Zhuangzi – Nan Hua Zhen Jing (The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua)
Dschuang Dsi: Das wahre Buch vom südlichen Blütenland. Übersetzt von Richard Wilhelm, Anaconda
(From Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization : A Sourcebook, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 28-31)
Hui Shi said to Zhuangzi, “I have a large tree, of the sort people call a shu tree. Its trunk is too gnarled for measuring lines to be applied to it, its branches are too twisted for use with compasses or T-squares. If you stood it on the road, no carpenter would pay any attention to it. Now your talk is similarly vast but useless, people are unanimous in rejecting it.”
Zhuangzi replied, “Haven’t you ever seen a wildcat or a weasel? It crouches down to wait for something to pass, ready to pounce east or west, high or low, only to end by falling into a trap and dying in a net But then there is the yak. It is as big as a cloud hanging in the sky. It has an ability to be big, but hardly an ability to catch mice. Now you have a large tree but fret over its uselessness. Why not plant it in Nothing At All town or Vast Nothing wilds? Then you could roam about doing nothing by its side or sleep beneath it. Axes will never shorten its life and nothing w ill ever harm it. If you are of no use at all, who will make trouble for you?”
How do I know that enjoying life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death we are not like people who got lost in early childhood and do not know the way home? Lady Li was the child of a border guard in Ai. When first captured by the state of Jin, she wept so much her clothes were soaked. But after she entered the palace, shared the king’s bed, and dined on the finest meats, she regretted her tears. How do I know that the dead do not regret their previous longing for life? One who dreams of drinking wine may in the morning weep; one who dreams weeping may in the morning go out to hunt. During our dreams we do not know we are dreaming. We may even dream of interpreting a dream. Only on waking do we know it was a dream. Only after the great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream. And yet fools think they are awake, presuming to know that they are rulers or herdsmen. How dense! You and Confucius are both dreaming, and I who say you are a dream am also a dream. Such is my tale. It will probably be called preposterous, but after ten thousand generations there may be a great sage who will be able to explain it, a trivial interval equivalent to the passage from morning to night.
Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a f1uttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is what is meant by the transformation of things.
Cook Ding was cutting up a cow for Duke Wenhui. With a touch of his hand a lunge of his shoulder a stamp of his toot a bend of his knee, zip, his knife slithered. never missing a beat,. in time to “the dance of the mulberry forest,” or the “Jingshou Suite”. Lord Wenhui exclaimed “How amazing that your skill has reached such heights!
Cook Ding put down his knife and replied What I love is the Way, which goes beyond skill When I first butchered cows, I saw nothing but cows. After three years, I never saw a eat as a whole At present, I deal with it through my spirit rather than looking at it with my eyes My perception stops and my spirit runs its course I rely on the natural patterning striking at the big openings leading into the main cavities By following what is inherently so I never cut a ligament or tendon, not to mention a bone A good cook changes his knife once a year, because he cuts An ordinary cook changes his knife every month, because he hacks. This knife of mine is nineteen years old. It has carved several thousand cows, yet its blade looks like it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces in the joints, and the blade has no thickness So when something with no thickness enters something with space it has plenty of room to move about This is why after nineteen years it seems fresh from the grindstone
However when I come to something complicated I inspect it closely to prepare myself I keep my eyes on what I am doing and proceed deliberately, moving my knife imperceptibly. Then with a stroke it all comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling. I stand there, my knife in my hand look all around, enjoying my success. Then I clean the knife and put it away
Lord Wenhui said, Excellent! By listening to Cook Ding I learned how to nurture life.”
Consider Cripple Shu. His chin is down by his navel His shoulders stick up above his head. The bones at the base of his neck point to the sky. The five pipes of his spine are on top: his two thighs form ribs. Yet by sewing and washing he is able to fill his mouth; by shaking the fortune-telling sticks he earns enough to feed ten. When the authorities draft soldiers, a cripple can walk among them confidently flapping his sleeves; when they are conscripting work gangs, cripples are excused because of their infirmity. When the authorities give relief grain to the ailing a cripple gets three measures along with bundles of firewood. Thus one whose form is crippled can nurture his body and live out the years Heaven grants him. Think that he could do if his virtue was crippled too!
Root of Heaven roamed on the south side of Mount Vast. When he came to the bank of Clear Stream he met Nameless Man and asked him. “Please tell me how to manage the world.”
