A Funhouse Mirror for the Soul

Just as the jester speaks truth to power, so the Zhuang Zi pokes fun at ossified beliefs for the improvement of your soul.

by Alan Jay Levinovitz Aeon

The Zhuang Zi has been my close friend for more than two decades, since we first met when I was an undergraduate, then all through my dissertation on it, and right up to the moment of this writing. Though theZhuang Zi is, technically, a book – a proto-Daoist Chinese classic authoredc300 BCE – my relationship with it differs from my relationship with any other book. I imagine that members of religious faiths feel like this about their revealed holy scriptures, which would be inexcusably diminished if understood simply as books.

But ‘holy scripture’ is no better when it comes to the Zhuang Zi. I do not venerate it. I consider it a partner, an adversary and a companion, one that learns from me and is changed by me, just as I learn from it and am changed by it every time we interact. Trust me: I know this book and, like any good friend, I’m pretty sure it would be unhappy at the thought of being venerated. (I understand that might sound strange but, then again, strange claims abound in the arena of sacred texts.)

Here too I’m running into problems, however. In speaking for the Zhuang Zi, I’m somewhat uncomfortable, just as I would be uncomfortable speaking for a friend. I’m not alone in my discomfort. Scholarly introductions to the Zhuang Zifrequently include disclaimers. Like Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, Master Zhuang – the supposed author of this eponymous mystery – appears to have engineered his work to resist definitive interpretation. The late translator and sinologist Burton Watson captured how it feels to attempt straightforward exegesis: ‘Whenever I sit down and try to write seriously about Zhuang Zi,’ he explained, ‘I seem, somewhere in the back of my head, to hear Zhuang Zi cackling away at the presumption and futility of such an endeavour.’

I embrace the cackling that Watson describes, relishing the discomfort that inevitably accompanies attempts to pin it down. Even calling it a friend is starting to seem inadequate, inaccurate. Once again, the book is changing as I try to write seriously about it. That’s fine. It’s not a friend anymore. This bizarre combination of masterful fables, poems, dialogues, myths and philosophical musings – it’s a funhouse mirror for your soul, taking a crack at your most deeply held beliefs, destabilising you, forcing you to work just to take yourself seriously.

But just because it’s a funhouse mirror doesn’t make it frivolous. On the contrary: the Zhuang Zi is a jester, whose job description is to improve its readers – or, better, to benefit them. Jesters, despite their apparent frivolity, were essential to the courts that employed them. In addition to providing entertainment, they had licence to violate norms, providing a unique check on tyranny of all kinds: political, moral, linguistic. They spoke truth to power, just as the Zhuang Zi speaks truth to the easy dogmas that fix themselves inside me like bumper stickers on my soul. Its therapeutic cackling softens ossified beliefs that for too long have gone unquestioned and unmocked.

The Five Elders. From Album of 18 Daoist Paintings by Zhang Lu (1464-1538). Ink and eight colours on gold-flecked paper. Courtesy the Shanghai Museum/Wikipedia

If Confucians, Mohists and other members of classical Chinese schools of thought contemporaneous with the first appearance of the Zhuang Zi saw themselves as producing exemplary gentlemen (junzi, 君子), then the Zhuang Zi acts as jester to those gentlemen, and all role models since. Gentlemen – and the texts they live by – are straightforward guides. They educate throughcataphasis: positive statements about the Good and the True. Jesters, by contrast, educate through apophasis, literally un-saying. Instead of statements, riddles; instead of commandments, questions. The gentleman supplies positive content, exemplary behaviour, a stable landing place for the student’s understanding, whereas the jester actively undermines the student’s ability to stabilise herself, providing content that is framed by an explicit or implicit negation: a raised eyebrow, a snicker, a punchline. If the preferred rhetorical form of the gentleman is the example, the preferred rhetorical form of the jester is the mystery, or perhaps the practical joke.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton loved the Zhuang Zi and produced a bookin 1965 that collected his translations of favourite passages. His ‘Note to the Reader’ concludes by remarking on the Zhuang Zi’s inscrutability:

The ‘way’ of Chuang Tzu [Master Zhuang] is mysterious because it is so simple that it can get along without being a way at all. Least of all is it a ‘way out’. Chuang Tzu would have agreed with St John of the Cross, that you enter upon this kind of way when you leave all ways and, in some sense, get lost.

Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian and author of I and Thou (1923), also produced a translation and commentary on passages from the Zhuang Zi. I would tell you more about what he thought, but now I’m afraid that leading with these great thinkers’ beliefs about the Zhuang Zi could be a mistake. What if you end up believing that Merton or Buber had figured out the Zhuang Zi? I would have turned the funhouse mirror into a portrait; explained the jester’s jokes before he got to tell them. The Zhuang Zi played a big role in the development of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. Can you imagine if your koans were prefaced with a book of answers?

Safer, instead, to stick with facts. Bracketing the problem of its meaning, theZhuang Zi also presents problems of authorship. It’s generally agreed that of the book’s 33 chapters, only the first seven – known as the Inner Chapters – are from the hand of a man named Zhuang Zhou (aka Zhuang Zi, or MasterZhuang), and the remainder were added at a later date. However, some experts claim that the Inner Chapters are themselves the product of different authors, leaving us with little certainty about how the work was composed.

This uncertainty contributes to the Zhuang Zi’s destabilising force. Does the entire book express a coherent philosophical vision, attributable, perhaps, to Guo Xiang (252-312 CE), the editor who compiled and reduced an original 52 chapters to the 33 that we have today? If not, can we at least read the Inner Chapters as if they were written by a single individual? Or is it our job to trawl through every chapter looking for the genuine insights of Zhuang Zhou, to be separated out from the surrounding chaff?

Even assuming unified authorship of the Inner Chapters, the biography of their author is sparse and poorly sourced. Scholarly disclaimers abound: ‘Little is known about Zhuang Zi…,’ write Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden in their collection of readings from classical Chinese philosophy. ‘Not much is known about Zhuang Zi…,’ says Brook Ziporyn in the introduction to his translation. ‘All we know about the identity of Zhuang Zi…,’ begins Watson’s introduction.

What follows these disclaimers is inevitably a brief and tentative history of Zhuang Zhou, culled from the book itself (not exactly a reliable source) and a short biography written by the great Chinese historian Sima Qian, nearly 200 years after Master Zhuang’s death. Apparently, he lived in the city of Meng, in the state of Song, during a time of great political turmoil called the Warring States Period. Sima Qian says he was employed as a minor official in ‘the lacquer garden’ – though no one knows whether that was an actual garden, a library, or something else entirely.

But does any of that even matter?

In annotating the first chapter of the Zhuang Zi, I’ve tried to capture my relationship with my friend – a friend with whom one can disagree about the most important things in life and come out better for doing so. In other words, I focus primarily on how the text speaks to and with me, not just what it might have meant to the author, or to other audiences in other times. This approach has precedents in Kuang Ming-Wu’s The Butterfly as Companion, the inimitable spirit of Master Yingning (攖寧子), and, further back, in the work of the 17th-century polymath and Buddhist monk Fang Yizhi (方以智), author of The Monk of Yaodi Roasts Zhuang Zi.

(Selections from the latter, along with many other traditional commentaries, can be found in Ziporyn’s translation of the Zhuang Zi, whose version of the first chapter I have borrowed with slight modifications.)

Alan Jay Levinovitz is an associate professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University in Virginia. He is the author of The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat (2015), The Limits of Religious Tolerance (2016) and the editor, with Daniel Boscaljon, of Teaching Religion and Literature (2018). 

