Zhuangzi translation and commentary

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The Way has its essence and can be trusted. But it takes no action and has no form. It can be passed on but not received, gotten but not seen. It is its own trunk, its own root. Before heaven and earth it existed for sure. It spiritualized the ghosts and gods and gave life to heaven and earth. It is above the most extreme but not high, below the six extremes but not deep. It was there before heaven and earth but does not endure. It is more venerable than high antiquity but is not old.

Pigsuede got it to raise sky and earth;

Fuxi got it to inherit energies' mother;

The north star got it got it and throughout antiquity has never varied.

The sun and moon got it and throughout antiquity have never rested.

Oldclay got it to infiltrate Kunlun Mountain.

Pingyi got it to wander the Yellow River.

Bootstrap got it to inhabit Mount Tai. 

The Yellow Emperor got it to ascend the cloudy sky.

Zhuan Xu got it to inhabit the mysterious palace.

Strongbuddy got it to stand at the northern frontier.

The Queen Mother of the West got it to sit at Shaoguang mountain. No one knows her beginning, no one knows her end.

Grandpa Peng got it and reached from Emperor Shun to the Five Strongmen.

Fu Yue got it to minister for Wu Ding, envelope the world, mount the eastern constellation, straddle the winnowing basket's tail, and compete with the lines of stars. [2]



South Lord Mister Flower said to Out-of-step Woman, “You are old in years but have the look of a child. How do you do it?”

She said, “I’ve heard the way.”

South Lord Mister Flower asked, “Can the way be studied?” [1]

She said, “How? How could it? And you’re not the person for it, anyway. Now Omenclined had the stuff of a wise person but not the way of a wise person. I have the way of a wise person but not the stuff the wise person. [2] I wanted to teach him to see if maybe he really was wise! If not, explaining the way of the wise to someone with the stuff of the wise should be easy. So I stuck with it, explaining it to him for three days, after which he could put the world outside of himself. Once he’d put the world outside, I kept at it. After seven days he could put things outside. Once he’d put things outside, I kept at it. After nine days he could put life outside himself. Once he’d put life outside himself, the light could dawn. After the light had dawned, he could see he was alone. Having seen he was alone, he could have no past or present. With no past or present, he was able to enter no living or dying. What kills life does not die; what lives life is not alive. The kind of thing it is—there is nothing it does not see off, nothing it does not greet, nothing it does not ruin, nothing it does not complete. Its name is Disturbing Peace. The Disturbing Peace completes things only after disturbing them.”

South Lord Mister Flower asked, “Where did you hear it?”

She said, “I heard it from Ink-Aid’s child. Ink-Aid’s child heard it from Faltering Recitation’s grandchild. Faltering Recitation’s grandchild heard it from Looking-up-at-the-light. Looking-up-at-the-light heard it from Whispered Promise. Whispered Promise heard it from Needs Work. Needs Work heard it from Sing “Ooh!” Sing “Ooh!” heard it from Mysterious Darkness. Mysterious Darkness heard it from Present Absence. Present Absence heard it from Dubious Beginning.” [3]



Misters Priest, Drive, Farmer, and Arrive all four spoke together, saying, “Who can take nothing as the head, life as the spine, and death as the tail? Who knows death, life, existence, and annihilation as all one body? I’ll be that person’s friend.” All four looked at each other and smiled. There was no resistance in their hearts, and so they became friends.

Suddenly, Mister Drive got sick. Mister Priest went to ask after him. “How extraordinary of the former of things to knot me up like this. My back is hunched out. My pipes are all out of order, my chin is hidden in my navel, my shoulders are peaked, and my neck bones point to the sky.” But though his daily energies were fouled, in his mind there was nothing the matter. He hobbled over to look at his reflection in the well. “Sheesh! The former of things really is knotting me up.”

Mister Priest said, “Do you dislike it?”

He said, “Not at all. What is there to dislike? If, in time, he turns my left arm into rooster, I’ll use it to crow the day. If he turns my right arm into a bow, I’ll shoot down an owl for roasting. If he turns my buttocks into wheels, I'll use my spirit as a horse and climb aboard. What better carriage? You get something when it’s time. You lose it when it’s passed. If you are content with the time and abide by the passing, sorrow and joy can't enter in. This is what they used to call the ‘cutting down of a hanged man.’ If you don’t loose yourself, things will bind you. Nothing has ever beaten heaven. What is there to dislike?” 

