Chuang Tzu

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Meaning and Ambiguity

Generation by Opposites

Knowing and Not Knowing


Nature and Government

Ocean and River

The Measure of Man

Relative Judgment

Beauty and Love




Chuang Tzu is believed to lived in the Fourth or Third Century BCE, at a time when China was split up into a number of states weakly held together by the Chou dynasty. He was a minor government official for a while and was offered higher office, but declined on the grounds that it would limit his freedom.

    His thought is contained in the 33 chapters that remain of the Chuang Tzu, which describes both his philosophy and his way of life. In it, Chuang Tzu enlarges on the teachings of Lao Tzu in a lively Taoist discourse that opposes the ideas of Confucius and Mo Tzu. These philosophers argued for particular ways for improving the condition of man, each contradicting the other. Chuang Tzu argued that the processes of nature unify all things, so that humanity should seek to live at one with nature and not impose upon it. He concluded that one could do more by doing nothing.

    Chuang Tzu viewed nature as having great spontaneity and change, with all things—large and small, beautiful and ugly—equally important and ever in a constant flux. In this way, he enlarged the notion of the co-dependence of things, one causing change in another, which appears in Buddha’s thought. Chuang Tzu also emphasized the mutual causation of opposites: for example, that life leads to death. His dislike of formal structures lead him to put forward his ideas in imaginary dialogues.



1   The breath of the universe, said Tzu Chi, is called the wind. At times it is at rest. Other times it is aroused. Then every crevice and hollow howls in its fury. Have you never listened to its growing roar?

    Caves and canyons of hill and forest, hollows in huge trees many arm-spans around—these are like nostrils, like mouths, like ear-holes, like rafter-sockets, like drinking bowls, like mortars, like ditches, like sunken bogs. And the wind goes rushing through them—sniffing, snoring, singing, sighing, puffing, burbling, whistling, whirring. Now shrilly treble, now deeply bass, now soft, now loud. Then—a lull, silence enfolds all. Have you never seen how trees are shaken up this way?

    Well, then, asked Tzu Yu, since the music of earth is drawn out of nothing more than holes, and the music of man out of pipes and flutes, what does the music of Heaven consist of?

    The effect of the wind upon these various apertures, replied Tzu Chi, is not uniform. But what gives each its individual sound, what makes it the way it is?


2   Great knowledge grasps the whole; small knowledge, only a part. Great speech gets hold of the universal; small speech picks at particulars.

    For whether our mind is fenced in by sleep or released with the body in waking hours, it is buffeted by daily mental ferment—indecision, bafflement, deviousness, fretting anxiety, and quaking terror. At one moment the mind flings out like a javelin, to arbitrate right and wrong. At another, it is a solemn holder of rights, guarded and secure.

    Then, with the blight of life’s autumn and winter, comes gradual decay, a passing away, like water draining out, never to return. Finally comes the blockage, when all is choked up like an old drain—the failing mind that shall not see light again.



3   Joy and anger, sorrow and happiness, caution and remorse, come upon us by turns, with ever changing mood. They come like music from hollowness, like mushrooms from damp. Day and night they alternate within us, but we cannot tell whence they spring. How can we hope in the spur of the moment to lay our finger upon their true cause?

    Without these emotions I would not be. Without me, they would not exist. So far we can go. But we do not know what brings these emotions into play. It would seem to be something in charge, but the clue to its existence is wanting. That something is actively in charge is credible enough, though we cannot see its form. Perhaps it has functions without form.


4   Think of the human body with all its manifold divisions. Which part of it does a man love best? Does he treat them all with equal affection, or does he have favorites? Don’t they all serve him equally? And do these servants then govern themselves, or are they subdivided into rulers and subjects? Surely there is some thing in charge that rules them all.

    But whether or not we ascertain its functions matters little to the thing itself. For coming into existence with my mortal body, its mandate will also terminate with the exhaustion of my body. To be harassed by the wear and tear of life, and to pass rapidly through it without possibility of arresting one’s course—is not this pitiful indeed? To labor without ceasing, and then, worn out and not living to enjoy the fruit, to depart, suddenly, to one knows not where—is not that a just cause for grief ?

5   What advantage is there in what men call immortality? The body decomposes, and the mind goes with it. This is our real cause for sorrow. Can the world be so dull as not to see this? Or is it I alone who am dull, and others not so?

Meaning and Ambiguity

6   If we were to be guided by our own minds in full awareness, who would be without a guide? What need is there to know the principles of alternation of passion, when the mind itself can use its criteria for understanding. Even the minds of fools can do this! On the other hand, a mind without criteria admits contradiction, like saying, I went to Yüeh today and arrived yesterday. Or, like locating nowhere somewhere—geography that even the great intelligence of Yü would fail to comprehend. How could I?

