Zhuangzi lounging

While Laozi’s Dao De Jing is concerned with how to properly live as a community and sounds like political advice to rulers and officials in many places, Zhuangzi’s text, known under his name as the Zhuangzi, is concerned with the individual mind, with human judgements and attitude.  It argues that individuals should seek freedom and happiness through simplicity and open-mindedness.  Zhuangzi may have been from the Sung region of ancient China, a place torn apart by political conflicts from within and conquered repeatedly by neighboring regions.  Zhuangzi repeatedly suggests that if one takes the long view over many lifetimes, the bad comes with the good and it is all part of one process and whole.  While other Chinese masters suggested various ways one could structure the state, as Laozi does in places, Zhuangzi is entirely concerned with liberating the individual mind in a chaotic and close-minded world.

Sima Qian says that Zhuangzi, known as Zhuang Zhou, was invited by King Wen of Chu to be his minister, but Zhuangzi said that an ox led to sacrifice in fancy clothes would rather be an abandoned piglet.  There is a very similar story in the text of the Zhuangzi, where he tells us he would rather frolic in the muck.

laozi statue shrine

Zhuangzi does speak of Laozi in several places in the text, as he does of many other sages and masters drawing from their teachings as well as being critical of some.  In one passage, he tells us that Nan-jung Chu went to see Laozi for advice, who asked him as he entered, “Why have you brought this crowd of people with you?”.  Nan-jung spun around, to find no one behind him, as Laozi was referring to the attachments and memories Nan-jung carried with him.

Many assumed along with the Daoist tradition that Zhuangzi was familiar with Laozi’s Dao De Jing because both are considered the patriarchs of Daoism and Zhuangzi seems to quote the Dao De Jing in places, however modern scholarship does not know whether Zhuangzi had ever read Laozi’s work or whether both texts are drawing from the same sources.  Both patriarch’s books were likely added to by other authors, and it was only by the time of the Han dynasty around 200 BCE that the two texts were set as they remain today.

Joshu zen master

The Zhuangzi was a major influence on Zen Buddhism, which unlike other Buddhist schools was a native Chinese tradition that was cross-pollinated with Daoism from its beginning.  Many Zen koan stories contain lines that are similar if not identical to the Zhuangzi.  Joshu, my favorite Zen master who lived about 700 CE, quotes the Zhuangzi to a monk in training, “Ships can not sail where the water is too shallow”.  Like Joshu and Zen, Zhuangzi enjoyed using humor (as did Heraclitus) much more than other philosophers, using it to shock and free people from their judgements, understandings and limitations.

Deer Running

In several places of the Zhuangzi, we see the idea of perspective presented the same way as we see with Heraclitus of ancient Greece, my favorite Greek philosopher.  We are told that Mao Quiang and Lady Li were legendary beautiful women, but minnows were frightened of them when they gazed into a stream, and birds and deer were frightened by them when they walked through the forest. Heraclitus said that all human beauty and achievement is nothing but apes to the gods. Who knows what is beautiful, humans, birds, fish, or deer? Zhuangzi asks which of them knows what tastes good.

bamboo aqueduct china

Often, the heroes of Zhuangzi are common people, woodcutters, fishermen, butchers, carpenters, ex-cons, and others of low status.  In two places, Zhuangzi seems to exalt while mock Confucius who praises two sages who have had their legs cut off for committing crimes but have flocks of followers.  Confucius is made to say that his own teachings are the lowly ways of humans, but these sages know the way of heaven, the Dao, and he would become their student if he only had the time.  Confucius says to Wang Dai, who asks about one of the legless sages, “If you look at them from the point of view of their differences, then there is liver and gall (two organs in the body), Ch’u and Yueh (two warring kingdoms in China), but if you look at them from the point of view of their sameness, then the ten thousand things are all one.

Butcher Ox Statue

We are told that the emperor learns how to rule his kingdom by listening to Cook Ting, who tells the emperor that he has learned over a lifetime how to cut up oxen with his knife that never dulls because he knows instinctively where the spaces are.  We hear about the woodcutter scolding his apprentice for saying that an old gnarled tree is useless, replying that what is useless in some ways is useful in others, such as a tree no one will cut down providing a shady spot for centuries.


