The Zhuangzi consists of a large collection of anecdotes, allegories, parables, and fables, which are often humorous or irreverent in nature. Its main themes are of spontaneity in action and of freedom from the human world and its conventions. The fables and anecdotes in the text attempt to illustrate the falseness of human distinctions between good and bad, large and small, life and death, and human and nature. While other ancient Chinese philosophers focused on moral and personal duty, Zhuangzi promoted carefree wandering and becoming one with "the Way" (Dào 道) by following nature.
Though primarily known as a philosophical work, the Zhuangzi is regarded as one of the greatest literary works in all of Chinese history, and has been called "the most important pre-Qin text for the study of Chinese literature." A masterpiece of both philosophical and literary skill, it has significantly influenced writers for more than 2000 years from the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) to the present. Many major Chinese writers and poets in history—such as Sima Xiangru and Sima Qian during the Han dynasty, Ruan Ji and Tao Yuanming during the Six Dynasties (222–589), Li Bai during the Tang dynasty (618–907), and Su Shi and Lu You in the Song dynasty (960–1279)—were heavily influenced by the Zhuangzi.
The Zhuangzi is named for and attributed to Zhuang Zhou—usually known as "Master Zhuang" (Chinese: "Zhuangzi" 莊子)—a man generally said to have been born around 369 BC at a place called Meng (蒙) in the state of Song (around modern Shangqiu, Henan Province), and to have died around 301, 295, or 286 BC. Almost nothing is concretely known of Zhuangzi's life. He is thought to have spent time in the southern state of Chu, as well as in Linzi, the capital of the state of Qi. Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji 史記), the first of China's 24 dynastic histories, has a biography of Zhuangzi, but most of it seems to have simply been drawn from anecdotes in the Zhuangzi itself. The American scholar and Zhuangzi translator Burton Watson noted, "Whoever Zhuang Zhou was, the writings attributed to him bear the stamp of a brilliant and original mind."
Scholars have recognized since at least the Song dynasty (960–1279) that some parts of the book could not have been written by Zhuangzi himself. Since ancient times, however, its first seven chapters—the nèi piān 內篇 "inner chapters"—have been considered to be the actual work of Zhuangzi, and most modern scholars agree with this view. How many, if any, of the remaining 26 chapters—the wài piān 外篇 "outer chapters" and zá piān 雜篇 "miscellaneous chapters"—were written by Zhuangzi has long been debated. It is generally accepted that the middle and later Zhuangzi chapters are the result of a subsequent process of "accretion and redaction" by later authors "responding to the scintillating brilliance" of the inner chapters. All of the 33 surviving chapters are accepted as compositions from the 4th to 2nd centuries BC.
Details of the Zhuangzi's textual history prior to the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) are largely unknown. Traces of its influence in late Warring States period (475–221 BC) philosophical texts such as the Guanzi, Han Feizi, Huainanzi, and Lüshi Chunqiu suggest that Zhuangzi's intellectual lineage was already fairly influential in the states of Qi and Chu in the 3rd century BC. The Records of the Grand Historian refers to a 100,000-word Zhuangzi work and references several chapters that are still in the text. The Book of Han (Han shu 漢書), finished in AD 111, lists a Zhuangzi in 52 chapters, which many scholars believe to be the original form of the work. A number of different forms of the Zhuangzi survived into the Tang dynasty (618–907), but a shorter and more popular 33-chapter form of the book prepared by the philosopher and writer Guo Xiang around AD 300 is the source of all surviving editions. In 742, the Zhuangzi was canonized as one of the Chinese Classics by an imperial proclamation from Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, which awarded it the honorific title True Scripture of Southern Florescence (Nanhua zhenjing 南華真經), though most orthodox scholars did not consider the Zhuangzi to be a true "classic" (jing 經) due to its non-Confucian nature.