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

Chapter and Section:
Author first name:
Author surname:


Chapter 1: The hippy-dippy trip

or Ponder yonder wander



In the northern obscurity is a fish, Roe. I don't know how many thousands of miles around he is. He changes and becomes a bird named Breeze. I don't know how many thousands of miles across she is. When she ruffles and flies, her wings drape like clouds from heaven. As the seas turn, she thinks to migrate to the southern obscurity. The southern obscurity is nature's pool.[1]

The Tales of Qi record wonders. They say, “In migrating to the southern obscurity, Breeze flaps along the water for three thousand miles, spirals up on a whirlwind to ninety thousand miles, and goes six months at a stretch.”  Wild horses, clouds of dust, the breath people blow at each other. Is the purple of heaven its true color or just its being so endlessly far away? She only stops rising when it looks this way to her gazing down from above.

If water isn’t deep it can’t support big boats. Spill a cup of water on the floor and crumbs will float like ships. But place the cup there and it will run aground—because the water is too shallow and the boat too big. If wind isn’t deep it can’t support big wings. This is why Breeze rises ninety thousand miles with the wind there beneath her. Only then can she rest on the wind, carrying blue heaven on her back, and nothing can abort her. Only then does she set her sights to the south. [2]

The cicada and the student-dove laugh at her, saying, “When we start up and fly, we struggle for the elm or the sandalwood. Sometimes we don’t even make it but just plunk to the ground. What is she doing rising ninety thousand miles and heading south?” People going to the purple meadows can bring three meals and return with their bellies still full. People going a hundred miles need to grind grain for an overnight. People going a thousand miles need to gather grain for three months. What do these two vermin know? [4]

Little knowledge does not reach big knowledge, or few years many. How do I know? The morning mushroom can't imagine the cycles of the moon, nor does the summer cricket have any idea of spring or fall, because they are short-lived. South of Chu there is Ole Soul, which counts five hundred years as a spring and five hundred years as a fall. Way back there was Big Stink tree that took eight thousand years as a spring and eight thousand years as a fall. Nowadays only eight-hundred-year-old Grandpa Peng is famous, and everyone compares themselves to him. Isn’t it sad? [5]



This is what great King Tang asked his teacher, Cramped. In the bald north there is an obscure sea, heaven’s pool. There is a fish there tens of thousands of miles across. No one knows his length. His name is Roe. There is a bird there named Breeze with a back as huge as a great mountain and are like clouds hanging from heaven. She spirals up on the whirlwind ninety thousand miles, bursts through the cloudy mists, and shoulders the blue sky. Afterwards she heads south, traveling to the southern darkness. [1]

The quarrelsome quail laughs at her, saying, “Where is she going? I rear up and don’t go more than few yards before coming down, soaring and roaming amid brambles and briars—this indeed is the perfection of flying! Where is she going?” This is the difference between little and big. [2]



People who have the knowledge for one job, the manners for one town, or the powers to impress one ruler to get put in charge of one country see themselves like this. Song Rongzi would  laugh at them the same way. The whole world could praise him and he wouldn't be pleased or condemn him and he wouldn't be upset. He has settled the difference between inner and outer and distinguished the limits of glory and disgrace. Yet he stops there. With regard to the world, he didn't keep score, but there is still something he left unplanted. [1]

Liezi rides the wind around. There's nothing like it! He’s gone two weeks at a time. He doesn't count his money but, though he avoids walking, he relies on something. If he could mount the world's regularities and ride the changing weather to travel forever, then what would there be to rely on? [2]

So I say that perfect people have no selves, spiritual people have no accomplishments, and wise people have no names. [3]



Emperor Yao offered his empire to the hermit Xu You. “Not extinguishing torches while the sun and moon are shining is overdoing light. Irrigating fields during the rain is overkill on water. With you here, sir, the world is in order. So long as I still oversee it, I feel defective. Please take it.” [1]

Xu You said, “With you ordering it, the world is well ordered. If I were to go ahead and replace you, would it be for the title? But title is only the guest of reality. Do I want to be the guest? The tailor bird nesting in the deep forest takes no more than a branch. The mole drinking at the river takes no more than a bellyful. [2] Give it up, my lord. I have no use for the world. [3] Though the cook at the sacrifice fails to order the kitchen, the priest overseeing the ceremony does not leap over the goblets and platters to replace him.” [4]



Bootstrap said to Step-Brother, “I heard what Jie Yu said. It was big but didn’t stand for anything. It went on and on without coming back. I was frightened by it, as endless as the Milky Way, full of mishmash, with no bearing on the human condition.” [1]

Step-Brother asked, “What did he say?”

