Zhuangzi glossary


text and authorship

The Zhuangzi is a long book and mine is partial translation. As is usual with an old text, there are numerous versions extant, mostly with minor differences. For convenience, I use the Chinese Text Project (CTP) version. There is little question that the complete text is the product of many hands. This poses a problem for the translator trying to present the work as a unified, continuous whole. Speaking particularly on the problems posed by diversity in literary styles, Angus Graham, one the of the greatest recent scholars of Zhuangzi, said (and pardon the long quotation but it is worth it):

They treat Chuang-tzu [Zhuangzi] as though it were what is nowadays understood by a “book”, and present it as written in prose and divided into chapters composed of paragraphs; and they assume that, however disjointed, mutilated, even frankly unintelligible the original may be, however much its parts may differ in date, in thought and style, it is their duty to trudge forward from sentence to sentence, disguising the breaks, blurring the differences, assimilating the verse to the prose, in order to sustain the illusion of a smooth flow. . . A quite eerie effect is that . . . in the best translations Chuang-tzu suffers a strange mutation into a whimsical, garrulous wiseacre to whose ramblings you listen with half an ear in the confidence that every now and then he will startle you awake with a vivid phrase, a striking aphorism or a marvelous story. But this image of the great Taoist [Daoist] . . . has no relation to Chuang-tzu or any other writer in the book. (Graham, pp. 30-31)

If this is true of literary style, how much more so of philosophical perspectives! Different contributors have very different views, and trying to weave them into a single, unified vision inevitably ends in the creation of a Frankenstein's monster.

On the basis of linguistic and historical evidence, Graham identified five distinct  sources: Zhuangzi himself, a later "School of Zhuangzi," and three authors or groups of authors he calls "Primitivist," "Yangist," and "Syncretist." (Incidentally, it was a later Syncretist editor who Graham believes organized the text into chapters and named them.)  I am not completely convinced that different styles necessarily indicate different authors. Zhuangzi probably lived and wrote over a long period of time, so it would not be surprising if his views evolved and if changes in his perspective were characterized by different styles. This would be true of anyone but even more so of Zhuangzi, given his fascination with epiphany and transformation. 

Even if Zhuangzi went through moods and phases, not all of these moods and phases are as interesting to me as others. So, to avoid the problems cited in the quotation above and to cut through the philosophical noise, I follow Graham's reorganization, including only the sections he identifies as by Zhuangzi or the School of Zhuangzi. Alphabetized notes at the end of each page indicate where that passage comes from in standard versions of the text.