Zhuangzi translation and commentary

Thank you for coming to this site, a translation and commentary on the fourth century BC Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi! This is a work-in-progress, so your feedback is welcome. Feel free to read away below, or here are an introduction to this project, how to use this site, and how to leave comments.

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Mister Nervous Magpie asked Mister Long Desk, “I heard from my teacher that wise people do not make it their business to worry about things. They do not seek gain or avoid loss, enjoy being sought or follow any way. Saying nothing they say something, saying something they say nothing and wander outside the floating dust. My teacher thought this was wild talk, but I thought it captured the mysterious Way. What do you think about it?” [1]

Mister Long Desk said, “This would make the Yellow Emperor’s ears ring. How could Confucius understand it? But you’re getting ahead of yourself. You see an egg and listen for the rooster’s crow. You see a bow and expect roast owl. I’m going to try saying some crazy things to you, and you listen crazily—how about that? Flank the sun and moon, embrace space and time, and meet like lips, settling in the slippery murk where servants exalt each other. Ordinary people slave away, while the wise are stupid and simple, participating in ten thousand ages and unifying them in complete simplicity. The ten thousand things are as they are, and so are jumbled together. [2]

“How do I know that loving life is not a mistake? How do I know that hating death is not like a lost child forgetting its way home? Li Ji was the daughter of the border guard of Ai. When the duke of Jin got her, her tears soaked her shirt. But once she reached the royal palace, slept in the king’s bed, and ate the meats of his table, then she regretted her tears. How do I know that the dead don’t regret that they ever longed for life? [3]

“One who dreams of drinking wine may weep in the morning. One who dreams of weeping may go for a hunt the next day. In the dream, you don’t know it’s a dream. In the middle of a dream, you may interpret a dream within it. Only after waking do you know it was a dream. Still, there may be an even greater awakening after which you know that this, too, was just a greater dream. But the stupid ones think they are awake and so brightly claim to 'know' it. Are some rulers? Others shepherds? Really?! Confucius and you are both dreaming. My saying you are dreaming is a dream, too. These words might be called a puzzle. But if after ten thousand years we encounter a single wise person who knows the solution, it would be no different from what we encounter every morning and evening.” [4]

Once you and I have started arguing, if you win and I lose, then are you really right and am I really wrong? If I win and you lose, then am I really right and are you really wrong? Is one of us right and the other one wrong? Or are both of us right and both of us wrong? If you and I can’t understand one another, then other people will certainly be even more in the dark. Whom shall we get to set us right? 

Shall we get someone who agrees with you to set us right? But if they already agree with you how can they set us right? Shall we get someone who agrees with me to set us right? But if they already agree with me how can they set us right? Shall we get someone who disagrees with both of us to set us right? But if they already disagree with both of us how can they set us right? Shall we get someone who agrees with both of us to set us right? But if they already agree with both of us how can they set us right? If you and I and they all can’t understand each other, should we wait for someone else? 

Shifting voices waiting on one another may just as well not wait on one another. Harmonize them by means of heaven’s relativity, orient them with the flowing flood, and so live out your years. Forget the years, forget morality, but be stirred by the limitless and so lodge within it. What do I mean by “harmonize them by means of heaven’s relativity”? I mean right is not right, so is not so. If right were really right, it would be so different from not right that there would be no room for argument. If so were really so, then it would be so different from not so that there would be no room for argument.  [5]



Penumbra said to Shadow, “First you walk and then you stop. First you sit and then you rise. Why so inconsistent?”

Shadow said, “Do I depend on something to be the way I am? Does what I depend on also on depend on something to be the way it is? Does a snake depend on its scales to move or a cicada on its wings to fly? How should I know why I am this way? How should I know why I’m not otherwise?” [1]



Last night, I dreamt I was a butterfly—a fluttering butterfly, showing off and suiting myself, oblivious to me. Suddenly I awoke with a snort--me again! But I could not tell whether I'd dreamt a butterfly or the butterfly was dreaming me. There must be some difference between us! This is what I call "how things change.” [1]



The key to nourishing life



My life has a shore, but knowledge has no shore. If you use the shored to pursue the shoreless, you're in danger of running out. And if you do run out and take that as knowledge, that’s just dangerous! [1]

If you do good, don't get noticed. 

If you do bad, don't get caught. 

Follow the central artery, make it your text, 

and you can protect yourself, 

can complete your life, 

can raise your family, 

and can finish your years. [2]

The foot stands on a bit of ground. But though you stand on that bit, it is by relying on the ground you don’t stand on that you can get around. Similarly, what people know is small, but it is by relying on what we don’t know that we are able to know what is meant by "heaven."

