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






Making a point to show that a point is not a point is not as good as making a non-point to show that a point is not a point. Using a horse to show that a horse is not a horse is not as good as using a non-horse to show that a horse is not a horse. Heaven and earth are one point, the ten thousand things are one horse. [1]

Okay? Okay. Not okay? Not okay. A way is made by walking it. A thing is so by calling it. How is it so? In so-ing it it is so. How is it not so? In not-so-ing it it is not so. There is always a way in which things are so. There is always a way in which things are okay. There is nothing that is not so, nothing that is not okay. You can insist on calling it a bean or a beam, a freak or the beautiful Xi Shi. No matter how diverse or strange, the way comprehends them as one. [2]

Dividing things completes them, and completing them ruins them. But nothing is completed or ruined when they are again comprehended as one. Only the penetrating person knows to comprehend them as one. Don’t insist but lodge in the usual. The usual is useful. You can use it to comprehend. And comprehending, you get it. Get it and you’re almost there. Just go along with thingsDoing that without claiming to knowing how things are is what I call the way. [3]

But exhausting the spirit trying to clarify the unity of things without knowing that they are all the same is called “three in the morning.” What do I mean by “three in the morning”? When the monkey trainer was passing out nuts he said, “You get three in the morning and four at night.” The monkeys were all angry. “All right,” he said, “you get four in the morning and three at night.” The monkeys were all pleased. With no loss in name or substance, he makes use of their joy and anger because he goes along with things. So the wise harmonize people with right and wrong and rest them on heaven’s wheel. This is what I call walking two roads. [4]

[1] Zhuangzi is poking fun at the School of Names thinker, Gongsun Long, who had essays titled 論, Zhǐwù Lùn, "On pointing at things," which is lost, and 白馬論Báimǎ Lùn, "White Horse Dialogue," in which he argues famously that a white horse is not a horse. Gongsun Long's precise logic is difficult to determine but the point, like Zeno's, may have been to argue in favor of the unity of all things by demonstrating the untenability of distinctions. Zhuangzi's friend, Hui Shi, made a similar argument, concluding "Love all things like a flood; heaven and earth are one body" (CTP 33.07). Zhuangzi is no doubt lumping the two together here, presumably continuing the argument he has been making in previous section, to let the unity of things speak for itself rather than try to prove it. The pipings of heaven in 2:01 would be an example of a non-point which shows that points are not points because they are all the same wind, or the tail-biting logic of big and little knowledge in 1:01.

[2] "The way comprehends them as one." The way/heaven/nature has room for all perspectives, a feat which we saw in chapter one seems impossible for people. It is not clear whether to understand "the way" as an abstract metaphysical principle or as a method to be followed. 

[3] This is a tricky paragraph. "Dividing things completes them": when we divide things into categories like beautiful and ugly, Xi Shi is completely beautiful and the poor freak is ruinously ugly. "But nothing is completed or ruined when they are again comprehended as one": that is, treated as the same, each being itself. "Don’t insist but lodge in the usual": There is some disagreement about what "the usual" is here. Some say the usual is the universal, what always is, the wind that underlies all the music of heaven. A less abstract interpretation is to take advantage of the usual definitions that people give to things without being committed to them; this would make more sense of the idea of lodging as a temporary abode and the statement in the next sentence that "the usual is useful." "Lodging" would thus be a form of "going along with things." I'm not sure what he means by "penetrate" but the final lines seem to reiterate the idea of working with custom without committing to it. (To do what?)

[4] I think the person referred to in the opening line as "exhausting the spirit trying to clarify the unity of things without knowing that they are all the same," is his friend Hui Shi, who is trying to prove logically that we should treat the world as one (leaving aside for the moment what that means). The monkey story is interesting. I told it to my mother and sister, thinking that the monkey trainer was the hero because he got the better of the stupid monkeys. My sister thought the monkeys were the heroes because they wrested a moral victory out of the dictatorial trainer. My mother didn't think it was a question of heroes, just a sad story about people trying to take advantage of each other. 

But let's think about how it would apply to Hui Shi. If all is one (as Hui Shi is trying to prove), then it is one whether you prove it or not. To put it differently, if all is one, then (people agreeing that all is one) and (people not agreeing) are also one (i.e. the same), so it make no difference whether you prove it or not. He's telling Hui Shi not to be like the monkeys. He may even be offering an alternative: instead of trying to change people's minds, work with the minds they have (i.e. "lodge in the usual) to bring about the desired effect (whatever that is), like the monkey trainer. Of course, if all is one, (Zhuangzi's convincing Hui Shi) and (Zhuangzi's not convincing him) are also one, so why is he telling the story?