Dreaming of a Butterfly by Shibata Zeshin, 1988

Chapter 1 of the “Zhuangzi” — “Free and Easy Wandering— opens with “The Tale of the Peng Bird:” “In the dark sea of the north there is a fish; it is named the Kun. The Kun is so huge no one knows how many thousand “li” he measures. Changing, it becomes a bird; it is named the Peng, so huge no one knows how many thousand “li” he measures. Aroused, it soars aloft, its wings like clouds hung from the sky. As the sea shifts, it turns to set its course toward the dark sea of the south, the Pool of Heaven. [Source: The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Dr Eno wrote: “This sentence, which opens the “Zhuangzi”, is typical of the paradoxes that fill the text...The Chinese name for the Kun fish means “roe,” or fish-egg, the tiniest form of fish. Beginnings are important: the location of the story of the Kun-fish / Peng-bird at the head of his book leads us to expect great meaning from it.What that meaning is has been debated for millennia. (Note: A “li” is a unit of measure, a length of approximately one-third mile.)

The famous Butterfly Dream passage in Chaper 2 goes: “Once Zhuang Zhou* dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly fluttering about, simply happy and doing as it pleased. He knew no Zhou. Suddenly he awoke, and surprisingly, he was Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhou. Between Zhou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! Such we call “the transformation of things.” [*Zhou was Zhuangzi’s name] /+/

Good Websites and Sources on Taoism: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Religion Facts Religion Facts Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Education ; Taoist Texts Chinese Text Project ; Taoism ; Chad Hansen’s Chinese Philisophy Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies lots of dead links, but maybe helpful

Riddles of Qi from the Zhuangzi

“The “Riddles of Qi” is a record of strange marvels. It goes: “When the Peng sets its course toward the dark sea of the south, the beating of its wings roils the waters for three thousand “li.”It rises ninety thousand “li” stirring the wind into a gale that does not subside for sixth months. Shimmering vapors, hovering dust, small breathing creatures blown to and fro in the wind – the blight blue of the sky: is that its true color, or merely the appearance of limitless distance? When the Peng looks down from above, is this what he sees as well? [Source: The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University chinatxt /+/]

“Now, when water is not deep it lacks the strength to bear a big boat. Pour a cup of water into a hollow on the ground and a twig floats there like a boat, but if you set the cup down there it will sink to rest on the ground – the water is shallow so the boat’s too big. Just so, when air is not deep it lacks the strength to bear up great wings, and thus the Peng must soar upwards until, at ninety thousand “li”, the wind beneath is deep enough to bear it. Only then, bearing on its back the azure sky and free of all obstacles before it, and it can at last set its course toward the south. /+/

“The cicada and the dove laugh at the Peng, saying, “When we take off with all our might we may reach the limb of an elm or a “fang” tree, or sometimes we’ll short and land back on the ground. What’s the point of soaring up ninety thousand “li” to fly south!” If you’re just hiking out as far as the green wilds beyond the fields, you can carry food for your three meals and return in the evening with a full stomach. If you’re going a hundred “li”, you’ll need a night’s worth of grinding to prepare your grain. If you’re going a thousand “li”, you’ll be storing up provisions three months in advance. What do these two creatures understand? Little understanding cannot come up to great understanding; the short-lived cannot come up to the Long-Lived. How can we know this is so? The morning mushroom can understand nothing of the alternation of night and day; the summer cicada can understand nothing of the progress of the seasons. Such are the short-lived. South of Chu one finds a lizard called the Dimspirit which counts five hundred years as one spring and five hundred years as one autumn. In high antiquity there grew a great rose that counted eight thousand years as one spring and eight thousand years as one autumn. Such are the Long-Lived – yet today Pengzu is the best known exemplar of longevity, whom crowds of men wish to equal. How pitiful!,

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Riddles of Qi” (the title is itself a riddle; Burton Watson translates quite differently: “Universal Harmony”) seems to be fictitious text. Why is Zhuangzi giving careful references to imaginary books? Do you recall animals talking in the “Analects” , or in any of the other works we have read? What sort of world are we inhabiting here in the “Zhuangzi”? Pengzu was a well-known legendary person whose name in folk tradition is comparable to Methuselah’s in the West. Cults dedicated to the arts of longevity sprang up during the late Warring States era, and the “Zhuangzi”ridicules them here and at other points in the text.” /+/

