Liam: The Warhol museum really is the best in the city, thanks for inviting me! Tell you what, it’s such a lovely evening, why don’t we walk into town just for the stroll, rather than going home straight away?
Aaron: Definitely! I can’t stay out too late, though—I’m meeting with a student tomorrow to discuss the Zhuangzi, and I need to do some prep work tonight.
Liam: Don’t worry, we can just walk around the cultural district a bit and then I’ll get the bus home. Very cool that you have a student interested in the Zhuangzi, what will you be discussing?
Aaron: We’re going to be talking about the happiness of fish passage.
Liam: Nice! I love that passage. I love that Zhuangzi doesn’t always win his own dialogues.
Aaron: Oh, no, I don’t agree with that! It’s one of many stories where he comes out on top against his fussy friend Huizi. I have the text here—see for yourself:
There’s Zhuangzi with the last word, as usual!
Liam: Right, but it’s a ridiculous last word, right? He tries to trap Huizi and fails!
Aaron: Sure, he fails to trap Huizi with his first rejoinder—that’s why he changes tack with the second. But the basic point of each is the same: Huizi’s objection is self-undermining. Huizi challenges Zhuangzi’s ability to know other minds. But, Zhuangzi retorts (in two different ways), the very conversation he and Huizi are having requires each to know the mind of the other.
Liam: Bloody hell, Aaron, you’re way off mate! You’ve just made Zhuangzi the author, one of the most famous sceptics in philosophical history, into a dogmatist! In this passage we see Huizi getting his chance to be the humble sceptic, and Zhuangzi the character experiencing a bit of comeuppance, for once. Don’t take this moment away from our boy Huizi.
Aaron: I’m afraid I’m going to have to take this moment away from our boy Huizi, Liam. I think you need something like my reading to make sense of the overall structure of the dialogue. After Huizi challenges Zhuangzi (“you are not a fish…”), Zhuangzi has the quite clever retort that, by Huizi’s own logic, Huizi, not being Zhuangzi, cannot know what Zhuangzi knows. On my reading, we can see a deeper point behind Zhuangzi’s trap. The implication is that the very fact that Huizi is conversing with Zhuangzi suggests that Huizi has some knowledge of Zhuangzi’s mind. Zhuangzi wants to suggest that if Huizi were really committed to the skepticism he’s pushing for, their conversation would be impossible.
Liam: Interesting read, but I think that’s a bit beyond what’s actually in the text. That said, before I object more thoroughly, how does this reading make sense of Zhuangzi’s final retort? I’m not yet seeing it.
Aaron: Think about how Huizi responds to Zhuangzi. Huizi, logician that he is, sees Zhuangzi’s clever trap and evades it successfully. He sees Zhuangzi as accusing him of self-contradiction (or at least something nearby): he’s making claims about another’s mind while denying that claims about other minds are justifiable. Huizi rightly notes that, by reflecting on his own inability to know Zhuangzi’s mind, he can reasonably also infer Zhuangzi’s inability to know the fish’s minds. There’s no contradiction. I think we have to recognize that Huizi’s reply to the logical trap is entirely adequate. He’s not some undergrad who can be tricked into the truth. But—and here’s where my reading really starts to help us—Huizi entirely misses Zhuangzi’s underlying point. Zhuangzi, in his final reply, takes a step back and makes that point explicit: the very fact that you’re talking to me implies you have some knowledge of my mind. And so, Zhuangzi continues, in just the same way, I can know the happiness of fish, and I can know it from here, above the Hao.
Liam: I see where you’re going with that, and we agree that Huizi successfully evades the trap, but it still doesn’t make sense of why Zhuangzi, so thoroughly skeptical in so much of the work, would suddenly be seen making a knowledge claim, and especially a knowledge claim about something so fraught as the preferences of other minds.
Aaron: Well, is Zhuangzi’s skepticism really so thorough-going? I’d argue that Zhuangzi quite frequently depicts either himself or other admirable figures as making knowledge claims about other minds. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that Zhuangzi’s ideal of the sage requires that one be able to understand the minds of others.
Liam: Why’s that?