When Zhuangzi is asked by Dung Kuo where the way of heaven is, Zhuangzi says it is everywhere.  Dung Kuo asks him to be more specific, so Zhuangzi says it is in the ant, in grass, in tile shards, in piss and in shit, horrifying Dung Kuo progressively.  Like the Laozi text, the Zhuangzi continuously suggests that we see the lowest things as beautiful, and avoid striving for and hoarding the things people desire to be happy and free.


In the first passage of the Zhuangzi, the mythical Peng bird is mocked by the dove and the cicada (a large grasshopper-like insect) for flying high and far in the sky. They have no frame of reference to understand such an act, as they die every winter and do not survive by migrating south.  Several times Zhuangzi is told by other sages that his wisdom is foolish and useless, but Zhuangzi replies, much like the Dao text, that there are no things which are not foolish or useless, but this does not stop them from also being serious and useful.

Liezi Dragon Riding

In another passage, Chien Wu tells Lien Shu that he has heard talk of a holy sage living on a mountain top who is gentle and shy like a young girl, does not eat anything but drinks dew, rides a dragon through they sky and can protect people and animals from illness.  Chien Wu says this is clearly insane and he refuses to believe it.  Lien Shu replies:

We can’t expect a blind man to appreciate beautiful patterns or a deaf man to listen to bells and drums, and blindness and deafness are not confined to the body alone.  The understanding has them too, as your words have just now shown.  This man, with his virtue, is about to embrace the ten thousand things and roll them all into one.

gourds kenya

The philosopher and logician Hui Shi tells Zhuangzi that a king gave him seeds of a huge gourd, but when he planted the seeds and grew huge gourds they were so large that he could not use them as containers so he smashed them.  Zhuangzi tells him he should have used them as boats, and “Obviously you still have a lot of underbrush in your head!”  Hui Shi tells Zhuangzi that he has a large gnarled tree, which is as useless as Zhuangzi’s reasoning.  Zhuangzi replies that if no ax will cut it down, it makes a great shaded place for taking a nap.  Notice the reversals of perspective that are possible when we clear out our mental underbrush.  Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher I admire very much, said that when we do philosophy, we are really clearing ground.

Daoist resting

Chizi tells Yuzi that when the wind blows you can hear many sounds made by many things, including the whistling of trees and the wailing of hollow logs, but there is only one wind.  In another place in the text, we are told that our lives are merely gathered breath, the air we breath and use to speak.  He then says:

Van Gogh Tree Whipped by the Wind

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?  What does the Way rely upon, such that we have true and false?  What do words rely upon, such that we have right and wrong?

Chinese Painting Landscape Mountain Bridge

When the Way relies on little accomplishments and words rely on vain show, then we have the rights and wrongs of the Confucians and the Moists.  What one calls right the other calls wrong, and what one calls wrong the other calls right, but if we want to right their wrongs and wrong their rights, then the best thing to use is clarity.  Everything has its ‘that’, and everything has its ‘this’.  From the point of view of ‘that’, you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it, so I say, ‘that’ comes out of ‘this’ and ‘this’ depends on ‘that’, which is to say ‘this’ and ‘that’ give birth to each other.

Therefore the sage does not proceed in such a way, but illuminates all in the light of heaven.  A sage too has a ‘this’ and a ‘that’, but a sage’s ‘that’ has a ‘this’, and a sage’s ‘this’ has a ‘that’.  A sage’s ‘that’ has both a right and a wrong in it, and a sage’s ‘this’ too has both a right and a wrong in it, so does a sage still have a ‘this’ and ‘that’?  A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way.  When the hinge is fitted into the socket, it can respond endlessly.  Its right then is a single endlessness and its wrong too is a single endlessness, so I say the best thing to use is clarity.