Questions of Tang to Ji

Zhuangzi text

“The Questions of Tang to Ji” from the “Zhuangzi” goes: Tang questioned Ji saying, “Is there a limit to height or depth or to the four Ji replied, “Beyond the limits of the limitless lies a further limitlessness. In the bald and barren north there is a dark sea. This is the Pool of Heaven. There is a fish there that is thousands of “li” wide – none has ever discovered its length. Its name is Kun. A bird lives there; its name is Peng. Its back is like Mount Tai and its wings are like clouds hung from the sky. It spirals upward ninety thousand “li”, stirring the wind into a gale. Breaking through the clouds and bearing on its back the azure sky, and it can at last set its course toward the south. Breaking through the clouds and mist, bearing on its back the azure sky, it sets its course for the south and heads for the dark sea of the south.”, The quail laughs at it saying, “Just where does he think he’s going? I bound with a leap and fly up – perhaps twenty feet, never higher – but then I come down to flap around among the bushes and brambles. That’s the epitome of flying, yes indeed! Now, where does he think he’s going?”, Such is the difference between big and small. [Source: The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“A man who knows enough to fill some office, or whose conduct is the standard in some village, or whose talents match the taste of some lord whose domain he is called upon to manage, Song Rongzi could not be persuaded by the whole world’s approval nor deterred by the whole world’s objection. To him, the line between the internal and external was set, and the distinction between noble and shameful conduct was simply clear as could be. Nothing in the world could stir anxiety within him. And yet there were levels he did not reach. +\

“Now Liezi, he mounted the wind as his chariot and drove it with skill for fifteen days before returning. No matter of fortune could stir anxiety within him. But still, although he escaped the trouble of walking, he was still dependent on something. He who mounts the balance of Heaven and Earth, rides on the changes of the six “qi”, and wander the inexhaustible – what would such a man be dependent on? Thus it is said: the Perfect Person lacks all self; the Spirit-like Person lacks all merit; the Sage lacks all fame. /+/

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Questions of Tang to Ji” (like the “Riddles of Qi”) seems to be an authoritative text invented by Zhuangzi, purporting to record conversations involving the Shang Dynasty founder Tang. Passages very close to the text here are found in the “Questions of Tang” chapter of the Daoist text “Liezi”, but that book is generally taken to be derivative of the “Zhuangzi.” In any event, the “Zhuangzi”here seems to be providing a second version of the opening tale of his book, perhaps parodying scholarly pedantry by documenting in duplicate the facticity of a fantasy. /+/

“Song Rongzi is a name associated with a Warring States thinker who may have been a Mohist, but it is unclear whether this is supposed to be the same man. Liezi appears several times in the “Zhuangzi”, but the portraits of him do not seem consistent. His name was given to a text that draws heavily from the “Zhuangzi”, as mentioned above. In this passage, the term “qi” denotes vapors or forces that flow through the world. One traditional commentary identifies the six “qi” as “yin”and “yang”, wind and rain, darkness and light; another claims they are Heaven, Earth, and the four seasons. The exact formula cannot be determined and is, in any event, less interesting than the fact that the term “qi” may equally denotes essential forces of the cosmos and of the body.” /+/

Yao and Xu You from the “Zhuangzi”

Zhuangzi text

The tale of “Yao and Xu You” from the “Zhuangzi” goes: “Yao ceded the empire to Xu You. “A small torch burning on after the sun is out finds making the day brighter a difficult task indeed. A man who keeps on irrigating fields after the seasonal rains have come finds making the crops richer tedious indeed. If you, sir, once took the throne, thereupon would the world be in order. Yet I like an imposter continue in charge, despite seeing my own inadequacy. I beg to turn the world over to you.” [Source: The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Xu You said, “You rule the world and the world is already well ruled. Would I want to replace you for reputation’s sake? Reputation is merely the guest of reality – would I want to play the guest? When a wren builds its nest, although the woods may be deep it uses no more than one branch. When a mole goes to drink though it goes to a river it fills its belly and drinks no more. Go home and let the matter drop, my lord! I have no use for the world. Though the cook may not manage his job well, the sacrificial priest doesn’t leap over the altar wine and meats to take his place.” /+/

Dr. Eno wrote: The final phrases suggest that quite apart from Yao’s adequacy as a ruler, we are to understand Xu You as attending to things much weightier than merely ruling the world. We know nothing of Xu You, but the Emperor Yao we have met before many times as a great hero of Confucianism.” /+/

Immortal on the Mountaintop

“The Immortal on the Mountaintop” from the “Zhuangzi” goes: “Jian Wu questioned Lian Shu saying, “I’ve been talking to Jie Yu, and he speaks nothing but tall tales that go on and on without making sense or coming to a point. I found it most alarming – his nonsense stretched on endless as the Milky Way, veering every which way, completely at odds with human commonsense!”“Why, what did he say?” asked Lian Shu. [Dr. Eno wrote: Jie Yu is the “Carriage Greeter” whom we met in the “Analects”... There is little reason to think he is an historical figure. The others here seem to be fictional as well.] [Source: The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Taoist immortal