Aaron: Consider the case of the “three in the morning” passage. In this passage, a monkey trainer gives the monkeys three chestnuts in the morning, telling them they’ll get four in the evening. This makes the monkeys furious, and so the trainer decides to give them four in the morning and three in the evening. This delights the monkeys. Here is Zhuangzi’s comment on this parable:
The monkey-trainer exemplifies sagelike behavior here by walking two roads: by recognizing the inherent indifference between the two ways of distributing the acorns on the one hand, and by going along with the monkeys’ wishes on the other. Without getting too far into the weeds here, I think one lesson of this passage is that the ideal of “going along with things” requires—when the things are sentient—being able to understand what it is that those beings desire.
Liam: But then what do you make of the numerous skeptical passages in the book, on this reading?
Aaron: I want to suggest two things. First, these passages often establish a limited, targeted skepticism about what is desirable in itself, and not a skepticism about other minds. Second, I want to go even further and suggest that, in at least some cases, the arguments establishing this skepticism presuppose that people are able to know the contents of other minds. Consider what is to my mind, one of Zhuangzi’s most compelling skeptical arguments:
This argument nicely displays both points. First, Zhuangzi is quite explicit that what Confucius changes his mind about is what he “used to call right”—the target here is not fully general. Second, the argument itself presumes that we can know at least this much about Confucius mind: that it changed.
Liam: That’s certainly suggestive, but you’re treading on dangerous ground here, because that’s an argument that threatens to prove a lot more than you want it to. After all, we change our minds about all sorts of things, not just about what’s desirable in itself. Most pertinently, we certainly change our minds about what other people think, feel, and want with some regularity!
Aaron: You’re right that that passage by itself is merely suggestive of the points I want to make. And I am personally inclined to leverage such considerations in service of a more thoroughgoing skepticism than I’m suggesting Zhuangzi intended. But again I think the overall tenor of Zhuangzi’s skeptical arguments—the use Zhuangzi himself makes of them—is limited in these ways. For another example, take Gnawgap’s questioning of Baby Sovereign. Gnawgap asks, “Do you know what all things agree in considering right?” Baby Sovereign replies in the negative (“How could I know that?”). Again the target in question is skepticism about finding a universal standard of right and wrong. And again, when we turn to the arguments for it, we again see that they presuppose knowledge of other minds. Baby Sovereign gives many examples, I’ll mention just one:
We may not be able to know how to determine what is “rightly alluring”, or even whether such a determination could be made at all, but we certainly do know that different creatures disagree about this standard!
Liam: Ok so I’ll grant that in some of the skeptical passages, the skepticism in question is limited and targeted in the way you’re suggesting. But there are plenty of other passages wherein Zhuangzi gestures towards a more general scepticism. Take, for instance, his criterion argument. In the second chapter he outlines the following worry:
The upshot of this passage seems to be that there is no perspective-neutral viewpoint from which disagreement can be adjudicated. Any perspective that would settle the matter shows by this very fact that it is biased towards one disputant, and not a fair arbiter. I note that Zhuangzi thus rejects the idea of something like a neutral or absolute perspective which is definitionally just the correct one - Heaven’s point of view is just one more point of view, on a par with all the others, on this reading. As such, when we encounter disagreement, we are left with no fair way of deciding which perspective is to be preferred. Whether or not this is persuasive as an argument, it seems on its face to be a quite general argument for scepticism in the face of disagreement - of which Zhuangzi and Huizi’s disagreement would seem to be an instance.
And this is far from the only such passage! Probably the most famous passage in the text is the butterfly dream:
This seems to be exactly a classical dream argument for general scepticism, does it not?
Aaron: That’s a tough one—I’m going to need to think more about the criterion passage. But I’ll cover up my shame on that point by taking on the butterfly dream passage, which I read quite differently than you do. As western post-Cartesians, it’s only natural to read the butterfly passage as Chinese version of Descartes’ dream argument, directed at skepticism toward the external world. But I don’t think that’s really the fish that Zhuangzi’s after in this passage. Consider how the passage ends: “Now surely Zhou and a butterfly count as two distinct identities, as two quite different beings! And just this is what is meant when we speak of transformation of any one being into another—of the transformation of all things.” When Zhuangzi doesn’t know whether he’s Zhou dreaming he’s a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he’s Zhou, this is not so much a mark of skepticism but of Zhuangzi’s ability to move between the two perspectives, to know both his own mind and the butterfly’s. To put it bluntly: Zhuangzi doesn’t know whose seemings he’s having!
Liam: That’s an interesting reading, but does it get you what you really want? The butterfly is still a creation of Zhuangzi’s own mind -- or Zhuangzi of the butterfly’s own mind, if you like. This doesn’t really amount to a knowledge of other minds of the sort Zhuangzi seems to be claiming in the happiness of fish passage. Rather than knowledge of other minds, this is the ability to simulate multiple perspectives.
