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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Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “The King of Wei gave me the seeds of a big gourd. I planted them, and when they grew the fruit was a yard across. I filled them with water but they weren’t sturdy enough to hold it. I split them into ladles but they were too big to dip into anything. It wasn’t that they weren’t fantastically big, but they were useless. So I smashed them.” [1]

Zhuangzi said, “You are certainly clumsy about using big things, sir. There were some people in Song who were good at making ointment to prevent chapped hands. Year after year, they used it in their business bleaching silk. A traveler heard about it and asked to buy the formula for a hundred pieces of gold. The clan assembled and consulted, saying, ‘For years we’ve bleached silk and never made more than a few pieces of gold. Today in a single morning we can sell the trick for a hundred pieces. Let’s give it to him!’

“The traveler got it and recommended it to the king of Wu, who was having trouble with the state of Yue. The king of Wu put him in command, and that winter he met the men of Yue in a naval battle. Using the ointment to keep his soldiers’ hands from chapping, he defeated Yue badly and was rewarded with a portion of the conquered territory. The ability to prevent chapped hands was the same in either case. But one gained territory while the others never escaped bleaching silk because what they used it for was different. [2]

Now you had these gigantic gourds. Why not lash them together like big buoys and go floating on the rivers and lakes instead of worrying that they were too big to dip into anything? Your mind is full of weeds, my friend.” [3]

[1] This would be King Hui of Wei (r. 344-319), for whom Huizi is known to have worked. It is clear from the beginning of the next anecdote, 1:07, that Huizi’s story here is meant to poke fun at Zhuangzi.

[2] People from Song were notoriously stupid (1.05 [4]). Wu and Yue were two non-Chinese states to the south that were gradually incorporated into the Chinese world during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods. When hostilities broke out between them in 510 B.C., Wu dominated initially, which was presumably when Zhuangzi’s story was meant to take place. Yue rallied its forces, however, and destroyed Wu entirely in 473, probably meaning execution for the traveler or his descendants. The history of Wu, which would have been familiar to Zhuangzi’s contemporary readers, makes the moral of the parable uncertain. Are we supposed to admire the flexibility of his scheming, or deplore the trouble it got him into?

[3] 心 xīn can be translated as either “heart” or “mind,” though the latter is usually more appropriate for Zhuangzi. The description of Huizi’s mind as full of underbrush may be a reference to Confucian philosopher Mengzi's metaphor heart containing moral sprouts (2A2). Huizi is not a Confucian, so Zhuangzi would not be accusing him of that, but merely saying that he is like the Confucians in having a mind full of presuppositions.

This brings us back to the question of what this anecdote means. If we assume that Huizi's story of the gourds as big and useless is meant to rib his friend, Zhuangzi, for his weird, pointless stories like Roe and Breeze, his response could mean [A] that my philosophizing may have uses that you fail to appreciate (don't be like the silk-bleachers) or [B] you shouldn't keep looking for uses in things (don't be like the traveler).

huì zǐ wèi zhuāng zǐ yuē :「 wèi wáng yí wǒ dà hù zhī zhǒng , wǒ shù zhī chéng ér shí wǔ shí , yǐ shèng shuǐ jiāng , qí jiān bù néng zì jǔ yě 。 pōu zhī yǐ wéi piáo , zé hù luò wú suǒ róng 。 fēi bù xiāo rán dà yě , wú wéi qí wú yòng ér pǒu zhī 。」

zhuāng zǐ yuē :「 fū zǐ gù zhuō yú yòng dà yǐ 。 sòng rén yǒu shàn wéi bù guī shǒu zhī yào zhě , shì shì yǐ píng pì kuàng wéi shì 。 kè wén zhī , qǐng mǎi qí fāng bǎi jīn 。 jù zú ér móu yuē :『 wǒ shì shì wéi píng pì kuàng, bù guò shù jīn ; jīn yī zhāo ér yù jì bǎi jīn , qǐng yǔ zhī 。』

kè dé zhī , yǐ shuō wú wáng 。 yuè yǒu nán , wú wáng shǐ zhī jiāng 。 dōng , yǔ yuè rén shuǐ zhàn , dà bài yuè rén , liè dì ér fēng zhī 。 néng bù guī shǒu yī yě , huò yǐ fēng , huò bù miǎn yú píng pì kuàng, zé suǒ yòng zhī yì yě 。

jīn zǐ yǒu wǔ shí zhī hù , hé bù lǜ yǐ wéi dà zūn ér fú hū jiāng hú , ér yōu qí hù luò wú suǒ róng ? zé fū zǐ yóu yǒu péng zhī xīn yě fū !」