Zhuangzi translation and commentary

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The mark of full powers



In Lu there was a man named Royal Nag who'd had his foot chopped off and had as many followers wandering after him as Zhong Ni. Chang Ji asked Zhong Ni, “Royal Nag is an amputee, yet you split Lu with him for students. He doesn’t stand to teach or sit to discuss, yet they go to him empty and come home full. Can there be teaching without words or a complete mind in a deformed body? What kind of person is he?” 

Zhong Ni said, “This teacher of mine--he is a wise person! Me--I’m just running late and haven’t been to see him yet. And if I intend to make him my teacher, is it surprising that others who aren't at my level do the same? Forget about Lu, I’m going to lead the whole world to follow him!”

Chang Ji said, “If that amputee can lord it over you, sir, he must be far from ordinary. Someone like that must have a special way of thinking.”

Zhong Ni said, “Death and life are big, but they make no difference to him. Heaven and earth could flip over, and it would not be important. He peers into the false-less and does not shift with things. He considers it fate that they should change and holds on to their ancestor.”

Chang Ji said, “What does that mean?”

Zhong Ni said, “Looked at from their differences, there are liver and gall, Chu and Yue. Looked at from their sameness, the ten thousand things are all one. Someone like him does not know what belongs to his ears and eyes but lets his mind wander in the harmony of powers. He looks at the way things are the same and does not see what they’re missing. He looks at losing a foot like scraping off dirt.”

Chang Ji said, “For his own sake he uses knowledge to gain control of his mind and uses control of his mind to achieve a constant mind. But why should others make so much of him?”

Zhong Ni said, “People don’t mirror themselves in moving water, they mirror themselves in still water. Only the still can still the crowd’s stillness. Of things fated to live on earth, the pine and cypress uniquely endure: they are green winter and summer. Of those that receive their fate from heaven, Emperor Shun is uniquely upright. Those fortunate enough to correct their own lives can correct the lives of the crowd. 

The proof of guarding the beginning is the fact of not being nervous. A brave soldier will boldly go against nine armies. If someone seeking fame for his own sake can risk his life like this, how much more so one whose palace is heaven and earth and whose treasure is the ten thousand things, one who is only overnighting in their body, treats hearing and sight like signs, unifies what knowledge knows, and whose mind never tastes death? He will pick his day to transcend the falseness, which is why people follow him. Why would he be willing to make others his business?" [1]



Shentu Jia had had his foot chopped off and along with Zichan of Zheng was a student of Uncle Twilight Nobody. Zichan said to Shentu Jia, "If I leave first, then you stay; or if you leave first, then I'll stay." [1]

The next day, the sat together in the hall on the same mat. Zichan said to Shentu Jia, "If I leave first, then you stay; or if you leave first, then I'll stay. Now I'm going to leave. Can you stay, or not? If you meet an official and don't yield, are you putting yourself on the same level?"

Shentu Jia said, "Within our teacher's doors, are there really officials like this? I've heard him say, 'If the mirror is bright, the dust doesn't stay. If it stays, the mirror isn't bright. Dwell long with worthy people and you will be without mistakes.' Having identified our teacher as a great person, isn't it a mistake for you still to speak this way?"

Zichan said, "A person like you still vying with Emperor Yao for goodness. See if your own powers don't give you reason to reflect on yourself!"

Shentu Jia said, "Those who dispute their mistakes and say they don't deserve to suffer are many. Those who admit their mistakes and say they don't deserve to be spared are few. To know what you can't do anything about and make peace with it--only powerful people can do that. 

If you wander in front of the target in Archer Yi's range and still you get hit, that's fate. Many people with both feet laugh at my one. I get furiously angry. But I come to the master's house and it's gone by the time I go home. He washes me with goodness without my even being aware of it. I've wandered with him for nineteen years and he's never noticed my missing foot. You and I wander inside of the physical form. Isn't it a mistake for you to haul me to outside?"

Startled, Zichan's face blanched and expression changed. "Say no more!" [2]



Mountain-Uncle No-toes, a man from Lu who'd had has foot chopped off, heeled on in to see Zhong Ni. Zhong Ni said, "You weren't careful and have already gotten yourself in trouble. Why come to me now?"

No-toes said, "I only ignored my responsibilities and took myself lightly, so I'm missing a foot. I come today because there is still something more important than a foot remaining, so I have a responsibility to preserve it. There is nothing that heaven does not protect, nothing earth does not support. I thought you were like heaven. How did I know you would be this way? [1]

Confucius said, "That was stupid of me. Won't you come in, sir? Let me tell you what I have learned." But No-toes left. 

Confucius said to his students, "You disciples, pay attention! No-toes had had a foot chopped off but still takes responsibility for studying to make up for his former mistake. How much more so should a person whose powers are whole!" [2]

No-toes said to Lao Dan, "Confucius is not yet one of the perfect people, is he? What was he doing fawning around here to study with you? He longs for the sham-glam of reputation; he has no idea that perfect people see this as shackling themselves."

