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

1:05

肩吾問於連叔曰:「吾聞言於接輿,大而無當,往而不反。吾驚怖其言,猶河漢而無也,大有逕庭,不人情焉。」

連叔曰:「其言謂何哉?」

曰:「藐姑射之山,有神人居焉,肌膚若冰雪,淖約若處子,不食五穀,吸風飲露。乘雲,御飛龍,而乎四海之外。其神凝,使不疵癘而年穀熟。吾以是狂而不信也。」

連叔曰:「然,瞽者無以與乎文章之觀,聾者無以與乎鍾鼓之聲。豈唯形骸有聾盲哉?夫知亦有之。是其言也,猶時女也。之人也,之也,將旁礡萬,以為一世蘄乎亂,孰弊弊焉以下為事!

之人也,莫之傷,大浸稽而不溺,大旱、金石流、土山焦而不熱。是其塵垢粃糠,將猶陶鑄堯、舜者也,孰肯以為事!宋人資章甫而適諸越,越人斷髮文身,無所用之。堯下之民,平海內之政,往見四子藐姑射之山,汾水之陽,窅然喪其下焉。」


Bootstrap said to Step-Brother, “I heard what Jie Yu said. It was big but didn’t stand for anything. It went on and on without coming back. I was frightened by it, as endless as the Milky Way, full of mishmash, with no bearing on the human condition.” [1]

Step-Brother asked, “What did he say?”

“He said there are spiritual people living in the distant Maiden Mountain. Their skin is like frost and they are gentle and restrained as virgins. They don’t eat the five grains but sip wind and drink dew. They mount the cloudy mists, ride the flying dragons, and wander beyond the four seas. By concentrating their spirit, they keep things from harm and ripen the harvests. I thought he was crazy and didn’t believe him.” [2]

Step-Brother said, “Yes. The blind can't relate to art or the deaf to music. But are blindness and deafness confined to the physical body? The mind has them, too. His talk is like a woman in her season. Those people he describes, with those powers, will line up the ten thousand things and make them one. The world longs for chaos, but why should they fret and make the world their business? [3]  

Nothing can harm these people. Though a great flood should knock against heaven, they would not drown. Though a heat wave should melt stone and scorch the earth, they would not burn. From their dust and chaff you could smelt an Emperor Yao or Emperor Shun. Why would they want to make things their business? [4]

A man of Song invested in ceremonial caps and took them to Yue. But the Yue people cut their hair and tattoo their bodies and had no use for them. [5] Emperor Yao brought order to the people of the empire and stabilized the government within the seas. But when he went to see the four masters of the distant Maiden Mountain, north of the Fen River, he lost the world in a daze.” [6]




[1] Bootstrap talks with Jie Yu in 7.05 and Confucius encounters him in 4.08, but neither of those seem to be the conversation referred to here.

[2] The description of the spiritual people sounds like 1.03. These spiritual people may have magical powers or their power may be their ability to rely upon the ordinary. Do they somehow ripen the crops? Or do they magically make what is available enough?

[3] Is Step-Brother explaining Jie Yu's meaning to Bootstrap or telling Bootstrap he'll never understand? If I understand the metaphor correctly, "a woman in her season" is fertile, ready to create offspring, but she needs a partner; similarly, Jie Yu's words are full of meaning but need the right kind of person to yield their fruit. Different translators punctuate the last sentences very differently, some even reading "chaos" with the alternate and opposite meaning, "competent." (See Analects 8.20: 有亂臣十人.) Thus, Legge gets, "That man, with those attributes, though all things were one mass of confusion, and he heard in that condition the whole world crying out to him to be rectified, would not have to address himself laboriously to the task, as if it were his business to rectify the world" (CTP 1.04). Go figure.

[4] Again, the description of the spiritual people sounds like magic but could just be the magic that comes from acceptance. One line is curious: "From their dust and chaff you could smelt a Yao or Shun." On the one hand, it could be an insult to the Confucian sages Yao and Shun, saying that they are worth no more than the garbage of these spiritual beings. On the other hand, it could be an explanation of where people like Yao and Shun come from, their back-story, so to speak: the famous, accomplished people we recognize as Yao and Shun emerge from this kind of invisible, unrecognized spiritual activity or calm acceptance. This question will haunt us: whether Yao and Shun are false idols or misunderstood byproducts of the real powers. The reference to smelting may be significant. The ability to cast iron was dimly understood at this time but increasingly important for its role in warfare, hence surrounded by an air of mystery.

[5] Like many of Zhuangzi's one- or two-liners, this man from Song story is so memorable that the context is frequently forgotten. So there are two questions: What does it mean? And how does it fit into the larger passage? The state of Song was the home of the most recently defeated dynasty and hence the butt of jokes (like the classic Mengzi 2A2). (Incidentally, there is a tradition that Zhuangzi was from Song.) Yue was a state to the south of China, once regarded as barbarian but gradually working its way into the Chinese world, due in part to their advanced metallurgy and production of weapons. So the story is multilayered. The man from Song is surprised and disappointed that the barbaric Yue people have no interest in 'civilized' ceremonial caps. At the same time, the reader knows they make great swords! And ceremonial caps, for better or for worse, are no match for great swords. If the man from Song were smart, he could make a great deal of money trading the other way.