“He says that far way on Guyi Mountain there dwells a spirit-like man with skin like icy snow, lovely and chaste as a virgin. He eats no grain, but sucks the wind and drinks the dew. He mounts the “qi” of the clouds and wanders beyond the four seas riding a flying dragon. By concentrating his spirit he protects things from illness and damage, and ripens the fall harvest. So I refuse to believe the crazy things he says.” /+/

“Lian Shu replied, “Just so. They say a blind man just can’t take in beautiful patterns, nor a deaf man the music of bell and drum. And it’s not only the physical body that suffers from blindness and deafness – understanding may as well. That perfectly characterizes a man such as you! But a man such as he, with virtue such as his, can roll the world of things into one. Though all in the world seek a way out of its chaos, what business is it of his that he should wear himself down with responsibility for the world? Nothing can harm such a man. Though flood waters rise to the sky, he will not drown. Though a great drought melt metal and stone and scorch the soil and the mountains, he will not be burned. From the mere dirt and dust his body sheds you could mold a Yao or a Shun! Why should he agree to take on responsibility for the world?” /+/

Stories About Huizi from the Zhuangzi

Dr. Eno wrote: According to legend and to many passages in this text, Zhuangzi’s closest friend was a man named Huizi. Huizi was a famous man of fourth century B.C. China. His name was Hui Shi, and he was a logician – one of the few in Chinese history – who seems to have held Mohist beliefs. The brilliance of Hui Shi’s logical powers is frequently mentioned, but of his writings, only a few fragmentary paradoxes survive (very much resembling the paradoxes 16, of the Greek thinker Zeno). In the “Zhuangzi”, he is recognizably the same clever logician, but Zhuangzi always seems to make him appear ridiculous. It is interesting to ask whether these stories, in which Zhuangzi himself appears by name, could have been written by Zhuangzi.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

The story “Huizi and the Gourd” goes: “Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “The King of Wei gave me a seed from a huge gourd. I plant it and the fruit ripened into gourds that weighed half a ton. I used one for a sauce jug and it was too heavy to lift; I split another into a ladle and there was no room in the house to set it down. It isn’t that their size wasn’t wonderful, but I saw they were useless so I smashed them to pieces.” Zhuangzi said, “You are certainly clumsy when it comes to making use of what is big! There was once a man from Song who was skilled at making ointment for chapped hands. For generations, his family had made their living by washing raw silk. [Source: The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]


“A traveler happened to hear of it and offered to purchase the formula for a hundred catties of gold. The man called his family into conference and said, ‘For generations we’ve made our living washing silk and never earned more than a few pieces gold. Now we can sell our formula and earn a hundred catties of gold in an instant. Let’s give it to him!’ Once the traveler had the formula, he went to the court of Wu to persuade the king to use it in dealing with his troublesome neighbor state of Yue. The king put him in command of his forces to engage Yue’s navy in a midwinter river battle and the forces of Yue were routed. The King of Wu carved a slice from his newly gained territory and rewarded the traveler with a fief. The traveler and the silk washer were alike in possessing the formula of preventing chapped hands; one used it to gain a fief, the other to wash silk – it was in the use of the thing that they differed. “Now you have a half-ton gourd: why didn’t you think of making it into a big boat and sailing the rivers and lakes, instead of worrying about having room in the house to set it down? Really – your mind is no better than a tumbleweed!” /+/

According to “Huizi’s Ailanthus Tree”: “Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “I have a huge tree of the type people call an ailanthus. The main trunk is gnarled and knotted from the root up, you can’t align it with a plumb line, and the branches are all so twisted and bent that no compass or square can mark them. Even if it were growing by the roadside no passing carpenter would think of using it. Now, your words are just as big and useless, so everyone spurns them too!”

“Zhuangzi said, “Have you ever observed the wildcat? It crouches concealed and waits for its prey to wander in range – then it springs left or right, heedless of heights and chasms. And yet wildcats spring our traps and die in our nets. Or take the yak, big as a cloud hung from the sky – it’s skilled at being huge, but it can’t even catch a rat. Now you have this big tree but its uselessness is a trouble to you. Why don’t you plant it in the village of or the plain of Broad.Void and amble beside it doing nothing at all, or wander free and easy lying asleep beneath it? No ax will ever cut short its life, nothing will ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, what hardship could ever befall it?” [This discussion with Huizi is particularly famous for the final phrases, the implications of which are very important to Daoism, and resonate in the tale of Crookback Shu]