Classic Text

Zhuang Zi

Chapter One: Wandering Far and Unfettered

From ‘Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings’ (2009), translated by Brook Ziporyn

With a new commentary by Alan Jay Levinovitz

‘Not being fish, how do we know their happiness? But we may express our feelings in our painting. In order to probe the subtleties of the ordinary, we must describe the indescribable.’ Detail from The Pleasures of the Fishes by Zhou Dongqing (1291). Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

There is a fish in the Northern Oblivion called Big BrotherRoe. This Big Brother Roe is gigantic, spanning who knows how many thousands of miles. He transforms into a bird named Phriendly Phoenix, and this Phriendly Phoenix has a serious back on him, stretching who knows how many thousands of miles. When he rouses himself and soars into the air, his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens. The oceans start to churn, and this bird begins his journey toward the Southern Oblivion. The Southern Oblivion – that is, the Pool of Heaven.

It’s hard not to take this opening passage seriously. Or is it? Is this really meant seriously? Is it really about the relativity of all perspectives and the ceaseless transformation of all living things, from eggs to creatures to carcasses? Because when you start your book with names that are puns, something tells me you can’t be too serious…

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Equalising Jokebook – the eponymous record of wonders that some call Equalising Harmony – reports the following: ‘When Phriendly Phoenix journeys to the Southern Oblivion, the waters ripple for 3,000 miles. Spiralling aloft, he ascends 90,000 miles and continues his journey without rest for half a year.’

It’s a galloping heat haze?! It’s a swirl of dust?! It’s some living creature blown aloft on a breath of the air?! And the blue-on-blue of the sky – is that the sky’s true colour? Or is it just the vast distance, going on and on without end, that looks that way?

When Phriendly Phoenix looks down, he too sees only this and nothing more.

The 13th-century interpreter Lin Xiyi wrote that this book might or might not exist. Zhuang Zhou, he said, has invented a story about a fish and a bird, and then invented a book to verify the story. Should I care? I should care. We academics spend a great deal of time trying to figure out who wrote the Zhuang Zi, and which chapters belong to which author. But what difference does it make? Imagine that I invented Lin Xiyi. Does that change the meaning of this comment? Does it change the meaning of the Zhuang Zi if there was no Zhuang Zhou who wrote it?

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Now, if water is not piled up thickly enough, it has no power to support a large vessel. Overturn a cupful of water in a hole in the road and you can float a mustard seed in it like a boat, but if you put the cup itself in there it will get stuck. The water is too shallow for so large a vessel. And if the wind is not piled up thickly enough, it has no power to support Phriendly Phoenix’s enormous wings. That is why he needs to put 90,000 miles of air beneath him. Only then can he ride the wind, bearing the blue of heaven on his back and unobstructed on all sides, and make his way south.

Phriendly Phoenix has something he depends on: wind piled up high. This will be important later, when I try to decide whether he is the ‘hero’ of this opening story.

The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at him, saying: ‘We scurry up into the air, leaping from the elm to the sandalwood tree, and when we don’t quite make it we just plummet to the ground. What’s all this about ascending 90,000 miles and heading south?’

On the one hand, these creatures seem foolish. On the other hand, they are the ones talking and laughing, while Phriendly Phoenix just silently spirals aloft, alone. I know which one I’d rather be – and, judging from the author’s talking and laughing, I know which one he’d rather be too!

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The White Deer Immortal. From Album of 18 Daoist Paintings by Zhang Lu (1464-1538).

If you go out on a day trip, you can return with your belly still full. If you’re travelling 100 miles, you’ll need to save up provisions for three months before you go. What do these two little creatures know? A small consciousness cannot keep up with a vast consciousness; short duration cannot keep up with long duration. How do we know? The morning mushroom knows nothing of the noontide; the winter cicada knows nothing of the spring and autumn. This is what is meant by short duration. In Southern Chu there is a tree called Mingling, for which 500 years is as a single spring, and another 500 years is as a single autumn. In ancient times, there was even one massive tree whose spring and autumn were each 8,000 years long. And yet nowadays, only Master Peng the Ancient One has a special reputation for longevity, and everyone tries to match him. Pathetic, isn’t it?

