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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Huizi asked Zhuangzi, “Can people really have no essence?” [1]

Zhuangzi said, “Yes, they can.”

Huizi said, “But if they have no essence, how can you call them people?” [2]

Zhuangzi said, “The way gave them a face. Nature gave them a form. Why not call them people?”

Huizi said, “But if you say they’re people, how can they have no essence?” [3]

Zhuangzi said, “Rights and wrongs are what I mean by ‘essence.’ By ‘no essence,’ I mean people not letting good and bad in to hurt them. Follow the self-so and do not help life.” [4]

Huizi said, “How can people exist without helping life?” [5]

Zhuangzi said, “The way gave them a face. Nature gave them a form. —By not letting likes and dislikes in to harm you, that’s how. But you shut out your spirit and exhaust your vitality, leaning on a podium ranting, slumping at your desk and napping. Nature chose a form for you, and you use it to sing logic! [6] 

[1] Huizi's opening question here may refer specifically to 5.05 or he may be asking in general about Zhuangzi's invisible sage; whether it is possible for people to have no qualities. 情 qíng, translated here as "essence," has many meanings. It can mean the facts of the matter; for instance, Zigao used it in 4:03 to refer to the details of his assignment. In Mohist logic, it means the defining characteristics of a thing. In later usage, it will come to mean feelings or passions. Understanding this passage requires following these shifting meanings.

[2] Huizi is probably invoking the logical meaning of the term here: If they don't meet the defining characteristics of people, how can you call them people? He may also be drawing on the other meanings: If there is no fact of the matter here and/or if they have no feelings, are they still human?

[3] Here Huizi is insisting on the logical meaning: If you call them people, how can they not meet the defining characteristics?

[4] Despite Graham's claim that 情 qíng never means "passions" in pre-Han literature (Graham, 57), Zhuangzi's definition of it here as 是非, 好惡, rights and wrongs, goods and bads, comes pretty close. Preferences? Values? Truths?

[5] What exactly is Huizi asking here? 益 yì means to benefit or add to. The phrase translated "exist" is literally "have a body."

[6] Zhuangzi made fun of Huizi for leaning on his desk in 2:07, as well. How are we to interpret this as a conversation between Zhuangzi and his friend, especially if as has been suggested, Huizi is one of his prime audiences. Does Zhuangzi simply change the subject at the end in order to take a cheap shot at his friend? Remember, Huizi's goal is to prove the truth through logical argument. Perhaps Zhuangzi's point here is similar to what he said elsewhere, that whether or not I manage to find the self (2:03), the unity of things (2:06), or here the human essence, it makes no difference as to its truth. He may be encouraging Huizi to rely on the truth without trying to know or prove it.