Suddenly Mister Arrive got sick. Gasping, he was on the point of death. His wife and children circled around him weeping. Mister Farmer came to ask after him and said to them, “Stop! Get back! Don’t be afraid of the change.” Leaning on the door frame he said, “How extraordinary, the former of these changes! What will he do with you next? Where will he send you? Will he make you a rat’s liver? Will he make you a bug’s arm?”

Mister Arrive said, “A child goes wherever its parents say—east, west, north, or south. How much more are Yin and Yang to a person than parents! If they bring me to the point of death and I refuse to obey, I would only be being stubborn. What fault is it of theirs? The big lump burdens me with a form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, and rests me with death. So if I like my life, for the same reason I must also like my death. 

"Suppose a great smith were casting metal. If the metal were to rear up and say ‘I insist on being a Moye!’ the great smith would certainly take it as inauspicious material. If, having once trespassed on the human form, I were to say ‘Only a human! Only a human!’ then the former of changes would certainly take me as an inauspicious person. Now if you take heaven and earth as a great furnace and the former of changes as a great smith, then where can you go that will not be all right? I will doze off whole and wake with a snort.” [1]



Mister Mulberry-home, Anti-Mencius, and Mister Great-Zither all three joined together as friends. They said, "Who can join with others in not joining with them, do for others by not doing for them? Who can climb heaven, roam the mists, and whirl in the infinite, living forgetful of one another for ever and ever?"  The three men looked at each other and smiled.  None was reluctant in his mind, so they joined as friends.

Nothing happened for a while and then Master Mulberry-home died.  Confucius heard about it and sent Zigong over to help out.  One of them was plaiting frames for silkworms and the other was playing the zither while they harmonized together and sang:

            Come on, Mulberry-home!

            Come on, Mulberry-home!

            You've returned to your truth,

            While we go on as men-o!

Zigong hurried in and approached them, saying; "Excuse me, but is it proper to sing over a corpse?"

The two men looked at each other and smiled, saying "What does he know about what's proper?"

Zigong went back and reported this to Confucius, asking "What kind of men are those?  Correct behavior is nothing to them, as though their physical bodies were something external.  They sing overlooking the corpse without even changing expression.  I don't know what to say about them.  What kind of men are they?"

Confucius said, "Those are men who wander outside the rules.  I am one of those who wanders within them. Inside and outside don't meet, and it was stupid of me to send you to mourn. They are about to join with the former of things in being human  and wander in the single energies of heaven and earth.  They think of life as a hanging tumor and a dangling mole and of death as a lost wart or a bursting boil. People such as this, how can they say whether death and life are ground gained or lost?  They lend themselves to different things but trust to their all being of one body. They forget liver and gall and abandon the ears and eyes. They exchange the beginning for the end and cannot tell relatives from extremes. Bewildered, they dilly-dally beyond the dirt and dust, hippy-dippy-ing their do-nothing careers. How could people like that go all tick-tick over conventional propriety just to put on a display for the ears and eyes of the crowd?"

Zigong said, "So why then does my master follow rules himself?"

Confucius said, "Me, I am one of those who are punished by nature.  Still, I share this with you." [1]

Zigong said, "May I ask about these rules?"

Confucius said, "Fish  form one another in water.  People form one another in the Way.  For things which form one another in the water, dig a pond and they will be provided for.  For things which form one another in the Way, don't busy yourself with them and their lives will be settled. When the springs dry up and the fish are stuck together on the land, they douse each other with spit and spray each other with drool, but it is not as good as forgetting each other in the rivers and lakes. So, too, praising Emperor Yao and vilifying tyrant Jie is nothing like forgetting them both and changing with the way. Hence it is said, 'Fish forget one another in the rivers and lakes; people forget one another in the arts of the way."

Zigong said, "May I ask about deviant people?"

He said, "Deviant people deviate from people but converge with nature.  Hence it is said, 'Nature's loser is a prince among men.  The prince among men is nature's loser.'"



Yan Hui asked Zhong Ni, “When Mengsun Cai’s mother died, he cried without tears. In his inner heart he did not mourn. And conducting the funeral, he did not grieve. Missing these three things, he is still famous throughout Lu as a mourner. Is it really possible to gain the name while lacking the substance? I was shocked.”

Confucius said, “Mengsun has done it all, beyond knowledge. He would make it even simpler, but he can’t. Still, he did simplify it some. Mr. Mengsun does not know why people are born. He does not know why they die. He’s not aware of moving forward. He’s not aware of falling back. If he changes into something, he lets the unknown change finish it. When he changes, how does he know he isn’t not changing? When he doesn’t change, how does he know he hasn’t changed already? Take you and me—we’re dreaming and haven’t woken up! But him—something shocked his body without harming his mind, a morning's sojourn but not an essential death. Mr. Mengsun is awake. People cry, so he cries; that's why he is this way.