“Go away you dunce.” Nameless Man said. “Such questions are no fun I was Just about to join the Creator of Things. If I get bored with that, I’ll climb on the bird Merges with the Sky and soar beyond the six directions. I’ll visit Nothing Whatever town and stay in Boundless country. Why do you bring up managing the world to disturb my thoughts? ”
Still Root of Heaven repeated his question and Nameless Man responded “Let your mind wander among the insipid, blend your energies with the featureless, spontaneously accord with things, and you will have no room for selfishness. Then the world will be in order.”
Duke Huan was reading a book in the hall. Wheelwright Pian, who had been chiseling a wheel in the courtyard below, set down his tools and climbed the stairs to ask Duke Huan, “may I ask what words are in the book Your Grace is reading?”
“The words of sages.” the Duke responded.
“Are these sages alive?”
“They are already dead”
That means you are reading the dregs of long gone men, doesn’t it?”
Duke Huan said How does a wheelwright get to have opinions on the books I read? If you can explain yourself I’ll let it pass otherwise, it’s death.”
W’heelwright Pian said ”In my case I see things in terms of my own work. When I chisel at a wheel, if I go slow the chisel slides and does not stay put; if I hurry, it jams and doesn’t move properly When it is neither too slow nor too fast I can feel it in my hand and respond to it from my heart. My mouth cannot describe it in words but there is something there 1 cannot teach it to my son and my son cannot learn it from me So I have gone on for seventy years, growing old chiseling wheels The men of old died in possession of what could not transmit. So it follows that what you are reading is their dregs.”
When Zhuangzi’s wife died and Hui Shi came to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi squatting with his knees out, drumming on a pan and singing ”You lived with her she raised your children, and you grew old together, Hui Shi said “Not weeping when she died would have been bad enough. Aren’t you going too far by drumming on a pan and singing?’
“No,” Zhuangzi said, “when she first died how could I have escaped feeling the loss? Then I looked back to the beginning before she had life Not only before she had life but before she had form. Not only before she had form, but before she had vital energy. In this confused amorphous realm, something changed and vital energy appeared,- when the vital energy was changed, form appeared; with changes in form, life began. Now there is another change bringing death. This is like the progression of the four seasons of spring and fall, winter and summer. Here she was lying down to sleep in a huge room and I followed her sobbing and wailing. When I realized my actions showed I hadn’t understood destiny, I stopped.”
When Zhuangzi was about to die, his disciples wanted to bury him in a well-appointed tomb. Zhuangzi said, ”I have the sky and the earth for inner and outer coffins the sun and the moon for jade disks the stars for pearls and the ten thousand things for farewell gifts. Isn’t the paraphernalia for my burial adequate without adding anything?”
”We are afraid the crows and kites will eat you master,” a disciple said.
“Above ground, I will be eaten by crows and kites; below ground by ants. You are robbing from the one to give to the other. Why play favorites”’
The first seven chapters of the text, often called the Inner Chapters, are generally attributed to Zhuangzi. The remaining text is often understood to contain fragments of material, some of which are sometimes attributed to the same author as the Inner Chapters, some of which are attributed to other authors.
Date of Composition:
Some scholars place this text as early as 350 BC., some as late as 250 BC. The crucial, though ultimately unanswered, question is which of the two primordial texts of philosophical Daoism (Taoism) came first- Laozi’s Tao Te Ching (Lao-tzu) or Nan Hua Zhen Jing by Zhuangzi. Most scholars agree however that Laozi predates the Zhuangzi, and that the author of the Inner Chapters was in fact familiar with Laozi’s writing, in some form or another.
- * Our experience of the world is relative to our perspective.
* The world of our experience is constantly transforming.
* Therefore we must be wary of our tendency to adopt fixed or dogmatic judgments, evaluations, and standards based on a narrow viewpoint, since this leads to conflict and frustration.
* Optimal experience involves freeing ourselves from slavish commitment to convention. This enables us to see clearly (ming) and act spontaneously and unobtrusively (wuwei)
* The ideal person is one who is perfectly well-adjusted in this way.
* The “genuine person” precedes “genuine knowledge.”
* Language functions to convey meaning, and the meaning of language is relative to context.
* Philosophical disputation, though sometimes stimulating, is a somewhat futile enterprise because “right” and “wrong” cannot be determined through argument.
* Death is a natural part of life, one of its infinite transformations.
