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.
One of the curious features of the Zhuangzi, an enigmatic and delightful text that emerged during the Warring States period (476-221 BCE), is its apparent citations of other texts. For example, the book opens with a parable about a fish named Kun that transforms into a bird named Peng and undertakes a long journey. Immediately after describing this, the text continues:
The Equalizing Jokebook, a record of many wonders, reports: “When Peng journeys to the Southern Oblivion, the waters ripple for three thousand miles. Spiraling aloft, he ascends ninety thousand miles and continues his journey without rest for half a year. (Ziporyn 2009, p. 3)
This alleged quotation adds little information to what comes before it. So why is it there? One hypothesis, defended by A. C. Graham (1981), is that these quotations are the product of scribal errors. Some later commentator noted a parallel between the Zhuangzi and some later text, and these comments were eventually copied into the Zhuangzi itself. A more traditional hypothesis is offered by the commentator Lin Xiyi (1193-1270?):
This doesn’t mean such a book really exists, necessarily. Zhuangzi invents a story and then cites this book as his own verification. This another example of his playful theatrics. (Ziporyn 2009, p. 130)
On this view, Zhuangzi’s invented citations satirize the Confucians, who sought to support their claims with references to various authorities. For my part, I do not know that evidence will ever resolve this dispute. Nor need it. The Zhuangzi is unquestionably a polyvocal text, with contributions from authors separated in both time and thought. Zhuang Zhou himself lurks as an elusive presence within it, ostensibly the author of its first seven chapters (the so-called “inner” chapters), though none of it can be definitively attributed to him. The book contains a cacophony of perspectives—a state of which Zhuangzi himself would surely have approved. Ultimately, there is only the text as we have received it, shaped by many hands with many and clashing intentions. In this regard, I think it best to treat these citations as proper parts of the text, and see how they contribute to its overall effect. (Henceforth, I will speak of Zhuangzi as “the” author of the text. This should be understood as referring to the whole conglomerate of authors, not merely the historical Zhuangzi.)
Seen in this light, I can only take Zhuangzi’s citation of The Equalizing Jokebook as itself a rather clever joke. Looking at the Zhuangzi as a whole, two features especially stand out. First, the book is very funny. Wittgenstein famously said that a work of philosophy could be written consisting entirely of jokes; he was apparently unaware that this had already been done more than 2000 years ago. The authors of the Zhuangzi are constantly pulling the reader’s leg, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. (Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio have written a very good book, Genuine Pretending, that takes seriously the Zhuangzi’s status as a “jokebook.”) Second, insofar as the book does have a central philosophical aim, “equalizing” captures it fairly well. The second chapter is called “Equalizing Assessment of Things”, and the book constantly works to upset our attempts to draw conceptual divisions, one side of which can be viewed as good/desirable and the other as bad/undesirable. It’s worth noting, at this point, that the word 諧 (xié)—translated by Ziporyn as “joke”—can also mean “harmony”, a meaning that Zhuangzi is surely exploiting.
My proposal, then, is that Zhuangzi’s citation of The Equalizing Jokebook is in fact a humorous citation of the Zhuangzi itself. Were it not customary to name such books after their alleged authors, I doubt one could find a better name for the Zhuangzi. One advantage of this proposal is that the citation is not merely made up. After all, by including the citation within the text, the quotation does indeed become a part of the text. Such a self-validating self-reference would, I think, have appealed to Zhuangzi. It’s his kind of humor.
Even more important, however, is the way that this view allows us to expand on Lin Xiyi’s commentary. There is a serious philosophical point hidden in Zhuangzi’s “playful theatrics.” It is, as suggested above, a parody of the Confucian practice of supporting their claims with references to certain authoritative texts. What I want to suggest is that treating the citation as self-referential helps to sharpen this satire, in a way that merely citing a made-up text would not. The reason for this concerns Zhuangzi’s comments on independence in this parable.
I will post a more detailed interpretation of the whole parable at some later point. For now, however, I simply want to focus on a passage toward the end of the parable, as Zhuangzi starts to home in on his central moral. There, he discusses the example of Liezi, a central figure in Daoist thought. For Zhuangzi, however, Liezi is admirable but imperfect. Though he “rode forth on the wind, weightlessly graceful,” and though “he did not involve himself in anxious calculations,” nonetheless “there was still something he needed to depend on” (Ziporyn 2009, p. 5). That dependence on something external is Liezi’s key flaw. It opens Liezi up to being hindered. Zhuangzi goes on to paint an image of one who escapes even this last vestige of dependence, such that “your wandering could nowhere be brought to a halt. You would then be depending on—what?” (Ziporyn 2009, p. 6).
It is in this context that self-citation matters. For authentication of the story of the Kun/Peng, there is nothing outside the Zhuangzi on which one can rely—not even a fictional text. The text rests on itself, validates itself. Yes, Zhuangzi is mocking Confucian epistemology. But he is also exemplifying his own.
Sometimes I write informally about philosophy and poetry. Such writing goes here. More philosophical posts may also be cross-hosted at Buried in Contemplation, alongside work by others.