Pipes of Earth and Heaven

“The Pipes of Earth and Heaven from Chapter 2 of the “Zhuangzi” goes: “Ziqi of South Wall sat leaning on his armrest, staring up at the sky and breathing – sprawled in a daze, as though he’d lost his own double. Yan Cheng Ziyou stood in attendance. “What is this?” he said. “Can you make a body seem like a withered tree and the mind like dead ashes? The man leaning on the armrest now is not the one who leaned on it before!”, Ziqi said, “You do well to ask such a question! It’s that I have lost myself, do you understand? You hear the piping of men, but you haven’t heard the piping of earth. Or if you’ve heard the piping of earth, you haven’t heard the piping of Heaven!”, Ziyou said, “May I venture to ask what you mean?” [Source: The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“ Ziqi said, “The Great Clod belches out "qi" and it is called by the name of wind. Nothing happens before it has arisen, but once it does, the myriad hollows set up a furious cry. Don’t you hear their drawn out wail? From the mountain forest precipice, huge trees a hundred spans round, with hollows like noses, like mouths, like ears, like jugs, like cups, like mortars, like gullies, like pools, roar and whistle, screech and hiss, cry and wail, moan and howl, those in the lead calling out "woooo", those behind calling out "ooooh"! In a gentle breeze they sing in faint harmony, but in a full gale the chorus is huge. Once the fierce wind has passed on, then all the hollows are empty again. Haven’t you seen them all waving and swaying?” /+/

“Ziyou said, “By the piping of the earth, then, you must mean the sound of these hollows, and by the piping of man the sound of flutes. May I ask about the piping of Heaven?”, Ziqi said, “Blowing on the myriad things in a different way, so that each can be itself – each takes what is natural to each, but who sets them to their cry?” /+/

Tale of Cook Ding

Zhou-era ritual food vessel

According to “Tale of Cook Ding” from Chapter 3 of the “Zhuangzi”: “Cook Ding was carving an ox carcass for Lord Wenhui. With each touch of his hand, heave of his shoulder, step of his feet, thrust of his knee – whop! whish! – he wielded his knife with a whoosh, and every move was in rhythm. It was as though he were performing the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping to the beat of the Constant Source music. Ah, marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Surely this is the acme of skill!”, Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What your servant loves, my lord, is the Dao, and that is a step beyond skill. [Source: The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“At the beginning, when I first began carving up oxen, all I could see was the whole carcass. After three years I could no longer see the carcass whole, and now I meet it with my spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding cease and spirit moves as it will. I follow the natural form: slicing the major joints I guide the knife through the big hollows, and by conforming to the inherent contours, no vessels or tendons or tangles of sinews – much less the big bones – block my blade in the least. /+/

“A good cook changes his knife once a year, but this is mere slicing. An ordinary cook changes his knife once a month, because he hacks. I’ve been using this knife now for nineteen years; it has carved thousands of oxen, yet the blade is as sharp as one fresh off the grindstone. You see, there are gaps between these joints, but the blade edge has no thickness. If a knife with no thickness moves into a gap, then it’s wide as need be and the blade wanders freely with plenty of leeway. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is as sharp as one fresh off the grindstone. /+/

“But nevertheless, whenever a tangled knot lies ahead, I spot the challenge and on the alert I focus my sight and slow down my hand – then I flick the blade with the slightest of moves, and before you know it the carcass has fallen apart like earth crumbling to the ground. I stand with knife raised and face all four directions in turn, prancing in place with complete satisfaction. Then I wipe off the knife and put it away.” “How fine!” said Lord Wenhui. “Listening to the words of Cook Ding, I have learned how to nurture life!”

Dr. Eno wrote: The “Tale of Cook Ding” is in some ways the central tale of the “Zhuangzi”. It belongs to a set of stories that are sometimes referred to as the “knack passages” of the text. In these tales, individuals penetrate to a state of some sort of unity with the Dao by means of the performance of some thoroughly mastered skill, which they have acquired through long practice of an art (which may be called a Dao, as in “the Dao of archery,” and so forth). The passages celebrate the power of spontaneously performed skill mastery to provide communion with the spontaneous processes of Nature. /+/

Crippled Shu, Hunchback and the Cicadas

Dr. Eno wrote: “Zhuangzi’s heroes are often hunchbacks, cripples, or criminals who have lost some limb to the jailer’s axe. In a chapter called “The Sign of Virtue Complete,” we encounter a series of these deformed people – why does Zhuangzi link a twisted body to full-bodied virtue? [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

The story of “Crippled Shu” from Chapter 4 of the “Zhuangzi” goes: Shu the Deformed – his cheeks are in the shadow of his belly, his shoulders rise above his head, his pigtail points up at the sky, his five viscera are top.wards and his thighs hug his ribs. But by sewing and washing, he gets enough to fill his mouth; by handling a winnow and sifting out the good grain, 20, he makes enough to feed ten. When the ruler calls up the troops, he stands in the crowd and waves good.bye; when they draft workers for state projects, they pass him over because he’s a chronic invalid. But when they are doling out grain to the disabled, he gets three measures and ten bundles of firewood. Those with deformed bodies are thus able to care for themselves and finish out the years Heaven gave them. And how much better to possess deformed virtue! [Source: The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