Aaron: I think Zhuangzi would challenge your sharp separation of the two cases. The butterfly passage comes from the second chapter, “Equalizing Assessments of Things,” as Ziporyn translates it. In the very first passage from the chapter, we see a discussion between Sir Shoestrap of Southwall and Sir Swimmy Faceformed. Faceformed asks Shoestrap, “Who or what is this here? … Can the body really be made like a withered tree, the mind like dead ashes? What leans against this armrest now is not what leaned against it before” (11). Already we start to see the slipperiness of identity: Shoestrap at the time of questioning is not the same man as he was before. And Shoestrap, in his answer, confirms this: “How good it is that you question this, Yan! What’s here now is this: I have lost me” (11). Now, I think we should read the butterfly passage, which closes the chapter, in this light. Zhuangzi, reflecting on his dream, has lost the knowledge of quite who he is, and the boundary between being himself and being some other thing—and, as he notes, to be a butterfly is certainly different than to be Zhou!—has accordingly become unclear. Now, I’ll grant you that this still doesn’t amount to full-on knowledge of other minds, sure. But anything that undermines the existence of strict boundaries around the self is necessarily going to undermine the idea that we have privileged access to our own seemings but cannot know the minds of others. So I’d say the butterfly dream passage is actually supportive of the reading I’ve been pursuing.
Liam: I see I see, but I think this reading raises another puzzle about the passage. After all, the structure of the dialogue relies upon someone being mistaken about the content of another’s mind, Zhuangzi if Huizi is right about the inaccessibility of the fish, or Huizi if Zhuangzi is right about the fish. It thus seems that the very dialogue itself is rather reliant upon the idea that we cannot so easily gain access to other people’s mental states. What’s more, as I say this, I am struck by the fact that this is, after all, essentially what Huizi said to Zhuangzi in his rejoinder. Even if some of Zhuangzi’s arguments succeed, the very fact that they must come paired with an error theory for Huizi still essentially relies upon the relative inaccessibility of other people’s mental states. And if it’s hard for Huizi to know what his lifelong friend and conversational partner has knowledge of, how much harder is it for Zhuangzi to know what the fish want!
Aaron: I think you’re right, but this only cuts against a too strong reading of what Zhuangzi is arguing. Zhuangzi is not arguing that we can infallibly know the minds of others. Clearly not: he doesn’t think we can infallibly know even our own minds! After all, if we could infallibly know our own minds, how could Zhuangzi ever be confused about whether he’s Zhou or a butterfly? Rather, what’s going on here is a subtle debate over how to understand this fallibility. Huizi is pushing a thoroughgoing skepticism, of a sort that turns on instituting sharp boundaries between individuals. Throughout the text, Zhuangzi breaks down those boundaries. So why shouldn’t Zhuangzi know the happiness of fish? And, to push the point a bit further, I’d push back against your claim that, if Zhuangzi is right about the fish, Huizi must be wrong about Zhuangzi. After all, in Zhuangzi’s final reply, he quite explicitly says that Huizi does know that Zhuangzi knows, even if Huizi is ignoring this fact to push his skepticism. Huizi’s not wrong about Zhuangzi—Huizi’s wrong about Huizi!
Liam: Well let’s take this back to the start, and think again to the first and most natural guess as to why Zhuangzi takes the fish to be happy; they’re engaged in free and easy wandering. You have made your case that Zhuangzi thinks we can have access to the seemings of other critters. That both coheres and contrasts with another passage from the ninth book:
It coheres because, after all, the Zhuangzi author evidently takes themselves to know that Bo Le was wrong about what was good for horses. But it contrasts because it also makes it clear that this can be opaque to people, Bo Le was entirely mistaken about what was good for the horses. Well maybe Zhuangzi is best understood in the fish passage as making the mistake of Bo Le. The Zhuangzi character thinks the fish are happy to be engaged in free and easy wandering because, well, that’s the sort of thing that Zhuangzi would like - he is making an all too quick inference from the sort of thing that seems from his particular human perspective to be a good life, and that’s where he goes wrong.