Chinese Trained Monkey

To wear out your brain trying to make things into one without realizing that they are all the same is called “three in the morning”.  What do I mean by “three in the morning”?  When the monkey trainer was handing out acorns, he said, “You get three in the morning and four at night.”  This made all the monkeys furious.  “Well then,” he said, “you get four in the morning and three at night.”  The monkeys were all delighted.  There was no change in the reality behind the words, and yet the monkeys responded with joy and anger.  Let them, if they want to.  The sage harmonizes with both right and wrong and rests in heaven, the equalizer.

Wu Tang (Wudang) Monastery

Because right and wrong appeared, the Way was injured, and because the Way was injured, love became complete, but do such things as completion and injury really exist, or do they not?

Those who divide fail to divide.  Those who discriminate fail to discriminate.  What does this mean, you ask?  The sage embraces things.  Ordinary people discriminate among things and parade their discriminations in front of others.  So I say, those who discriminate fail to see.

fish painting

Nieh Ch’ueh asks Wang Ni about something everyone can agree to.  Wang Ni replies:

If someone sleeps in a damp place, their back aches and he ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a carp?  If someone lives in a tree, they are terrified and shake with fright, but is this true of a monkey?  Of these three creatures, which knows the proper place to live?  We eat the flesh of grass-fed and grain-fed animals, deer eat grass, centipedes find snakes tasty, and hawks and falcons love mice.  Of these four, who knows how food ought to taste?  Monkeys pair with monkeys, deer go out with deer, and fish play around with fish.  Men claim that Mao-Qiang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run.  Of these four, which knows the standard of beauty for the world?

Yellow Emperor China

Chuchuehzi said to Changwuzi, “I have heard Confucius say that the sage does not work at anything, does not pursue profit, does not dodge harm, does not enjoy being sought after, does not follow the Way, says nothing yet says something, says something yet says nothing, and wanders beyond the dust and grime.  Confucius himself regarded these as wild and flippant words, though I believe they describe the working of the mysterious Way.  What do you think of them?”  Changwuzi said, “Even the Yellow Emperor would be confused if he heard such words, so how could you expect Confucius to understand them?  Whats more, you’re too hasty in your own appraisal.  You see an egg and demand a crowing rooster, see a crossbow pellet and demand a roast dove.  I’m going to try speaking some reckless words and I want you to listen to them recklessly.  How will that be?  The sage leans on the sun and the moon, tucks the universe under his arm, merges himself with things, leaves the confusion and muddle as it is, and looks on slaves as exalted.  Ordinary people strain and struggle.  The sage is stupid and blockish.  The sage takes part in ten thousand ages and achieves simplicity in oneness…Confucius and you are both dreaming, and when I say you are dreaming, I am dreaming too.  Words like these will be labeled the Supreme Swindle.

Zhuangzi dreams butterfly

In the most famous passage of the book, Zhuangzi dreams that he was a butterfly and forgot that he was Zhuangzi.  When he woke, he no longer knew whether he was Zhuangzi who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is Zhuangzi.  There are many paintings of this, typically showing a napping Zhuangzi with a butterfly or two fluttering overhead.

Zhuangzi is told by a skull that among the dead there are no rulers, no work to do, and a king on his throne cannot share their tranquility.

Zhuangzi told his students that whether or not they buried him, he would get eaten up by creatures either way, either above or below ground.

One sage tells us that dogs barking and roosters crowing are familiar things to everyone, but the wisest of us could not express these things in words.

In one place in the text, Confucius turns into a hermit, dismisses his disciples, lives on nuts and with the animals without disturbing them.

Zhuangzi says to become a pool so calm, you can even see the hairs of the beard and eyebrows.

Another famous metaphor used is that of the praying mantis that waved its arms angrily in front of an approaching carriage, unaware that it is incapable of stopping it.  It suggests that we move in response to life rather than hold our ground taking pride in our own abilities.

Zhuangzi tells us that Shu, king of the North Sea, and Hu, king of the South Sea would meet in the kingdom of Chaos in the middle.  Chaos was always kind to them, so they decided to repay Chaos by carving holes in him so he can see, hear, eat and breath like everybody else, and on the seventh day, as they carved the final hole, Chaos died.  Here is a picture of the legendary hundun creature of China, who didn’t need to eat or pee.