Lao Dan said, "Why can't you just show him that life and death are two sides of the same strip, that acceptable and unacceptable are strung on a single string? Can't you release his shackles?" [3]

No-toes said, "When heaven has punished him, how can I release him?" [4]

He took punishment as physical, ritual as a means of flight, knowledge as a matter of timeliness; and powers as conformity. By taking punishment as physical, he killed generously. By taking rituals means of flight, he moved through the world. By taking knowledge as a matter of timeliness, he did what couldn't be helped. Taking powers as conformity describes how he got to Confucius along with people who had feet, and people truly took him to be hardworking! [5]



Duke Ai of Lu said to Zhong Ni, “There was an ugly man in Wey named Sad Nag-it. Men hung around with him, thought about him all the time and couldn’t tear themselves away. Women saw him and by the dozen vowed to their parents they’d rather be his concubine than another man’s wife. He was never seen to take the lead, only follow along. He had no lordly status to save people from death, no piles of wealth to fill their bellies.

He was ugly enough to shock the world, followed without leading, and knew nothing beyond his own borders, but cocks and hens coupled in his presence. There had to be something special about him! So We summoned him for an audience, and he really was ugly enough to shock the world. He stayed with Us, and before a month was out We found Ourselves taking a personal interest in the kind of person he was. By the time a year passed, We trusted him. Since the state had no minister, We put him in charge. He looked glum and responded slowly, almost as though he were going to decline. We were embarrassed but eventually got him to take it. Before long, however, he abandoned Us. We were crushed, as though We’d lost a loved one, as though there was no one to enjoy the state with. What kind of man was this?” 

Confucius said, “I was once sent to Chu. On the way I saw piglets feeding at their dead mother. After a while, they all blinked and ran off. They didn’t see themselves in her, didn’t find their kind there. What they loved in their mother was not her body, but what moved her body. For someone dead in battle, it is too late to bring medals to the funeral. An amputee’s old shoes mean nothing to him. Both have lost the root [of what made these things important]. 

Lame-foot Splay-limbed No-lips spoke with Duke Ling of Wei and Duke Ling was so pleased with him that, when he saw whole people, he thought they stood up too straight and looked fleshy. Pitcher-sized Goiter spoke to Duke Huan of Qi and Duke Huan was so pleased that when he saw whole people he thought their necks were skinny. So, as powers are gotten, the body's forgotten. Forgetting what other people don't forget and not forgetting what they do forget is what I call trustworthy forgetting. 

Once women have wedded the emperor, they no longer need to do their nails or wear ear-rings. Married men shouldn't leave the city or travel far. When we do this to keep people's bodies whole, how much more should we do for people whose powers are whole! [1]

"Now this Sad Nag was trusted before he spoke and was loved though he accomplished nothing. He got people to give him their own states and worry he wouldn’t take them! He must have fulfilled his potential though his powers didn't take shape.”

Duke Ai asked, “What do you mean by fulfilling his potential?”

Confucius said, “Death, life, survival, loss, failure, success, poverty, wealth, worth, depravity, slander, praise, hunger, thirst, winter, summer—the alternation of these things is the process of fate. Day and night they alternate before us. Who know where they come from? Don’t let them slip out of harmony or penetrate your spirit store. Indulge them harmoniously. Let them circulate without mixing together. Day and night, without a break, make it springtime with things. As you greet each new circumstance, generate the season in your own mind. This is what I mean by fulfilling your potential.” [2]

“What do you mean by powers taking no shape?”

“Levelness is the height of still water, so it can be used as a model. Hold it from within and it will not be disturbed from without. 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 relies on springs to go. 

Whirlpools collect in the depths. Still water collects in the depths. Flowing water collects in the depths. Flood waters collect in the depths. Irrigation water collects in the depths. Spring water collects in the depths. Burbling water collects in the depths. Swamp water collects in the depths. Fetid water collects in the depths. Water guards the earth where it collects. Shadows guard form where they collect. Things guard things where they collect. Powers are the cultivation of complete harmony. When powers take no shape, things cannot leave.” [5]

Later, Duke Ai told Min Zi, “At first when I ruled the empire, I held the reins of the people and worried about their welfare. I thought I had perfectly understood it. Now that I’ve heard this explanation of the perfect person, I fear that I lacked the real substance and that I damaged the state by neglecting myself. Confucius and I are not subject and lord; we are friends in powers, is all.” [6]



If you step on someone's foot in public you apologize like crazy. Your older brother gets an "Oops!" And with you parents, it's already over. So they say, 'In perfect politeness there are no people. In perfect morality there are no things. In perfect intelligence there is no planning. In perfect kindness there is no affection. Perfect faith dispenses with tokens."