This, I think, also speaks to the ideal of the sage in the zookeeper passage. The sage doesn’t need to understand why the monkeys register the morning/evening feeding regime as so very different, indeed from the sage’s perspective it’s no real difference at all. But they get harmonious behaviour by simply going along with whatever seems to work - understood as, whatever seems to keep the monkeys from misbehaving - despite not knowing why it works. This is a model of successful action without knowledge, just the sort of thing one needs to be possible if one is going to advocate for the rather curious figure of a sceptical sage. And in this passage it is Huizi who is more closely approximating the sagacious zookeeper than Zhuangzi.
Aaron: Hmmmm, I can see the charge (though I’d resist it) that Zhuangzi is assuming that because he enjoys freely wandering, fish must also enjoy it. But I think your read of Zhuangzi as making the same mistake as Bo Le is far too strong. First, Zhuangzi is merely observing the fish, not “improving” them. Even if he’s wrong about what he observes, it’s a much more minor error. Second, we know that Bo Le’s method is a problem because we can see the effect it has on the horses: they die. But we see no such ill effects on the fish: they are not showing signs of distress. And do you really think Zhuangzi would be depicted as so thoroughly oblivious in his own book?
Liam: I mean I do actually think an episode showing Zhuangzi making a mistake is what we would expect of Zhuangzi as an author. I’m reminded of the paradox of the preface, where an author who would defend each individual claim in their book nonetheless says “I am sure some mistakes are to be found in this book” in the preface. Whatever one thinks of the logic or epistemology of such a situation, I feel quite sure that the authorial persona that shines forth in this text -- despite the fact that it certainly does not correspond to one real person for the whole book -- would absolutely delight in this paradox. They would never want you to read the book and come away thinking they never made a mistake, and would delight in some proof that a mistake in the text is inevitable. In fact there is a story in the book which seems to involve a paradox of the preface esque situation. A wheelwright makes a convincing case that reading the texts of old sages can give you nothing more than the “chaff and dregs of the men of old”. The text itself advises against taking too seriously the sort of thing that sages record in texts!
So, like, yeah; the Zhaungzi author would want the audience to know that they too can make mistakes. The happiness of fish episode then is a nod to this wonderfully humane fallibility of the authorial persona. They make an over confident claim, attempt but fail to dodge Huizi’s charge against them, then when it is apparent their trap failed they more or less just shrug and laugh it off, giving a jokey non-sequitur to move the conversation along.
Aaron: Yes, I’ll grant that what we are discussing here is only the dregs of a long-distant conversation, and I’ll grant as well that we have good reason to think Zhuangzi fallible. But I have two concerns about this interpretation of yours. First, I think the wheelwright passage points toward a different sort of fallibility than you indicate. To say that the writings of sages are dregs is to say that they are of limited value; it is not to say that they are wrong. They are of limited value because, in writing, they become fixed, detached from the perspective of their initial utterance. What is a living action in a particular context risks becoming a Confucian rite if stripped from that context; what is a living response to a particular interlocutor risks becoming a stultifying dogma if set down in a text. Writings of sages are the dregs of sages—of people who genuinely got something right. They are dregs because, from the text itself, we cannot extract what it is they got right. So to use the wheelwright passage as giving us reason to expect to see Zhuangzi failing seems to me a stretch.
Second, and relatedly, even granting Zhuangzi’s fallibility, I think you’re going too far, depriving him of the serious point he wants to make. Zhuangzi isn’t simply giving a jokey non-sequitur, as you put it. His final reply at least appears to make a serious point—one compatible with him being fallible. It is often remarked that Huizi asks his question in a strange way, using the word ān (安). Not so much “how do you know” but “whence do you know”. And Zhuangzi ends by answering this question, detailing the perspective from which he knows the happiness of fish: he knows it from here, above the river Hao.
Liam: Ah come now, we can’t go round making excuses for Zhuangzi’s silly answers and mistakes like this! I don’t think he’d want us to do that either. The silliness is part of the point he’s trying to make!
Aaron: But Liam, you are not Zhuangzi. Whence do you know that Zhuangzi wants us to recognize his fallibility?
Liam: Ah I got over excited and spoke too strongly when I said I felt sure of what he’d want. I guess I just feel such a strong affinity with the Zhuangzi as a text that I’m tempted to personalise it -- I sometimes think of its author as a friend, even. But that author is not so much any historical person(s) with desires and propensities of their own, more a construction of my mind.