To know the great one, to know the great dark, to know the great eye, to know the great level, to know the great method, to know the great trust, and to know the great foundation, is perfect. The great oneness communicates. The great darkness resolves. The great eye observes. The great level follows. The great method embodies. The great trust confirms. The great settled holds. 

Exhaust the natural, follow the bright, merge with the pivot, and start with that. Then the resolution will seem like non-resolution and knowledge will seem like non knowledge. Don't know and then you will know. Your questions will have no landmarks, nor will they lack landmarks

What slips and falls has substance. It doesn't change from past to present and cannot be diminished. So can't you say there's a general outline? So why not just ask about it? Why the hesitation? If we use doubtless to resolve doubt and return to doubtless, this will be the great big doubtless! 

If you use what's unfair to make fair, then your fair is unfair; if you use the unproven to prove, your proof is unproven. Sight is only something we employ to do things; the spiritual clinches it. It's long been true that sight can't beat spirit. But fools trust what they see to go among men, and their successes are wide of the mark. Isn't it sad!

So they say, when the wind crosses a river, there is a loss. When the sun crosses a river, there is a loss. Just let the wind and sun guard the river together and the river still won't feel the friction, because it relied on springs to go. 

So waters guard the land because it is safe. Shadows guard form because it it safe. Things guard things because it is safe. So clarity is a danger to the eye. Acuity is a danger to the ear. Self-sacrifice is a danger to the mind. Any amassing of abilities is a danger. And once the danger comes to fruition, it won't give or change. The disaster's growth will be lush. Going back will take work and its fruit will require a long time. But people keep thinking of these things as treasures. Isn't it sad? The reason for the endless destruction of states and slaughtering of people is that no one knows to ask about this. 



A butcher was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. Wherever his hand touched, wherever his shoulder leaned, wherever his foot stepped, wherever his knee pushed—with a zip! with a whoosh!—he handled his knife with aplomb, never skipping a beat, as though he were dancing to ancient music. Lord Wenhui said, “Sheesh! Fantastic! Can skill really reach such heights?”

The butcher sheathed his knife and replied, “What your humble servant values is the way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, I did not see anything but oxen. Three years later, I no longer saw the whole ox. These days, I encounter them with spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Sensible knowledge stops, and spiritual desires proceed. I rely on the natural patterns, strike in the big gaps, am guided by the large fissures, and follow what is inherently so. I never touch a ligament or tendon, much less any big bones! [1]

A good butcher changes his knife every year because he cuts. An average butcher changes it every month because he pries. Now my knife is nineteen years old and I have cut up many thousands of oxen with it but the blade is still as though fresh from the grindstone.

There are spaces between those joints, and the edge of the blade has no thickness. If you use what has no thickness to go where there is space--oh!--there’s plenty of extra room to play about in. This is why, after nineteen years, my blade is still as though fresh from the grindstone. [3]

“Still, when I get to a hard place, I see the difficulty and take breathless care. My gaze settles! My movements slow! I move the knife slightly, and with a sigh it’s done, before the ox even knows it’s dead, crumbling to the ground like a clod of earth! I stand holding my knife and glance all around, dwelling on my accomplishment. Then I clean my knife and put it away.”

Lord Wenhui said, “Excellent! I have heard the words of a butcher and learned how to nurture life!” [4]



Gongwen Xuan was startled when he saw the Commander of the Right, and he asked “What kind of man is this? What happened to you? Was it nature or man?” [1]

The Commander said, “It was nature, not man. Nature makes each thing unique. People try to conform. That’s how I know it was nature, not man.[2]



The marsh pheasant has to go ten steps for a peck, a hundred steps for a drink. But it doesn’t want to be pampered in a cage. It does the spirit no good even to be king. [1]



When Lao Dan died, Qin Shi went to mourn him, cried three times, and left. [1] A student asked, “Weren’t you our teacher’s friend?”


“Then is it okay for you to mourn him this way?”

“Yes. At first I took him for a person, but now no longer. [2] When I went in earlier, there were old ones crying as though for a child, and young ones as though for their mothers. The one who gathered them here did not want them to talk, but they talk. He did not want them to cry, but they cry. [3] He ran from nature, denied his essence, and forgot what he'd been given. [4] Hence he suffers what used to be called ‘the punishment for running from nature.’ [5] Our teacher came because it was time and left when it had passed. If you are content with the time and abide by the passing, there’s no room for sorrow or joy. This is what they used to call the lord's  'cutting down of a hanged man.’ [6]



You can point to the exhausted fuel. But the flame has passed on, and no one knows where it will end.” [1]