According to “The Hunchback and the Cicadas”: “Confucius was on the road to Chu when, emerging from a wood, he saw a hunchback catching cicadas with a sticky pole as easily as if he were plucking them down with his hand. “How skillful you are!” said Confucius. “Is there a Dao for this?”, “Yes, I have a Dao,” said the hunchback. “For five or six months I practiced balancing balls on top of each other on the end of my pole. Once I could balance two balls without them falling, I knew I would miss very few cicadas. Then I balanced three balls and, when they didn’t fall off, I knew I’d miss only one cicada in ten. Then I balanced five balls – once they didn’t fall off, I knew it would be easy as grabbing them with my hand. I hold my body like a twisted tree and raise my arm like a withered limb. No matter how huge heaven and earth or how numerous the myriad things, I perceive nothing but cicada wings. Never stumbling, never tilting, letting nothing else in the world of things take the place of those cicada wings – how could I fail to catch them?” Confucius turned to his disciples and said. “‘His will undivided, his spirit coalesced’ – would that not describe this venerable hunchback?”

Dr. Eno wrote: “Although few of us have mastered this hunchback’s particular art, his description of the psychological phenomena that accompany performing a skill to perfection is not necessarily as bizarre as his chosen activity. In this and the following passages, it is worth asking whether these descriptions match up with ordinary experience.” /+/

The Four Friends

“The Four Friends” from Chapter 6 of the “Zhuangzi” goes: “Master Si, Master Yu, Master Li, and Master Lai were talking together. “Who can look upon Nothing as his head, upon life as his back, upon death as his rump? Whoever knows that life and death, existence and annihilation are all a single body, I will be his friend.”, The four men looked at each other and smiled. There was no disagreement in their hearts, and the four of them became friends. /+/

“Soon, Master Yu fell ill. Master Si went to see how he was. “How remarkable!” said Master Yu. “The Creator of Things is making me into this hooked shape. A hump has thrust up from my back, my five viscera are top.wards, my cheeks are in the shadow of my belly, my shoulders rise above my head, and my pigtail is pointing at the sky! It must be some dislocation of my yin and yang “qi”.” Yet he was calm at heart and unconcerned. Crawling to the well, he looked in at his reflection. “Oh, my! The Creator’s made me even more crooked!”, “Do you resent it?” asked Master Si. /+/

““Why, no! What is there to resent? If this goes on perhaps he’ll turn my left arm into a rooster and I’ll keep watch over the night. Or perhaps in time he’ll transform my right arm into a crossbow pellet and I’ll shoot down an owl to roast. Or perhaps he’ll turn my buttocks into cartwheels and I’ll ascend into the sky with my spirit as my horse! Why would I ever want a new carriage again? “I received life because the season had come. I will lose it in the flow of time. Content with the seasons and dwelling in the flow of time, neither sorrow nor joy can get within me. In ancient times this was called ‘untying the bonds.’ There are those who cannot free themselves because they are bound by things. Besides, no thing can ever prevail over Heaven – that’s the way it has always been. What would I have to resent?” Then suddenly, Master Lai grew ill and lay gasping at the point of death. His wife and children had gathered round in a circle wailing when Master Li came to call. “Shoo!” he shouted. “Stand back! Don’t disturb the process of change!”, Then he leaned against the doorway and spoke to Master Lai. “How marvelous is the Creator of Change! What is he going to make out of you next? Where will he send you? Will he make you into a rat’s liver? Will he make you into a bug’s arm?” /+/

“Master Lai said, “A child obeys his father and mother and goes wherever he’s told, east or west, north or south. And the yin and yang – they are no less to a person than father and mother! Now that they have brought me to the verge of death, if I should refuse to obey them, how perverse I would be! What fault is it of theirs? “The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death. Were a skilled smith casting metal, if the metal should leap up and say, ‘I insist on becoming a Moye.type sword!’ the smith would regard it as most inauspicious metal indeed. Now having had the audacity to have once taken on human form, I should now say, ‘I won’t be anything but a man! Nothing but a man!’ the Creator would surely regard me as a most inauspicious person. So now I think of heaven and earth as a great furnace and the Creator as a great smith. Where could he send me that would not be acceptable? My life complete, I will fall asleep, and then suddenly, I will wake up.”