Because, well, I’m with Zhuangzi’s wheelwright. We don’t have the sages who wrote the Zhuangzi with us anymore, we only have their dregs in this text. So we can’t or needn’t worry ourselves about what they would have wanted - they’re gone now and can never tell us. It’s up to us to make of their dregs what we will - and to do that I find it fruitful to think of them as someone with a character, with a spirit, with intents and desires that manifest themselves in various ways throughout the text. Not because there is any real mind reading going on here, to be clear, but rather because doing this helps me keep track of and organise all the perspectives the text throws at me. Through constructing an authorial persona I am doing something like Zhuangzi simulating the butterfly’s perspective, or the butterfly his - seeing what it is like to order the flow of experience in a quite different manner, and trying to experience the world from that perspective.
So what is it I want to make coherent here? Well I think the challenge is to find a read of this text which can make sense of not just isolated passages like the Huizi dialogue, but also the many places I have mentioned here wherein Zhuangzi puts forward sceptical considerations. There are so many of these, and some of them - like the criterion argument - seem so sweeping, that I can’t help but make a sceptic of the author. What is more, it is not just the content, but also the tone. The author tells jokes, and has passages where the joke seems to me at least partly on him, such as the passage wherein Zhuangzi has a sudden realisation of the oneness of all things and refuses to harm a bird he had intended to poach - just in time to escape the groundskeeper of the lands he was trespassing on! So where possible it seems that the Zhuangzi I construct should be sceptical, playful, and capable of self-deprecation.
So there is the author I am constructing, and it feels to me that this passage can fit that nicely. He’s playful with his friend Huizi, the author is a sceptic throughout, and in letting the character of Huizi get the upper hand by making the sceptical point, he is engaging in some self-deprecation too. These are what I make of my dregs. It’s not that I know that the real Zhuangzi, whoever or whatever that might be, would want me to do this - but as an imaginative exercise I find this Zhuangzi brings an illuminating unity to a disparate text.
Aaron: We agree on at least one thing: counting Zhuangzi as a friend. And I share your interpretive approach, even if I end up somewhere different. I suppose that throws us back to that pesky criterion passage—I haven’t forgotten that I never gave a proper response to that. And I’m still not sure what to say. I really do feel the force of it: it does seem sweeping in the ways you suggest…
Liam: Well, Aaron, if you agree about that, then my point about Zhuangzi’s fallibility and willingness to self-deprecate stands intact.
Aaron: Ahhhh, I can’t let you get away with that! But I really do have to get home now if I want to prep for meeting my student tomorrow. You’ve given me lots to think about!
The second and third stories in the Zhuangzi both concern Yao ceding the empire. Yao famously ceded the empire, not to his son, but to the worthiest candidate, Shun. Zhuangzi, naturally, plays with and challenges this notion. In doing so, he makes some intriguing remarks about language, whose implications I’d like to explore here.
The first of the two passages offers a sort of prequel to the story of Yao’s ceding the throne to Shun. In this passage, Yao makes an offer of the kingdom to Xu You, who declines it. One obvious implication (pointed out by Ziporyn in the notes to his translation) is that “Shun was a second choice at best.” Less obvious is a further implication: that it is characteristic of the worthiest man to refuse to accept the empire, that whoever does accept it is ipso facto not the worthiest. We have much to learn, then, from Xu You.
In rejecting Yao’s offer, Xu You claims that to accept it would be to be fooled by a name:
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.
Xu You levels a number of tightly interlinked critiques here. The central idea is that there is no actual value to be gained from ruling an empire: all one receives is a name (“emperor”), but “name is merely a guest of what is really substantial.” This is a common idea: one might be nourished by an apple, but not by the word ‘apple’. It is the thing that is substantial and that matters, not the name. In saying that name is the guest of the substantial, however, Xu You makes a deeper point. It is not merely that adding the title “emperor” would be of no value. Rather, it would render Xu You homeless, in a metaphorical sense. This is brought out by the two animal examples. In both cases, we see animals taking exactly what they need and no more; thus they are at home in the world. Were he to chase a name for which he has no use, by contrast, Xu You would displace himself from his home, would come to “play the role of the guest.”
In this regard, I see a double meaning in Xu You’s injunction to Yao to “Go home, my lord!” One is the obvious meaning: he is rejecting Yao’s offer. But there is also a second meaning: “Go home. Stop playing the role of the guest. Recognize that you, too, have no use for an empire.”