Only a small consciousness would take this statement as a judgment about the superiority of vast consciousness.

It never fails to crack me up that later Daoists were obsessed with techniques meant to extend life. ‘Didn’t they read the Zhuang Zi?’ I ask myself. Then I realise that in asking that question I’m being pathetic too – and who says that being pathetic is so bad, anyway?

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Tang’s questions to Ji also have something about this:

In the barren northland there is a dark ocean, called the Pool of Heaven. There is a fish there several thousand miles across with a length that is as yet unknown named Big Brother Roe. There’s a bird there named Phriendly Phoenix with a back like Mt Tai and wings like clouds draped across the heavens. Whorling upward, he ascends 90,000 miles, breaking through the clouds and bearing the blue of the sky on his back, and then heads south, finally arriving at the Southern Oblivion. The quail laughs at him, saying: ‘Where does he think he’s going? I leap into the air with all my might, but before I get farther than a few yards I drop to the ground. My twittering and fluttering between the bushes and branches is the utmost form of flying! So where does he think he’s going?’ Such is the difference between the large and the small.

If Tang’s questions to Ji have the same story, it must be true! But still, I’m left wondering where the cicada went. Is the quail talking to itself?

Ocean. From Album of 18 Daoist Paintings by Zhang Lu (1464-1538).

And he whose sagacity is sufficient to fill some post, whose deeds meet the needs of some village, or whose virtuosity pleases some ruler, thus winning him a country to presideover, sees himself in just the same way. Even Master Song Rong would burst out laughing at such a man. If the whole world happened to praise Master Song Rong, he would not be goaded onward; if the whole world condemned him, he would not be deterred. He simply made a sharp and fixed division between the inner and the outer, and clearly discerned where true honour and disgrace are to be found. He did not involve himself in anxious calculations in his dealings with the world. But nonetheless, there was still a sense in which he was not yet really firmly planted.

Later in the chapter, someone wins a fiefdom and it seems like a good thing. When I read that story, I like to remember this passage, a sort of pre-emptive punchline that’s too easily forgotten.

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Master Song Rong laughs, just like the cicada and the fledging dove laughed at Phriendly Phoenix. But that means the person whose sagacity is sufficient to fill one post is like Phriendly Phoenix! That can’t be right, unless my small consciousness simply isn’t up to the task of understanding the parallelism here.

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Now, Master Lie rode forth upon the wind, weightlessly graceful, not heading back until 15 days had passed. He did not involve himself in anxious calculations about bringing good fortune to himself. Although this allowed him to avoid the exertions of walking, there was still something he needed to depend on.

This word, 福, has also been translated as ‘happiness’ and ‘wealth’. In English, German and a few other languages, luck and happiness are cognate – ‘happy’ and ‘happenstance’, ‘Glück’ and ‘glücklich’. On the relation of these to wealth, see the Grimm Brothers’ taleHans in Luck (Hans im Glück).

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So HE’S Phriendly Phoenix, dependent, like him, on the wind.

The Daoist Philosopher Liezi. From Album of 18 Daoist Paintings by Zhang Lu (1464-1538).

But suppose you were to chariot upon what squares with heaven and earth, riding atop the back-and-forth of the six basic forces, so that your wandering could nowhere be brought to a halt? You would then be depending on – what? Thus I say, the consummate person has no fixed identity, the spirit man has no particular merit, the sage has no one name.

When Sage Emperor Yao went to cede the empire to the hermit Xu You, he said: ‘To keep the torches burning in broad daylight would be making needless trouble for oneself. To continue watering one’s garden during heavy rainfall would be pointless labour. No, you, sir, so much as appear in the world and at once it is well-ordered. And yet here I am, playing the master and acting like I control it all. I feel I am greatly deficient. Please accept the rulership of this world from me.’

