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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子綦曰:「夫吹萬不同,而使其自已1也,咸其自,怒者其誰邪! [a] 其運乎?地其處乎?日月其爭於所乎?孰主張是?孰維綱是?孰居無事推而行是?意者其有機緘而不得已邪?意者其運轉而不能自止邪?雲者為雨乎?雨者為雲乎?孰隆施是?孰居無事淫樂而勸是?風起北方,一西一東,有上彷徨,孰噓吸是?孰居無事而披拂是?敢問何故?」

Mister Dapple of the South Wall sat leaning on his armrest. He looked up and sighed, vacant, as though he’d lost his partner. Yancheng Ziyou stood before him in attendance. “What’s this?” he said. “Can the body really be turned to dried wood? Can the mind really be turned to dead ashes? The one leaning on the armrest now is not the one who leaned on it before!” [1]

Mister Dapple said, “My, isn’t that a good question you’ve asked, Ziyou! Just now I lost myself. Do you know? You’ve heard the piping of people, but not the piping of earth. Or if you’ve heard the piping of earth, you haven’t heard the piping of heaven.”

“May I ask what you mean?”

“The big lump belches breath and it’s called wind. If only it wouldn’t start! When it starts, the ten thousand holes begin to hiss. Don’t you hear the shsh-shsh? As the mountain forests flap and flutter, great hundred-span trees have knot-holes like nostrils, like mouths, like ears, like sockets, like rings, like mortars, like gullies, like gorges gurgling, chortling, hissing, humming, shouting, shrieking, moaning, gnashing. The leaders sing “Hey!” The followers sing “Ho!” In a light breeze it’s a little chorus, but in a full gale it’s a huge orchestra. And when the violent winds are over, then holes are all empty. Haven’t you heard the brouhaha?” [2]

Ziyou said, “So the piping of earth are those holes, and the piping of people are bamboo flutes. May I ask about the piping of heaven?” [3]

Mister Dapple said, “Blowing the ten thousand differences, making each be itself and all choose themselves—who provokes it? Do the skies move? Does earth stay? Do the sun and moon vie for position? Who is in charge here? Who pulls the strings? Who sits with nothing to do, gives it a push and sets it in motion? Do you think it’s locked in motion and can’t be stopped? Or do you think it’s spinning out of control and can’t slow itself down? Do the clouds make the rain? Or does the rain make the clouds? Who rumbles all this out? Who sits there with nothing to do and takes perverse delight in egging it on? The wind rises in the north—now west, now east, now dilly-dallying up above. Who huffs and puffs it? Who sits with nothing to do and flaps it out? Tell me why!" [4]

[1] Dapple is spacing out and Ziyou asks him why. Some commentators have suggested that this is descriptive of a pre-Buddhist tradition of meditation in China.

[2] Mr. Dapple says he is listening to the music of nature. Ziyou asks him what he means and he goes off talking about the wind in the trees. The wind makes different sounds as it blows over the leaves, branches, knots, and trunks in the mountain forest. Zhuangzi anthropomorphizes the trees, describing them like people. At the same time he uses rhyme and onomatopoeia to [whatever is the opposite of "anthropomorphize"--naturalize?] the words, forcing us to listen to them as sounds, noise. Do "gurgle," "chortle," "hey" and "ho" have separate meanings or is the noise enough? So it's not just that trees make different sounds depending on the configurations of their trunks and branches, people sound different depending on the configurations of their throats and vocal cords. And it's not just that they sound different, but they say different things depending on the configurations of their minds. So, the things people say—the positions that we take and the arguments we make—are like the different sounds made by the wind blowing through the forest. We think that we agree and disagree, are right or wrong, but it's all just music coming out of our mouths as the same wind blows through us. When we hear the different noises of the forest, we don't ask which one is right. That would be bizarre. Why treat human discourse any differently? By putting language on the same level as noise, this may be an example of "prioritizing things even."

It raises the question: What is a meaning? What is a thought? Plato said ideas are real but who is to say they are not just the chimes that go off in our heads as the wind blows in through our ears; that the thoughts you are having right now aren't just the glockenspiel playing in your mind as your eyes run over the letter-shaped Rorschach squiggles on this screen?

[3] Ziyou misses the point. He thinks that the music of nature is the sound of the trees and the music of people is pipes and flutes, not language. But his missing the point is entirely consistent with the point: there is no fixed meaning, nothing to be right or wrong about, just the wind making different music as it blows through different people's minds. So Mr. Dapple doesn't correct him.

[4] One would expect Mr. Dapple here to refer to the wind, the invisible entity that it is same throughout all the differences. But he refers instead to the one blowing the wind, which seems to raise a different question: not "what is happening here" (the wind), but "how does it come about?" (who blows it?). My suspicion is that, since theistic questions have been so important in Western thought, we tend to jump on them whenever they appear; but since they were relatively unimportant in Chinese thought of this period, writers are casual about giving the impression. I'm inclined to dismiss it as poetic license: the questions "what is the wind?" and "who blows it?" are variations on a theme.

[a] Graham places the first 104 characters from the traditional chapter 14 here (Roth 13). Otherwise, Mr. Dapple's reply cuts off rather abruptly, and this passage seems to fit nicely. Also, an eighth century Buddhist commentator with access to a different, now lost, version of the text identified this passage as coming from the Inner Chapters