It is this secondary meaning that gets taken up (implicitly) in the second of the two passages. This passage is not primarily about Yao; instead, it reports a conversation between Jian Wu and Lian Shu. Jian Wu has been listening to the madman Jieyu, and has come away very confused: Jian Wu finds Jieyu’s words “vast and excessive, with no regard for the way people really are.” Here are Jieyu’s “limitless” words:
There is a Spirit-Man living on distant Mt. Guye with skin like ice and snow, gentle and yielding like a virgin girl. He 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’ll return to this strange speech in a moment, but first I want to look at the role that Yao plays in this exchange. After chiding Jian Wu for failing to understand Jieyu’s words, Lian Shu goes on to say:
From [the Spirit-Man’s] dust and chaff you could mold yourself a Yao or a Shun. Why would he bother himself over mere beings? […] After Yao brought all of 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.
Only after seeing the masters of Mt. Guye is Yao truly able to leave his empire behind—to go home. The later commenter Shi Deqing characterizes this in terms of the three forgettings—of identity, merit, and name—introduced at the end of the Kun/Peng fable. According to Shi Deqing, in ceding the empire, Yao has forgotten merit, but has not yet forgotten “the good name that comes from his act of ceding,” while Xu You, in not accepting the empire, has forgotten name and merit, but has not forgotten his fixed identity—he preserves the empire in order to better preserve that identity. The Spirit-Man goes beyond both in having forgotten all three, and I think we are to take Yao, after his encounter on Mt. Guye, as having done the same.
What I find especially interesting here is that this difference reveals itself at the level of language. In the first passage, as we saw, language is diminished: the name is a mere guest of what is truly substantial. Language is thus contracted, made small. By contrast, even in criticizing the madman Jieyu’s words, Jian Wu notes that “he talked big” and that his words were “vast and excessive.” Jieyu’s language did not fall short of things; it exceeded them. In his reply to Jian Wu, Lian Shu turns this criticism into praise:
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. If you were then to ‘agree’ with his words, you would be acting like a virgin girl who has just reached her time.
The problem does not lie with the words, but with Jian Wu’s understanding. He is no more capable of understanding them than a blind person is capable of seeing the beauty of visual patterns. For that reason, it is quite right that he rejects Jieyu’s words as “vast and excessive”—it would be meaningless for him to accept them. (Ziporyn explains the virgin metaphor as meaning that such a girl, in agreeing to have sex would someone, would not really know to what she was agreeing, lacking the requisite experience.)
What’s the upshot of this? To cling to personal identity is to contract oneself, to carve out a limited space within the world and then to restrict oneself to that space. By contrast, to forget personal identity is to refuse such self-constriction. Only thus is one able to wander “far and unfettered.” What is interesting here is Zhuangzi’s implicit suggestion that the constrictions of personal identity extend even to one’s relationship to language.
I’ve begun one of my periodic re-readings of the Zhuangzi, an enigmatic and delightful text that coalesced during the late Warring States period (476-221 BCE). It’s an intricate text, the work of many voices representing many perspectives. Stylistically, it consists of parables, anecdotes, poems, arguments, and much else besides. It’s often impossible to tell whether a given story is a straightforward depiction of a great sage or simply an elaborate prank (or both). My aim with this reading is simply to move through it slowly, picking apart each anecdote and seeing what results. I have no axe to grind and no clear sense where I am going. I am writing about it here simply to force myself to elaborate and organize my thoughts. Should any other readers find what I write interesting or useful, that is an added bonus.
This post concerns the first fable in the Zhuangzi. Here is how it begins (all passages are from the Ziporyn 2009 translation):
There is a fish in the Northern Oblivion named Kun, and this Kun is quite huge, spanning who knows how many thousands of miles. He transforms into a bird named Peng, and this Peng has quite a 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.
Already in this paragraph, Zhuangzi confronts us with three of his central themes: perspectivism, transformation, and forgetting. I’ll take up each in turn.
The Zhuangzi delights in the variety of perspectives that the world offers. Were there a view from nowhere, I do not think Zhuangzi would see much value in it. Our first taste of this comes in the very name of the mysterious fish in the Northern Oblivion: Kun (鯤). The name literally means “fish roe.” The Kun is simultaneously unfathomably huge and extremely small. A later passage in the fable discusses how other animals perceive the Peng as it flies:
The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at [Peng], 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 ninety thousand miles and heading south?”