Zhuangzi and butterfly

We read in one passage about the True Man, who sounds quite similar to Nietzsche’s Super Man (Ubermensch) who understands the world and himself to be beyond good and evil:

What do I mean by a True Man?  The True Man of ancient times did not rebel against want, did not grow proud in plenty, and did not plan his life.  A man like this could commit and error and not regret it, could meet with success and not make a show.  A man like this could climb the high places and not be frightened…He didn’t forget where he began.  He didn’t try to find out where he would end.  He received something and took pleasure in it.  he forgot about it and handed it back again.  This is what I call not using the mind to repel the Way, not using man to help out Heaven.

boats river chinese painting

You hide your boat in the ravine and your fish net in the swamp and tell yourself that they will be safe, but in the middle of the night a strong man shoulders them and carries them off, and in your stupidity you don’t know why it happened.  You think you do right to hide little things in big ones, and yet they get away from you, but if you were to hide the world in the world, so that nothing could get away, this would be the final reality of the constancy of things.

That which kills life does not die.  That which gives life does not live.  This is the kind of thing it is.  There’s nothing it doesn’t send off, nothing it doesn’t welcome, nothing it doesn’t destroy, nothing it doesn’t complete.

Tree Frog

Jo of the North Sea said, “You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog.  He’s limited by the space he lives in.  You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect.  He’s bound to a single season.  You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar.  He’s shackled by his doctrines.  Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, so you realize your own insignificance.  From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the Great Principle.

Chinese Painting magpie and hare

Jo of the North Sea said, “From the point of view of the Way, things have no nobility or meanness.  From the point of view of things themselves, each regards itself as noble and other things as mean.  From the point of view of common opinion, nobility and meanness are not determined by the individual himself.

From the point of view of differences, if we regard a thing as big because there is a certain bigness to it, then among all the ten thousand things there are none that are not big.  If we regard a thing as small because there is a certain smallness to it, then among the ten thousand things there are none that are not small.  If we know that heaven and earth are tiny grains and the tip of a hair is a range of mountains, then we have perceived the law of difference.  From the point of view of function, if we regard a thing as useful because there is a certain usefulness to it, then among all the ten thousand things there are none that are not useful.  If we regard a thing as useless because there is a certain uselessness to it, then among the ten thousand things none that are not useless.  If we know that east and west are mutually opposed but that one cannot do without the other, then we can estimate degree of use.

Archer China

If someone can swim underwater, they may never have seen a boat before and still they’ll know how to handle it.  That’s because they see the water as so much dry land, and regards the capsizing of a boat as they would the overturning of a cart.  The ten thousand things may all be capsizing and turning over at the same time right in front of them and it can’t get at them and affect what’s inside, so where could they go and not be at ease?  When you’re betting for tiles in an archery contest, you shoot with skill.  When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim, and when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck.  Your skill is the same in all three cases, but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind.  They who look too hard on the outside get clumsy on the inside.

Milton Erickson

This passage reminds me of a metaphor used by the psychotherapist Milton Erickson.  If you put a board on the ground, everyone can walk across it with confidence.  If you put the same board three hundred feet up in the air, most people would be terrified, even though walking across the board is the same set of physical motions.  Erickson is thinking of clients petrified by fear, such as codependents who can’t leave their abusive partner by taking several steps to the door and then several more out it.

Chinese Painting Lake

Hui Shi said to Zhuangzi, “Your words are useless!”  Zhuangzi replied, “A man has to understand the useless before you can talk to him about the useful.  The earth is certainly vast and broad, though a man uses no more of it than the area he puts his feet on.  If, however, you were to dig away all the earth from around his feet until you reach the Yellow Springs, then would the man still be able to make use of it?”  “No, it would be useless,” said Hui Shi.  “It is obvious, then,” said Zhuangzi, that the useless has its use.”

The fish trap exists because of the fish.  Once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap.  The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit.  Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare.  Words exist because of meaning.  Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.  Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so that I can have a word with him?

The author and artist Tsai Chih Chung has created comic book forms of the great Chinese and Buddhist classics of philosophy, including a three part cartoon of the Zhuangzi on YouTube.