangzi gives this description of Daoist pure experience:
My body is in accord with my mind, my mind with my energies, my energies with my spirit, my spirit with Nothing. Whenever the minutest existing thing or the faintest sound affects me, whether it is far away beyond the eight borderlands, or close at hand between my eyebrows and eyelashes, I am bound to know it. However, I do not know whether I perceived it with the seven holes in my head and my four limbs, or knew it through my heart and belly and internal organs. It is simply self-knowledge.
Compare the ''Zhuangzi'' saying, "The Perfect Man uses his mind like a mirror — going after nothing, welcoming nothing, responding but not storing. Therefore he can win out over things and not hurt himself."
''Liezi'' scholars have long recognized that it shares many passages with other pre-Han texts like the ''Zhuangzi'', ''Daodejing'', and ''Lüshi Chunqiu''. Barrett says opinion is "divided as to whether it is an ancient work with later interpolations or a forgery confected from ancient sources." On the one hand, the ''Liezi'' could contain a core of circa 400 BCE authentic writings of Lie Yukou; on the other hand, it could be a circa 400 CE compilation forged by Zhang Zhan.
The ''Liezi'' is most similar with the ''Zhuangzi''. They share many characters and stories; Graham lists sixteen complete episodes plus sections from others. The ''Zhuangzi'' also mentions Liezi in four chapters and Lie Yukou in three. For example, this famous passage:
could ride the wind and go soaring around with cool and breezy skill, but after fifteen days he came back to earth. As far as the search for good fortune went, he didn't fret and worry. He escaped the trouble of walking, but he still had to depend on something to get around. If he had only mounted on the truth of Heaven and Earth, ridden the changes of the six breaths, and thus wandered through the boundless, then what would he have had to depend on? Therefore I say, the Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame.
The final two chapters have heterogeneous contents that differ from the Daoism elsewhere in the book. Chapter 7 records the Hedonist philosophy of "Yang Zhu" , infamous for the criticism of Mencius that he, "believed in 'every man for himself.' If he could have helped the whole world by plucking out a single hair, he would not have done it." Zhang Zhan speculates that this chapter, focusing on indulgence in physical and temporary pleasures, was from Lie Yuko's earlier years as a hedonist, before he became a Daoist. The well-known scholar of Chinese philosophy, Wing-Tsit Chan calls the "Yang Zhu" chapter "negative Daoism" in contrast with the Daoism of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Huainanzi that were "all positive in that each represents something new." Chapter 8, "Explaining Conjunctions," is primarily taken from other early sources, not only Daoist but Confucian and Mohist texts, two philosophies that opposed the philosophical Daoism this book expounds.
Angus C. Graham, Professor Emeritus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, illuminated the textual provenance. After translating ''Liezi'' , which Barrett calls undoubtedly "the best translation into a Western language to date", Graham linguistically analyzed internal evidence and textual parallels. He discovered many cases where the ''Liezi'' is clearly secondary to other texts, but none where it is the primary source for a passage. The Preface to the revised ''Liezi'' translation explains his significant change in attitude.
Although in 1960 most scholars in China already recognized the late date of '''', most Westerners were still disinclined to question its antiquity. My own textual studies, not yet completed when this translation first appeared, supported the Chinese dating, which by now prevails also in the West. … One result of the textual investigation came as a surprise to me. The present book describes the hedonist 'Yang ' chapter as 'so unlike the rest of that it must be from another hand … The thought is certainly very different, and it does show the signs of editing and interpolation by the Taoist author … But although close scrutiny generally reveals marked differences in style between the body of the book and passages borrowed from earlier sources, I could find none to distinguish the hedonist chapter from the rest.
Owing to occasional ''Liezi'' textual misunderstandings in Zhang Zhan's commentary, Graham concludes that the "guiding hand" probably belonged to Zhang's father or grandfather, which would mean circa 300 CE.
Suggestions of Buddhist influences in ''Liezi'' chapters 3 and 6 are potentially corroborating evidence for a late date of composition; see Buddhism in China. "King Mu of Zhou" discusses sense perceptions as illusions; "Endeavor and Destiny" takes a fatalistic view of destiny, which goes against the traditional Daoist concept of .
There are fewer English translations of the ''Liezi'' than other Daoist texts. The first were partial versions; Lionel Giles translated chapters 1-6 and 8, while Anton Forke covered chapter 7 . As mentioned above, A.C. Graham wrote a definitive scholarly translation. The most recent ''Liezi'' rendition is by Eva Wong .