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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Emperor Yao offered his empire to the hermit Xu You. “Not extinguishing torches while the sun and moon are shining is overdoing light. Irrigating fields during the rain is overkill on water. With you here, sir, the world is in order. So long as I still oversee it, I feel defective. Please take it.” [1]

Xu You said, “With you ordering it, the world is well ordered. If I were to go ahead and replace you, would it be for the title? But title is only the guest of reality. Do I want to be the guest? The tailor bird nesting in the deep forest takes no more than a branch. The mole drinking at the river takes no more than a bellyful. [2] Give it up, my lord. I have no use for the world. [3] Though the cook at the sacrifice fails to order the kitchen, the priest overseeing the ceremony does not leap over the goblets and platters to replace him.” [4]

[1] The sage king Yao was a hero of the Confucians, who upheld the traditional morality. Their antagonists were the Mohists, follower of Mozi, who advocated the revolutionary doctrine of universal love. Though Zhuangzi was not in favor to the Confucians' and Mohists' perennial debates, as we shall see, he had more mixed feelings about Confucius himself. In this story, the hermit Xu You somehow makes Yao feel superfluous, like a streetlamp on during the day or a sprinkler in the rain, as though realizing what he thinks of as his power is unnecessary.

[2] What is Xu You saying here? Is he that saying that if he, Xu You, were to take on the empire, it would be occupying more than a branch? Or is he saying that, by not only ruling the empire, but also wanting to cede it, Yao is drinking more than a bellyful?

[3] 休 xiū "give up," literally "retire," describes what Yao was doing in the first place, when he tried to cede the empire to Xu You. Now Xu You is telling him, in effect, to give up giving up. Where will it end?

[4] What does this last anecdote about the cook at the sacrifice mean? It could be that Yao is like the cook who is uncertain how to do his job (run the empire); but that doesn't make it the priest's (Xu You's) job to step in for him. However the word translated as "oversee," 尸 shī, is the same word that Yao used a moment ago to describe himself, "overseeing over the empire." (Incidentally, it also means "corpse," since the person impersonating the dead oversees the sacrifice.) This suggests that Xu You is the incompetent cook and Yao is the one who need not step in and replace him as a hermit. We saw in 1:03 that the true sage may be unknown and ineffective. Could Xu You take it as a sign of failure on his own part that Yao has noticed him and sought him out? Looking ahead to 1:05 and the idea that Yao might represent someone in the process of learning, another question to ask is what he (Yao) gets out of this episode. Guo Xiang reads this story not as a repudiation of Yao but as an explanation for his greatness: it was precisely because he was willing to relinquish the empire that he was able to lead it.

It is a common feature of many of Zhuangzi's stories that it is hard to tell who is the hero and who the goat, or who the teacher and who the student. Often, there seems to be an obvious moral on the first read, like here that Xu You is making a fool of Yao, which falls apart under closer inspection. Though I am not sure of the purpose, it happens too often to be an accident. 

Bonus: I made a little flip book for the seventh and eighth graders inspired by this story called The Man Who Had Everything. (See here for instructions on flip books:


yáo ràng tiān xià yú xǔ yóu , yuē :「 rì yuè chū yǐ , ér jué huǒ bù xī , qí yú guāng yě , bù yì nán hū ! shí yǔ jiàng yǐ , ér yóu jìn guàn , qí yú zé yě , bù yì láo hū ! fū zǐ lì ér tiān xià zhì , ér wǒ yóu shī zhī , wú zì shì quē rán , qǐng zhì tiān xià 。」

xǔ yóu yuē :「 zǐ zhì tiān xià , tiān xià jì yǐ zhì yě 。 ér wǒ yóu dài zǐ , wú jiāng wéi míng hū ? míng zhě , shí zhī bīn yě , wú jiāng wéi bīn hū ? jiāo liáo cháo yú shēn lín , bù guò yī zhī ; yǎn shǔ yǐn hé , bù guò mǎn fù 。 guī xiū hū jūn ! yú wú suǒ yòng tiān xià wéi 。 páo rén suī bù zhì páo , shī zhù bù yuè zūn zǔ ér dài zhī yǐ 。」

Abraham Lincoln wanted to surrender the world to Geronimo. "I feel like a streetlight on in the day or a sprinkler running in the rain. But everything is fine with you. Please take it!"

Geronimo said, "You're in charge and the world is fine. If I were to replace you, would it be for the title? Titles are guests of reality. Do I want to play the guest? The hummingbird nests on a twig. The goldfish reigns in its bowl. Relax. Even if the cook fumbles a knife, the maître d' doesn't dive over the counter to catch it!"

The man who had everything wanted to give it to a hobo. "I feel like a streetlight on in the day or a sprinkler running in the rain. But everything is fine with you. Please take it!"

The hobo said, "Where would I put it? And what would I do with it, anyway? Everything is fine with you. The hummingbird nests on a twig. The goldfish reigns in its bowl. Relax. Even if the cook fumbles a knife, the maître d' doesn't jump the counter to catch it!"