Zhuangzi translation and commentary

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Big knowledge is unbounded,

little knowledge is unbound.

Big talk is unstoppable,

little talk doesn’t stop. [1]

In sound sleep, souls mingle,

on waking, bodies open out.

They greet and grapple,

and use their minds all day to struggle.




Little fears panic.

Big fears calm.

They fly like a pulled trigger—

—says how they guard their rights and wrongs.

They stick like sworn oaths—

—says how they hold to victory.

They die like fall and winter—

—describes their daily dissolution. 

What makes them drown

can’t bring them back.

They’re sated as though sealed—

—describes their aging stagnation. 

As the mind nears death, 

nothing can bring back its vigor.[2]

Happiness, anger, despair, joy,

planning, sighing, bending, freezing,

elegance, ease, candor, posturing—

—music out of emptiness,

mist condensing into mushrooms!

Day and night they alternate before us,

without our knowing where they sprout. 

Stop! Stop! 

Morning and evening we’ve got them, 

wherever they come from! [3]



Without them there would not be me,

without me there would be nothing to choose. [1]

This is close, but I don't know what makes it like this. It seems as though If there is some true master, I just can't get a glimpse of it. That it can act is sure, but I can’t see its form. There is a fact but no form. [2]

The hundred bones, the nine holes, the six organs all exist together. Which do I feel closest to? Do I like them all or do I have a favorite? If so, are the rest its servants and concubines? Servants and concubines can't rule each other. Do they take turns being lord and servant or is there is a true lord among them? But whether I find the fact or not, it makes no difference to its truth. 

Once you take a complete form, you don’t lose it until the end. Clashing and grinding with things, the race is over at a gallop and nothing can stop it. Isn’t it sad? Your whole life slaving away, never seeing success. Exhausted, sludge-drudging without knowing where to turn for rest. Can you not mourn? People say they are not dead, but what difference does that make? Your form changes and so does your mind. Can you tell me that’s not terribly mournful? Is everyone’s life really this bewildered? Or am I the only bewildered one and not other people? [3]



If a made-up mind counts as a teacher, then who doesn’t have a teacher? Why should it just be the self-appointed experts on the order of things who have them? Stupid people would have them, too. But to know what's right and wrong before you’ve made up your mind—that’s like leaving for Yue today and getting there yesterday! That’s like saying what isn’t is. "What isn’t is"? Even the spiritual Emperor Yu couldn’t make sense of that. How could I? [1]

Saying is not just blowing breath. Saying says something. It's just that what it says is not fixed. So does it really say something? Or has it never said anything? We think it is different from the peeping of fledgling birds. But is there really any difference or isn’t there? [2]

How is the Way obscured that there are true and false? How are words obscured that there are right and wrong? Where can you go that the Way does not exist? How can words exist and not be okay? The Way is obscured by small accomplishments. Words are obscured by glory and show. So we have the rights and wrongs of the Confucians and the Mohists. Each calls right what the other calls wrong and each calls wrong what the other calls right. But if you want to right their wrongs and wrong their rights, nothing is as good as using clarity. [3]



There is nothing that cannot be looked at that way.

There is nothing that cannot be looked at this way.

But that is not the way I see things;

Only as I know things myself do I know them. [1]

Hence it is said, “That comes from this, and this follows from that.” This is the doctrine of the parallel birth of “this” and “that.” [2] Even so, born together they die together. Dying together they are born together. If they are both okay, they are both not okay. If they are both not okay, they are both okay. If they are right in a way, they are wrong in a way. If they are wrong in a way, they are right in a way. [3] For this reason the wise do not follow this route but illuminate things with heaven’s light.[4] They just go along with things, is all. What is this is also that, and what is that is also this. That is both right and wrong. This is also both right and wrong. So is there really a this and a that? Or isn’t there any this or that? The place where neither this nor that finds its counterpart is called the pivot of the way. Once the pivot finds its socket it can respond endlessly. What’s right is endless. And what’s wrong is endless, too. This is why I say nothing is as good as using clarity. [5]



Making a point to show that a point is not a point is not as good as making a non-point to show that a point is not a point. Using a horse to show that a horse is not a horse is not as good as using a non-horse to show that a horse is not a horse. Heaven and earth are one point, the ten thousand things are one horse. [1]

Okay? Okay. Not okay? Not okay. A way is made by walking it. A thing is so by calling it. How is it so? In so-ing it it is so. How is it not so? In not-so-ing it it is not so. There is always a way in which things are so. There is always a way in which things are okay. There is nothing that is not so, nothing that is not okay. You can insist on calling it a bean or a beam, a freak or the beautiful Xi Shi. No matter how diverse or strange, the way comprehends them as one. [2]

Dividing things completes them, and completing them ruins them. But nothing is completed or ruined when they are again comprehended as one. Only the penetrating person knows to comprehend them as one. Don’t insist but lodge in the usual. The usual is useful. You can use it to comprehend. And comprehending, you get it. Get it and you’re almost there. Just go along with thingsDoing that without claiming to knowing how things are is what I call the way. [3]

But exhausting the spirit trying to clarify the unity of things without knowing that they are all the same is called “three in the morning.” What do I mean by “three in the morning”? When the monkey trainer was passing out nuts he said, “You get three in the morning and four at night.” The monkeys were all angry. “All right,” he said, “you get four in the morning and three at night.” The monkeys were all pleased. With no loss in name or substance, he makes use of their joy and anger because he goes along with things. So the wise harmonize people with right and wrong and rest them on heaven’s wheel. This is what I call walking two roads. [4]