The Zhuangzi is one of the two most famous primordial texts of what can be called “philosophical Daoism,” although its influence is also felt in other traditions of Chinese thought. Its exact relationship to the other basic text, the Tao Te Ching of Laozi, is unclear, though the two texts have a great deal in common. Some scholars have regarded the Zhuangzi as a commentary on Laozi, and in some passages this might in fact be the case. But in general Zhuangzi has its own philosophical agenda and is unique in many ways. For various reasons, including the Nan Hua Zhen Jing’s apparent reference to passages from the Tao Te Ching and the apparent literary sophistication of the former relative to the latter, it seems very likely that the Tao Te Ching in some form or another predates the Zhuangzi.
In terms of literary sophistication, the Zhuangzi is in a class by itself. In some ways it reinvents the Chinese literary language. It makes reference to dozens of stories, myths, and legends common at the time of its authorship, many of which have been lost to us. But the text reworks these stories, eliciting new meanings and significance from them. These references are sometimes rather obscure, which makes reading the text extremely difficult.
The text has exerted an extremely powerful influence on subsequent forms of Chinese philosophical thought. This is particularly true of Chan Buddhism and later Daoist thought.
The only information regarding the ostensible author of the text is legendary in nature, and must be regarded as somewhat unreliable. However, according to the historian Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien), who lived several hundred years after the fact, Zhuangzi lived from approximately 370-301 BC. He is said to have come from the district of Meng, located in what is known today as Honan, China. He served there as a minor official, eventually resigning his position to return to private life. According to this account, he refused an offer to become Prime Minister by King Wei of Chu. (339-329 BC.).
Besides this account, there are many stories in the text which are of an ostensibly autobiographical nature. But the historicity of these stories must be regarded under the perspective that the work is primarily literary and philosophical and not historical in intent. On top of it much of the text is apparently the work of later authors who might easily have taken literary liberties with the facts.
The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua was most often associated with, though subordinated to, the Tao Te Ching for several hundred years, until the end of the Han Dynasty (ca. 200 AD.). At that point, the breakdown of political and cultural unity may have resulted in an increased interest in The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua’s rejection of conventional values, his justification of withdrawal from involvement in and fulfillment of civic responsibility, and his emphasis on seeking alternative, more natural attitudes and lifestyles which facilitate “finding the fit” with the world as a whole.
The text reached its present form ca. 300 AD. It was likely the philosopher Guo Xiang who integrated materials from other sources, divided the book up into its present configuration of chapters, and assigned titles to the chapters. In fact, Guo Xiang’s influence is so strong that some scholars sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between the thought of Zhuangzi and the thought of the latter.
Parts of the text spoof and satirize the more reputable and established philosophical traditions of its time, namely, the Confucians and the Mohists. Zhuangzi’s basic attitude toward such philosophical disputation is that it is rather pointless and hairsplitting at best. It solves no problems conclusively, and merely leads to conflict and disagreement.
A passage from Chapter 2 indicates this attitude: “Suppose you and I have had an argument. If you have beaten me instead of my beating you, then are you necessarily right and am I necessarily wrong? If I have beaten you instead of your beating me, then am I necessarily right and are you necessarily wrong? Is one of us right and the other wrong? Are both of us right or are both of us wrong? If you and I don’t know the answer, then other people are bound to be even more in the dark. Whom shall we get to decide what is right? Shall we get someone who agrees with you to decide? But if he already agrees with you, how can he decide fairly?…Obviously, then, neither you nor I nor anyone else can know the answer. Shall we wait for still another person?” (Basic Writings, p.43)
As we shall see, Zhuangzi’s own approach can be described as perspectival – that is, the truth value of any claim is related to context or perspective, and must always be carefully qualified in order to have any validity at all. Zhuangzi suggests that words are like a fish trap-once the meaning is caught, one should forget the words, just as the trap is only useful for catching the fish, but can be put aside once the fish has been caught. Accordingly, the style of the text is very poetic, allegorical, evocative, and mythical. The text as it exists today, as edited by Guo Xiang, consists of 33 chapters. The first seven chapters, called the inner chapters, are relatively consistent in style and attitude. Thus they are often considered by scholars to be the work of the author Zhuang Zhou himself. The next fifteen chapters, described as the outer chapters, and the last eleven chapters, described as the miscellaneous chapters, are often considered to be the work of later writers, including works representative of what is known as the Yangist tradition. These materials are perhaps interspersed with fragments of Zhuangzi’s own writings. For the most part they seem to be consistent with the spirit of the inner chapters, yet are often not as artfully written, and at times even seem to have significantly different emphases and concerns.