It was all a set-up. Fang Yizhi says the following about this passage: ‘Only the truly self-so say nothing about the self-so.’ If he’s right, then the author of the passage is not a sage… so why should we trust anything he says? At the same time, if Fang Yizhi is right, then he is also not a sage. Worst of all, now I’ve been caught thinking that only sages can be trusted to talk about what it is to be a sage. Pathetic, isn’t it!

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Xu You replied: ‘You rule the world, and the world is thus already ruled however you rule it. If I were nonetheless to take your place, would I be doing it for the name? But name is merely a guest of what is really substantial. Shall I then play the role of the guest? The tailorbird lives in the depths of a vast forest but uses no more than a single branch to make its nest. When the beaver drinks from the river, it takes only enough to fill its belly. Go home, my lord! I have no use for an empire. Even if the cook isn’t keeping the kitchen in order, that doesn’t mean the spirit-medium or the priest needs to leap over the sacrificial vessels to replace him!’

It is becoming increasingly difficult to see the cicada and the fledging dove as inferior to Phriendly Phoenix. Since we are already who we are, is this passage simply advocating complacence or inertia? I can imagine that if the cook fell ill, some help from the spirit-medium or the priest in the kitchen might be welcome, especially if they are good chefs.

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Jian Wu said to Lian Shu: ‘I was listening to the words of the madman Jieyu. He talked big without getting at anything, going on and on without getting anywhere. I was shocked and terrified by what he said, which seemed as limitless as the Milky Way – vast and excessive, with no regard for the way people really are.’

Lian Shu asked: ‘What in the world did he say?’

‘He said that there is a spirit man living on distant Mt Guye with skin like ice and snow, gentle and yielding like a virgin girl. This spirit man does not eat the five grains but rather feeds on the wind and dew. He rides upon the air and clouds, as if hitching his chariot to soaring dragons, wandering beyond the four seas. He concentrates his spirit, and straightaway all things are free from sickness and the harvest matures.’

‘I regard this as crazy talk,’ added Jian Wu, ‘and I refuse to believe it.’

Madman Jieyu mocks Confucius inThe Analects, and appears again in Chapter Four of the Zhuang Zi, where he sings a song calling Confucius ‘Phoenix’ and asserting that Confucius’s virtue is fading.

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Mountains. From Album of 18 Daoist Paintings by Zhang Lu (1464-1538).

‘That’s just as it should be,’ replied Lian Shu. ‘The blind have no access to the beauty of visual patterns, and the deaf have no part in the sounds of bells and drums. It is not only the physical body that can be blind and deaf; the faculty of understanding can also be so, as you justdemonstrated. A man like the one described in these words blankets all things with his virtuosity, allowing the present age to seek out its own chaotic order. How could he be bothered to try to manage the world? This man is harmed by no thing. A flood can reach the sky without drowning him; a drought can melt the stones and scorch the mountains without scalding him. From his dust and chaff you could mould yourself Sage Emperors Yao and Shun. Why would he bother himself over mere beings? A ceremonial cap salesman of Song once travelled to Yue, where the people shave their heads and tattoo their bodies – they had no use for such things. After Yao brought all the people of the world under his rule and put all within the four seas into good order, he went off to see four of these masters of distant Mt Guye at the bright side of the Fen River. Astonished at what he saw there, he forgot all about his kingdom.’

Master Hui said to his good friend Master Zhuang: ‘The King of Wei gave me the seed of a great gourd. I planted it, and when it matured it weighed more than 100 pounds. I filled it with liquid, but it was not firm enough to lift. I cut it in half to make a dipper, but it was too large to scoop into anything. It was big and all, but because it was so useless, I finally just smashed it to pieces.’

Sorry: I’m with Jian Wu here. Not a popular position in the history of Zhuang Zicommentaries, but there it is. No way that there’s a spirit man with skin like ice and snow who feeds on the wind and dew. In fact, this kind of nonsense persists into the present day, with people who claim to survive only on air, water and sunlight, so-called Breatharians. I think this whole passage is a trick – Lian Shu sounds profound, but really he’s just making up stuff. It’s Jian Wu we should be paying attention to.

