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.
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.