So, where the wise wander, knowledge is a curse, restrictions are paste, powers are a patch, and effort is for trade. Wise people do not plan, so why do they need intelligence? They do not cut, so why do they need paste? They have nothing to lose, so why do they need powers? They’re not buying, so why do they need trade? In these four ways they feed at heaven. Feeding at heaven, they are nourished by heaven. Once they are nourished by heaven, why do they need other people? They have human form but not human essence. Since they have human form, they flock with people. Since they lack human essence, right and wrong do not get to them. Infinitesimally small, they belong with people. Indescribably large, they alone complete their nature. [1]



Huizi asked Zhuangzi, “Can people really have no essence?” [1]

Zhuangzi said, “Yes, they can.”

Huizi said, “But if they have no essence, how can you call them people?” [2]

Zhuangzi said, “The way gave them a face. Nature gave them a form. Why not call them people?”

Huizi said, “But if you say they’re people, how can they have no essence?” [3]

Zhuangzi said, “Rights and wrongs are what I mean by ‘essence.’ By ‘no essence,’ I mean people not letting good and bad in to hurt them. Follow the self-so and do not help life.” [4]

Huizi said, “How can people exist without helping life?” [5]

Zhuangzi said, “The way gave them a face. Nature gave them a form. —By not letting likes and dislikes in to harm you, that’s how. But you shut out your spirit and exhaust your vitality, leaning on a podium ranting, slumping at your desk and napping. Nature chose a form for you, and you use it to sing logic! [6] 



The great ancestral teacher



Knowing what nature does, and knowing what people do, is perfect. Those who know what nature does are born of nature. Those who know what humans do use what they know they know to nurture what they know they don’t know, live out their natural years and not die along the way. This is the height of knowledge.

Even so, there is a problem. Knowledge depends on something before it can be fitting. But what it depends on has not yet been fixed. So how do I know that what I call nature is not really human and what I call human is not really nature? Only when there are true people can we have true knowledge. [1]

What do I mean by true people? The true people of olden times did not resist poverty, did not glory in success, did not plan their affairs. Such people missed without regretting it and hit without being pleased. Such people could climb high without shuddering. They could enter water without getting wet and fire without getting burned. This is how knowledge can transcend falseness along the way. [2]

The true people of the olden days slept without dreams and woke without worries, ate simply and breathed deeply. True people breathe with the heels whereas most people breathe with the throat, bent over, blurting out words like vomit. The deeper their senior-citizen desires, the shallower their natural impulses. 

The true people of the olden days knew nothing of loving life and nothing of hating death. They emerged without delight and returned without resistance. They went and came briskly, is all. They neither forgot their beginning nor sought their end. They enjoyed what they received, forgot it, and handed it back. I call this not using the mind to lose the Way, not using the human to help nature. I call these true people. [3]

Such people, their minds are focused, their faces placid, foreheads broad. They are crisp like the autumn, warm like the spring. Their joy and anger comprehends the four seasons and accords with things but no one knows their limits. 

The true people of the olden days, their demeanor was polite but not chummy; 

as though they lacked but didn't take.

With! Idiosyncratic but not stubborn!

Strength! Vacant but not splendid!

Bingbing! It looks like happiness!

Steep! What can't be helped!

Laah! Showing my own face!

With! Restraining my powers!

Ugly! They resemble the world but--

Proud!--they can't be copied;

Still!--they seem shut up

Duh!--and forgot what they were saying.

The true people of the olden days used nature to serve man but didn't use man to intrude nature. They used the eye to see the eye, the ear to hear the ear, and the mind to grasp the mind. This way, their peace is moored and their movements accord. 

Hence what they liked was all the same; what they didn't like was all the same. Their saming it was the same; their not saming it was the same. Saming it, they were followers of nature. Not saming it, they were followers of humanity. When neither heaven nor humanity dominates the other, this is called being a true person. [4]



Death and life are fate. The regularity of evening and morning is nature. That there are things people can't have is the essence of being a thing. If they just take nature as their parent and love it even more than themselves, what about what is loftier still? If they just take having a ruler as greater than themselves ands still die for him more than themselves, what about what is truer? [1]

The big lump burdens me with a body, labors me with life, eases me with age, and rests me with death. So if I like my life, for the same reason I must also like my death. 

You hide your boat in a gully and your net in a swamp and say they're safe. But in the middle of the night a strong man could still take them on his back and leave, and you would be asleep and not know. Hiding the small in the large seems fitting, but still you lose. But if you hid the world in the world, there would be no way to lose it. This is the essence of what lasts. [2]

You just trespass on human form and still delight in it. As a human, you can change ten thousand times without ever reaching the limit. Can you count the different things that have made you happy? So the wise wander where everything exists and can’t be lost. They like dying young and like growing old. They like the beginning and like the end. People model themselves on them, but why not on that to which the ten thousand things are tied and on which every change depends? [3]