7   Speech is not mere breath. It is differentiated by meaning. Take away that, and you cannot say whether it is speech. Could you even distinguish it from the chirping of young birds?

     But how can the unvarying way be so obscure that we speak of it as both true and false? And how can speech be so obscure that it admits the idea of contraries? How can the unvarying way be gone and yet remain unvarying? How can speech exist and yet be impossible?

8   The unvarying way is obscured by our lack of comprehension. Speech is obscured by the superficialities of this world. Hence the affirmations and denials of the Confucian and Mohist schools, each denying what the other affirmed and affirming what the other denied. But he who would reconcile affirmation with denial and denial with affirmation must do so in the light of how things are in nature.

Generation by Opposites

9   There is nothing which is not objective: there is nothing which is not subjective. But it is impossible to start from the objective. Only from subjective knowledge is it possible to proceed to objective knowledge. Hence it has been said, The objective emanates from the subjective; the subjective is consequent upon the objective. This is the Theory of Generation by Opposites. Nevertheless, as one is born, the other dies. When one is possible, the other is impossible. When one is affirmative the other is negative. This being the case, a wise man rejects all preconceived distinctions between this and that. He takes his refuge in how things are in nature.

10   And inasmuch as the subjective is also objective, and the objective also subjective, and as the contraries under each are indistinguishably blended, does it not become impossible for us to say whether subjective and objective really exist at all?

    When subjective and objective are both without their opposites, we are at the axis of the unvarying way. And when that axis passes through the center at which all infinities converge, positive and negative alike blend into an infinite unity. Therefore there is nothing like the evidence of nature.


11   But to wear out one’s intellect in an obstinate adherence to the individuality of things, not recognizing the fact that all things are a unity—this is called Three in the Morning.

    What is Three in the Morning? asked Tzu Yu.

    Tzu Ch’i replied, A keeper of monkeys said that each monkey was to have three chestnuts in the morning and four at night. But the monkeys were very angry at this; so the keeper said they might have four in the morning and three at night, with which arrangement they were all well pleased. The actual number of the chestnuts remained the same, but there was an adjustment to meet to the likes and dislikes of those concerned. Such is the principle of putting oneself into subjective relation with externals.

    Therefore a wise man, while regarding contraries as identical, adapts himself to the laws of nature. This is called following two courses at once.

Knowing and Not Knowing

12   Yeh Ch’ ueh asked Wang I, saying, Do you know for certain that all things are subjectively the same?

    How can I know ? answered Wang I. Do you know what you do not know ?

    How can I know? replied Yeh Ch’ueh. But can then nothing be known?

    How can I know? said Wang I. Nevertheless, I will try to tell you.

    How can it be known that what I call knowing is not really not knowing and that what I call not knowing is not really knowing? Now I would ask you this. If a man sleeps in a damp place, he gets lumbago and dies. But how about an eel? And living up in a tree is precarious and trying to the nerves—but how about monkeys? Of the man, the eel, and the monkey, whose habitat is the right one absolutely? Human beings feed on flesh, deer on grass, centipedes on snakes’ brains, owls and crows on mice. Of these four, whose is the right taste absolutely? Monkey mates with monkey, the buck with the doe; eels consort with fishes. But men admire the beauty of Mao Ch’iang and Li Chi, at the sight of whom fishes plunge deep down into the water, birds soar high in the air, and deer hurry away.

    Yet who shall say which is the correct standard of beauty? In my opinion, the standard of human virtue—and of positive and negative—is so obscured that it is impossible to actually know it as such.


13   How do I know that love of life is not a delusion after all ? How can I be sure that he who dreads to die is not like a child who has lost the way and cannot find his home?

    The lady Li Chi was the daughter of Ai Feng. When the Duke of Chin first took her away, she wept until the bosom of her dress was drenched with tears. But when she came to the royal palace, and lived with the Duke, and ate rich food, she regretted having wept. How then can I be sure that the dead do not regret of having previously clung to life?


14   Granting that you and I argue. If you beat me, and not I you, are you necessarily right and I wrong? Or if I beat you and not you me, am I necessarily right and you wrong? Or are we both partly right and partly wrong? Or are we both wholly right or wholly wrong? You and I cannot know this, and consequently the world will be in ignorance of the truth.

    Who shall I employ as arbiter between us? If I employ some one who takes your view, he will side with you. How can such a one arbitrate between us? If I employ some one who takes my view, he will side with me. How can such a one arbitrate between us? And if I employ some one who either differs from or agrees with both of us, he will be equally unable to decide between us. Therefore, since you and I and another cannot decide, must we not wait for still others?