“He said there are spiritual people living in the distant Maiden Mountain. Their skin is like frost and they are gentle and restrained as virgins. They don’t eat the five grains but sip wind and drink dew. They mount the cloudy mists, ride the flying dragons, and wander beyond the four seas. By concentrating their spirit, they keep things from harm and ripen the harvests. I thought he was crazy and didn’t believe him.” [2]

Step-Brother said, “Yes. The blind can't relate to art or the deaf to music. But are blindness and deafness confined to the physical body? The mind has them, too. His talk is like a woman in her season. Those people he describes, with those powers, will line up the ten thousand things and make them one. The world longs for chaos, but why should they fret and make the world their business? [3]  

Nothing can harm these people. Though a great flood should knock against heaven, they would not drown. Though a heat wave should melt stone and scorch the earth, they would not burn. From their dust and chaff you could smelt an Emperor Yao or Emperor Shun. Why would they want to make things their business? [4]

A man of Song invested in ceremonial caps and took them to Yue. But the Yue people cut their hair and tattoo their bodies and had no use for them. [5] Emperor Yao brought order to the people of the empire and stabilized the government within the seas. But when he went to see the four masters of the distant Maiden Mountain, north of the Fen River, he lost the world in a daze.” [6]



Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “The King of Wei gave me the seeds of a big gourd. I planted them, and when they grew the fruit was a yard across. I filled them with water but they weren’t sturdy enough to hold it. I split them into ladles but they were too big to dip into anything. It wasn’t that they weren’t fantastically big, but they were useless. So I smashed them.” [1]

Zhuangzi said, “You are certainly clumsy about using big things, sir. There were some people in Song who were good at making ointment to prevent chapped hands. Year after year, they used it in their business bleaching silk. A traveler heard about it and asked to buy the formula for a hundred pieces of gold. The clan assembled and consulted, saying, ‘For years we’ve bleached silk and never made more than a few pieces of gold. Today in a single morning we can sell the trick for a hundred pieces. Let’s give it to him!’

“The traveler got it and recommended it to the king of Wu, who was having trouble with the state of Yue. The king of Wu put him in command, and that winter he met the men of Yue in a naval battle. Using the ointment to keep his soldiers’ hands from chapping, he defeated Yue badly and was rewarded with a portion of the conquered territory. The ability to prevent chapped hands was the same in either case. But one gained territory while the others never escaped bleaching silk because what they used it for was different. [2]

Now you had these gigantic gourds. Why not lash them together like big buoys and go floating on the rivers and lakes instead of worrying that they were too big to dip into anything? Your mind is full of weeds, my friend.” [3]



Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “I have a big tree, the kind people call Spring Tree. Its trunk is so gnarled and knotted it won’t take a chalk line, and its branches are so twisted they won’t fit a compass or square. It stands by the road but no builder looks twice at it. Your talk is similarly big and useless, and everyone alike rejects it.” [1]

Zhuangzi said, “Haven’t you seen a weasel? It crouches down then rises up. It springs east and west, not worrying about heights or depths—and lands in a snare or dies in a net. Now the yak is so big he looks like clouds hanging from heaven. He sure can be big, but he can’t catch mice. [2]

You have a big tree and are upset that you can’t use it. Why not plant it by a nothing-at-all village in a big empty waste? You could do nothing, dilly-dally by its side or take a hippy-dippy nap beneath it. It won’t fall to an ax’s chop and nothing will harm it. Since it's no use, what bad can happen to it?” [3]



Sorting things in



Mister Dapple of the South Wall sat leaning on his armrest. He looked up and sighed, vacant, as though he’d lost his partner. Yancheng Ziyou stood before him in attendance. “What’s this?” he said. “Can the body really be turned to dried wood? Can the mind really be turned to dead ashes? The one leaning on the armrest now is not the one who leaned on it before!” [1]

Mister Dapple said, “My, isn’t that a good question you’ve asked, Ziyou! Just now I lost myself. Do you know? You’ve heard the piping of people, but not the piping of earth. Or if you’ve heard the piping of earth, you haven’t heard the piping of heaven.”

“May I ask what you mean?”

“The big lump belches breath and it’s called wind. If only it wouldn’t start! When it starts, the ten thousand holes begin to hiss. Don’t you hear the shsh-shsh? As the mountain forests flap and flutter, great hundred-span trees have knot-holes like nostrils, like mouths, like ears, like sockets, like rings, like mortars, like gullies, like gorges gurgling, chortling, hissing, humming, shouting, shrieking, moaning, gnashing. The leaders sing “Hey!” The followers sing “Ho!” In a light breeze it’s a little chorus, but in a full gale it’s a huge orchestra. And when the violent winds are over, then holes are all empty. Haven’t you heard the brouhaha?” [2]

Ziyou said, “So the piping of earth are those holes, and the piping of people are bamboo flutes. May I ask about the piping of heaven?” [3]

Mister Dapple said, “Blowing the ten thousand differences, making each be itself and all choose themselves—who provokes it? Do the skies move? Does earth stay? Do the sun and moon vie for position? Who is in charge here? Who pulls the strings? Who sits with nothing to do, gives it a push and sets it in motion? Do you think it’s locked in motion and can’t be stopped? Or do you think it’s spinning out of control and can’t slow itself down? Do the clouds make the rain? Or does the rain make the clouds? Who rumbles all this out? Who sits there with nothing to do and takes perverse delight in egging it on? The wind rises in the north—now west, now east, now dilly-dallying up above. Who huffs and puffs it? Who sits with nothing to do and flaps it out? Tell me why!" [4]