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

4:01

顏回見仲尼請行。

曰:「奚之?」

曰:「將之衛。」

曰:「奚為焉?」

曰:「回聞衛君,其年壯,其行獨,輕用其國,而不見其過,輕用民死,死者以國量乎澤,若蕉,民其无如矣。回嘗聞之夫子曰:『國去之,亂國就之,醫門多疾。』願以所聞思其則,庶幾其國有瘳乎!」

仲尼曰:「譆!若殆往而刑耳!夫道不欲雜,雜則多,多則擾,擾則憂,憂而不救。古之至人,先存諸己,而後存諸人。所存於己者未,何暇至於暴人之所行!

且若亦知夫之所蕩,而知之所為出乎哉?蕩乎名,知出乎爭。名也者,相軋也;知也者,爭之器也。二者凶器,非所以盡行也。

厚信矼,未;名聞不爭,未人心。而彊以仁繩墨之言術暴人之前者,是以人惡有其美也,之曰菑人。菑人者,人必反菑之,若殆為人菑夫!

且苟為悅賢而惡不肖,惡用而求有以異?若唯无詔,王公必將乘人而鬭其捷。而目將熒之,而色將平之,口將營之,容將形之,心且之。是以火救火,以水救水,名之曰益多,始无窮。若殆以不信厚言,必死於暴人之前矣。

且昔者桀殺關龍逢,紂殺王子比干,是皆脩其身以下傴拊人之民,以下拂其上者也,故其君因其脩以擠之。是好名者也。

昔者堯攻叢枝、胥敖,禹攻有扈,國為虛厲,身為刑戮,其用兵不止,其求實无已。是皆求名、實者也,而獨不聞之乎?名、實者,聖人之所不能勝也,而況若乎!

雖然,若必有以也,嘗以語我來!」

顏回曰:「端而虛,勉而一,則可乎?」

曰:「惡!惡可?夫以陽為充孔揚,采色不,常人之所不違,因案人之所感,以求容與其心。名之曰日漸之,而況大乎!將執而不化,外合而內不訾,其庸詎可乎!」

「然則我內直而外曲,而上比。內直者,與為徒。與為徒者,知天子之與己皆之所子,而獨以己言蘄乎而人善之,蘄乎而人不善之邪?若然者,人謂之童子,是之謂與為徒。

外曲者,與人之為徒也。擎、跽、曲拳,人臣之禮也,人皆為之,吾敢不為邪!為人之所為者,人亦无疵焉,是之謂與人為徒。

而上比者,與古為徒。其言雖教,讁之實也。古之有也,非吾有也。若然者,雖直不為病,是之謂與古為徒。若是,則可乎?」

仲尼曰:「惡!惡可?大多政,法而不諜,雖固,亦无罪。雖然,止是耳矣,夫胡可以及化!猶師心者也。」


Yan Hui asked Zhong Ni for permission to make a trip.

“Where are you going?” he said.

“To Wey.”

“What for?”

“I have heard that the Lord of Wey is young and willful. He trifles with his state and won't admit his mistakes. He is so careless with people’s lives that the dead fill the state like falling leaves in a swamp. The people have nowhere to turn. I have heard my teacher say, ‘Leave the well-governed state and go to the chaotic one. There are plenty sick people at the doctor’s door.’ I want to use what I have learned to think of a way that the state might be healed.” [1]

Zhongni said, “Sheesh! You’re just going to get yourself hurt. The way does not like complexity. Complexity quickly becomes too much. Too much leads to agitation, agitation leads to worry, and worry never solved anything. The perfect people of olden times first found it in themselves before looking for it in others. If what you’ve found in yourself isn’t settled yet, what leisure can you spare for this bully’s behavior?[2]

“Do you know how powers squandered and where knowledge comes from? Powers are squandered in fame and knowledge comes from struggle. People use fame to trample each other and knowledge as a weapon. Both of them are tools of ill-fortune, not the means of finishing your mission. [3]

“Though your powers are deep and your faith strong, you have not comprehended people's feelings. You’ve got a reputation for not being contentious but you have not comprehended the human mind. If you insist on parading standards of kindness and morality before this bully, you will just make him look bad in comparison to you. That’s antagonism, and one who antagonizes others is sure to be antagonized in return. You don’t want to antagonize him!

“Or just suppose he likes worthy people and dislikes the depraved, then what use is there in changing him? Better not to speak! Kings and dukes always ride people and force their submission. He’ll want to dazzle your eyes, nonpluss your expression, tongue-tie your mouth, cue your posture, and make up your mind. Trying to reform this kind of person is like piling fire on fire or water on water. It’s adding to the excessive. Your initial compliance won't end until he no longer trusts your good word. You will surely die at this bully’s hands.

