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




This is what great King Tang asked his teacher, Cramped. In the bald north there is an obscure sea, heaven’s pool. There is a fish there tens of thousands of miles across. No one knows his length. His name is Roe. There is a bird there named Breeze with a back as huge as a great mountain and are like clouds hanging from heaven. She spirals up on the whirlwind ninety thousand miles, bursts through the cloudy mists, and shoulders the blue sky. Afterwards she heads south, traveling to the southern darkness. [1]

The quarrelsome quail laughs at her, saying, “Where is she going? I rear up and don’t go more than few yards before coming down, soaring and roaming amid brambles and briars—this indeed is the perfection of flying! Where is she going?” This is the difference between little and big. [2]

[1] This section re-tells the story we just heard but with some differences: It tells us the fish is huge before saying his name is Roe, thus ruining the surprise. It doesn't mention the fish changing into a bird, just that there is a fish and then there is a bird. This illustrates an interesting metaphysical point that there always must be some identity underlying change. That is, if we think not simply that there was a fish and then there was a bird, but that the fish changed into the bird, we must think that there is some thing that was the fish and is now the bird, which raises an interesting question: Is the thing that was a fish and is now a bird a fish, or a bird? Neither? Both? And what are we to make of this retelling of the story we just heard? Does it build upon the first one in some meaningful way? Are they both supposed to be here or is one a first draft?

[2] Does he mean, this illustrates the difference between big and little? Or this is typical of the debate between big and little? Either way, the dialectic between big and small knowledge remains at the center. Earlier, I asked, "Why is Zhuangzi telling us this?" Another way to put that question is to ask who he is writing to and why? Some years ago, Lee Yearley suggested that Huizi is Zhuangzi's intended audience, which I find a very promising theory. (We will see more about Huizi later.) Reading this passage with the 7th and 8th graders at Broadoaks Children's School, I tried to get some confirmation for Lee's suggestion by asking them who they thought the author was writing for and why. One little girl, Christina Z., said, "Maybe he was writing for himself, trying to figure something out." This also strikes me as a promising theory. It is difficult to articulate what exactly big knowledge is. But it is not difficult to articulate little knowledge: little knowledge is a perspective that leaves something out, that mistakes a part for the whole. 

But then isn't big knowledge just knowledge of the whole? What is paradoxical about that? The paradox lies in the fact that, in order to be truly all-inclusive, complete knowledge would have to have room for partial views, which is what it failed to do when (if) the narrator described the cicada and the dove as "vermin." It is similar to the problem for us of whether tolerance should be tolerant of intolerance; we aspire to an all-inclusive view that seems unattainable. On the one hand, heaven is all-inclusive: nature has room for everything. On the other hand, this does not seem to be a position that it is possible for people to adopt on pain of contradiction. So, pursuant to Christina Z's idea, while it may be obscure where Zhuangzi is trying to get to, we can perhaps make sense of where he is trying to get away from: partiality. When he realizes there is a view he has left out, he moves on. His goal is to be all-inclusive, and that may only possible by disappearing and becoming invisible, like the sky, or to say nothing while saying something, like Confucius' sage in 2:12. (Interestingly, the Buddha also claimed to say nothing, like in Chapter 21 of the Diamond Sutra: "Anyone who says I said something misrepresents me," which seems like a form of the Liar Paradox.)

tāng zhī wèn jí yě shì yǐ 。 qióng fā zhī běi , yǒu míng hǎi zhě , tiān chí yě 。 yǒu yú yān , qí guǎng shù qiān lǐ , wèi yǒu zhī qí xiū zhě , qí míng wéi kūn 。 yǒu niǎo yān , qí míng wéi péng , bèi ruò tài shān , yì ruò chuí tiān zhī yún , tuán fú yáo yáng jiǎo ér shàng zhě jiǔ wàn lǐ , jué yún qì , fù qīng tiān , rán hòu tú nán , qiě shì nán míng yě 。

chì yàn xiào zhī yuē :「 bǐ qiě xī shì yě ? wǒ téng yuè ér shàng , bù guò shù rèn ér xià , áo xiáng péng hāo zhī jiān , cǐ yì fēi zhī zhì yě 。 ér bǐ qiě xī shì yě ?」 cǐ xiǎo dà zhī biàn yě 。