15   Those who dream of a banquet may wake to lamentation and sorrow. Those who dream of lamentation and sorrow may wake to join a hunt. While they dream, they do not know that they dream. Some will even experience a dream within a dream; and only when they awake do they realize they dreamed of a dream. By and by comes the great awakening, and then we may find out that this life is really an extended dream. Fools think they are awake now, and flatter themselves they know if they are really princes or peasants. Confucius and you are both dreams; and I who say you are dreams—I am but a dream myself. This is a paradox. To-morrow a wise man may come forward to explain it; but that tomorrow will not be until ten thousand generations have gone by.

    Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a barrier. The transition is called metempsychosis.


Nature and Government

16   Horses have hoofs to carry them over frost and snow; hair, to protect them from wind and cold. They eat grass and drink water, and fling up their heels over the prairie. Such is the real nature of horses. Palatial dwellings are of no use to them.

    One day Po Lo appeared, saying: I understand the management of horses. So he branded them, and clipped them, and pared their hoofs, and put halters on them, tying them up by the head and shackling them by the feet, and putting them in stables. As a result, two or three in every ten died. Then he kept them hungry and thirsty, trotting them and galloping them, and grooming, and trimming, with the misery of the tasseled bridle before and the fear of the knotted whip behind, until more than half of them were dead.

    The potter says: I can do what I will with clay. If I want it round, I use compasses; if rectangular, a square. The carpenter says: I can do what I will with wood. If I want it curved, I use an arc; if straight, a line. But on what grounds can we think that the natures of clay and wood desire this application of compasses and square, of arc and line? Nevertheless, every age extols Po Lo for his skill in managing horses, and potters and carpenters for their skill with clay and wood. Those who govern the empire make the same mistake.

    Now I regard government of the empire from quite a different point of view. The people have certain natural instincts: to weave and clothe themselves, to plough and feed themselves. These are common to all humanity, and all are agreed about this. Such instincts come from nature.

17   And so in the days when natural instincts prevailed, men moved quietly and gazed steadily. At that time, there were no roads over mountains, nor boats, nor bridges over water. All things were produced, each for its own proper sphere. Birds and beasts multiplied; trees and shrubs grew up. The former might be led by the hand; you could climb up and peep into the raven's nest. For then man dwelt with birds and beasts, and all creation was one. There were no distinctions of good and bad men. Being all equally without knowledge, their virtue could not go astray. Being all equally without evil desires they were in a state of natural harmony, the perfection of human existence.

18   But when philosophers and prophets appeared, tripping up people over charity and fettering them with duty to their neighbor, doubt found its way into the world. And then, with their preoccupation with the performance of music, and their fussing over ceremony, the empire became divided against itself.

Ocean and River

19   It was the time of autumn floods. Every stream poured into the river, which swelled in its turbid course. The banks receded so far from one another that it was impossible when looking across the river to tell a cow from a horse. Then the river laughed for joy that all the beauty of the earth was gathered to itself. Flowing downstream it journeyed east, until it reached the ocean. There, looking eastwards and seeing no limit to the waves, its face dropped. And as it gazed over the expanse, the river sighed and said to the ocean, A vulgar proverb says that he who has heard but part of the truth thinks no one equal to himself. And such a one am I.

20   To which the ocean replied, You cannot speak of ocean to a frog living in a well—a creature of a narrow sphere. You cannot speak of ice to a summer insect—a creature of a season. You cannot speak of the unvarying way to a pedagogue: his scope is too restricted. But now that you have emerged from your narrow sphere and have seen the great ocean, you know your own insignificance, and I can speak to you of great principles.

21   There is no body of water beneath the skies that is greater than the ocean. All streams pour into it without cease, yet it does not overflow. It is constantly being drained off, yet it is never empty. Spring and autumn bring no change; floods and droughts are equally unknown. And thus it is immeasurably superior to mere rivers and brooks. However, I would not venture to boast on this account, for I get my shape from the universe, my vital power from balance of forces, positive and negative. In the universe I am but as a small stone or a small tree on a vast mountain. And conscious thus of my own insignificance, what is there of which I can boast?

The Measure of Man

22   The Four Seas—are they not to the universe but like puddles in a marsh? Is China itself—compared to the surrounding ocean—not like a single seed in a granary? Of all the myriad created things, the human animal is but one. And of all those who inhabit the land, live on the fruit of the earth, and move about in cart and boat, an individual man is but one. Is not he, as compared with all creation, but as the tip of a hair upon a horse's skin? The succession of rulers, the contentions of the kings, the griefs of the philanthropist, the labors of the administrator, are but this and nothing more. Poh I refused the throne for fame's sake. Confucius discoursed to get a reputation for learning. This over-estimation of self on their part, was it not very much like your own in reference to water?