The text seems pretty clearly to have been composed in layers, though scholars disagree on the exact number of layers involved. In any case the composition of the text seems to span at least three different phases or stages in the evolution of Daoist thought.
Furthermore, the text is extremely aphoristic, consisting of short stories, sound bites, and anecdotes. This style lends itself, as is also the case, for example, with Nietzsche in the West, to quotation out of context and the inevitable misunderstandings which subsequently result from such textual abuse. Thus we must be wary when attributing any single outlook to the text as a whole. Still, certain themes emerge, and we will discuss some of these below.
The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua is often described as advocating relativism, and there are certainly relativistic elements to be found. But unlike more thoroughgoing forms of relativism, the text does privilege certain attitudes and behaviors, and thus cannot accurately be dismissed as purely relativistic. At least two different modes of experience are privileged in the text. In terms of mental state, in several places the text advocates a cognitive condition described as ming, or “clarity.” Clarity in this case seems to involve the ability to discern subtle distinctions without necessarily evaluating experience in terms of a preferred alternative. Therefore, the text should not be thought of as advocating the obliteration of distinctions in an overwhelming experience of mystical oneness, which is how some commentators and scholars read the text.
In terms of behavior, the text privileges what is called “wu wei,” or “effortless action.” This kind of behavior seems to involve minimizing conflict with what is inevitable or unavoidable in our experience, and reducing the friction and drag caused by obstinate commitment to a single preferred outcome.
Thus we might draw the conclusion that the ideal person, whom the text variously describes as “genuine” (zhenren), “fully realized” (zhiren), or “spiritual” (shenren), is one who is perfectly well-adjusted. That is to say, such a person is balanced and at ease in all kinds of situations, and is not thrown by novelty or unexpected circumstances. An image used by Zhuangzi to illustrate this kind of adjustment is what he calls the “hinge of Dao” (daoshu). In chapter 2, we find the following claim: “A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted in the socket, it can respond endlessly.” (Basic Writings, p.35)
Although the presence of privileged modes of experience in the text prevents us from accurately describing it as thoroughly relativistic, still it does seem to be the case that, for Zhuangzi, all truth and valuation are necessarily contextually situated. This means, for example, that what is good for one individual might not be good for another, and the same goes for beauty, truth, usefulness, and so on. And just as this is the case for different individuals, it is also the case for a single individual at different times.
Thus, rather than obstinately clashing with the flux of the world by insisting on maintaining dogmatic and constant standards, one would be better off adjusting one’s standards and attitudes in reponse to the needs of the current situation. One implication of this attitude of “least resistance” (wei wu wei) is that one’s resources and overall well-being are best preserved through reducing the friction we experience with the world.
The best example from the text to illustrate Zhuangzi’s conception of this optimally “frictionless” mode of experience is one found in chapter 3 of the text, the story of Cook, quoted above:
“Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee-zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music. …
Cook Ting laid down his knife and [said], ‘What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond all skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now-now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.
A good cook changes his knife once a year-because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month-because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room-more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.” (Basic Writings, p.46-47)
The knife keeps its edge for an extraordinarily long time because it never confronts the obstacle of bone. It is not an accident that Lord Wen-hui finds in this, not just a lesson on butchering, but a lesson on life. This concern with preserving one’s well-being through conservation of one’s natural resources can also be found in the Yangist tradition (and is still one of the basic axioms of Chinese medicine), and suggests a significant Yangist influence on the text. In turn, this is also a factor which contributes to the influence exerted by the Nan Hua Zhen Jing on the subsequent development of alchemical longevity movements within the Daoist tradition.
Philosophy of Language
Regarding the use of language, we find the following passage in chapter 2 of the text (Watson, Basic Writings, p.34): “Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn’t there?”
According to one reading of this passage, words carry significance, though they don’t mean anything in and of themselves, and their meaning is not constant. The meaning of any word is dependent on and in turn contributes to the general context of the sentence, paragraph, discourse, etc. In other words, words don’t mean anything pancontextually, but words do mean what we mean when we use words in any given situation. As previously indicated, Zhuangzi compares language to a fish net, which is useful only until a fish is caught, and then becomes obsolete and must be forgotten until a new fish, or in this case a new meaning, is sought. Burton Watson’s translation of the final sentence of this passage is perfectly apt: “Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?” (Basic Writings p.140).