What does this story mean here? I think Step-Brother's point is that Bootstrap is asking the wrong questions. Like the man from Song, he values things that have no value here and fails to appreciate the value of things that do not (yet) fit into his world. That is why he is blind to the meaning of Jie Yu's words. 

[6] Earlier in Chinese history, in Yao's time, the Fen River had been the north-western border separating the Chinese from the non-Chinese world (i.e., the “barbarians”). By Zhuangzi’s time, however, military expansion and cultural assimilation had moved the boundary back, so the Fen was closer to the center (kind of like our Mississippi). So it is ironic that what seemed like not-China to Yao was in fact China-to-be as a result of his successes.

Again, there may be multiple layers of meaning. On the obvious level, the story seems to make fun of the Confucian sage Yao. On another, descriptions like "losing the world is daze" are frequently positive in Zhuangzi. I'm going out on a limb, but I suggest this may be an alternative origin story for Yao. It is not a physical journey but a spiritual one beyond his known world. If so, the story is asynchronous: what happens after he becomes emperor (losing sight of the China that he knows) explains how he became emperor in the first place (his ability to envision a different world). This is an explanation of what made Yao "Yao," how the Yao we know was smelted out of his encounter with the masters of the Maiden Mountain, the experience of losing his world, forgetting everything he (thinks he) knows.


jiān wú wèn yú lián shū yuē :「 wú wén yán yú jiē yú , dà ér wú dāng , wǎng ér bù fǎn 。 wú jīng bù qí yán , yóu hé hàn ér wú jí yě , dà yǒu jìng tíng , bù jìn rén qíng yān 。」


lián shū yuē :「 qí yán wèi hé zāi ?」


yuē :「 miǎo gū shè zhī shān , yǒu shén rén jū yān , jī fū ruò bīng xuě , nào yuē ruò chǔ zǐ , bù shí wǔ gǔ , xī fēng yǐn lù 。 chéng yún qì , yù fēi lóng , ér yóu hū sì hǎi zhī wài 。 qí shén níng , shǐ wù bù cī lì ér nián gǔ shú 。 wú yǐ shì kuáng ér bù xìn yě 。」


lián shū yuē :「 rán , gǔ zhě wú yǐ yǔ hū wén zhāng zhī guān , lóng zhě wú yǐ yǔ hū zhōng gǔ zhī shēng 。 qǐ wéi xíng hái yǒu lóng máng zāi ? fū zhī yì yǒu zhī 。 shì qí yán yě , yóu shí nǚ yě 。 zhī rén yě , zhī dé yě , jiāng páng bó wàn wù , yǐ wéi yī shì qí hū luàn , shú bì bì yān yǐ tiān xià wéi shì !


zhī rén yě , wù mò zhī shāng , dà jìn jī tiān ér bù nì , dà hàn 、 jīn shí liú 、 tǔ shān jiāo ér bù rè 。 shì qí chén gòu bǐ kāng , jiāng yóu táo zhù yáo 、 shùn zhě yě , shú kěn yǐ wù wéi shì ! sòng rén zī zhāng fǔ ér shì zhū yuè , yuè rén duàn fā wén shēn , wú suǒ yòng zhī 。 yáo zhì tiān xià zhī mín , píng hǎi nèi zhī zhèng , wǎng jiàn sì zǐ miǎo gū shè zhī shān , fén shuǐ zhī yáng , yǎo rán sāng qí tiān xià yān 。

Bootstrap said to his brother-in-law, “I was listening to Crazy Jie's talk. It was big but didn’t stand for anything, going on and on without coming back. It frightened me, as endless as the Milky Way, full of mishmash, with no bearing on the human condition.” 

The in-law asked, “What did he say?”

“He said there are wizards living in the distant Maiden Mountains. Their skin is like frost and they are gentle and restrained as children. They only eat what they can find, sip wind and drink dew. He said they mount the mists, ride flying dragons, and wander outside of the world. Their meditations keep things from harm and ripen the harvests. I thought he was crazy and didn’t believe him.” 

The in-law said, “Right. Blind people don't care for art or the deaf, music. But such deficits aren't confined to the body, the mind has them, too. His words were like a shy teenager, waiting for someone to understand them. Those people he describes, with their powers, bundle up the ten thousand things into one. Though world longs for chaos, why should make that their business?

These wizards are as invisible to us as Breezy is to the cricket, separated by the blue sky. They see the similarity of things, while the mind differentiates.

Nothing can harm them. Though a great flood should wash against heaven, they would not drown. Though a great draught should melt stone and scorch the earth, they would not burn. From their leavings alone you could make an Abraham Lincoln. Why would they want to make the world their business?

Lincoln is their after-image.

An entrepreneur from Florida stocked up on powdered wigs and stovepipe hats and shipped them out west, but the people out there grow their hair long and live on the beach, so they had no use for them. Abe Lincoln brought order to the world, but when he went to see the wizards in the distant Maiden Mountain, beyond the Mississippi, his world seemed like a distant memory.” [6]

This seems like an asychronous origin story. In order to envision a new reality, he had to forget the one he knew.




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