23   Very well, replied the river, am I then to regard the universe as great and the tip of a hair as small ? The ocean replied, not at all. Dimensions are limitless; time is endless. Conditions are not invariable; terms are not final. Thus, the wise man looks into the universe, and does not regard the small as too little, nor the great as too much; for he knows that there is no limit to dimension. He looks back into the past, and does not grieve over what is far off, nor rejoice over what is near; for he knows that time is without end. He tries to understand fullness and decay, and does not rejoice if he succeeds, nor lament if he fails; for he knows that conditions are not invariable.

24   What man knows is not to be compared with what he does not know. The span of his existence is not to be compared with the span of his non-existence. To strive to exhaust the great with the small, necessarily lands him in confusion, and he does not attain his object. How then should one be able to say that the tip of a hair is the ultimate smallness, or that the universe is the ultimate greatness?

25   Dialecticians of the day, replied the river, all say that the infinitesimally small has no form, and that the infinitesimally great is beyond all measurement. Is that so ?

        If we regard greatness as compared with that which is small, said the ocean, there is no limit to it; and if we regard smallness as compared with that which is great, it eludes our sight.


Relative Judgment

26   Therefore, the truly great man, although he does not injure others, does not credit himself with charity and mercy. He seeks not gain, but does not despise his followers who do. He struggles not for wealth, but does not take credit for letting it alone. He asks help from no man, but takes no credit for his self-reliance, neither does he despise those who seek preferment through friends. He acts differently from the vulgar crowd, but takes no credit for his exceptionality. When others act with the majority he does not despise them as hypocrites. The ranks and emoluments of the world are to him no cause for joy; its punishments and shame no cause for disgrace. He knows that positive and negative cannot be distinguished.

27   But how then, asked the river, are the internal and external extremes of value and worthlessness, of greatness and smallness, to be determined ? The ocean replied, From the point of view of the unvarying way there are no such extremes of value or worthlessness. Men individually value themselves and hold others cheap. The world collectively withholds from the individual the right of appraising himself. If we say that a thing is great or small because it is relatively great or small, then there is nothing in all creation which is not great, nothing which is not small. To know that the universe is but as a tare-seed, and that the tip of a hair is a mountain—this is the expression of relativity.

28   Thus, as has been said, those who would have right without its partner, wrong; or good government without its partner, misrule—they do not apprehend the great principles of the universe nor the conditions to which all creation is subject. Rulers have abdicated under different conditions, dynasties have been continued under different conditions. Those who did not arrive at a favorable time and were in opposition to their age—they were called usurpers. Those who arrived at the right time and were in harmony with their age—they were called patriots. Fair and softly, my river friend: what should you know of value and worthlessness, of great and small?


Beauty and Love

29   When Yang Tzu went to Sung State, he passed the night at an inn. The innkeeper lived with two women, one beautiful, the other ugly. The former he hated, the latter he loved. When Yang Tzu asked how this came about, one of the servants at the inn said, The beautiful one is so conscious of her beauty that one does not think of her as beautiful. The ugly one is so conscious of her ugliness that one does not think of her as ugly.

    Note this, my friends, said Yang Tzu. Be virtuous, but without being consciously so; and wherever you go, you will be loved.

30   The reason for a fish-trap is the fish. When the fish is caught the trap may be ignored. The reason for the rabbit snare is the rabbit. When the rabbit is caught the snare may be ignored. The reason for language is an idea to be expressed. When the idea is expressed, the language may be ignored. But where shall I find a man to ignore language, with whom I may be able to converse?

31   To that which agrees with our own opinions we assent; from that which does not we dissent. We regard that which agrees with our own opinions as right. We regard that which differs from our opinion as wrong. Language based on weighty authority is used to bar further argument. The authorities are our superiors, our elders in years. But if they lack the requisite knowledge and experience, and are our superiors only in the sense of age, then they are not our superiors at all. And if men are not the superiors of their fellows, no one troubles about them. And those about whom no one troubles are mere stale bread.

32 When Chuang Tzu was about to die, his disciples expressed a wish to give him a splendid funeral. But Chuang Tzu said, With the heavens and earth itself for my coffin and shell; with the sun, moon, and stars as my burial regalia; and with all creation to escort me to the grave—are not my funeral arrangements already well in hand?

    We are afraid the vultures will eat the body of our master, said the disciples. To this Chuang Tzu replied, Above ground I shall be food for vultures; below I shall be food for worms and ants. Why rob one to feed the other?



Adapted from Chuang Tzu Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer, translated by Herbert A. Giles. Bernard Quaritch, London, 1926.

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  Selection and adaptation © Rex Pay 2001