More specifically, Zhuangzi distinguishes between three kinds of language: Watson translates them as “imputed words,” “repeated words,” and “goblet words.” The first are words attributed to some great historical or legendary figure, which increases their impact. The second are words which gain credibility simply by being familiar, since we often mistake the merely familiar for the obviously self-evident. The third are words whose meaning changes, which Zhuangzi describes as “words that are no-words” (Complete Writings, p. 303-304.) This kind of language constantly refreshes itself, and therefore more accurately conveys meaning. It fills and empties, and thus more closely mirrors the distinctions necessary for understanding.
Death as one more natural transformation
Zhuangzi conceives of the world as constantly changing. The adaptive qualities of the perfectly well-adjusted person enables him or her to remain balanced in the midst of this maelstrom of change and transformation. In Chapter 18, a story is told regarding the death of Zhuangzi’s wife:
“Chuang Tzu’s wife died. When Hui Tzu went to convey his condolences, he found Chuang Tzu sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. ‘You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,’ said Hui Tzu. ‘It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing-this is going too far, isn’t it?’
Chuang Tzu said, ‘You’re wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.
‘Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.'” (Basic Writings, p.113)
Many conclusions can be reached on the basis of this story, but it seems that death is regarded as a natural part of the ebb and flow of transformations which constitute the movement of Dao. To grieve over death, or to fear one’s own death, for that matter, is to arbitrarily evaluate what is inevitable. Of course, this reading is somewhat ironic given the fact that much of the subsequent Daoist tradition comes to seek longevity and immortality, and bases some of their basic models on The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua.
In some sense, we are reminded of Plato, who argues that people inappropriately fear death without knowing what it is. Similarly in chapter 2 of The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua, Zhang Wuzi says: “How do I know that loving life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like a man who, having left home in his youth, has forgotten the way back?
“‘Lady Li was the daughter of the border guard of Ai. When she was first taken captive and brought to the state of Chin, she wept until her tears drenched the collar of her robe. But later, when she went to live in the palace of the ruler, shared his couch with him, and ate the delicious meats of his table, she wondered why she had ever wept. How do I know that the dead do not wonder why they ever longed for life?'” (Basic Writings, p.42-3).
Zhuangzi’s attitude is very different than Plato’s, of course. Zhuangzi is suggesting that it is useless, arbitrary, and dysfunctional to set ourselves against what is natural. We can, he seems to say, choose to adopt different perspectives on experience. Why not choose ones which enable us to see death not as something to be feared and lamented, but as just one more phase in a much larger transformational movement. What is now Zhuangzi’s wife was something else before she was Zhuangzi’s wife, and what was Zhuangzi’s wife will be something else after her death as well.
This is not necessarily to suggest an afterlife, or any form of personal immortality. But death in general can be said to lead to new life just as life in general ends in death. An example of this is the fact that dead matter fertilizes the ground and provides the raw material for other living beings to grow and reproduce. Life goes on, though we may not, and it is possible, the text seems to suggest, to adopt the perspective of life itself which transforms, for example, rather than to adopt the more narrow and limited perspective of a single moment in the transformation of life.
Conclusion – The Fully Realized Person
One of the most famous stories to be found in the Zhuangzi is the one found at the end of chapter 2 – the above quoted butterfly dream:
“Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.” (Basic Writings, p.45).
It is signficant that the important image in this story is the butterfly. This image sums up much of Zhuangzi’s thought. The butterfly is a symbol of transformation; it follows the breeze yet arrives at the flower; Its actions are spontaneous and free. Thus it doesn’t wear itself out fighting the forces of nature.
Zhuangzi uses several different phrases to refer to a person who embodies the Dao in this kind of natural and effortless fashion. These terms include “genuine person” (zhenren), “etherial” or “spiritual” person (shenren), and “fully realized person” (zhirren). Perhaps such a person resembles a butterfly in certain ways. He or she has become balanced and centered and is thus able to experience the pitch and roll of oppositions (taiji, t’ai chi) without being thrown off-balance by them. The sage can thus fit in the world, at the center, in the socket of the hinge, at the fulcrum of all dichotomies. He or she blends in with the surroundings, and becomes effectively frictionless, transparent and unobtrusive.