Zhuangzi Stories with Confucius


In the “The Ferryman”: “Yan Yuan said to Confucius, “I once crossed the gulf at Shangshen and ferryman handled the boat with spirit-like skill. I asked him, ‘Is handling a boat so well something a person can learn?’ and he replied, ‘Yes, indeed. Once good swimmer has acquired his ability through repeated practice, so he can swim below water like a drowned man, he may never have seen a boat before and still he’ll know how to handle it!’ I asked him about this, but he wouldn’t tell me more. May I ask you what it means?” [Source: Chapter 19, The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Confucius said, “‘A good swimmer has acquired his ability through repeated practice’ – that’s to say he’s forgotten the water. ‘Once he can swim below water like a drowned man, he may never have seen a boat before and still he’ll know how to handle it’ – that’s because he views water as he does dry land, and regards the capsizing of a boat as he would the overturning of a cart. The myriad things could all be capsizing and toppling right before him; it would not affect where he dwells within. Where could he go and not be at ease? “In archery, when you’re betting tiles on your shots, you perform with skill. When you’re betting fancy clasps, you grow cautious. When the bet is for gold, you’re a nervous wreck. Your skill is the same – but when the prize means a lot to you, you let outside considerations weigh on you. One who values what’s outside gets clumsy on the inside.” /+/

The story “The Swimmer” goes: Confucius was touring Lüliang, where the water falls from a height of thirty fathoms and churns for forty “li” in rapids that no fish or water creature can swim. He saw a man dive into the water and, 27, taking him for one whom despair had driven to suicide, he ordered his disciples to line the bank and pull the man out. But after the man had swum a few hundred paces, he emerged from the water with his hair streaming down and strolled beneath the cliffs singing. Confucius rushed to question him. “I took you for a ghost, but now I see you’re a man. May I ask if you have some special Dao of staying afloat in the water?”, “No,” replied the swimmer. “I have no Dao. I began with my original endowment, grew up with my nature, and let things come to completion with fate. I go under with the whirlpools and emerge where the water spouts up, following the Dao of the water and never thinking about myself. That’s how I go my way.” Confucius said, “What do you mean by saying that you began with your original endowment, grew up with your nature, and let things come to completion with fate?”, “I was born on the dry land and felt comfort on the dry land – that was my original endowment. I grew up with the water and felt comfort in the water – that became my nature. I’m not aware what I do but I do it – that’s fate.” /+/

Confucius Instructs Yan Hui

Chapter 4 of the Zhuangzi — “In the World of Man” — includes Zhuangzi’s strategies for surviving in the tumultuous world of Warring states society. Dr. Eno wrote” The chapter includes two major tales in which Confucius serves as Zhuangzi’s spokesman. In the following passage, Confucius’s idea of “timeliness” (‘When the Dao prevails in the world, appear; when it does not, hide’) becomes a theme through which Zhuangzi improvises new and interesting motifs. Remember, Zhuangzi’s Confucius (as well as his Yan Hui) often bears little resemblance to the person we know from the “Analects”, and the author of this text assumes that we understand that the following conversation occurred only in his imagination. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Confucius Instructs Yan Hui” reads: “Yan Hui went to see Confucius and asked for permission to travel. Confucius asked him, “Where are you going?”, “To the state of Wey.”, “What will you do there?”, “I have heard that the lord of Wey is in the prime of youth and his behavior is impetuous. He is quick to send his armies off to war and fails to see his faults. He regards it as a light matter that his people should die; corpses fill the marshlands like dried reeds and there is nothing his people can do. I have heard it from you, Master: ‘Depart the well ordered state and go to the state in disarray. The gate of the doctor is filled with the ill.’ I wish to put into practice the teachings I have learned, and so, perhaps effect some healing in Wey?”, Note that Zhuangzi here turns the Confucian doctrine of timeliness on its head, and attributes to Confucius a type of Mohist voluntarism. /+/

““Ach!” said Confucius. “You’re just going to get yourself executed. What you don’t want in a Dao is some assortment of teachings. An assortment is just a profusion of notions, and if you follow a profusion of notions you’ll lose control of them. When you lose control you’ll be governed by anxiety, and once that happens you’re be beyond help. In the old days the Perfect Person cultivated the way within himself before he tried to cultivate it in others. When you haven’t yet settled what’s within you yourself, what leisure have you to concern yourself with the conduct of a tyrant? “Do you know what staggers virtue and what intellect comes from? Virtue is staggered by fame and intellect arises from strife. People crush one another with fame and wisdom is a weapon of struggle. These are two tools of ill omen, they are not tools for success. Though your virtue may be deep and your good faith unshakable, you’ve yet to grasp the nature of men’s “qi”. You are known as a man who does not contend with others, but you’ve yet to grasp the nature of men’s minds. If you appear before a tyrant stubbornly peddling the standards of “ren” and righteousness, you’ll simply be using his faults to show off your own superiority. Such a person is called a disaster to others, and others will surely bring disaster to him in return. It seems to me you’re heading this way. /+/