In the olden days, people’s knowledge got somewhere. Where did it get? There were those who thought there had never been anything. Perfect! Done! Nothing to add! Next were those who thought there were things but no borders between them. Next were those who thought there were distinctions but no right or wrong. [1]

The glorification of right and wrong is where the way is lost. Where the way is lost is love's completion. But are there such things as loss and completion? Or are there no such things as loss and completion? Loss and completion—that’s when the Culture clan plays their instruments. No loss and no completion—that’s when the Culture clan doesn't their instruments. High Culture playing his lute, Maestro Kuang holding his baton, Huizi leaning on his desk: the knowledge of these three masters was . . . maybe! And they passed their successes on to later years. It was just that what they liked they tried to set apart from other things. By trying to highlight what they liked, what they weren't highlighting got highlighted, and so ended in a paradoxical gloom. Their followers ended up caught in a web of culture and were unsuccessful their whole lives. [2] 

If this counts as success, then we are all successful, too. If this doesn’t count as success, then none of us have ever been successful. So the torch of slippery doubt is what the wise steer by. Don’t insist, but lodge in the usual: this is what I mean by using clarity. [3]



Now suppose we have a statement here. I don’t know whether it fits into this category or doesn't fit into this category. But if we make a category of things that either do or don't fit into categories, it won't make any difference. [1]

Nonetheless, let me try saying it:

There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning.

There is something. There is nothing. There is a not yet beginning to be nothing. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be nothing. Suddenly there is nothing. But once there's nothing I don't know whether it is or isn't. [2]

Now I’ve said something, but I don’t know if what I’ve said really means something or whether it really means nothing. [3]



Nothing in the world is bigger than the tip of an autumn hair and a huge mountain is tiny. No one lives longer than a dying child and grandpa Peng died young. Heaven and earth were born alongside me, and the ten thousand things and I are one.[1]

If we’re already one, can I say it? But since I’ve just said we’re one, can I not say it? The unity and my saying it make two. The two and their unity make three. [2] Starting from here, even a clever mathematician couldn’t get it, much less an ordinary person! If going from nothing to something you get three, what about going from something to something? Don’t go there! Just go along with things. [3]



The way has never had borders, language has never had standards, but if you insist on it there are boundaries. Let me describe these boundaries. There is left. There is right. There are priorities. There is morality. There are divisions. There are debates. There is competition. There is conflict. These are called the eight powers. [1]

Wise people acknowledge what is beyond the six dimensions but do not discuss it. They discuss what is within the six dimensions but do not opine on it. They opine on the springs and autumns of successive generations and the records of former kings, but they do not debate about them. [2]

Divisions have something they do not divide. Debates have something they do not debate. “What?” you ask. The wise embrace it while ordinary people debate to show off. So I say that debates have something they do not reveal. [3]


The great way is not announced.

The great debate is not spoken.

Great kindness is not kind.

Great modesty is not reserved.

Great courage is not aggressive. [4]

A high way does not lead.

Debated words do not reach.

Constant kindness does not succeed.

Pure modesty is not trustworthy.

Aggressive courage does not succeed. 

These five are round but tend toward the square. Therefore knowledge that stops at what it does not know is perfect. Who knows the unspoken debate, the unleading Way? If you could know it, it would be called the store of heaven. Pour into it and it does not fill up, draw from it and it does not run out. Not knowing where it comes from, it is called the shaded glow. [5]

Once Emperor Yao said to Emperor Shun, “I want to invade Zong, Guai, and Xu-ao. I sit on my throne and it bothers me. Why is this?”

Shun said, “These three small states still dwell among the underbrush. Why are you bothered? Once ten suns came out together and the ten thousand things were all illuminated. Shouldn’t your powers be greater than ten suns?” [6]



Overbite asked Royal Relativity, “Do you know what all things agree upon as right?”

Royal Relativity said, “How could I know that?”

“Do you know that you don’t know it?”

“How could I know that?”

“Doesn’t anyone know anything??”

“How could I know that? But even so, suppose I tried saying something. How could I possibly know, when I say I know something, that I don’t not know it? How could I possibly know, when I say I don’t know something, that I don’t know it? [1]

Let me try asking you something. If people sleep in the damp, their backs hurt and they wake half paralyzed. But is this true of an eel? If they live in trees they shudder with fear. But is this true of a monkey? Of these three then, which knows the right place to live? People eat the flesh of cattle, deer eat fodder, maggots like snakes, and hawks enjoy mice. Of these four, which knows the right taste? Monkeys take baboons as partners, deer befriend elk, and eels consort with fish. People say that Mao Qiang and Li Ji are beautiful. But if fish saw them they would dive deep, if birds saw them they would fly high, and if deer saw them they would cut and run. Of these four, which knows beauty rightly? 

From where I see it, the sprouts of kindness and morality and the pathways of right and wrong are all snarled and jumbled. How would I know the difference between them?” [1]

Overbite said, “If you don’t know gain from loss, do perfect people know?” 

Royal Relativity said, “Perfect people are spiritual. Though the lowlands burn, they are not hot. Though the Yellow River and the Han freeze, they are not cold. When furious lightning splits the mountains and winds thrash the sea, they are not scared. People like this mount the clouds and mists, straddle the sun and moon, and roam beyond the four seas. Death and life make no difference to them, how much less the sprouts of benefit and harm!” [2]