In the past, the tyrant Jie murdered his worthy advisor Guan Longfeng and tyrant Zhou killed his uncle, Prince Bi Gan. Both cultivated themselves. They humbled themselves in order help the people and to prod their superiors. So their lords crushed them on account of their cultivation. Because they valued their reputation. [4]

In the past, Emperor Yao attacked Congzhi and  Xu-ao and Emperor Yu attacked Youhu. They destroyed the countries and slaughtered the people. Their use of arms was endless and their search for substance limitless. Both sought reputation and substance; haven't you heard? If even wise people can't resist reputations and substance, how can you? [5] 

Even so, you must have a plan. Come, tell me about it!”

Yan Hui said, “Suppose I am upright but dispassionate, energetic but not divisive. Would that work?”

"No! How could that work?” said Zhong Ni. “You’d use all your energy to sustain the empty show and your face would be unsettled. Other people can’t stand that, so they have to resist what you suggest in order to ease their own minds. If what you might call 'gradual powers' wouldn’t work, how much less such a great show of force! He’ll dig in his heels and resist change. Though he may seem well-disposed on the outside, on the inside he’ll never consider it. How could that ever work?”

Yan Hui said, “Then how about being inwardly straight but outwardly bending, having integrity but conforming to my superiors? By being inwardly straight, I could follow heaven. As a follower of heaven, I would know that the emperor and I are both children of heaven. If I speak only for myself, why worry about the approval or disapproval of other people? This way, I could be what people call 'childlike,' which is what I call 'following heaven.'

“By being outwardly bending, I could follow other people. Lifting the ceremonial tablets, kneeling, bending, bowing—this is the etiquette of a minister. Others do it, why shouldn’t I? So long as I do what other people do, who can complain? This is what I call 'following people.'

“Having integrity and conforming to superiors, one follows olden times. My words, whether they are in fact instructions or even criticisms, belong to antiquity; they are not my own. This way one can be straightforward without causing injury. This is what I call 'following olden times.' Would that work?”

Zhong Ni said, “No! How could that work? That's too many strategies. If you plan without reconnaissance, sure, you can avoid blame. But it would stop there. How could you hope to change him? You’re still making the mind your teacher.” [6]





[1] Confucius flirted with Duke Ling of Wey but eventually left in frustration when he realized the Duke was more interested in military conquest than in benevolent rule . This story probably involves Duke Ling's son or grandson. Although Confucius appears to have had little more to do with Wey after parting ways with Duke Ling (Analect 15.01), at least two of his students, Zilu and Zigong, worked in the state, and Zilu died there. It is possible that this story is a reflection on what Confucius might have done instead of walking away.

[2] You've got some work to do on yourself first before you can be in a position to instruct someone else. Zhuangzi is recommending the Confucian strategy of self-cultivation: fixing the world by fixing yourself. But, paradoxically, Zhuangzi's version of self-cultivation turns out to be a non-cultivation, one that isn't based on trying to earn a good reputation.

[3] Compare 2:04[3].

[4] Guan Longfeng and Bi Gan tried to help the world by being scrupulously moral themselves. If I understand this correctly, Zhuangzi's point is not, "Don't try to help the world because it is likely to get you killed." His point is, "Drawing attention to yourself by being scrupulously moral is not the right way to help the world." [See Guo XIang: if even Yao couldn't transform everyone with morality, how can you change this. guy empty-handed?]

[5] The terminology of name/reputation and substance is familiar from the monkey trainer in 2:06. There, however, differences in name seemed not to matter so long as substance was the same. Here, if I understand correctly, "substance" seems to stand for wealth and is considered as unimportant as name. The terms are paired again in 7:05, 8:07 and 12:05).

[6] Yan Hui's first suggestion, being "upright but dispassionate," sounds like the Confucian call to 明明 míngmíngdé, "let your shining virtue shine" (大學 Daxue 1). His second suggestion, "being inwardly straight but outwardly bending," sounds more like Zuangzi's own method of 葆光 bǎoguāng, the "shaded glow" (2:10). And yet, Confucius rejects it again, perhaps because it is still a self-conscious strategy. His criticism of "too many strategies" seems to be aimed at Yan Hui's three levels of following Heaven, people, and olden times. It is not clear to me how much Confucius's goal here is to save the state or just keep his young protege from getting killed.

This story is continued in 4:02.