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.

Table of contents

Chapter and Section:
Author first name:
Author surname:


Zhuangzi was walking in the mountains when he saw a big tree with luxuriant branches and leaves. A lumberjack was stopped next to it but didn't bite. Zhuangzi asked him why not and he said, "It's no use." 

Zhuangzi said, "This tree lived out its natural years on account of its low quality."

He left the mountains and stopped at an old friend's house. The old friend was pleased and told the boy to kill a goose to roast. The boy asked. "Which should I kill, the one that can honk or the one that can't?"

The host said. "Kill the one that can't honk."

The next day, a student asked Zhuangzi, "The other day, the mountain tree lived out its natural years on account of its low quality; now our host's goose dies on account of its low quality. What do you make of this, sir?"

Zhuangzi laughed. "I'd probably come down between quality and no quality. But though between quality and no quality may seem like the place to be but it isn't, you still can't escape trouble there, not like when you saddle up the way's powers and float. No praise or blame. Here a dragon there a snake, changing along with the times, not doing anything in particular. Here above there below, using harmony for your measure, float with the ancestors of all things, thinging things, not thinged by things. Then what can trouble you?

"This was the method of the Yellow Emperor and Shennong. But the essences of all things and the traditions of human affairs are not like this. They join, then part. They ripen, then rot. Upright, then downthrown. Respected, then rejected. Do something, then lose it. High-minded, then low-thought. Unassuming, then availed upon. What can you find to be sure of? Sad, isn't it? Note this, students: it's only the way-and-powers town, Jack!" [1]



Zhuangzi went to see Duke Ai of Lu. Duke Ai said, "Lu has a lot of Confucians but few follow your methods." 

Zhuangzi said, "Lu has few Confucians." 

Duke Ai said, "The whole state is dressed like Confucians. How can you call them few?"

Zhuangzi said, "I hear that Confucians wear round hats because they understand the cycles of heaven, flat shoes because they understand the shape of earth, and broken jade pendents because they can make snap judgments when the time comes. But gentlemen who know the way don't need to wear the clothes; and those who wear the clothes don't need to know the way. If you don't believe me, why not announce throughout the state that anyone who wears the clothes without practicing the way will be killed?"

The Duke announced it and in five days no one in Lu dared dress as a Confucian. Only one old man dressed as a Confucian stood at the duke's door. The Duke invited him in and asked him about state business and through a thousand shifts and ten thousand turns he was never at a loss. Zhuangzi said, "Can one Confucian in the state of Lu be called a lot?" [1]



Zhuangzi was fishing by the Pu River when the king of Chu sent two officers before him, saying, “We would like to trouble you with administering Our interior.”

Without glancing from his pole, Zhuangzi said, “I’ve heard Chu has a sacred turtle. It’s been dead three thousand years and the king keeps it wrapped and boxed in the royal court. Now, would that turtle rather have its bones treasured in death, or be alive dragging its tail in the mud?”

The two officers said, “It would rather be alive dragging its tail in the mud.”

Zhuangzi said, “Go! I’ll keep my tail in the mud, too.” [1]



When Huizi was a minister in Liang, Zhuangzi went to see him. Someone told Huizi, "Zhuangzi is coming. He wants to replace you as minister!" 

Then Huizi was scared and put out a search for him, state-wide, for three day and three nights. Zhuangzi went to see him and said, "In the south there's a bird called the Firechick. Are you familiar with it? The Firechick takes off from the south sea and flies to the north sea. It only rests in the Parasol Tree, only eats bamboo seeds, and only drinks from sweet wine springs. But when the hoot owl who's just got a dead rat looks up and sees Firechick passing overhead, it says, 'Scat!' Now do you really want to 'Scat!' me on account of your little state of Liang?" [1]



Zhuangzi and Huizi were wandering on a bridge over the River Hao. Zhuangzi said, “Look at those mottled fish out wandering at ease. That’s what fish like!”

Huizi said, “You're not a fish. How do you know what fish like?”

Zhuangzi said, “You're not me. How do you know I don’t know what fish like?”

Huizi said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. And since you’re certainly not a fish, the argument's complete that you don't know what fish like!”

Zhuangzi said, “Let’s go back to the root. When you asked how I knew what fish like, you had to know I knew already in order to ask. I know it by above the River Hao—that’s how!”[1]



Zhuangzi’s wife died. When Huizi came to mourn her, Zhuangzi was squatting down, beating on a tub and singing. Huizi said, “You lived with this person, raised children, and grew old together. Not to cry when she died would be bad enough. But beating on a tub singing! Isn’t that too much?”

Zhuangzi said, “No. When she first died, don’t you think I was like everyone else? But then I considered her beginning, before she was alive. Not only before life, but before form. Not only before form, but before any spark. In all the mixed up bewilderfuddle, something changed and there was a spark. The spark changed and there was form. The form changed and she had life. Today there was another change and she died. It’s just like the round of the four seasons: spring, fall, winter, and summer. 

If she were resting, stretched out in the big room, and I chased after her screaming and crying, I'd feel like I hadn’t understood my responsibilities. So I stopped.” [1]




Zhuangzi was accompanying a funeral when he passed by Huizi’s grave. Turning to his attendants, he said, “When the Plaster Monkey got a speck of mud on his nose no thicker than a fly’s wing, he would ask Carpenter Stone to slice it off. Carpenter Stone would twirl his ax like the wind and chop away obediently, getting all the mud and leaving the nose unharmed, while the plasterer stood there without changing his expression. 

Lord Yuan of Song heard about the trick and summoned Carpenter Stone. ‘Do it for Us!’ 

Carpenter Stone replied, ‘I was able to do it, but the material I worked with died long ago.’ 

Since my own teacher died,” Zhuangzi continued, “I have been without material. I have no one to talk to.” [1]



On his way to Chu, Zhuangzi saw a hollow skull, clean as a whistle but still whole. He poked it with his stick and asked, "Did you overdo it in your lust for life and so come to this? Did a failed state and the executioner's ax bring you here? Was it bad conduct and disgrace to your family that did you in? Was it cold and hunger or just the passage of time?" When he finished talking he took the skull for a pillow and went to sleep. 

In the middle of the night, the skull appeared in a dream and said, "You sound like a professor with your chitchat. Look, what you're talking about are the troubles of life. There's none of that in death. Would you like to hear dead talk?"

Zhuangzi said, "Yeah!"

The skull said, "The dead have no rulers above or subjects below and no bother with the changing seasons. We relax, heaven and earth make our spring and autumn. Even the joy of a south-facing king can't surpass it."

Zhuangzi was unconvinced. "If I could get the giver of orders to revive your body, put meat and skin back on your bones, return your family, friends, and neighbors, would you take it?"

The skull flushed with anger and knitted its brows. "Why would I abandon the pleasures of a king to return to the burdens of human life?"



When Zhuangzi was about to die, his students wanted to bury him lavishly. He said to them, “I’ll have heaven and earth for a casket, the sun and moon for ornaments, the constellations as pall-bearers, and the ten thousand things as mourners. Isn’t everything prepared for the funeral? What could you add?”

“We’re afraid the crows and kites will eat you.”

“Above ground I’ll feed the crows and kites. Below I’ll feed the crickets and ants.” Zhuangzi said. “Stealing from one to give to the other would be awfully unfair.”



Dialogus of Confucius and Old Dan