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Master Zhuang said: ‘You are certainly stupid when it comes to using big things. There was once a man of Song who was skilled at making a balm to keep the hands from chapping. For generations, his family had used it to make a living washing silk. A customer heard about it and asked to buy the recipe for 100 pieces of gold. The family got together and consulted, saying: “We’ve been washing silk for generations and have never earned more than a few pieces of gold; now in one morning we can sell the technique for 100. Let’s do it.” The customer took the balm and presented it to the king of Wu. When Yue started a war with him, the king made the man a general who led his soldiers through a winter water battle with the men of Yue and won a big victory. The man was then enfeoffed as a feudal lord. The power to keep the hands from chapping was one and the same, but one man used it to get an enfeoffment and another couldn’t even use it to avoid washing silk. The difference is all in the way the thing is used. You, on the other hand, had a gourd of more than 100 pounds. How is it that you never thought of making it into an enormous vessel for yourself and floating through the lakes and rivers in it? Instead, you worried that it was too big to scoop into anything, which I guess means our greatly esteemed master here still has a lot of tangled weeds clogging up his thinker!’

Basically every commentator I’ve ever read sides with Master Zhuang. He’s the guy we’re supposed to admire. But think about how you’d feel if your friend actually responded to you in this way. I’d be angry. Not only that, but I find it hard to believe a sage whom we’re supposed to emulate would write a book in which he stars as the self-evident hero. More likely there is no person we are supposed to emulate – as it says earlier in this chapter, the ‘sage has no one name’.

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This is where I place the pre-emptive punchline, to destabilise my temptation to read this as a narrative in which the silk-washers are stupid and the customer is clever: ‘And he whose sagacity is sufficient to fill some post, whose deeds meet the needs of some village, or whose virtuosity pleases some ruler, thus winning him a country to preside over, sees himself in just the same way.’ Is it really so great to become a feudal lord? Should this random man leap over the sacrificial vessels and take the place of a ruler?

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Xin 心 can also be translated as ‘heart,’ ‘mind’ or ‘heart-mind’, since it was believed that the heart was the organ responsible for cogitation.

Master Hui said to Master Zhuang: ‘I have a huge tree that people call the Stink Tree. The trunk is swollen and gnarled, impossible to align with any level or ruler. The branches are twisted and bent, impossible to align with any T-square or carpenter’s arc. Even if it were growing right in the road, a carpenter would not give it so much as a second glance. And your words are similarly big but useless, which is why they are rejected by anyone who hears them.’

Yet here we are, reading the words of Master Hui and Master Zhuang.

Master Zhuang said: ‘Haven’t you ever seen a wildcat or a weasel? They crouch low to await their prey, pouncing now to the east and now to the west, leaping high and low. But this is exactly what lands them in traps, and they end up dying in nets. But take a yak: it is big like the clouds draped across the heavens. Now, that’s something that is good at being big – but of course it cannot catch so much as a single mouse. You, on the other hand, have this big tree, and you worry that it’s useless. Why not plant it in our homeland of not-even-anything, in the vast wilds of open nowhere? Then you could laze around and wander there, doing lots of nothing at its side, and take yourself a nap, far-flung and unfettered, right under it. It will never be cut down by axe or saw. Nothing will harm it. Since it has nothing for which it can be used, what could entrap or afflict it?’

Just like Phriendly Phoenix’s wings are draped across the sky.

Zhuang Zi (or Master Zhuang, c369-286 BCE) is commonly thought to be the author of the classic philosophical work of the same name, the Zhuang Zi. There is little biographical detail about Zhuang Zi’s life, and the extent of his authorship of the text is likewise unknown. The Zhuang Zi and its early versions of Daoist thought has greatly influenced the development of Buddhism in China.

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