Zhuangzi comments: “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.” Here the emphasis is on the largeness of the Peng—its size makes it incomprehensible to smaller creatures. Yet in naming the fish Kun, Zhuangzi asks us to consider whether there is not some further perspective in which it plays the role of the small, uncomprehending creature. Even as he praises the lofty perspective of the Kun/Peng relative to the cramped laughter of the cicada and dove, he seems to be grinningly deflating any attempts to treat that perspective as ultimate.
This is further confirmed by Zhuangzi’s remarks on dependence in this passage. Zhuangzi notes that the Peng has to fly especially high to fly at all:
And if the wind is not piled up thickly enough, it has no power to support Peng’s enormous wings. That is why he needs to put ninety thousand miles of air beneath them. 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.
Later, toward the end of the parable, Zhuangzi draws the moral more explicitly, when he discusses the cases of Song Rongzi and Liezi. Song Rongzi is admirable because he “clearly discerned where true honor and disgrace are to be found.” And yet he is not fully admirable: “there was still a sense in which he was not yet really firmly planted.” Paralleling the Peng even more closely, “Liezi rode forth on the wind, weightlessly graceful.” And yet, “there was still something he needed to depend on.” None of the three—not Song Rongzi, not Liezi, not Peng—have fully achieved independence. None are quite able to go “wandering far and unfettered” (the title of the chapter).
So how might one unfetter oneself? Here the second and third themes are relevant. If the Zhuangzi has any central message, it is that one should make peace with change. In particular, one should come to recognize even death itself as merely one more change. Thus, in a later parable, we see Zhuangzi being berated by a skull for thinking that life is obviously preferable to death. In another episode, presumably after the incident with the skull, we see Zhuangzi happily banging away on pots and pans after his wife has died. When his friend Hui Shi confronts him about this, he admits feeling sad at first, but then he remembered that death is merely one of the changes, and his sorrow left him.
It is striking, then, that the Zhuangzi opens with a drastic transformation: Kun becomes Peng. This is a total transformation: from one kind of creature to another, from one form of life to another, from one element (water) to another (air). What identity is preserved across this transformation? In what sense can we say that Kun and Peng are the same? It hardly seems there is any. And yet there is no lamentation, no sense of loss or regret. Kun simply transforms, and then, as Peng, goes on his journey. It is as if Peng has totally forgotten his former existence. And that brings us to the final theme: forgetting.
What is the significance of Peng’s journey? It is noteworthy that we are told little about the journey itself, beyond how it looks to an observer (“his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens”). What we are told is the journey’s endpoints: Peng travels from the Northern Oblivion to the Southern Oblivion. (The Southern Oblivion is identified with the “Pool of Heaven”, though later in the parable it is the Northern Oblivion that is so identified.) Oblivion indicates forgetfulness, the absence of memory, its total destruction. It is hard, at least for me, not to read this journey as a metaphor for life: from the oblivion before death to the oblivion after death. We have no experience of either state; we simply move from one to the other.
But oblivion is not limited to the periods before birth and after death. There is a case to be made that forgetting plays a central role in Zhuangzi’s conception of the sage: the sage is one who forgets. (On this point, I have learned a great deal from this interesting paper by Linna Liu and Sihao Chew.) I have already mentioned the story of Zhuangzi playing drums after his wife’s death: he has forgotten his sorrow. The third story in the Zhuangzi praises the great ruler Yao because, on seeing the “masters of distant Mt. Guye […], he forgot all about his kingdom.” The sage’s ability to forget appears to free them from their past. As the later commentator Wang Fuzhi glosses the chapter title: “’Unfettered’ means echoing beyond the dissolving tones—forgetting what has passed.”
The first parable of the Zhuangzi ends with a summary statement of its moral: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no one name.” I have long found it puzzling how this moral emerges from the stories that precede it, but now I think I see. Those stories show us a variety of perspectives, show us transformations between them, and counsels us to forget, at least to an extent, one’s past. It is not that this ideal person has no identity, no merit, or no name. Rather, their identities, merits, and names are inconstant and shifting. One forgets who one was and becomes someone else, and so wanders far and unfettered.
I want to end by drawing attention to one last feature of this parable. It overflows with laughter. Zhuangzi cites a (probably made up) text in his support; the name of this text is The Equalizing Jokebook (see my thoughts on this here). The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at Peng. In another version, a quail laughs at Peng. Song Rongzi “would burst out laughing” at a man “whose understanding is sufficient to fill some one post.” It seems that everyone, whether they are being held up as admirable or as limited (or both), is always laughing. This is one of the most endearing features of the Zhuangzi.