Zhuangzi glossary


my goals

There are plenty of excellent translations of Zhuangzi available, so why write another? The goal of a translation is to make the text make sense, which seems reasonable enough. The problem is, the more time I have spent with it, the less sense this text makes. Some stories go nowhere at all, like the yak in 1:07. Others seem to have a straight-forward moral on the surface but it fall apart on further inspection, like the traveler with the ointment in 1:06. The better a translation does at the job of making sense, the more it obscures this resistance to sense which is a hallmark of the text. So that is what I am trying to explore here, the ways in which the text does not make sense to me and why.

To be clear, it is not the case that I think Zhuangzi has the right answer and am trying to pass it on to the reader. Rather, I’m trying to put my finger on what it is about him that I have found so fascinating. Part of me fears that what attracts me are his skeptical arguments, particularly in the second chapter. (Everything you really need is in the first three chapters; the rest is icing on the cake.) He raises questions about how we can know what is good, both in specific cases and in general. But I fear the reason I am drawn to them is that they let me off the hook, like playing for a stalemate with my conscience. We’ve seen in recent years how dangerous that kind of easy skepticism can be as a shield for prejudice and inaction. On the other hand, another part of me feels that the skeptical issues he raises are real and important questions, not a cop-out. We have also seen in recent years the damage that can be done by well-intentioned but misguided attempts to help. If nothing else, Zhuangzi seems to understand a problem people too easily side-step: the difficulty of knowing what is good. His apparent confidence gives me hope he has a solution, but that is what I am trying to figure out.