““And then again, if it actually turns out that he is one who can be pleased by worthy men such as you and who detests the unworthy, then what need is there for you to seek to change him? “You had best not undertake to remonstrate at all. You see, ruling lords seize the advantage they have over men to attack any lapse in argument and prevail. Your sight will become dazzled, the 22, blood will drain from your face, you’ll begin to babble in your defense, your bearing will become more and more submissive, and then you’ll find yourself agreeing with him. This is like fighting fire with fire or pouring water on a flood; it is called ‘adding to excess,’ and once you start to give in to it, there will be no stopping. On the other hand, if you were to put yourself in danger by repeating the earnest advice that he refuses to accept, such a tyrant would simply have you cut down in front of his eyes. /+/

Confucius and his students

““In times past, Jie, the king of the Xia, put Guan Longfeng to death and the Shang king Zhòu put Prince Bi Gan to death. Both Guan Longfeng and Prince Bi Gan cultivated in themselves the ability to be humble in bringing comfort to the people below them, while challenging the rulers above them. Their rulers trapped them by exploiting the very virtues they had cultivated – it was all because those men valued their reputations. Again, in times past Emperor Yao attacked Cong, Zhi, and Xu’ao, and Emperor Yu attacked Youhu. In the territories of these chiefs their cities were left in ruins, their people slaughtered, and they themselves were punished with death. For these men, the cause was their ceaseless warfare and insatiable search for gain. These are examples of both men who sought good reputation and men who sought gain – are you the only one who hasn’t heard about them? Even sages can’t overcome the pursuit of reputation and gain, much less a person like you!, “However, you must have some plan in mind. Why don’t you tell me what it is?”, Yan Hui said, “If I remain formal and unperturbed, steadfast and focused, will that work?”

“What!” said Confucius. “How could that work? This is a man whose power fills his bearing, and because his temper is completely unpredictable, no one ventures to cross him. So you will seek to anticipate his responses and accommodate his dispositions. You’ll say this is using ‘virtue enough to lead him forward each day.’ But that won’t work – much less great virtue. He will hold to his habits and resist change. Though outwardly he may seem agreeable, inwardly he’ll accept nothing. How could that work?”, “All right,” said Yan Hui.“But what if I am inwardly upright, outwardly accommodating, and tie my speech to the lessons of the past? “Inwardly upright – such a one is a disciple of Heaven. He understands that the Son of Heaven and he are alike in being sons of Heaven. What concern would such a person have whether his requests will meet with approval or not? Though people may dismiss me as a naive child, this is merely to say that I am a disciple of Heaven. /+/

““Outwardly compliant – such a one is a disciple of man. Kneeling to raise one’s tablet of credentials, bowing with hands clasped – such are the ritual “li” of the minister. Everyone performs them, how could I fail to? If I do what other people do they certainly have no basis to criticize me. This is to be a disciple of men. 23, “Tying speech to the lessons of the past – this is to be a disciple of antiquity. Though my words may in effect be admonitions and reproaches, they belong to antiquity, not to me. In this way, though straightforward I cannot be faulted. That is to be a disciple of antiquity. /+/

““If I go proceed in this manner, will that work?”, “What!” said Confucius. “How could that work? You have an excess of strategies, but no insight. Indeed, although your plans are simpleminded, you might escape blame this way, but that’s the extent of it. How could these methods actually transform him? You are still letting your own mind be your teacher!”, Yan Hui said, “I have nothing more to offer. May I ask the proper method?”, Confucius said, “You must fast! Let me tell you. Can any action be accomplished with ease if pursued by means of the mind’s intentions? If you think it is, bright Heaven will not befriend you.”, Yan Hui said, “My family is poor, and I have not drunk wine or eaten meat for several months. Doesn’t that constitute fasting?”, “That is the fasting one does before performing rites of sacrifice. It is not the fasting of the mind.”, “May I ask, what is the fasting of the mind?”, Confucius said, “Unify your will. Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind – don’t listen with your mind, listen with your “qi”. The ears are limited to listening; the mind is limited to sorting. But the “qi”, all empty it awaits things. The Dao gathers in emptiness – emptiness: that is the fasting of the mind.”, “Before hearing this,” said Yan Hui, “and grasping it in full, I was solidly I myself. But now that I have grasped it – why, there has never been any I at all! Is this the emptiness you mean?”, “You’ve got it!” said Confucius. “I tell you, now you may go to roam inside his coop, and you’ll never be moved by fame. If he listens, then sing; if not, be still. Have no gate, have no doorway – make oneness your home and lodge in the unavoidable. That’s as close to it as can be!” /+/

“It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit. Let your ears and eyes communicate with what is inside and put mind and knowledge on the outside. Then even the spirits will come to dwell with you, not to speak of men. Such is change in the world of things – the pivot of Emperors Yu and Shun, the constant practice of the sages Fu Xi and Ji Qu. How much more should it be a rule for others! /+/