“We say ‘I.’ But how do I know what I mean by ‘I’? You dream you’re a bird crossing heaven or a fish sunk in the depths. There’s no telling if the one who speaks now is awake or dreaming. Directing the trip doesn’t measure up to smiling, and laughing doesn’t measure up to stepping aside. Step aside and leave the changes. Then you will enter the oneness of the empty sky.” [1]



The Thinker went to see Xu You. Xu You asked him, “How has Emperor Yao rewarded you?”

The Thinker said, “Yao told me, ‘You must submit to kindness and morality to speak clearly about right and wrong.’”

Xu You said, “So what did you come here for? Yao’s already tattooed your face with benevolence and righteousness and snipped off your nose with right and wrong. How can you expect to wander distant, unrestrained, rolling paths?”

The Thinker said, “But still, I’d like to wander along the edge.”

Xu You said, “It’s not like that. The blind cannot appreciate the loveliness of faces or gorgeous tapestries.” 

The Thinker said, “But Nomakeup lost her beauty and Leanbeam lost his strength. Even the Yellow Emperor forgot his knowledge—all in the process of being re-cast. How do you know the former of things won’t erase my tattoos, replace my nose, and make me whole so I can follow you, sir?”

Xu You said, “Ah, you never know! I’ll give you the main outlines. My teachers! My teachers! They sort ten thousand things but are not righteous and benefit ten thousand generations but are not kind. They roof heaven, floor earth, and fashion everything between but are not handy. That’s how they wander.

So when wise people use force, they can destroy whole countries without losing the people's hearts. Their benefits extend to all things but isn't considered love

One who enjoys comprehending things is not wise; one who holds people dear is not kind; one who is naturally seasonal is not a worthy; one who does not comprehend benefit and harm is not a gentleman; one who advances their reputation and loses themself is not a knight; one who destroys themself and is insincere is no user of other people. They are like Hu Buxie, Wu Guang, Bo Yi, Shu Qi, Jizi Xuyu, Ji To, and Shentu Di--people who enslave themselves to other's servitude and take satisfaction in other people's satisfaction but find no satisfaction in their own satisfaction." [1]



Yan Hui said, “I’m improving.”

Confucius said, “How so?”

“I’ve forgotten kindness and morality.”

Good, but there’s more.”

Yan Hui saw him again the next day and said, “I’m improving.”

“How so?”

“I’ve forgotten tradition and music.”

“Good, but there’s more.”

Yan Hui saw him again the next day and said, “I’m improving.”

“How so?”

“I sit and forget.”

 Confucius started and said, “What do you mean by ‘sit and forget’?”

Yan Hui said, “I cast off my limbs, dismiss hearing and sight, leave my form, abandon knowledge, and unify them in the great comprehension. That’s what I mean by ‘sit and forget’.”

Confucius said, “If you’ve unified them then you have no preferences. If you change then you have no constancy. You really are worthy! I would like to ask to be your follower!” [1]



Mr Drive and Mr Mulberry were friends. When it poured rain for ten days, Mr. Drive said, "Mr. Mulberry might be sick!" 

He grabbed some food and went to feed him. When he arrived at Mr Mulberry's gate--like singing, like crying--someone struck the zither and said, "Father? Mother? Nature! Man!" The voice sounded as though it was giving out and hurried to complete its song.

Mr. Drive entered and said, "Why are you singing like this?"

He said, "I was trying to think of what drove me to this extreme but couldn't find it. Could my parents want me poor? Heaven doesn't cover only some. Earth doesn't support only some. Could heaven and earth impoverish only me? I looked for what did it but couldn't find them. What took me to this extreme must be fate!"[1]



Responding to royalty



Overbite asked Royal Relativity four questions and got four I-don’t-know’s. Overbite jumped up and down, he was so happy, and went to tell Mister Reed Coat.

Mister Reed Coat said, “You’re just learning that now? Even Emperor Shun didn't measure up to the really ancient ones. Shun still stockpiled kindness in order to win people. He got people, but he never got away from not-people. Now the really ancient ones—they slept haw-shoo and woke whoo-ah! Sometimes they took themselves for horses, sometimes they took themselves for cows. They knew what was essential for sure, and their powers were very  true. They never got into not-people.” [1]