Turning From Words to Find the Dao

Pleasure of Fishes by Zhou Dongqing, 1291

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The following sections of Zhuangzi’s essay “On Making Things Equal” are hard to understand in English as well as ancient Chinese. They are the core of the logic of the “Zhuangzi”, a logic by means of which Zhuangzi tries to destroy our certainty in all our normal assertions – in fact, he is actually attacking the entire process of verbal speech that makes assertions about the world. Zhuangzi, much like Laozi, believed that the universe was an undifferentiated whole, and that our perception of its myriad distinct categories of things was an illusion. He saw this illusion as the product of language and the use of language to make claims about what was true and what was false. Only if we free ourselves from the verbal habits that train us to think “this” is different from “that” and “myself” is different from “another” will we be able to see clearly, without the distorting lens of our verbal training.What we will see will be the Dao. Zhuangzi’s path to the Dao is something he calls “ordinary practice.” What that phrase means has been much disputed, but it may be that it is linked in some way to the tale of Cook Ding, which follows this section. The word Dao may refer to a transcendent force or be used to refer to a teaching. Zhuangzi speaks of teachings, which he views as a combination of an art of some sort and a set of spoken claims which celebrate it. He wonders how an art can become “inauthentic,” and concludes that it is when it becomes entangled in flowery claims about its value it loses its original power. The portions translated here are selections from a much longer and very convoluted section of the text. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]


The section of “On Making Things Equal” reads: “Pronounced sayings are not just puffs of wind – sayings consist of things really said. But what their words refer to has not been fixed. Do they really say anything? Have they never said anything? We think our speech is different from the chirping of baby birds, but is there a real distinction, or is there none? How does a Dao come to be obscured such that it is subject to judgments of “authentic” or “inauthentic?” How do spoken words come to be obscured such that they are subject to judgments of “true” or “false?” How can a Dao be walked and not really exist? How can words exist and be “unallowable?” It is that some Daos become obscured in minor perfections, and words become obscured in flowery speech. [Source: The “Zhuangzi”, translated by Burton Watson and Dr. Robert Eno; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Things cannot have perfection or imperfection – all things are in the final analysis comprehended as one. Only the person of full attainment knows how to comprehend them as one. He affirms no claims about what is so. His affirmation is lodged in ordinary practice. Ordinary practice means use; use is comprehension; to comprehend is to grasp – once you grasp it, you’re nearly there! Your reliance on verbal assertions ends, and when it ends and you do not even know it is so – that is called Dao!

“The knowledge of the ancients reached the limit. What was the limit? There were those who believed that no thing had yet begun to be. The limit! Exhausted! Nothing to add! The next believed there was something, but there had not yet begun to be boundaries. The next believed there were boundaries, but there had not yet begun to be any “this” or “that” which could be affirmed or denied to be so. It is in the patterns of affirmation and denial that the Dao becomes imperfect. And the source of this imperfection is what increases our attachments. But after all, is there perfection and imperfection or isn’t there? Well, let us say that there is perfection and imperfection. This would be like the master lute player Zhao Wen playing the lute. Let us say that there is truly neither perfection nor imperfection. This would be like the master lute player Zhao not playing the lute. /+/

“That is to say, when Zhao Wen actually played, his performance was subject to judgments in dualistic categories like good and bad. When he did not play, his skill was whole and also not subject to distortion through the lens of verbal categories. Zhao Wen playing the lute, music master Kuang beating the time, Hui Shi leaning on the “ wutong “tree: the knowledge of these three men was close to perfection. It flourished in them and they bore their knowledge to the end of their days. Only, different from others in their love of their knowledge, from love of their knowledge came a wish to enlighten others. But these men tried to enlighten others by using that which could not be the means of enlightenment. Hui Shi ended with the darkness of logical disputations, and in the case of Zhao Wen, in the end his own son was left with nothing but the strings of his lute. So it seems that these masters achieved no perfection after all. Why, if what they achieved was perfection, then even I have perfection. Still, if such as these can’t be said to have achieved perfection, then neither have I nor has anyone!Thus it is that the Sage sees by the glimmer of chaos and doubt. He does not affirm of anything, “This is so!” His affirmation is lodged in ordinary practice. This is to view things in the light. /+/

Dr. Eno wrote: “Zhuangzi attacks the notion that things can somehow be “lacking” – can in some sense exist only in contrast to an idea of perfection which is “not there.” Words, when they are used to judge things, make the “not there” dominate over what actually is, whereas for Zhuangzi, all notion of distinction and comparison is illusory in the universe, which he views as One. The path to direct intimacy with the universe as it truly is – the Dao – lies in ordinary practice, not verbal activity.” /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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